Night falls on Midaq Alley, a small dead-end street in the ancient Gamaliyya section of Cairo. The entrance to this alley was established by two typical shops: on one side a sweets shop operated by Uncle Kamil and across the street a barbershop run by Abbas. The men represent the traditional slow and never-changing life of this lower middle-class society at a time when the outside world and wartime are threatening to overwhelm them. Uncle Kamil is an old, lethargic man who spends most of his days asleep on a chair in front of his shop. He is now awakened by Abbas, reminding him that it is time to close. Abbas, although young and energetic, is satisfied with operating his shop and observing the social and religious customs that his society always practiced.
The two men join others from the alley for an evening at Kirsha’s coffeehouse, a typical male gathering place; the men discuss an old man who served as the poet in this café for several decades. Times changed, and customers now prefer the radio to recitations of classical Arabic poetry. Two men come to the aid of this public performer, although neither is able to save his job; the two men are Sheikh Darwish, a “holy man” who makes generally incomprehensible pronouncements in English to the group, and Radwan Husaini, the spiritual leader of Midaq Alley.
Umm Hamida is a matchmaker. Her foster daughter is named Hamida. Hamida prepares herself for her customary afternoon walk outside Midaq Alley, a place she loathes and whose people she hates. Much to her dismay, however, she does not have a new dress with which to exhibit her beauty.
Husain Kirsha also feels real repugnance toward the alley and its people. Rather than remain in Midaq Alley, Husain goes to work at a British army camp, where he earns much money. He supplements his income by selling stolen goods. With these ill-gotten funds, Husain buys fancy foods, wine, and hashish, all of which are forbidden by the Muslim religion. He persuades his childhood friend, Abbas Hilu, to leave the barbershop and work for the British.
Whenever Hamida leaves the alley, she is carefully watched, particularly by Salim Alwan and Abbas, both of whom covet her. One day, Abbas decides to follow her, to speak to her, and to tell her of his love, a rather bold move for the normally shy and reticent barber. Hamida does not reject her suitor outright, because she believes that he is the only eligible bachelor in Midaq Alley. Abbas interprets her response as the first sign of love, and he is exhilarated. After many more meetings, Abbas finally asks...
(The entire section is 1055 words.)