In 1988, Naguib Mahfouz became the first Arabic-language author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, for with his “works rich in nuance—now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous—he has formed an Arabic narrative that applies to all mankind.”
Mahfouz has been a prolific writer. In addition, he worked for thirty-five years as a full-time civil servant in numerous government ministries until his retirement in 1971. For many years, he also regularly contributed articles on a host of topics to Cairo newspapers.
A man of habit and great discipline, Mahfouz is seen as Egypt’s finest writer, and he is credited with making the novel and short story popular in Arabic literature, where poetry was the preferred genre for centuries. His work has been favorably compared to such Western European novelists as Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann, and John Galsworthy. He became well-known in his native Egypt with the Cairo trilogy (1956-1957), which traces the lives of three generations of a middle-class family between 1917 and 1944, a period of convulsive change in Egyptian society.
Mahfouz established his reputation in the English-speaking world with the translation of Midaq Alley, whose characters resemble people he met in the coffeehouses he frequented in the neighborhood of his birth. Consequently, his novels portray a realistic world; at the same time, the novels represent a universal social landscape. The novel is divided into thirty-five chapters and includes more than fifty named characters, of which a dozen play major roles. The real character however, is Midaq Alley; the people represent the personalities that make up the life of Midaq Alley. Beyond the main story are numerous parallel and subplots that add seriousness and complexity.
Midaq Alley pictures life in two different worlds—in the alley and away from there—and at two different times: the old time that stands still, and the new time of changes. Each major character is confronted by these conflicts between the old and the new, the here and the there, and each character comes to realize that for survival, life demands a commitment to one or to the other.
It is clear that Hamida chooses a new life away from Midaq Alley, and it is clear that she will survive. Her primary goal in life is to acquire material luxuries that the poverty of the alley is unable to provide. Since she is not bound by a traditional ethical code, becoming a prostitute presents no moral conflict for her, especially since she gains the personal power over others that she seeks.
Abbas, however, is a victim of this changing world. His love for Hamida forces him to leave the alley in order to earn money to provide a life for Hamida outside the only environment in which he can survive. When he finally returns, Hamida rejects him, and she uses him, once more, to fulfill her personal search for power.
Like Abbas, other characters find that they cannot exist in the duality. Salim Alwan is unable to fulfill the sexual fantasies of an elderly man longing for a young and beautiful wife. Umm Hamida has probably lost the riches that her foster daughter could have provided. Husain Kirsha finds his progress toward a life of ease halted when the British no longer employ him as the war comes to an end. Sheikh Darwish and Radwan Husaini become irrelevant in the alley. Although they attempt to represent positive moral forces, no one accepts their counsel.
Uncle Kamil, the opposite of the character of Hamida, is a survivor because he makes no effort to change his place in Midaq Alley, and he is not affected by the changing times. Hamida willingly prostitutes herself in the new world, and Uncle Kamil is always asleep.
Other characters, although important to the story, do not portray full lives either inside or outside Midaq Alley. Their purpose is to enhance and complete the mosaic of a complex society in a critical period of transition.