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Naguib Mahfouz: زقاق المدق (Midaq Alley)

Mahfouz’s first novel published in English tells the story of a small alley in Cairo and its inhabitants. It’s not a new idea, to take a house, a street or a neighbourhood and tell the story of its inhabitants but Mahfouz does it particularly well, not just because of the characters but because of the message he imparts – adapt, modernize or die. We see this straightaway as the old poet, with his songs and verses from the past, is driven out of the café to make way for the new radio. The main character is Hamida, a beautiful young woman, who cannot wait to get out of the alley. She first thinks that the barber, Abbas, might be a way out and agrees to marry him, not least because he is going to get out by working for the British army. The two of them – as well as Husayn, the son of the café owner – do get out but when Abbas goes off with the army, Hamida becomes a prostitute for the army, realizing that this is the way for her to escape. She survives, as does Husayn but Abbas does not. He has not realised that changes are coming and how to adapt to them. Mahfouz’s tale works well, because of the characters and because Mahfouz is able to tell a tale which, while ultimately offering little hope, does offers us a glimpse of the real world in the alley.

Publishing history

First published in 1947 by Maktabat Misr
First English translation in 1966 by American University in Cairo Press
Translated by Trevor Le Gassick (earlier edition), Humphrey Davies (later edition)