The women of the Middle East would continue to uphold their traditional image, even though in their heart of hearts many of them may be yearning for plain liberty. The chief character of Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley (1992) is a woman by the name of Hamida, who must put up acts to stay true to her traditions, at the same time as she yearns for something beyond the ordinary. Yet, her passage into a world where men and women must be considered equal is a narrow one.
As a matter of fact, her life is the Midaq Alley, which “resembles a ‘trap,’ with walls on three sides, making darkness one of its pervasive features (Deeb).” What is more, there is a very narrow entrance and an equally narrow exit to the small alley – away from the big, outside world – that the Middle Eastern woman has come to represent in Mahfouz’s novel (Deeb).
All the same, Marius Deeb, in her literary criticism of Midaq Alley, considers the novel in its historical context alone. Hers is historical literary criticism of Midaq Alley, seeing that she describes the difference between the alley and the outside world as the division between traditions and modernity in the Eygpt of 1940s. According to the author, the significance of the alley may only be explained in terms of the socio-cultural environment of the time that the novel is about.
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The difference between the alley and the outside world, in the author’s opinion, is similar to the division between the East and the West. Even so, the most important character in the novel remains Hamida. She is entirely different from the rest of the characters, and therefore demands the reader’s attention like nobody else in the novel. Being the center of attention, she teaches a very important lesson about the perceived differences between men and women in the Middle East. In essence, her story does not merely apply to the historical context of the novel. Rather, it is the story of the perceived differences between Middle Eastern men and women even in our times.
Hamida is the Midaq Alley, although Deeb does not mention her thus. Not the kind to give up easily, she sneers at her husbands-to-be simply because she wants something better than them, most definitely a life that is more prosperous, and outright superior, that is, the big, outside world. She considers her husbands-to-be as nonentities because she thinks she can achieve well for herself without them. At the same time, she is bounded by Middle Eastern customs and culture to choose one prospect and get married like ordinary girls.
Even if Hamida represents the East – in the East and West division of the world – the novel is mainly about the social differences between men and women. These differences may be explained in terms of the separation between the heaven and the earth as well. However, Deeb’s literary criticism does not describe the separation or differences beyond the historical context of the novel. The author describes her interpretation of the novel thus: “We discern in this novel the division between the traditional world and the modern world in Egypt during the 1940, that is, to some extent, a re-enactment of the East-West dichotomy and the values, whether aesthetic or moral, which accompany those worlds (Deeb).”
Hamida admires the women who have escaped their marital bonds. She is especially inspired by the factory girls she knows – who all happen to be Jewish. She informs her mother about the same, "If you had seen the factory girls! You should just see those Jewish girls who go to work. They all go about in nice clothes. Well, what is the point of life then if we can't wear what we want (Mahfouz)?" According to Middle Eastern customs for women, Hamida must control her true desires before the cultural expectations that are attached to all women. All the same, Mahfouz brings to the mind’s eye the picture of Middle Eastern women that are longing to free themselves from the bonds of patriarchy, and all the rules of society that are connected to the same.
Apparently, the Middle Eastern women would also like to free themselves from the difficult clothing they are forced to wear. Perhaps they would like breaks from such clothing. While women such as Hamida may genuinely face a problem with restrictive customs, Mahfouz also describes the ‘proper’ girls that are not expected to show their desires anyway. Boys of the Middle East, on the contrary, are allowed various other facilities, also according to the author. Boys are permitted, among other things, access to sex, nightlife, and friendships outside the family.
If Deeb’s criticism is correct, the East must want to totally blend into the West instead of guarding its culture as it does. Even though Deeb’s interpretation of the differences between the alley and the outside world may be correct, it is incomplete and inconclusive seeing that it does not truly explain the striking differences between men and women in the novel.
When Hamida gets married to Abbas, she only does so to escape her mother’s home. Escape seems to be her only wish. She turns into a prostitute as soon as her husband leaves home for an indefinite period of time. But, does she find her eventual escape route through this act? It appears that while many Middle Eastern women may be searching for escape routes from traditions, once and for all, it was only Hamida who actually managed to escape.
Whether she had dreamt of reaching a brothel or not is not the point of Mahfouz’s tale. The fact remains that Hamida had no choice to live a liberated life as a Middle Eastern woman, except as a prostitute. Most Middle Eastern women would shun the idea of prostitution altogether, calling it a major sin. However, Hamida was so desperate to escape that she defied the common image of the Middle Eastern woman to truly escape her cultural constraints, once and for all. Whether she also found happiness is not the concern of the author either. Hamida’s liberation, on the other hand, is an important message of Midaq Alley.
Hamida was the kind who merely upheld the traditional image of the Middle Eastern woman, just as many other Middle Eastern women probably do. At the same time, she was desperate enough to express her suppressed desires of liberation that she chose the career of prostitution so as to escape all associations with the patriarchal traditions. Perhaps, therefore, Mahfouz’s writing is a warning for the extremely strict movements that reduce people to suppressed desperation, which eventually bursts into crimes and various other problems. Deeb does not explain this lesson. Moreover, her writing compels the reader to search for the truth behind the novel, seeing that her criticism is only partly true. After all, Hamida found the opportunity to escape, while the East and traditions – if they represent the Midaq Alley – could not blend into the West and modernity.
Deeb, Marius. “Najib Mahfuz's Midaq Alley: A Socio-Cultural Analysis.” Bulletin (British
Society for Middle Eastern Studies), Vol. 10, No. 2 (1983), pp. 121-130.
Mahfouz, Naguib. Midaq Alley. Reprint edition. New York: Anchor, 1992.
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