Tyler 's Reviews > Midaq Alley

Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
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Jan 23, 10

bookshelves: same-sex-relevance
Recommended to Tyler by: Author's Reputation
Recommended for: Anyone
Read in December, 2009

Mahfouz, perhaps the Arab world’s greatest novelist, is a splendid author by whom Westerners can branch out into world literature. I’ve suggested Palace Walk as the book to start such an endeavor, but now I wonder if Midaq Alley might be an even better choice.

Much like The Yacoubian Building, this novel, written during Egypt’s glorious golden era (before the 1952 revolution), gives readers a vivid glimpse of an entire society through the prism of a particular place. Unlike The Cairo Trilogy, though, it depicts a wider cross-section of the Egyptian people. Though sometimes described as satire, I don’t think the lives depicted within these pages consistently fit that description. Some stories are shocking; others are just plain strange to Westerners – all the more reason to read the book. And typically for Mahfouz, many of the social fault lines are surprisingly modern for an ostensibly third-world nation.

The stories of the people living in Midaq Alley, in Cairo, during World War II, are vignettes that only improve with the passage of time. Modern readers get a sense not of the modernized third-world dump that Cairo is, but of the romantic, elegant and intimate Cairo of the past. Readers will find themselves immersed in the overlapping fates of the residents of this part of old Cairo, people whose burning question has become: Is it better to remain here in this place, our alley, or to move away and try something new? Find out what happens as different people try different strategies in answer to this question. The book gets better as its stories develop, striking just the right balance between characterization and action. The pacing throughout this work is noticeably effective.

For my next Mahfouz, I’d like to read some of his post-revolutionary and post-1967-war books to see how they differ in tone from this seductive portrait. The author's snapshots here don't allow him to develop more than two or three characters in depth, and that accounts for my score. As a collective look at a series of lives, however, it is excellent. I recommend Midaq Alley to Western readers for its accessibility, its well conceived sketches and its superior writing.
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