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By Mahfouz, Naguib
Translated from the Arabic by Trevor Le Gassick
New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1981
292 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2013

I first read this work in 1998 and wasn’t quite as impressed with it then as I am on this second read. Perhaps this is because I have now live in the small neighborhood where I grew up, and have come to love and appreciate the tininess and simplicity of this neighborhood where so many know the others, where many people are on the streets walking dogs, or selves, shopping, going to church – whatever, and I see them all the time.

This is a good novel, but perhaps not a great novel. In many ways it reminds me of the radio soap-operas that used to be on in the afternoons in the 1940s and 50s and to which my grandmother would listen. I would hear them, and also her “fussing” (as she called it) at the character, telling the woman who was going “astray” that the man chasing her was a “no count” and she should run. The novel does read in significant measure like such soap operas. Each chapter is short with some sort of focus on some specific folks among the large list of characters who live in Midaq Alley, a rundown neighborhood of Cairo.

My own neighborhood of “Dogtown” in St. Louis is a working class neighborhood, as is the area of Midaq Alley and I could easily transfer the characters, making generous cultural changes for the differences of U.S.A.’s Dogtown and Egypt’s Midaq Alley, and allowing for it to be late in WWII as well. With those changes, this could well be a novel about my own neighborhood!

However, having become so comfortable to be “back home” and having very fond memories of Dogtown in the days of WWII, and loving it so much today, I was able to get into the book in a way that I think I couldn’t yet do in 1998 when I first read the novel.

The novel is basically interesting neighborhood gossip and doings during the war. There are close to 15 characters that we follow. There is the young barber, Abbas, who falls in love with the chunky but pretty Hamida, but then goes off to war with the British. We get to giggle (at least I did) at the open rake, Kirsha who also own the main coffeehouse in the Alley. I could admire Radwan Husaini, sort of a humanistic priest-like character who is respected by all, the greedy marriage broker Umm Hamida, the zany Zaita, whose work is “cripple” beggars, then collect a life-time daily fee of a bit of their earnings, and on and on. They people seem real; a full panoply of the sorts of characters one would find in such a neighborhood.

There is humor, sadness, astonishing frustration and admiration in the mind of the reader as he or she follows these people in their very simple and (culturally) ordinary lives. It’s a great read.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett