Honour and shame

The Beginning and the End

Naguib Mahfouz, 1950

The Beginning and the End, like most of the other novels that Naguib Mahfouz wrote in the late 1940s, is carefully dated. Like the other novels, the dating is mainly done by reference to political events.

There are allusions to student demonstrations. “God be merciful to the martyrs of the faculties of Arts, Agriculture, and Dar el-Uhm!”  [9.] There were student demonstrations in 1934. I have not been able to determine the significance of Dar el-Uhm.

It appears that Hussein and Hassanein, the brothers at the heart of The Beginning and the End, have participated in the demonstrations. They are teenagers. “Let’s revolt against fate… and shout, ‘Down with Fate’, just as we shouted ‘Down with Hor’.” [8.] I have not been able to establish who ‘Hor’ was.

Hussein, on the way to his new post in Tanta, has a political discussion with someone he meets on the train. His fellow-traveller refers quite explicitly to current events. ‘…the Effendi …waved the folded newspaper…. “Who would ever have imagined that Sidhi would agree to meet with Nahas? The Palace and the Wafdists at the same table!”’ [48.]

There are casual references to other events, such as the Anglo-Egyptian treaty. [68.] The treaty was signed in 1936. [Goldschmidt, 2004.] Egypt was just a step away from independence.

Hassanein can only think of entering the War College because of a political decision relaxing the entry requirements. “Your Excellency, the government’s decision to enlarge the army affords me a golden opportunity this year that has never presented itself before.” [59.]

Similarly his graduation can be dated. Hassanein learned that… the Minister of War had decided to graduate a group of officers after only one year…. [68.]

Mahfouz also does something he hasn’t done in the other novels of this period. He explicitly mentions the year in which it is set. It happens in a context in which to mention the year is perfectly natural.  ‘[Farid Effendi’s] income had amounted to twenty-eight pounds a month, which was considered very substantial in 1933.’ [14.]

Mentioning the year is also completely redundant. It adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence. Mahfouz wants to make it very clear that the events of the novel occur during a historically important period. He does not – as he is to do in the Cairo Trilogy (1956-57) – integrate the historical events with the action of the novel.

Mahfouz does something else he hasn’t done in the other novels of this period. He lets time pass. ‘Another year passed, and life continued in its usual course. The members of the family followed their normal routines of everyday life.’ [43.]

Time does not pass in melodrama. Time in melodrama is consumed in urgent action. The characters in melodrama do not follow normal routines. There is too much need to maintain the excitement.

Mahfouz has not embraced realism yet. He is however moving away, by very small steps, from the pure melodrama of some of his earlier novels.

The Beginning and the End (1950) – like Cairo Modern (1945), Khan al-Khalili (1945), Midaq Alley (1947) and, for some chapters, The Mirage (1948) – is about poverty. Poverty is a preoccupation to which Mahfouz will constantly return.

In the first chapter, Hussein and Hassanein, the second and third sons of the Kamel family, are informed by the headmaster of the family tragedy. “Your elder brother has informed me that your father is dead.” [The Beginning and the End, 1.]

Hussein is nineteen years old. Hassanein is two years younger. It would not have been unusual for a young man of nineteen, in Egypt at that date, to be still in secondary school.

Mahfouz did not personally experience bereavement and destitution in his youth. It is possibly significant that the opening chapter of the novel is set in secondary school. It may be that school friends of Mahfouz were affected in this way.

This is of course pure speculation. If my intuition is correct, the experience affected Mahfouz deeply.

Kamel Effendi Ali, Hussein and Hassanein’s father, was an employee in the Ministry of Education. ‘…since he had worked for the government for about thirty years at a salary of seventeen pounds a month, his heirs would receive a pension of five pounds per month.’ [7.]

Hassanein’s salary, when he starts his new job in the eighth grade, is less than his father’s. ‘”How much of a salary do you expect?” “Seven pounds.” [46.]

Kamel Effendi Ali is doing better than that. He isn’t doing that much better.

Kamel Effendi was respectable. He wasn’t rich. His family have always been poor. Now they are plunged into something not far from destitution.

Kamel Effendi hasn’t been able to save. ‘In the dead man’s wallet [Samira, Kamel Effendi’s widow] had found only two pounds and seventy piasters, and that was all the money she had until matters could be straightened out.’ [5.]

Hassan, the eldest son, is a ne’er-do-well. ‘He never left home, nor did he search seriously for a job.’ [6.]

Nefisa, Samira’s daughter, is ‘…a girl of twenty-three, without beauty, money, or father.’ [5] Mahfouz does not have to explain to his Egyptian readers that Nefisa is unmarriageable, or that – as an uneducated girl from a respectable family – she really has no legitimate options other than marriage.

Poverty brings shame in its wake. Samira has to sell the furniture. ‘“I will not pay one millieme more than three pounds,” said the furniture dealer….’ [12.]

The two younger boys need to stay at school and pass the baccalaureate to have a chance of employment in the government service, and to achieve the same social status as their father. If they leave school now, the sacrifice involved in keeping them in school has been wasted.

Later in the novel Hassan, their elder brother, has an acid comment on the value of formal education. ‘”I’ve come to tell you that I’ve been appointed a clerk at the secondary school in Tanta, and I’ll be starting my work on the first of October,” [Hussein] said. “Will you travel to Tanta? …What use, then, will it be to Mother if you live in Tanta? …This is really bad luck. This is the result of school education.”’ [46.]

Samira is in a tough position. The dominant fact of the novel is the family’s poverty. The action is dominated by their attempts to cope with it.

Poverty dominates in some of the other novels of the late 1940s. In Cairo Modern, ‘[Mahgub Abd al-Daim’s] father was a clerk in a Greek-owned creamery in al-Qanatir. He had worked there for twenty-five years and earned eight pounds.’ [Cairo Modern, 6.] He is poorer than Kamel Effendi Ali, and as a commercial employee has lower status.

That is difficult enough. Mahgub Abd al-Daim is poorer than his friends. ‘…unlike his two friends he did not own a special outfit for Thursday night.’ [Cairo Modern, 5.] Mahgub Abd al-Daim’s father ‘…allocated three pounds to him every month during the academic year. This sum covered necessities like housing, food, and clothing, and the young man was grudgingly satisfied….’ [Cairo Modern, 6.]

It soon gets worse. ‘We are sad to inform you that your dear father is ill and bedridden.’ [Cairo Modern, 6.]

Mahgub Abd al-Daim’s father has had a stroke. It is too severe for him to return to work. ‘His father knew that his settlement would last them …five or six months…. “Could you live on one pound a month?”’ [Cairo Modern, 8.]

It is the experience of truly wretched poverty that makes Mahgub Abd al-Daim especially susceptible to being corrupted. Corruption is one of the major themes of Cairo Modern.

In exchange for a job in the civil service, Mahgub Abd al-Daim becomes a pimp. All he has to do is provide a veneer of respectability to the illicit affair of a dignitary by marrying the dignitary’s mistress. ‘“Let me tell you about your wife…. His Excellency himself [Qasim Bey Fahmi] is her friend.”’ [Cairo Modern, 6.] Mahgub Abd al-Daim has lost any claim he might have had to self-respect.

The portrayal of poverty in Khan al-Khalili is very similar to the portrayal in The Beginning and the End. Both families lose parental income. In both families, one of the sons – the more responsible one – has to abandon the hope of higher education and accept a low-paid government job.

The father of the family in Khan al-Khalili, Akif Effendi Ahmad, was a low-level bureaucrat. He ‘…had been pensioned off before he had even reached the age of forty. As a result of sheer negligence he had failed to perform his administrative obligations adequately; what made it worse was that he then adopted a supercilious attitude towards the civil service investigators who were examining his case.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 2.]

Ahmad Akif, the protagonist ‘…had been forced to abandon his studies and take a minor administrative post in order to provide for his shattered family and support his two younger brothers.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 2.]

The father in Khan al-Khalili has been forced into early retirement. He is not dead, like Kamel Effendi. The situation is, initially at least, less tragic. Economically, also, Ahmad Akif’s family is better off. As well as Akif Effendi Ahmad’s small pension, they have Ahmad Akif’s salary. Ahmad Akif, unlike Hussein in The Beginning and the End, works in Cairo and lives at home. Ahmad Akif does not have to maintain a separate establishment. He is able to contribute more to the expenses of the family.

The parallels nevertheless are striking. Petty-bourgeois respectability is precarious. Events – the death, the early retirement, or, as in Cairo Modern, the illness of the father of the family – can threaten destitution and force sacrifices.

The poverty of Ahmed Akif’s family is not absolute. It is relative. Ahmed even manages to save small sums. He is however worried about the impact of any special demands on his financial position. ‘He was sure that during Ramadan they would spend what little he usually saved each month. He might even have to withdraw an additional amount from his savings account.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 9.] The relative poverty of respectable people is a major concern in four out of five of Mahfouz’s novels from the second half of the 1940s. The exception is Midaq Alley.

Poverty in Midaq Alley is well-nigh universal. In some cases – Sheikh Darwish, the ex-teacher and former functionary, Umm Hamida, the bath attendant and marriage broker, and Zaita, the repulsive cripple-maker – the poverty is absolute or nearly so. Midaq Alley is a poor quarter.

A handful of the characters are not poor. The businessman, Salim Alwan, is rich. He has educated his sons for the professions. His sons find their father embarrassing. ‘His son… the judge, had suggested that he liquidate his company….’ [Midaq Alley, 8.]

The café owner, Kirsha, is better off than some of the other inhabitants of the alley. Whether this is because of his café business or his narcotics trade is not clear.

The rentier landlords, Mrs Saniya Afify and Radwan Hussainy, are also better off. Neither of them has to work.

Mrs Afify is greedy and mean. ‘She kept her new banknotes in a small ivory casket hidden in the depths of her clothes closet and arranged them in packages of fives and tens, delighting herself by looking at them, counting and rearranging them…. She had always inclined towards avarice and was one of the earliest contributors to the savings bank.’ [Midaq Alley, 2.] This is a caricature.

Hamida and Hussein Kirsha, the café owner’s son, are desperate to escape poverty. Hussein works for the British army. Hamida becomes a prostitute.

Between them they destroy Abbas, the barber. Abbas is Hussein’s friend and Hamida’s fiancé. Hussein persuades Abbas to work for the army. Abbas returns to the alley and discovers Hamida is a prostitute. He loses control and attacks her. He is kicked to death by British soldiers.

Mahfouz portrays some people as flourishing in the midst of poverty: the landlords, the drug dealers, the tooth-puller Dr Booshy. They make money off people poorer than themselves. This I think is realistic.

Poverty also occurs in The Mirage. It is however temporary.

Kamil’s grandfather dies. “May God grant you length of days. Your grandfather has died, son.” [The Mirage, 24.] The former colonel’s pension has been the family’s main income.

Kamil and his mother have to retrench. “Maybe we can find a small flat in the neighbourhood for just a hundred fifty piasters…. We’d have to let the servants go.” [The Mirage, 25.]

Kamil is grossly inhibited about women. Poverty makes it even more difficult for him to ask for the hand of his beloved. ‘What was standing between my beloved and me? Poverty.’ [The Mirage, 27.]

Kamil is a petty bureaucrat by occupation. Kamil’s family are from the decaying aristocracy. They do not rely entirely on earning salaries.

Kamil is rescued by another death, that of his father. ‘“Our father has died. Come to Hilmiya.”’  [The Mirage, 32.]

Kamil receives an inheritance. This completely changes his situation. In a real way, it changes his identity. ‘I was no longer the indigent, destitute person I had been….’ [The Mirage, 33.]

Kamil’s ability to marry the woman he wants is determined by poverty. The impact of poverty on the search for partners and for sexual satisfaction is a major theme of the novels of this period.

Mahfouz is very conscious of the precariousness of his social class of origin, the petty bourgeoisie. A family tragedy can easily plunge them into what they fear most, the destitution of the urban masses. In that miserable condition, they lose not only their social status but their respectability.

Mahgub Abd al-Daim in Cairo Modern, Hamida in Midaq Alley, and Hassan and Nefisa in The Beginning and the End will resort to any shift to survive. Mahgub Abd al-Daim becomes a pimp. Hassan becomes a thug and a drug pedlar, and lives in part at least from immoral earnings. Hamida and Nefisa become prostitutes. In Mahfouz’s world, that is the only way out for women.

In Mahfouz’s novels of the 1940s, the urban masses are described from the point of view of the urban lower-middle class. The masses are the fate that the petty-bourgeois fear.

The poverty of the masses and, as Mahfouz sees it, their immorality, are the consequence of lack of status. It is only in the later, allegorical novels – Children of the Alley (1959) and The Harafish (1977) – that the portrayal of the urban poor is more sympathetic.

Mahfouz sometimes alludes to the rural poverty of the majority of the Egyptian people. He never really portrays it.

Unlike the other novels of the late 1940s, there is a great deal of emphasis in The Beginning and the End on the impact of poverty on social status. Social status, as a fictional theme, is new.

The concern with status becomes obvious very early in the novel. Samira’s status is different from her sister’s. ‘Hassan… saw a man and a woman approaching in peasant clothes. The brothers recognised them as their aunt and her husband, Amm Farag Soliman.’ [3.]

Being a peasant, in this context, is not about culture. It is made very clear that it is about social status, and that the determinant of status is occupation: ‘…his aunt’s husband, not much more than a labourer….’ [3.]

Samira’s sister is very conscious of the difference in status. She is envious. She ‘…frequently enjoyed comparing their lives… [Samira] had married a government employee, whereas her own husband was just a labourer working in a ginning factory; …her sister lived in Cairo, whereas she was doomed to the confinement of the country; …her sister’s sons were schoolboys, whereas her own sons were destined for labourers’ lives; …her sister’s larder was always full, whereas she had plenty in hers only in feast times.’ [5.]

Only the comment about the fullness or otherwise of the larders refers to consumption. All the rest is about status. The determinants, in this context, are very clear. Being a white-collar worker, working for the government, residing in the capital and having education all have status. Manual work and living in the provinces do not.

Of all the family, it is Hassanein who feels status issues most acutely. This is not explained. It is part of his character, like his ambition and his selfishness. Even his ambition is status-driven. “Not only do I loathe poverty but I hate the mere mention of it.” [57.]

Hassanein’s status needs lead him to enrol at the War College, which leads in turn to the novel’s final catastrophe. Catastrophe following so quickly on apparent triumph is typical of melodrama.

Hassanein’s anxieties about status show clearly at his father’s funeral, which in one of the very early chapters. He is concerned about the status of the guests, and how this reflects on his father’s status, and hence that of the family. ‘[Hassanein] wished that all the people there could see the great inspector.’ [4.]

Mahfouz emphasises that the level of Hassanein’s concern is, to say the least, unusual. ‘…to Hassanein a degrading funeral seemed as much of a catastrophe as death itself.’ [4.]

Hassanein’s anxiety focuses in particular on his family’s lack of a tomb. ‘[Hassanein] did not want anyone to see the family’s humble burial place.’ [4.]

In Hassanein’s eyes, the unadorned plot betrays the family’s status. ‘…Kamel Effendi was buried in something not much more than a pauper’s grave….’ [4.]

This is surely about shame. The word itself is not used. Perhaps it does not have to be. The translator’s use of the term ‘degrading’, however, is surely significant.

One of the sources of shame, for Hassanein, is poverty. It implies the loss of the petty-bourgeois status in which the family’s self-respect is based.

Other family members try to reassure Hassanein: ‘“…your father left Damietta with his grandmother for Cairo when he was your age.”’ [5.] In other words, Hassanein’s father was a provincial, like his aunt’s husband. Like Hassanein is now, his father was an orphan at the same age.

Hassanein is not consoled. ‘The obscure grave in the open would always remain a symbol of his family’s being shamefully lost in the big city’. [5.]

It is Hassanein who is particularly concerned about Nefisa having to work outside the family. ‘[Nefisa] … had been a respectable girl but now she had become a dressmaker.’ [13.]

The employment of women outside the family is a threat to petty-bourgeois respectability. This is the intersection of occupational and sexual status.

Hassanein is not content to settle for the cautious respectability and the oppressive, relative poverty for which his brother Hussein has sacrificed his chance of higher education. ‘Most of all, [Hassanein] feared that his life would be as confined as that of his brother Hussein, and that, lacking any flowery prospect, he would spend the rest of his life striving for menial promotions form the eighth to the sixth grade.’ [59.]

Hassanein sets his eyes on a higher goal than that. “I have come to the conclusion that I should choose either the Police College or the War College.” [57.]

Once the subject of a military career has been raised, Mahfouz writes as if that had always been Hassanein’s ambition. It is described as: ‘…his life’s dream, to join the War College or perish.’ [59.]

There has been no previous mention of any such ambition. Mahfouz is fairly clearly making things up as he goes along.

It would not have taken much of an effort to go back and insert a sentence or two in an earlier chapter. Mahfouz did not bother. The novels of the late 1940s were not written to the same standard as some of the later work.

Entry to the War College does not allay Hassanein’s status anxieties in quite the naive way he thought. In fact, it creates an entirely new set of concerns.

Hassanein is cruelly teased when his comrades at the college see him with his fiancée Bahia. “Yesterday this hero was seen with a girl on his arm.” “The homely type.” “She had blue eyes …but she had a crudely native look.” “Too short and too plump.” “I hope she’s not your fiancée.” [65.]

Hassanein still desires Bahia. He has however become ashamed of her. ‘Blood boiled in his veins and a reckless desire surged up in his chest. But how could he possibly disregard the appalling fact that he must avoid appearing with her in public?’ [66.]

Hassanein is drawn to a family that represents what he aspires to. He is insecure: ‘…it was impossible that [Ahmad Bey Yousri and his wife and daughter] were unaware of his true social status.’ [67.]

As well as poverty, The Beginning and the End is about sexual awakening.  It deals with the effect of poverty and social status, in particular, on the young people’s search for sexual partners and sexual satisfaction.

Hassanein strongly desires Bahia. ‘His heart beat violently and he rose like a man obsessed.’ [17.]

Hassanein, by the standards prevailing in respectable, conservative families, is over-familiar with Bahia. ‘He pressed her fingers in a manner that could not be mistaken. Resentfully she withdrew her hand, and a frown darkened her face.’ [17.]

Bahia is a neighbour in the same building. Her family have long been friends of Samira’s family. Farid Effendi Mohammed is ‘…their good friend and neighbour.’ [4.]

Hassanein becomes engaged to Bahia. It is not clear that becoming engaged is what Hassanein originally intended to do.

‘”I shall keep chasing her until… Until she falls in love with me as I have with her.” “Then?” The young man replied, perplexed, “That’s enough.”’ [18.]

Bahia does not allow Hassanein any familiarity. “Don’t touch me,” she said with serious finality. [24.]

Hassanein responds by declaring his love. “I love you, truly and honestly.” [24.]

Bahia interprets that as meaning that Hassanein wants to marry her. Her response is that of a modest girl from a conservative, Muslim family. ‘“But this is not for me to decide.”’ [24.]

Hassanein understands exactly what she means. Hassanein’s family needs to speak to her father. It is typical of Hassanein’s egocentricity that he takes it on himself. ‘“I shall speak to Farid Effendi.”’ [24.]

Hassanein is still a schoolboy. Hassanein’s family has still not managed to stabilise after his father’s death. The announcement of the engagement has to be postponed. ‘“[Samira] …requested [Farid Effendi] to wait until our stumbling family could get back on its feet.”’ [25.]

Bahia has had a conservative upbringing. ‘At the age of twelve, [Bahia] had disappeared from the yard and for some time stopped going to school….’ [15.]

Bahia’s ideas on the relations between young people before marriage are thoroughly traditional. ‘Clearly hesitating, she proceeded to speak with candour and naiveté. “Don’t you read what Al Sabah magazine publishes about girls who are deserted because of their recklessness?”’ [28.]

Bahia believes that any familiarity between the sexes before marriage is the equivalent of prostitution. ‘“My mother told me that any girl who imitates lovers in films is a hopeless prostitute.”’ [28.]

This is a view that permeates the novel. There are good girls, like Bahia and Ahmad Bey Yousri’s daughter, with whom Hassanein also becomes infatuated. There are prostitutes, like Nefisa and Sana’a. There is nothing in between. There is no middle way.

Nothing changes between Hassanein and Bahia until, towards the end of the novel, Hassanein breaks off the engagement. Their relationship is about Hassanein demanding physical intimacy and Bahia refusing.

Hassanein continues to declare his passion. “I have a burning desire to press a kiss upon your lips and embrace you to my breast.” [38.] The detail, here, makes it clear that even Hassanein – with a respectable fiancée – does not expect sexual intercourse.

Bahia denies Hassanein the smallest degree of physical intimacy. ‘“Be a decent boy and stop all this nonsense. Real love knows no such frivolity.”’ [38.]

Hassanein accuses Bahia of coldness. ‘“Bahia… you speak with the cruelty of a person whose breast has never throbbed with love.”’ [38.]

Bahia does not listen. ‘“…I do not approve of the kind of love you want….”’ [38.]

Hassanein becomes frustrated. ‘He felt he was wasting his days in hopeless monotony. …he was overcome by a vindictive impulse, a desire to injure, if only by words.’ [38.]

Hassanein begins to doubt his feelings. ‘On the third morning after his visit to Hassan, he wondered, baffled, if he had stopped loving Bahia…. She was no longer his ideal girl.’ [72.]

When Hassanein has decided that he no longer wishes to marry Bahia, he forces himself on her. All he wants is a kiss. The language used suggests a rape. ‘Her hands resisted, but he embraced her, took her to his breast with brutal violence, and pressed a kiss on her lips.’ [72.]

Bahia responds strongly. “I’ll never forgive you,” she said. [72.]

We might expect Bahia to break off the engagement. In fact, she behaves in a way that is more forward than anything she has done so far. ‘As she shook hands with him, the girl slipped a folded paper into his hand…. “Meet me on the roof,” it said.’ [76.]

Until this point Hassanein has always been keen to spend time alone with Bahia. This time he doesn’t go. ‘…he would never sacrifice his career and happiness for the sake of an old, infantile passion or promise.’ [76.]

Hassanein’s family are shocked. ‘“What a scandal!” “…What a terrible offence to this most good-hearted family!”’ [79.] Hussein, driven by ambition and the fear of shame, has behaved dishonourably.

Hassanein’s behaviour towards Bahia is consistently aggressive. He is restrained only by her respectability. He treats Bahia in ways she does not want. Until he loses interest in marrying her, he does not push her beyond a certain point. He is not cynical.

While Mahfouz condemns Hassanein’s aggression and his defiance of convention, he sees a justification in terms of Hassanein’s strong feelings. Hassanein is of course a man. ‘[Hassanein’s] beloved was no less stubbornly adamant than his mother. She forced him to be content with an ascetic, platonic relationship that was unsuitable to his passionate nature.’ [43.]

Nefisa’s paramours are thoroughly cynical. They set out to take advantage. The difference between Nefisa’s situation and Bahia’s is that Bahia has a father, who is prosperous. The difference between their personalities is that Bahia is cold. It represents, I think, a somewhat fatalistic approach to sexual relations. Chastity is a luxury that only the bourgeoisie can afford.

Hussein, by contrast, is the good brother. It is Hussein who warns Hassanein about his behaviour towards Bahia. ‘“Take care. Don’t be insolent. This is a respectable house.”’ [16.]

It is also Hussein who is prepared to make sacrifices for the rest of the family. ‘Hussein, her meek son, had accepted the sacrifice of his career and the suffering of loneliness for the sake of his family, and for Hassanein in particular.’ [47.]

Samira is aware that Hussein is marriageable. Mahfouz doesn’t need to spell this out. The point would be obvious to an Egyptian reader. Samira is also aware that if Hussein marries it will be a disaster for the family. ‘…Samira wished to put Hussein on his guard against the snares of marriage.’ [47.]

 In Tanta, Hussein is lonely. He is bored. ‘[Hussein] was certain that his life, lonely as it was, would be devoid of entertainment, too.’ [49.]

In that situation, Hussein is very susceptible. ‘His heart seemed to be waiting to admit the first girl who would knock at its door.’ [52.]

His superior at work tries to marry him off to his daughter. Almost the first thing Hassan Effendi wants to know when they meet is whether Hussein is available. ‘“Are you married, Hussein Effendi?”’ [50.]

Hassan Effendi makes a series of attractive offers. He knows of better accommodation. ‘“There’s a two-room flat on the roof of the house where I live,” [Hassan Effendi] added. “The rent won’t be more than a pound.”’  [50.]

Hassan Effendi also offers his company. ‘“You seem to dislike coffeehouses, so you can use this balcony as a nightclub.”’ [51.]

Hussein knows what is going on. ‘From the very beginning, he was clearly aware of how critical his situation was.’ [52.]

Samira intuits what is happening. She intervenes. ‘“Mother, in Tanta! I can hardly believe my eyes!”’ [53.]

Samira, despite her embarrassment, now asks Hussein directly to make a sacrifice. ‘“If I suggested that you postpone any thoughts of marriage, wouldn’t you consider it unfair?”’ [54.]

Samira advises Hussein to remove himself from what has become a compromising situation. ‘“I advise you to leave this flat and go back to your room at the hotel.”’ [54.]

The Beginning and the End reprises, in some ways, the central relationship between the two brothers in Khan al-Khalili. Ahmad Akif, the older of the brothers in Khan al-Khalili, is a character that Mahfouz does not like. The portrait of Hussein in The Beginning and the End, by contrast – despite the similarity in their situations – is sympathetic. Mahfouz in a way is redeeming the cruelty of the portrayal in the earlier novel.

Ahmad Akif has to give up his hopes of higher education to support the other members of his family. Ahmad takes it hard. ‘The decision to abandon his studies had been a severe blow to his hopes. At first it sent him reeling, and he was overwhelmed by a violent, almost insane fury that completely destroyed his personality and filled him with a bitter sense of remorse.’ [Khan al-Khalili,2.]

When Hussein has to refuse the offer of Hassan Effendi’s daughter Ihsan in marriage, thereby severing relations with Hassan Effendi, he too becomes angry and bitter. ‘At this moment he hated not only himself but humanity at large.’ [56.]

It doesn’t last. Unlike Ahmad Akif, Hussein has a very strong sense of duty. ‘His sense of duty outweighed all his other emotions.’ [56.]

Ahmad Akif becomes embittered. He turns against women. ‘If his complete failure to achieve anything turned him into an enemy of the entire world, then his failure with women made him their enemy too.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 4.]

Ahmad is an unattractive personality. ‘However, a combination of despair and thriftiness, followed by a peculiar adaptation to look like an intellectual, had robbed him of any concern about either his person or his manner of dress.’ His ‘…teeth [are] yellowed by smoking.’ Ahmad is unattractive morally as well as physically. ‘His secret craving for sex gnawed at him….’ [Khan al-Khalili, 1.]

His brother Rushdi is the opposite. ‘Where love was concerned, he had limitless self-confidence, based on one success after another.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 17.]

One of the most extraordinary parallels between the two novels is that both Hassanein, in The Beginning and the End, and Rushdi, in Khan al-Khalili, accost their beloved on the roof. This probably reflects the reality of courtship in conservative communities, and life in Cairo apartment blocks.

Hassanein is alert to the slightest sign of femininity. ‘[Hassanein] raised his head to follow the rustle of a dress. He saw the hem as the wearer climbed the last flight of stairs leading to the roof of the house. Who was it?’ [21.]

Bahia has a legitimate reason for being there. ‘Then [Hassanein] heard a voice clucking to the chickens.’ [21.]

Hassanein accosts Bahia. Bahia responds with proper modesty. ‘“Let me pass, please,” she said.’ [21.]

Hassanein insists on a declaration of love. ‘“Say just one word! If you can’t, only give a nod.”’ [21.]

The meeting on the roof in Khan al-Khalili is very similar. ‘Now she could no longer play with the younger girls in the street, the roof had become her favourite spot.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 21.] Nawal’s family are conservative. Once she reaches puberty she is secluded.

Rushdi follows Nawal. ‘She was amazed to find him standing there, his tall frame filling up the doorway.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 21.]

Like Bahia, Nawal responds very properly. ‘”Don’t start dragging me into the conversation. Now stop blocking my way.”’ [Khan al-Khalili, 22.]

The courtship in each novel evolves in a broadly similar way. After a proper display of modesty, the suitor is accepted. The portrayal in The Beginning and the End is somewhat more subtle.

In Khan al-Khalili, Ahmad is a failure. He craves women but is unsuccessful in love. Rushdi is reckless. His reluctance to face the truth about his tuberculosis leads to suffering for everybody. When Nawal’s family find out, they forbid her to visit him. ‘”… from today you cannot visit our dear sick neighbour any more.”’ [Khan al-Khalili, 44.]

Nawal does not understand. She is a teenage girl. She is in love. ‘”How can you be so unkind?”’ [Khan al-Khalili, 44.]

In The Beginning and the End, Hussein sacrifices his own interests for the sake of his family. Hassanein’s ambition leads him to behave dishonourably, and break off his engagement to Bahia. There is a deliberate opposition in each novel. The contrast between altruism and selfishness seems to me somewhat more interesting than the contrast between failure and recklessness.

If The Beginning and the End is a reworking of Khan al-Khalili – which in some ways it quite clearly is – then Hassan and Nefisa are in a sense ‘additional’ characters. They show different responses to poverty, and different ways of finding sexual satisfaction. What Hassan and Nefisa show are the disreputable variants.

The outcomes for Nefisa- in circumstances identical that are identical to those of Hassanein – are very different. Hassanein becomes an officer. Nefisa becomes a prostitute.

Hassanein’s progress towards his commission is sketched in fairly lightly. Mahfouz is not really interested in the army. What is important is Hassanein’s relationship with his sponsor, Ahmed Bey Yousri.

Nefisa’s progress – if that is the right word – towards prostitution is by contrast described rather carefully. Mahfouz is concerned to be as realistic as possible.

Mahfouz describes three relationships that Nefisa has. These three relationships represent the course of what I can only describe as her career.

Hamida in Midaq Alley also has a career, and her career too unrolls over the course of three relationships. Hamida first becomes engaged to Abbas, the barber. He is poor but at least he is handsome. Hamida throws Abbas over for the rich merchant, Salim Alwan. This demonstrates that she is mercenary.

Salim Alwan then has to be disposed of so that Hamida can form a relationship with her pimp, Ibrahim Faraj. This will demonstrate that she is not only mercenary but immoral. Accordingly – since the plot will not wait for anything less dramatic – Mahfouz has Salim Alwan have a heart attack.

Nefisa’s first relationship is with the grocer’s son, Soliman Gaber Soliman. Nefisa is convinced that she and Soliman are going to get married. ‘[Nefisa] believed that he was her first and last lover. Hope and despair made her cling to him passionately….’ [26.]

Soliman reassures her of this. Soliman Gaber Soliman spoke. “Don’t have any doubts about it. We shall marry as I have told you. I make this promise before God.” [26.]

When Nefisa learns he has been lying to her she is desperately disappointed. ‘A deceiver, an impostor, and a liar. What would she do?…Only one hour before she had considered him her man, and herself his wife.’ [33.] Nefisa’s only offence, so far, against tradition and morality has been to anticipate her nuptials.

Nefisa puts herself in the wrong by assaulting Soliman. ‘…with all her might, [Nefisa] struck him twice in the face with her fist. She saw blood streaming from his nose.’ [33.]

Soliman seduces Nefisa by degrees. Nefisa finds his attentions flattering. ‘That he was interested in her made her think very highly of him…. Perhaps she was not as ugly as she thought.’ [23.]

Soliman asks Nefisa out. ‘“The shop is usually closed on Friday in the afternoon. Meet me then. We could go to Rod el-Farag.”’ [23.] Rod el-Farag was known at that time for its nightclubs. [Wikipedia.]

This is not something that a respectable unmarried young woman from a conservative family would do. Nefisa initially resists. ‘“Go together? I don’t like the idea. I’m not one of those girls.”’ [23.]

Soliman persists. ‘“Shall we meet then, next Friday?”’ He persuades her. ‘She hesitated a bit, then murmured, “By God’s will.”’ [23.]

Soliman has a powerful psychological hold. ‘He was the first man to restore her self-confidence.’ [26.]

Nefisa also initially resists when Soliman invites her home. ‘“Please, come in.” “Let’s go back.” “…You must honour our home.”’ [27.]

In the darkness Soliman seduces her. Mahfouz is discreet about details. ‘The surrounding darkness became thicker than ever.’ [27.]

Nefisa discovers that Soliman has abandoned her to marry another woman. Nefisa is so angry that she stages a confrontation with the bride. She loses a customer. ‘“How criminal!  How insolent! Go away before I call the servants to throw you out of the house!”’ [35.]

Soliman does not pay Nefisa for sex. Nefisa nevertheless has sexual relations with Soliman without being married. By the conventional standards of the time – standards which her brother’s fiancée, Bahia, clearly shares – Nefisa has defined herself as a prostitute.

Nefisa does not see her second relationship, with Mohammed al-Ful, as leading potentially to marriage. She sees it more as an affair.

Mohammed is exciting. He is not respectable. ‘[Mohammed] seemed to her strong and daring, but at the same time dishonourable and untrustworthy.’ [41.]

Mohammed, like a lover, persuades Nefisa to go for a drive with him. ‘“Look to my left and you will find a car owned by my humble person. Old though it is, it can carry us to any place you like.”’ [41.]

When they arrive, Mohammed is rough with Nefisa. ‘Stretching out his arm, he suddenly encircled her waist, pulling her toward him with unexpected violence.’ [41.]

Nefisa is worried about her family. Nefisa does not want to have sex a second time. Mohammed treats her with open contempt. ‘“Damn you! This trip wasn’t even worth the gasoline it took to get her!”’ [41.]

Nefisa is as shocked that Mohammed pays her as she is by the trivial sum. ‘But she saw him stretching out his hand, offering her a ten piaster piece. “This is enough for one time,” he said….’ [41.]

The payment is mean. The manner of the payment is openly contemptuous. ‘…he threw the silver coin at her feet and drove off….’ [41.]

Nefisa is shamed. ‘She was overwhelmed with a profound feeling of sorrow and degradation….’ [41.]

Nefisa’s need for money, and her family’s need for money, prompts her – or so we are allowed to assume – to accept what Mohammed so contemptuously offers. ‘Seeing no reason to leave [the coin] there, she picked it up.’  [41.]

The third relationship is the one in which Nefisa behaves as a prostitute in the narrow sense. The man is not particularly attractive. He seems respectable. ‘He was sixty, age lending to his body a sagging but dignified appearance…. he wore a woollen suit; he carried an elegant fly whisk with an ivory handle….’ [60.]

Nefisa’s motives in this case are purely financial. ‘…this time, out of pure greed, and feeling no desire at all, she surrendered to a passerby.’ [60.]

The gentleman, despite his social status, treats her with the same contempt as Mohammed al-Ful. ‘“…a twenty-piaster piece is too much for a person like you.”’ [60.]

The fourth relationship, the one that is her undoing, is not described at all. It is important only because of its impact on her brother Hassanein. The first we know of it is when it becomes a police matter. ‘“Master, a policeman wants to speak to you!”’ [88.]

The description of how Nefisa becomes a prostitute is more realistic than the account of the way Hamida finds her vocation in Midaq Alley. In The Beginning and the End, there is nothing like the nonsense of the school for prostitution. ‘“Your lover is the headmaster of a school, and you will learn everything when the time comes.”’ [Midaq Alley, 24.]

Nefisa’s chances of marriage, the only really acceptable outcome for a woman of her class, are very slight. For a start, Nefisa is not conventionally attractive. ‘Nefisa, [Samira’s] daughter …had the same thin oval face, short, coarse nose and pointed chin. She was pale, and a little hunchbacked’. [5.]

(I suspect that ‘hunchbacked’, here, is a mistranslation and that ‘round-shouldered’ would have been better. There are no other suggestions that Nefisa is disabled.)

Nefisa is of course an orphan. She does not have a male protector. Since her father’s death, in addition, she is even more poor.

Nefisa’s poverty results in a loss of respectability. ‘“Nefisa is good at sewing…. …she often makes dresses for our neighbours. I see no harm in her asking for some compensation.”’ [6.]

Nefisa’s brothers don’t like it. ‘The word “dressmaker” was very painful to [Hussein]….’ [8.] There is nothing they can do. The family needs the money.

Mahfouz is sympathetic about Nefisa’s poverty. Mahfouz is also sympathetic about her desperate need for marriage and love. This is what prompts her relationship with Soliman. ‘A burning desire for love overcame [Nefisa].’ [20.]

Despite the social and economic rationality of her choices, Nefisa is presented as driven to despair. ‘How complete was her degradation! And how dreadful her end!’ [60.]

There is no specific suggestion that these feelings are religious in origin. That is reasonable, since the prevailing attitudes to female sexuality are as much social as religious. What is important, I think, is that Nefisa internalises these judgements. She sees herself as others would do, if they knew what she was doing.

Nefisa’s feelings about her situation are extreme. ‘What hope did life hold out for her? She was doomed to self-destruction.’ [47.] This is melodramatic.

What is more problematic is the treatment of Nefisa’s sexual feelings. ‘However, in addition to the feeling of despair, an intense desire boiled in veins, clamouring for gratification; she felt helpless before it.’ [41.]

Sexual feelings in women are discreditable. Sexual feelings in men, as in the case of Nefisa’s brother Hassanein, are an explanation.

Something similar is true of the feminine pleasure that Nefisa takes, despite not being conventionally good-looking, in attention from men. ‘How delicious flirtation was, even if it was false!’ [41.] This is clearly being presented as a weakness.

The depths of despair to which Nefisa sinks anticipate her suicide. This happens, for example, when she learns of Soliman’s betrayal. ‘“The new bride is the daughter of Amm Gobran el-Tui, the grocer.” “…Who’s the bridegroom?” “…It is Soliman, the son of Amm Gaber Soliman, the grocer.” [32.]

It is the end of Nefisa’s dream. ‘…an overpowering feeling of death quickly overtook her.’ [32.] This is not the inevitability of tragedy. It is rather the fatalism of melodrama.

Mahfouz’s portrait of Nefisa is unsympathetic. She is ugly. She is a prostitute. She has strong sexual feelings. She has to work for her money.

This portrayal of a woman is thoroughly in keeping with the mores of the time and the place. That does not make it all right.

Mahfouz, in later novels, is to show himself a highly intelligent and remarkably insightful novelist. It is a shame he could not have portrayed Nefisa more as an individual. In doing so he would have challenged to some extent the notions about women and sexuality that were prevalent at the time.

There are some deliberate parallels between Nefisa’s sexual progress and Hassanein’s. These are not the coincidences which in earlier novels of this period drove the plot. They are coincidences in time, which underline formal parallels.

Hassanein’s mother agrees to his engagement to Bahia. ‘Mother told him she considered his approval of your proposal a great honour.’ [25.]

In the very next chapter, Soliman and Nefisa discuss the possibility of getting engaged, and the obstacles to it. ‘”It would be natural for me to tell my father and then we would go together to your mother to ask for your hand.”’ [26.] This is deliberate.

Hassanein asks Ahmed Bey Yousri to help him with his ambition of entering the War College. It is a key step in Hassanein’s career. ‘That afternoon, Hassanein paid a visit to Ahmed Bey Yousri’s villa in Taher Street.’ [59.]

In the very next chapter, Nefisa encounters the gentleman with the fly-whisk. That is a key step in Nefisa’s career. ‘At the same hour, Nefisa was in Station Square…. She observed a man standing a few arm’s lengths away, looking curiously at her.’ [60.]

Sexual relations and occupation are closely related. They are both, potentially, sources of honour. They both carry the risk of shame. Something similar is true of family.

While Nefisa keeps her sexual activity – her prostitution – secret, the shame is hers alone. If the secret gets out, it will involve her whole family. It will particularly involve Hassanein. His ambition has driven him to choose a profession in which the code of honour is paramount.

Nefisa is by no means the first prostitute in the novels of Naguib Mahfouz. She will not be the last. Prostitution occurs in the strict sense in Khan al-Khalili and Midaq Alley, and in the wider, derogatory sense in Cairo Modern.

In Khan al-Khalili Ahmad makes one visit to the local hash den. It proves to be too much for him. The hash den is also where the neighbourhood prostitute works. [The woman] started staring hard at Ahmad with her flashing eyes, and he realised at once that she must be Aliyat al-Faiza, whom they all called “husband lover”.’ [Khan al-Khalili, 32.]

In Midaq Alley, the protagonist, Hamida – it is very rare, incidentally, for a novel of Naguib Mahfouz to have a female protagonist – becomes a career prostitute. ‘The truth was that without realising it she had chosen her path…. She asked herself what people would be saying about her on the street the next day…. “A whore!”’ [Midaq Alley, 24.]

In Cairo Modern, Ihsan Shihata becomes – with the same becoming hesitation that Hamida and Nefisa display – the mistress of a rich and influential man. ‘She tossed and turned all night, brooding. The afternoon of the following day, at the usual time, the automobile approached and its door opened. She hesitated a little. Then she climbed in.’ [Cairo Modern, 25.]

Ihsan’s situation is not unlike Hamida’s. ‘Ihsan Shihata was supremely conscious of two things: her beauty and her poverty.’ [Cairo Modern, 4.]

Ihsan does not have sex for cash with casual strangers. Nevertheless, according to the prevailing norms, she – a sexually active, unmarried woman – is a whore.

Prostitution is an important theme in the Cairo Trilogy. Nur, in The Thief and the Dogs (1961), is a prostitute. She is the most important female character.

Prostitution, in the prevailing culture, is shameful. It is incompatible with honour. The Beginning and the End is, very centrally, about honour and shame.

The family are shamed by their poverty. They are shamed by Nefisa becoming a dressmaker. Hassanein is particularly vulnerable to shame when he becomes an officer. ‘“I wasn’t an officer then,” Hassanein protested. “But now that I’ve become one, my reputation is in jeopardy.”’ [68.]

Nefisa’s small earnings were essential to the family economy. Now the shame of Nefisa working for her living has become acute. ‘“Mother, Nefisa must stop her shameful work at once. It doesn’t become an officer’s sister to work as a dressmaker.” [68.] Hassanein has no idea that Nefisa is also a prostitute.

Hassan’s money was the only way the brothers could start their careers. Hassan being a thug, a pimp and a drug dealer is now a threat.

Hassanein visits Hassan. He tries to persuade him to adopt a more respectable lifestyle. Hassan is offended. He counters by pointing out that Hassanein came to him for the money he needed to enrol at the War College. “So you’re indebted for your uniform to narcotics and this prostitute.” [71.]

Hassan’s occupation may be disreputable. It is however a career and has some of the characteristics of a career. In particular, like his respectable brothers, Hassan needs a sponsor.

Hassanein and Hussein apply to Ahmed Bey Yousri, supposedly their father’s friend. Hassan relies on Ali Sabri, a conceited and unsuccessful musician. ‘“The band will be working in this coffeehouse,” [Ali Sabri] said….’ [37.]

Ali Sabri needs Hassan. ‘“On every corner there is a thug…. And who is the right person to deal with them? You. There is also the important trade in narcotics…. And who’s the right person to deal with it? You again,” Ali Sabri said.’ [37.] Hassan was a failure as a wedding singer. He has now found his vocation.

The ups and downs of Hassan’s precarious existence have a direct effect on the family. When Hassan goes on the run, a search party arrives at the flat.

…the two young men encountered an officer, two policemen, and another man, apparently an informer…. The officer produced a search warrant…. “We’re searching …for a man by the name of Hassan Kamel, commonly known as Mr Head.”’ [75.]

The family are humiliated. ‘“The whole neighbourhood is witnessing our scandal. We’ve been exposed, and now we’re finished!”’ [75.]

They move to another quarter. ‘”We’ll go to Heliopolis.”’ [76.]

They cannot escape their past. Hassan turns up at their new address, badly wounded. ‘In the open doorway he saw two strangers supporting a third man, whose neck reclined on one of their shoulders…. …its pale white complexion was tinged with a blueness that suggested death.’ [86.]

Hassan’s fear of the police makes his family complicit. ‘“…don’t call the police or take him to the hospital…. a doctor will inform the police.”’ [86.]

Hassanein’s status obsessions lead him to jilt Bahia. ‘“I want a wife from a higher class, cultured and reasonably wealthy.”’ [79.] Jilting Bahia is dishonourable.

Hussein rescues Bahia’s honour and the reputation of the family. ‘“…I hope one day you’ll bless my honest desire to ask for your daughter Bahia’s hand.”’ [80.]

This is a powerful echo of Khan el-Khalili. In Khan el-Khalili, both brothers were interested in the same girl. Now the same pattern is being repeated in The Beginning and the End.

To make this more plausible, we are told that Hussein had been interested in Bahia. ‘Formerly, [Hussein] had been in love with Bahia.’ [81.]

This is the first we have heard of it. It is as careless as the assertion that Hassanein had always been interested in the War College.

Hassanein overreaches himself. He proposes for the daughter of Ahmed Bey Yousri. His brother officers find out the results of the enquiries that the family makes.

“I understood, from his conversation …that the family did not approve…. He said many things about one of your brothers…. He said [your sister] worked to earn her living…. I believe …you made a mistake in proposing to the daughter of such a fault-finding family.” [84.]

The fact that Nefisa is a prostitute is concealed from her family until the melodramatic denouement. This is an example of the fondness for irony that Mahfouz indulges in the novels of this period.

In the finale of the novel, the careers of Hassanein and Nefisa once again intersect. Hassanein is summoned to the police station. He does not know why.

“This… has to do with your sister…. She was arrested in a certain house in Al Sakakini.” [89.] Since we already know that Nefisa is a prostitute, we can guess what kind of house this is. Mahfouz does not specify whether it is a maison de rendezvous or a brothel. The details of Nefisa’s final fall are not apparently important.

The officer then appears to invite Hassanein to carry out an ‘honour killing.’ “I hope you’ll help me do my duty without making me regret the measures I’ve taken to protect your reputation.” [89.] I found this shocking. I imagine many Western readers – and many progressive, liberal readers in the Middle East and Egypt – will react in the same way.

The theme of murder has been anticipated. Hussein uses the idea of murder to illustrate an argument about means justifying ends.

“We had to defend ourselves,” [Hussein] said sharply. “And even murder is justified in self-defence.” [73.]

Hussein is talking about accepting money from Hassan, even though Hassan’s occupation is shameful. The idea of murder is not relevant. Mahfouz has taken the opportunity to introduce the concept into a discussion of shame for formal reasons.

When the police arrive at the flat with a search Hassanein is shown as reacting with murderous rage to his feelings of shame. ‘“I feel like murdering somebody… Nothing less than murder would get this out of my system!”’ [75.]

The idea of honour killing, when it is introduced at the end of the novel, is not an accident. It has been planned.

It becomes absolutely clear, when Nefisa and Hassanein leave the police station together, that it is in fact honour killing that is in question. ‘What to do with her was the main thing. He had thought of doing something as soon as they came out of the police station…. Should he strangle her, he wondered suddenly, or smash her head with his shoe?’ [90.]

Mahfouz does not challenge the dominant influence of masculine honour on female lives. He is however unwilling to endorse honour killing unequivocally.

Mahfouz makes Nefisa offer to commit suicide. ‘“Let me do the job myself so that no harm will come to you and nobody will know anything about it….”’ [90.]

Hassanein shows no compassion. ‘“Drown yourself in the Nile,” he said bluntly.’ [90.]

Mahfouz has anticipated Nefisa’s suicidal feelings. This is not careless. ‘Life was worthless; death would rescue her from its painful humiliation…. Now in her resignation, the death she hurried to meet became a soothing drug.’ [91.]

In the moment between leaving Nefisa and her death, Hassanein begins to question what he is doing. ‘He left her alone in front of the bridge and walked toward the pavement extending to the right along the bank of the Nile…. There might have been another solution, he thought.’ [91.]

Mahfouz does not leave Hassanein alone with his guilt. He also commits suicide. ‘Hassanein reached the same place on the bridge. He climbed the rail, looking down into the turbulent waters.’ [92.]

The double suicide with which the novel ends is melodramatic. It leaves Samira’s situation and Hussein’s relationship with Bahia both unresolved. In a realistic novel that would not happen.

The arrival of the police at the flat in Shubra Street is melodramatic, as is Hassan’s turning up wounded at the new flat in Heliopolis. Nefisa being arrested in a brothel is melodramatic. The timing of these events – just after Hassanein’s apparent success in being commissioned into the cavalry – is pure melodrama.

There are other elements of melodrama. Nefisa’s extreme feelings about becoming a prostitute are typical of melodrama. Hassan’s abortive attempt to work as a musician is fairly realistic. His becoming a thug is pure melodrama. It is nothing that Mahfouz has experienced or observed.

Mahfouz at one point gives the game away. ‘…a number of men stealthily streamed out of the room in succession…. Their features reminded [Hassanein] of the gangsters who appeared on the cinema screen.’ [58.] Mahfouz has based his description of Hassan’s milieu and his activities on what he has seen in the movies.

There is also a fatalism that is rather typical of melodrama. Sometimes the fatalism is expressed in a way that is common across cultures. ‘“Oh, God! Surely there’s some impurity in our blood!”’ [79.] At others it is more specific to Egypt and the Middle East. ‘“What is happening to us is the mischief of an evil eye.”’ [81.]

These elements of melodrama are important. They contribute to the tone of The Beginning and the End. It is however in the portrayal of honour and shame that the real melodrama lies. Honour and shame, in this novel, are in some way not real.

There is however greater realism. The description of family poverty and Samira’s struggles is realistic. The account of Nefisa’s relationships is more realistic than the portrayal of Hamida’s career in Midaq Alley. The attempt of Hussein’s superior in Tanta to entrap him into marrying his daughter comes across as realistic to a degree.

There is also more interest in politics. In Mahfouz’s later novels, in particular the Cairo Trilogy (1956-7), politics are very important. In The Beginning and the End, there is more discussion of politics, and more awareness of social and national issues, than in any of Mahfouz’s other novels of the late 1940s.

The boys have been involved in nationalist demonstrations. Hussein, as Mahfouz several times reminds us, has a strong faith. ‘Hussein’s strong faith …left him with no doubts about the hereafter.’ [3.]

Yet even Hussein’s faith does not quite enable him to remain stoical in the face of suffering. ‘It is true that God is the resort of all people. Yet how numerous on earth are the hungry and distressed!’ [8.]

On the train journey to take up his new post in Tanta, Hussein’s reflections about his own circumstances lead him to think about others. ‘There is no doubt about it. In our country fortune and respectable professions are hereditary in certain families. I am not spiteful, but sad; sad for myself and for millions of others like myself.’ [48.]

Hussein falls into a political conversation with a fellow-passenger. Hussein and his companion of the route both support the Wafd – the main nationalist party – as Mahfouz did when he was young. ‘”Nahas will remain in office forever,” the man said jubilantly. “The time for coups is over now. Are you a Wafdist?”’ [48.]

Alone in Tanta, Hussein muses about the condition of society. ‘Lonely and bored, [Hussein] found pleasure, he said, in dreams of social reform, imagining the emergence of a better society than the present one and improvement in living conditions.’ [73.]

Unlike the characters in the Cairo Trilogy, however – several of whom become involved and take action – Hussein’s reflections goes no further than that. There is a degree of recognition in The Beginning and the End that politics is important. Political beliefs do not affect the action.

The concern with social status in The Beginning and the End is new. The topic of honour and shame – which is related – is also new. An element of a traditional system, honour, is being portrayed in the context of a modernising urban environment. This contrast – or indeed conflict – between the traditional values and the modern world is a strong theme in the novels of Mahfouz. In The Beginning and the End, the melodramatic nature of the novel limits the portrayal. In later novels it will become more sophisticated.

The Beginning and the End, in itself, is a fairly limited novel. It is interesting because of its themes: poverty, social conditions, politics, sexual conflict, the tension between modernity and tradition. These are among the most important themes of the later novels.

It is also interesting because of its milieu. The petty bourgeoisie and the old districts of Cairo are Mahfouz’s spiritual home.


Bibliographical note

Goldschmidt, Arthur Jr., Modern Egypt: the Formation of a Nation State, 2004

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on VisualHunt.com / No known copyright restrictions

Glorious past

Midaq Alley

Naguib Mahfouz, 1947


Midaq Alley, like Cairo Modern (1945) and The Beginning and the End (1950) is about poverty. What is perhaps surprising to readers who are familiar with the reputation that Mahfouz gained based on his later novels, is that the treatment of poor people is disdainful. Midaq Alley is a form of satire. The butt of the satire, which is very unlike Mahfouz’s later work, is the poor.

Most of the inhabitants of the alley know little about the world beyond it. Even Salim Alwan, the prosperous merchant, is quite simple. ‘The trouble was that Salim Alwan scarcely understood anything apart from the world of commerce, and his opinions and beliefs were hardly above those of Abbas, the barber, for example.’ [Chapter 8.] In his remark about ‘Abbas the barber’ Mahfouz is making assumptions about social superiority, education and an understanding of the world which are condescending to a degree.

Most of the inhabitants of the alley are fatalistic about their situation. Uncle Kamil, the sweet seller, is so poor he cannot even afford a shroud. His friend Abbas, the barber, pretends he has bought him one and teases him. ‘”So I have bought him a nice shroud as a precaution and put it away in a safe place until the inevitable time comes.”’ Kamil does not realise he is being teased. ‘”Is it true what you said, Abbas?”’ Kamil is ridiculous. [1.]

A few of the inhabitants are greedy. Mrs Saniya Afify, the landlady of one of the alley’s two three-storey houses, is notoriously mean. ‘Like all her tenants, Dr Booshy disliked Mrs Saniya Afify and never missed a chance to criticise her miserliness.’ [21.]

Some of the greedy, particularly Hamida – the bad-tempered beauty of the alley – and Hussain Kirsha, the son of the café owner, are aggressive. Hamida is notoriously quarrelsome. ‘Her temper had always… been something no-one could ignore.’ [3.] Hussain’s aggression finds an outlet through ambition. ‘[Hussain] was known for his energy, intelligence and courage, and he could be most aggressive at times.’ [4.]

Hamida and Hussain are in effect foster siblings. Hamida is an orphan. Her adoptive mother, Umm Hamida, had her nursed by Mrs Kirsha, the café owner’s wife.

Hamida and Hussein both despise their origins. Hamida engages in sarcastic soliloquy. ‘“Hello, street of bliss! Long life to you and all your fine inhabitants…. Oh, what a pity, Hamida, what a shame and a waste.’” [3.] Hussain is desperate to leave. ‘Finally [Hussain] decided to alter his life no matter how much it cost him…. “I must get away from this alley….All my friends live in the modern way. They have become ‘gentlemen’, as they say in English.”’ [14.]

Hussein rebels against poverty by working for the British Army. He loves the lifestyle his wages give him. ‘… [Hussain] went to work in a British Army camp. His daily wages were now thirty piasters…. He bought new clothes, frequented restaurants, and delighted in eating meat…. He attended cinemas and cabarets and found pleasure in wine and the company of women.’ [4.]

There is no hint of nationalistic sentiment, on the part of any of the alley’s inhabitants, about Hussain’s employers. The British occupation is something they just seem to accept.

Curiously, Hussein’s mentor – the man who lets him into the black market – is called ‘Corporal Julian’. This is the name of the English soldier in Palace Walk, the first novel in The Cairo Trilogy, who makes a pet of Kamal. It is also Julian with whom Maryam flirts. Maryam is the woman Kamal’s elder brother Fahmy, the martyr of the rebellion of 1919, is in love with and wishes to marry. In The Cairo Trilogy, unlike Midaq Alley, nationalism is a fundamental part of the dynamic of the narrative.

Hussein’s friend Abbas, the barber, is diametrically opposite to him as a character. Mahfouz had a tendency to construct his novels on the basis of pairs of opposite characters at that time. The brothers Ahmad Akif in Khan al-Khalili and Rushdi, his younger brother, are opposites in a similar way. In Cairo Modern, Ma’mun Radwan the Islamist and Ali Taha the secularist, both foils for Mahgub Abd al-Da’im, are also opposites.

Abbas is passive. ‘Abbas was gentle, good-natured, and inclined to peace…. Abbas had a lazy dislike for change….’  Abbas only takes action when Hussain prompts him. ‘Hussain peered at himself carefully in the mirror…. “Women are an extensive study and one doesn’t succeed with wavy hair alone.” “I’m just a poor ignorant fellow,” laughed Abbas in reply…. “And Hamida?…Shake off this miserable life, close up your shop, leave this filthy alley behind…. Work for the British Army.”’ [4.]

Abbas would neither have become engaged to Hamida or left the alley to work in Tel el-Kebir if it was not for Hussein’s goading. It is of course being engaged to Hamida, and being absent from the alley while working for the British, that lead ultimately to Abbas’s violent death at the hands of the soldiers. [34.] It is difficult not to feel that Abbas is not just quiet and simple. He is also a bit of a fool. Mahfouz does not respect him.

At the time Abbas takes his fateful decisions, and makes the decisive steps, there is no hint of the final outcome. In a realistic novel, this would be a flaw. Mahfouz wishes to retain an element of surprise for his ending. This desire onthe author’s part overrides the need to anticipate events. This over-emphasis on surprise is, I think, very typical of melodrama.

Fatalism and aggression are responses to poverty in Midaq Alley. Fraud is another. Fraud, in Midaq Alley, is rather common.

The nearest the alley has to a professional man, the dentist Dr Booshy, is an impostor. Dr Booshy has no training. ‘Dr Booshy began his professional life as assistant to a dentist in the Gamaliya district…. He charged one piaster for the poor and two for the rich…. He was, perhaps, the very first doctor to receive his title from his patients.’ [1.]

Dr Booshy’s partner in crime, Zaita, represents the ultimate degradation of poverty. He is simply disgusting. He rents ‘…a grimy little outbuilding smelling of dirt and filth….’ from the bakeress Husniya. [7.]

Zaita has an unusual occupation. ‘It was his profession to create cripples….’ [7.] There is apparently a great deal of faking in this. “Do you know that making a person appear crippled is a thousand times more difficult than really crippling him?” [16.] This is another version of fraud.

I am prepared to believe that there were at some period people in Cairo whose business it was to create cripples. I am even prepared to believe it was still happening at the time about which Mahfouz writes. I feel however that the portrayal of Zaita owes more to light literature than to any observation of life.

Radwan Hussainy, despite appearances, is also a fraud. ‘Radwan Hussainy was a man of impressive appearance….’ [1.] ‘All agreed [Radwan Hussainy] was truly a saintly man of God.’ [11.] Hussainy is not however qualified as a cleric or a jurist. ‘He had spent a considerable portion of his life within [al-Azhar’s] cloisters and yet had not succeeded in obtaining a degree.’ [1.]

The inhabitants of the alley turn to Hussainy as they might to a qualified man of religion. His interventions fail. Mrs Kirsha seeks Hussainy’s help in persuading her husband to give up the boy with whom he is having a homosexual relationship. ‘“For the last time I am asking you to leave him or let me get rid of him in peace….”’ Kirsha refuses. ‘”All men do many things that are dirty and this is one of them….. What can a man do to control himself?”’ [11.]

Umm Hamida seeks Hussainy’s approval when Hamida wants to break her engagement to Abbas and marry Salim Alwan, the businessman. ‘Umm’ is an honorific, meaning ‘mother of…’. Umm Hamida is not Hamida’s mother. She is her foster mother. Umm Hamida is also a fraud.

Hussainy does not approve. ‘“[Radwan Hussainy] would not agree at all.”’ [18.] Hamida and her mother ignore him. ‘“And the recitation of the Qur’an?” “…I don’t give a damn!”’ [18.]

Hussainy’s ambiguous status and his ineffectuality appear to give his pronouncements an ironic quality. ‘[Radwan Hussainy] then generously placed some coins in [the poet’s] hand and whispered in his ear, “We are all sons of Adam. If poverty descends on you then seek help from your brother. Man’s provider is God and it is to God that any excess is due.”’ [1]

Mahfouz’s irony will no doubt amuse the secular. He is however playing a dangerous game. He has already been in minor trouble with the religious authorities over the scandalous content of Cairo Modern. [Mehrez, 1993.]

Sheikh Darwish has seen better days. ‘In his youth, Sheikh Darwish had been a teacher in one of the religious foundation schools. He had, moreover, been a teacher of the English language….. When the religious foundation schools merged with the Ministry of Education… he became a clerk in the Ministry of Religious Endowments and went down from sixth to eighth grade…. he began a constant rebellion…. He deserted his family, friends and acquaintances and wandered off into the world of God….’ [1.]

Sheikh Darwish is harmless. He is also absurd. He is given to making pronouncements. They are vacuous in content and portentous in form. ‘”The poet has gone and the radio has come. This is the way of God in His creation. Long ago it was told in tarikh, which in English means ‘history’ and is spelt h-i-s-t-o-r-y.”’ [1.]

The ladies of the Alley are often described as behaving aggressively. It is a lack of feminine refinement that betrays their inferior status.

We have already mentioned Hamida’s verbal aggression. Mrs Kirsha, in a splendidly lurid scene, is physically aggressive. She mounts a public attack on her husband’s paramour in the café. ‘[Mrs Kirsha] fell upon the boy, punching and slapping him forcefully.’ [12.]

The ‘bakeress’ Husniya – as the translator calls her – does not need a special occasion. She beats her husband regularly. Zaita spies on them. ‘He… would sit cross-legged, eating or smoking or amusing himself by spying on the baker and his wife…. watching [Husniya] beating her husband, morning and night.’ [7.] Zaita is disgusting. This makes his voyeurism particularly offensive.

Midaq Alley is also about prostitution. Hamida, the central figure, becomes a prostitute. The steps by which Hamida evolves from a poor girl in an alley to a successful prostitute constitute the main story of the novel.

Prostitution is seen, although not entirely, as a response to poverty. Hamida is presented, when we first meet her in the novel, simultaneously in terms of her beauty and the degrading effects of poverty. ‘…Hamida came in combing her black hair, which gave off a strong smell of kerosene…. Her mother gazed at her dark and shining hair…. “What a pity! Imagine letting lice live in that hair!” [3.] The contrast between beautiful hair and the infestation of lice would, I imagine, have been rather shocking for some of Mahfouz’s middle class readers.

Hamida is very conscious of her poverty. This is very often expressed by an embarrassment about her shabby clothes. ‘She was well aware of her attire; a faded cotton dress, an old cloak and shoes with timeworn soles.’ [5.]

Hamida is vividly conscious of the limitations of the life that the alley offers her. ‘…she asked herself what her life would be like under [Abbas’s] protection…. He was poor…. She would only have sweeping, cooking, washing, and feeding children to look forward to.’ [10.]

Hamida has an intense desire for finery. ‘”What’s the point of living if one can’t have new clothes?” [3.] She is intensely interested in the clothes that the factory girls can afford, and very critical. ‘This girl’s frock, for instance, was too short and immodest, while that one’s was simply in bad taste.’ [5.]

Hamida’s choice of occupation, however, is not simply determined by poverty. Mahfouz makes clear that it is also her character. Hamida lacks many if not most of the traditional virtues of femininity as they are understood in Muslim culture.

Hamida behaves seductively. ‘Nevertheless, she draped her cloak in such a way that it emphasised her ample hips and her full and rounded breasts. The cloak revealed her trim ankles, on which she wore a bangle….’ [5.] Hamida lacks modesty.

Hamida picks quarrels. ‘She was constantly beset by a desire to fight and conquer.’ [5.] Hamida is domineering rather than traditionally submissive.

Hamida’s desire to dominate is strongly associated with a desire for money. ‘Anyone could have told her that her yearning for power centred on her love for money…. she dreamed constantly of wealth…. [5.] Hamida is ambitious.

Hamida is rejected by other women. They see through her. ‘…all [the women of the alley] hated her and said unkind things about her.’ [5.]

In particular the other women notice what is to them a fundamentally unfeminine trait. ‘Perhaps the most commonly said thing about her was that she hated children and that this unnatural trait made her wild and totally lacking in the virtues of femininity.’ [5.] Hamida is not motherly.

Seductive, vain, domineering, ambitious, lacking in maternal instinct; it is a caricature. The highly traditional view of women that is implied by this particular portrayal may not represent Mahfouz’s general view. Nevertheless it is how he chooses to portray the protagonist of this novel.

Mahfouz only shows sympathy for the character he has created when he portrays her behaving, atypically perhaps, in a traditionally feminine way. There is an example when she becomes engaged to Abbas Hilu. ‘For this one brief period in her life, she brimmed with emotion and affection, feeling that her life was forever bound to his.’ [14.]

Hamida’s chosen occupation, prostitution, is something that interests Mahfouz a great deal. Prostitution, in the exact sense, also occurs in The Beginning and the End (1950). The portrayal of prostitution in The Beginning and the End is socially and psychologically more nuanced, and to that extent more sympathetic. Prostitution in The Beginning and the End is however strongly stigmatised.

Nefisa in The Beginning and the End is not pretty. The death of the father of the family – with which the action begins – reduces the family to poverty. They cannot afford a dowry. Nefisa is ‘a girl of twenty-three, without beauty, money or father.’ [The Beginning and the End, 4.] Her chances of marriage are slim.

Nefisa, as a girl, is less important than the boys. They are introduced and named in the first chapter, as they should be in a good story. Nefisa does not occur until the second chapter. In that chapter she is identified only as the sister. She is not dignified with a name until the fourth.

Nefisa’s family are in constant need of money. Nefisa, as an unmarried adult woman, has unmet sexual needs. A young man takes advantage. ‘She was quivering, trying in vain to collect her scattered thoughts as he covered her arm with kisses from his coarse lips.’ [The Beginning and the End, 27.]

This is more realistic than the stories of Ihsan and Hamida. It is not judgemental. The resolution of the story is however quite difficult.

Nefisa at the end of the novel is arrested in a house of assignation. Her brother Hassanein, who has managed despite the family poverty to become an army officer, is summoned. The police officer makes it clear he expects Hassanein to carry out an ‘honour killing’. ‘I’ve done my duty. The rest is up to you.’ [The Beginning and the End, 89.] Nefisa then drowns herself in the Nile.

Nefisa sees herself as culpable. ‘”I’m a criminal, I know. I won’t ask for forgiveness. I don’t deserve it.”’ Hassanein is absurdly judgmental. ‘”You filthy prostitute! You’ve already done me incalculable harm!”’ Nefisa’s fate is seen as a tragedy. ‘Life was worthless; death would rescue her from its painful humiliation.’ Yet Nefisa’s death provides a resolution. [The Beginning and the End, 90.]

Mahfouz is not quite comfortable with this. Hassanein also commits suicide. This however is melodrama.

The double suicide means that the novel, in effect, is about Nefisa and Hassanein. This only underlines the structural flaw I pointed out earlier. Nefisa, as well as Hassanein, should have been mentioned in the first chapter; and she should have been named.

The portrayal of the position of women in a conservative society seems however accurate, if not typical. I would have also preferred a stronger comment on the values of that society.

In Cairo Modern the version of adultery portrayed is very cynical. Ihsan is not technically a prostitute. She is unchaste. In a conservative society, women who are seen as unchaste are readily characterised as prostitutes. This applies whether or not they are promiscuous, and whether or not there is a direct commercial transaction involved.

In nineteenth-century British English, the word ‘whore’ was often used in the same way. It could simply mean ‘sexually available’. This was a male point of view.

Mahgub, Ihsan’s husband, certainly sees himself as a pimp. [Cairo Modern, 29.] Before he marries Ihsan Mahgub has rather sordid relations with a prostitute. ‘His girlfriend was by profession a cigarette butt collector…. One evening… he spotted her behind a fig tree with a doorman…. …he accosted her with his normal audacity and… said with a smile, “I saw everything….””What do you want?” “….The same.” “….Three piasters!” [Cairo Modern, 5.]

In Khan al-Khalili Rushdi, the younger brother, is said to engage in illicit sex. There is also one scene in which Ahmad Akif visits the hashish den, which is also where Aliyat al-Faiza, the local prostitute – ‘…whom they all called “husband lover”….’ – works. [Khan al-Khalili, 32.] In The Mirage, there is seduction and adultery.

Mahfouz in his later novels is clearly interested in sex and relationships. There is no reason to suppose there is not also a serious interest in the adultery, prostitution, seduction, and illicit sex that are portrayed in these early novels. Mahfouz, a writer working in a conservative society, is I think amongst other things claiming an essential freedom of the novelist to write on sexual subjects.

There is also, however, a certain sensationalism; a desire to shock and titillate, and attract readers. In the later, more serious novels, the element of sensationalism may be judged to persist. This would be problematic.

In Midaq Alley, Mahfouz develops the attempt to portray the life of one of Cairo’s old quarters that we first saw in Khan al-Khalili. In Khan al-Khalili a few scattered locations – the family flat, the Zahra Café, the hashish den, the family tomb – stand in for the quarter as a whole. In Midaq Alley, the physical location is more integrated. The alley, I think, stands in for the larger quarter. The physical location is important. We are introduced to the buildings before we meet the people.

The alley ‘…was enclosed like a trap between three walls…. One of its sides consisted of a shop, a café, and a bakery, the other of a shop and an office. It ends abruptly, just as its ancient glory did, with two adjoining houses, each of three stories…. Two shops …that of Uncle Kamil, the sweets seller …and the barbershop …remain open till shortly after sunset.’ [1.] The alley is not just a community, though it is also that. It is physically very real.

The importance of the alley in Midaq Alley anticipates, or is possibly even a rough sketch for, the alley in Children of the Alley (1959). The alley in Children of the Alley stands for Cairo, Egypt and finally the Middle East.

There are even verbal echoes. Umm Hamida proclaims to her daughter that: ‘“The people who live [in the alley] are the best in the world!”’ [3.] The alley is so small that it is strange to hear Umm Hamida talk like that.

In Children of the Alley, when Shafi’i and Abda return from exile in Muqattam Marketplace, Abda similarly says: ‘Your people are here, the best people in the alley.’ [Children of the Alley, 45.]  Their son, Rifaa, comes to reject this attitude. ‘”The Al Gabal are not the best people in the alley. The best people are the kindest ones.”’ [Children of the Alley, 54.]

In Midaq Alley Mahfouz develops the device of the café. Mahfouz was himself a notorious frequenter of cafés, and two of his novels – Karnak Café (1974), and The Coffeehouse (1988), his last novel, are set almost entirely in cafés.

In Khan al-Khalili the café is simply a place where a group of friends meet. Their conversations and their characters give an impression of the poor, socially conservative quarter where they live. In Midaq Alley, the lives of some of the café denizens are more developed. We learn something about them.

The social interest of Midaq Alley comes from the – admittedly rather lurid -presentation of poverty in a conservative quarter. The melodrama is provided by the relationship between Hamida and Abbas Hilu, the barber. While Abbas is absent, working in Tel el-Kebir for the British Army, Hamida is lured into prostitution. Abbas is provoked into unaccustomed rage by seeing her in the company of admiring British soldiers in a tavern. Abbas attacks Hamida, and the soldiers kick Abbas to death. Hussein, outside the tavern, can do nothing. [34.]

In Cairo Modern and Khan al-Khalili the plotting is very tight. Little happens that does not advance the story towards the eventual outcome. In Midaq Alley, by contrast, there are several stories which do not advance the plot at all. They would be independent stories if it was not for the personal connections of the characters with other characters in the novel.

Interestingly, these separate stories are not resolved. There are not in the precise sense sub-plots, since they do not have conclusions. By definition, a story without a conclusion cannot be a plot. These stories are in effect vignettes. They serve to enrich the picture of the popular quarter. Mahfouz is moving away from the novel of character, and towards a form of social realism. He is not there yet.

The vignettes also create a commentary on the main action. The theme of each vignette parallels an element in the main story of Hamida and Abbas. This use of a subsidiary story to make a comment is a technique that Mahfouz develops strongly in The Cairo Trilogy.

The stories are those of Mrs Saniya Afify, one of the property owners; Umm Hamida, Hamida’s adoptive mother; Hussain Kirsha, the café owner’s son and the friend of Abbas the barber; Mr Kirsha, the café owner; Dr Booshy, the fake dentist and Zaita the cripple maker (theirs is one story); and Salim Alwan, the prosperous merchant. Radwan Hussainy is also the subject of a vignette, though it is so slight it is hardly a story. I present them more or less in order of appearance of the characters in the novel.

Mrs Saniya Afify is fifty years old. She is apparently a divorcée, and has never remarried. ‘“No more of the bitterness of marriage for me!” In her youth, Mrs Afify had married the owner of a perfume shop. Her husband treated her badly….’ [2.]

When we meet Mrs Afify, she is in front of her mirror. ‘She gazed into the mirror with… eyes gleaming with delight.’ [2.] Mrs Afify, like the much younger and genuinely beautiful Hamida, is vain.

Mrs Afify, at the age of fifty, has decided to get married. She has engaged the services of Umm Hamida, the matchmaker. ‘“You are going to get married in accordance with God’s law and the practice of the Prophet.”’ Mrs Afify is ridiculous. This is part of the satire. Mrs Afify’s idea of what constitutes a distinguished husband is also ridiculous. ‘“A civil servant…. In the government!” “He wears jacket, trousers, a tarboosh, and shoes! …He sits at a big desk piled almost to the roof with folders and papers…. His salary is not a penny less than ten pounds.”’ [2.]

Mrs Afify’s vanity extends to a concern for the appearance of her teeth. She engages the services of the fraudulent Dr Booshy. ‘“Well now, the best thing is for you to have a new set.”“It must be done in a month.”“I could make you a gold plate. It could be put in immediately after the extraction.”….everyone in the alley knew that Dr Booshy’s fees were reasonable and that he somehow got plates that he sold at ridiculously low prices.’ [21.] As we shall see later, the decision to go for gold enables the introduction of what is perhaps the most melodramatic element of the novel.

We learn the bare fact that Mrs Afify does in fact get married. Mrs Afify’s husband is there when she learns the truth about her new dentures. ‘Her new husband was in the bathtub, and when he heard her screams, panic struck him. Throwing a robe over his wet body, he rushed wildly to her rescue.’ [27.] We learn nothing more about Mrs Afify’s husband, or her subsequent matrimonial life.

Umm Hamida is also one of the greedy ones. ‘”Oh no you don’t, my woman. You will have to reward me well enough with money and a great deal of it. We will go to the savings bank together, and you won’t be stingy.”’ [2.] Umm Hamida is also greedy when there is a possibility of Hamida breaking her engagement with Abbas Hilu the barber in favour of Salim Alwan the merchant. [Umm Hamida] was aware that half the money this anticipated marriage would bring [Hamida] would go to her, and that she would be amply rewarded for each blessing that fell on the girl.’ [18.]

Umm Hamida’s activities parallel those of Ibrahim Faraj. Umm Hamida, in effect, is a pimp.

Hussain Kirsha is irresponsible. He thinks the war, and consequently his employment with the British, will last forever. “How can the war end so quickly?” [30.] He has not saved. He returns to his family with a wife and no money. ‘”You lived like a king with electricity, water and entertainment and now you’re back a beggar, just as you were when you left.”’ [25.] Hussain is not ready for the responsibilities of a family. “Worst of all, my wife vomited last week….” [30.] We are not told how things work out for Hussain Kirsha and his wife.

Hussain Kirsha encourages his friend Abbas Hilu to drink alcohol. “How on earth can you live among the British and not drink?” In the same way he encouraged him to work at Tel el-Kebir.

Hamida is also irresponsible. She enters into her engagement with Abbas just as casually as she throws him over. Between them, they are responsible for his death.

Abbas Hilu is naive and gullible. He is not a tragic hero. Midaq Alley is not a tragedy. It has most of the hallmarks of melodrama.

Mr Kirsha, the café owner, is a married man and the father of a family. It is also notorious in the alley that he pursues homosexual relations with young men. There is a more nuanced and in some ways sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality in The Cairo Trilogy. The portrait of homosexuality in Midaq Alley is prejudiced and conventional. ‘Now his heart beat faster still…. a faint glint of evil seemed to issue from his dim eyes.’ [6.] ‘Was it the same old reason? That filthy disease? “Men like you really deserve to be punished.”’ [9.]

Mahfouz gets away with his scandalous material by introducing conventional judgements that serve, I would imagine, to placate conservative opinion.

The vignette involving Mr Kirsha is about seduction. ‘Leaning against one of the shop’s shelves…. was a youthful-looking lad…. “Why don’t you honour our café?” [6.] It is another parallel to the activities of Ibrahim Faraj, the pimp.

We don’t find out what happens to the lad. The story is not resolved.

Booshy and Zaita rob graves. Booshy’s fraud is based on criminality of a frankly outrageous kind. This is where he finds the gold for the cheap dentures.

Booshy and Zaita are quite organised. ‘“Won’t you lose your way in the dark?” ”Oh, no. I followed the burial procession and took particular note of the way. In any case, we both know the road well, we’ve often been on it in pitch dark.” “And your tools?” “They’re in a safe space in front of the mosque.”’ [27.]

They have been doing this for a while. “The days are over when people left the jewellery of their dead in the graves.” “Those were the days!” sighed Dr Booshy. [27.]

Booshy and Zaita are caught. ‘A loud voice shouted out in an Upper Egyptian accent, “Up you come, or I’ll fire on you.” [27.] There is no indication why, on this occasion rather than all the others, Booshy and Zaita are arrested. This is pure coincidence.

We learn nothing else. We do not learn if Booshy and Zaita are put on trial or what the outcome is. We do not learn if they return to the alley.

I do not find the idea of graves being robbed impossibly difficult. The idea that gold from graves is used to make cheap dentures is not completely impossible. It stretches credibility a little. The internal parallel is, I think, with the outrageousness of the school for prostitutes that Ibrahim Faraj, the pimp, is said to run. This is another element of Midaq Alley that belongs more to light literature than to life.

Grave robbing was of course industrial under the pharaohs, and the pharaonic period is something that Mahfouz is very interested in. He constantly refers to Egypt’s Pharaonic past, and wrote about it several times: in Khufu’s Wisdom, (1939), Rhadopis of Nubia (1943), Thebes at War (1944), Before the Throne (1983) and Akhnaten: Dweller in Truth (1985). There are Pharaonic allusions in Children of the Alley, The Search (1964) and – very strongly – in The Harafish (1977).

When Arafa and his brother Hanash dig under the wall of the mansion, they identify themselves symbolically as tomb robbers. The mansion becomes a pyramid and Gabalawi becomes a pharaoh. [Children of the Alley, 93.] Grave robbing in Midaq Alley is crude and sensational. In Children of the Alley it is subtle and significant. Twelve years makes a great deal of difference.

Salim Alwan is making money on the black market. ‘This second war had so far been even more lucrative for his business….’ [8.] As a prosperous merchant Salim Alwan is in many ways, perhaps rather extraordinarily, a sketch for Ahmad Abd al-Jawad in The Cairo Trilogy. Salim Alwan even dresses in the same, traditional style: ‘[Salim Alwan] …struts off, dressed in his flowing robe and cloak…. [1.]

Like Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, Salim Alwan is ambitious for his sons. One is a judge. Like Mrs Saniya Afify, Salim Alwan is greedy and mean. ‘He had heard of rich merchants who had ended up penniless or worse, had committed suicide or died of grief.’ [8.]

Like Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, Salim Alwan is over-sexed. ‘…he indulged his marital pleasures in a most immoderate fashion.’ Like Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, Salim Alwan becomes obsessed with a younger woman and thinks of marrying her. ‘[Salim Alwan] quite frankly desired [Hamida’s] pretty face, that body of sensuality and those beautiful buttocks…. But how could Hamida become a fellow wife of his present wife, Mrs Alwan?’ [8.]

Like Abbas Hilu, Salim Alwan wants to possess Hamida. Like Abbas Hilu, he fails. ‘Hamida’s disappearance had been a shattering blow to Salim Alwan…. When the gossip reached him about her having run off with an unknown man, he was extremely upset…. His heart burst with resentment and revenge towards the fickle girl.” [29.] Salim Alwan’s money makes no difference. Hamida has her own destiny.

Towards the end of Midaq Alley Radwan Hussainy makes the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. ‘Hussainy had hoped God would choose him to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina this year and so he had.’ [33.] This confirms his image in the novel as a man of God. It has no relevance whatsoever to anything else that happens in the novel and has no effect on the action. I can only think that the pilgrimage, like most other things Radwan Hussainy says and does, are there to placate conservative opinion. Like the conventional judgements of homosexuality and prostitution, they enable Mahfouz to get away with what is in fact rather a sensational and quite salacious novel.

There is an episode in Midaq Alley which is even more curious than the episode of Radwan Hussainy’s hajj, and that is the episode of the election party. ‘One morning Midaq Alley awoke in a tumult of great noise and confusion. Men were setting up a pavilion in a vacant lot in Sanadiqiya Street…. “…it’s for an election campaign party!” ‘Mahfouz uses it to introduce Ibrahim Faraj, who watches Hamida watching the fun. ‘When Hamida returned from her afternoon stroll she found the party in full swing. …she moved her head until her eyes met those of a man staring at her with insolent intensity.’ [19.] As such it is a clumsy device. The election doesn’t even work as a justification for Faraj being in the alley. It is true that Faraj is a stranger. ‘His tidy appearance and European dress made him seem oddly out of place in the crowd’. We are not however told that Faraj has any interest in politics.

The description of the candidate suggests a potential for violence. ‘…Ibrahim Farhat …was surrounded by his retinue… most of whom appeared to be weightlifters from the local sports club.’ Corruption is made explicit. ‘Farhat had offered [Kirsha] fifteen pounds for his support.’ The candidate’s whole approach is venal. ‘“And don’t forget there will be rewards for all, if I win…. And before the results are out, too.”’

Introducing Kirsha links the description of the election to the main narrative. It involves giving Kirsha a biography. ‘[Kirsha] had taken an active part in the rebellion of 1919 and was reputed to have planned the great fire which destroyed the Jewish Cigarette Trading Co in Hussain Square.’ After the revolution ‘…he had found a new …outlet for his energies in the subsequent election battles.’ This of course is not only irrelevant to Kirsha’s behaviour in the novel. It completely contradicts his character as it has been described, and Mahfouz knows it. ‘All the spirit of the old revolutionary was gone….’ [19.]

Mahfouz is not writing about politics in Midaq Alley because it is relevant to the novel. It is not. He is writing about politics because he is interested in politics. Politics is to be one of the great themes of his work.

In The Cairo Trilogy, nationalist politics drive much of the action. The treatment is nuanced and sophisticated. By the end of the novel we have been introduced, via the medium of Kamal al-Jawad’s nephews, Abd al-Muni’m and Ahmad, to Islamism and Marxism as well.

Politics in Midaq Alley is described as violent and venal. The treatment is superficial. As in the portrait of Salim Alwan, Mahfouz is making a very rough preliminary sketch. It will be developed later.

Hamida’s character does not change. Her experience does not touch her. It is only her situation that changes. This is one of the characteristics that makes Midaq Alley a melodrama rather than a work of realism.

The change in Hamida’s situation is shown through her relations with three different men: Abbas Hilu the barber, Salim Alwan the merchant and Ibrahim Faraj the pimp. Hamida moves from a young man who is poor but presentable to a rich, middle-aged man who is already married and from there to a pimp.

Prostitution is presented as her destiny. ‘The truth was that without realising it she had chosen her path…. She asked herself what people would be saying about her on the street the next day…. “A whore!”’ [24.] Faraj also recognises this. ‘“She’s a whore by instinct.”’ [23.]

Hamida’s progression from man to man curiously parallels Nawal’s progression from brother to brother in Khan al-Khalili. In both cases the relationships with different men serve to portray the personality of the young woman fully.

Nawal is a teenage girl from a conservative family. She values marriage. ‘For her, life was entirely focused on a single goal: heart, home and marriage.’ [21.] She does not value education. ‘”Haven’t you thought about what you want to do at university yet?” …this young man was trying to mould her into the kind of woman that he wanted her to be….’ [21.]

Despite the restrictions placed on her Nawal is able to engage in courtship and the search for a mate. Ahmad Akif is inhibited. Ahmad spots Nawal on the balcony from his window. ‘He left the window, went over to the other one that looked out on the old part of Khan al-Khalili, opened it, and leaned on the sill…. A young girl was sitting [on his neighbour’s balcony] embroidering a shawl.’ [10.]

Ahmad can’t deal with it. ‘At that fleeting moment, when their eyes met, his emotions overcame him and he blushed deep red in sheer embarrassment. He did not know how to behave or what was the best way to get out of his predicament.’ [10.] Nawal nevertheless continues to encourage him. ‘…when she reached [the shelter door], she turned and gave him a very meaningful look.’ [14.]

Rushdi is much bolder. ‘”How can this boy be so brazen?”’ [21.] That enables Nawal to respond. Even though Rushdi is obviously ill, ‘…[Nawal] encouraged him to resume their walk together since she was keen for them to be alone together.’ [37.]

Through her relations with the brother’s we see that Nawal’s freedom of action is limited by her conservative environment and the personality of the two brothers. Within those limits, Nawal – a very ordinary girl – finds some space for agency. It is rather a charming portrait.

The portrait of Hamida is not charming at all. She is greedy and domineering.

Hamida is aware that Abbas Hilu cannot give her what she wants. ‘…she was aware of the great gulf between this humble young man and her own greedy ambitions….’ Nevertheless she allows herself to be seduced. ‘“Let’s turn off into Azhar Street. It’s quieter there….” She turned off toward Azhar Street without a word.’ Rather passively, she becomes engaged. ‘“We have reached an agreement, Hamida, and the matter is decided.”‘ [10.]

Hamida has no qualms in abandoning Abbas Hilu for Salim Alwan. He is a better bet. ‘This at last was the man who could give her all the luxury and freedom from drudgery she longed for.’ Yet as soon as Salim Alwan is introduced into Hamida’s life as a prospective fiancé he is removed by a heart attack. ‘The next morning Umm Hamida cheerfully set out for Alwan’s office to read the Qur’an and to confirm the engagement…. Salim Alwan had suffered a heart attack.’ [18.] Hamida and Salim Alwan do not in fact become engaged, and – as with other vignettes in Midaq Alley – there is no outcome. Salim Alwan exists in the novel simply to demonstrate that Hamida is faithless and mercenary.

In a similar way, Ibrahim Faraj exists solely to introduce Hamida to prostitution. He has no other existence. We learn nothing else about him. In the last few chapters, when Hamida has found her calling, he disappears. This is typical of melodrama.

With Faraj, Hamida behaves seductively and shows some passion. In a behaviour that is classic for forward young women in the novels of Mahfouz, Hamida flirts with Faraj through the window. ‘She hesitated and then, turning the catch, she opened up the window a bit, carefully standing behind it as though watching the celebration in progress.’ [19.] Faraj can inspire her to real feeling. ‘She clung to him, her head raised toward his face, her mouth open and trembling with passion….’ [26.]

Faraj seduces her. ‘He walked behind her and, with indescribable boldness, stretched out his arm and gripped her hand…. “Good evening, my darling.”’ He pays her compliments. ‘“Why, you are as beautiful as the stars…. don’t you go to the cinema? They call beautiful film actresses stars.”’ What really charms Hamida, however, is wealth. ‘In her whole life she had only ridden in a horse-drawn carriage and the magic of the word “taxi” took time to die away.’ [23.]

Hamida rapidly realises that Faraj is not a lover. ‘“You are trying to corrupt me! What an evil, wicked seducer you are! …You are not a man; you are a pimp!” [23.] Faraj denies he is a pimp. This is where Mahfouz introduces an element of the novel that is so sensational that it is frankly absurd. ‘“Your lover is the headmaster of a school, and you will learn everything when the time comes.”’ [24.]

The school for prostitutes is not in fact complicated. There are only three departments’. ‘“This is the first class in the school… The department of Oriental dancing.”’ Then there is: ‘“The department of Western dancing.”’ And finally: ‘“This department teaches the principles of the English language…!”’ The English language is apparently best learned while the young ladies are naked. [26.]

I can believe that there have been people at various historical epochs who have undertaken to teach young ladies the accomplishments they need in order to do better in their chosen profession. This however is absurd. I am afraid I think, just as with Zaita and Booshy stealing gold teeth from graves, that this belongs more to light literature than life.

Hamida already realises that Faraj is a pimp. Now she realises he is grooming her. ‘“Do you think I am going to do the same as they?’” She also realises just how cynical he is. ‘“American officers will gladly pay fifty pounds for virgins.”’ She is still resisting. ‘…she slapped his face with such force that the blow cracked through the room.’ It is almost as if this is what Faraj was waiting for. ‘…he struck her right cheek as hard as he could. Then he slapped her right cheek just as violently.’ [26.]Faraj gives Hamida something that neither Abbas Hilu nor Salim Alwan does. He gives her the opportunity for a dominance struggle.

Abbas comes back from Tel el-Kebir in western clothes. ‘Abbas… was dressed in a smart white shirt and grey trousers.’ He has a trinket in a box. ‘“It’s Hamida’s wedding present.”’ He is in for a shock. “She’s gone…. No one knows what’s happened to her.” Hussein is probably lying. ‘Did he really have no suspicion of the truth of her disappearance?’ The truth is not hard to discover. Hamida’s friends are quite eager to tell on her. ‘“We saw her several times with a well-dressed man in a suit, walking in the Mousky.”’ [28.]

Hamida is doing well. ‘She was a favourite of the soldiers and her savings were proof of her popularity.’ Her dominance needs are not entirely satisfied. ‘Not entirely ruled by her sexual instincts, she longed for emotional power.’ She has lost the limited freedom she used to have in the alley. ‘Perhaps the only hour of her past life that Hamida missed was her late afternoon walk.’ She hasn’t gained the larger freedom she wanted. ‘She no longer had the freedom for which she had risked her whole life. Hamida only felt a sense of powerful independence when she was soliciting on the street or in a tavern.‘ She is aware that Faraj, her seducer, is no longer her lover. She challenges him. “Let’s get married and get out of this kind of life.” She has regrets. ‘How had everything come to an end so quickly?’

What Hamida does not expect is to encounter Abbas again. ‘Just then she heard a shrill cry rend the air: “Hamida!” She turned in terror and saw Abbas, the barber, only an arm’s length away from her.’ [31.] This is of course a coincidence of the type that is typical of melodrama.

Mahfouz now describes Hamida as explicitly evil. She persuades Abbas to murder Faraj. ‘Her mind raced with devilish inspiration. It occurred to her that she could conscript Abbas against the man who was using her so heartlessly.’ [32.] The only other character in Midaq Alley who is described as evil is Kirsha, the café owner, in respect of his homosexual desires.

One might have thought the attribution of evil could be as easily made of Faraj, the pimp, or Booshy and Zaita, the grave robbers. Mahfouz, however, seems to reserve the category of evil for those who violate conventional sexual norms. It is a game he is playing, I think, with his conservative readers.

Mahfouz thoroughly dislikes Hamida. He also dislikes Mahgub Abd al-Da’im, the nihilist in Cairo Modern. A dislikeable protagonist is a sign, if nothing more, of a satirical intention.

Abbas takes the bait. ‘“I won’t be happy until I smash his head in.  Where can I find him?”’  He tries to get his friend Hussein Kirsha to help him. Hussein has reservations. ‘“Hamida is the real culprit.”’ Abbas persists. ‘“…isn’t it still an insult to us that we should avenge?”’ He persuades Hussein to come on a reconnaissance. ‘“Wouldn’t it be better to go to the tavern where we’ll meet them on Sunday, so that you’ll know where it is?”’

There is another melodramatic coincidence, this time with a thoroughly melodramatic coincidence. ‘[Abbas] saw Hamida sitting amongst a crowd of soldiers…. He charged madly into the tavern, roaring out in a thunderous voice, “Hamida….” …he hurled an empty beer glass at her…. …angry men fell on Abbas from all sides like wild animals.’ [34.] Abbas is beaten to death. Instead of murdering Faraj, he has been murdered. Hamida, either way, is responsible.

Hamida’s desire for sexual freedom, portrayed as being a ‘whore’, her need for independence, portrayed as dominance, and her ambition, portrayed as greed, lead to murder. It is a suitable subject, perhaps, for melodrama. It is a very negative portrayal by Mahfouz of a woman with non-traditional desires and needs.

Midaq Alley is also a story about the impact of the present on the past. When the alley is introduced, it is presented in terms of physical remains of the past: ‘…the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one.’ [1.]

Kirsha’s café also has traces of the past: …it retains a number of secrets of a world now past…. its walls are covered with arabesques. The only things which suggest a past glory are its extreme age and a few couches placed here and there. [1.]

Mahfouz tends to identify the traditional quarters of Cairo with a pre-modern past. In Khan al-Khalili the old quarter gives ‘…to the viewer an impression of the Cairo of al-Mu’izzi’s time.’ [1.] Al-Muʿizzi was apparently the most powerful of the Fatimid caliphs, whose armies conquered Egypt and who made the newly founded Al-Qahirah, or Cairo, his capital in 972–973. (Britannica). In Children of the Alley (1959) the remote past is of course the Garden of Eden.

It is in the café that Mahfouz places a scene which dramatises the impact of the present on the past. The traditional poet with his fiddle is replaced by a radio. The poet is blind and mentally impaired. The last representative of a vanished age is himself decrepit. It is a vivid image. It is worth quoting at some length. ‘In the café entrance a workman is setting up a second-hand radio on a wall.…. A senile old man is now approaching the café…. A boy leads him by his left hand and under his right arm he carries a two-stringed fiddle and a book.He played a few introductory notes just as the café had heard him play every evening for twenty years or more…. The café owner shouted in angry exasperation, “Are you going to force your recitations on me? That’s the end – the end! Didn’t I warn you last week?People today don’t want a poet. They keep asking me for a radio.”’ [1.]

In Children of the Alley, the poets play a vital role. They preserve the oral history. They are valued. ‘This was the poet, and these were the tales. How often had [Rifaa] heard his mother say, “Our alley is the alley of tales.” And truly those tales were worth his love.’ [Children of the Alley, 46.] The poets are however too fearful of authority to be reliable. ‘The poets of the coffeehouses in every corner of our alley tell only of heroic eras, avoiding public mention of anything that would embarrass the powerful.’ [Children of the Alley, 24.]

The most powerful impact of the present on the alley in the novel is of course the effect of the money that the British Army brings to Cairo. Hussain and Abbas both go to work at Tel el-Kebir. They wear Western clothes. Hussain lives in a flat with electricity and drinks alcohol. Hamida becomes a prostitute. Her customers are the soldiers.

Very briefly, at the end of the novel, Mahfouz mentions what he sees as the attitude of the inhabitants of the alley to history and time: ‘This crisis too, like all the others, finally subsided and the alley returned to its usual state of indifference and forgetfulness.’ [35.]

This parallels strikingly the formula Mahfouz uses several times in Children of the Alley: ‘Good examples would not be wasted on our alley were it not afflicted with forgetfulness. But forgetfulness is the plague of our alley.’ [Children of the Alley, 43.]

Midaq Alley is a melodrama. The main story – the story of the protagonist Hamida – is driven by plot and relies on coincidence.

Midaq Alley is sensational. It has lurid and improbable accounts of prostitution, homosexuality and crime.

In Midaq Alley Mahfouz develops his portrayal of the old quarters of Cairo. In Khan al-Khalili the quarter was witnessed by an outsider. In Midaq Alley the portrayal of the lives of a group of related characters is quite intimate.

In Midaq Alley Mahfouz uses the vignettes of the secondary characters  – Mrs Saniya Afify, Hussain Kirsha, Dr Booshy, Salim Alwan and others – to enrich his story. He creates, in a primitive form, the social realism which he will later do so splendidly in The Cairo Trilogy and Morning and Evening Talk (1987.)

Midaq Alley is in itself a rather forgettable novel. It has no very great merits. If it were not for The Cairo Trilogy and Children of the Alley we should probably never have heard of it. In the context of those later works, however, Midaq Alley – for what it foreshadows and anticipates – becomes interesting.

Bibliographical note

Mehrez, Samia, ‘Respected Sir’, in Beard, Michael, and Haydar, Adnan, Naguib Mahfouz: From Regional Fame to Global Recognition, 1993

Photo credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives on Visualhunt.com / No known copyright restrictions