We’d been here once before, but this time I wanted to get a better look. We walked through Cairo’s Khan il-Khalili’s labyrinthine market alleys and passageways, while touts and vendors, sensing that we weren’t completely sure where we were going, kept saying, “Here it is,” or “Hey, you’re back,” anything to get us to stop and look at their wares. We turned left past the spice merchant and the smell of cumin, saffron and dried hibiscus flowers filled the air. We were walking in Egypt's most famous market bazaar, searching for the eponymous location of Naguib Mahfouz’ literary masterpiece Midaq Alley.
Written by the Egyptian Nobel laureate, Midaq Alley follows the intertwining lives of impoverished people living and working in an old, narrow alley in the heart of Islamic Cairo. Although I’d heard of Mahfouz at the time of his winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, I had until recently not read anything by him. My wife had read the Cairo Trilogy with her book club (most of whom, surprisingly, didn’t care for it) and had raved about his writing for years. At a bookstore in Luxor she bought a copy of Midaq Alley for our 19 hour bus ride from Luxor to Dahab on the Red Sea and it was there that I started the book.
In the first twenty to thirty pages of the book the characters of the alley are introduced. Kirsha is the café owner with an eye for young boys and Abbas is the barber who wants to get married. Hamida is the beautiful young woman who dreams of a better life and Um-Hamida is her adoptive mother who is a matchmaker and bath attendant. Zaita is the cripple maker, Ibrahim Faraj is the pimp and Dr. Booshy is the dentist who fits dentures at “too good to be true” prices. Husniya is the bakeress who regularly beats her husband and if anyone has problems they usually go to Radwan Husseiny for a reasonable solution. While the sum of these parts add up to an entertaining book, it is the way that Mahfouz weaves them all together that makes the story so satisfying.
When we walked by the alley previously we could not believe that this dirty, non-descript place was worthy of the attention of a great writer. We’d been on our way to shop in the famous bazaar and our guidebook mentioned its approximate location. This time, after having read the book, my son and I came back to sit at Kirsha’s café and soak up the ambience. My wife and daughter went shopping, looking for alabaster votive candle holders. (They went away to buy three but would end up buying twelve) By my reckoning, we were sitting at Ibrahim Faraj’s table, where he sat and wooed Hamida by blowing kisses upward towards her window as he exhaled hubble-bubble smoke. To our right a spice seller displayed his neat pyramidal piles of dried spices in front of his shop and to our left a dry goods vender unloaded large boxes of matches near the beginning of the alley. In front of us was a boarded-up business and I wondered if this was Abbas’ barbershop. We’d been in Egypt for over a month and had met many Egyptians but had not seen any of their private moments. After reading Midaq Alley and absorbing the details of how they seduce, fight, aspire, cheat, fret, desire and worry, it added some depth to the impressions I got from the Egyptians we encountered every day.