Monday, March 8, 2010

Of Naguib Mahfouz and Hey Arnold!

I never heard of Naguib Mahfouz before I saw his novel, Midaq Alley, on a crowded bookshelf two weeks ago.

That’s not Mahfouz’s fault. He did everything a writer can do to get my attention: win the Nobel Prize, survive an assassination attempt, write classics, and clash with members of the Egyptian government and Islamic fundamentalists.

Mahfouz was among the first generation of Arabic novelists. Novels and short stories are not traditional forms of writing in the Arabic world. He helped popularize the art form there. In the words of the New York Time Book Review, “Naguib Mahfouz virtually invented the novel as an Arab form.”

So, yeah, Mahfouz is a big deal. But enough about the man. Let’s talk about the book.

Midaq Alley is an ensemble story that focuses on the denizens of an alley in Cairo during World War II. Mahfouz juggles so many characters that he’s still introducing them for the first third of the book.

The alley houses more than a dozen characters who each receive their own narrative, however brief. (In that way, it sounds similar to Kent Meyers’s Twisted Tree; but it reminds me of Hey Arnold! with its attention to a neighborhood’s quirky inhabitants.)

With as few words as possible, Mahfouz gives each person a story and characteristics that differentiate him or her from the others.

You have Zaita the cripple-maker, which sounds like a nasty job, but he’s more of a theater coach than an orphan hobbler. He teaches beggars how to maximize their begging by faking an infirmity.

There’s Sheikh Darwish — a former English professor who forsook academic life to wander the street and offer unsolicited advice.

However, the main plot focuses on Abbas, an easily manipulated barber, who falls for Hamida. Hamida has an ego and temper to match her beauty. Meanwhile, Salim Alwan, the neighborhood mogul, also has an eye for her even though he is already married.

Stories dance along the periphery, none overstaying their welcome. Saniya Afify, a local landlord, wants to get married again even though she’s older than 50. She contracts with the local matchmaker, who intends to milk Afify for her last banknote. Kirsha, the cafe owner, and his wife keep arguing. Apparently, Kirsha has two addictions. His wife can forgive the hashish, but he needs to leave them young boys alone.

Sometimes, I’d lose track of a character but Mahfouz would gently remind me who was who with a few paragraphs.

The narrative maneuvers through some important subjects — love, death, money, politics — but doesn’t become mired in any of them. Mahfouz camouflages all the heaviness with a light hand and subtle humor. Someone could die and it would just be the evening’s gossip in Midaq Alley.

It’s humbling that I can read as much as I do, write for a literature blog and still know nothing about an author as talented and important as Mahfouz.

But neither you nor I have an excuse anymore. Find some Mahfouz, read it, and, then, let me borrow it.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. When I buy a round of shots (almost never,) I like to toast with a line from Dubliners.

“I wish you and yours every joy in life, and tons of money, and may you never die till I shoot you.”

Midaq Alley gave me a new toast.

“Life is much more bitter than this drink and its effects far worse.”

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