By Elizabeth Lepro
“Many things combine to show that Midaq Alley is one of the gems of times gone by and that it once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. Which Cairo do I mean?” writes Naguib Mahfouz in the opening lines of his 1947 novel named for its setting.
That question — Which Cairo? — may be the central consideration for students who take AUC’s new class, The World of Mahfouz, a 300-level course offered in the spring and designed by Dina Heshmat, associate professor of Arabic literature in the Department of Arab and Islamic Civilizations.
Throughout his life, Mahfouz penned 36 novels, 25 screenplays and 15 short story collections, along with several short fictions based on his dreams, according to AUC Press. The World of Mahfouz syllabus includes the novels Midaq Alley, Palace Walk and The Thief and the Dogs, but it likely won AUC’s Core Curriculum Course Competition in Fall 2022 for its multidisciplinary approach.
In addition to reading source materials, students in the course also watch Hassan Al-Imam’s film adaptation of Midaq Alley and the TV series Bayn al-Qasrayn as well as hear guest lectures from history and film studies scholars.
“I have quite a long relationship with his literary universe,” said Heshmat, who analyzed Midaq Alley for her PhD and has previously taught a freshman-level course on the author called Reading Mahfouz. “It was interesting to put together a course about him because he is so important in Egyptian and Arabic literature, and many of his works have been living on in Egyptian and Arabic culture through film.”
Through various media, the course explores the author’s vast array of work in terms of its influence on film, TV and literature, but also on Cairo itself — the way that Mahfouz was able to depict the physical, social, political and economic dynamics of the city and its people. That opens up opportunities for AUC students to have wide-reaching discussions about society.
Weaving Past and Present
Though Midaq Alley revolves around the residents of a single street in Cairo in the 1940s, the students making their way through the novel’s English translation by Humphrey Davies during the spring semester were keenly aware of its broader relevance.
“We were talking about the syntax and writing style of Mahfouz, how he created symbols for the characters and how these characters have an origin in our society,” said economics sophomore Sohayla Eid. “Not society back then only — you’ll find these characters here in modern life.”
To discuss “the world of Naguib Mahfouz” is to consider the interplay of multiple worlds: the old and new, rich and poor, East and West, religious and secular, cultural and institutional, home and alleyway, the city and the world.
Midaq Alley is full of characters who struggle with the friction between their personal desires and ambitions and the binds of societal norms. A well- respected dentist turns to thievery in order to provide his services at a low cost, a young woman who dreams of being rich and liberated becomes a prostitute, a young man who has no desire to leave the alley does so in order to impress the woman he loves.
Given the dichotomies Mahfouz’s characters struggle with, it’s easy to see why author Elif Shafak implied that Mahfouz himself was “a writer torn.” Despite the black-and-white nature of moral codes, “Mahfouz’s Cairo was a fluid world,” wrote Shafak. Though the characters are symbolic, they aren’t fixed.
In other words, as the students studying the novel noted, they’re real.
“We were talking in class about how universal and realistic his characters were,” said Miriam Elsebai, a political science sophomore. “They were neither super evil nor super good. There are always these contradictions that represent reality. It’s a clear mirror reflection of society nowadays.”
Midaq Alley, a book written more than 50 years ago, has prompted students to consider modern contradictions. If Mahfouz were alive today, the 20-year- old speculated that he might write about the duality presented by social media and its effects on young people.
“Midaq Alley is not depicting a society that ended; it’s depicting an everlasting struggle,” said Elsebai. “There’s always conflict between people’s moral goals and social laws. No matter how ‘woke’ we are or how much we evolve, one way or another, these struggles will be there.”
The students also drew comparisons between the novel and their own experiences living in the midst of international warfare. Eid pointed out that one of the characters in the book, a businessman, makes money off of the conflict. “I was connecting it to what is happening now, like for example in Egypt, many challenges facing society are a direct result of the Russia-Ukraine war — how the behavior of people is the same and how people are taking advantage of the war and political situation we’re going through,” she said. “So whenever I read Mahfouz, I definitely think of politics.”
The Power of the Pen
Plenty of people think of politics when they think of Mahfouz.
His 1959 novel Children of Gebelawi, or Children of the Alley, which Mahfouz said was inspired by the 1952 Revolution, had to be published abroad because its content was deemed controversial. In 1994, the author was stabbed in the neck by someone believed to be angry about the book’s depiction of Islam (though it’s been reported that the assailant hadn’t read the book).
Mahfouz described himself as becoming the victim of a clash not unlike one he might have written as allegory. “I simply got caught in the middle, in the battle between the system and the Islamists,” he said — another complex struggle with the author at its center.
“Students are often genuinely surprised by how daring he can be in his works, how relevant some of the works are to today’s society.”
As such, the World of Mahfouz course also touches on the author’s life and political involvement. It would be impossible, if not irresponsible, not to.
“His well-known Children of the Alley is an opportunity to open discussions in class about censorship,” Heshmat said. “Students are often genuinely surprised by how daring he can be in his works, how relevant some of the works are to today’s society and how close they sometimes are — obviously not systemically — but how close the ideas, the emotions can be to a more contemporary context.”
After watching a documentary about Mahfouz’s life, the students in the course did note his ability to subtly weave his opinions about politics and society into texts. “He was so politically smart,” said Elsebai, adding that while she doesn’t expect everyone outside the classroom to be well-versed in Mahfouz, she does try to use what she’s learned from him out in the real world.
“Talking about it in class won’t be useful unless we actually use what we learn in our daily lives,” she said. “It’s like we’re integrating these lessons within our social discourse, making conversations about them strong and powerful.”
So Mahfouz’s impact lives on. The Egyptian author’s work becomes another tool in the student arsenal — a way for them to better understand and engage with the complexity of the world around them — as all good literature should.
“To those who disagree with my views,” the author wrote in the dedication for Children of Gebelawi, “I dedicate lines I have written for a society that can only be made better through culture.”
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