Midaq Alley, Chapter 1
Setting: Cairo, Midaq Alley – an alley in the Cairo old quarter. Some time in the first half of the 20th century.
The first thing we learn about Midaq Alley is that it is a relic from the past. It is a “gem of times gone by” and it “once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo” (11). Although it “lives in almost complete isolation from all surrounding activity, it clamors with a distinctive and personal life of its own. Fundamentally and basically, its roots connect with life as a whole and yet, at the same time, it retains a number of the secrets of a world now past” (11).
Thus the alley is in a way connected to both the past and the present. The inhabitants are living in the present, but are part of a world, perhaps a mode of living that belongs to the past.
But this way of living is coming to an end. This end is represented by the nature of the alley itself: It is a dead-end. The alley “ends abruptly, just as its ancient glory did” (12).
Now that the alley has been described as a relic, we meet some of the inhabitants. Uncle Kamil is a sweet seller. He is extremely fat, “a hulk of a man, his cloak revealing legs like tree trunks and his behind large and rounded like the dome of a mosque, its central portion resting on the chair and the remainder spilling over the sides. He has a belly like a barrel, great projecting breasts, and he scarcely seems to have any neck at all” (12). Though people warn him that he is likely to die from his obesity, the narrator wonders, “how will death harm him when his life is merely a prolonged sleep?” (12).
Next we meet Abbas the barber. His shop is small, but “is considered in the alley to be rather special” (12-13). Abbas is of medium height and has a pallid complexion. He “wears a suit and never goes without an apron; perhaps in imitation of more fashionable hairdressers” (13). Abbas is the best friend of Uncle Kamil. He has bought a burial shroud should the large man die.
Salim Alwan is a businessman, though the narrator does not say what kind as of yet. He has office in the alley but seems to live elsewhere. His aristocratic position is given away by “his large Circassian moustaches” (Circassion origins implying aristocratic status in this time in Egyptian society) (13).
“Doctor” Bushi is a dentist, who has no real qualification to practice dentistry. His most often followed method being extraction, usually with considerable blood-loss, but his fees are low, making his service sought after.
Sheikh Darwish is an old poet, musician and storyteller. He practices his arts at Kirsha’s coffeehouse, but they seem to be less in demand since the installation of the new radio. He used to be an English instructor in a religious foundation school. Due to educational reforms, Sheikh Darwish lost his job as a teacher and was demoted to a job in the Ministry of Religious Endowments. He resented the demotion greatly, increasingly becoming an impossible to work with rebel. He eventually tells his supervisor, “I am a messenger to you from God and I bring you a new mission!” (23). Afterward, he became a wondering story-teller/musician/religious figure. He is very much a part of life in the alley. When he is not around, everyone misses him, though the installation of the radio perhaps foreshadows the lessening of his importance.
Kirsha is the owner of the alley’s cafe. He is annoyed with Sheikh Darwish and his insistence on telling stories, insisting that the storyteller has been replaces by the radio and that Sheikh Darwish is ruining his business. Kirsha is a hashish addict.
Radwan Husaini is a deeply devout Muslim. Many in the alley look to him to settle disputes. He owns the building that Kamil, Abbas and Kirsha live in, but he is a compassionate and generous landlord. His is also a Job-like figure, having lost all of his children, but retained his religious faith. As more tragedies strike, his piety has only increased.
Husain Kirsha, son of the cafe owner, is a well dressed young man. He seems to work for the British army, who are occupying Egypt.
Sankir is the waiter in the coffeehouse.
Most of the first chapter is devoted first to describing the alley and some of the characters in it. The alley is representative of society in transition. We see first that it is connected to the outside, or perhaps “modern” world, but rooted in a “traditional” way of life.
Change is also a major theme. The installation of the radio symbolizes and foreshadows changes that are about to happen to this representation of Egyptian society.