Excerpt from Midaq Alley
by Naguib Mahfouz
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? That of the Fatimids, the Mamlukes or the Sultans? Only God and the archaeologists know the answer to that, but in any case, the alley is certainly an ancient relic and a precious one. How could it be otherwise with its stone-paved surface leading directly to the historic Sanadiqiya Street. And then there is its coffeeshop known as “Kirsha’s”. Its walls decorated with multicolored arabesques, now crumbling, give off strong odors from the medicines of olden times, smells which have now become the spices and folk-cures of today and tomorrow …
Although Midaq Alley 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.
The sun began to set and Midaq Alley was veiled in the brown hues of the glow. The darkness was all the greater because it was enclosed like a trap between three walls. It rose unevenly from Sanadiqiya Street. One of its sides consisted of a shop, a café and a bakery, the other of another shop and an office. It ends abruptly, just as its ancient glory did, with two adjoining houses, each of three storeys.
The noises of daytime life had quieted now and those of the evening began to be heard, a whisper here and a whisper there: “Good evening, everyone.” “Come on in; it’s time for the evening get-together.” “Wake up, Uncle Kamil and close your shop!” “Change the water in the hookah, Sanker!” “Put out the oven, Jaada!” “This hashish hurts my chest.” “If we’ve been suffering terrors of blackouts and air-raids for five years it’s only due to our own wickedness!”
Two shops, however, Uncle Kamil’s, the sweets seller to the right of the alley entrance and the barber’s shop on the left, remain open until shortly after sunset. It is Uncle Kamil’s habit, even his right, to place a chair on the threshold of his shop and drop off to sleep with a fly-whisk resting in his lap. He will remain there until customers either call out to him or Abbas the barber teasingly wakes him. He is 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 seems scarcely to have any neck at all. Between his shoulders lies his rounded face, so puffed and blood-flecked that his breathing makes its furrows disappear. Consequently, scarcely a single line can be seen on the surface and he seems to have neither nose nor eyes. His head topping all this is small, bald and no different in color from his pale yet florid skin. He is always panting and out of breath, as if he has just run a race, and he can scarcely complete the sale of a sweet before he is overcome by a desire for sleep. People are always telling him he will die suddenly because of the masses of fat pressing round his heart. He always agrees with them. But how will death harm him when his life is merely a prolonged sleep?
The barber’s shop, although small, is considered in the alley to be rather special. It has a mirror and an armchair, as well as the usual instruments of a barber. The barber is a man of medium height, pallid complexion and slightly heavy build. His eyes project slightly and his wavy hair is yellowish, despite the brown color of his skin. He wears a suit and never goes without an apron; perhaps in imitation of more fashionable hairdressers.
These two individuals remain in their shops while the large company office next to the barber closes its doors and its employees go home. The last to leave is its owner, Salim Alwan. He struts off, dressed in his flowing robe and cloak and goes to the carriage waiting for him at the street’s entrance. He climbs in sedately and fills the seat with his well-built person, his large Circassian moustaches standing out before him. The driver kicks the bell with his foot and it rings out loudly. The carriage, drawn by one horse, moves off towards Ghouriya on its way to Hilmiya.
The two houses at the end of the street have closed their shutters against the cold, and lantern-light shines through their cracks. Midaq Alley would be completely silent now, were it not for Kirsha’s coffeeshop; light streaming from its electric lamps, their wires covered with flies.
The café is beginning to fill with customers. It is a square room, somewhat dilapidated. However, in spite of its dinginess, 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. In the café entrance a workman is setting up a second-hand radio on a wall. A few men are scattered about on the couches smoking and drinking tea.
Not far from the entrance, on a couch, sits a man in his fifties dressed in a cloak with sleeves, wearing a necktie usually worn by those who affect Western dress. On his nose perches a pair of expensive-looking gold-rimmed spectacles. He has removed his wooden sandals and left them lying near his feet. He sits as stiffly as a statue, as silent as a corpse. He looks neither to the right nor to the left, as though lost in a world all his own.
A senile old man is now approaching the café. He is so old that the passing of time has left him with not a single sound limb. A boy leads him by his left hand and under his right arm he carries a two-stringed fiddle and a book. The old man greets all those present and makes his way to the couch in the middle of the room. He climbs up with the help of the boy, who sits beside him. He places the instrument and the book between them and looks hard into the faces of the men present, as though searching for their reaction to his coming there. His dull and inflamed eyes, filled with expectation and apprehension, settle on the café’s young waiter, Sanker. Having sat patiently waiting for some time and having observed the youth’s studied disregard for himself, he breaks his silence, saying thickly:
Excerpt from Midaq Alley selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy
Translated by Trevor Le Gassick
Copyright © 1947 by Naguib Mahfouz
First published in Arabic as Zuqaq al-Midaq
This English translation was first published by the American University in Cairo Press in 1966.
Copyright © 1966, 1975 by Naguib Mahfouz and Trevor Le Gassick
Reprinted by arrangement with the American University in Cairo Press.
See them all presented here.