". . . It continued, as was its custom, to weep in the morning when there was material for tears and resound with laughter in the evening. And in the time between, doors and windows would creak as they were opened and then creak again as they were closed." (284-285)
Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988. He is best known for his novels about the evolution of modern Egyptian society. Mahfouz's early exposure to Western literature influenced his innovative development of both the Arabic novel and colloquial Arabic prose. Another inspiration was his lifelong interest in democratic politics and social justice.
Zuqāq al-Midaq (Midaq Alley, translated by Trevor Le Gassick) was published in 1966. It follows the lives of various characters who live and work in the eponymous Cairo alley. Kirsha the café owner is a gay drug addict. Husniya the bakeress routinely beats her husband Jaada with her slipper. Uncle Kamil the good-natured sweets seller is fat and sleepy. Salim Alwan is a wealthy businessman embittered by a heart attack. Zaita is a sadistic cripple-maker held in fear and esteem by professional beggars. Sheikh Darwish is a half-mad former English teacher who left his job after a demotion to roam the streets. Saniya Afify is a middle-aged landlady looking to remarry after years of independence. Dr. Booshy is a self-proclaimed dentist with a shady background. Hamida is a beautiful but selfish (and not to mention sociopathic) young woman obsessed with riches and Abbas the barber is the poor sap in love with her. And so forth. With World War II raging in Europe, Abbas and his friend Hussain Kirsha have left Midaq Alley to work for the British.
That's basically the whole plot right there: the interactions of various over-the-top personalities in a timeless locale only now starting to show the tremors of the twentieth century. The denizens of Midaq Alley are generally apathetic towards politics, viewing the whole matter as little more than a spectacle, and therefore lack any recognition of the social forces at play in their lives. Everything is up to fate and the will of God. Midaq Alley is very much a surface novel where things are as they are, arranged in place by a higher being (whether that's God or Mahfouz himself in the metafictional sense). Unfortunately, this also means that the story is bogged down by the same issues that plagued the Cairo Trilogy. It's exposition overkill and the inability to follow the "show, don't tell" rule which should be engraved on a plaque above every writer's desk.
Now I'm told that Mahfouz's original Arabic is renowned for its eloquence and how it captures everyday speech. Alas, this rarely seems to come through in translation. (And Midaq Alley and the Cairo Trilogy both had different translators.) "Arabic is, of course, a language far different in syntax and sounds from English and gives expression to highly distinctive people and a complex culture," Le Gassick says in his introduction, going on to explain how this leaves the translator with almost too much flexibility with regards to vocabulary and arrangement. "The present translation offers an approximation of how Mahfouz might have expressed himself had English been his native tongue" (xi). The situation is not entirely hopeless, however. I still do recommend the scenic, sporty Miramar, which either had a superior translator or was the product of a good day for Mahfouz. Oh, the travails of the monolingual bibliophile.