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Social and Cultural Constraints in Midaq Alley

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In the novel Midaq Alley, author Naguib Mahfouz depicts a poorer middle eastern alley. This measly Alley doesn’t act only as a physical barrier, but a societal one as well. Midaq Alley is shielded from the rest of the world, and has little outside influence. As a result, many of its inhabitants have become very set in Midaq Alley’s conditions and social traditions, and subsequently, have become very troubled. These traditions conflict with the very ambitious modern young adults growing in the Alley. However, as their Mahfouz tells their tragic stories, it seems as if the young characters can not overcome the Alley’s limits. The traditional society confines the youth which creates more broken people.

The conservative gender roles force Hamida to manipulate others to achieve her goals. Overall, her ultimate goal is to achieve wealth. Far from the normal girl her age, she did not look forward to getting married and having a life consisting of “sweeping, cooking, washing, and feeding children to look forward to, but instead was called the “ambitious girl” of the Alley (21). She dreamt of obtaining material things beyond her means, arguing, “What the point of living was if one can’t have new clothes?”, placing even luxury over the necessities when she is impoverished. However, despite all her yearning, she understands that to become wealthy, she must marry a wealthy man, who she then tries to pursue for the rest of the novel. However, because she is limited by her partner, she realizes that she may be subject to a husband that does not match her ambition or her love of money. She sees this in her first suitor Abbas, as she said she “dreamed of a husband like the rich contractor her neighbor had married”. She sees Abbas and is disappointed, she is only attracted because “his passionate glances pleased her”. Hamida sees someone whose loyalty she can exploit and use for her own benefit. Later in the novel, Hamida resorts to manipulation to coerce Abbas when she says that “He had fallen into her trap even faster than she had hoped”. While Hamida is not blameless in this behavior, the gender restrictions that don’t allow her to alleviate her own poverty, and follow her own ambition is motivation for her to continue being deceitful (23).

The lack of resources in Midaq Alley leads to Hussain’s frivolous chase for fame and his subsequent loss of it. Hussain was driven by grandeur and importance, and he is first described as a man who finds his worth in being a British soldier, a much higher paying job than anything available in Midaq Alley. When talking to Abbas, about the army he explained that he saw war “as a blessing” and “sent by God”, which demonstrates how deeply his character wants to live above the standards set for him. He uses this money to live lavishly and impress friends, as made apparent by his nickname: “Hussain Kirsha the Large”. Hussain’s frivolous spending seems to be in spite of his poverty growing up in the area, which he describes as a “filthy Alley” (19). Due to this reckless mindset, most of his self-worth is tied to his enrollment in the British Army. Explaining life in the military Hussain Kirsha states:

“Hussain Kirsha, in his usual prattling manner, began telling the barber about life in the depot, about the workers, their good wages, the thefts, about his adventures with the British, and the affection and admiration the soldiers showed him. Corporal Julian,” he related proudly, “once told me that the only difference between me and the British is that of color. He tells me to be careful with my money, but an arm” (and here he waved wildly) “which can make money during the war can make double that in times of peace. When do you think the war will be over? Don’t let the Italian defeat fool you, they didn’t matter anyway. Hitler will fight for twenty years! Corporal Julian is impressed with my bravery and has a blind faith in me. He trusts me so much that he has let me in on his big trade in tobacco, cigarettes, chocolate, knives, bedcovers, socks, and shoes! Nice, isn’t it?” (19)

This passage demonstrates Hussain Kirsha’s insecurity, as he gets excited at a passive attempt to create and unequal relationship with his superior, when the joke is a slightly derogatory joke directed towards him! Hussain needs the British Army enrollment so he can come back and tell stories to his peers in the Midaq Alley, whom he holds in no esteem, but whose attention he enjoys. This passage also demonstrates how permanent Hussain expects this job to be. His mention of an unstoppable Hitler shows how he expects continued employment, and how he expected this lifestyle to continue.

However, Hussain is unpleasantly surprised when the war ends and he is surprise about “how the war could have ended so quickly” and how he returned to the Alley “as penniless as he had left” (126). His original lack of material things led to a reckless ambition, which led him to spend unwisely.

The continuous limitations within the Alley create the broken people that make up the broken society. The same barriers that blocked Hamida and Hussain, have plagued Midaq Alley for generations. Ms. Afify is an example of how gender roles confine women to have to yearn for something. Even as a wealthy business women, she was not complete until she could marry. The lowered expectations create these niche roles that benefit the community, but are devious in nature. People like the predatory Mr. Kirsha and the sociopath Zaita are in high demand, and their niches within the Alley allows them to continually abuse the other inhabitants. The broken dreams, tortured people, and depraved characters create a cycle. As the youth grow and can’t progress, they feel trapped and gain vices, which leads to other behavior and psychological issues.

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Social and Cultural Constraints in Midaq Alley. (2018, April 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from
“Social and Cultural Constraints in Midaq Alley.” GradesFixer, 15 Apr. 2018,
Social and Cultural Constraints in Midaq Alley. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 18 Jan. 2022].
Social and Cultural Constraints in Midaq Alley [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2018 Apr 15 [cited 2022 Jan 18]. Available from:
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