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Midaq Alley, a novel written by Mahfouz, tells us the story of different characters living in a poor alley in Egypt during World War II, a time of change for Egypt when under British rule. The reader finds the emphasis on change experienced by the arrival of foreigners to Egypt is best shown by the women in the alley, specifically through the life Hamida, a character who wants to break through the boundaries set by society. Mahfouz shows the change in Midaq Alley through Hamida and her actions by characterization and by contrasting Hamida to others in the alley, usually the older generation. Mahfouz use of Hamida shows change in all aspects of Egyptian life including religion, monetary and traditions.
Mahfouz creates Hamida to be such a rebellious and strong-willed character that he shows the changes and differences between the traditional and the new. Hamida was born in a poor alley in Cairo and has devoted her life towards two objectives, money and freedom. Hamida is a character who will do what she can to better her opportunities to be free from the traditional bonds set by the religious society in which she lives in and to gain more wealth. She has no fear in showing her aggressive behaviour and plans on marrying a successful man who can take her out of the poor alley. Hamida is not afraid to bend cultural traditions if it means making more money as is the case when she becomes a prostitute. Characterization is an important technique used by Mahfouz in his novel. No character stands out as much as Hamida. Mahfouz writes that “when… she set her delicate lips and narrowed her eyes, she could take on an appearance of strength and determination which was most unfeminine.” (24) Gender roles is an important theme in the novel. Females have the traditional roles of housekeeping and taking care of children. However Hamida wants freedom and escape from tradition because of this she is considered unfeminine. Her actions and physical descriptions suggest being unfeminine. Throughout the novel, Mahfouz repeats Hamida’s unfeminine qualities like when he writes “Perhaps the most commonly said thing about her was that she hated children and that this unnatural trait made her wild and lacking in the virtues of femininity.” (40). The reader is shown the contrast between the traditional women, who takes care of children, and Hamida who hates children.
Mahfouz uses characterization of Hamida and dialogue to show change in perception of people in the alley, specifically the contrast between the old and young generations. Hamida is the main character who stands out for her desire to escape tradition and social status. Mahfouz shows through dialogue Hamida’s jealousy of women who are free from traditional bonds. She tells her mother, “You should just see those Jewish girls who go to work. They all go about in nice clothes. Well, what is the point of life then if we can’t wear what we want?” (Mahfouz 27). For Hamida, money and clothing are the most important thing simply because she views it as a form of gaining freedom. Hamida wished the wealthy Sheikh Darwish would be her husband but only because he was wealthy. Hamida asked herself whether “it would be too mean” for Darwish to give her “ten thousand” pounds. Money is clearly the main thought in Hamida’s mind. The thought is not uncommon amongst the younger generations and ambition is a very important theme in the novel that is intertwined with money. Both Hussain and Abbas join the British army for money.
Mahfouz shows Hamida’s yearning for independence through her actions that are considered different to society. Later on in the book, Hamida eventually agrees to marry Abbas, a neighbourhood barber who she really does not care for, but she believes is her way out of her mother’s household. Not only is he poor, he is a failure in Hamida’s eyes. Hamida wanted to break that cycle of sacrificing her own personal happiness, she was already independent by taking walks on her own during a time when Muslim could not do so. She listened to Abbas when he says, “I am going to work for the British Army and I might be as successful as your brother Hussain!” (85) Abbas leaves Midaq Alley to join other local residents enrolling in the British army. Many Egyptians benefited from the war. The presence of troops brought many jobs. Hamida as a result gives Abbas a chance because he could succeed, however, keeps an open eye for other wealthier suitors that could suit her wants.
The author shows us how Hamida deals with tradition and marriage threw characterization and dialogue. Hamida searches for marriage that will bring her wealth. When Abbas promised that he would make money from the army she was more reluctant to accept his proposal. However money is all that Hamida wants and when the wealthy Salim Alwan took interest in Hamida she quickly forgot about accepting Abbas proposal to marriage. Mahfouz shows Hamida forgetting Abbas through imagery of her eyes and heart. “Hamida’s heart beat furiously and her eyes show so that their whites flashed.”(142) Mahfouz description of the heart makes the reader feel Hamida’s thoughts are only in the present and not the past because when the heart beats fast it is usually do to a reaction that presently occurred. Mahfouz also shows Hamida’s blindness when he describes the “whites”(142) of Hamida’s eyes “flashed”(142). Hamida is blinded by greed and she doesn’t care for Abbas. For Hamida, Salim was “at last the man who could give her all the luxury and freedom… she prayed for.” Mahfouz shows through listing and repeating Hamida’s view of marriage. The greedy Hamida believes that marrying a wealthy man would bring her “dignity, beautiful clothes, jewellery, pride, and a whole new world of secure and happy people.” (142). Hamida is willing to break tradition and her marriage to Abbas for the wealthy Salim. The repetition of beautiful clothing and jewellery by Mahfouz, throughout his novel, suggest that Hamida wanting to change since she has ragged clothing. Wearing beautiful clothing to Hamida is a sign of freedom because clothing expresses an individual especially when that individual can chose what to wear. When Umm Hamida asks “Have you forgotten that you are engaged? And that I confirmed it by reading the Qur’an with Abbas?” Hamida “shouted in full, angry scorn, “that barber!”. Mahfouz shows that Hamida does not care for Abbas despite the fact that he truly cares for her. Mahfouz shows the reader that marriage in Egypt is about transactions and gaining money not about true love as it should be. Hamida tells her mother “He must go.” She only wants to succeed in life. Hamida would be violating the Qur’an because she has already committed herself to Abbas. Mahfouz shows the importance of religion in the alley when Umm Hamida tells her daughter that “punishment for violating the Qur’an is harsh” (146). Hamida, a rebellious character, does not allow anything to “interfere with [her] happiness”.
Mahfouz shows through Hamida how the change in society has affected her and others. Hamida’s pimp Ibrahim Faraj advises her how to be more attractive to his clients. She agrees to be called “Titi” from now on, a name that “will amuse Englishmen and Americans and one which their twisted tongues can easily pronounce.” (217) Hamida accepted this change and everything else that goes with it. Mahfouz shows through similie all that Hamida will give up in order to gain money. “She realized that he considered her name, like her old clothes, as something to be discarded and forgotten.” (216) Hamida is willing to give up her own name so she can gain wealth and beautiful clothes. Ibrahim provides his whores with English teachers telling them: “I keep telling them that they can’t learn a language just by memorizing words and phrases.” (221) The fact that the prostitutes need to learn English for their job shows the rise of multiculturalism in the Middle East as foreign languages make their way into society. Eventually when Abbas discovers Hamida with British troops at a local tavern, he allows all the despair he has suffered to explode. He throws an empty beer glasses at her face and the troops murder him. The irony is that Hamida returns to the alley and once again keeps to the original way of life.
To conclude Mahfouz use of Hamida shows change in the alley because Hamida as a character does not follow traditions. She breaks the commitment to Abbas despite confirming with the Qur’an. She is void of feminine features with her violent nature and her greed for wealth. Her need to be free encourages her unfeminine nature and was something common during the 20th century when females had to take up male jobs when the men were fighting in World War II. Females as a result gained more freedom on the global scale just as Hamida wished to gain.
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