The theme of "Midaq Alley" cuts to the heart of Arab society. Namely, it shows how a group of characters living in the same slum neighborhood responds to the combined promise and threat of Western-influenced modernization. Midaq Alley is about the Egyptian residents of a hustling, packed back alley in Cairo in the 1940's. The attempts of several residents to escape the alley and move up in status end with dreams broken and unfulfilled. The opening sentences of "Midaq Alley" points to a world bypassed by history: "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?" (Mahfouz 1). The book captures a great slice of life in the Cairo of the first half of this century. The novel does not describes the city, but in offers an insight into its culture, and into the profound social changes that took place during the 20th century.
In short order, we are plunged into the reality of Kirsha's coffee shop, where antiquity is being assaulted in all directions. When a "senile old man" begins to play his two-stringed fiddle in accompaniment to a "prayer for the prophet," he is shouted down by the proprietor: "Are you going to force your recitations on us? That's the end -- the end! Didn't I warn you last week?" (Mahfouz 5). Kirsha tells the old poet-singer that he has been bypassed by history. "We know all the stories you tell by heart and we don't need to run through them again. People today don't want a poet. They keep asking me for a radio and there's one over there being installed now. So go away and leave us alone and may God provide for you." (Mahfouz 6). From the very beginning of the book it is know that everything is changing. The poet no longer has a place to speak, because the newer generation of men does not want to hear a poet, they will rather hear someone speak from a box. During this...
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