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This is the story of a bustling back alley in the heart of Cairo in the 1940s, the attempt of some of the younger residents to work their way out of it and the lives of those left behind. Hamida, the beautiful foster daughter of a matchmaker, believes that her destiny is to be rich and have everything that she needs to hand. Abbas, the young barber, who falls in love with her goes to work for the British Army in order to earn enough money to marry her. Hussain, already addicted to the good life by the wage that he earns grows to despise his family and neighbours.
Of those left behind, Kirsha, the local café owner, constantly embarrasses his wife with his homosexual affairs. Zaita, who turns able-bodied men into cripples so that they can earn more by begging, also steals the gold teeth from corpses. And the rich, but old, Salim Alwan decides to replace his wife with a younger model. All have the same aim; to improve their lifestyles. But will they all be successful?
Having already read and loved The Cairo Trilogy, a set of three books describing the lives of an Egyptian family over different generations, I had no hesitation is picking this book up, particularly as many claim it is Mahfouz best book. I know very little about Middle Eastern literature in general, although I have recently made an effort to correct this. However, with an author with writing skills such as this ones, there is no need to be concerned about finding the story difficult to understand in any way. Although not a long book, the characters are described in such a way that they are universally recognisable. The precociousness of Hamida, for example, is so vivid that I really felt as if I knew her, even though she is struggling with issues I have never faced and is living in a society in which I have never lived.
Another factor that I think makes this book so easy to read is that it could be set in any period of time. Had I not read in an article that the book was set in the 1940s, I would never have known although, of course, this could be down to my ignorance of most things Middle Eastern. At the same time though, the author does not neglect his own culture and we are introduced to many of the customs, food and general issues that affect the inhabitants of the alley. The universal appeal of the book is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that a Mexican film of the book was made in 1994, starring Salma Hayek. As an author, Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.
In comparison to The Cairo Trilogy, the only thing I would criticise about this book is that the reader doesnt really get to know any of the characters in any great depth. The characters are exceptionally colourful, but the book does jump around from character to character. This gave a great flavour of the inhabitants of the alley as a whole, but I felt slightly disappointed that I didnt get under the skin of any of the characters. I remember crying my eyes out at the death of one of the characters in The Cairo Trilogy; I simply didnt feel that I knew any of the characters well enough to do so with this one.
There is quite a lot of humour in the book. Some of the descriptions of the rows between the men and women, usually ending with the woman emerging as the victor, are really funny. However, the authors pride of his own country, warts and all, shines through very strongly and at no time did I feel that he was looking down his nose at his fellow people. In fact, there is a nice balance between making it clear that much needs to be done to develop Egypt, while at the same time, showing that sometimes we should just be content with what we have.
The writing style is very descriptive and peppered with conversation rather than long pages of prose. It is perhaps this that makes this book so timeless. There is no room for long descriptions of the reasoning behind peoples actions; it is just about the actions themselves. It is definitely this trait that makes the book so readable.
Although I have to admit that I prefer The Cairo Trilogy, I still highly recommend this book. It really is a class above the type of book I usually read. If you never read another book by a Middle Eastern author, then at least give this a go.
The book is available from Amazon.com for £6.59. Published by Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, it has 304 pages. ISBN-10: 0385264763
Tells stories of the residents of a Cairo back alley, including those of Kirsha, a cafe owner, Abbas, a barber, and Hamida, a young woman.