How I Met Mahfouz: Down ‘Midaq Alley’ in ’77

I don't particularly favor any of the Midaq Alley covers. This is a poster for one of the film adaptations.

You can read more from writer, reader, farmer, blogger Maryanne Stroud Gabbani at her blog, Living in Egypt. On her relationship with Mahfouz:

I’ve been a bookworm since the day I learned to read and one of my fondest memories is the discovery of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter as a teenager while recovering from a bad fall from a horse when I was about 13 or so. I can’t remember anything about the fall or the two weeks I had to stay at home resting other than reading all three volumes of that book. I studied Spanish throughout high school and university and became quite enamoured of Spanish literature in Spanish and in translation. My interest in non-English writers was set quite early.

I met my late husband while we were graduate students in Canada, and I realised the very first evening that we became acquainted that my concept of Egyptians essentially ended with the death of Cleopatra. Like most people imagined, Egyptians walked sideways and wore little skirts and not much else, but that didn’t exactly describe my new acquaintance. Within a year the relationship was a great deal more serious and in the late spring of 1977 I made my first trip to Egypt to see his country and meet his family. I was utterly enchanted by Egypt, although Egypt in 1977 was a most inconvenient country. Phones were rare or nonexistent, Cairo had just gotten its first traffic lights (drivers had no comprehension of what they were or how they worked…it’s still questionable whether they do), but the country was opening up under Sadat. My bookworm nature pulled me into any bookstores that we found, most of them in hotels at that point. One of the first books I found was Naguib Mahfouz’ Midaq Alley and I dove into it with a will, emerging for breath only occasionally. I think if it hadn’t been Mahfouz, my husband would have taken my concentration amiss but he was really intrigued by my complete absorption. It was, without question, one of the most important books I’d ever read at that time.

My husband’s family was an upper middle class family much like my own in North America, but unlike in North America, it was wildly apparent to me wandering around Egypt that spring that Egypt was much more than the urban middle class families I was meeting, and that I had little or no idea of what life was for these people. Midaq Alley opened a door that eventually led me to my current home in the villages outside of Giza. Mahfouz was writing about an Egypt that was an adjunct to the Egypt that I was seeing at antiquities sites and family dinners. When I asked my husband about the enormous divides in Egyptian society, he told me that Egypt was almost not one country but rather about a dozen different countries living in one place. Mahfouz was a passport to some of these other Egypts. I suspect that my husband’s assessment of the diversity of Egypt is still true to some extent, but I know he would have been delighted with the unity of purpose shown by all Egyptians last winter.

Before I left Egypt on my first visit, I found copies of Miramar and The Thief and The Dogs, both of which were snatched up. When I returned to Toronto, I passed the books around to all of my friends telling them that it was essential to read Mahfouz; he simply couldn’t be missed. Subsequent trips to Egypt garnered more of his books and replacements for the ones that lost their way home in Canada. One one trip I even found a copy of The Children of Gebelawi in the old Meridien Hotel in Garden City, a volume that my husband promptly seized to read, since it was still banned in Egypt and while he’d heard about it, he’d never read it.

Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature just months after our family had moved to Alexandria and I cheered so loudly that my friends in Canada sent me letters and cards acknowledging the fact that I’d been claiming that he deserved it for years. It was during our stay in Alexandria, just before we moved south to Cairo, that the AUC Press came out with a publication of his Cairo Trilogy and a close friend of mine bought me the books as they came out and had them autographed by Mahfouz. Our family was ordered that if the house was to burn down, those books had to be among the first things out the door! Later, as students at the American school in Maadi, my son and daughter studied his work and became firm fans, and our collection grew. At this point I have a copy of almost every book that’s been translated into English and I’m quick to offer them to visitors to my farm.

I feel as though in finding that copy of Midaq Alley so many years ago, I acquired not just a book, but a living guide to Egypt in the person of its author. He opened the diversity of this lovely country to my eyes and gave me the interest to explore beyond my immediate surroundings. Bless you, Naguib Mahfouz.