Is It Possible to Sympathise with Hamida's Character in Midaq Alley?
English and Literature
Submitted By Salma77
‘[They] took the whore for first-aid treatment’ are the character Hussain Kirha’s last words about Hamida, which depicts the dismissiveness and aversion by which several of the novel’s characters view Hamida at the novel’s end. One therefore asks: Is this how Mahfouz wants his readers to view Hamida at the novel’s end? Despite the greedy ambition that characterises the pretty alley girl who resents the restricted life that her Midaq Alley environment has to offer her, this essay seeks to show that although Mahfouz offers an off-putting representation of Hamida, it is still possible that she deserves our sympathy as much as our disapproval.
In Chapter 5 we witness Hamida’ s daily promenade from Sanadiqiya to Mousky Street where the alley women’s hatred of Hamida is revealed in their conviction that she is ‘wild and totally lacking in the virtues of femininity. Mahfouz’s language depicts the women’s perception of Hamida’s behaviour. The adjective ‘unusual’ denotes Hamida’s singular attitude regarding how she wishes to lead her life, while the adjective ‘wild’ and the adverb ‘totally’ hyperbolise Hamida’s rebellious behaviour. One of the alley women even hoped ‘to God to see her a mother too, suckling children under the care of a tyrannical husband who beat her unmercifully! ‘ The adjective ‘tyrannical’ and the adverb ‘unmercifully’ emphatically outline the cruelly confined future that awaits Hamida should she remain in the alley, and convey how the alley women wish for Hamida the oppressed life-style which they had been forced to experience. The exclamation mark foregrounds the terror that surrounds the prospects of such a future. Therefore, it is possible to empathise with Hamida’s rebelliousness and desire to escape the alley. Mahfouz subtly employs irony here as although Hamida does not experience the oppressive life which the alley women had wished upon her, she is eventually beaten by the pimp Faraj and is forced to join his stable of prostitutes, which allows us to sympathise with her unyielding ambition and unfortunate fate.
During Hamida’s promenade, she encounters the prosperous factory girls from the Darasa district. She ‘gazed searchingly at their faces’ and ’joined their laughter with a false sincerity, all the while envy nibbling at her.’ The verb ‘gazed’ and the adverb ‘searchingly’ convey the sense of an almost innocent and desperate fascination that Hamida feels for these factory girls. The oxymoron ‘false sincerity’ signifies Hamida’s contrived display of laughter in attempt to appear as happy as the factory girls are. However, the latter point is an untruthful reflection of Hamida’s inner-struggle of innate dissatisfaction, which actually prevents her from feeling pleased with her own life. Mahfouz personifies Hamida’s ‘envy’, where the verb ‘nibbling’ is metaphorically suggestive of how envy is taking ‘small bites out of’ Hamida, indicating the persistent nature of Hamida’s resentful longing for a better life and even suggesting that envy seems to be sucking the life out of Hamida. Consequently, it becomes possible to sympathise with Hamida’s perpetual sense of struggle and distress.
In Chapter 10, Mahfouz demonstrates Hamida’s sceptical attitude towards Abbas, the man who wishes to marry her. As Abbas walks to Azhar Street to find Hamida, Mahfouz reveals that Abbas’s love for Hamida consisted of ‘hungry passion’ and that he ‘longed to feel the warmth of her body and experience the magical, mysterious intoxication of her eyes.’ The adjective ‘hungry’ denotes Abbas’s almost animalistic desire to win Hamida over. The prosody of the sentence mentioned above is suggestive of Abbas’s sensual yearning for Hamida, particularly evident through the slow-moving sound of the initial ‘m’ consonance of ‘magical’ and ‘mysterious’. Abbas’s sensual intentions are also candidly foregrounded by his desire to feel ‘the warmth of her body’ as Mahfouz’s language here conveys the sense of sexual intimacy. Therefore, it could be suggested that Hamida partially represents a sexual object to Abbas, so we come to understand her initial intolerance and dismissiveness of him.
Hamida’s coldness towards Abbas is justified by the fact that ‘she was aware of the great gulf between this humble young man and her own greedy ambitions, which could ignite her natural aggressiveness and turn it into uncontrollable savagery and violence.’ The alliteration of ‘great’ and ‘gulf’ heightens the sense of the distance between the reality of Abbas’ situation and the fulfilment of Hamida’s dreams. The ‘savagery’ and ‘violence’ that such a thought could ‘ignite’ in Hamida suggests that her behaviour of primitive animosity arises from her instinctual desire to protect her ambitions from anyone who may hinder their fulfilment.
It is only when Abbas reveals to Hamida that he intends to join the army to make money that Hamida’s opportunistic nature emerges. She saw ‘a gleam of light in the darkness surrounding her, the gleam of glistening gold’. The contrasting images of darkness and light depict Hamida’s strong attraction towards the prospects of a much brighter future. The plosive sound of ‘g’ conveys the hopefulness that has been roused in Hamida by the thought of the wealth Abbas’s money may bring.
In chapter 24 Hamida becomes tormented by conflicting thoughts on the night before she acts upon her decision to escape the alley and enter the luxurious life that the pimp Faraj has offered her. She contemplates ‘how long she had suffocated in that house and in the alley!’ Mahfouz’s use of the verb ‘suffocated’ hyperbolically expresses Hamida’s life-long repression in the alley and the exclamation mark foregrounds Hamida’s consequent eruption of frustration and rage. Hamida asks herself if there was ‘any other way of slipping the noose of the past except with this man who had lighted such a fire within her?’ Once again the feelings of suffocation that Hamida has experienced in the alley are reinforced by the metaphor ‘noose’. The rhetorical nature of this question is charged with irony; Hamida is unaware of the dark fate that she is yet to meet as a prostitute, which highlights her innocence and naivety. Mahfouz utilises the metaphor of ‘fire’ in order to convey the blinding and burning desire that the false promise of the future has ignited in Hamida. Therefore, the portrayal of Hamida’s character is tinged with the sense of a tragedy, as only the reader is aware of how she is being betrayed both by her blinding ambition and by Ibrahim Faraj, therefore inducing sympathy for Hamida’s situation. However, thoughts of Hamida’s loving foster mother, whom Hamida had loved as well, do manage to hinder Hamida’s determination to escape the alley. Mahfouz reveals that ‘it was as if these feelings of affection were hidden deeply within her and only now beginning to move.’ Mahfouz’s choice of language uncovers an underlying aspect of Hamida’s character as he indicates that Hamida does possess qualities of tenderness and compassion. Yet the use of the adverb ‘deeply’ demonstrates how those qualities are not the dominant characteristics of Hamida and are buried beneath her ambitions for leading a life of wealth. By metaphorically describing Hamida’s affectionate feeling as ‘only now beginning to move’, Mahfouz suggests that although a softer side of Hamida has been provoked by the prospects of escaping the alley, it is now too late and will not stop her from pursuing her desired future.
In chapter 26 where Hamida had escaped the alley and joined Ibrahim Faraj’s stable of prostitutes, she realised that ‘retreat was impossible and that the past was completely erased. She was resigned to her fate; nevertheless, she wondered where happiness lay.’ The sense of finality established by Mahfouz’s choice of word collocation, such as ‘resigned’ and ‘erased’, suggests that although Hamida is no longer confined to the alley, she is, however, confined to her new life as a prostitute. The fatalistic approach that Hamida adopts, as also suggested by this word collocation, indicates that she has come to accept her fate as a prostitute. Consequently, we can empathise with Hamida’s sense of lack of fulfilment: her rebellious spirit has been defeated and her ambition has dwindled. However, later in Chapter 31, when Hamida gained popularity and experience in the prostitution business, ‘she had justified her lover’s comment that she was a whore by instinct.’ What Mahfouz is suggesting here is that Hamida is not simply a victim of circumstance, but that her fate as a prostitute was also determined by her own vocational desire to lead such a life.
In conclusion, our ability to sympathise with Hamida is more accurately a combination of sympathy and empathy. Mahfouz allows us to empathise with Hamida’s refusal to lead a life of mundane poverty or to fulfil the wife’s role of Abbas’s s sexual desires. We sympathise with her intense inner-conflict, which she outwardly expresses in the form of aggressiveness and bitterness, and can even appreciate her determination and lack of despair regarding the fulfilment of her dreams. Despite her blinding desire for money and prestige which have essentially led her nowhere, as readers, we are still left with a resonating sense of sympathy for her disconcerting fate and for the termination of her hopeful and ambitious spirit.
* MAHFOUZ, N. Midaq Alley. Cairo: The American University in Cairo press. * OXFORD DICTIONARIES. [Online]. Available from: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/nibble. [Accessed: 17th September 2014]
[ 1 ]. MAHFOUZ, N. Midaq Alley. Cairo: The American University in Cairo press. p. 283.
[ 2 ]. ibid, p.40.
[ 3 ]. ibid p. 40.
[ 4 ]. ibid p. 40.
[ 5 ]. ibid, p.41.
[ 6 ]. OXFORD DICTIONARIES. [Online]. Available from: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/nibble. [Accessed: 17th September 2014]
[ 7 ]. MAHFOUZ, N. Midaq Alley. Cairo: The American University in Cairo press. p. 81.
[ 8 ]. ibid
[ 9 ]. ibid, p. 82.
[ 10 ]. ibid, p. 86.
[ 11 ]. , MAHFOUZ, N. Midaq Alley. Cairo: The American University in Cairo press. p. 87.
[ 12 ]. ibid, pp. 200-201.
[ 13 ]. ibid, p. 201.
[ 14 ]. ibid
[ 15 ]. ibid, p. 219.
[ 16 ]. MAHFOUZ, N. Midaq Alley. Cairo: The American University in Cairo press, p. 255.