I generally avoid fiction and know very little about modern literature in the region, but I found this book by Naguib Mahfouz immensely appealing. The setting is Cairo, specifically a small neighbourhood in the old city during WWII. Every character is vaguely reprehensible yet interesting in terms of motivations and appetites. My favourite portrayal is Hamida, because in a bizarre way she reminds me of myself (don't judge, we are all narcissists). It's not often that I can relate to female characters in fiction, usually they're simpering, maudlin, 2-dimensional caricatures, but Hamida has a very unusual temperament, especially when one considers the setting. She is beautiful (and knows it), fickle, aggressive and bent on an existence that is something more extraordinary than an unrewarding life in Midaq Alley. However, she's not entirely sure what she wants, or how to achieve it within acceptable social boundaries. Her willingness to marry and have children is based entirely on the potential for increased status, so she is quite cavalier with prospective suitors.
Here is one of my favourite passages, when Hamida meets her "match" - a devastatingly handsome man with an insolent smile:
"Hello hello," he said in a deep voice. "I almost went crazy yesterday. I couldn't run after you because of what people would think. Day after day I have waited for you to come out, and when the chance came without my being able to take it, I almost went mad."
All this time he looked at her tenderly with no trace of the expression that had enraged her. There was no hint of challenge or victory; instead his words were more like a lover's lament. What could she possibly do now? Should she ignore him and walk faster and thus perhaps end the whole affair? She could do this so easily but she got no encouragement from her heart. It was as though she had been waiting for this meeting since that first day she saw him. Now her feelings were of a woman quite sure of herself.
As for the man, he played his part skillfully, weaving his words in a clever fashion. Fear had not deterred him the previous day. His instinct and experience told him the time was not right for pursuit, just as today he knew that tenderness and humility were his best weapons.
"Slow down a little," he said, coming abreast of her. "I've something to..."
"How dare you speak to me? You don't know me!" Her voice was shrill and angry now.
"We're old friends...These past few days I've seen you more than your neighbours have in years [through her ornate window shutters]. I've thought more about you, more than those closest to you ever could. How can you say I don't know you?"
He spoke calmly and without hesitation. She listened carefully, doing her best to remember every word. Taking care to conceal the natural harshness in her voice, she now spoke in a modulated tone: "Why are you following me?"
"Why am I following you?" he asked in mock surprise. "Why do I neglect my business and sit in the cafe looking up at your window? Why have I given up my whole world and gone to live at Midaq Alley? And why have I waited for so long?"
"I didn't ask you so you could answer with those stupid questions," she snapped. "I just don't like you following me and talking to me."
"Didn't you know that men follow beautiful women wherever they are? This is a basic principle of life. If a girl like you were not followed, then there's something wrong with the world; it would mean that the day of resurrection were indeed near."
At that she turned into an alley where her friends lived. She hoped that they might see her being courted by this handsome man in a European suit. She could see the mosque square looming ahead in the distance:
"Go away," she said. "People know me here."
His gaze fixed on her told him she was enjoying every minute of this intrigue. A smile crossed his lips, which, had she seen it, would have kindled her fighting spirit.
"But this isn't your quarter, nor are these people relatives of yours. You are completely different. You don't belong here at all."
His words pleased her more than anything anyone had ever said to her. He continued to speak: "How can you live among these people? Who are they compared to you? You are a princess in a shabby cloak, while these peasants strut in their new finery..."
"What's it to do with you? Go away." she said angrily.
"I will never go away."
"What do you want?" she asked.
With extraordinary audacity, he answered, "I want you, nothing but you." This directness almost made her stumble.
"I wish you were dead," she blurted out.
"God forgive you. Why are you so angry? Aren't you on this earth to be taken? And I'm just the one to take you."
They passed several shops on their way when suddenly she turned to him and shouted, "Don't take another step. If you do..."
"You'll hit me?" he asked, with that sardonic smile.
"Indeed I will."
"We'll see. Now I must leave you, but I'll wait for you every day. I won't return to the cafe, so no one will be suspicious. But I'll wait for you every single day...every day. God be with you then. You're the loveliest creature God ever created."
She continued on her way in a trancelike state of ecstasy. "You are different." Yes, and what else had he said? "You don't belong here...Aren't you on this earth to be taken?...And I'm just the one to take you." And then he had asked, "You'll hit me?" She hurried along scarcely aware of anything about her. When she reached her room she came to her senses a bit. She asked herself how she could talk to a strange man without feeling the slightest shame. Yes, she had done just as she pleased. She laughed out loud. Then she recalled how she had wanted to dig her fingernails in his neck, and felt sad for a moment. She made excuses to herself that he had spoken to her most politely, even showing more than common courtesy. Yet she sensed he was really a tiger waiting to pounce. She determined to withhold judgement till he revealed his true self. And then? How sorry she'd make him!
I won't spoil the ending, of course.
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