Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Midaq Alley by Joseph Massad

Th           The first work of modern Arabic fiction to deal with the question of same-sex desire seriously is Naguib Mahfouz’s Zuqaq al Midaq (Midaq Alley). Published in1947, Midaq Alley is one of the Egyptian novelist’s earlier novels. Set in the early 1940s, while Egypt remained under British colonial rule and the confrontation between the Axis and the Allied powers was approaching at El-Alamein, the novel, a tragicomedy of sorts written in a realist style, opens with a romantic rendition of the history of Midaq Alley:

It is a wonder of epochs past. It soared one day in the history of Cairo like a flashing star. Which Cairo, do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamluks, or the Sultans? Only God and the archeologists know the answer to that, but at any rate, it is a relic, and a precious one at that. How could it be otherwise when its cobblestone road leads directly into Sanadiqiyyah Street? That historic cul-de-sac, and its famous café, known as Kirshah’s Café . . . Although this alley lives in virtual isolation from what surrounds it, it still clamors with its own distinctive life, one that is connected in its depths to the roots of life as a whole while still preserving a good amount of the secrets of the world gone by.

            The novel tells of the transformation that the alley would undergo with the encroachment of colonial modernity, which had already enveloped much of Cairo over the previous century, but to which the alley had somehow remained immune.

               As we will see, the change will not only be felt at the technological, economic and political level but also at a deep social and ultimately epistemological level. The entry of Western epistemology is signaled in the novel by the appearance of certain words and concepts in English.  It is in this realm that the opening scene in which a folk poet, who for the previous twenty years had worked in Kirshah’s Café, playing the Rababah (a one-stringed instrument played with a bow) and reciting folktales of olden days, was dismissed from his job by a popular demand among customers to be replaced by the radio.

               The Sufi ascetic Shaykh Darwish explains the transformation: “ Yes, everything has changed . . . the poet has gone and the radio has come. This is the way of God in his Creation. It was mentioned in the ancient days in tarikh [history], which the call in English ‘History’ and is spelled ‘H-i-s-t-o-r-y.’” Presumably, the invocation of “History” as an “ancient” European concept is ironical in this context, given Mahfouz’s enumeration of different historical periods through which Cairo passed long before Europe or the English language itself existed.

               Shaykh Darwish had been an English teacher at one of the religiously endowed schools. He, like other employees, was let go when this traditional school system was placed under the control of the modern Ministry of Education, which required higher qualifications. He took up a job as a clerk in the Ministry of Religious Endowments with a lower salary, which made him so unhappy that he became notorious as the most stubborn complainer in the Ministry. News of his bad disposition reached his superiors who, though sympathetic, docked his pay a day or two.  “ One day he decided to write all his official correspondence in English, and would say that he was a technical employee, unlike other clerks.”  About to be fired, he requested to meet with the deputy minister and informed him that “God had chosen his man,” referring to himself. He deserted his family and friends and began to roam the streets, wondering into “the world of God, as he calls it.” He lost all his money, and his house but seemed completely at peace. Everybody became his family. “If his gown wore out, someone would get him another; if his necktie got torn, he would receive a new one too.” Shaykh Darwish, as he came to be known following the Sufi tradition, was loved and considered blessed. “People feel that he brings them good luck and they say of him that he is a holy man of God who received Godly revelations in both Arabic and English.”

     It is noteworthy that while the march of the colonial modern state had already has its imprint of Dawish’s life, wherein he taught English, a language not taught previously, the further entrenchment of the colonial state transformed Darwish’s life at a deep institutional level, dismantling the school system of which he was a part and erected a new one. Unable to accept this modern transformation, which for him signaled not progress but regression in both his pay and his rank as an employee (he was reduced from grade six to grade eight), he opted out of the whole affair and chose an alternative that was familiar to him,  namely, that of Sufi asceticism. The alley and Kirshah’s Café became his makeshift home.

               Unlike Sheykh Darwish, Kirshah, the café owner, is of a different ilk altogether. A hashish dealer and user, he spent much money on his habit and on chasing after “his desires”. Kishah lived “in the embrace of the deviant life for so long that it seemed to him to be a normal life. As a narcotics dealer, he was used to working in the dark, a fugitive from normal life and a prey to deviance.” Kirshah resented the modern colonial government of the British Mandate and its local cronies, “which allows alcohol, which God has forbidden, and prohibits hashish, which God has permitted!  It protects bars, which spread poison, but cracks down on hashish dens, which are therapy to souls and minds . . . As for his other desire, he says with his traditional cough: ‘you have your religion, I have mine!’”  Here Kishah invokes the traditional tolerant impulse of folk Islam where each will be judged according to his/her religion or to his/her interpretation of religion.  This metaphorical posting of sexual practice as tantamount to professing a religion is important in that it signals Kirshah’s refusal of one uniform religious judgment of his sexual practice, and his refusal of one religious authority’s right to pass such judgment.

    While he had initially been private about his sexual practices with young men and would not invite them to frequent his café, “once his situation became known, and the scandal spread, he took the mask off his face and pursued his misdeeds openly. Tragic scenes would take place between him and his wife that became fodder for scandalous gossip.”

    When Kirshah’s wife mobilizes his son Husayn against him, Husayn was “not concerned with the misdeed [ithm] unto itself, but rather with the scandal that it engendered around them as well as the volley of curses and fighting it unleashed inside their home. The misdeed itself was utterly unimportant to him. Indeed, the first time he was informed of it, he shook his shoulders and said indifferently: “he is a man and nothing shames a man!’ Then he condemned his father along with the others when he found his family’s reputation in shreds by gossip.”  Clearly for Husayn, his father’s sexual practices are not the cause of shame or embarrassment at all if they remain within the realm of the private and are not advertised publically. People knowing about what his father’s practices are is one thing, while his father becoming open about them is another. The issue is not that people in the neighborhood know that Kirshah fancies young men (which in itself causes no embarrassment), rather it is that Kirshah thinks he can openly court such young men before the eyes of the community without censure. It is the latter that the community rejects and that Husayn condemns. It is this kind of stark publicity of such private intimate practices that society condemns, not the practices themselves.

              The novel is rich with characters derived from Cairene quotidian life. Take for example the character of Radwan al-Husayni. His biography is borrowed from the story of Job, as like the latter, he lost all his children but maintained his belief in God and His mercy and appeared always content.  He is the one to whom Kirshah’s wife, Umm Husayn turned in order to pressure her husband to end his affair with an unnamed young boutique salesman whom she described as a “profligate [fajir]”.  When she sent for her husband to have a word with him, Radwan thought to himself that this would be the first time he would allow a ‘dissolute” (fasiq) person to enter his room. Then, “he went on wondering about the devil’s seduction of man, and how he makes him deviate from the proper nature that God gave him [fitrat Allah].”Attempting to bring Kirshah back to the righteous path, Radwan asked him to let go of this “disreputable and profligate young man.”  He then instructed him to “leave this man, for he is an abomination of Satan’s handiwork.”

               It is interesting that Mahfouz has Radwan use this description, which is a direct Qur’anic quotation from a well-known verse.. Ironically the Qur’anic verse has nothing to do with homosexuality, but rather with alcohol and gambling, among other things.  In the Qur’an, other abominations include eating pork, blood, or dead meat but not same-sex practices among men.  Undeterred, Kirshah answered back, “ Man commits many bad deeds, of which this is only one; don’t be angry with me, instead ask God to  guide me, and accept my apology and my excuse. For what power does man possess over his soul?” Kirshah’s clever response to Radwan’s  Qur’anic reference marshals a modified Qur’anic verse about man’s limited power to do good or harm himself “except as God willeth,” therefore exonerating Kirshah’s own actions as predestined by God.

              Radwan al-Husayni’s failure in his mission on behalf of Kirshash’s wife left her with no recourse but to confront both her husband and his boy lover. She marched one evening to the café and began to insult and beat up the young man, calling him a “son of a whore,” and “a woman is man’s clothing.”  When the shocked young man asked her what he had done to her, as he did not even know who she was, she answered him with ridicule that she was his “co-wife.”  The bloodied young man slipped away in the mayhem of Umm Husayn’s confrontation with Kirshah, who in turn was appalled at her audacity. Once the pious Radwan calmed her down and asked her to return home, despite her threats of walking out on her husband, Kirshah began to swear up and down that he “will not submit to a woman’s will, for I am a man, free, I do as I like, let her leave the house if she wants.”

               Mistaking Kirshah’s desire for the young man as a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, desiring women, the, evidently non-essentialist, Sufi Shaykh Darwish lifted his head and addressed Kirshah: ‘Your wife is strong, and has within her such manliness that is missing in many men. She is indeed a male, not a female, so why don’t you like her?” Furious, Kirshah lashed back at Darwish to shut up and walked away. Shaykh Darwish proceeded to explain: “This is an old evil, which in English is called homosexuality and is spelled h-o-m-o-s-e-x-u-a-l-i-t-y, but it is not love. True love is only for the family and descendants of the Prophet.” For Darwish, the Sufi ascetic for whom love is always love of God and the Prophet, the opposite of homosexual love is not heterosexual love, but a much nobler kind.

              What is being introduced by Mafouz is not only a word but also a new epistemology that seems to define such acts outside Midaq Alley, among the literati and those with an English education, where the encroachment of colonial concepts was being felt more strongly. In the alley, the problem was not with Kirshah’s desires for young men but his open sexual practice, which caused a minor scandal, one that ultimately had little social repercussions for him and affected his wife more, but no more and no less than had he taken a woman as his mistress and flaunted her in public. Mafouz does not explore the situation from the vantage point of the young salesman whom Kirshah courted. The young man remains unnamed, an encroaching character that come from outside Midaq Alley, who seems to have a small role to play and then disappears upon being beaten up by Umm Husayn. As the young man is unknown in Midaq Alley, there is no scandal for him. He simply disappears from the novel. The next time Kirshah’s desires are expressed in the novel is when his own son moves back in accompanied by his young bride and her brother, whom Kirshah fancies.

               It is important to note that although Mafouz used the term shudhudh (deviance) to refer to Kirshah’s sexual practices with men, the term is not limited to homosexual sex, but to all non-normative sex, desires, excess, and general public conduct. Indeed, when Salim ‘Alwan, the owner of the sales company in Midaq Alley, expressed his dissatisfaction with his wife’s lack of responsiveness to his insistent sexual advances (he indulge in eating green toasted wheat with pigeons and much nutmeg baked and served in a pan, which he deemed an aphrodisiac and to which he attributed his virility), this is what the narrator tells us:

               His wife did not welcome the baking pan at first, even when she was a young woman in the prime of her life. She had a healthy instinct [fitrah] but was repelled by deviance from nature; still she bore what she considered to be exhausting out of respect for her insatiable husband, and out of pity that she might unsettle his mind.

               Deviance in fact seems to be the operative judgment not only of the sexual desires of Kirshah, Salim ‘Alwan, and Hamidah, but also of all socially unpleasant behavior. When Salim ‘Alwan returned to work weakened by his heart attack and deeply depressed, his hostility to his employees and the constant irritability that he now exhibited led them to conclude that he had become an “accursed deviant.”

               The novel however does naturalize heterosexual desire as that which is normative, insofar as the institution of marriage is linked to it definitionally.  The declaration is made by Umm Hamidah, the alley’s matchmaker, not only as a truism but also as an expression of economic necessity, for her livelihood depended on it.  She stated that “men love marriage in their depths” and that “a man wants a woman even if paralysis had crippled him, for this is Our Lord’s wisdom,” and “this is why God created the world. He could have filled it with men only, but God created the male and the female, and he graced us with reason so that we understand his aim; there is no deviation [mahid] from marriage.

     .   .   .  .  .
                Midaq Alley received critical acclaim by book reviewers of the period. Sayyid Qutb expressed his dissatisfaction with the novel on account of the abundance of “deviance” and “deviants” in it (understood as general social deviance). He proposed that Mafouz reduce the number of deviant characters from five to two. Nabil Matar, half a century later, misunderstood Qutb’s reference to deviance and perversion as a reference to same-sex contact and attributed Qutb’s dissatisfaction to those elements, which is a gross misinterpretation of Qutb and of the uses of the term “deviance” in the novel and by critics. Indeed, Matar strangely declares that the critics, Qutb included, received Midaq Alley with an “outcry against the novel’s homosexual characters.”  Besides Qutb’s review, Matar cites Lebanese critic Adib Muruwwah’s review of the novel as another example of a critic objecting to homosexuality in the novel, merely because Muruwwah stated that “no one among writers has been able to depict these [popular] classes as they are, as Mr. Mahfuz has done. He was utterly realist and faithful, even though this reality might have contained that which would on occasion offend proper decorum (such as the sodomy of Kirshah, for example).” Matar also cites Muhammad Fahmi’s review as another example, when all Fahmi stated was the he found “Kirshah’s deviance . . . somewhat strange for [someone] like him; perhaps had Kamil, the sweets seller, been afflicted with it . . . it would have added an atmosphere of joy to the story.: This is hardly an “outcry” against homosexual characters or anything remotely connected to it.

               Contrast this with the reception that Gore Vidal’s 1948 novel The City and the Pillar received in New York. The critical response was so violent that the New York Times refused to advertise the novel and, along with all the major magazines and newspapers, had a standing policy not to review any Vidal novels for the next six years merely because the novel depicted a homosexual encounter between two young, all-American athletic types, wherein one had an unrequited love for the other. In contrast to Vidal, Mahfouz continued to be celebrated by the Arabic press for the rest of is career despite continuing inclusion of characters who desire same-sex contact.

      In his discussion of Sa’dallah Wannus’s Orientalist play  Tuqus al- Isharat wa al- Tahawwulat (The Rites and Signs of Transformation), published in 1994, Massad  writes:

   The character of Mu’minah seems to conflate the body and its desires. She seems to posit that the truth of the body is that of desire. Her insistence on becoming a prostitute (though she is not compelled by poverty to do so), as she tells the Mufti, is unrelated to anger at her husband’s infidelity, the latter having provided her the opportunity to make the latent manifest. In undertaking her project of manumitting her body as part of the liberation of her repressed desire, a contradiction arises in Mu’minah’s logic (and in the logic of Wanna.)  If the play stresses the quest for individuality and individualism in a society that represses both, then desire cannot be the foundation of such a quest. As desire is always already social and not part of the individual economy, how is Mu’minah’s quest to release her desires from the shackles of traditional repression, and even oppression, to enter the social economy of carnal pleasure, a quest for modern individualism?  Wannus seems to posit Mu’minah’s quest as a Hegelian one, of transforming the being-in-itself into the being-for-itself and the being-for-another. But the Hegelian story is not only about the journey of self-consciousness into individualist self -realization but also that of a journey of self-consciousness into sociality, of being “in the world,” as Edward Said, echoing Heidegger, put it. When the response to her father’s horror at her sullying the family name and its honor by her action she responds that “what I do is no concern to anyone but me,” she is insisting on deploying the individualist project and exiting from society. Indeed, no less an authority than the Qur’an is marshaled to the cause of individualism by Mu’minah: “In the last instance, we do not know that no one carries the burden of others, and that each soul receives every good that it earns, and suffers every ill that it earns.” How is desire, which presupposes sociality, liberated in an asocial individualist world? The play provides inadequate answers at best to the very question it raises. . .

              While Arab intellectuals, following Orientalism and the colonial encounter, came to perceive the existence of the Arabs principally in terms of civilization and culture, there emerges in the literature they produced an elaboration and an occasional contestation of the place of sexual desires in wider discourses and practices of modernity. It is at these rarer moments when the impositions and seduction of Western norms fail that the possibility of different conceptions of desire, politics, and subjectivities emerge. My hope is that the critique that Desiring Arabs offers marks an instance of that possibility.

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