Reading Mahfouz in Michigan
Ms Katie and Professor LeGassick - Courtesy: المُعلمة كيتى جلبتك والبروفيسور تريفور لوجاسيك بعدسة هديل غنيم

In a seminar on the “Arab Spring” at the University of Michigan, I assumed that the young white woman sitting next to me was a student of Middle Eastern studies. But after we talked a little, she turned out to be an English high school teacher who was interested in the topic because she was reading Naguib Mahfouz’s novel “Midaq Alley” with her students and therefore trying to acquire a more profound knowledge of Egypt and the Arab world. I was impressed. This cannot be standard, even by American standards, and I wanted to know more.

I met with Katie Glupker again and attended a couple of her classes with her students while they were discussing the novel. She also introduced me to the British translator of the novel, Professor Trevor Legassick, who had selected “Midaq Alley” more than 50 years ago and translated it from Arabic into English, and who is still teaching at the University of Michigan. Throughout those meetings I tried to answer the following questions: How did Mahfouz’s novel become part of the English curriculum in a high school in Michigan? Why this specific novel out of all Mahfouz’s novels? Was it a coincidence, or does it have certain qualities that make it more popular among readers outside the Arab world? What are the themes of the novel, and how do American students discuss them?

I am dividing the outcome into two parts. The first, this article, focuses on the classroom experience of Ms. Katie and her students reading “Midaq Alley.” The second part, in a following article, will revolve around Professor LeGassick’s experience translating the novel and his view on the reasons for its success.

Who decides the curriculum?

Unlike the system followed in Egypt, there is no standard curriculum in the US used in all public schools in any subject. The American public education system is highly decentralized, and the school curricula are not only determined by each state, but by the administration of each school district (there are approximately 14,000 school districts in the US). Local school districts are generally autonomous although if are any state guidelines they are required to follow them. As for the literary texts chosen for instruction in English class, some school districts provide a list of book titles for the teachers to choose from. In most schools, however, the teachers are free to choose the literary texts to be studied. Such freedom may be shocking to those used to central planning and supervision enforced by the department or Ministry of Education in the capital, but public schools in the US are fully managed by the elected local boards, and that provides systematic public supervision based on the participation of resident voters in each district.

In Ms. Katie’s case, the decision to teach “Midaq Alley” was her own. She was, however, influenced by a previous teaching experience, prior to her current job. In 2006, Katie traveled to China to work in an international school in Shanghai. There, she taught “world literature” to students of the international baccalaureate program, which offers a university qualifying certificate and is recognized in most countries around the world (it is offered by 11 schools in Egypt). The IB program is managed by an organization headquartered in Switzerland and has a standardized curriculum. Katie had to choose from a prescribed list of translated literary texts, and maintain geographic variety in her choice, so she chose “Midaq Alley,” a novel she had not previously read, from the list of translated literature from the Middle East.

“I had a great experience teaching ‘Midaq Alley’ to my students in Shanghai. They loved the book. I loved the book,” says Katie, noting that the students she worked with then came from different backgrounds; there were Chinese-Americans, Chinese-Canadians, Koreans, Japanese, and Taiwanese, and none were Arab or from the Middle East. Yet they enjoyed reading this novel more than other translated literary texts, and some said that it was their favorite because it was entertaining and they could relate to the characters.

American morality disapproves of Mahfouz’s pedophilia

After returning to the US and starting her new job, Katie chose “Midaq Alley” again for her new students, but things did not go to smoothly for her in the beginning. Katie encountered a minor crisis due to her choice. “Imagine how nervous a person normally is when starting a new job in a new place,” says Katie, “and it was the second month in my new job, in October 2009, and the school principle gets three angry calls from parents complaining that Ms. Katie is teaching their children pedophilia.”

On the back-cover blurb of “Midaq Alley,” the parents read this: “From Zaita the cripple maker, to Kirsha the café owner with a taste for young boys and drugs.” The teacher defended her choice and resumed teaching the novel, but the crisis was not resolved completely. Four students read an alternative text. She met with them (and their parents sometimes) one evening per week off campus and they did not attend English class on the two days “Midaq Alley” was discussed, though they incurred absences. For them, Katie chose the South African novel “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton. The reason, she explains, was because “Parents thought Midaq Alley dealt with ‘moral issues’ that were inappropriate for high school, so I chose ‘Cry’ because it is world literature and because the ‘moral issue’ it deals with is (in my opinion) even heavier than any issue in ‘Midaq Alley’: apartheid.”

At the end of that first semester, Katie carried out a survey among her students after they had finished reading the novel about whether they thought it would be useful to teach it again the next year. The result was 80 percent “yes” and 17 percent “no.” Katie compiled the students’ comments and showed them to the school principle, and she continued teaching the novel for the following years. She managed to avoid the complaints at the beginning of the school year by simply moving the novel from the fall to the winter semester.

This is what the students wrote on the benefits of reading “Midaq Alley”: “controversial; thought provoking; profound; it shows the importance of the choices one makes in life and their consequences; exciting; illustrates how others view life, morals and traditions even if we do not agree with their views; even though it contained disagreeable behaviors, we understand that we should not copy them; it was not boring; the ending was beautiful and melancholic, it made me cry, but it is beautiful; it is a good exercise despite the difficulty, it prepares us for college texts; its content increases our maturity; in the beginning I thought it was depressing and vulgar, but I changed my mind when I finished reading it and after class discussions.”

And for those who objected to the novel, they said: “It was not interesting; it was not emotionally engaging; it was annoyingly immoral, I am not even sure I should be reading such books; it should not be taught again because it contains implicit sexuality and I think there are other novels that carry the same message, but in a more innocent way; I like it but it is boring, depressing, and vulgar.”

When I visited Ms. Katie’s class last spring, the students had just finished reading the novel, and were very upset because of the sad ending and the death of the protagonist, Abbas al-Hilew. Katie told them about the crisis she faced because of the novel five years ago, and asked for their opinion. One student said: “I didn’t like the ending, but I really liked the novel, because it tells us about the real world, and there are no happy endings in real life.” “I am surprised that some people thought ‘Midaq Alley’ was too vulgar,” said another, “especially after we read ‘Kindred,’ which deals with problems that are even more real and harsh.” (The novel referred to is about a black American girl who travels through time to visit her ancestors during the age of slavery in the US, written by Octavia Butler.)

When Katie said that she finds the novel harmless and never intended to shock her students or make them feel uncomfortable, because that would not be a good teaching approach, a student remarked: “If we are going to stay in our comfort zone, we will never go very far in the world, and it should be part of your goal as a teacher to stretch it for us a little bit.”

I listened to the exchange of opinions in class lamenting the absence of this discussion not only from our Egyptian schools, but from the public debate in the nation as well. I was not very proud to confess that I had never studied a single text by Mahfouz in school throughout my preparatory and secondary education in Egypt.

Hoping that things have changed since then, I later went online to check the current Egyptian curricula. I only found Mahfouz’s first, historical novel “Thebes at War,” which was prescribed for some time for the third preparatory year, and then a few other secondary texts about Mahfouz, his life, his greatness and the importance of the award he received. And while educators in charge of the school curricula have avoided Mahfouz’s more thought-provoking novels that address social and political issues in contemporary Egypt, they have actually paved the way for religious extremists who never shy away from engaging the young, and who easily dismiss and renounce Mahfouz (and most works of art and literature) as blasphemous. It is a fact that the novels taught in middle and high school have remained unchanged for decades, and except for Taha Hussein’s autobiography and Yusuf Idris’s short story “A Look,” all of them are historical novels such as Mohamed Farid Abu Hadid’s “Abu al-Fawaris Antara,” Ali al-Garim’s “Ghadat Rashid,” Hussein’s “Al-Shaykhan” and Ali Ahmed Bakathir’s “Wa Islamah.” It is as if the prerequisite for a title to be included in the curriculum is for it to be as far removed from our current lives and times as possible.

Love, ambition and belonging

According to Ms. Katie, what students find most interesting about “Midaq Alley” is the romantic relationship between Abbas and Hamida. In class discussions and home assignments, they like to analyze the way Abbas loves Hamida, and discuss romantic relationships in general, unrequited love, possessive and obsessive love, and how the choices made by loved ones can affect one’s life. Some students draw comparisons with Shakespeare’s “Othello,” which they had studied in a previous semester.

Most students hate Hamida and love Abbas, who many consider their favorite character in the novel. This comes as no surprise, since Mahfouz portrays Hamida as selfish, ambitious, self-assured and “constantly beset by a desire to fight and conquer.” All the women in the alley hate her. In contrast Abbas, is portrayed “as gentle, good-natured and inclined towards peace tolerance and kindness”. Unlike Hamida, Abbas is faithful in his love for her and for the alley and its people.

Ms. Katie, however, presents a different reading of Hamida’s character, one that resists even the author’s bias. Katie feels like she “gets” Hamida’s character as someone too big and too ambitious for the life she has been dealt, where she is expected to get married and have children and accept a life of poverty in the alley. She admits that Hamida chased the wrong goals by pursuing money and power which lead her to her downfall and the brothel, but she validates Hamida’s desire for respect and dignity, especially as she was not offered any other means of advancing in life such as an education or a job in the factory (it’s not clear why the Jewish girls in the novel could work and she couldn’t). Katie is “heartbroken” for Hamida when her plans fail and when she discovers that Farag deceived her and does not really love her.

In the American perception, and perhaps globally too, there is nothing wrong with ambition and the desire to leave one’s small hometown. This is what most people do and dream of when they finish high school and go to college or start new jobs. Ms. Katie and her multinational students in Shanghai, as well as some of her students in Michigan, all share this desire to leave the small town, to discover wider horizons and achieve vaster experiences in the large cities and capitals, inside and outside the US.

Yet in “Midaq Alley,” characters who desire a wealthier life outside the alley (Hamida, and Hussein Kirsha who wants to be “gentleman”) are negatively depicted by Mahfouz as greedy, immoral, unfaithful types who despise their own people. Both end up associating with the foreign occupation, working in the British army camps in Hussain’s case, or entertaining British soldiers in the case of Hamida. Writing in Cairo in the 1940s, there is little doubt that Mahfouz was preoccupied with the issue of national independence from British occupation, which must have added an extra colonial tension to the long-standing debate over tradition and Western modernity that has dominated the Arab mind.

But even for Abbas, who loves the alley and its people, the relationship is not that simple or even rewarding. At the beginning of the novel, when considering leaving the alley to go work for the British camps, he asks himself:

What had it done for him? It was a place that did not treat its inhabitants fairly. It did not reward them in proportion to their love for it. It tended to smile on those who abused it and abused those who smiled on it.

And by the end of the end of the novel, when he dies heroically for the lover who has betrayed and manipulated him, the alley is unaffected:

This crisis too, like all the others, finally subsided and the alley returned to its usual state of indifference and forgetfulness.

In the classroom, Ms. Katie asked her students to think about a place they love, as small as a chair or as big as a city or country, and then asked them whether this place can love them back. “Why do we love certain places,” asked Katie, “and what is the meaning of this love? Do we really need these places to love us back? What form does this relationship take?”

The students spoke about happy places like a grandparent’s home, or a favorite lake. One pointed out that it is actually our mutual relationship with the people of a place that makes it loveable. Katie then asked them to think further about these questions when they write their final essay on national identity.

I sat there thinking of John F. Kennedy’s famous words “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” which have been appropriated in Egypt and repeated incessantly to the extent that I grew up thinking they were homegrown. Then I thought about the young Egyptians who are about same age as the students in this classroom but who are spending their school year in jail. It is surprising how well the previous passage from the novel might describe what happened to them. I wondered how would they answer Ms. Katie’s questions?

Religion and the homeless

Non-Arab readers feel confused about the frequent usage of religious phrases by the characters of the alley, no matter how evil their deeds, words or thoughts are. Katie explains that in their discussions at school they concluded that those religious phrases are only part of the language or figures of speech, that they do not imply the piety of the user, and that religion for most of the characters of the novel is just a facade that does not affect their choices or morality. All except for Radwan al-Hussainy, who is the only character to come across as truly religious. He is a respectable, well-off man who has been through many ordeals due to the death of all his children, which he endured patiently and with increased piety and virtue. The novel does not attribute any discrediting characteristics or actions to him; instead he is described as “a genuine believer, pious and virtuous.”

Toward the end of the novel, when Radwan learns of Hamida’s fall into prostitution and the arrest of Zaita and doctor Bushi who were caught red-handed stealing a cadaver from the graveyard, he is overcome with feelings of guilt and responsibility. Ms. Katie asked the students to read a passage in which he says:

“Their hunger made me think of my own well-fed body and I was overcome with shame and humility. I asked myself what had I done, after all God’s goodness to me with all the blessings God bestowed upon me, to prevent their tragic plight,” says Radwan al-Hussainy, “had I not let the devil amuse himself with with my neighbors while I remained lost in mu own complacent joy? Cannot a good man unknowingly be an accomplice of the devil by keeping to himself?”

Somehow I expected a class discussion that would mirror the debate in the US between conservatives and liberals regarding the government’s and society’s responsibility toward providing a social net for the homeless and the jobless whether they are beggars or addicts. And while this connection stayed only in my head, since no one explicitly suggested a comparison, it seemed that the conservative rhetoric was more prevalent in students’ immediate answers to their teacher’s question.

None of them agreed with Radwan al-Husseiny that he was in any way responsible for Hamida’s and Zaita’s crimes and sins. One student said that Hussainy is a kind man, and that is why he feels guilty, but everyone is responsible for his own actions. “Even if Hussainy had talked to Hamida,” pointed out another, “she wouldn’t have changed her decision, and Zaita is responsible for his own choices.” But then another student exclaimed emotionally: “I feel bad for Zaita, I really really feel bad for him, I know he’s a grave digger and that he cripples people, but I feel there’s reason for the bad things he does, I think he’s hurting from inside, and that’s why he hurts others, he feels pain… I wanna give him a hug!” To which she was reminded by another student to be careful, since Zaita hasn’t take a bath for years.

The historical context … does it matter?

During the first few years she taught “Midaq Alley,” Katie never felt the need to study the historical and political context in Egypt at that time, or even know much about Naguib Mahfouz. And in her opinion, this is an advantage of the novel, and the reason it became a success. She would, however, give one introductory presentation about the British occupation of Egypt, the Suez crisis and a quick overview of Egypt’s history in the mid twentieth century. Only because there is brief mention in the novel of the presence of British soldiers in Egypt and because it might explain why for, example, Kirsha hopes the Germans will win World War II.

But in January and February 2011, it was hard to ignore the news about the uprising in Egypt in Ms. Katie’s class. They were, after all, reading an Egyptian novel by an Egyptian author, which made her students especially interested in what was happening in Tahrir Square. They followed the news of the 18 days in class, and they even watched Barack Obama announcing the fall of Hosni Mubarak streamed live from the White House in the classroom. There was no direct connection between the novel and the events, but they tried to discuss the reasons behind the revolution, such as poverty and youth unemployment.

The January 25 revolution motivated Katie to learn more about political and cultural issues in Egypt and the Arab world, so she applied and was granted a scholarship to attend a summer program last year at UC Davis, on “The roots of the Arab spring.” She learned about colonial and post-colonial debates, orientalism, cultural identity, Arab nationalism, and the affect of globalization and neo-liberal economic policies on the problems of young people in the Arab world. She read a variety of texts, by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Taha Hussein, Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyed, Edward Said, Timothy Mitchell, Heba Ezzat and others. The next time she taught the novel she prepared a list of readings for her students that included some of those, in addition to texts by Nawal al-Saadawi and Hassan al-Banna, as well as Napoleon’s proclamation to the Egyptians and more. She also listed the movie “Nasser 56” (1996) and the documentary film “The Square” (2013), which made some students wonder: “Is this still an English class, or is it a social studies one?

But those texts were selected not only to provide historical context for the novel, but also to examine the general theme of national identity, which Ms. Katie assigned to this semester’s English class. In a previous year, she had chosen freedom as a general theme, in which the students were able to compare “Midaq Alley” to Plato’s cave, or “My Bondage and My Freedom” by Frederic Douglass.

Yet when I asked the students whether they were aware all the time they were reading “Midaq Alley” that it takes place in Egypt, almost all who answered my question said no. One student said, “It felt like it was happening right here in my city, like if I look around I might find Midaq Alley.” Another said that most of the time she would be so engrossed in the story that she would forgot it was happening in Egypt or that it was originally written in Arabic. “It read just like any other American book, I was focused on the story and what happens to the people in it. I don’t care about the context,” said another student.

These remarks might come as a surprise to book marketers who like to add the word “exotic” to any work of literature that comes from outside of the Western world. But they are actually in line with results of audience studies in the field of media anthropology. The Michigan students’ reports on their experience reading an Egyptian novel seem to echo what rural Egyptian women told media anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod about their experience watching American soap operas. These popular shows, such as “The Bold and the Beautiful,” take place in an environment entirely different from of the reality of the village women, let alone different value systems. Abu-Lughod concluded that viewers concentrate on the family dynamics in the story, the personal relationships and human emotions. Their minds are actively “compartmentalizing,” selecting what to identify with and leaving out what is beyond their awareness.

I came to similar conclusions when I studied a sample of people who grew up reading “Mickey” in Egypt. The Disney comic magazine was more popular in Egypt than it was in the US. It was translated into Arabic and the characters names were “Egyptianized.” The readers I talked to said that they did not think of the American origins of Miki (Mickey Mouse) and Batoot (Donald Duck) when they read the magazine. They felt comfortable thinking of it as an imaginary world that is not culturally specific.

But context does matter to Katie Glupker and to about 15 percent of her students who are Arab or from Middle Eastern origins. In addition to its literary merits, Katie says she chooses this novel again and again for two social reasons. First, it recognizes and validates the cultural experiences of a key segment of the student population. Second, “Midaq Alley” provides a window into Arab culture and life for the general population of students, many of whom live inside purely Western worldviews.

“In the past, some of those students have even used racial slurs towards their peers, which is why I start by dismantling stereotypes about Arabs and Arab Americans, and we talk about ethnocentrism and orientalism,” explains the teacher. “My bigger goal is to throw open windows of cultural and historical understanding for students” says Katie who wants to work on creating a unit for teachers of literature that features “Midaq Alley” along with Arabic poetry — classic and contemporary — and the background history that English teachers need to present these works in context, “with integrity and cultural understanding.”

Why the prolonged feature?

The reason I’ve presented this experiment in all this lengthy detail is not to boast about American education or bemoan the failures of Egypt. The educational system in the US faces huge challenges, and standards vary greatly from one school to another. As for reading world literature, the US is one of the lowest ranking western countries in this category with translations making up less than 5 percent of books published each year. It is important then to note that this is an extraordinary case, yet the system deserves credit for allowing such individual distinction and not fighting it.

Perhaps reading about the discussions between the high school students and their teacher could make more people in Egypt believe in the uses of literature and the importance of the arts in the education process. Literature should not be considered a luxury, because it provides a rich and safe ground for communicating about the important issues that relate to our lives as individuals and as a society. It can be a useful approach in creating dialogue with young people, and it is a place where they might find expressions of and meanings for their complicated questions and feelings. Perhaps it is time we started talking less about Mahfouz’s prominence and genius, and paid more attention to discussing his works critically, and reading them in different ways, a practice that everyone is entitled to and that should not be exclusive to authorized critics.

What impressed me the most was not what the Michigan students said about “Midaq Alley,” but how their discussion flowed freely in the classroom. The way they spoke with confidence, knowing that their personal opinions matter equally, and the way their teacher encouraged them, even to disagree with her.  For better grades, they know they should read more and work harder so that their opinions might reflect a deeper understanding, a new observation or a solid argument. None of them was asked at any time, of course, to memorize an official opinion written in a textbook or to parrot the words of the teacher who grades them as the only correct answer.

A follow-up interview with Trevor LeGassick is published here: The Arabist, Part 1.

Hadil Ghoneim 

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