Mahfouz’s ‘Midaq Alley’: ‘I’m Not Even Sure I Should Be Reading Such Books’

Over at Mada Masr, Hadil Ghoneim has penned a fascinating short piece, trans. Amira Elmasry, about her impressions of US high school students reading and discussing Naguib Mahfouz’s classic Midaq Alley:

Ghoneim ran into high-school teacher Katie Glupker at a University of Michigan seminar on the “Arab Spring,” and they got to talking about Glupker’s English classes, which began engaging with Mahfouz’s  novel in 2009. Immediately, Glupker’s teaching of Mahfouz caused controversy with some of her Ann Arbor-based students and their parents. Glupker told Ghoneim:

“Imagine how nervous a person normally is when starting a new job in a new place, and it was the second month in my new job, in October 2009, and the school principal gets three angry calls from parents complaining that Ms. Katie is teaching their children pedophilia.”

In this case, the red line was soft enough that — while four students opted out and read another text, skipping days when the class discussed the 1947 novel — the school allowed Glupker to stick with it. After they finished, she surveyed her students about what they thought about the book. The majority thought it was worthwhile, although a minority of students suggested there should be stricter controls on what was read in classrooms, reporting “I am not even sure I should be reading such books” or “it should not be taught again because it contains implicit sexuality.”

Ghoneim sat in on a few discussions of the book, and asked students about their reactions to the text. Almost none of them, she said,  had been interested in the book because of its “exotic” Egyptian setting. Instead, they focused on the human stories and read them in a way that made the narrative maximally relatable to their own lives.

Ghoneim continued:

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.

And yet the teacher did contextualize it — particularly after Egypt intruded into US news and entertainment programming in 2011.

The students also reported to Ghoneim that they hadn’t read the book as a translation. They apparently read the Trevor LeGassick version, as LeGassick is mentioned in the piece. However, a new translation by Humphrey Davies was released in 2011, and, in future years, it would surely be interesting to bring this to the foreground, particularly for US students.

Ghoneim further compares the way Mahfouz is taught in Egyptian secondary schools (the prescribed selection is apparently his Thebes at War) to the way it is taught at this particular, anomalous school in Michigan. In both places, Mahfouz can be seen as blasphemous, but for different reasons.

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