Within the alley, Egypt’s past and present mingle like the aromas from Kirsha’s café, with its crumbling multicolored arabesques, and permeate the voices of the residents as they go about their daily activities. Midaq Alley is a place of contrasts, a place where the recitations of an old poet who has frequented the café for twenty years are now met with protests from the owner who reminds the poet that things have changed. His customers want to listen to a radio, not to a poet. As the story opens, workers busily install the voice of the modern world into the otherwise isolated alley.
One side of the alley houses a shop and a bakery; on the other side sits a second shop and an office, while two adjoining three-story houses, filled with luckless tenants–including the marriage broker Umm Hamida and her scheming foster daughter–constitute the alley’s literal and symbolic dead end. Just outside the alley’s entrance sits a sweets shop to the right and a barbershop to the left. Within the cramped, dark confines of the alley, into which the warming light of the sun reaches only a few hours each day, details of the interconnected lives of the inhabitants are revealed as they move from place to familiar place. Conversations within the shabby houses, at the barbershop with its shiny instruments and mirrors, and among the café’s patrons reflect the material and spiritual ties that bind persons to each other and to the alley.
In their contacts with the world outside the alley, the characters struggle to reconcile the disparity of their hopelessness in a time of rapid modernization; the presence of the British army in Cairo, in the midst of wartime campaigns, continues the economic exploitation of Egypt’s colonial past while providing much needed work for local men. The contrast, for example, between the luxurious life flaunted by Husain Kirsha, son of the café’s owner, who has a job in the British camps during the day, and the lives of the other residents of the alley, creates a wide gulf of envy between Husain and his boyhood friends. In the world of the alley, no lasting good can come of these outside alliances, and the tragic murder of the barber Abbas Hilu–whom Husain encouraged to leave the alley–by British soldiers reinforces the theme that satisfaction can never be found in pursuit of seductive materialistic passions.
In the end, life in the alley subsides to its lakelike surface; the alley absorbs its losses and the addition of a new family of tenants in an unwavering state of indifference and forgetfulness. Kirsha’s proclamations of spiritual acceptance remind readers of the cycle of life reflected by the alley: God gives and takes all things. Sheikh Darwish’s fitting comment that all things have their end closes the story, and the alley, with its narrow scope and inevitable end, stands as a timeless symbol of the struggles and disappointments that make up human life and the spiritual acceptance that is the only real consolation.