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Essay: Weep Not Child – Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Midaq Alley – Naguib Mahfouz

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  • Published: 23 March 2018*
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Both regarded as works of literature that grapple with the effects of British colonialism and how it operated in their respective African countries, Weep Not Child written by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Midaq Alley written by Naguib Mahfouz are strikingly similar works, based on their shared experiences. These similarities are manifested through several different ways and themes through each respective book. Topics such as the impact of Western influence, gender roles and power, religion, family and pride/shame operate in very specific ways throughout each book. The intention thus is to explore how they do, and to what degree that is caused by their shared African colonial legacy.

As far as the theme of Western influence goes in each book, it’s incredibly apparent how crucial it is. Both books, could not exist nor would they exist without Egypt and Kenya being colonized by the British. They both attempt to demonstrate how different segments of society and the social strata react, collude and live within a colonized system. They both establish who stands to benefit from Western Influence, where in Midaq alley those who benefit from Western influence are Hussain and Abbas who gain wealth and upward mobility from working with the British Army “This war isn’t a disaster the fools say it is. It’s a blessing! God sent it to us to rescue us from our poverty and misery. Those air raids are throwing gold down on us!” In a more abstract manner, Western influence also begins to erode Arab identity and culture and tries to devalue it, particularly shown through Hussain. In the context of working with the british Hussain remarks “Corporal Julian,” he related proudly, “Once told me the only difference between me and the British is that of color” and in relation to his new western life “In England they call those who enjoy my easy life ‘large.’ For some time after this his jealous rivals called ‘Hussain Kirsha the Large”. Contrasted with Weep Not Child it becomes apparent that not many people benefit at all from Western Influence is any real valuable manner except for the colonists themselves such as Mr. Howlands and Jacobo, the latter who would benefit more had Kenya not been colonized in the first place. Njoroge slightly benefits from learning English, but again, there wouldn’t exist a need, had Kenya not been colonized in the first place. Although certain people in both books benefit from Western influence, the way the books differ is how and why the Characters are benefitting. In Midaq Alley those who benefit do so because of British occupation and aren’t necessarily hindered by said British occupation whereas in Weep Not Child the ways in which people benefit from Western are a direct result of needing to overcome challenges constructed directly from the British such as Jacobo who benefits from land dealings with the British. However Jacobo would most likely have been better off had the British not been there in the first place. Culturally, there is influence from the British throughout both stories. We see this demonstrated through the replacement of the poet with a radio in Midaq alley which symbolizes encroachment of western technology and the erosion of traditional Egyptian culture. Furthermore, the change that Hussain Kirsha undergoes, is indicative of the influence the British wield. The transformation into a young man who is enamored by the wealth and luxuries of the British, through “large life” women, rejection of Islam, parties, hedonism and luxury items are all the changes we can see manifested throughout him. Overall, the role of Western influence in Midaq Alley can be seen as a superficially beneficial force (enabling social mobility for certain characters) but ultimately a culturally corruptive one (through removal of traditional Egyptian culture in exchange for cheap entertainment and pleasantries). Contrasted with Western influences in Weep Not Child, it is striking to see how the Western culture was able to take hold in Kenya. I would argue that the cultural influence it has in Kenya is far less than in Egypt, due mostly in part that Egypt had a desire to modernize (westernize) and become comparable to the great European powers. Due to this consent to allow in western influence, it took root far deeper in Egypt than it had in Kenya who never had a historical desire to Westernize.

When discussing how gender roles and power dynamics are exercised through each book, we have look at how they operate within their own cultural contexts – patriarchal structured societies. I believe that the way gender operates and the power dynamics associated with it are much more pronounced in Midaq Alley. For whatever reason that may be is up for debate, but it’s undeniable that sexuality and gender are intertwined in a way they aren’t in Weep Not Child. For example, we have examples of non “conventional” gender roles and dynamics such as Mr. Kirsha’s unrestrained homosexuality, (with a penchant for young men) even though he has a wife. The wife exercises no power in the relationship, due to the fact she is economically dependent on her husband, and even though he is gay in a hyper masculine society, he still wields more power than his wife. However women due exercise certain degrees of power in Midaq alley as well. Saniya is economically independent as a landlord, Hamida has the option to secure her economic future through deciding who she can marry, and Husniya who expresses her power over her husband by beating him with a slipper.

In Weep Not Child gender and power are expressed in similar ways to Midaq Alley because of the patriarchal society they operate in, however there remain significant differences in how they operate and are expressed. Females enjoy both a certain amount of power, but simultaneously a striking lack of it. For example, Mwihaki is able to access education (and therefore social mobility, power and opportunity) and there exist institutions solely for females to benefit from, such as the all girls boarding school, so the fact that women are able to enjoy a right to education and therefore social mobility is indicative of a society that is not as gender segregated as the one in Midaq alley, where social mobility comes from being able to choose a rich and powerful husband. However, there is also the fact that Ngotho has two wives – Nyokabi and Njeri which in my opinion is indicative of a lack of power on the wives parts; similar to what happened to how Mrs. Kirsha is subject to and reliant on her husband Mr. Kirsha’s power and decision making. In addition to the polyamorous relationships that only benefit the husband, there are striking examples of anti female behavior such as domestic abuse, female circumcision and perceived responsibilities women might have to their families that take priority over education and other autonomous social functions that they may want to pursue.

Similar to gender, western influence play a daily role in life, so does religion to varying degrees within each book. In Midaq Alley Islam operates as a backdrop for essentially all characters and influences their lifestyles and choices. The degree to which individuals practice Islam is also varied throughout the story. For example, Radwan Hussainy and Sheikh Darwish and both held as upstanding members of the alley and also happen to be some of the most pious and devout followers of Islam, perhaps a reflection of how Mahfouz believed Islam should be revered in Egyptian society, as well as a harkening back to more conservative values. Hussainy as a character also offered guidance to many people in the alley and may have been a personification of the salvation potential of Islam. The reading of the Qu’ran also provides comfort and guidance to at least Umm Hamida as well, showing Islam to be foundational in the older generation of Egyptian society. Islam and its continuous practice is also a testament to Egyptian identity, which has been able to withstand British colonisation (to a certain extent as aforementio
ned) in a way Kenya was not able to. However, Kenya, in Weep not child experienced its own version of being culturally and religiously influenced, while still maintaining certain elements of their own culture and incorporating them into the foreign influence. The way religion operates in weep not child is similar to how western influence operates as well (considering christianity is an extension of western influence) in that, western influence provides solutions, but it provides solutions to western created problems. This theme continues with religion in that characters such as the most obvious – Njoroge who reads the bible fervently, and becomes a firm believer in the faith which keeps him going and gives him hope that all will be well in then end. Also in general a sizable amount of the Giyuku accept Christianity, but are ironically against British colonialism. Christianity plays a role in Weep Not Child that is not found in Midaq Alley through the fact that religious missionary’s who spread the religion “paved the way for the sword” meaning that first Christianity was spread and then once it had taken a foothold the British were able to enter Kenya and subjugate it forcefully. Kenyan’s, and more specifically the Giyuku who are against british colonization yet ironically Christian, as depicted in Kiarie’s speech “All the land belonged to the people – black people. They had been given it by God. For every race had their country. The Indians had India. Europeans had Europe. And Africans had Africa, the land of the black people. […] He told them how the land had been taken away, through the Bible and the sword. ‘Yes, that’s how your land was taken away. The Bible paved the way for the sword.” Here we can see the disdain that Giyuku have for British colonization, again the irony is not lost. However they were able to appropriate the Christianity spread by missionaries in ways the missionaries had not originally intended by applying their own cultural and religious beliefs to scripture, and drawing from teachings. Usage of stories such as the Book of Job or David and Goliath allowed Kenyans to draw strength and hope in their times of despair, and also hope that all will be rewarded for their suffering. However, in Midaq Alley as Islam is continuously a beacon of hope and guidance for those who worship it, it is contrasted in Weep Not Child. Njoroge’s and Mwihaki’s faith begins to waiver as they wonder if this much suffering would have been allowed by Jesus. “Because I was thinking that if Jesus knew, really knew, about this thing in our country, He could have stopped it. Don’t you think so?” and then later “He Thought: She is right. God had done this often to the children of Israel. But He always sent somebody to rescue them.”

The final theme that is shared between the works is family. Following the previous three themes family operates in both stories in fairly similar ways with a few distinct differences between them. I make the argument that conceptions of family in both novels are based more on a sense of dependency, networking, obligation and solidarity rather than western notions of love (although I do not mean to diminish the abounding love found in the familial relationships of both stories – it is not as if Africans are incapable of familial love, quite the opposite). In Midaq Alley we can see examples of family expressed through marriages as less about love and more about social mobility and reliance on a man, exhibited clearly through Hamida’s attitude towards love. We see how also how Hamida is reliant on her mother and how Mrs. Kirsha is dependent on her husband. I would also argue the large presence of domestic violence throughout the story denotes marriage and family more as a dependency and solidarity institution rather than one based purely on love, for if it were, we would see much less domestic violence.

In Weep Not Child we see family as more of a insular, supportive institution – exhibited through Njoroge’s support from his mother to go to school, or his close relationships with his brothers and the mostly functional family dynamic even though its a polyamorous relationship and not all the children are of the same mother. Njoroge draws support from his family when everything else around him seems to be incapable of placating his woes. However there is a certain degree of domestic abuse that occurs within the society that Weep Not Child takes place in, perhaps I should concede that both these stories occur in a time period where gender roles as well as familial standards were wildly different than they are today. The levels of domestic abuse that occur within each book aren’t meant to denote anything racially or ethnically inferior about colonized peoples, just that conceptions of family may be different now than they previously were.

The primary significance of each story is that they are both deeply influenced by the colonial British, and that influence is manifested through similar patterns with different results. In Midaq Alley Western influence acted as a liberating and socially mobilizing force that did benefit characters economically, however it did wreak havoc culturally. In Weep Not Child, Western influence did much to diminish economic, political and civil conditions, however it strengthened and in some ways helped consolidate cultural identities. Both books are stark examples of the damage that colonialism can effectuate, but are nuanced enough to paint wildly different pictures of how that damage pervades itself throughout the unfortunate colonies.

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