"Many things combine to show that Midaq Alley is one of the gems of times gone by and that it once shone forth like a flashing star in the history of Cairo. Which Cairo do I mean? That of the Fatimids, the Mamlukes or the Sultans? Only God and the archaeologists know the answer to that . . . .
"Although Midaq Alley lives in almost complete isolation from all surrounding activity, it clamors with a distinctive and personal life of its own. . . . (I)ts roots connect with life as a whole and yet, at the same time, it retains a number of secrets of a world now past."
Naguib Mahfouz, "Midaq Alley"
There are times and places in life that seem cut off from the rest, and those may be the ones you remember when all the rest is forgotten. I don't remember all the details of that most unpleasant day, though there was a time when I could not forget them even though I had tried. It was one of those interminable, needlessly complex legal disputes that are almost inevitable after a death in the family. It was all the worse because it took me by surprise, and soon my bewilderment turned to anger, and my anger to just sadness.
We were expected for dinner that evening at an old friend of my older sister's. On the way there, I remember turning to her and observing, sighing, complaining: "People are just no damned good." Depression would be too mild a word for my mood; I was down.
Then we walked into our hostess's house, and there were the girls - now all middle-aged matrons - that my sister had grown up with on Shreveport's polyglot Texas Avenue in the 1940s, when its Jewish and Lebanese merchants lived above their shops. My sister had kept in touch with the Lebanese (they were called Syrians back then), but I hadn't seen some of them in years, in decades. There was Tillie, and Rashi, and Madeleine and Bea, and then Margaret entered the room with a wide, wide smile on her face, greeted me with a childhood nickname, and spread her arms wide for a hug.
The light of that smile illuminated the whole room, the whole world. I realized I'd forgotten how good people really were. Even now, so many years later, long after I've forgotten just what all the legal-eagle business was about, I remember the unquestioning, welcoming smile that erased and still erases everything else. All that counted in that moment was the shared memories of the old neighborhood. How could one street have been so full of life? Maybe because it was just one street, a universe of its own only vaguely connected to the wider world of war and peace beyond. I realized then why my sister kept coming back to Shreveport to see the girls she'd grown up with. It was like touching solid ground.
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