El callejón de los milagros

“¿Qué es esto?” “Lo básico del inglés, güey”

In Naguib Mahfuz’s Midaq Alley (or El callejón de los milagros – Alley of Miracles – as it’s known in Spanish), two of the main characters seek to better themselves and their finances by enlisting in the British army, hoping that Hitler will prolong the conflict for as many profitable months as possible.

In the 1995 Mexican film of the same name (a loose adaption transported to México DF), the equivalent characters see learning the English language and dreaming of making a fortune in the States. That is, the role played by the physical manifestation of colonial power in the 1940s is given over to the words themselves by the end of the century. Hard power – artillery, engineers, footsoldiers – replaced by soft.

That said, one of the most striking scenes from the novel fails to find a home in the film: Hamida, being inducted into the world of the ‘courtesan’, walks in on a group of women being taught English in the nude – with the gentle, loving caress of each new word repeated. The British and American soldiers, for whose benefit these lessons serve, finish the book by beating one of the enlistees to death in a bar.

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