Midaq Alley is about the residents of one alley in Cairo, Egypt. It is a very descriptive novel and each chapter is concise. Each chapter tells us about one of the inhabitants of the alley and soon how each is connected to one another. One of the main female characters in this book is Hamida. She is very beautiful and she knows it. She uses her beauty to make herself more confident. Hamida can be said to be provocative in a way as she intentionally uses her body and good looks to get attention.
Hamida is very proud of whom she is, and she feels that she is too good for Midaq Alley. She feels that she deserves better and believes that she is above all in Midaq Alley. More importantly, Hamida yearns for power. However, her view of power was that it came from money. She craves being rich. Hamida wants to be rich so that all her dreams of having luxuries come true. In Midaq Alley, the people do not see Hamida in a positive manner. Although she is ambitious, they look at her in a bad way. Not because ambition is bad but because of Hamida’s disposition. She is full of herself and arrogant and is known to have a sharp tongue. She is known to fight with whoever opposes her.
The book, ‘This Earth of Mankind’ has a very important female figure also. Nyai Ontosoroh is a concubine of a European man. She herself is a native Indonesian. In the book we know that the culture they live in concubines are looked down at, also we know that native people are at the bottom of the social hierarchy pyramid. Nyai, nonetheless, is nothing like the other native concubines. She is completely different. She has been polished and groomed in such a way that it is hard to decide whether she is a native or a European. She speaks perfect Dutch, has an unlimited knowledge of so many things, reads books, and looks impeccable.
When Minke, the protagonist, first meets her he is in awe. He immediately realizes how different she is and starts respecting her. Nyai is in charge of the family business and most importantly, she commands her own master, Herman Mellema. Nyai is someone who has worked hard for her power and authority. She is someone who never had a formal education; she has read books and learnt how to be the way she is. By teaching herself Nyai has power, money, authority, and luxury. Nyai, is not proud of who she is. She refuses to be called ‘madam’ because she knows that is not who is. Nyai knows her place in society and does not want anymore ‘respect’ that she feels she deserves.
We can already see the major differences in Nyai and Hamida. Hamida desires power and authority. Nyai has what Hamida wants but it is not what she wants for herself. Nyai does not like the fact that she has to supervise everything and do the work. She feels that it is because of her lazy master that she has this life of work. Nyai is not happy with what she has and neither is Hamida, but to a certain extent Nyai has what Hamida wants. This shows us how perspective can vary from person to person. Hamida thinks she will be happy with fortune and luxury whereas we see a woman who has all that but is not satisfied because she does not have the respect from society. Hamida could have had respect from society is she was not as arrogant and egotistical but she never thought that respect would be worth anything.
There is also a great difference between the characteristics of Nyai and Hamida. Nyai is very modest and down to earth. She does not think anything too great of herself. On the other hand, Hamida is completely the opposite. She shows off her assets and wants attention from people. Even the Jewish girls whom she is jealous or intimidated by she tries to make them feel bad by demeaning remarks. Nyai would never say anything bad about someone to intentionally make them feel bad.
Nyai has adopted all the European mannerisms and practices them regularly; she has worked hard on herself. Hamida has not learnt any new or modern ways of life. She is still pretty backward minded in the sense that she wants to marry someone rich so that she can use his money to get out of Midaq Alley. Hamida does not want to lift a finger in order to get what she wants; she thinks it will come automatically because she is so beautiful and so impressive.
Being satisfied with or without authority isn’t the only important factor about these main characters. There is also the fact that the sources of this power and wealth are different for both of them. For example, Hamida was determined to be affluent and dominating she intended to do so by marrying a rich man. She was dependant on her fate to get married to someone just because she thought she was so pretty and perfect. Hamida did not have much to offer. She was not very smart nor did she have a very strong personality. Her only way out of Midaq Alley would have been getting married. In contrast, Nyai in the beginning also did not have much to offer. But she taught herself, her power and wealth came because she made herself into this strong woman who could face anything.