Thank you Karan, I didn't want to go first with my own review. I'm sorry that you found it boring.
1. I thought this was an absorbing novel of life in Cairo during the Second World War. I think the theme was the negative effects of a rapid and largely foreign-directed modernization on the traditional life of a poor neighborhood. Mahfouz of course was not against modernization as such; the Cairo Trilogy has a more balanced view, showing the gains in terms of woman's status, etc. But I think it is important to understand that modernization, especially as it has been carried out in the Islamic countries, has a bad as well as a good side; the first chapter -- the replacement of the old poet by the radio, and the demotion of Darwaz in the civil service, makes it easier to understand the attraction of Islamic fundamentalism today. Changes that took place naturally in the West over hundreds of years, such as secularization, were imposed in a short time in Egypt, largely at the instigation -- and for the benefit -- of the British masters. Remember that Mahfouz was claimed -- and denounced -- by both traditionalists and secularists; one of the best features of his novels for me is that they describe without preaching.
In my opinion, this is one of Mahfouz' best novels, although not quite in the same class as his Cairo Trilogy. While the later trilogy is a paradigm of the modern realist novel, this book tends more toward naturalism; the characters are more dominated by the situation and their emotions, are less conscious of their own motivations, and much less conscious of the nature of the changes going on, than in the later books, and there is no explicit political discussion. (The main characters in the trilogy are of a slightly higher social class and more educated, so play a more active role in events.)
I liked the way the chapters alternate the stories of the people who live in the Alley, sometimes focusing on one character, sometimes on various combinations. Almost all the characters are treated with a mixture of sympathy and irony; there are no unbelievable heroes or total villains, and when they come in conflict one can always see both sides.
2. Having read other novels by Mahfouz, I can't say that I was really surprised at the overall description. One thing that did surprise me somewhat was the relative toleration of Kirsha; although his homosexuality is condemned, it is well known and he is still otherwise respected and a leader in the community. We generally think of the Moslem world as more restrictive, but I can't really imagine this in a conservative Christian community in the West back in the 1940s. I was also a little surprised at the assertiveness of many of the wives.
3. The comic scenes with Umm Hamida and Mrs. Afify arranging the marriage. And when Mrs. Afify throws away her teeth.
4. None of the characters are really wholly sympathetic or unsympathetic, although I would have to say Abbas is the most sympathetic. There is really nothing to dislike about him, except maybe his total lack of ambition, and his joke of pretending to have bought Uncle Kamil a shroud. The most unsympathetic character is the pimp. But ironically, Hamida is probably less unhappy working for the pimp than she would have been married to Abbas.
I have to admit that I had a particular dislike of the "saintly" Radwan Hussainy, who basically denies rather than solves the real problems of the people he counsels; and at the end, when he feels that he should have done something to prevent the tragedy, he decides to use his money -- to go on a pilgrimage to ask forgiveness for himself.
5. The one aspect I would like to have changed is the ending; it seemed too melodramatic for a novel in which otherwise the action is entirely domestic.