The children of Naguib Mahfouz’s alley – Middle East Monitor
Since its first publication in 1959, ‘The children of the aisle’ drew objections from the scholars of Al-Azhar and launched an attack on his life. Then, in 1988, it won the Egyptian writer the Nobel Peace Prize.
What is it about this novel that has sparked such debate in Egypt, the Arab world and Europe? In ‘The story of the forbidden book‘, journalist and writer Mohamed Shoair seeks to answer that question, diving deep into the various interpretations and defenses of Mahfouz’s most famous novel.
‘alley children‘ is the story of a district of Cairo, in particular the alley in which live the descendants of Gabalawi, who lives in a mansion in the middle of the desert.
Strong men control the aisle and extract protection money from people who are hungry and living in poverty. Although they are able to overthrow them and temporarily establish peace and justice, new tyrants, as Mahfouz calls them, arise through the generations, defeating them constantly.
Mahfouz said he wrote ‘The children of the aisle’ because he was unhappy with what happened after the 1952 revolution, including the continuation of terrorist operations, the torture and imprisonment of the people.
Shoair explains, “The novel was a parable of the relationship to authority that smothers humanity until it can’t breathe, whether political, religious or societal.”
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Mahfouz died before the 2011 Egyptian uprising, but this pivotal moment in history followed the same pattern he set in ‘alley children‘. Many believed the revolution ushered in a new era of democracy, but it brought about one of the most repressive regimes in the world. And so history repeats itself.
Shoair’s investigation is a fascinating insight into the lack of literary freedom in Egypt at the time, but also shows how fame can, to some extent, protect a writer living in an authoritarian state. After the book was published, an order for Mahfouz’s arrest was issued, but President Gamal Abdel Nasser stopped his execution, as he was an avid reader of Mahfouz’s works.
“There are writers on whom no one, not even the editor, can impose any censorship or reprimand, among them Naguib Mahfouz,” said Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal, editor-in-chief of Al Ahramwho first serialized the novel, is quoted as saying.
The novel, named one of the most important Arabic novels of all time, even caught the attention of a PLO official after Mahfouz was named a Nobel laureate. The official offered him $400,000 in cash to refuse the “hostile” West award.
What has provoked the fiercest debate is the way Mahfouz presented religion in ‘Alley Kids’. In 1994, the author was stabbed, according to the suspect, because he defied Islam in the book.
Interestingly, the abuser hadn’t even read the book himself, which shows how ‘alley children‘ took on a life of its own after its release. Mahfouz then gave his attacker three of his books and wrote inside: “To those who disagree with my opinions, I dedicate lines I have written for a society that cannot be improved. than by culture.”
Anyone who follows Egyptian politics today will see that what is detailed in the ‘History of the forbidden book‘ raises similar issues of censorship and the struggle for literary freedom that remain at odds with life in an authoritarian state.