In his book Children of the Alley, Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz weaves a captivating story about what it is like to live in a lower-class Egyptian neighborhood in 1959. He beautifully describes some of the true essence of Egyptian culture, placing readers right into a world that cannot be fathomed by most.
What’s fascinating was how Mahfouz’s characters metaphorically re-enact the centuries-old stories of the prophets of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, ending with the technological revolution of modern times.
The novel (also known as Children of Gabalawi) was originally published in Arabic in 1959. It was published in a serialized form called Awlad Haritna (children of our alley in Arabic) in the daily Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. It, among other works, earned the author the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988, after its release as a book in Lebanon during the 60s. Nevertheless, since its inception, the book was met with relentless opposition from religious authorities.
Although very prominent Egyptian films were created of his works since the start of his career, publications by Mahfouz in the form of books were banned in the country and other Arab countries until after his Nobel Prize award. The Arabic version of Children of the Alley was only released in Egypt in 2006.
In 1994, even though Mahfouz was at the ripe old-age of 84, extremists went so far as to stab him in the neck in an assassination attempt. This was due to his defense of Salman Rushdie, the author of the controversial Satanic Verses. Although Mahfouz criticized Salman’s book as an insult to Islam, he revered the concept of freedom of expression. The controversial author survived, but continued to physically suffer from this incident and lived the rest of his life with bodyguards.
Because an attempt was made on the life of Naguib Mahfouz, the controversial aspect that surrounds the book, and for the love of a great story and learning about new cultures, Children of the Alley is definitely a must read.
So, what is the controversy all about?
Gabalawi is the central character of the book and all the other individual characters and stories revolve around him. He is the head of the Egyptian neighborhood of the story and lives in a massive mansion surrounded by tall walls. No one sees Gabalawi, but all try to understand him. Everyone fears Gabalawi, but all love him and speak on his behalf. Gabalawi doesn’t see anyone but knows what his alley and people are constantly doing. Doesn’t this sound familiar?
The stories are told from the point of view of an un-named narrator, who is also one of the children of the alley. He was entrusted at the preface of the book by his elders to compile the stories of the alley that were constantly told and re-told in the coffeehouses throughout generations.
It all began when Gabalawi favored his youngest son Adham over his eldest Idris to manage his property under his supervision. Due to jealousy and pride, Idris persuades Adham to betray his father. Soon enough Gabalawi finds out and expels his son from the mansion to live a humble life in the alley.
The story continues and we see how Adham struggles to keep his family alive in the midst of the harsh life of the alley and his succession by the other generations of his family: Gabal, Rifa’a and Qassem. Each character tries to restore prosperity and order in the alley and maintain Gabalawi’s orders and rules for a life of balance and equality.
Apart from the interesting description of Egyptian culture and attitudes, with their poetry, music and way of life, it was really moving to read about the struggles of the main characters. The reader can imagine the opposition they face from their own people even when they are trying to help them.
The basic human natures of greed, jealousy and hatred, divide the generations into three different sections of the neighborhood. Each section is ruled by merciless and greedy gangsters, all competing against each other to be the “favored ones” of Gabalawi.
The story is a work of fiction, symbolically representing Judaism, Christianity and Islam from the authors’ perspective. It becomes quite obvious to the reader that Mahfouz believes that the people of each religion claim that only the ones who follow their beliefs is loved by God and therefore have the right to control everyone else.
Nonetheless, the intricacy of this particular story telling is that it can be interpreted in many ways according to the reader’s own knowledge and life experiences. One perspective is that the story was a criticism of the negative aspects of human nature, not the religions themselves per say. But that requires open-mindedness and the religious extremists, who condemned Mahfouz, did not have this ability.
At the conclusion of each section, the narrator describes how the main character has restored equality and justice in the neighborhood. However, as time passes by, the people tend to forget this favor and resort to their old misguided ways, allowing the next main character to try and restore order again. “Why is forgetfulness the plague of our alley?” the narrator stresses.
In the final section of the book, the main character Arafa becomes an allegory for modern science. We see how the followers of each section of the alley try to claim him as their own as well as his new “magical” techniques of living.
With all this “magic” that is being created by Arafa, the younger generations reject the old traditions and stories of heroism of the old generations, and slowly abandon the alley for a more progressive life. Sounds familiar?