Since it was first published in 1959, Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘Children of the Alley’ has drawn objections from scholars at Al-Azhar and instigated an attack on his life. Then in 1988 it won the Egyptian writer the Nobel Prize for Literature.
What is it about this novel that sparked such debate across Egypt, the Arab World and Europe? In ‘The Story of the Banned Book,’ journalist and writer Mohamed Shoair seeks to answer this question, diving deep into the various interpretations and defences of Mahfouz’s most famous novel.
‘Children of the Alley’ is the story of a neighbourhood in Cairo, in particular the alley in which descendants of Gabalawi, who lives in a mansion in the middle of the desert, live.
Strongmen control the alley and extract protection money from the people who are left hungry and living in poverty. Despite being able to overthrow them and temporarily establish peace and justice, new bullyboys, as Mahfouz calls them, spring up across generations constantly battering them down.
Mahfouz has said that he wrote ‘Children of the Alley’ because he was dissatisfied with what came after the 1952 revolution, including the continued terror operations, and the torture and imprisonment of the people.
Shoair explains: “The novel was a parable of the relationship to the authority that chokes humankind until it can no longer breathe, be that authority political, religious or societal.”
Mahfouz died before Egypt’s 2011 uprising, but this momentous moment in history followed the same pattern he set out in ‘Children of the Alley’. Many thought the revolution had ushered in a new era of democracy, but it has 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 a certain extent, protect a writer living in an authoritarian state. After the book was published, an order for Mahfouz’s arrest was issued but then President Gamal Abdel Nasser stopped it from being carried out, because he was an avid reader of Mahfouz’s works.
“There are writers whom no one, not even the editor-in-chief, can impose any censorship or admonition, among them Naguib Mahfouz,” Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal, editor in chief of Al-Ahram, which first serialised the novel, is quoted as saying.
The novel, named one of the most important Arabic novels ever, even drew the attention of a PLO official after Mahfouz was named Nobel Prize winner. The official offered him $400,000 cash to turn down the prize from the “hostile” West.
What provoked the fiercest debate was how Mahfouz presented religion in ‘Children of the Alley’. In 1994 the author was stabbed, according to the suspect, because he defied Islam in the book.
Interestingly, the perpetrator hadn’t even read the book himself, which illustrates quite how much ‘Children of the Alley’ took on a life of its own after it was released. Mahfouz later gifted his attacker three of his books and wrote inside, “To those who disagree with my views I dedicate lines I have written for a society that can only be made better through culture.”
Anyone following Egyptian politics today will see that what is detailed in the ‘Story of the Banned Book’ raises similar questions of censorship and the struggle for literary freedom which remain at odds with living in an authoritarian state.