The Story of a Beloved Work of Arab Literature, and Its Enemies

Feb. 27 2023

Like the great novels of 19th-century Europe, Children of the Alley, by the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, was published serially in a major newspaper and weaves a multigeneration tale of a single family. The controversies surrounding the book, which appeared in 1959 and was first published as a stand-alone work in 1967, are the subject of Mohamed Shoair’s recent The Story of a Banned Book. Peter Theroux, who translated Children of the Alley into English, writes in his review:

Critics, religious and secular, were quick to find fault with Mahfouz’s work. Islamic figures saw obvious blasphemy in the treatment of characters that seemed to be reliving the lives of holy prophets, complete with wording taken directly from the Torah and Gospels. Partisans of the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser saw in the disconnected tyrant of the novel an unsubtle stand-in for their leader. Various factions called for Mahfouz’s trial, arrest, or assassination, and the controversy finally resulted in the 1996 assassination attempt against Mahfouz by a fanatic encouraged by the notorious “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel Rahman. Mahfouz survived to die peacefully in 2006.

The Story of the Banned Book briefly but exhaustively chronicles the story of the novel, which makes for lively reading as well as serving a highly scholarly purpose, especially given the study’s fastidious sourcing and footnoting. . . . Shoair accompanies the ups and downs of Mahfouz and the novel with rich details of contemporary events: what was worrying Nasser on a given day; how al-Azhar University and the Muslim Brotherhood saw their equities evolving in the culture war; and how political opportunists went after the doggedly pro-peace Mahfouz in the aftermath of lost wars with Israel, followed by the Sadat-Begin peace treaty.

In fact, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988 only brought Mahfouz more animus from his compatriots:

Not only had colonial powers and “Zionists” shown their approval of Mahfouz by naming him the first Arab recipient of the prize, [his critics claimed], but in the world of Arab nationalism and political Islam, there were literary rivals to contend with. The Egyptian novelist Yusuf Idris dubiously contended that he had been nominated for the Nobel “five times,” and, of course, “Mahfouz has got it because he has made peace with the Jews and does not criticize them.” Other writers piled on; mosque preachers openly denounced him as an apostate, and an emissary of the Palestine Liberation Organization showed up in Cairo with a suitcase containing $400,000 in cash to bribe Mahfouz to refuse the prize and denounce the West.

Read more at Middle East Quarterly

More about: Anti-Semitism, Arabic literature, Camp David Accords, Egypt


How the U.S. Is Financing Bashar al-Assad

Due to a long history of supporting terrorism and having waged a brutal and devastating war on its own people, the Syrian regime is subject to numerous U.S. sanctions. But that doesn’t stop American tax dollars from going to President Bashar al-Assad and his cronies, via the United Nations. David Adesnik explains:

UN agencies have spent $95.5 million over the past eight years to house their staff at the Four Seasons Damascus, including $14.2 million last year. New Yorkers know good hotel rooms don’t come cheap, but the real problem in Damascus is that the Four Seasons’ owners are the Assad regime itself and one of the war profiteers who manages the regime’s finances.

The hotel would likely go under if not for UN business; Damascus is not a tourist destination these days. The UN claims keeping its staff at the Four Seasons is about keeping them safe. Yet there has been little fighting in Damascus since 2017. A former UN diplomat with experience in the Syrian capital told me the regime tells UN agencies it can only guarantee the safety of their staff if they stay at the Four Seasons.

What makes the Four Seasons debacle especially galling is that it’s been public knowledge for seven years, and the UN has done nothing about it—or the many other ways the regime siphons off aid for its own benefit. One of the most lucrative is manipulating exchange rates. . . . One of Washington’s top experts on humanitarian aid crunched the numbers and concluded the UN lost $100 million over eighteen months to this kind of rate-fixing.

What the United States and its allies should do is make clear to the UN they will turn off the spigot if the body doesn’t get its act together.

Read more at New York Post

More about: Bashar al-Assad, Syria, U.S. Foreign policy, United Nations