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

Iran’s Four-Decade Strategy to Envelope Israel in Terror

Yesterday, the head of the Shin Bet—Israel’s internal security service—was in Washington meeting with officials from the State Department, CIA, and the White House itself. Among the topics no doubt discussed are rising tensions with Iran and the possibility that the latter, in order to defend its nuclear program, will instruct its network of proxies in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and even Iraq and Yemen to attack the Jewish state. Oved Lobel explores the history of this network, which, he argues, predates Iran’s Islamic Revolution—when Shiite radicals in Lebanon coordinated with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s movement in Iran:

An inextricably linked Iran-Syria-Palestinian axis has actually been in existence since the early 1970s, with Lebanon the geographical fulcrum of the relationship and Damascus serving as the primary operational headquarters. Lebanon, from the 1980s until 2005, was under the direct military control of Syria, which itself slowly transformed from an ally to a client of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The nexus among Damascus, Beirut, and the Palestinian territories should therefore always have been viewed as one front, both geographically and operationally. It’s clear that the multifront-war strategy was already in operation during the first intifada years, from 1987 to 1993.

[An] Iranian-organized conference in 1991, the first of many, . . . established the “Damascus 10”—an alliance of ten Palestinian factions that rejected any peace process with Israel. According to the former Hamas spokesperson and senior official Ibrahim Ghosheh, he spoke to then-Hizballah Secretary-General Abbas al-Musawi at the conference and coordinated Hizballah attacks from Lebanon in support of the intifada. Further important meetings between Hamas and the Iranian regime were held in 1999 and 2000, while the IRGC constantly met with its agents in Damascus to encourage coordinated attacks on Israel.

For some reason, Hizballah’s guerilla war against Israel in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s was, and often still is, viewed as a separate phenomenon from the first intifada, when they were in fact two fronts in the same battle.

Israel opted for a perilous unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, which Hamas’s Ghosheh asserts was a “direct factor” in precipitating the start of the second intifada later that same year.

Read more at Australia/Israel Review

More about: First intifada, Hizballah, Iran, Palestinian terror, Second Intifada