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

February 27, 2023 | Peter Theroux
About the author:

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.

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