Published: January 2009
At the Cairo Book Fair this time last year I picked a book of Naguib Mahfuz, Children of the Alley. Mahfuz is such a great teller of stories. He claims to have heard them from the poet-storytellers in the coffee houses, a profession sadly no longer found in Egypt, due to patrons' preference for the TV.
Children of the Alley is about a typical alley in the outskirts of Cairo on the edge of the desert, in which the people are not only poor, but deprived and uneducated. Dirt is everywhere; garbage is scattered by scavenging dogs, cats and rats; there are flies and mosquitos and strong odors. Sounds are those of dogs barking, donkeys braying as they pull heavily loaded rickety carts, cries of merchants selling wares on the street, and shouts and screams from the houses; but there are no TV's and no automobiles. Everyone is terrorized by gangsters and extortionists. Protection money is paid to 'protectors,' but they're just as rotten as the rest. Life is brutally raw; fights frequently end in death, either by clubbing or knifing, (but no guns) and other less pleasant methods which I shall not describe. This is certainly not the Cairo I have known, or ever hope to know.
There are six main characters in Children of the Alley: Gabalawi, the master of the quarter, who lives in 'The Big House' with a walled, well watered garden of many trees and flowers; Adham, one of his sons, who is expelled from the big house into the alley; then three characters, Gabal, Rifaa and Qassem, who in turn try to restore some sort of justice and order to the chaos following the expulsion, and finally Arafa, the magician. There is the promise throughout that one day all al Gabalawi's children will return to live with him in his mansion. These are independent stories, but it was only part way through Rifaa's that I realized that the whole was an allegorical historical epic. Adham represents Adam, cast out of the Garden of Eden, Gabal, Moses the lawgiver; Rifaa, Jesus, Qassem Muhammad, and Arafa, Nietche or Marx, or the founders of modern secularism. There is pathos in each story, but Adham's has more than all Dickens's novels together. To read history, or great literature, as this, more than just superficially, one needs a box of Kleenex.
It is the story of Rifaa that I found the most interesting, though it moved me much less than Adham's. In Rifaa's early life he develops an interest in exorcism to free the people from their evil spirits. He rejects marriage to the daughter of a wealthy family and flees to the desert where Gabalawi meets him and encourages him to return, telling him to use his 'inner strength.' He does return and speaks up against all the violence. "Violence does us no good," he cries. "Every hour... we see people fighting, injuring and killing...Where is justice?" Sound familiar? But he also affirms it is better to be killed than to kill. He saves the life of a prostitute who is about to be stoned, by marrying her himself, but he never consummates the marriage. She later betrays him, and Rifaa is captured, led out to the desert to be killed. He cries for help from Gabalawi, but his cry isn't heard, or not answered. His followers are unable to find his body, and rumor spreads that Gabalawi has carried it off to the garden of 'The Big House.' One of his band of disciples, Ali, is determined on revenge, and so Rifaa's wife is killed. Following that, their behavior is indistinguishable from that of the other children of the alley. Rifaa's message is all but forgotten. In fact, none of the three 'saviors' is able to permanently rid the alley of the gangsters. Arafa thought he had the power to do so through his magic, but he ended up in causing the death of Gabalawi. The garden wall is penetrated with the intent to open the gate to allow everyone in, but his good intention backfires, and the final anarchy in the alley is far, far worse, with no one to cry to for help or relief from their oppressive suffering. (It was this allusion to the 'death of God' that infuriated the religious right, who tried to put Mahfuz on trial for heresy. Also no image of the final prophet, not even an allegorical one, is permitted. The novel was first produced in serial form in the Al Ahram back in 1959, but the government, in order not to offend the religious authorities, prevented its publication in book form until Mahfuz received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.)...
Your donation will help us thrust the Niagara Anglican into the future - communicating the Gospel and the good news of our Anglican tradition to generations to come.