Thursday, August 21, 2008

Easier to Understand Than The Torah, New Testament, and Qur'an Put Together

32. Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

I read the English translation of this Egyptian novel published in 1959. I wanted more information on the author and a couple things in the book, and I found out that due to some sort of agreement between the author and a faction of the Egyptian government, this book is published abroad, but not in Egypt (it is published in Arabic in Lebanon however). Children of the Alley is an unabashed retelling of Biblical stories beginning with Adam, and continuing through Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and a mysterious later character, as set in an Egyptian neighborhood. The names are different and the stories deviate slightly, but the allegories are clear. The narrative is far more straightforward, realistic and in keeping with a pessimistic interpretation of human nature than the holy books themselves. The God figure is Gabalawi, the father of Adham, and once he kicks out this beloved youngest son, he remains locked in his mansion for centuries while his descendants live in the alley below and fight over his estate. Gabalawi's long life is the only point in which credibility is stretched, otherwise there are no miracles. The style of the first section is elevated and hard to get into, but once the Gabal (Moses) section begins, the reader can become more invested in the characters and the writing style is more captivating. What I found most interesting were Mahfouz's deviations from the familiar stories that reveal his more subtle (though nothing is particularly hidden, as the back cover suggests) thoughts on human behavior and spirituality. The last character, Arafa, seems to be the equivalent of a modern scientist perhaps, part Einstein and part Nietzsche. I shared the surprise of another reviewer (linked to below), that Qassem (Mohammed) was not the last character in the cycle, as Mahfouz's Muslim upbringing would seem to necessitate. This novel would be a good text for someone engaged in religious or Middle Eastern studies, and for people interested in those topics.

An interesting analysis of the book: http://www.northern.edu/hastingw/mahfouz.htm

I also found a blog of the same title about modern Egypt: http://childrenofthealley.blogspot.com/

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