The story of Children of the Alley

David Tresilian , Tuesday 17 May 2022

Egyptian critic Mohamed Shoair’s reconstruction of tussles surrounding Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Children of the Alley has appeared in English translation.

Mohamed Shoair s The Story of a Banned Novel


Egyptian critic Mohamed Shoair published his book Awlad Haratina: The Story of a Banned Novel in 2018, when it almost immediately went into a third impression. An account of the publication and subsequent tussles over Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s 1959 novel Awlad Haratina (Children of the Alley), the book struck a chord with many readers as it reconstructed not only the background to Mahfouz’s novel, but also the cultural and political atmosphere in which it first appeared.

Awlad Haratina is available today in two English translations as Children of Gebelawi and Children of the Alley, as well as in multiple other foreign-language versions. It is also available in a complete Arabic version as part of a collected edition of Mahfouz’s novels. However, as Shoair explains in his reconstruction of the novel’s first publication, now fluently translated by the late Humphrey Davies as The Story of the Banned Book, Arabic-speaking readers had to wait several decades before they were able freely to purchase copies of it in Egypt.

The story starts with the novel’s serialisation in Al-Ahram from October to December 1959, a first for almost any novel at the time. As Shoair explains, Mahfouz, celebrated as Egypt and the Arab world’s leading novelist after the publication of his Cairo Trilogy a few years earlier, had apparently stopped writing novels in the middle of the decade. News that he had written a new one and was intending to publish it in serial form in Al-Ahram was thus met with considerable excitement.

Then editor of Al-Ahram Mohamed Hassanein Heikal personally ensured that space would be found for the serialisation in the Arabic daily, and illustrations were commissioned from a leading illustrator. Heikal also defended the novel when criticisms of it began to come in to Al-Ahram, and he even answered questions from then president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who was becoming uneasy about the novel’s appearance in one of the country’s leading newspapers and the growing campaign against it.

One problem was that Mahfouz’s new novel was unlike anything he had published before, and it seemed to mark an initially bewildering new direction in his career. Readers used to Mahfouz’s earlier novels, among them those that analysed Egypt’s class structure with a merciless eye or the Cairo Trilogy itself that offered an evolutionary account of Egyptian society over the previous 30 or 40 years, did not know what to make of this new novel that seemed to shift symbolic characters around in an abstract argument the nature of which was not entirely clear.

However, another problem, more directly related to the campaign that began to gather strength against the novel as the serialisation continued, was that its characters and the overall scheme of which they were a part seemed to be inspired by the history of religion and its place in human lives. As Shoair puts it in his reconstruction of the novel’s initial publication, at first the serialisation proceeded smoothly but then rumours about its supposed content started to appear along with calls for Al-Azhar to investigate. At this point, Nasser, in Shoair’s telling, asked for an explanation, but later agreed that “any novel by Naguib Mahfouz has to be published down to the last word.”

It turns out that Heikal had anticipated some attacks on the novel and had therefore authorised its daily serialisation in Al-Ahram, considering that the publication could be completed before they really gathered strength. He now proposed that Al-Azhar should be asked formally to investigate the novel by setting up a committee of inquiry, all the while knowing that this would not have time to make its recommendations before the whole of the novel had been published.

“I wanted to gain enough time to complete the publication of the rest of the novel,” Heikal told Shoair in an interview. “The committee did in fact decide to halt publication. This happened ten days before the end of the novel, but the publication continued until the end.”

While the novel was published in serial form in Al-Ahram, however, the opinion of the Al-Azhar committee was enough to prevent its publication in book form. According to Shoair, this was not so much because of a reluctance on the part of Mahfouz’s Egyptian publishers to make the publication of the novel into some kind of test case, as with Mahfouz’s own reluctance to see it become a battleground for those taking opposing views about the extent and limits of freedom of speech.

In a particularly fascinating section of his book, Shoair recounts how Mahfouz, always reluctant to become involved in arguments about his novel and insisting in the occasional comments he could be persuaded to make only that it had been “misunderstood,” systematically deflected questions about it in a bid to dampen down the controversy and put his questioners off the scent.

Speaking to critic Ghali Shukri in an interview in the Beirut magazine Hiwar, Mahfouz said that the novel was “not a philosophical work.” Perhaps in generic terms it was a kind of “anti-Gulliver’s Travels,” he said. At the same time, he told an interviewer for the Cairo magazine Akhir Sa’a that though there was no legal reason why the novel could not be published in book form in Egypt, his publisher would be reluctant to do so because of possible opposition from Al-Azhar. He had refused to allow the novel to be published outside Egypt, he added, until the misunderstandings about it had died down despite the interest he had received from publishers in Beirut.

All this meant that though the novel was not exactly banned in Egypt – it had after all been published in Al-Ahram – it was not exactly freely available either. Shoair explains that Mahfouz’s Cairo publishers got around this ambiguous situation by announcing on the end papers of every new novel by Mahfouz they published that the publication of Awlad Haratina was “forthcoming.” This became a situation that seemed fated to continue.

Meanwhile, Mahfouz overcame his reluctance to see the novel published abroad in book form, and in 1967 he signed a contract for it to appear from literary publishers Dar al-Adab in Beirut. For the following 20 years it was this edition that circulated among readers throughout the Arab world, including, if reports from the time are to be believed, in Egypt.


LATER DEVELOPMENTS: In addition to providing an account of the initial publication of Awlad Haratina, the campaign against it, and Mahfouz’s response, Shoair’s book also includes a wealth of details about the overall cultural atmosphere of the time.

This was turned towards developing and enriching the nation’s cultural life, with major investment taking place not only in education as a way of broadening and deepening the audience for the new works then being produced, but also in the new institutions that would help to provide opportunities for a new generation of writers, film and theatre directors, and artists.

Much of this investment was either the direct responsibility of the state or was state-led, and there was pressure to ensure that those benefitting from its largesse were supporting its priorities. Writers and others thought to be broadly in agreement with state projects could expect to be rewarded, while those not so considered might find themselves cold-shouldered or worse.

Mahfouz’s many years of creative silence following Egypt’s July 1952 Revolution might have indicated uncertainty about where his thoughts lay, though as Shoair points out throughout this period and later he was a senior figure within the censorship department where he had special responsibility for overlooking films. He also continued to write his own film scripts, being responsible for a string of significant adaptations of literary materials.

In a later interview with critic Raga al-Naqqash, Mahfouz said that the role of the censor was to pay attention to material that “might lead to confessional strife… or [was at odds with] the values and traditions of society.” However, in fact significant censorship at the time also took place for broadly political reasons, though perhaps this kind of censorship was not exercised by Mahfouz.

In a chapter entitled the “Moral Education of the Citizen,” Shoair gives examples of how this more political censorship worked, citing the controversy over the publication of stories by the established writer Ihsan Abdel-Quddous in the Cairo magazine Sabah al-Khair that were criticised for focusing on aspects of contemporary life not in line with the image being promoted by the regime. He also goes on to discuss Mahfouz’s choice of subject matter in the series of shorter novels he began to write in the 1960s, many of which focus on what might be seen as societal or personal breakdown.

There was The Thief and the Dogs, for example, the first in the series, in which Mahfouz betrayed his fascination with the story of Mahmoud Amin Sulayman, a man who specialised in robbing the houses of the rich and was first apprehended while attempting to rob the villa of singer Umm Kalthoum, causing a sensation in the press. Then there was the later novel Adrift on the Nile that seemed more directly critical of the regime.

According to Shoair, citing interviews with various figures from the time, warrants for Mahfouz’s arrest were issued after the publication of Awlad Haratina – considered to have a political message rather than a religious one – and Adrift on the Nile, but these were countermanded by Nasser in person, apparently concerned at the poor light the arrest of writers and intellectuals of the stature of Mahfouz would cast on his regime.

 The Story of the Banned Book is full of similarly fascinating details about the wider cultural and political atmosphere of the time. While it focuses on the controversy surrounding the publication of Awlad Haratina as perhaps most clearly raising questions about the extent and limits of freedom of expression, the relationship between literature and politics and literature and religion, and its real or only relative autonomy, it also has much to say about the sometimes precarious position of writers and others in circumstances where the cultural agenda is decided by the state and where opportunities for publication depend to a large extent on state employment or favour.

Shoair has written a book that will help anyone interested in these crucial years in Egypt’s modern cultural history to understand them better from the perspective of many of the actors of the time, whose words, whether culled from contemporary newspaper or magazine articles or from later books and interviews, make up much of his primary material. The book also contributes greatly to an understanding of Awlad Haratina, firmly re-establishing it as one of Mahfouz’s most intriguing novels, while also adding a significant new work to the already large library of critical and other works on Mahfouz.

One complaint that many readers of contemporary Arabic literature have had, and not only readers of Mahfouz, is the comparative absence of secondary material or commentary that could help them to understand and enjoy it better. Readers of other literatures in translation have long had access to such materials – how many readers of the great Russian novelists, for example, entirely ignorant of Russian, have had their understanding deepened by reading their letters and diaries, all available in English translation, not to speak of the many high-quality biographies?

Perhaps the translation of Shoair’s book on Mahfouz’s novel Awlad Haratina will blaze the trail for translations of other critical and other materials in Arabic into English, such that English-speaking and other readers can finally learn more about the background and context of literary works from the Arab world. Possibly Humphrey Davies, himself the translator of many works of modern Arabic literature into English, also saw this need, explaining his excellent translation of Shoair’s equally excellent and thought-provoking book into English.

Mohamed Shoair, trans. Humphrey Davies, The Story of the Banned Book. Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley, Cairo: AUC Press, 2022, pp211.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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