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Classics Corner > Children of the Alley by Naguib Mafouz

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message 1: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 8068 comments Children of the Alley: A Novel was first printed in serial form in a Cairo newspaper, but it was banned in Egypt as a book. It did not sit well with religious figures. My impression was that it was probably banned because it showed all the major religions in an equal, and not so flattering light. I liked the allegorical nature of the book. Each section seemed to start the whole cycle over again with different characters making the same decisions and the people making the same mistakes. The last line of the Gabal section sums it up: "But forgetfulness is the plague of our alley." I think forgetfulness is still the plague of our alley.
Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/li...

I've read the Cairo Trilogy and one other small book. Children is quite different.


TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments I'm not finished with the book yet, Sherry, but I do like what I've read. I think it's a fantastic book, though allegory isn't usually what I enjoy. You know, I don't think the allegory is obvious in this book. The surface story is good enough to stand on its own.

Are all the characters searching for God even though some may be misled? I'm not sure. And to me, the alley represented a kind of Paradise. I might be totally wrong. As I said above, allegory is not my forte.


message 3: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 8068 comments I thought it was an allegory right from the beginning, from the time that the Father threw Adham (Adam?) out of the mansion (Garden of Eden). The whole thing seemed like different Bible stories to me. It was done extremely well, though. I was not surprised when I read that the book had been banned in Egypt. What do others think? Does the book work on levels other than allegorical?


message 4: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments I thought it was allegory right from the throwing out of the mansion scene, too. Allegory all the way. The strange thing is, though, that the blurb on the inside jacket copy says, "neither a parable nor an allegory." I've been puzzling over how they could say that.

Most Egyptians are not Christian, right? I kept reading this as almost parallel to many Christian bible stories, and wondering if Islam has similar stories or if Mafouz was writing from a strictly Christian POV.

That said, I have to say that a little allegory goes a long way with me. I felt the allegorical aspect of the book kept him from making his characters as deep and well-rounded as he might have. I always had the feeling he was manipulating little paper dolls in a kind of shadow-play to fit his stories.

And I tired of the stories. They began to get repetitive. By the last 1/4 of the book I was pretty much skimming. I knew there was going to be a savior figure and great hope for a Paradise, then the savior or his followers would blow it and the same old, same old would start all over again. We didn't need quite so many stories to glom onto this idea.


message 5: by Sue (new)

Sue | 3966 comments I saw it as allegory too, built on biblical stories and, presumably, Islamic tales as well. (That's an area I know too little about,sadly.) At first I found myself put off but then, in the reverse of Ruth, I found my self interested in the many ways the various "saviours" tried to return their people to the garden.

Of course, the people couldn't hold on to the good life even when they were given a taste. The eternal search is still on. I see examples of it regularly on the news.


message 6: by Diana (new)

Diana | 48 comments Sherry wrote: "I thought it was an allegory right from the beginning, from the time that the Father threw Adham (Adam?) out of the mansion (Garden of Eden). The whole thing seemed like different Bible stories to ..."

The romanian translator, working with Mahfouz, had looked into this novel and the boys of the alley are really all Bible characters, which appear (I think) in all world religions.
But I think there is a play between religion and power in this book.
I am not ready reading it, only haldway through, but I found it very similar to story telling, but in the same time it transmits a very powerful message.


message 7: by Diana (new)

Diana | 48 comments Sue wrote: "I saw it as allegory too, built on biblical stories and, presumably, Islamic tales as well. (That's an area I know too little about,sadly.) At first I found myself put off but then, in the reverse ..."

Egyptians are mostly muslims and the strange thing about the Holy Qur'an is that all the stories, besides those about the Prophet Mohammed are the same.
Differences appear only in those places, where, so it says in the legends, the Bible got it wrong.
One very different aspect to the Bible is that they don't see Jesus as being God's son, but he was conceived miraculously through divine intervention by Mary.
I know that the way muslims act today, seems to be very far apart from Christians, but if you take a closer look at the Bible and the Qur'an, the stories are, in harsh lines, the same.


message 8: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments That's interesting Diana. I don't know a whole lot about Islam.

We also had the Cain and Abel story in this book. I forget their names, but one brother killed the other.


message 9: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 8068 comments I think you're right, Diana. Here is a link that summarizes the religious elements:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children...

And here is the first page of what seems like a very interesting article by the translator. I wish I had access to the whole thing:
http://www.jstor.org/pss/25091810


message 10: by Sue (new)

Sue | 3966 comments I knew that the Bible seems to be a precursor of sorts to the Qu'ran but I didn't know about the changes as you describe. I do need to learn more.

I wonder why it was banned? Because it didn't have stories based on the Qu'ran? I thought I had read somewhere it was because he had equated all religions. That's probably why I thought he'd included a story based on Islam.


message 11: by TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (last edited Jun 02, 2011 03:56PM) (new)

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) | 3817 comments I found this today:

http://academic.marion.ohio-state.edu...

Although I think it's a fantastic book, as I said above, allegory is not my preferred type of book. I felt a little like Ruth did, and I tired of reading each story over and over with different characters.

I think, because it is allegory, the writing was a little simplistic.

It's a good book, but I'm more a fan of Realism - and Tolstoy - when it comes to literature. Not sorry I read the book, though.


message 12: by Carol (new)

Carol | 7513 comments What can I say, it was a book that explored the storytelling and myths surrounding the three major monolithic religions . He did it according to the progression of the beginnings of each religion. Each of these religions are an extension of each other with few differences. The differences there are are the major source on contention between them. The stories are pretty much the same. Even same names.


message 13: by Cathy (new)

Cathy | 320 comments Sherry wrote: "I think you're right, Diana. Here is a link that summarizes the religious elements:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children...

And here is the first page of what seems like a very interesti..."


Hi Sherry, for a PDF of the whole article see
http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdfplus/2...


message 14: by Cathy (new)

Cathy | 320 comments Done! I just finished the book. It reads like a series of fairy tales to me, but fairy tales with allegorical undertones. I enjoyed the stories in and of themselves although as has been noted they became repetitive. I'm not sure what to make of the final character, Araf. I'm just puzzling if he was protrayed sympathetically or indeed a "saviour." His motives and methods were very murky.


message 15: by Sue (new)

Sue | 3966 comments I agree about Arafa. Is magic the only way? But of course it failed too. Nothing man does gets him to that Garden. Saviour is a loaded word in this book. It seems to depend on the speaker or observer. Once again, this seems true everywhere today. Is that the point?


message 16: by Diana (new)

Diana | 48 comments Sue wrote: "I knew that the Bible seems to be a precursor of sorts to the Qu'ran but I didn't know about the changes as you describe. I do need to learn more.

I wonder why it was banned? Because it didn't ha..."


The islamic world is somewhat sensitive to religious characters being fictionalized, so it is forbidden to use any character or any religious story in books and movies. That is what happened to the "Satanic Verses" as well and Salman Rushdie was a candidate for fatwa :)
I don't think someone got the messages of the book, they just got the parallels to the Qur'an and that seemed intimidating enough, so they banned it.
I researched this details, while I was doing a paper on "The Satanic Verses" and I was taken aback, if you think how many Christian works have presented religious stories with a twist or in a new interpretation.


message 17: by Sherry, Doyenne (last edited Jun 03, 2011 03:29AM) (new)

Sherry | 8068 comments Thanks for the whole article, Cathy. I'm off to read it.

(One minute later) Shoot, I still could only access the first page.


message 18: by Diana (new)

Diana | 48 comments Sherry wrote: "Thanks for the whole article, Cathy. I'm off to read it.

(One minute later) Shoot, I still could only access the first page."


Me too and I was psyched to read it.


message 19: by Niledaughter (last edited Jun 03, 2011 11:13AM) (new)

Niledaughter Hello , I am Egyptian …I hope you do not mind me joining your discussion :)

I read this novel about 3 years ago when it became no longer banned in Egypt , but a friend of mine tolled me my copy was not complete (that made me furious!) any way …I am glad you are enjoying the book (some how ?) , I love Mahfooz and I read so many of his books already , this one is a good book but not my favorite one for him , I guess that was because of the repetition and that took him so long to reach what he wanted to say by the end .

About the book banning in Egypt :
Of course the allegorical nature of the book brought sensitivity towards the book , as Diana said " The Islamic world is somewhat sensitive to religious characters" , but the real reason of its banning was mainly because of its ending and I can not go through this unless everyone finishes the book . This brings me to this :

Cathy wrote: " I'm not sure what to make of the final character, Araf. I'm just puzzling if he was protrayed sympathetically or indeed a "saviour." His motives and methods were very murky. ..."

For the Arabic edition here was an interview with Mahfooz where he did more explaining to this part , I will try to post here later if you like :)


* For The Holy Qur'an stories similarity to the bible that was already answered by Dinna , but for your note:

Diana wrote: "I know that the way muslims act today, seems to be very far apart from Christians, but if you take a closer look at the Bible and the Qur'an, the stories are, in harsh lines, the same..."

True , we (Muslims) already believe in the Christ (but in a different way as mentioned) and actually all previous prophets (it is part of the Islamic ideology) . but as practice we are closer to Jews than to Christians .(I know this seems odd , but it is true)


message 20: by [deleted user] (new)

I finished the book today. I didn't mind the repetition! I thought it just helped illustrate the idea that forgetfulness was the plague of the alley. I did have one question (well, I have many questions, but I will ask just this one now!): were the '10 conditions' ever told to us, the readers? I don't think they were, and I don't recall that they were ever revealed to the people of the alley. Why have conditions if they remain hidden?! I suppose that is part of the story that can be viewed as Absurd. Do you think the 10 conditions were like the 10 commandments? I am just not sure if I missed something, or if these conditions are meant to be absurd and illusive...


message 21: by Sue (new)

Sue | 3966 comments Christi wrote: "I finished the book today. I didn't mind the repetition! I thought it just helped illustrate the idea that forgetfulness was the plague of the alley. I did have one question (well, I have many ques..."

Christi....I had the same thought wondering if the 10 Conditions were, in fact, the 10 Commandments.

Nile daughter wrote: "Hello , I am Egyptian …I hope you do not mind me joining your discussion :)

I read this novel about 3 years ago when it became no longer banned in Egypt , but a friend of mine tolled me my copy..."


Thank you so much for your perspective Nile Daughter. I find it very helpful, along with Diana's thoughts.


message 22: by Cathy (new)

Cathy | 320 comments Nile daughter wrote: "Hello , I am Egyptian …I hope you do not mind me joining your discussion :)

I read this novel about 3 years ago when it became no longer banned in Egypt , but a friend of mine tolled me my copy..."


Hi Nile daugher, I would be interested in the interview with Mahfooz about the character Araf. Do you have a link?
Thanks!


message 23: by Niledaughter (new)

Niledaughter Sue , you are welcome :)

Cathy ,
The new Arabic edition has an introduction by Islamic thinker Ahmad Kamāl Abu al-Majd at the request of Mahfouz himself (in the format of an interview), check this interesting article about the struggle between intellectuals and fundamentals about publication the novel in Egypt and wither it was right or wrong to be published with that intro .

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2006/781/c...

spoiler alert

I could not find an English translation of that intro , but it discusses the important concept by the novel which was clarified in the last chapter , the last chapter represented the struggle between science and religion ( that was the main problem about the novel in Egypt) , Arafa (his name came from the word knowing) , represented the language of the new era "science" = "Magic" in the novel … if religion did us no good with all these experiences we had , then let us get God out of the equation by killing Gabalawy , but did that work ? Science without religion also turned to be evil, it did not work out either, so people started to search for religion again , the problem is within human beings themselves .

You know radicals or fundamentals saw Mahfooz as Atheist who wants to kill God ! Mahfooz sees the problem about the (Awlad haretna) is that it was read by some as a book not a novel ! no one really understood his message .

For me the novel says as "Albert Einstein "said,
" Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."


message 24: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Nile daughter, thank you so much for sharing your insights, particularly regarding the last section. I wondered if Arafa was supposed to be, like the other main characters, a particular person (in this case, a scientist). I figured out the identities of the others: Adam (with Cain & Abel), Moses, Jesus, Mohammed....

My reading experience was like Ruth's. At the beginning, I was absorbed by the different world Mahfouz creates. Even after I figured out that the book was Biblical (Qu'uranic) stories re-told, I still enjoyed the "Moses" story. But by the third section, I found the repetitions tedious (no one ever is slightly angry! it's "rage" or nothing!) and the simplistic characterizations unsatisfying. Everyone seemed trapped in a poorly written play. (That may be his point?! Trapped in our human nature.) And perhaps I did not appreciate the presentation of Jesus as pretty much a "holy fool," clueless about human nature. I skimmed most of the fourth section, then skipped over to skim through the fifth.

Are Mahfouz's other works also allegorical?


message 25: by Natalie (new)

Natalie I'm struggling with the book. So far I have read the first two stories and although I appreciate the underlying messages/ images the stories convey, I cannot really get over the writing (I agree with Mary Ellen I find it to be overly simplistic and just not captivating).

I guess I will finish the book, slowly, bit by bit.

I have only read one other book by Mahfouz, "Miramar."

I found the book somewhat similar in that it told the story of one young women and several men and this could be read in an allegorical way and interpreted as the political situation in Egypt.


message 26: by Niledaughter (last edited Jun 07, 2011 04:24AM) (new)

Niledaughter Mary Ellen , you are welcome …Mahfouz is a philosopher and he usually uses a lot of metaphors , Allegory and Symbolism are Means of his Social and Political criticism in a time it was not easy to speak up .

His master piece is The Cairo Trilogy: Palace Walk; Palace of Desire; Sugar Street or just its first part Palace Walk , it is not Allegorical , also The Harafishis considered a master piece and may be the most favorite one for him but I have not read it yet . Arabian Nights and Days is magic realism . his political novels like Cairo Modern , Adrift on the Nile and Miramar are Allegorical with different digrees , he has several historical novels (mainly pharaonic era ) like Rhadopis of Nubia .

I believe "Children of the Alley" was famous because it was banned not because it was his best . (that is my personal opinion) .

Natalie , I am glad to see you reading Mahfouz :D did you like "Miramar" ?


message 27: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Ideiosepius As an ex-israeli jew I agree with Nile daughter that the jewish and muslim faiths are much more similar to each other than either are to christianity. By now I am throughly intrigued by this book - must go out and find it.


message 28: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 8068 comments I've read the Cairo Trilogy. They are much more nuanced and the characters are deep and complex. The books are wonderful and I highly recommend them.


message 29: by [deleted user] (new)

I am currently reading Midaq Alley and I am enjoying Mahfouz's sense of humor and his psychological portraits of characters.


message 30: by Sue (new)

Sue | 3966 comments Nile daughter wrote: "Mary Ellen , you are welcome …Mahfouz is a philosopher and he usually uses a lot of metaphors , Allegory and Symbolism are Means of his Social and Political criticism in a time it was not easy t..."

I think I will add Palace Walk to my list to read. I would like to read more of Mahfouz. Thanks for your recommendations and information Nile daughter.


message 31: by Mary Ellen (last edited Jun 07, 2011 09:39AM) (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Back to Children: after reflecting on the comments here, and then on the book, I am struck by the profound pessimism that was not as evident when I was reading. No religious "reform" lasted much beyond the life of the reformer (and for Adham, there was never any success). And science proved no better. The "magic" was quickly turned to develop agents of destruction. For all that Arafa talked about wanting to do good, he had a somewhat sinister quality. (IIRC, Mahfouz refers to his "sharp teeth" showing when he smiles at his wife early on.) He seemed more bent on revenge for unnamed wrongs than anything else. Could he not have used his skill to invent something that, in itself, would provide a benefit? (Of course, I gather his very first product was something of a Viagra precursor!)

Interesting that Arafa was the illegitimate son of an unknown father. Science, springing from something within human nature, but not acknowledged by any of the religions? He made many references to his mother's suffering -- who, or what, was she supposed to be?


message 32: by Lyn (new)

Lyn | 950 comments I read this book awhile ago, and remember that I almost stopped reading due to the violence and pessimism, but did finish the book. Uncomfortably, I felt by the end that its portrayal of human nature was quite relevant to much that is happening today, particularly the greed. I continue to think about what was so utterly depressing about the novel, and how my situation differs beyond the difference in material goods. It does seem that the worship/placing hope in some other entity or someone else for meaning in life created only longing and dissatisfaction with life, and the feeling that life was a burden to be got through rather than the amazing experience I generally feel it to be at its essence. Words are getting in the way here, but there is something small minded and also something true in what Malhouz has protrayed, perhaps something to find one's way past, over, or through.

I've put the Cairo Trilogy on my to-read list.


message 33: by Ingy (last edited Jun 09, 2011 12:31PM) (new)

Ingy (ngnoah) | 2 comments Hello..
A very late intervention..
I'm Ingy, I'm also Egyptian.. I enjoyed reading this discussion a lot. I read this novel years ago, and you brought back to me very intersting ideas.

But first, let me say that the novel is no longer banned in Egypt.
For the past 10 years or so it was allowed to be sold in Egypt, but it was not printed by Egyptian publishing houses. I don't think they were "ordered" not to print it though. Then, after Mahfouz passed away, "Dar Al-Shorouk" Egypt's largest printing house, published his complete work series, including this novel.

As for why the novel was banned, Nile Daughter explained it perfectly well. But let me also add that in Islam we are not allowed to portray prophets and holy people. As a Muslim I can understand that when it comes to movies and television.. We don't find it appropriate that an actor portrays a prophet, then in another movie he portrays another character that might be evil or sinful.
But for some, novels and books are the same. It's not appropriate to portray prophets as ordinary people.
Add to that the events of the last chapter with Arafa as Nile Daughter explained earlier.

Ruth and Sue, biblical stories on prophets are almost the same in Islam, that's why the stories you read in the novel ring a bell :)

Spoiler Alert

Nile Daughter said: the last chapter represented the struggle between science and religion ( that was the main problem about the novel in Egypt) , Arafa (his name came from the word knowing) , represented the language of the new era "science" = "Magic" in the novel … if religion did us no good with all these experiences we had , then let us get God out of the equation by killing Gabalawy , but did that work ? Science without religion also turned to be evil, it did not work out either, so people started to search for religion again , the problem is within human beings themselves .

Exactly what I was going to say, you spared me the typing! :))


message 34: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments I was wondering whether another factor in the banning of the book was the condemnation of the people in control as gangsters with clubs. It certainly implied a strong criticism of the government & elites.

I read an interesting review of the book here:
www.frumforum.com/children-of-the-alley

The review says that the novel ends on a note of hope, and that Arafa's "reform," unlike those of the other religious leaders, actually left behind his formulas. So, his followers could continue where he left off, seeking scientific solutions to life's inequities. He quotes the last paragraph, and it can be read as hopeful, but I read it as a sad reference to people's capacity for deluded hope. Maybe I'd become too pessimistic myself by the end of the 500+ pages!


message 35: by Sue (new)

Sue | 3966 comments NG wrote: "Hello..
A very late intervention..
I'm Ingy, I'm also Egyptian.. I enjoyed reading this discussion a lot. I read this novel years ago, and you brought back to me very intersting ideas.

But first..."


Ingy, thanks for your input. It's really great that we have two people from Egypt to provide more information as we discuss this book. All of this has really whetted my appetite to read more Mahfouz.


message 36: by Sheila (last edited Jun 11, 2011 04:02AM) (new)

Sheila | 1419 comments I'm loving the discussion even though I haven't yet read the book and won't be able to until either I can find an ecopy of it, or my goods and shackles are eventually taken out of store and unpacked (which noww could be another 2 years)

Anyways just dropping by to read everyone's take on it (which is making me want to read it more) and to welcome my fellow Middle East North African GoodReads Group members Nile Daughter, NG and Natalie to our CR discussion.

I'm so pleased most of you are enjoy one of my top most favorite authors of all time.


message 37: by Niledaughter (last edited Jun 12, 2011 01:15AM) (new)

Niledaughter Mary Ellen wrote: "Interesting that Arafa was the illegitimate son of an unknown father. Science, springing from something within human nature, but not acknowledged by any of the religions? He made many references to his mother's suffering -- who, or what, was she supposed to be?..."

I agree with you about the father and I kept thinking about the mother's suffering too , was because Scince had difficult time to get free from the religion control ?
Thanks for the article...

NG ...lol :D

Sheila , thank you fot the warm welcome and for inviting us to here , and I am really happy you like Mahfouz :)


message 38: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Nile daughter,
Here's an allegorical interpretation! IIRC, Arafah ultimately alluded to his mother having been raped (by one of the men of the alley, follower of Gabal, Rifaa or Quessem, he knew not whom, I guess), with his birth the result. My wild thought: perhaps his "mother" was human reason, which had been controlled by religion. And, yes, ND, certainly Christianity and later, Islam (and maybe Judaism? No examples spring to mind, but it may be my ignorance) gave and give scientists a hard time when they fear the scientists' theories challenge their dogmas.

If this is at all what Mahfouz intended, it's not hard to see why the book was not welcomed in religious circles, even though it does not put science in so great a light either.


message 39: by Niledaughter (new)

Niledaughter Mary Ellen wrote: "Nile daughter,
Here's an allegorical interpretation! IIRC, Arafah ultimately alluded to his mother having been raped (by one of the men of the alley, follower of Gabal, Rifaa or Quessem, he knew..."


Sorry I forgot to post my response , I agree with you about your analysis about Arafa's motherand its reflection to relation between religion and science , it may seem cruel but historically it is true in a lot of cases .for this part , I guess narrow minded figures did not try to read the complete message , as you refered Mahfouze did not put science in so great light either , for him it was not about science or religion abstracted , it is more about human beings contradictions and fanaticism.


message 40: by Sue (last edited Jul 06, 2011 12:49PM) (new)

Sue | 3966 comments Nile daughter wrote: "Mary Ellen wrote: "Nile daughter,
Here's an allegorical interpretation! IIRC, Arafah ultimately alluded to his mother having been raped (by one of the men of the alley, follower of Gabal, Rifaa ..."


An interesting interpretation Mary Ellen. Certainly neither religion nor science presents well in Mahfouz' Alley (and seemingly often not in our world either). But the negative light on religion would earn enemies.


message 41: by Niledaughter (new)

Niledaughter Sue wrote: "An interesting interpretation Mary Ellen. Certainly neither religion nor science presents well in Mahfouz' Alley (and seemingly often not in our world either). But the negative light on religion would earn enemies. ..."

I believe the problem is that people mixes between religions / ideologies and applications /behaviors done according to people's own interpretation.

Meaning if I criticize something that was done in the name of a religion means I criticize that religion. This goes for both : extreme believers or fundamentalism critics.

Anther issue is that for someone to be an atheist does not give anybody else the right to kill him, choosing a religion is part of the personal freedom , and respecting others' religions is part of that freedom .


message 42: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 8068 comments Well said, Nile daughter.


message 43: by Sue (new)

Sue | 3966 comments Very well said.


message 44: by Ingy (new)

Ingy (ngnoah) | 2 comments Exactly, Nile Daughter!


message 45: by Niledaughter (new)

Niledaughter Thanks :)


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