Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Naguib Mahfouz: Children of the Alley

Another entry for Africa Reading Challenge.

Children of the Alley is the sixth novel I’ve read by Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Mahfouz is a novelist who, in general, I like to read. One thing I’ve noticed about him is his versatility. I’ve not yet read two novels by him that looked alike or that had the same style. Naguib Mahfouz was born in 1911 and died in 2006. He had a long career that allowed him to hop from genre to genre and to reinvent himself many times. The first novel I read was Arabian Nights and Days (1981), a companion and homage to the great Arab classic One Thousand and One Nights, or, as it’s better known in the English-speaking world, The Arabian Nights. It’s a work of fantasy, full of spirits, genies, magic and strange events. Due to my weakness for fantasy and magical realism, it remains my favourite novel by him. Next I read Midaq Alley (1947), written in a completely different register from the whimsical opulence of the other: instead it was a realistic novel about the denizens of a seedy Cairo alley thriving with crime, drugs, prostitution and frustrated dreams. It was another great novel. After that merciless portrait of Egyptian society I moved to Wedding Song (1981 – two novels in the same year?), a more intimate story of a family strife between parents and sons, told from four different perspectives, and with an unexpected but beautiful ending. Morning and Evening Talk (1987) was a strange novel that I didn’t like very much – it’s a family saga that spans two centuries of Egyptian history, from Napoleon’s invasions in the 18th century to our times; but it’s organized like a dictionary, with the family members listed in alphabetical order, completely rendering any order or plot meaningless. It was an experiment but I’m not sure what it was trying to achieve. Daring and innovative, yes, but not very interesting. I preferred Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth (1985), a story about the enigmatic Egyptian ruler Akhenaten, a sort of pre-Jesus Christ figure who upset the order of the day by imposing adoration of a single God instead of the many Egyptian gods. The novel is intricately constructed, with a young scribe interviewing several of persons who knew Akhenaten and slowly building an idea of his personality from their testimonies.

Mahfouz’ passing away in 2006 prompted many new translations of his novels into Portuguese, including his masterpiece, the Cairo Trilogy. However, not certain a realist epic portrait of Egyptian society in the first half of the 20th century would be to my liking, not least of which because it runs over 1300 pages, I preferred to next try Children of the Alley. This novel has an interesting history: it was published in instalments in an Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram (I suppose that explains why the chapters are so short – three to five pages at most), and then it was banned. It was only published in book form in Lebanon in 1967. After Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize in 1989, this book was used by religious fanatics to justify going after him, much like The Satanic Verses had given them an excuse to persecute Salman Rushdie in 1988. In 1994, Mahfouz was attacked and stabbed in the throat by fanatics.

Children of the Alley is an upsetting book, if you take religion too seriously. It’s an allegory about God and Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Mahfouz transposes God to the figure of Gabalawi, a rich proprietor living in the Big House, and the several branches of religion that emanate from him become neighbourhoods around his rich but impenetrable abode. The novel is divided in five sections: Adham (Adam), Gabal (Moses), Rifa’a (Jesus), Qasim (Mohammed), and the magician ‘Arafa, who symbolises science. Each section retells the legends of these four mythical figures and their recurring attempts to release the citizens of the neighbourhoods from the clutches of the futuwwat, the armed watchmen who keep the peace for the administrators, who steal and impose a reign of terror while the populace lives in fear and misery. Each one of the prophets vows to usher their people into a new era of love and prosperity and justice, and indeed for a while they succeed, while they live, then their work is left incomplete and a new futuwwat takes over and the cycle begins anew.

The book is narrated by a scribe who has witnessed the events of the era of ‘Arafa. The main theme that unites the five narratives is lack of memory. “The torment of our neighbourhood is precisely forgetfulness,” complains the narrator. All of the saviours become themes for the poets to sing to the sound of the musical instrument rebab, distorted through fiction. Only the narrator aims to give a sober account of the events.

Memory then is the great problem of the neighbourhoods built around Gabalawi’s Big House. The first section is about Adham, Gabalawi’s favourite son, chosen over Idris to rule the Waqf. Idris (or Satan, or Iblis as I discovered Lucifer is called in Islam) plots to have him cast out, much in the way the serpent tricked Adam and Eve into being expelled from the garden of Eden. Once expelled the brothers live next to each other, in perpetual hatred. Their children grow, and in time their progenitors build and populate the neighbours. With houses and populations and trade come administrators who charge taxes and rule through fear. And prophets and saviours emerge from the wretched.

A novel that tackles the big questions of mankind – memory, justice, God – should, however, be more interesting than Children of the Alley ends up being. The problem with the novel is that it’s predictable if one is reasonably familiar with the Bible and Islam. At one point I stopped caring abut the plot. What I found more interesting was how Mahfouz operates a process of synthesis and parallels: it was curious how Adham and Idris are brothers who already prefigure the Cain/Abel conflict, that makes so much sense. But at the same time Adham is also Job here, accepting his misfortunate in silence and without blaming Gabalawi when everyone else hates him. I also appreciated how the author transfigures some of the saviours based on a particular episode of their lives: Gabal becomes a snake charmer, no doubt because of the famous staff that turns into a serpent; and Rifa’a practices exorcism, an idea obviously inspired by Jesus healing a man from the demon called Legion. The novel also follows an interesting pattern:

Adham: peace
Gabal: violence
Rifa’a: peace
Qasim: violence

‘Arafa, the magician and inventor, also wants to liberate his people, and he believes in peace, but he’s also the man who invents explosives. Rather than freeing people, he becomes an instrument of the administrator in furthering their oppression. And what can the reader make of the fact that the novel ends with ‘Arafa’s friend looking for his notebook of inventions in a heap of garbage? Is the author saying, with no much subdued irony, that our hopes about science have ended up in the waste dump? God allegedly died over a century ago, but science hasn’t delivered the utopia promised by futurists like H.G. Wells.

All, excepting Adham, think history will end with them, that after them force and violence will never be necessary anymore. Like the narrator says, the problem here is one of memory. But perhaps it’s not just memory, it’s wilfully wishing to ignore the facts, a refusal to accept the world as it is, a much needed belief that the world can be improved, even if experience tends to prove otherwise. 

This is the novel’s most original idea. No matter how many prophets, nothing ever changes. Mahfouz’s great idea is to condense the thousand or so years that go from the writing of Genesis (circa 6th century BCE) to the The Koran (7th century CE) into a handful of human generations, making the forgetfulness more apprehensive. This way the history of three religions can boil down to just a few sentences: there is a people suffering injustice, oppression and misery; a saviour arrives claiming to save the people; he doesn’t save anyone; he dies; his followers continue his work of not saving anyone. No wonder this novel upset people.

Still, a few good ideas aside, I didn’t like this novel very much, mainly because it was a bit dull. It started well enough. In fact after Germano Almeida’s novel I was riveted by it. But my enthusiasm died down after the Gabal section. It became too predictable. It was the most disappointing novel since Morning and Evening Talk. Things didn’t get interesting again until ‘Arafa’s section. Since he’s the only that doesn’t have a parallel with the holy books, Mahfouz was free to turn him into a more surprising figure. A curious man, magician, inventor, plans to enter the Big House and steal Gabalawi’s book, which he thinks contains magic spells. He invents explosive bottles that a tyrant uses to enslave his population. He’s not the final saviour, even if ‘Arafa saw himself as one, like the others did before him. But in time he too becomes a myth to be sung by poets in hashish joints and the neighbourhood returns to its normalcy of tyranny and misery.

I wouldn’t recommend this novel as a first book for anyone interested in Naguib Mahfouz. Perhaps Arabian Nights and Days or Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth are better introductions to an otherwise exceptional writer.

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