Controversial Mahfouz Allegory Published In New Translation

Judith Gabriel


By Naguib Mahfouz

Translated by Philip Stewart

Pueblo, Colorado: Passeggiata Press, 1997.

497 pp.

It has been nearly 40 years since leading Arab novelist Naguib Mahfouz’ most controversial work was first published in serial form in a Cairo newspaper, setting off a storm of theological debate over whether his allegorical tale constituted blasphemy–a charge which saw the book banned and prompted attempts made on the Nobel Laureate’s life.

A new edition of the English translation of this work, “Children of Gebelaawi,” has been published by Passeggiata Press, translated by Philip Stewart.  The English translation was first published by Passeggiata in 1981 as a low-profile academic paperback.  The 1997 augmented edition was revised in light of new findings concerning the missing original manuscript.

It also contains a new introduction that chronicles the chilling sequence of events stemming from the material’s stormy debut in 1959. Stewart, whose translation received input from Mahfouz himself, chronicles the book’s dramatic publication history, and examines its literary arcana.

On the surface, “Children of Gebelaawi” is the saga of the people who inhabit a Cairo neighborhood through several generations, struggling to survive the repression of brute strong-men, the protection-racket gangsters who literally run life in the neighborhood.

At a deeper level, the book is an allegory whose heroes parallel Adam and Eve, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad, and includes a fictitious character that represents the scientist.  They all struggle to restore the people’s rights to a trust fund set up by their venerable ancestor Gebelaawi that has been usurped and corrupted by embezzlers and tyrants.  The five closely inter-linked fables are set on the edge of Cairo in an isolated, time-compressed locale–an alley, which borders somewhere between reality and fantasy.

First published in installments in the semi-official Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram beginning in September 1959, “Awlad Haritna,” as it is called in Arabic, gave rise to protests and street demonstrations led by members of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University.

It was only due to the personal support of President Gamal Abdul Nasser that the remaining segments of the work were published over the next three months.  Subsequently, Egyptian censors banned any public mention of it, and prohibited its publication in book form. In 1967, the collected episodes were published as a book in Beirut, but the work was still banned in Egypt. In 1968, Stewart notes, it was officially condemned by a committee of Al-Azhar theologians.

The controversy emerged anew after the Nobel Committee issued a press release upon awarding Mahfouz the 1988 prize for literature.  “Children of Gebelaawi” was one of five works the committee cited.  At that time, according to Stewart’s introduction, President Hosni Mubarak let it be known that he would have liked to see the book published in Egypt, but with renewed opposition from Al-Azhar, the novelist himself “indicated that for the sake of peace he would not support publication.” 

A more threatening twist developed just after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie in February 1989. In an interview published in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Qabas,  Egyptian Sheikh Omar Abdurrahman (now serving life imprisonment in the U.S.) was quoted as saying that if Mahfouz had been punished for his novel, Rushdie would not have dared to publish “The Satanic Verses.”

Undaunted,  Mahfouz refused police protection and continued to go about his life as usual, remaining unscathed until one Friday night in 1994, when he was stabbed on a Cairo street. Thirteen men confessed under interrogation that they were trying to execute Sheikh Omar’s fatwa and were found guilty for the attack.

However, in an article in “The New Yorker” in January 1995, Sheikh Omar told interviewer Mary Anne Weaver that the whole matter had been a misunderstanding.  It was not a fatwa, he insisted, but merely a “reply to a question asked by a journalist.” Had Mahfouz been brought before a committee to be judged according to sharia law, Sheikh Omar was quoted as saying, “He would have been given an opportunity to defend himself, and, if found guilty, he would have been given an opportunity to repent.”

Charges were never brought against Mahfouz, and he never formally defended his work, although he offers

some insights in conversations with Stewart.

Central to the controversy is the overshadowing figure of Gebelaawi, whose fictional demise the Nobel Prize committee took upon themselves to refer to as “the primal father Gebelaawi’s (God’s) death.”

Mahfouz himself consistently refused this interpretation, asserting that the Gebelaawi character represents “not God, but a certain idea of God that men have made”–those who forget the absolute transcendence of God, as affirmed in Islam.

Gebelaawi certainly is a father figure; an arrogantly remote one at times, as lamented by the allegorical Adam after being cast out of the Garden:  “Loneliness speaks, and sorrow smolders like coals buried in the ashes.  The high wall of the house repels the yearning heart.  How can I make this terrible father hear my cry?...My eyes long for the streams flowing between the rose bushes.  Where is the scent of henna and jasmine?  Where is peace of mind?  And my flute?  You cruel man!...Will the ice in your heart ever melt?”

In the end, Gebelaawi is killed as a result of the actions of Arafa the Magician, the character who symbolizes science.  Theological critics took this as a portrayal of the “death of God” and called it blasphemous.

Mahfouz was not writing about deicide, nor was he writing biographies of the prophets.  “His concern,” notes Stewart, “was only to throw light on certain aspects of their lives and missions.”  While some of the allegorical figures indulge in such dalliances as smoking hashish, Stewart defends the novelist’s intentions: “Even if he showed occasional lapses of taste or judgment, it is hard to believe that he intended disrespect to his heroes.”  Stewart concludes that “[r]eaders must make up their own minds whether what he wrote was–or was intended to be–anti-religious or anti-Islamic.”

There are, of course, other challenges for the reader. Those unfamiliar with Mahfouz’ work may not understand its seeming naiveté.  Written in a style evocative of the story-telling bards of Cairo’s cafes, the language is consistently simple, the characters one-dimensional, and the seemingly superficial narrative darts relentlessly from one melodramatic imbroglio to another.

One’s own repository of sacred lore becomes activated in reading “The Children of Gebelaawi,” creating a tacitly parallel dimension in which recognition of scriptural and historic correspondence–and departure–become part of the joy of allegory. Mahfouz has made sure this dimension will be unpredictable, always adding a plot twist, a revealing perspective, a new “what if?”

So perish the thought that he intended Gebelaawi to be a stand-in for God!  The Old Man of the Mountain was only the Wizard of Oz, after all – in the end, just another finite, suffering prism of humanity. As Mahfouz said to Stewart: “Nothing can represent God.  God is not like anything else.  God is gigantic.”

This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol. 7, no. 37, Fall 2001).

Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid