Creating an Egyptian Identity: Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley

Naguib Mahfouz, one of Egypt’s most celebrated novelists, helped map out a continuous and coherent – albeit fictional – Egyptian identity that would have long-lasting reverberations in the Arab world.

Mahfouz's Children of the Alley

Naguib Mahfouz, one of Egypt’s most celebrated novelists, helped map out a continuous and coherent – albeit fictional – Egyptian identity that would have long-lasting reverberations in the Arab world.

Arabic oral literature and popular poetry can be traced back nearly two thousand years. The Arabic-language novel, on the other hand, is a relatively recent development.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Egyptian writers and intellectuals embarked upon an ambitious campaign to translate a vast reservoir of European novels into Arabic. The themes and stylistic turns of these imported novels would have a huge impact on the subsequent development of homegrown Arabic-language novels.

Some notable early attempts at creating an Arabic historical novel include Muhammad Lutfi Gom’a’s In the Valley of Solicitude, published in 1905, and Mahmud Tahir Haqqi’s The Virgin of Dinshwai, published in 1906. While Gom’a’s novel told the story of a decadent family’s rise and inevitable fall, Haqqi’s novel incorporated a major contemporary event — the massacre of peasants in Dinshwai by the British. Interestingly, both of these novels mixed registers of language, using classical Arabic for the narration and the Egyptian dialect for the dialogue.

However, it was not until the 1914 publication of Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s novel Zaynab that the Arabic-language novel truly began to take shape. Much like Gom’a and Haqqi, Haykal mixed registers, but unlike his predecessors, Haykal received extensive and positive critical engagement from literary historians and critics the world over. Many consider Zaynab the first truly literary novel to have been written in Arabic. Yet, despite this recognition, Haykal’s work was deeply indebted to the influence of the French — and broader European — literary tradition.

Other notable early novels include Taha Husayn’s autobiographical work The Days, published in 1927; Ibrahim al-Mazni’s 1931 Ibrahim the Writer; Tawfiq al-Hakim’s 1933 The Return of the Spirit; and Abbas al-Aqqad’s 1938 lyrical work, Sarah.

And although these early novels would have a great impact on the contemporary Egyptian novel, it would be the writers of the next generation — men like Naguib Mahfouz and his contemporaries and al-Rahman al-Shawqawi — who began to garner international accolades and to create an Egyptian novelistic heritage.

Naguib Mahfouz was born in Egypt in 1911 and became a prolific author and champion of the Arabic-language novel. Mahfouz’s work was deeply rooted in his local reality, and he was a relentless critic of his society’s socio-political ills.

Probably the most controversial of all Mahfouz’s novels, Children of the Alley, was published serially in a Cairo newspaper in 1959. On the surface, the novel is the story of a single Cairo neighborhood and the subsequent generations that move through its streets. Each generation has its own hero, who will struggle valiantly against the brutal repression of the strong-men and gangsters ruling over the neighborhood. However, an allegory runs under the surface of the work, providing a between-the-lines retelling of humankind’s spiritual history.

The novel is divided into five sections, each of which neatly parallels a distinct chapter of the world’s spiritual evolution, from Adam and Eve to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. The book ends with the story of a hero who functions as the embodiment of science and modernity.

While Mahfouz invokes the holy ancestors of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the book nonetheless ascribes a coherent Egyptian identity to the children of this alley. As such, more than a secular acculturation of a spiritual theme, the novel makes use of a spiritual theme to advance a scathing critique of contemporary Cairo.

Children of the Alley constantly emphasized the common ancestry of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, who have all descended from a legend of a man named Gabalawi. In doing so, Mahfouz makes a strong argument for a continuous and coherent Egyptian identity.

An inescapable part of this identity is the gangsterism that is rife in the alley. Even Gabalawi, the common ancestor of the people of the alley is described in the first section as “lord of the desert, owner of the estate property and the biggest gangster of all.” This larger-than-life ancestor conquered the indigenous people of the desert in order to establish himself and his proud lineage. But by defining Gabalawi as a gangster, the heroes of the subsequent sections come to be understood as breaking from their own culture when they reject the gangsterism that rules over their neighborhood. And while each hero eventually manages to triumph, the alley dwellers never quite assimilate to the new order, dooming each triumph and ensuring a return to old ways.

As such, Mahfouz seems to suggest that the endemic oppression, injustice and gangsterism that define the Children of the Alley are inseparable from the continuous, coherent identity of the inhabitants of the alley and as such are integral parts of the culture of the alley and of modern-day Cairo.

The very structure of the novel reinforces the continuity of identity through its circularity. Although each successive generation represents a different phase of humankind’s spiritual history, the basic structure of each section is the same: The people of the alley suffer the injustice of gang rule before a hero emerges to lead his people in an ultimately successful uprising. But despite the neighborhood’s newfound peace and justice, each section ends with the refrain, “Forgetfulness is the plague of our alley.”

The first section is the only section in which Gabalawi is present in the flesh. In this section Mahfouz introduces the fundamental crisis of the novel: the banishment of Gabalawi’s sons, Idris and Adham. These two sons become bitter rivals when Gabalawi chooses Adham, the son of a black slave, over Idris, his first-born. Eventually, both sons are exiled to the desert wasteland, where they choose very different paths. Idris, bent on destroying Gabalawi’s good name, becomes a thief and a thug. Adham, on the other hand, bears his suffering with patience, always hoping to return to his home – but no invitation to return ever comes.

Gabalawi does, however, extend this invitation to Adham’s son, Humam. After visiting Gabalawi’s mansion, Humam begins to see himself as a member of the family, but all the same, he refuses his grandfather’s offer to begin a new life in the ancestral home. So completely assimilated to his life of poverty and hardship is Humam that he can only conclude, upon returning to the desert, that “happiness was not made to bless people like me.”

The theme of loyalty is further developed in the next section, which introduces yet another generation. Gabal is an orphan who belongs to the Al-Hamdan family, but who has been taken in by a wealthy family. When his blood relatives begin to agitate for justice, Gabal is compelled join “his people” and share their fate. A savoir figure modeled after Moses, Gabal manages to unite his people – but, of course, the alley will be plunged back into oppression and gang rule before long.

The hero of the third section, Rifaa, possesses none of Gabal’s loyalty. Rifaa rejects his father’s trade and manages to create a new life among the alley’s underclass. Rifaa attracts a following, manages to create a sense of unity, and shortly thereafter perishes – again, the alley is undone.

While the fictional character of the final section, Arafa, has his origins in the alley, he has no father and, therefore, belongs to no clan. After a long absence, Arafa returns as a stranger, bringing with him a kind of magic the reader will quickly identify as modern science. And although Arafa’s “magic” causes Gabalawi’s death, the inhabitants of the alley come to revere Arafa, asserting that if made to choose between Gabalawi and magic, that they would unhesitatingly choose magic.

By ending his novel in this way, Mahfouz seems to throw his painstakingly crafted conception of a powerfully binding Egyptian identity into question. As Arafa’s contemporaries begin to vanish one by one from the alley, driven by their desire to learn his magic, Mahfouz seems to presciently set the stage for the great crisis of identity that seems to be one of the defining characteristics of post-revolution Egypt.