“What matters besides happy endings?”: Naguib Mahfouz, Children of the Alley

“Time satirises even the sublimest things.”

In synthesising the creation myths of the three great religions of the Book, with an added dash of modernity, into one allegorical tale about the history of a single Egyptian alley, Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley must surely rank as one of the most artistically ambitious – and perhaps, impudent – novels ever attempted. From the expulsion of Adam to the invention of dynamite, Mahfouz’s canvas covers every syllable of recorded time, but his minute brush-strokes, tell the grand, sweeping story by painting in minute details about the lives of individuals and families. Allegory nestles within allegory – circles within spirals – so as to reduce an infinitely complex story into its component parts. The effect is a madly bewildering – but ultimately, very gratifying – read.

The story starts with the mansion at the head of the alley, and its gardens of Eden. Adham – the youngest of the four sons of the patriarch Gabalawi – is responsible for the administration of the estate. Gabalawi’s decision to overlook his three elder sons infuriates his first-born, Idris, who – after refusing to abide by his orders – is exiled from the mansion. Years later, Idris has his revenge when he comes in supplication to Adham, and begs him to take a peek into Gabalawi’s book of “Ten Conditions”, to ascertain whether he has cut Idris out of his share of the inheritance. Upon the goading of his wife, Adham sneaks into Gabalawi’s chamber, is discovered by the patriarch, and exiled from the mansion. Out in the desert, strife and bloodshed dog the footsteps of Adham, Idris and their children.

With a few twists, the story is unmistakably that of the Exile and the Fall (with Idris doubling up as Cain and the serpent). Instead of the apple as being a representation of “knowledge”, here is the real thing – a Book, which deals directly with the futures of the inhabitants of the mansion – that is at stake, a knowledge that the patriarch guards with jealous fury. After the exile of Adham, the “Ten Conditions” – the commands of Gabalawi regarding the sharing of the estate – are never known, and it is left to the leaders of each generation to impose their will upon their fellow-inhabitants of the alley.

The casting of Gabalawi – a classic feudal overlord – as God strips away the obfuscating divinity from the story of Genesis, and reveals the arbitrariness and cruelty that is at the heart of the creation myth. Much like God, Gabalawi plays an ambiguous role throughout the story. The gates of his mansion – with the gardens within – are perpetually shut to the denizens of his “alley”, even as its denizens – the “children of Gabalawi” live a life of squalid want and poverty, and oppress and kill each other without compunction. Every succeeding generation, when things are strained to breaking point, Gabalawi makes a cursory “appearance” to a Chosen One – Gabal, Rifaa and Quassem (whose lives, deeds personalities reflect Moses, Jesus and Mohammad), who attempt reform in their own different ways, and leave behind divided legacies and neighbourhoods at war with each other, each under the thrall of its local gangster. “He acknowledged our relationship with him in the desert“, tell the newly-emancipated followers of Al-Gabal to other alley sufferers, who have come to them for aid. “Not yours!” is, of course, the underlying, unsaid subscript, a sharp jab at the exclusionary nature of the religions of the Book. And at all times, shorn of the God Exception, God (as Gabalawi), who could stop all the suffering with a deed and a gesture, but refuses to do so, and continues to shut out the alley’s inhabitants from his mansion, appears despotic and indefensible.

(Spoilers Alert)

The great twist comes in the last section, when Arafa, a “magician” (who vaguely represents the promise and the horror of science), determines to find out the content of the “Ten Conditions” by sneaking into the mansion by night. In his attempt to do so, he stumbles upon an old servant guarding the Book, in Gabalawi’s inner sanctum, and kills him. The death of the servant, it is reported next morning – shocks the aged Gabalawi into the grave. In true Nitzschean fasion, it is announced the next morning: “Gabalawi is dead.” But Arafa’s attempts to rid the alley of mob rule by selectively deploying the superior weapons given to him by his study of science end in tragedy, and the book finishes on a depressingly nihilistic note.

(Spoilers End)

In its “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, its inherent pessimism about human nature, and its thin – almost unsubtle – references to the lives of the Prophets, Children of the Alley – on a few occasions – totters on the cusp of mediocrity. A good example is the line delivered by one of his characters, in the generation after Rifaa-Jesus:

“This building is in Rifaa. Everyone who lives in it is of the Al Rifaa. They belong to Rifaa, and every night the poets remind us that he lived and died for love and happiness. And we have breakfast every morning listening to their screaming and fights.”

Indeed, more than once, I had a distinct sense that Mahfouz’s vaulting ambition had overreached itself, and was about to fall on the other side. But I think what definitively lifts this book above the realms of the pedestrian is Mahfouz’s inimitable prose style, and his knack for imagining and expressing things in a way that is both novel, and yet so right. “Beauty” is “insolent”, the heart is “scorched” with mysterious love, “heavy footfalls stir[red] misty memories”, and “tomorrow [was] wrapped in yesterday’s shroud.” As I found in Palace Walk and Miramar, Mahfouz’s touch is incredibly deft and light, but his words are haunting, and remains with you long after the last page has been turned. Like Darwish’s butterfly, his footprints leave no trace, and yet are not to be erased.

Apart from the beautiful writing, the novel is enriched by Mahfouz’s subtle political reflections, delivered incidentally, almost off the cuff, but brilliant in their forensic precision. “… for the women in the mansion,” he writes in the narrator’s voice, in a line that would also be right at home in the ultra-realistic Palace Walk, “were like the internal organs which a man knows of, and thanks to which he lives, but which he never sees.” Every tragedy, however great,” he tells us later, “eventually becomes a fact of life.” Musing upon how, after each generation of the reformers, the situation in the alley returns to its oppressive, unequal default position, one of his characters reflects: “people worship power – even its victims do!” And perhaps the best of all, eloquent in all that it says in the space of a sentence, and all that is left unsaid, worthy of being a Nietzschean aphorism: “Time satirises even the sublimest things.

As far as Mahfouz’s works go, I think that Miramar is the greater novel, with more sustained genius. But despite the occasional flaws in its execution, Children of the Alley is brilliantly conceived, and has enough moments of exaltation, to be – in the last analysis – a deeply enjoyable book.

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Filed under Egypt, Middle-Eastern Writing, Naguib Mahfouz

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