Children of the Alley

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988, but it might be said that his supreme accolade came in 1994, when Islamic extremists attempted to assassinate him. They recognized in him a mortal enemy to everything they stood for. The stabbing did not kill him, but Mahfouz carried the injury to his death last summer. Yet over the longer run, the attack will do more damage to the people who inflicted it: The Islamists will never escape the damning self-verdict that their grim ideology could find no room – and indeed felt obliged to try to destroy – the Arab world’s greatest modern artist.

The book that prompted Mahfouz’s assassins was Children of the Alley, also known as Children of Gebelawi. (The difference in title originates in a complex copyright dispute.) And yes, you certainly can see why it rubbed Egypt’s religious establishment the wrong way.

The novel is an elaborate parable of the great religions of the Middle East. Gebelawi is a mighty hero, who builds a great mansion and founds a family of many sons. You don’t have to possess a decoder ring to figure out the allegory that follows.

Gebelawi’s favorite son, Adham, is tempted by his wife and an insinuating deceiver to break into Gebelawi’s inner sanctum to read Gebelawi’s will and learn the future of the family estate. For this defiance, Gebelawi expels Adham and his children from the mansion. They take up a miserable residence in the alley nearby: Gebelawi’s alley.

The alley derives its livelihood from an estate. The people of the alley believe that Gebelawi promised Adham that all should share in the income from the estate. But over time, overseers and gangsters have seized the benefit of the estate for themselves alone, condemning people to misery and degradation.

Three grandsons of Gebelawi each in turn seek to redeem the people of the valley.

First is Gabal: brave, passionately committed to justice. He belongs to a tiny subset of the people of the alley, a people who have been singled out for special oppression. He leads them in rebellion and destroys their oppressors. He gives them laws (rather unpleasantly draconian laws) but also encourages them to hold themselves apart from the other people of the alley. Gabal makes it clear that he has little interest in liberating anyone else, but at least he sets an example of power guided by justice.

Next comes Rifaat. At first Rifaat startles and offends the people of the alley with his utter unworldliness. But a small circle of disciples forms around him, attracted by his gentle personal example and his teachings of mercy and love. As the circle grows, the authorities in the alley take alarm. At length they persuade one of Rifaat’s intimates to betray him, and he is brutally killed. Then his body vanishes – and Rifaat’s people discover a devotion for him they never felt in life. But almost at once they are divided: What exactly did his message mean? Some of his followers argue they should follow his example and abjure all worldly things. But his closest aide and disciple gains the upper hand with a version of the teaching that allows for a more normal life. Forever after, however, the people of Rifaat remain bitterly and violently divided.

Rifaat is succeeded by Qassem, who uses his wealth and influence to build an army and drive out the overseers and gangsters. Qassem establishes true justice. But even in his lifetime it becomes apparent that this system cannot last. Qassem is strongly attracted to women and soon takes many wives. And although all his followers gladly defer to him, there are hints that he would not be one to tolerate dissent easily should it arise. The bad old ways reassert themselves as soon as he dies.

At which point a strange character arrives, Arafa, a magician of mysterious pedigree. He takes up residence in the section of the alley where the followers of Rifaat live, and soon develops amazing new weapons. Arafa intends to use his powers to destroy the gangsters once and for all, but instead he succumbs to corruption and ends up cementing the power of the most powerful. Arafa keenly resents his failure. He decides he needs still more powerful magic to achieve true justice. So he breaks into Gebalawi’s mansion to try to obtain for himself the will that got Adham into so much trouble. There is a struggle – and in the shock, Gebalawi dies.

Spelled out like this, the parable may seem to run the danger of heavy-handedness. It does not read that way at all. The pieces read like ancient or timeless myths and legends, dense with allusions both obvious and subtle – and yet also pulsing with independent life. They are set in a landscape at once familiar and mythic. Characters drink tea and coffee and smoke hashish in coffee houses with walls made of sheet metal, but the only weapons wielded by anyone until Arafa comes along are clubs. When Gabal, Rifaat, or Qassem want to be alone, they step out of the alley into the desert that begins where the street terminates. It is all very strange, and yet it makes perfect sense.

There are whole doctoral dissertations to be written about this book, but let me restrict myself to four observations.

1) When Westerners talk about social wrongs, we tend to mean “inequity” – the exploitation of laws or rules to deny some their due while heaping excess and undeserved advantages on others. But Mahfouz as a man of the Middle East is concerned about something even more fundamental than “inequity.” He lives in a world marred not by unjust law, but by the utter absence of law of any kind – in a world subject to raw selfish arbitrary power.

[F]or every decent man you will find ten gangsters brandishing clubs and ready to pick a fight. The people are used to buying their safety with bribes, and their security with obedience and abasement, ans were severely punished for the smallest thing they said or did wrong – or even for thinking something wrong.

This is the mental atmosphere that has formed the modern Middle East: only a region swayed by such random violence that it welcomes tyrants and dictators as an improvement. Mahfouz savagely criticizes that reality, but he also takes it entirely for granted as the foundation of his own and his readers’ experiences.

2) Mahfouz writes very circumspectly about his Muhammad figure, who is portrayed as in every way more attractive and admirable than Rifaat or Gabal. (Especially than Gabal!) Qassem/Muhammad’s tendencies to lust and tyranny are presented with the most muted and delicate hints, and at the end Mahfouz launches into an almost absurd panagyric:

He combined power and gentleness, wisdom and simplicity, dignity and love, mastery and humility, efficiency and honesty. In addition, he was witty, friendly and good-looking, kind and companionable. He had good taste, he loved to sing, and he told jokes.

There is a “protest too much” quality to this passage that rather reminded me of that outburst in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” :

But let me tell this, and you’re getting it straight from the horse, Hitler vas better looking than Churchill, he vas a better dresser than Churchill, had more hair, told funnier jokes, and could dance the pants off Churchill!

Despite these nods to orthodoxy, Children of the Alley was banned in Egypt, as were others of his works from time to time. But they were all published in the Arabic world and the Arabic press. Mahfouz himself continued untroubled at his civil service job. And it took three decades for the Islamists to take it into their heads to try to kill him. Nobody would describe Nasser’s Egypt as anything like a free society. Yet the discouraging truth does seem to be that the writers of the Arab Middle East breathed freer air in 1960 than they do today. Who can imagine a writer like Mahfouz living in Cairo today?

3) The book offers a searing depiction of the futility of political Islam. Qassem and his followers speak again and again about the need for equality and justice – and the book ends with Qassem’s conquest of the alley and the arrival of a golden age. The alley

had never before known the brotherhood, friendship and peace of Qassem’s time.

But the problem is that this age lasts only so long as Qassem can personally guide it. Qassem’s system is one that requires quasi-divine rulership, it cannot sustain itself. Remove that all-benevolent leader, and the system collapses into tyranny, and one might even say, the worst tyranny of all: for while the other peoples of the alley can at least look forward in hope to the end of tyranny, the people of Qassem can only look backward in nostalgia. As Qassem tells them, there will never again arise another prophet like him. And the only force that can make his system work is … another prophet like him. Which means that the best days of the people of Qassem lie irretrievably in the past.

4) The portrait of the scientific faith is the least attractive in the book. Arafa is sensual, opportunistic, cowardly, and blindly destructive. His magic works just as effectively for tyrants as it does for the people of the alley. And yet at the same time, it is clear: He is the only and best hope, a much better hope for example than Qassem.

He leaves Gebawali dead, a terrible crime, one for which the people execrate his memory.

Everyone rejoiced at [Arafa's] death, despite their hatred for the overseer [who killed him], and the gangsters’ families and supporters gloated most of all. They rejoiced at the death of the man who had killed their blessed ancestor [Gebawali] and given their tyrannical overseer a terrible weapon with which to humble them forever. The future looked black, or at least blacker than it had looked before all the power had been concentrated in one cruel hand.

And yet before Arafa himself perishes, he pledges his magic to the task of reviving Gebawali and indeed of extirpating death altogether. And while Gebawali’s existence gave meaning to the lives of the people of the alley, it was also true that he had long ago ceased to help his people in any meaningful way. Gebawali is not exactly a benign character himself: he is harsh, secretive, often arbitrary, and rarely disposed to help his descendents in their time of trial.

Is it not sad to have a grandfather that we may never see, and who never sees us? Is it not strange of him to disappear inside the locked mansion, while we live in the dirt?

Unlike any of the others, Arafa leaves something enduring behind: a book containing all the secrets of his magic. His brother Hanash searches for the book – and either finds it or perhaps begins a new one, equally powerful. Either way: this time and for the first time, power becomes available to all. This possibility triggers a new wave of tyranny from the ancient masters of the alley. But this time, all sense that the tyrants’ days are numbered. And indeed, while Qassem’s system worked only so long as Qassem himself led it, it may be that Arafa’s bequest does more good without Arafa himself, when every one of us is free to use Arafa’s magic for himself or herself:

And so it happened thta some of the young men of our alley began to disappear, one by one, and it was said to explain their disappearance, that they had found their way to Hanash’s place, and joined them; he was teaching them magic, in anticipation of the day of their promised deliverance. Overpowered by fear, the overseer and his men sent their spies everywhere to search homes and shops and impose the cruelest punishment for the slightest offenses. They beat people with sticks for a look, a joke or a laugh, until the alley endured the nightmarish atmosphere of fear, hatred and terrorism. Yet the people bore the outrages steadfastly, taking refuge in patience. They held fast to hope, and whenever they were persecuted, they said, “Injustice must have an end, as day follows night. We will see the death of tyranny, and the dawn of light and miracles.”

And it is on that note of hope that Children of the Alley ends. “Ends” however may be the wrong word: for the book is so vivid and so powerful that my reaction to reaching the end – which I did aboard one of Arafa’s miracles, a transcontinental flight from Los Angeles to Washington – was to flip back to page 1 and read the whole book through a second time.

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