Saturday, May 12, 2012


Children of the Alley, Naguib Mahfouz, Doubleday, 1959, 448 pp (translated from Arabic by Peter Theroux)

I have read quite a few novels by Naguib Mahfouz and found this one weaker than what I have read before. The premise is a good one: to cover the spiritual history of mankind in terms of our efforts to improve our existence and society.

Using the framework of key historical moments, he offers tales concerning the inhabitants dwelling in an Egyptian alley. All these people have a common ancestor and indeed exist to greater or lesser degrees by the whim of their patriarch. In each period covered throughout the novel, some sort of exceptional, always male, person arises from the masses of people and attempts to resolve the conflicts and sufferings of his fellows.

One of these is similar to Adam from Genesis. Another pair of brothers are reminiscent of Cain and Abel, one is Christ-like. Each of them has a special connection with Gabalawi, the ancestor, who dwells in a big manor house and owns all the area around and including the alley. These potential heroes or saviors feel they are fulfilling the wishes of the old man, who seems to live forever. They often better conditions but eventually die, after which the population of the alley regresses to their old ways. Greed, oppression, envy, competitiveness, and other ills are never conquered.

The means applied by each of these reformers vary, from non-violence to the use of force, from enlightenment to magic. I was kept reading because Mafouz seemed to be following a progression of spiritual evolution and because each section has intriguing plots, counter plots, and relationships.

In the end however, progress has not been made. Man is incorrigible and carries on telling the old tales while hoping that magically all will come right if only one is patient. I was left confused. Is Mahfouz saying that hope is the key? Or is he mocking our irresponsible habit of waiting for some god or hero to solve our problems for us?

(Children of the Alley is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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