An interesting book. First I thought it was the Bible retold. But then I realized it was all our monotheistic religions retold, the beginnings of them, at least.
It's so easy at the beginning, There is Gabalawi (God) who first throws Idris (Satan) and then Adham (Adam) out of his house, then there is Gabal (Moses), Rifa (Jesus) and Qasim (Muhammad), all three of them wanting to bring peace to their alley (the world) and creating their own religions. At the end we have Arafa who stands for the modern world or science.
Naguib Mahfouz tries to weigh theses characters up against each other. What a rich and powerful story, full of symbolism, allegories, parables, comparable to the Bible, really. And probably the Quran, as well. I am not surprised the author received the Nobel Prize for Literature and will certainly read more of him.
Apparently, not everyone in our book club agreed with me. These are some of the comments from the meeting:
"Obtaining the book had not been easy and likewise the reading of it. The first chapter set the stage with actions that would be repeated anew in each historical era. In the midst of abject misery and poverty a prophet comes with a message of hope which the people eagerly embrace. This ushers in a time of peace and harmony but before many generations human discord, discontent, greed, and hatred arise leading to another cycle of misery. In their misery people call for help which comes again in the form of a new prophet ... repeat cycle. Basically a religious history of mankind from the Garden of Eden via Moses, Christ, and Mohammad to the rise of science. Mahfouz survived an attempt on his life as his writing angered the Islamic world."
From the back cover: "The tumultuous 'alley' of this rich and intricate novel (first published in Arabic in 1959) tells the story of a delightful Egyptian family, but also reveals a second, hidden, and daring narrative: the spiritual history of humankind. From the supreme feudal lord who disowns one son for diabolical pride and puts another to the test, to the savior of a succeeding generation who frees his people from bondage, we find the men and women of a modern Cairo neighborhood unwittingly reenacting the lives of their holy ancestors: the 'children of the alley'" This powerful, self-contained novel confirms again the richness and variety of Mahfouz's storytelling and his status as 'the single most important writer in modern Arabic literature.'"
We discussed this in our book club in June 2013.
Naguib Mahfouz "who, through works rich in nuance - now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous - has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind" received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.