Friday, February 17, 2006

Banned Book of Egyptian Novelist ; Children of the Alley.

Children of the Alley, which was among the four works that qualified Mahfouz for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, has never been published in book form in Egypt. With the work having been banned several times by Al-Azhar, Mahfouz still insists he will not print it without the official endorsement of the seat of Sunni religious learning.

But a recent announcement that a state-owned publishing house would print the novel here for the first time has reignited a debate in intellectual circles on the role of the oldest Sunni institution in regulating literature.

According to Mahfouz’s lawyer, Ahmed Awadein, the Nobel Laureate will agree to have the novel published here in Arabic (the English version has long been available from AUC for LE 65) if Al-Azhar explicitly allows it —and if an Islamist thinker agrees to write an introduction for it.

And it may not be enough for a publisher to satisfy those conditions, Awadein adds, saying Mahfouz isn't certain now is the time to publish the novel.

The black market book

“He does not want to publish it now because the climate is not ready for it and people have a wrong idea about it. They think it personifies God,” says Awadein. “Publishing the novel is contingent upon having an appropriate climate in which the book would not be resented as it was [in the past].”

Children of the Alley made its first appearance in 1959 as a serialized novel the state-owned daily Al-Ahram. Interpreted by many as an allegory of the three monotheistic religions, it features a father named El-Gabalawi who casts his sons out of his house for disobedience. The storyline revolves around feuds that erupt among El-Gabalawi’s descendants as they give up what the novelist calls their ‘human values.’

Its publication drew immediate fire from religious scholars who claimed El-Gabalawi character was a blasphemous personification of God.

“Mr. Naguib is still committed to that agreement, although the climate has changed,” he says.

According to Abdel Zaher Mohammed, the head of the Publication and Translation Department at Al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy (IRA), the novel is officially banned in Egypt. He explains that in cases where authors seek the endorsement of their works by Al-Azhar before publication, they are sometimes required to omit parts that allegedly contradict the Islamic faith.

Under the law, Al-Azhar is authorized only to regulate publications that relate to the Qur’an and the Sunna. However, this role has been extended in practice to include all artistic works that touch on religion. Outside Egypt it's another story: The novel has been in print in Lebanon since the 1960s. Attempts to import the Lebanese edition resulted in a 1968 IRA decree forbidding its circulation.

Twenty years later, IRA issued a similar fatwa banning not just the printed book, but also audiovisual works based on the novel. The fatwa came in response to an adaptation of the novel into a radio series by the state-owned Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU). ERTU’s president heeded the decree and cut the broadcasts short.

In addition to AUC’s work, international publishers have translated the book under the titles Children of the Alley and Children of El-Gabalawi.

Coupled with his courages outspoken support of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Mahfouz’s controversial novel won him condemnation from Islamist extremists who have accused him of heresy and condoned his execution. In 1994, two fundamentalists stabbed him in the neck outside his Cairo home in the Agouza district.

Early last month, Magdy El-Dakkak, editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Al-Hilal, dropped a bombshell by announcing that he would print the forbidden novel whether Mahfouz gave his okay or not. But after a warning from the privately owned Dar El-Shorouk publishing house, which bought exclusive rights to print Mahfouz’s works in Arabic in 2000, Dar Al-Hilal promptly retracted the announcement.

The retraction was cemented by a letter from Mahfouz objecting to the publication of his work without his permission.

El-Dakkak, who also heads Dar Al-Hilal’s editorial board and vets the printing of one book each month, says he wanted to challenge what he calls ‘the imaginary ban’ imposed on the novel.

“I wondered how a work by an Egyptian novelist like Naguib Mahfouz, who is known worldwide, could be banned in Egypt,” he claims. “I also wondered how this ban could last for almost 40 years. I found it unacceptable that Egyptians cannot read one of Mahfouz’s most important works,” says El-Dakkak, who adds that he also wanted to challenge Al-Azhar ‘guardianship.’

In the meantime, the editor-in-chief admits that he had no qualms about publishing the novel without Mahfouz’ permission.

“I appreciate Naguib’s stand and I understand his reasons for refusing to print the novel, but Children of the Alley is no longer the property of Naguib Mahfouz. It is part of Egypt's heritage, and we have the right as a people to have it printed by an Egyptian publishing house and to read it in Egypt. I respect his creative works and rights, though,” says El-Dakkak.

Speaking with Islamist thinker Ahmed Kamal Abouel Magd about Children not long after the 1994 attempt on his life, Mahfouz shrugged off charges of blasphemy, stressing his belief in Islam.

“All my old and new writings hold onto these two tenets: Islam is the source of good values for our nation, and science is the means to achieve progress and development in the present and the future,” Abouel Magd quoted Mahfouz as saying in a 1994 column in Al-Ahram. “And I would like to say that even Children of the Alley, which was misunderstood by some people, did not drift away from that vision. The great moral crowned by the events of the novel was that when people gave up religion, symbolized by El-Gabalawi, and thought they could manage their lives relying only on science, symbolized by Arafa they found out that science without religion turned into an evil weapon and subjected them to the tyranny of the ruler and stripped them of their freedom. Thus, they looked back to El-Gabalawi,” Mahfouz is quoted as saying.

“The problem with Children of the Alley from the beginning was that I wrote it as ‘a novel’ while people read it as ‘a book.’ The novel is a literary construct that combines truth and symbol, reality and fiction. And a novel should not be judged according to the historical facts that the author believes in. ,” added Mahfouz.

Yet Dar El-Shorouk lawyer Hossam Loutfi claims Mahfouz had already agreed with his publisher to release the novel in January without Al-Azhar’s endorsement, then got cold feet at the last moment.

“The novel is ready, and the introduction has been written by a prominent Islamic figure, and Mr. Naguib has approved it,” Loutfi alleges.

Awadein flatly denies Loutfi’s claims, maintaining that his client never gave the go-ahead to publish without Al-Azhar’s approval.

While most writers insist that the novel should not be published without Mahfouz’s consent, they categorically disagree with the author about seeking Al-Azhar’s endorsement.

“I am against this concept because Al-Azhar is not a body entitled to ban or approve works,” says El-Ghitani. “Literature has nothing to do with Al-Azhar. I respect his [Naguib’s] wishes, but it does not prevent me from disagreeing with him.”

Author Youssef El-Koied, another of Mahfouz’s close friends, shares El-Ghitani’s view.

“Religion means the Qur’an and the Sunna, and Al-Azhar should be held responsible for those two. Al-Azhar has nothing to do with a novel, movie, play or a video clip. Since when does Al-Azhar interfere with literature and art?”

El-Koied contends that, “Reading a literary work from a religious or a political perspective is unacceptable.”

El-Ghitani goes a step further, saying that banning books is absurd in this day and age: “I believe that now is the best time to publish it because there is nothing that could be banned now. The concept of banning [works] is obsolete. What is banned can be read on the Internet,” he points out, adding that the novel is already sold on the black market.

While both El-Ghitani and El-Koied refuse to accept what they call Al-Azhar’s interference, the two authors see no reason for the recent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to pose a threat to any plans to print the book. “It makes no difference whether they [the Brotherhood] are with the novel or against it because they are not in power. It is the state, represented by Al-Azhar, that showed more backwardness in this case,” says El-Koied.

The banned-but-tolerated Brotherhood established itself as the main opposition bloc in the People's Assembly by securing 88 of the new parliament's 444 elected seats late last year. Brotherhood-affiliated MPs have consistently opposed on the floor of Parliament the circulation of literary works they claim contradict Islamic norms.

Little wonder, then, that it came as a surprise then when a prominent member of Al-Ikhwan’s (Muslim Brotherhood) Guidance Bureau paid Mahfouz a visit in December on the occasion of his birthday. Abdel Moneim Abouel Fottouh stressed the group's appreciation of the novelist's works and the organizations commitment to freedom of expression. He had reportedly condoned the publishing of Children of the Alley in Egypt, but maintains that he disagrees with the content of the novel.

Either way, Mahfouz’s position has certainly pleased Al-Azhar’s scholars. Former Mufti Nasr Farid Wassel hailed the writers insistence on seeking the body's endorsement as ‘wise.’

“He [Mahfouz] understands the current circumstances and tries to maintain his intellectual role and does not want to drift away from his society and religion,” believes Wassel, who is currently an IRA member.

Wassel maintains that his institution has a responsibility to safeguard the integrity of faith. The IRA usually issues decrees against books it sees as undermining Islam. To Wassel, those edicts hardly count as censorship, as the oldest Sunni institution plays an ‘advisory’ role and has no effective authority to enforce its fatwas on the ground.

“We do not exercise any censorship,” says Wassel. “Al-Azhar is keen on uniting [Muslims] and the nation, having people adhere to their religion, achieving social and familial peace and achieving peace between the ruler and the ruled. It [Al-Azhar] only makes recommendations, saying whether [a work] is beneficial or not whether it can foment a sedition or not,” he adds.

“Al-Azhar has the right to check and endorse books that relate to religion or speak about issues of creed or religious symbols,” says Ali Abouel Hassan, a former head of the fatwa committee at the IRA.

Abouel Hassan explains if the IRA determines that a book contradicts Shariah, it issues a statement recommending the ban of that book and sends it to the police unit responsible for confiscating banned works.

“Publishing a book [contrary to Al-Azhar’s wishes] is considered a crime,” he adds, saying the same applies to movies, songs and videos, among other forms of expression.

Abouel Hassan dismisses accusations that Al-Azhar impedes literary creativity.

“Why would [critics] bring accusations only against us and not against those who verify books for political and security reasons?” wonders Abouel Hassan. “This is not a form of guardianship, but a right granted to specialists in order to monitor and regulate what circulation.

Children of Gebelawi is story about Gebelawi and his children, he is absent or rather a figure of self exiled Father, and the rest of characters are four of characters some assume is based on Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed. The book is written with simple prose and is feast of guess who? Naguib other marvelous novels such as Middaq Alley are subject of many Taboo's in Islamic society, but at heart I believe he is one of the best novelist in the World. It is shame not to publish openly in Middle east, except Lebanon.
All Naguib Mahfouz books are available in USA.
1-Children of the Alley or Gebelawi
2-Middaq Alley.
3-Trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz.
5-Fountain and Tomb.


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