The Children of the Alley

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Naguib Mahfouz, through Children of the Alley, created an amalgamation of allegorical and symbolic societal issues which continue to plague Egypt and the entire region to this day. Mahfouz boldly posits his opinionated answers to questions that many dare not ask. The societies he metaphorically refers to in the microcosm of ‘Gabalawi’s Alley’, in his opinion, have been subjugated to a history of destitute leadership. Indeed, there is an overriding portrayal of Mahfouz’s concern that something even more fundamental than unjust leadership plagues his world: a society marred by an utter absence of law in a world subject to raw selfish arbitrary power of oppressors and gangsters. Herein lies the ties to religion: authoritarian figures and generations come to outline a story that is drawn from Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the characters representing these religions wield the power to lead. 

Once one comes to terms with the deeper allegory and thematic resemblances, there is a definite sense of challenging of religious authority and indeed the role of politicized religion in governing and decision making. Not only does Mahfouz question the role of religious authority, but poses the considerable issues the world faces with religion today: the division of peoples into different sects, all in vehement disagreement, and each following a considerably different interpretation of the same supposed religion. Perhaps such is best represented in the era of Rifaat. Following his death, almost at once his followers divided: What exactly did his message mean? Some of his followers argued 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. Such a message can be extended to a multitude of scenarios occurring in today’s world. There is a a sense of foreboding in Mahfouz’s writing which lends it an air of pessimism but also a universal and timeless application. The quote “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce” by Karl Marx comes to mind here as the historical journey conveyed in the Alley manifests its elements once more in the 21st century. 

However, a suggestion that Mahfouz criticizes religion in and of itself misses his point entirely. For the characters who may come to symbolize religion are portrayed as heroes of their generations, powerfully committed to justice and to the betterment of those who choose to live in the shadow of their influence and teachings. In a general sense, Mahfouz portrays this general subset of characters as possessing a worldly mercy and love, genuinely setting examples of power guided by more intrinsic moral values. In particular, Qassem, whom I suppose is Mahfouz’s prophet Mohamed (PBUH) figure, is written about in a manner different to the others. There is a certain unwillingness to take risks in this part of the novel, and Qassem is portrayed as considerably more admirable and attractive than Rifaat or Gabal. Qassem lead the people in a manner of quasi-divine intervention that is only sustainable with his presence. The true message one can extract here is that Mahfouz’s issue is not with Islam as a religion (if anything he believes in its values as promoting brotherhood, friendship and peace) but rather with politicized Islam. Despite this, the intentions are clear: Mahfouz places his vestigial of hope in the hands of Arafa, the magician, who represents science and modernity.

 

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