Few weeks ago, the BBC’s Radio-4 invited me to talk about a book in “A Good Read”. My choice, Naguib Mahfouz’s “Children of our Alley” did not prove popular with the presenter, one of the BBC’s highly experienced cultural commentators, or with the other guest, an accomplished and cultured comedian and stage-performer. Mahfouz’s novel presents his take on the messages of Adam, Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed; using allegories and metaphors, he narrates the stories; but his emphasis is on the specific attributes that have characterised each of these messages, how they resonated with those who received them, and the impacts that these messages have had on the communities that adopted them.
Throughout the novel, Mahfouz revolves round two questions; the first is: if religion is supposed to enlighten, redeem, and elevate human society, why hasn’t humanity arrived at that pedestal. The second concerns the role of religion at an age when science has been, slowly but consistently, changing humans’ perception of their world, of themselves, and of their existence. Mahfouz wrote that novel in the mid to late 1950s, in the wake of the major wave of Arab liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century: the golden age of Arabic literature, theatre, cinema, and music, and at a time when the highly secular Arab nationalist movement was on the rise across almost the entire Arab world. That was a time when Islamism – whether the Salafist thinking that looked at modernity with suspicion and took its inspiration from the communities that surrounded Prophet Mohamed and his successors in the seventh century; or mainstream political Islam, the groups that aimed to ascend to political power using religious rhetoric and ideology – seemed to have been marginalised, rejected by the people in favour of progressive views of how their societies should be governed. The Arab world, or at least its intellectual elite and the, at the time, expanding middle classes, were conspicuously comfortable with modernity, and crucially with secularism.
Mahfouz questions that comfortableness. He presents what he saw as a dilemma: society willing to accept major changes in norms and ways of living, and the achievements that science has made possible, but not the results that scientific thinking would lead to – specifically regarding the role of religion. Towards the end of the novel, the representation that he selected for science (Arafa – a name derived from the Arabic origin of “knowledge”) inadvertently kills the representation that he selected for God (Gabalawi, a name that signifies “Mountainous solidity”). But that act triggers shame, sorrow, attempts at concealment, various conspiracies, and crucially, plunges the “alley” (Mahfouz’s representation of humanity) into misery.
Mahfouz leaves three questions unanswered. The first is whether religions are losing their influence on humanity (or so it seemed to him in the 1950s) because they are, in his view, incongruent with progress, or because human society has failed to comprehend them. The second is whether faith and science are compatible. And third, he does not tell us what he himself believed.
Such evasiveness – or caution – did not help him much. For decades, the novel was not published in the Islamic world, and in 1992, a 22-year old Islamist radical stabbed him in the neck to punish him for his “blasphemy”. So, “Children of Our Alley” has it all: big, interesting questions; a captivating writing style, a key factor behind Mahfouz’s winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988; and the thrill – and heartbreak – of an assassination attempt on a man in his ninth decade. So, why didn’t the presenter and the other guest find it a compelling read?
Time is certainly a reason. The ideas that this novel presents were intriguing in the middle of the twentieth century when religions had major followings across most societies and when religious institutions were still highly influential in a range of social, political, and economic domains. These questions were certainly enthralling in the 1950s’ Arab – and Islamic – world. But are they even interesting in today’s West. After the avalanche of books that were published in the last three decades promoting the supremacy of science, and vigorously attacking religion, would mere allegories, that philosophically question the divine messages and humans’ perception of them, be compelling? May be I was under the awe that many young people get from their first exposure to something that captures their imaginations, an awe that over time has evolved into a soft spot for the novel. I was in my early teens when I read “Children of Our Alley” for the first time. And I was captivated – by the novelty of the ideas and by Mahfouz’s courage at tackling these issues, even if through allegories. It was years later when I read the philosophical, contemplative, and analytical work of pillars of the Western civilisation, let alone the work of contemporary writers and scientists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. And it was also years later when I encountered the ideas of (shall we say unconventional) Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Arabi. Perhaps, if I were to read “Children of Our Alley” today, for the first time, I wouldn’t develop that huge admiration that I did develop for it when I read it two decades ago.
Another factor is the importance – and place – of the subject matter in two very different cultures. Religion (Islam and Christianity) is arguably the most potent frame of reference in all Arabic societies. Figures such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed remain integral characters, not only in the Arabs’ view of history, but also in their psyche. But these – and all biblical characters – do not enjoy any special sanctity in modern Western consciousness. And so the marvel that I found in that novel two decades ago might not be shared by a western reader today.
Al Murray, the other guest at “A Good Read” said the novel is “sad”. And I agree. Through the flow of the novel, Mahfouz shows us that humanity, not only, has not been redeemed or elevated; it has sunk in seas of misery; despite its long and varied experimentation, humanity has achieved neither bliss nor happiness. One conclusion from this novel – one that, in the early 1960s, drew the ire of the religious establishments of several Islamic countries – is that neither religion nor science has delivered on that elusive happiness. Few commentators who were close to Mahfouz insist that that was not the point he was making, and that his message was that governance is key: that flawed power structures, corrupt politics, extreme inequality, and highly concentrated economic interests damage societies; and so it is humanity’s recurring mistakes that plunge it into suffering and wretchedness. Others ask the readers not to imbue the novel with their own thinking; they argue that Mahfouz recorded his interpretation of human conditions through the prism of how humanity has interacted with the monotheistic religions, but without providing any deep analysis of why the results ended up as such. And so, in this view, Mahfouz raised questions, but did not provide answers.