Egypt’s Nobel winner asks Islamists to approve book

Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel Prize-winning author, is seeking  
permission from the country’s highest Islamic authorities to publish  
one of his most controversial novels, a move which has staggered  
friends and colleagues who see it as a capitulation to the power of  
conservative Islam.

The 94-year-old writer said his publisher had asked for the approval  
of al-Azhar university, Sunni Islam’s oldest seat of learning,  
finally to publish Children of the Alley. The book was banned in  
Egypt in 1959 after Islamic scholars declared its depiction of  
religious figures blasphemous.

“If al-Azhar agrees to publish it, then I want it published,” he told  
friends and supporters at a weekly get-together in a bar at the  
Shepherd Hotel on the banks of the Nile.

Mahfouz, a 1988 Nobel winner whose sophisticated works helped to make  
Egypt the intellectual and cultural hub of the Arab world in the  
1960s and 1970s, further dismayed his audience when he confirmed that  
he had asked Egypt’s powerful Islamic organisation the Muslim  
Brotherhood to write a preface to the book. He said he wanted the  
imprimatur of “the Islamists”.

A friend and fellow author, Yusef al-Qaid, said: “This creates a  
dangerous precedent because it gives power of censorship to al-Azhar,  
which goes against the principles upheld by Egyptian intellectuals.”

Another Egyptian author, Ezzat al-Qamhawi, said Mahfouz had “betrayed  
his writing”. He called his decision a stain on a glorious career.

Raymond Stock, Mahfouz’s friend, biographer and translator, is among  
the dozen or so regulars who join the near-blind author for a weekly  
session of loud debate and laughter, a ritual since 1994 when Mahfouz  
was stabbed twice in the neck by an Islamic fundamentalist. The  
attack almost killed him and left him unable to write.

Mr Stock said it was possible that the author was attempting a final  
triumph over his old foes, who regularly opposed publications they  
deem “unislamic”. He added: “If he can get al-Azhar and the Muslim  
Brotherhood to agree his novel is no longer blasphemous, it means he  
has made them change their position.

“It would be a great victory for him if they were to concede, and it  
would have great implications for other works which have been banned.”

Children of the Alley appeared as a newspaper serialisation in 1959.  
Its central character is an authoritarian father-figure who banishes  
his children and retreats to his distant home high on a hill. Though  
he remains remote, his complicated character exerts a powerful force  
on their lives.

The scholars of al-Azhar identified the central character as God and  
declared the depiction a blasphemy. They identified other characters  
as representing the Prophet Mohamed and Jesus and said this  
undermined their dignity.

Mr Stock believes the scholars took the text too literally, and they  
neither knew nor cared that his main target was the Egyptian  
president Gamal Abdul Nasser and dictatorship in general.