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
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.