James Jacques Joseph Tissot, Adam and Eve Driven From Paradise, c. 1896–1902 (Image credit: Jewish Museum)

While recently browsing through my home library, I pulled a novel from the shelf which I first read well over twenty-five years ago: Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz. Leafing through it, I remembered first learning about the Egyptian writer while listening to a public radio program at my job in the university library and later buying this book while passing a winter’s night with a friend at the now shuttered Borders bookstore in Buffalo. I couldn’t recollect much about the book’s characters or narratives, but I could vividly recall my initial encounters with it. That’s one of the many wonderful aftereffects of art: the associations stirred up by them.

Children of the Alley chronicles the life of a neighborhood in Cairo across several successive generations, serving as an allegory or retelling of the foundational narratives of the central Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Chrisitianity, and Islam. Adham is invited to manage the estate of his father, a demanding, temperamental, and often absent parent, Gabalawi. Eventually, after betraying Gabalawi’s trust, Adham is cast out of the family mansion into the larger world. Later, he tragically discovers that his son has murdered his own twin brother. Clearly, this is an updated version of the Book of Genesis, namely its early chapters depicting the original sin separating mankind from God, and the story of Cain and Abel. 

As the related, yet distinctive segments of the novel unfold, Gabalawi becomes increasingly distant, a figure whose orders are only heard through servants and becomes little more than a faded memory. Meanwhile, criminals rule over the alley, extorting protection money from shopkeepers and peddlers. The people sink into a life of squalor, numbing themselves with alcohol and hashish. New leaders emerge with each generation, paralleling the heroes of the Abrahamic traditions: Gabal (Moses), Riaffa (Christ), and Qassem (Muhammad) respectively attempt to steer their fellow residents to a more just and noble life. Unfortunately, their efforts only last so long. Infighting breaks out, and the criminals reassert control. In the last section of the novel, a magician named Arafat aims to break the stranglehold of the gangsters with chemical inventions, representing the ascendency and dangers of science and technology. This addendum of the modern world upsets the allegorical coherence of an otherwise masterful novel. It seems as if less or more story needed to be told.

Overall, Children of the Alley is a compelling read. Although its main narratives are rooted in Abrahamic scripture, the characters appear fresh and alive. They all struggle to find a strategy for breaking the ceaseless cycle of injustice, betrayal, and sadness besetting the majority of their people. Their story is our story, and we seem to relive it again and again. Through this fictional alley, Mahfouz attempts and succeeds as the artist and poet William Blake wrote “to see a World in a Grain of Sand.”

Illustration of Cain burying Abel. Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Nishapuri, Stories of the Prophets, c. 1570. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The troubled history of the book is equally fascinating. After being serialized in an Egyptian newspaper in 1959, Children of the Alley was banned in that country. When Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988, his work and specifically this novel attracted the ire of Muslim extremists. In 1994, Mahfouz was stabbed outside his Cairo home. Although he survived that attack, he suffered from the effects of the injuries until his death in 2006. Only then was Children of the Alley released in Egypt.

Children of the Alley demonstrates the unique and irrepressible power of literature to allow us to hold up our most unfathomable and everlasting fears and longings. In this case, what does humankind mean to God? Why does this world offer so much pain? Will we ever return to God’s grace? Does he even still live? No poem, play, short story, or novel will fully answer these or any of the great questions. However, they assure us that such reflections stretch across cultures and time. Just maybe, they might offer a glimmer of understanding and peace.

David Goodwin is an urban historian, author, and Assistant Director of the Center on Religion and Culture.