In 2001, Al Ahram newspaper sent a reporter to interview Naguib Mahfouz, and the reporter said to the novelist, “I noticed that whenever you're photographed carrying or reading a newspaper, it's always Al-Ahram.”
Mahouz chuckled and replied, “This is because I would buy Al-Ahram at first, then the rest of the newspapers. When I fold them, Al-Ahram would always be on the outside.” The journalist then asked, “What does Al-Ahram symbolize for you?”
“Al-Ahram is the bastion of journalism, being the oldest newspaper in the Middle East.,” Mahfouz explained. “But for me, it is also a bastion of freedom. I have been harassed by censorship repeatedly, and Al-Ahram always stood by me.”
In late 1959, Al Ahram first published Awlad Haretna, known today in English as Children of the Alley, in a serialized form, with a short portion of the longer work in the paper each day over three months. Peter Theroux and Paul Stewart’s translations preserve the bite-sized chapters, which break the expansive story into newspaper columns. While the publication of serialized novels in newspapers declined in the U.S. and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, the practice persisted in Egypt.
Children of the Alley was Mahfouz’s first novel after seven years of silence following the 1952 revolution, and it quickly became his most controversial novel. An allegory for the lives of major figures in monotheism set in the ruthless, hard-bitten world of a Cairo slum, the parallels to sacred stories angered scholars at Al Azhar. In particular, they must have reacted strongly to Mahfouz's characterization of Muhummad, portrayed in the character Kassem,
as "witty, friendly, and correct... it was a pleasure to smoke hashish with him."
The Editor in Chief of Al Ahram at the time was Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a close friend of Gamal Abdel Nasser. According to Theroux, Nasser “hated the book for its harsh depiction of a society ruled by tyrants and goons, and wanted to ban it.” He did not need to, because al-Azhar objected to the novel publicly, condemned it in Friday sermons, and led hundreds to protest outside Al Ahram's offices. That was enough to keep any publisher from releasing it.
“Some Al-Azhar scholars were outraged,” Mahfouz remembered. “Many expected Al-Ahram to stop the serialisation. But Editor-in-Chief Mohamed Hassanein Heikal decided to keep the series going until the novel was published in full. "Your problem with the ulema is your business, but I guarantee your safety. No one will touch you," Heikal told me at the time.”
Heikal kept his word, and agreed with the Azharis that the serialization would continue until the end, but that the book would not be released in Egypt. The first Arabic publication came from Beirut in 1967, and certainly it is more famous than its actual readership would suggest. When Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize in 1988, a call for his murder was made by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman (whose supporters are currently camped out in front of the U.S. Embassy campaigning for his release with a sign that says ‘SMS to Obama. Sincerity of Intentions with Egyptians,’ but I digress).
As he was laying in the hospital after his 1994 assassination attempt by a young follower of Abdel-Rahman, Mahfouz told Mary Anne Weaver of The New Yorker, “The young man who attacked me didn’t know anything about ‘Children of Gebelaawi.’ He had never read the book.” (Weaver’s excellent article, which spawned a book, is available online in its entirety). Although one could find the Lebanese publication in Cairo, and AUC press released an English translation, Children of the Alley was finally published in Cairo, in Arabic, in 2006, with an introduction by Muhamad Selim al-Awa (who is currently running for president).
The whole story is vast, weaving together Egypt’s political history under three presidents, the history of world fiction (Abdel-Rahman issued his declaration in response to Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie for ‘The Satanic Verses’), and the politics of translation (would The New Yorker have commissioned an article if readers could not then go buy a translation of the novel in question?).
But more than all of this, I keep coming back to how it all began with a form of publishing that English language readers seldom experience these days. Al-Azhar, I speculate, only got so riled up about Awlad Haretna in its original form because it appeared in a publication with a vastly greater circulation than any single novel, over a longer period of time. As I read the novel recently, I imagined the scholars at Al Azhar becoming a little angry about the representation of Adam one day, and then weeks later the representation of Moses stokes that anger a bit more. Then Jesus, and finally, after the indignation and public awareness has built up, comes the lengthy, morally complex portion about Muhammad. Had the novel been published as a book initially, I can hardly imagine that the history would have proceeded the same way.
Al Shuruq has recently been releasing Heikal’s Mubarak and His Times, in serialized form. Akhbar al-Adab still puts out novels bit by bit. But I have trouble imagining Egypt, and hence the world of international fiction, being shaken in quite the same way without this form of publication, which allows repeated exposure to a much wider audience day after day, and which builds an audience for the book’s eventual publication (if, unlike this example, it ever comes out).
The story of Children of the Alley is such a large part of Mahfouz’s worldwide fame, setting up as it does the assassination attempt that took his reputation in the West from that of a Nobel laureate to that of a Nobel laureate under attack. And I cannot help but wonder how it all would have happened differently if not for the novel’s original serialization in Al Ahram newspaper, which Mahfouz so proudly tucked under his arm.