October 3, 2012

Children Of Gebelawi (Part 2)

The novels picks up again many years after the death of Adham.  His children have expanded their families and populated the whole alley.  The children believe that Gebelawi had promised Adham support in the form of income from the estate.  However, over time gangsters and corrupt overseers have stopped this support and made life in the alley harsh and extremely difficult.  Out of one segment Adham’s decedents rose Gabal (Moses).  He is brave and committed to justice. Gabal leads his family group in a rebellion, successfully overthrowing their oppressors. He gives them harsh laws to follow, and teaches them that they are special and should separate themselves from other groups in the alley.  Gabal does nothing to free the other peoples in the alley, but does set an example for others to follow.  He shows that justice can be obtained.

The next part deals with the Christ figure in Mahfouz’s book. Rifaat (Jesus) scares and offends the people of the alley by his strange nature and odd ways. Despite this a small group of followers appear that are attracted by his gentle personality and his teachings of mercy and love. As his followers grow in number the authorities in the alley take notice and plot to kill him. After convincing one of Rifaat’s disciples to betray him; he is brutally killed. Following his death, his body vanishes.  This causes Rifaat’s people to discover devotion for him they never felt in life. However, almost at once they are divided over the meaning of his message.  Some of his followers argue they should follow his example and give up all worldly things. But his closest aide and disciple win with a version of his teaching that allows for a more normal life. Unfortunately after his death, his followers split and remain bitterly divided over the correct interpretation of his teachings.

Moving on, Mahfouz deals with the character of Qassem (Mohammed).  He uses his wealth and influence to build an army and drive out the overseers and gangsters. While Qassem manages to establish true justice, it becomes apparent even in his lifetime that this system cannot last. Qassem is a womanizer and is strongly attracted to women and soon takes many wives. And although all his followers gladly defer to him, there are hints that he would not be one to tolerate dissent easily should it arise. The bad old ways reassert themselves as soon as he dies, and the alley once again devolves into a system of abuses by those in power.

The final chapter introduces Arafa (Science), a magician of mysterious origins. He moves into the section of the alley where the followers of Rifaat live, and soon develops amazing new weapons. Arafa intends to use his powers to destroy the gangsters once and for all, but instead he succumbs to corruption and ends up cementing the power of the most powerful. Arafa is distraught over his failures. He decides he needs still more powerful magic to achieve true justice. In an attempt to achieve this he decided to break into Gebelawi’s mansion to try to steal the same book that caused Adham to be banned from the garden. There is a struggle, and in the shock, Gebelawi dies.  Arafa is captured by the overseer and he and his wife are buried alive.  All hope of justice is lost seemingly.  However it is revealed that his son managed to escape and is rumored to return soon to punish the overseer and bring justice to the alley.

I really enjoyed this book.  The plot I described above is true, yet it does not do justice to the author’s work.  His prose is beautiful and sucks the reader into the world he describes.  The dirty filthy reality of the alley contrasts starkly with the ordered beauty and grace of Gebelawi’s estate.  While the overarching plot utilizes well known tropes from the three monotheistic religions, the events and story do not suffer from a sense of fated destiny.  The final chapter dealing with Arafa or science is a great commentary on human society.  Each previous religion/character fails to achieve lasting change.  Upon the death of their leaders, the movements splinter and dissolve into corruption.  Always present are the strongmen.  Those who are bigger or taller or stronger than their peers rise above the rest to oppress their lesser brethren.  Mahfouz’s view is that despite the best intentions, man’s nature is to oppress those around him.  Science’s fate is no different than that of the religions’.  It is co-opted by those in power to strengthen their position, and in the book to conquer not only the religions, but also the hope of redemption in the character of God, Gebelawi.  The book has a dark and despairing ending, with only the faintest glimmer of hope that another hero may arise to bring justice in the future.  However, if the past is any guide, it will be a doomed attempt.

Image Credit: Galyna Andrushko /

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