October 2, 2012

Children Of Gebelawi

Naguib Mahfouz’s 1988 Nobel Prize for literature marked the first time that an Arab had been award the honor. Mahfouz was born in 1911 into a lower middle class family in the Gamaleyya quarter of Cairo. Despite his strict traditionalist Muslim upbringing, young Naguib embraced a much more liberal world view. He credited his mother’s nurturing influence and love of Egyptian history for this departure from the family’s values. In 1934 he graduated from Cairo University with a degree in philosophy, still yet another sign of his rejection of his father’s strict Islamic view of the world. His writing questions not only Islam but all religions of the book. Following a year in graduate school, Mahfouz left the university for a civil service career, first in Ministry of Religious affairs then the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Mortmain Endowments, then as Director of Censorship in the Bureau of Art, Director of the Foundation for the Support of the Cinema, and finally as a consultant to the Ministry of Culture. During this time he also worked as a contributing editor for the leading newspaper Al-Ahram until his retirement in 1972. Mahfouz’s writing, in particular his Children of Gebelawi, caused much controversy due to its subject matter. Several death threats were made against him and his family, and his work was banned in many countries with large Muslim populations. In 1994 the eighty two year old author was attacked and stabbed in the neck by a militant. As a result of the attack his ability to write was severely restricted due to severe nerve damage in his hand. Despite the damage he continued to write a few small articles and such until his death in 2006 due to complications of a household fall in which he injured his head.

Children of Gebelawi is set in Cairo in an undetermined but recent past. The characters are all thinly veiled caricatures of the major monotheistic religions; the father, Gebelawi, representing God, and his various sons standing in for characters in the Old Testament and Koran. The problems in the Cairo alley mirror the ancient religious problems of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Instead of religious figures, the characters are social reformers intent on improving the status quo of the alley.

The book begins with a background story that mirrors the creation myth of the Old Testament. Gebelawi (God) builds a new estate, complete with a massive luxurious garden that is a veritable paradise for his children and servants. The mighty and terrible Gebelawi reigns over his entire domain with an iron will that cannot be crossed. Problems first arise when he chooses his youngest and least important son Adham (Adam) to take up stewardship of the garden instead of his oldest and most powerful and prideful son Idris (Satan). The resulting blowout ends with the angry and bitter Idris challenging his father for control of the estate and being cast out of the garden and stripped of his inheritance and status as a son of Gebelawi. Vowing revenge he becomes the enemy and deceiver intent on wreaking destruction Adham and later his family. Adam’s wife is later tempted by Idris into convincing her husband to break into his father’s study and read his secret book containing his ten conditions that governed the estate and garden. Adham in turn is banished from the garden along with his wife. They make their way into the alley and live within sight of his father’s house, but misery follows them as Idris’ manipulations bring about the death of one of his sons at the hand of his own brother. This part mirrors the story of Cain and Abel.

Image Credit: andesign101 /

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