Naguib Mahfouz

Children of Gebelawi

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Children of Gebelawi Summary

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Children of Gebelawi (also known in English as Children of the Alley) is a 1959 novel by Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz. The novel is a heavily allegorical tale of the people and events intersecting in a specific alley in Cairo, depicting the rise and clash of the three major monotheistic religions of the world. Mahfouz was condemned in the Arabic world for the work and subject to violence and abuse due to its publication.

In a brief preface, Mahfouz declares that while he will attempt to tell the stories of the alley accurately, he has only personally witnessed the most recent. The story begins with the introduction of Adham, the favorite son of the wealthy Gebelawi. Gebelawi is an intimidating man with many sons, all of whom fear and respect him. Gebelawi’s oldest son, Idris, rebels against his father’s commands and insults him, and Gebelawi grows furious and throws Idris out of his house. Idris remains outside the house, living in poverty and filth and shouting insults at his father. One day he manages to catch Adham alone and attempts to lure him into a plot against Gebelawi. Adham resists, but Idris does better when he speaks with Adham’s wife, Omayma, telling her that Gebelawi’s will is hidden in his inner sanctum and sowing doubt that she and her husband will be rewarded for their loyalty. Omayma prevails on Adham to break into the private room and steal his father’s will in order to see what their inheritance will be. Gebelawi catches Adham and banishes him and Omayma from the house. As Adham and Omayma move into the nearby alley to live in poverty and disgrace, Idris gets drunk and dances, celebrating.

Gebelawi grows older and retreats into his mansion, closing the doors and refusing to respond to cries for help from his descendants outside. Outside the mansion, life in the alley grows terrible, as bullies use violence and intimidation to dominate the weak, and a select few live in comfort while everyone else lives in terrible conditions. Gebel, Gebelawi’s grandson and a snake-charmer, sees the conditions in the alley and is moved to do something about it. Gebel gathers followers and leads them out of the alley, fighting those who would oppose them and establishing their own space where they will live according to the harsh—but just—laws that Gebel sets down for them. Gebel is incorruptible and passionate for justice, making him an uncompromising but effective ruler of his people.

One of Gebelawi’s other grandsons, Rifaa, is the son of a carpenter and is very popular among the other people because he is gentle and friendly. Rifaa has no desire for wealth or power, and stays detached from others. Out in the desert, Rifaa is mystified to hear the voice of his grandfather calling to him and urging him to use his inner strength to save his people. Rifaa has no interest in his grandfather’s estate, and is solely concerned with people’s souls and their spiritual salvation. He returns to the alley to preach love and forgiveness, but his innocence and purity offend the powerful men there, and they drag him back to the desert where they murder him. Rifaa’s followers begin telling his story, and take a portion of the alley for themselves.

The third of Gebelawi’s grandsons is Qaasim, who is a shrewd businessman who grows very wealthy. He uses his money to raise an army and work to drive out the bad men in the alley and take back territory in order to impose the strict justice envisioned by Gebel. Qaasim is a gifted and inspiring leader, but he is conquered by his lusts and winds up taking many wives. Qaasim is also intolerant of any views or beliefs that are not his own, and this intolerance dooms the order and peace he establishes, which quickly fades away after he dies.

Finally, a magician named Arafa emerges. It has been so long since anyone has directly heard from Gebelawi that Arafa believes it is foolish to continue to await the old man’s return. He instead decides that only magic can help raise the people of the alley out of misery, and he works to perfect his power and skill in the magical arts. He also decides that the only way to end the question of Gebelawi is to break into the mansion and seek information that will explain the mystery. Using his magic, Arafa breaks into the house, but accidentally kills the old man in the process. The alley is wracked by grief and rage over this event. Arafa realizes he has done something terrible, and redoubles his studies in the hope of someday becoming so powerful he can bring Gebelawi back to life, but his works are perverted and used by the strong to dominate the people of the alley. Arafa tries to destroy his work, but his final notebook with his formulas for happiness and progress are retrieved, and young men begin studying magic in the hope of using it someday to save the world.