Of the many books and articles that appeared to mark the 12th anniversary of Naguib Mahfouz’s death, no doubt Mohamed Shoair’s outstanding work, The Children of Gebelawi: The Story of a Banned Novel (Al-Ain Publishing House) is the most important and enduring.
The eminent literary editor’s study of one of the most important Arabic novels ever follows the history of that great literary work from its conception, as it appeared in serialised form in Al-Ahram in 1959, through four decades of the battles surrounding it until the assassination attempt in 1994, and then the subsequent 12 years up to the time of Mahfouz’s death. It is a profound and thorough investigation that packs elements of suspense.
The Children of Gebelawi and the controversy it precipitated at diverse political, cultural and religious levels interweaves with the conditions of the times in ways that may have been different had the novel appeared in another, earlier or later era.
Shoair, in his account of that novel, reviews the political conditions that prevailed in the 1960s and explores how Mahfouz stood with respect to them, as well as how they stood with respect to Mahfouz. He also looks at the cultural milieu of the times and the divergent attitudes of some intellectuals and writers towards Mahfouz and his novel.
One of the ironies that emerges in this context is that the circles that were the most outspoken and frank in their attitudes towards the novel were the sheikhs of Al-Azhar.
Their positions, if ill-founded, were unequivocal. By contrast, quite a few intellectuals were evasive and their criticisms were veiled.
The regime, at the time, according to Shoair’s book, was opposed to Mahfouz’s novel but, rather than say this explicitly, it hid behind sheikhs’ rejection of it.
Therefore, Sabri Al-Khouli’s initiative is portrayed as an attempt on the part of the political authorities to prevent the publication of the novel.
This is not an uncommon view and those that propound it argue that Al-Khouli was the Egyptian president’s personal representative.
In fact, at the time, Al-Khouli was head of the General Information Service and he hoped that his mediating effort would help clear the air between Mahfouz and the religious officials who objected to the novel. Moreover, Al-Khouli’s intervention came about by accident: he happened to encounter Mahfouz one day in the lift in Al-Ahram building where they had offices located on the same floor.
He made his proposal to Mahfouz to arrange a meeting with Al-Azhar officials on the spur of the moment, not in accordance with some pre-conceived plan.
Mahfouz agreed to meet the sheikhs and arrived in Al-Khouli’s office at the appointed time. However, none of the sheikhs had the courage to attend the meeting.
Al-Khouli suggested that Mahfouz has the novel published abroad so as not to exacerbate the tensions and Mahfouz agreed. More than 30 years later, I arranged a meeting between Mahfouz, in his home, and the publisher Ibrahim Al-Moallem, Kamal Abul-Magd and Selim Al-Awa.
It was in that meeting that it was agreed to have The Children of Gebelawi published for the first time in Egypt with an introduction by the two Islamist writers, Abul-Magd and Al-Awa.
Shoair’s study, like any human creation, is not without defects, which I hope he will address in future editions which I am sure are forthcoming.
One is that it does not corroborate some important information with primary sources. For example, it relates that Mahfouz’s body was screened for explosives before taking its place in front of the president in the military funeral procession.
If the author had cited the source of that information, which is myself who was present at that event, it would have acquired greater force and credibility. As for the claim that the coffin over which prayers were recited in Al-Hussein Mosque was empty, that is not true.
The son of the director, Tawfik Saleh, and I were together in the room in which the body was washed. It was placed in the coffin before my own eyes and I escorted it to Al-Hussein.
After the prayer ceremony, I helped carry the coffin to the vehicle that we would follow to Al-Rashdan Mosque where the military funeral procession was held. I believe that Shoair should have cited the first-hand source (myself) from whom he had heard this information and let readers judge for themselves.
If evidence somehow came to light that the information was false, at least the author will have been credited for taking the pains to corroborate it as best he could while the source itself would have to sustain the blame for the falsehood. In academic work, in general, such significant details should not be left unsourced as occurs in some journalistic reports that are more intent on producing a sensationalist effect.
I also felt that the chapter on the novel The Thief and the Dogs was extraneous, regardless of how well the author handled his material. There was no justification for introducing this chapter, which discusses the ideological connections between this novel and The Children of Gebelawi, into the account of the latter novel.
After all, there is an intrinsic linkage between the ideas in all Mahfouz’s works, as is the case with every writer.
I should stress that the abovementioned criticisms do not detract in any way from the value of Shoair’s study which has inspired me with the confidence that an older generation of giants in literary criticism has bequeathed to us new, earnest and robust scholars equipped with the skills to analyse and contextualise our literacy masterpieces, as Mohamed Shoair has done so superbly with The Children of Gebelawi.
We still lack literary critics of the calibre of that older generation. But Shoair is one of those who has begun to fill the gap and, at the same time, who has pioneered a new critical approach in The Children of Gebelawi.
Perhaps the biography of works of fiction will become a new specialisation in the field of literary criticism.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Mahfouz’s banned novel