January 27, 2008
Banned Books – أولاد حارتنا
There are different reasons for banning books in every part of the world, most of which are Religion, Sex, and Politics. However, the fact remains that in the Middle East and particularly the Islamic world the constraints applied on the three taboos that cause the banning of some books are stricter than any other culture, and even though the restraints on books with sexual content and politics are a bit loosen nowadays, yet those put on books crossing lines with religions are still applied strictly…
One of the most controversial novels in the history of the Arabic literature that was banned for decades for religious reasons was “أولاد حارتنا” or “Children of Gebelawi”, as better known in the western world, written by the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006); the winner of the 1988 Noble prize for literature.
It was first written in 1959 and posted in Al-Ahram daily newspaper in serialized form, causing huge discordant in Egypt because of the close imitation to sacred symbols that it included. The idea of publishing the novel in the form of a book was fiercely fought from all religious authorities in Egypt, and even though it was published in Lebanon in 1962, the novel was banned throughout the Arab world including Egypt, except for Lebanon, until December 2006 when “Dar el Shorouk” publishing house, which bought exclusive rights to print Mahfouz’s works in Arabic in 2000, published it in Egypt after 47 years of its writing and 4 months of Mahfouz’s death. It is well worth mentioning that Mahfouz had refused several attempts from publishers to issue his book contrary to Al-Azhar’s wishes in earlier years, and that until this moment – even after its publication – the novel was not officially endorsed from Al-Azhar, which is the highest Islamic religious authority in Egypt.
The conflict-ridden this novel caused was pertaining to how far the use of allegorical portrayal with sacred religious symbols such as God and his messengers can be tolerable, and whether this should be considered blasphemy or just pure literature…?
The plot of the novel imitates four divine stories in four successive sections of the book. The first section starts with “Gebelawi”, representing God and the idea of religion in general, who built a mansion described as an oasis in the middle of desert, which, supposedly, symbolizes Paradise, then starts emulating the story of Adam & Eve and their expel from Heaven as a result of Satan’s temptations, all the way till the story of Cain and Abel. Followed by three consecutive sections representing the stories of the three messengers of the Abrahamic religions; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam respectively symbolized through average Egyptians living in an alley in Cairo . Finally, in the fifth section of the book comes “Arafa”; which is a name derived from the Arabic verb “عرف” which literally means “Know”, symbolizing science and pointing up the eternal conflict between science and religion.
Although Mahfouz stated more than once that the novel is merely an illustration of a typical Egyptian alley, yet it is very noticeable that even the names he chose for his characters were related to the real religious symbols in some way or another, whether by the name rhyming, such as (Adam – Adham), (Satan/Iblees – Idrees), and (Gabriel/Gebreel – Qandeel), or by the meaning such as (Moses – Gabal); which literally means “Mountain” to symbolize “Moses’ Mountain”, and (Jesus – Refa’a); which is derived from the Arabic verb “رفع” that literally means “Raised” referring to the Quranic idiom that God has raised Jesus to Heavens, or by a name derived from the real characters’ names such as (Muhammad – Qassem); which is basically one of Prophet Muhammed’s names, and (Abu Bakr as-Sadiq – Sadek).
Even though the novel was mainly inspired by the stories of the prophets, but the purpose of it was not to narrate their lives in a fictional style. However, it was merely desired to benefit from their legends in portraying the humanitarian community of values that the prophets sought to achieve, such as justice and truth.
All the best,
On January 27, 2008