CAIRO: The novel that almost cost Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz his life has finally been published in book form in Egypt, four months after his death, and has become a best seller.
The first edition of Awlad Haretna, or Children of the Alley or Children of Gebelawi as it is known in English, sold out in two weeks, said Saif Salmawy, the distribution manager of Dar el-Shrouk, which is publishing the 1959 novel.
Salmawy declined to give the size of the first edition, but it was thought to be 5,000 – a high figure for two weeks of sales in Egypt. A second edition came out Thursday.
It s our best seller, Salmawy said Thursday. Mahfouz, who died in August, was the first Arab writer to win the Nobel prize for literature. Children of the Alley, which until now had to be published outside Egypt, was mentioned by the Nobel committee when it awarded him the prize in 1988, along with his 1956-1957 masterpiece, the trilogy Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street.
Children of the Alley first appeared as a serial in Egypt s leading daily newspaper Al-Ahram in 1959-1960. It tells the story of a family patriarch and his sons, who represent religious figures. The patriarchal father represents God and his sons are various Islamic prophets, such as Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.
As the state-run newspaper ran the excerpts, a representative of President Gamal Abdel Nasser contacted Mahfouz and advised not to publish the work as a book because it might infuriate Al-Azhar, the Cairo institute that is the highest theological college in the Muslim Sunni world.
Islam frowns on any literary depiction of Muhammad, except for straightforward biography or poems of praise. What was more daring was that Mahfouz s children included a son, representing science, who was born after Muhammad – which suggested the heresy that Muhammad was not the final prophet.
Mahfouz agreed not to publish the book in Egypt in Arabic. The Lebanese publishing house Dar Al-Adab printed the book, but it was banned in Egypt. Some copies were smuggled into the country, but it was only the English translation that could be bought in Egyptian bookshops. In 1989 the radical Egyptian cleric, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, said in an interview that Mahfouz deserved to die because of Children of the Alley.
Five years later, two Islamic militants stabbed the author as he got into a car outside his home in Agouza, Cairo. The militants, who said the book was blasphemous as they stabbed him, were convicted of attempted murder and executed the next year.
Abdel-Rahman was later convicted of plotting to blow up New York City landmarks and is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison.
Mahfouz is widely regarded as the Middle East s greatest author, writing 34 novels, hundreds of short stories and essays, dozens of movie scripts and five plays during a career of 70 years.
Children of the Alley is selling for 30 Egyptian pounds (about US$5).
So far, it has not provoked any Islamic anger. Early last year, Mahfouz upset liberal writers when he said he would not publish the novel without Al-Azhar s consent and an introduction by Islamic scholar.
If I ask Al-Azhar, I would be giving it a right that it doesn t have. I don t want to alienate Al-Azhar, but that s my business, he was quoted as saying.
Al-Azhar is not known to have formally given permission for the book to appear, but the Egyptian edition carries an introduction by Ahmed Kamal Abou el-Magd, a moderate and respected Islamic scholar.
The grand sheik at Al-Azhar, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, led the prayers at Mahfouz s funeral.