(Review of ‘Children of Gebelaawi’ – a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, translation of Philip Stewarship)
This is an allegory on the history of prophets of Abraham religions – Adam, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad represented as far as humanly possible. Gebelaawi, the creator of the alley, favored his son (from a servant) Adham over his other sons of higher birth including Idris (Iblis). Idris walked out on his father and later tricked Adham into the temptation of knowing G’s will causing G to throw him out.
“Your mind stays in the place it’s been thrown out of.”
Adham lived on hoping to get back the comfortable life that was once his, scorn-ing at life to sustain which you have to earn:
“Only an animal worries all the time about the next meal. “
Adham lived a miserable life – memory of lost paradise can bring more suffering than residence in hell, he saw one of his sons killing the other. However, G promised dying Adham that his children will get the life he had yawned for.
Although G didn’t take Adham’s successors in his place, he created a trust for their benefit. However, soon trustee (our symbol for powerful) grew corrupt and he kept some gangsters for his protection.
The people who were now suffering repeatedly saw hope of redemption first in aggressive Gebel (Moses) -who wanted ‘an eye for an eye’ sort of order and chose to save only a few, that is his tribe – whom he considered descendants of Adham; than in Rifaa (Jesus) – an innocent idiot who thought power was useless and love was the real thing; and then in Qasim (Muhammad) – who tried balancing previous ideas -‘Force when necessary and love always’. All of them seemed to react to previous one(s) and all of them won victories to different extents. However soon, work done by each of them was undone and same old conditions returned – as if creating room for next prophet. Nothing from them remained behind except their names- which people loved associating themselves with and their stories.
“our plague is forgetfulness.”
“No one who looks at the state of our Alley will believe what the rebec tells in the cafes. Who was Gebel? Who was Rifaa? Who was Qaasim? Where, outside the world of the cafe, are the good works that are referred to? All that the eye sees is an alley sunk in darkness and bards singing of dreams.”
Just as Orwell showed meaninglessness of political revolutions, NF shows meaninglessness of religious ones. A revolution may move people but it won’t change them; like an autumn leaf blown by winds, we will fell back to their old ways.
“Gebel, Rifaa and Qaasim were only names – songs chanted by drugged bards in the cafes. Each faction was proud of it s hero, of whom no trace remained, and they quarreled and fought about them. Various phrases went around the hashish dens: ‘What’s the use?’ (of the world, not of drugs) or ‘It all ends in death ; let’s die at the hand of God and not under a strong man ‘s cudgel. The best we can do is get drunk or take hash is h. ‘ They wailed sad songs about treachery, poverty and degradation, or chanted bawdy ones in the ears of any man or woman who was seeking consolation, however terrible their misfortune. At times of particular misery people would say: ‘What is written is written. Gebel can’t help, nor Rifaa, nor Qaasim. Our fate is flies in this world and dust in the next. ‘”
However, hope has a way of finding something to attach itself to. Now it attaches itself to magic (science) something which Arafa (the fifth son of Alley) brought with itself. Unlike prophets, he neither was thrown out by G. (Adham), nor was met by G. any time(Gebel)), nor he heard his voices(Rifaa) or saw any of his servants (Qaasim) – notice how G. is becoming less and less visible to each new generation.
Arafa wants to repeat Adham’s mistakes, he wants to know:
“The truth is I want to look at the book that caused Adham to be thrown out, if the stories are true.”
Unlike prophets, he doesn’t hope of developing a following. Unlike them, his dream is not limited to that of Adham’s:
“Imagine it if life was spent in leisure! It’s a beautiful dream, but a laughable one, Hanash. What would be really beautiful would be to do away with work in order to work miracles.”
Innocently the scientist becomes the cause of G.’s death:
“Gebelaawi whom it had been easier to kill than to see.”
“Now that he’s gone, respect is due to the dead man.”
However, G was satisfied with Arafa at the time of his death.
Innocently, he ends up making the wicked trustee far more powerful who will later turn against him.
Still, that fight is not over, G. is dead and yet hope didn’t died with him. They no longer look towards G’s house and moan his name yet they have found a new hope – in magic.
”If we had to choose between Gebelaawi and magic, we would choose magic.”
Now all this may make you believe that the allegory is questioning faith. It seems so – Geblaawi is god right? And he dies, and works of prophets is undone, and only hope is science? There are some other objections as well. For example – we can still argue that three prophets (other than Adham) might have lied or had hallucinations; we have nothing but their word to suggest any communication between them and G. In one chapter they see a pondering over the revolution, in next we see theme telling others about how they received G’s message. Then there is how works of prophets were undone. If it wasn’t enpugh, that we are being told stories by a descendant (first person narration). All of them might only be stories.
A controversial leader from Egypt said that Rushdi wouldn’t have dared to publish his Satanic Verses. If Mahfouz was punished. It did earn a ban in Egypt and an attack on author’s life.
Now here is God’s truth (intended) – Geblaawi is not supposed to be God. According to the author, nothing can represent God and the work is a deeply ‘religious’ one. Then what does Geblaawi actually represent? He represents some people’s idea of god. Don’t ask me what it is supposed to mean.
If you want to know author’s perspective on things, you must read Translator’s note (thanks Jibran for suggesting the translation ). One thing that proves Mahfouz was saying the truth and was not merely trying to save his neck from being stabbed again is that God is directly mentioned in the book – in people’s prayers and wishes as separate from Gadalaawi – which could be strange if he stood for God. It is like Stalin directly mentioned by name in Animal farm.
“God ‘s will be done! After his long life Gebelaawi is dead.
A non-anthropic God is what Islamic tradition has always advocated for and so you see there was nothing of blasphemy there.
NF was revolted after reading Darwin’s work. Like Milton’s Paradise Lost, the book was written by an author in an effort to reconcile his religious doubts. G. B. Shaw’s ‘Back to Methuselah’ – a similar work reconciling religion and science partly inspired NF. Kazan takis’ Christ Recrucified is supposed to be another work that is in some ways similar.
And so you see, how different Rushdi and Mahfouz are – want more? Mahfouz put a higher value on peace than freedom of expression and wasn’t in favor of republication of work if it could lead to disturbance.
A God that has nothing human in him (it?)
Personally, I don’t know how a non-anthropic God solves any of questions raised by Darwinism. Moreover, all our knowledge is anthropic. A God that has feelings, can laugh or weep, is so far more relatable (and Quran itself gives God anthropic feelings like mercy and kindness to God). There is, for example, an old Hindi song in which a man is questioning God (more exactly, ‘creator of World’) as to why he created the world, people, cultures while second-guessing God’s reasons. Here is what he had to ask God about love:
“You too must have suffered upon creating heart,
Upon creating that storm of love in it,
Someone sometime must have lived in your heart too
Tears too must have appeared in your eyes.
Now, this is a god you could relate to. Like Nietzsche, I too can’t care about a God who won’t dance.
“death , which destroys life with fear even before it strikes.”
“fear doesn’t stop you from dying, but it stops you from living.”
“intimate conversation lost all its meaning if it lasted forever”
“W hat need is there for you to talk when you’ re always singing?”
“As long as I can’t give back life, I can’t claim to have any power.”
Thanks for reading. If you like it, you may want to consider my reviews of other Nobel-prize winning books here.