2011 marked the centennial of the birth of the Egyptian Nobel laureate Najīb Maḥfūẓ (Naguib Mahfouz). Celebrating in the shadow of the Arab Spring, it was a fitting coincidence for fans of the late great master, as Mahfouz was undoubtedly the most prolific chronicler of social transformation in modern Egyptian history. Recognized more than any author in the Arab world, most of his thirty novels have been translated into English (and many other languages) and works like Bayn al-Qaṣrayn (1956; Palace Walk) and Zuqāq al-Midaqq (1945; Midaq Alley) have become staples of world literature classes. Despite this canonization, the controversy surrounding his first novel following the Free-Officers' revolution of 1952, Awlād Ḥāratinā (1959; Children of the Alley),1 remains as poignant as ever.2 Banned by the government of Jamāl 'Abd al-Nāṣir (Nasser) and finally republished in 2006, just months after the author's death and Egypt's first "open" parliamentary elections, key aspects of the novel appear prophetic in the wake of 25 January 2011. As I suggest here, it is difficult to read Awlād Ḥāratinā today as anything less than an "aesthetic anticipation of the future," a material touchstone in Egypt's long struggle for democracy (Rancière 29).
The 2006 edition also throws into stark relief some of the critical bias that has long accompanied this novel. Describing it as the most "dangerous" piece of fiction in the Arab world, critics of the Awlād Ḥāratinā have typically concentrated on the author's perceived use of allegory, either political or religious (al-Naqqāsh, Awlād 139).3 While religion and politics are self-evident features of the novel,4 interpretations of it as religious or political allegory, as such, have evaded a more compelling reading of the work as a secular and "metaphysical" meditation on man's "public humanity," a notion Maḥfūẓ steadfastly defended (Maḥfūẓ, Najīb Maḥfūẓ: Ṣafaḥāt 142).5 Rajā' al-Naqqāsh, a writer and close confident of Maḥfūẓ, left this particular phrase out of his French translation of the interview he conducted with the author in the early 2000s, however. And it is not difficult to see why. The meaning of the term, al-insānīyah al-'āmma ("public humanity"),6 is anything but self-evident. In this essay I try to untangle what that might mean. What would such an aesthetics look like? How did Mahfouz construct it and why? At the core of his novel lie two [End Page 200] quintessential features of the Nobel laureate's philosophical universe: Bergsonism and the moral disposition of the futūwa. Sustained through a concrete aesthetics of post-revolutionary Egypt, these two elements demand, in Fredric Jameson's language, a "third" or "universal horizon" of interpretation. It is against this horizon of meaning that the novel can be defended, truly, as a modern chef d'oeuvre.
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I. A Brief History of the Text
It is a known paradox in literary life that the most controversial work is often the least fortunate in terms of careful reading and critical analysis
Despite its ban, versions of Awlād Ḥāratinā, from Beirut or Jerusalem, have long been available in Egypt. Egyptians still recall seeing bootleg copies of the book being sold at stands along the highway to Alexandria (Abdel Nasser). Attempts were made to publish the novel over the decades, but always with the same result. According to Aḥmad Kamāl Abū al-Magd, Mahfouz routinely denied permission to publish. His reason, he said, was he did not want it distributed before receiving approval by Al-Azhar, the largest and most prestigious religious institution in Egypt and the initial advocate for its ban (Maḥfūz, Awlād 588). In later years, he specifically requested that Abū al-Magd, a former foreign minister under Anwar al-Sadat (Sādāt) and member of the Supreme Council of Research at Al...