Children of the Alley
All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
FIRST ANCHOR BOOKS EDITION, NOVEMBER 1996
Copyright © 1959 by Naguib Mahfouz
English translation copyright © 1959 by Peter Theroux
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Children of the Alley was first published in Arabic in 1959, under the title Awlad haratina.
Protected under the Berne Convention.
This translation is published by arrangement with The American University in Cairo Press.
Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday in 1996. The Anchor Books edition is published by arrangement with Doubleday.
Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Doubleday hardcover edition of this work as follows:
Mahfūz, Najīb, 1912- [Awlād al-hāratinā. English]
Children of the alley / by Naguib Mahfouz; translated by Peter Theroux. —1st ed.
I. Theroux, Peter. II. Title.
eBook ISBN 9780525431589
My thanks are due to Naguib Mahfouz
and to Sasson Somekh,
whose generous guidance never failed.
About the Author
About the Translator
Books by Naguib Mahfouz
This is the story of our alley—its stories, rather. I have witnessed only the most recent events, those of my own time, but I have recorded all of them the way our storytellers told them. Everyone in our alley tells these stories, just as they heard them in coffeehouses or as they were handed down for generations—these sources are my only basis for what I’m writing. Most of our social occasions call for storytelling. Whenever someone is depressed, suffering or humiliated, he points to the mansion at the top of the alley at the end opening out to the desert, and says sadly, “That is our ancestor’s house, we are all his children, and we have a right to his property. Why are we starving? What have we done?” Then he will tell the stories and cite the lives of Adham and Gabal, of Rifaa and Qassem—some of our alley’s great men.
But this ancestor of ours is a puzzle! He has lived longer than any man dreams of living—his long life is the stuff of proverbs. He has dwelled aloof in his house for long ages, and no one has seen him since he isolated himself up there. The stories of his old age and isolation are bewildering, and perhaps fantasy and rumor have helped to make them so. Anyway, he was called Gabalawi, and our alley was named for him. He owns everything and everyone in it, and everything in the desert around it. Once I heard a man say about him, “He created our alley and from our alley grew Egypt, the most important place in the world. He lived here alone when the place was empty and desolate, and became master of it by force and his standing with the ruler. There will never again be anyone like him. He was tough; the wild beasts dreaded his very name.” And I heard someone else say, “He was truly noble. He was unlike other leaders. He didn’t collect protection money or behave arrogantly; he was kind to humble people.” Then came a time when some people talked about him in a way unsuited to his rank and dignity—you know how people can be. I always found talk about him fascinating, never boring. How often that moved me to stroll around his tall mansion trying to catch a glimpse of him—always in vain. How often I stood before his massive gate, gazing at the stuffed crocodile mounted above it. How often I sat in the Muqattam Desert, not far from his high walls, able to see no more than the tops of the mulberry, sycamore and palm trees enclosing the house, and the closed windows that disclosed no sign of life. Is it not sad to have a grandfather that we never see, and who never sees us? Is it not strange of him to disappear inside that locked mansion, while we live in the dirt? If you are curious about what brought us to this, here are the stories; you will hear all about Adham, Gabal, Rifaa and Qasse
I said that no one had seen him since he secluded himself. That did not bother most people, as all they ever cared about was his estate, and his much-talked-about Ten Conditions. This was how the dispute started before I was born, whose ferocity has only grown with the passing of generations, up until today—and tomorrow. So I do not want any bitter ridicule when I speak of the close family ties that bind the people in our alley. We were and still are one family, which no stranger has penetrated. Everyone in our alley knows everyone else, men and women alike; and yet no alley has ever known the terrible quarrels ours has, nor have any people even been as divided by controversy as we, and for every decent man you will find ten gangsters brandishing clubs and ready to pick a fight. The people are even used to buying their safety with bribes, and their security with obedience and abasement, and were severely punished for the smallest thing they said or did wrong—or even for thinking something wrong. The strangest thing is that the people in nearby alleys, in Atuf, Kafr al-Zaghari, in al-Darasa and al-Husseiniya, envy us because of our alley’s property and our tough men. They say property and a well-protected alley mean wealth and invincible protectors. All that is true, but they don’t know that we are crushed by misery, that we live in squalor, with flies and lice, that we are content with crumbs, that we are half naked. They see our protectors strut around on top of us and are struck with admiration, and our only comfort is to look up at the mansion, and say, in sorrow and pain, “There is Gabalawi, the owner. He is our ancestor and we are his grandchildren.”
I have witnessed the recent period in the life of our alley, and lived through the events that came about through the coming of Arafa, a dutiful son of our alley. It is thanks to one of Arafa’s friends that I am able to record some of the stories of our alley. One day he said to me, “You’re one of the few who know how to write, so why don’t you write down the stories of our alley? They’ve never been told in the right order, and even then always at the mercy of the storytellers’ whims and prejudices; it would be wonderful if you wrote them carefully, all together so that people could benefit from them, and I’ll help you out with what you don’t know, with inside information.” I acted on his advice, both because it struck me as a good idea and because I loved the person who suggested it. I was the first in our alley to make a career out of writing, though it has brought me much contempt and mockery. It was my job to write the petitions and complaints of the oppressed and needy. Although many wretched people seek me out, I am barely better off than our alley’s beggars, though I am privy to so many of the people’s secrets and sorrows that I have become a sad and brokenhearted man.
But, but—I am not writing about myself or my troubles, which amount to nothing compared with those of our alley—our strange alley with its strange stories! How did it happen? What was it all about? And who were the children of our alley?
The site of our alley was a wasteland. It was part of the Muqattam Desert that stretched to the horizon. There was nothing in the void but the mansion Gabalawi had built almost as if to challenge all the fear and savagery and lawlessness. Its huge, high wall encircled a roomy expanse, the western part of which was a garden, and the eastern part a three-story residence. One day the benefactor summoned his children to his lower reception chamber adjoining the garden. All his sons came: Idris, Abbas, Ridwan, Galil and Adham, in silk galabiyas, and stood before him, so awestruck that they glanced up at him only furtively. He ordered them to sit down and they sat on the chairs around him. He gazed at them a little while with his eyes, as piercing as a falcon’s, then rose and moved toward the chamber door, and stood in front of the great door, gazing out at the vast garden crammed with mulberry, sycamore and palm trees flanked by bowers of henna and jasmine, above whose branches the twittering of birds could be heard. The garden rang with life and song, while the chamber was shrouded in silence. The brothers thought that the ruler of the wasteland had forgotten about them. His height and bulk made him seem superhuman, like an alien from another planet. They exchanged glances; this was the way he was when he had something weighty on his mind. What worried them was that he was as powerful in this house as he was out in the open land, and they were powerless against him.
The man turned to them without leaving his place and spoke in a deep, grating voice which echoed powerfully through the chamber, whose high walls were covered with curtains and carpets.
“I think it right that someone else should take over managing the property.”
He gazed at them closely once more, but their faces gave away nothing. Managing the property was not a thing to tempt anyone who loved leisure and calm and youthful pursuits, besides which Idris, the eldest son, was the natural candidate for the job; none of the others there questioned that. “What a pain—no end of problems, and those miserable tenants!” said Idris to himself.
“I have chosen your brother Adham to look after the property under my supervision,” continued Gabalawi.
Their faces reflected the impact of this surprise, and they quickly exchanged looks of astonishment—all except for Adham, who timidly lowered his gaze in confusion. Gabalawi turned away from them. “That is why I summoned you here,” he said casually.
Idris felt a surge of rage so strong that it felt like drunkenness. His embarrassed brothers looked at him, each of them—except for Adham, of course—hiding his anger at this insult to Idris and to all of them in silent protest. Then Idris spoke so calmly that the voice might have come from some other body.
“But?” Gabalawi cut him off coldly and turned toward them.
They cast their eyes down lest he read their minds, except for Idris, who said insistently, “But I am the eldest brother—”
“I think I knew that,” said Gabalawi crossly. “I am your father.”
Idris answered in a steadily escalating fury, “The eldest has rights which cannot be put aside except in cases of—”
The old man held him in a long gaze, as if giving him time to compose himself, then said, “I assure you that in making my decision I took everyone’s good into account.”
Idris absorbed this blow with waning patience. He knew how backtalk irritated his father, and knew that he must expect harder blows if he kept this up, but his anger left him no chance to consider the consequences. He took a few steps until he was almost touching Adham, puffed up like a haughty rooster to show everyone the differences in brawn, complexion and beauty between him and his brother, and spoke up with the randomness of a shower of spittle drops from a thirsting mouth. “My full brothers and I are the sons of a respectable lady—he’s the son of a black slave woman!”
Adham’s tawny face paled but he did not flinch. Gabalawi shook his fist. “Watch out, Idris,” he warned.
But Idris was overcome by a mad tempest of rage, and shouted, “And he’s the youngest of us all—why should he be preferred to me, unless the times we live in belong to servants and slaves!”
“Be quiet for your own good, you fool!”
“I’d rather lose my head than live with this disgrace!”
Ridwan raised his head to face his father and smiled gently. “We are all your sons, and it is our right to grieve if we have lost your favor. It will be just as you say. We only want to know why.”
Gabalawi turned from Idris to Ridwan, containing his anger for reasons of his own.
“Adham knows what kind of people the tenants are, and he knows most of them by name. And he can read and do sums.”
Idris and his brothers were astonished to hear this. Since when was familiarity with the common people anything to set a man apart? Or knowing how to write? Would Adham’s mother have sent him to school for any reason other than her doubt that he could make it in a man’s world?
“Is all this excuse enough to humiliate me?” asked Idris derisively.
Gabalawi made a gesture of irritation in Idris’ direction. “These are m
Abbas could not bear his father’s glare, and said dejectedly, “I hear and obey.”
Galil was quick to lower his eyes and say, “Yes, Father.”
“I will obey,” said Ridwan, his mouth dry.
Idris let fly an enraged yelp of laughter that so changed his features he actually became ugly. “You cowards!” he shouted. “I expected nothing but sickly failure from any of you. Thanks to your cowardice, this black slave’s boy will rule over you.”
“Idris!” Gabalawi bellowed, his glowering eyes shining with danger.
But fury had destroyed Idris’ reason, and he too shouted. “What kind of a rotten father are you! You were always a boss and a bully and that’s all you’ll ever be! We’re your own sons and you treat us the same way you treat all your other victims!”
Gabalawi took two slow but purposeful steps toward him, his features distorted ominously, but his voice low. “Be quiet.”
“You won’t frighten me, you know I can’t be frightened. If you want to raise the son of a slave above me, I won’t serenade you with any of this hearing and obeying.”
“Don’t you know the punishment for defying me, you fiend?”
“The real fiend is that son of a slave.”
Gabalawi’s voice suddenly rose to a hoarse shout. “She is my wife, you troublemaker, watch out or I’ll flatten the ground with you.”
The brothers were terrified, none more than Adham, for they all knew their father’s almighty temper, but Idris’ rage had reached such a pitch that he no longer recognized danger. He was like a madman attacking a crackling inferno.
“You hate me. I never knew it before, but that’s it—you hate me. Maybe it was that slave woman that made you hate us. You are the lord of the desert, owner of the estate property, and the biggest gangster of all, but a slave was able to manipulate you, and tomorrow the people will have all kinds of things to say about it, lord of the desert!”
“I told you to be silent, fiend!”
“Don’t curse me to please Adham, even the stones of the earth will rise up. Your grotesque decision will make us the talk of every neighborhood and alley!”