cover image Children of the Alley

Children of the Alley

Naguib Mahfouz, Najib Mahfuz. Doubleday Books, $24.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-385-42094-5

First published in Arabic in 1959, this robust multigenerational arabesque fuses trenchant social allegory and pungent realism in a skein of stories within stories. The ``children'' of Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist Mahfouz's title are beggars, peddlars, drug addicts, homeless, swindlers, cripples and ordinary people struggling to survive in a Cairo neighborhood at once modern and timeless. Their ``alley'' winds up toward a mansion owned by a capricious, secluded feudal lord who cloisters himself while a succession of tyrannical overseers oppresses the common folk through protection rackets, drug dealing, spies and beatings. The alley--at once a metaphor for Egypt and for all the world--is rife with echoes of the Bible: among the heroes it produces are the shepherd Qassem, who pioneers nonviolent conflict resolution and later leads a militant revolt, and Rifaa, a carpenter's son who exorcises demons. Each of these leaders hears a voice in the desert, that of the feudal lord (known for issuing the ``Ten Terms''), exhorting him to demand equal rights for the masses and social justice for all. A brief era of brotherhood and peace dawns before gangsterism, greed and territoriality reassert themselves. In this supple translation, Theroux (author of Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia) skillfully conveys Mahfouz's fierce egalitarian message while capturing his gift for masterly storytelling. Mahfouz combines the universal appeal of archetypal dramatic conflicts--brother murders brother; wife betrays husband into the hands of his enemies; father expels defiant son--with the originality of his own inventive narrative structures. (Jan.)