Egypt's Nobel winner asks Islamists to approve book

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The Independent Online

Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel Prize-winning author, is seeking permission from the country's highest Islamic authorities to publish one of his most controversial novels, a move which has staggered friends and colleagues who see it as a capitulation to the power of conservative Islam.

The 94-year-old writer said his publisher had asked for the approval of al-Azhar university, Sunni Islam's oldest seat of learning, finally to publish Children of the Alley. The book was banned in Egypt in 1959 after Islamic scholars declared its depiction of religious figures blasphemous.

"If al-Azhar agrees to publish it, then I want it published," he told friends and supporters at a weekly get-together in a bar at the Shepherd Hotel on the banks of the Nile.

Mahfouz, a 1988 Nobel winner whose sophisticated works helped to make Egypt the intellectual and cultural hub of the Arab world in the 1960s and 1970s, further dismayed his audience when he confirmed that he had asked Egypt's powerful Islamic organisation the Muslim Brotherhood to write a preface to the book. He said he wanted the imprimatur of "the Islamists".

A friend and fellow author, Yusef al-Qaid, said: "This creates a dangerous precedent because it gives power of censorship to al-Azhar, which goes against the principles upheld by Egyptian intellectuals."

Another Egyptian author, Ezzat al-Qamhawi, said Mahfouz had "betrayed his writing". He called his decision a stain on a glorious career.

Raymond Stock, Mahfouz's friend, biographer and translator, is among the dozen or so regulars who join the near-blind author for a weekly session of loud debate and laughter, a ritual since 1994 when Mahfouz was stabbed twice in the neck by an Islamic fundamentalist. The attack almost killed him and left him unable to write.

Mr Stock said it was possible that the author was attempting a final triumph over his old foes, who regularly opposed publications they deem "unislamic". He added: "If he can get al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood to agree his novel is no longer blasphemous, it means he has made them change their position.

"It would be a great victory for him if they were to concede, and it would have great implications for other works which have been banned."

Children of the Alley appeared as a newspaper serialisation in 1959. Its central character is an authoritarian father-figure who banishes his children and retreats to his distant home high on a hill. Though he remains remote, his complicated character exerts a powerful force on their lives.

The scholars of al-Azhar identified the central character as God and declared the depiction a blasphemy. They identified other characters as representing the Prophet Mohamed and Jesus and said this undermined their dignity.

Mr Stock believes the scholars took the text too literally, and they neither knew nor cared that his main target was the Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser and dictatorship in general.