The Story of the Banned Book: Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley by Mohamed Shoair, translated by Humphrey Davies (AUC Press, May 2022), is an award-winning account of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s most controversial novel, Children of the Alley, and the fierce debates that it provoked.
Mahfouz’s novel Children of the Alley has been in the spotlight since it was first published in Egypt in 1959. It has been at times banned and at others allowed, sold sometimes under the counter and sometimes openly on the street, often pirated and only recently legally reprinted. It has inspired anxiety among the secular authorities, rage within the religious right, and a drawing of battle lines among Arab intellectuals and writers. It dogged Mahfouz like a curse throughout the remainder of his career, led to his attempted assassination, and sparked a public debate that continues to this day, even after the author’s death in 2006. It is Egypt’s iconic novel, in whose mirror millions have seen themselves, their society, and even the universe, some finding truth, others blasphemy.
In his book, Shoair traces the story of Mahfouz’s novel as a cultural and political object, from its first publication to the present via Mahfouz’s award of the Nobel prize for literature in 1988 and the attempt on his life in 1994. He presents the arguments that swirled about the novel and the wide cast of Egyptian figures, from state actors to secular intellectuals and Islamists, who took part in them. He also contextualizes the interactions among the principal characters, interactions that have done much to shape the country’s present.
Extensively researched and written in a lucid, accessible style, The Story of the Banned Book is both a gripping work of investigative journalism and a window onto some of the fiercest debates around culture and religion to have taken place in Egyptian society over the past half-century.
About the author
Mohamed Shoair is an Egyptian critic and journalist, and managing editor of the literary magazine Akhbar al-adab. Born in 1974, he studied English literature at South Valley University in Qena, Egypt.
He is the winner of numerous awards, including the Dubai Prize for Journalism.
The Story of the Banned Book won the Sawiris Prize for Literary Criticism and was longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. It is his first book to be available in English.
About Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006) was born in the crowded Cairo district of Gamaliya. He wrote nearly 40 novel-length works, plus hundreds of short stories and numerous screenplays. He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1988. His first novel, Khufu’s Wisdom, was published in 1939.
An attempt on his life in 1994—he was stabbed in the neck (see bottom right photo) outside his home by a religious fanatic—left him able to write only with great difficulty for half an hour a day. Read more about his life and his work.
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Reviews about the book
“A thrilling thread on Naguib Mahfouz, literary rivalries, and Egyptian politics as they stood in the mid 20th century, pulled through the needle’s eye of the story of a single novel.”—ArabLit
“[Dives] deep . . . Shoair’s investigation is a fascinating insight into the lack of literary freedom in Egypt at the time.” —Middle East Monitor
“Readers invested in the ongoing debates about book banning will find this to be a worthy resource.”—Publishers Weekly
“The plot is more compelling than most literature I have read.” —Elliott Colla, Georgetown University
“[E]xcellent and thought-provoking”—David Tresilian, Al-Ahram Weekly
“The joy of this book is its evocation of time and place, and the way it seeks out what may be absent or forgotten from the stances of intellectuals. However Shoair does not recount gossip; rather, his concern is verifiable knowledge.”—al-Quds al-‘Arabi
“A study of literary censorship and of the fight between artistic expression and religious and political authority in Egypt from the 1950s through today.”—BULAQ
“Shoair digs into the passion of how this iconic novel was written”—Donia Kamal, author of Cigarette Number Seven
“Shoair’s meticulous, forensic account of the fierce controversies and confrontations provoked by the publication and censorship of Mahfouz’s notorious novel takes the reader on a page-turning journey through the labyrinth of postcolonial Egypt’s fraught and high-stakes cultural politics and offers nuanced critical insight into the author’s work. A perfect marriage of literary and cultural history, and investigative journalism, and masterfully translated by Humphrey Davies, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding an entire era of modern Egyptian history and its place in contemporary global politics.”—Samah Selim, Rutgers University