“This is the story of our alley—its stories, rather.” So begins Naguib Mahfouz’s 1959 novel Children of the Alley. In it Mahfouz retells the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad in a realistic manner, as if they were characters inhabiting a run-down quarter of Cairo. Not surprisingly, the Egyptian religious authorities accused Mahfouz of blasphemy, and his novel was banned. In 1994 two fundamentalist thugs, fulfilling fatwa against the novel by an extremist cleric, stabbed him in the neck outside of his home. Although Mahfouz had been awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, it was only after his death in 2006 that the book was published in his home country.1 As the reception of this novel shows, the stories of Genesis are still involved in tangled affairs of religious orthodoxy and retribution, as they were in the days of Galileo, Spinoza, Rabelais, and other heretics.
In Mahfouz’s novel, the master of the quarter is the fearsome and nearly ageless patriarch, Gebelawi, whose youngest son is Adham. One day Adham’s brother Idris