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The Novel That Nearly Killed its Author: Naguib Mahfouz and Children of Gebelawi

This video produced by BAH 2.0 (A project led by Ideas Beyond Borders) is tackling some of our most precious values and freedoms, which are freedoms of expression and belief as it retells the story of The Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz and his famous novel “Children of Gebelawi” that almost got him killed.

Since its first appearance as a series in an Egyptian newspaper in 1959, the novel stirred a massive controversy by many theocrats who considered it blasphemous and controversial. While Mahfouz emphasized that the novel is a symbolic fiction, which can be interpreted in various ways, some extremists, among them the Jihadi Sheikh Omar Abdelrahman, considered him an infidel and made an Islamic fatwa inciting his murder. As a result, in 1994 Mahfouz was attacked and stabbed in the neck by an extremist outside his Cairo home. Mahfouz survived the attack, yet he suffered from its consequences until his death.

The Novel was banned in Egypt and was only published after he died in 2006.

The video addresses the dire need in Arab societies to defend freedom of expression and belief as basic human rights. No one should be killed because of what they believe or express.


Once published, the video created a massive debate among the viewers. The video generated 833 shares, 454 comments, 5.3K interactions, 201.4K views, and 19.8K one minutes views. And it reached 697.5K.

Some viewers criticized the novel and its author mostly based on the religious understanding of its symbols. Mariam Zoubi, for instance, said:

“This novel is one of the most creative ways to spread blasphemy. You know it is a professional way of insulting your beliefs. Notice, I don’t say that the author is an infidel, for it is not my business. I only talk about the novel as literature. Regardless of my opinion and rejection of it, the novel is a real masterpiece of infidel literature.”

One of the comments included even an implicit call for killing whoever allegedly insulting a Muslim sacred belief. Abu Ayman from Algeria wrote:

“May Allah bless the souls of Sheikh Kishk and Omar Abd Elrahman and punish whoever dares to insult our sacred figures and Shariah. When someone said a bad word about the prophet’s wives, Mohammad called for his head to be cut, imagine what should be done with someone who insults the divine.”

Still, others tried to claim that the novel was not the best of Mahfouz’s works, and he won the Nobel prize only because he insulted Islamic beliefs. A person who calls him/herself Ibro Khoine said:

“You only see creativity in works that are forbidden by Islam. If he were a true Muslim, he would have never received Nobel Prize. But when he attacked Islam, he got Nobel by Zionist support.”

On the other hand, however, many viewers praised the novel as a masterpiece of Mahfouz. Mariam Karam wrote:

“Naguib Mahfouz and other great figures are a real wealth that our society does not deserve. We have been going backward since the 1970s. Yet, Egypt used to be a beacon for the nations when we were respecting ourselves and others.”

Many viewers asserted their rejection of utilizing violence and terrorism to defend one’s doctrines. For example, Abdel Hamid wrote:

“A person who is intellectually bankrupt and has no argument to defend his beliefs is the one who relies on violence and weapon to attack whoever has intellect and argument. Now is the time of intellectual proofs and evidence, not of violence and weapons.”

Many novels and books are banned across the world.

Finally, the publishing of this video coincided with the death of Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian activist and feminist who spent her entire life promoting freethinking and women’s rights. Consequently, some viewers asserted that the same extremist mindset which drove a simple person’s attempt to kill Mahfouz is the one that is still trying to force its violence and dogmas on our societies. Other comments criticized Mahfouz and El Saadawi as doing the same insulting of Islam and its sacred beliefs. Still, others praised the video for supporting freedom of thought and belief. Alaa Ebeid wrote:

“Frist, bravo for the video, and the unique voiceover. Second, I felt as if this video were to implicitly remind us about Nawal El Saadawi, but as if it talked about her between the lines.”

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