Saturday, June 21, 2008

Book Review: The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz

The Harafish, by Naguib Mahfouz (NY: Doubleday, 1994)

The third loop of my journey on the Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge (nine books by nine authors from nine different countries) took me to Cairo, or at least a timeless, unnamed corner of the Arab Middle East. The late Egyptian writer and Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz' book "The Harafish" was a wonderful novel, full of direct, elegant writing about ten generations of the al-Nagi family whose fortunes turn and twist amidst their closed society along an urban alleyway.

The Harafish are the poorest members of this small population, and it is the first great member of the al-Nagi family, Ashur, who stays true to his humble beginnings and remembers the Harafish even when he achieves wealth and status. The remainder of the book chronicles Ashur's descendants, rich and poor, male and female, as they wrestle with their desires and flaws and try to live up to the al-Nagi name. In this sense, the novel reads like a myth or epic folk tale, as each new al-Nagi hero makes his or her fortune but is burdened by some sort of character flaw.

In reading the first few chapters I was a bit overwhelmed by the numerous cast of characters, each with similar-sounding names, at least to my Western sensibilities, but eventually I surrendered to the flow of the writing and worried less about trying to keep track of the al-Nagi genealogical tree (although this might have been a useful addition to the book as an appendix).

Mahfouz' writing was very descriptive and often quite earthy and funny. Here's a sample paragraph:

"Abd Rabbihi was getting drunk in the bar while the March winds raged outside.
"Yesterday I had a strange dream," he said.
Nobody asked him what he had dreamed, but he went on anyway. "I dreamed the khamsin winds blew at the wrong time of the year."
"A diabolical dream!" laughed Sanqar al-Shammam.
"Doors came off their hinges, dust fell like rain, hand barrows flew through the air, turbans and headcloths blew away."
"What happened to you?"
"I felt as if I was dancing on the back of a Thoroughbred stallion!"
"Tuck the cover tightly around your arse before you go to sleep!' advised Sanqar." (p. 247)

It is also full of symbolism and meaning:

"The cart glides along discreetly, garlanded with flowers. No one notices the creaking of its wheels. People only hear what they want to hear. The powerful believe they are joined in eternal union with the world. But the cart never stops and the world is an unfaithful spouse." (p. 89)

Altogether a transporting read and an author I will seek out again. I feel I should brush up on my Islamic history, however, as there are undoubtedly many allusions that I entirely missed.

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