The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz

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The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz

Egyptian fiction

Original title –  ملحمة الحرافيش

Translator – Catherine Cobham

Source – personal copy

I was looking for a number of books to do for the 1977 club and this was another that cropped up as coming out in Arabic that year. Mahfouz was a Nobel winner. He was regarded as the first truly modern writer in Egypt and his books have been described as Existentialist in their style. He is maybe best known for his Cario Trilogy. A man that spoke out for what he believed in most of his books were banned in the Arab world to his Nobel win. It also gives me a chance to fill a gap in the writers that should be on this blog.

Nothing like this had ever happened in the alley. The police only came near it in extreme emergencies. The clan chief’s numerous crimes were usually unattributed, thanks to the testimony of false witness. was inspector Faud Abd al-Tawwab going to do what nobody had done before him of Mohammed Anwar’s body was discovered on the path or under the archway? How had Muhammad had the insolence to go to the police for help, and why had the inspector been ready to challenge Nuh in this underhand way?

The police were rare visitors to the Alley here because someone went outside the alley world.

The harafish is a family saga told over ten chapters as we follow the family living in an alley from Ashur Al Nagi whom is the chief of the family in the first tale through the years and generations til the last story Ashur crops up again the chapters are told in small vignettes. I liked the style it was almost like reading or listening to gossip on the street among the Harafish as the people of the alley are called. Exist is hard at times I remember a line on page 301 where someone says “you’d preserve your youth forever ” this shows the toughness of this world. The cycles of the alley violence trying to get to the top is repeated over the chapters the characters are different sons or daughters of earlier characters. I loved the part in one chapter, when the police appeared which was considered an outrage as they liked to run there own little world.

The emotions of the Nagi family and the harafish were set in turmoil by the unexpected return and sudden disappearence of Samah. His sons were probably the least affected of anybody because he came and went while they were asleep and anyway, as far as they were concerned, he was no longer much more than a faint memory, like their mother in Bulaq. His story was told far and wide, and became a legend and a cautionary tale.

The opening of the fifth chapter and already past battles become like a myth or legend.

This is a clever book as you think it is cardio and feel as though you know the timeframe of the novel. But nothing is ever said about the timeframe of the novel or the location of the book all we know is that the families live in an alley where the characters all live. A true family saga covering the years of a place. Mahfouz was a fan of Zola and Balzacs works and there is a feeling of their worlds here a tough look at life realist but also at the same time without time and place it could be another place even if you change the names and in that regard for me it is a true work of Existentialism of the question why are we here why are they there what makes their world. A great second choice for 1977club and for me another piece in the canon of books and writers I have covered on the blog. I hope at some point to bring the Cario trilogy to the blog.

 

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