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The Harafish Paperback – September 17, 1997
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From Publishers Weekly
From the winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature comes this story of the prominent al-Nagi family, whose descendents nearly ruin its legendary name.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Arabic
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Ashur Al-Nagy, through a twist of fate, becomes the chief of the neighborhood. This office can be taken by force, or popularity, and entitles the holder to security payments from the rich and poor. There is vague judiciary role. The holder can really exploit the poor (the Harafish) who pay, clean the chief's house and bring food, etc.
Ashur, who before chiefhood, worked hard and led an unassuming life. He had some stains: he was a foundling (probably a love child); he divorced a devoted wife to marry a prostitute who worked in a bar and he spent year in jail for acts of kindness and generosity. He served as chief with fairness and distinction. His administration is a legend that looms over the Harafish and his progeny as do the interpretations of his life and the legacies of his successive generations.
Within this family saga about wealth, power, poverty and madness are parables about leadership, government, family, jealousy, sex roles, etc. To name a few: Leadership taken by force is hard to get rid of. Good leadership is rare and ususally those led have to demand it. Good government is fragile. Confined sex and courtship roles promote dishonesty and can wreck whole lives. Money doesn't buy happiness.
There are some strong female portraits. One female Nagy, Zahira, manipulates herself to a position of great power.
Interestingly, one generation of Nagys loses its wealth and moves to a family tomb. Cairo's City of the Dead is said to be populated by servants of the wealthy. I never thought these homeless would be fallen notables themselves.
The book ends with some hope because a new Ashur has an eye to the future.
I like the format of the book. Each chapter is its own story comprised of numbered substories. For those who don't know Mahfouz, this is an excellent introduction. His masterpiece, The Cairo Trilogy, is similarly a family saga but set in more modern times with deeper analysis of the characters.
The book is told in ten chapters, each recounting successive adventures that befall the Al-Nagis. Each chapter is subdivided into many short paragraphs. The story moves forward with simplicity but becomes increasingly complex as it unfolds.
There is a great deal of indirection in the book. The reader learns slowly by seeing and not by being told. Thus, Mafouz never explicitly explains the "clan" system at the heart of the book but rather shows the reader how it works. The "clan" is the informal ruler of an "alley" or section of a town. It can be analogized to an American gang or to a crime syndicate but enjoys quasi-official status. It accepts "protection" money, wars with neighboring gangs, keeps a semblance of order in the alley, and is headed by an all-powerful chief. Some of the religious leaders of the community are closely allied with the clan. The "alley" includes not only the many poor people, but rich and successful individuals as well, called the "notables". Most, but not all of the clan leaders ally themselves with the notables while exploiting the harafish.
The chief character of Mafouz' tale is Ashur al-Nagi, a foundling who ultimately rises to the position of clan chief. Although he ultimately marries a prostitute and appropriates property that is not his, Ashur becomes a legend in the alley as a result of his compassion, strength, and protection of the harafish. His son, Shams-al-Din continues, for the most part, in the path of Ashur, but the family then deteriorates and its worst traits come to the fore. Its members, men and women, descend into murder, corruption and licentiousness. They move in and out of positions of power and are forever haunted by the fame of their illustrious ancestor. At the end of the book, another Ashur arises and restores and enhances upon the family name.
Mahfouz' story unfolds with detail and with a deep compassion for the poor and the weak. There is a sense of human frailty and of the overriding force of change. There are several themes suggested by the story. First, there is the sense of decline, reminding me of charismatic figures who found religion or social movements which soon fall into torpitude. The story opens with something of a golden age with heroic figures and deeds. As it progresses, human life slips into the mundane. I also found in the book the suggestion that people tend to look too much to the alleged glorious deeds of their ancestors and judge themselves and their own potentialities falsely in their light. Mid-way in the story, one of the characters is reproached because the al-Nagi's view themselves in light of their founder, Ashur, and not in light of what they themselves can do. At the end, there is a deepening of the story. The final al-Nagi we meet, also named Ashur is said to be greater than his forbearer because "the first Ashur had relied on his own strength, while [the second Ashur] had made the harafish into an invincible force". While the first Ashur had conquered the evils of slum life, the second Ashur had achieved an even greater conquest: "his victory over himself". The second Ashur achieves a moment of spiritual awakening at the end.
This is a fine book, both in its description of places, characters and societies and in the meditation it offers on the human condition.