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Fabulous Fabulist

Mahfouz has never been a full-time writer. Between 1934 and 1971 he was employed in the civil service, for part of that time as head of movie and theater censorship. After retiring in 1971, he joined the editorial staff of the prestigious daily newspaper Al-Ahram, and it was there in 1975 that he wrote recommending that the Arab states should seek a way of co-existing with Israel. Subsequently he openly supported the Camp David accords. He was the first major Arab writer to take such a position; as a result his books were for a while banned in some Arab countries. In his newspaper articles he also expressed his distaste for Sadat’s economic policies, which led, in his view, to the poor becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer.

Despite this honorable if cautious record of independence, Mahfouz has been criticized for falling behind the times. In the view of the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, for instance, Mahfouz has not resolved the tension between his aim of chronicling the rise to power of the class he knows, the older petty bourgeoisie, and a nagging sense of duty—particularly after the 1967 war—to give expression to wider ethical and political concerns. Khoury suggests that Mahfouz’s turn away from realism toward symbolism and allegory has been a symptom, on a literary level, of a loss of contact with the classes really at the center of social struggle in contemporary Egypt. Similarly the retreat from the complex, socially significant women characters of his realist period—like the unattractive Nefisa in The Beginning and the End, who is ready to submit to poverty and spinsterhood for the sake of her brother’s career but unable to overcome her need for sex, and is therefore doomed to humiliating contacts with men who use her and then jeer at her, and who refuse to pay her—to the more stereotyped women of his later work has been seen by feminist commentators as a defensive reaction to a newly assertive feminist movement.

To Khoury and others who have criticized his turn to allegory and symbol, Mahfouz has responded that, while in the 1950s he felt it appropriate to write in the manner of European realism, he thereafter “lost interest in the individual as an individual” in a specific, concrete historical milieu. In his subsequent work he exploits a more concentrated, more poetic, but also less “modern,” fictional language than his European masters provided.


By itself, the title of the sixteenth in Doubleday’s admirable series of Mahfouz’s novels, The Harafish, is enigmatic. The word harafish is Arabic, but has fallen out of use in the modern language. In medieval times it meant the mobile vulgus, the poor of society in their more volatile and threatening aspect. Thus the Arabic title Malhamat al-harafish could be—and has been—Englished as “The Epos of the Rabble” or “The Epic of the Riffraff.” Yet neither “rabble” nor “riffraff” is fair to the harafish as we see them in the book: they are volatile, certainly, but they are also fundamentally fair-minded and responsive to benevolent leadership. For her translation, Catherine Cobham retains the Arabic word, noting that Mahfouz uses it for “the common people in a positive sense” (for which concept English, one may observe, lacks a specific yet down-to-earth word. Why?).

The Harafish is set in one of the alleys of old Cairo. It deals with the life of the common people, but more specifically with the leaders of the gang—or “clan”—who generation after generation run the affairs of the alley. The first of the clan leaders is a humble carter named Ashur. In a dream Ashur foresees a plague that is about to hit Cairo. He retreats into the desert with his wife and child; when the plague is over he returns to the decimated city, takes over an abandoned mansion, and redistributes the wealth it contains to revive the economy of the alley. A year in prison only boosts his reputation among the poor; as Ashur al-Nagi, Ashur the Survivor, he comes home to a hero’s welcome, takes over as clan chief, and establishes a golden age, “restraining the powerful, protecting the rights of the humble breadwinners, and creating an atmosphere of faith and piety.”

Then one night Ashur mysteriously disappears. The merchants are delighted, but their relief is short-lived. In a series of battles with neighboring clans, Ashur’s son Shams al-Nagi establishes the preeminence of the al-Nagi clan; and under its new leader the harafish continue to prosper and live in justice.

With the third al-Nagi, Sulayman, however, the dynasty starts its decline. Sulayman diverts to clan members protection money that had previously been distributed among the poor; the people of the alley suffer while the clan grows rich. As for Sulayman’s sons, they fail to understand that prosperity—their own and that of the alley—depends on the power and prestige of the clan. They devote themselves to making money; the chieftainship leaves the al-Nagi family, and soon the clan has become more an exploiter than a protector of the common people. (As they shift between these two roles, the clans of Mahfouz’s old Cairo are, in essence, little different from gangs in the ghettos of any great city today.)

For three more generations the downward slide of clan and alley continues. The harafish live in idleness and poverty, despairing that the days of Ashur will ever return. The chieftainship passes to Galal, a gloomy tyrant who uses bribery and extortion to build himself a huge, art-stuffed mansion, then hires a necromancer and devotes himself to attaining immortality. The covenant of Ashur has been betrayed; the clan system, mutter the harafish—who double as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the actions of the powerful—has become “one long-standing calamity.”

Famine strikes Cairo. The merchants hoard food; when the harafish rebel, the clan strikes back, punishing them, protecting the wealthy. Against this tumultuous background a humble descendant of Ashur, Fath al-Bab, lights the spark that sets off an explosion of popular violence. The clan is vanquished, its leader driven out, and Fath al-Bab installed as the new chieftain. He tries to end the predatory ways of the clan and return it to the road of service; but his followers murder him, and the harafish sink back into their “deep sleep.”

Meanwhile, in an obscure corner, a young man named Ashur, third son of Fath al-Bab’s nephew, is growing up. Meditating on his mythical ancestor, and the ways he managed to reconcile power and virtue, he is vouchsafed a vision. He challenges the clan, and in a rather unbelievable episode the harafish rally spontaneously to his banner.

The harafish, the overwhelming majority of the populace, had suddenly joined forces and prevailed over the clubs and long sticks… The thread holding things in place had been broken. Anything was possible.

As their new leader, Ashur transforms the harafish “from layabouts, pickpockets, and beggars into the greatest clan the alley had known.” He imposes heavy taxes on the rich, establishes a popular militia, creates jobs, founds schools. “So began an epoch in the history of the clan which was distinguished by its strength and integrity.”

The summary I have given of Mahfouz’s book conveys little of its flavor. The Harafish is not a novel but a sequence of linked tales. The tales do not have a common hero, although they can be said to have a common victim: the suffering people. For his narrative models Mahfouz has gone back to indigenous oral storytelling. In this sense the book is part of an enterprise in which Mahfouz is only one participant (perhaps taking his lead from such younger Egyptian writers as Gamal al-Ghitani): to redefine modern Arabic prose fiction, building upon its classical and folk antecedents, distancing it from the conventions of Western realism it had earlier embraced. The titles of two of Mahfouz’s books, written later than The Harafish, clearly suggest this return to traditional forms: The Nights of a Thousand Nights (1982) (not yet translated into English), and The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (1983).

Western readers of The Harafish may have trouble with the huge cast of ephemeral characters with unfamiliar names, and with the story’s thoroughly traditional preoccupations with ancestry and inheritance. Halfway through, in the chapters on the “bad” al-Nagi generations, they may begin to lose track of (and perhaps cease to care) who married whom and begat whom. At such moments it may be salutary to recall that oral cultures—or cultures with a strong oral substratum—remember far more copiously than cultures that use writing. (Writing was invented, after all, to cope with the impossibility of remembering everything.) In oral cultures the training of memory is integral to education; in a world of plug-in electronic memory, by contrast, we are reaching a point where all that an educated person needs to remember is where the computer is.

The prose of The Harafish may seem formulaic, but there is no doubt that Mahfouz draws strength from the formulas. At the emotional high points of his earlier realist novels, particularly in his descriptions of falling in love—something that happens very often in his world, where boys and girls brimming with sexual vigor have few opportunities to meet, and must fall back on the lightning of the occasional charged glance, followed by weeks of erotic musing and fevered plotting—Mahfouz lapses too easily into what the philosopher Galen Strawson calls “the fioriture of classical literary Arabic”—the fluttering heart, the blood afire, etc. In its storytelling context, however, the old language comes back to life with surprising crispness.

He…noticed her for the first time at the Feast of the Dead…. She was slim, with sharp features, well-proportioned limbs, a smiling face, and she exuded life and femininity. He felt a surging desire to be joined to her. Their eyes met in mutual curiosity, responsive like fertile earth. The scorching air, the heavy sighs of grief, the fragrance of cut palm leaves, basil, and sweet pastries for the festival fused with their secret desires. He inclined toward her like a sunflower. The death all around spurred him on.

By any computation, the chronology of The Harafish must cover several centuries. In the book, however, there is no evidence of changes in the outside world influencing the closed-off existence of the alley. It is not so much a question of the alley sealing itself off from Egyptian history as of Mahfouz ignoring or wishing away the tyranny of historical time. Even in the days of the first Ashur, for instance, people are building houses with sheet-metal roofs and applying to the authorities for licenses to sell liquor; thirteen generations later nothing in the detail of their daily lives has changed, and the agencies of the modern state, particularly the police, remain remote, alien, predatory forces.

The Harafish is built around the lives of a succession of strongmen, some of whom give in to private vices or the temptations of luxury, some of whom keep a vision of greatness before their eyes like a lodestar. The fortunes of clan and common people rise and fall with the fortunes of their leaders. What the clan seeks is a powerful general; what the people need is a protector, a man of justice. The elusive combination of strength and political farsightedness on the one hand, and justice and compassion on the other, constitutes that quality of “greatness” which is the theme of Mahfouz’s book, and makes it into a fable of Egypt’s search for a just ruler.

Mahfouz’s concern to link private virtue with civic justice, his interest in character and his indifference to systems, give his political thought a refreshingly simple if old-fashioned cast. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss him, on the evidence of books like The Harafish, as willfully blind to today’s world. It is rather the case that as a social thinker the later Mahfouz has become more interested in salvation than in history. There are two contending tones to be heard in The Harafish. One, poignant and elegiac, emerges in the second Ashur’s meditations on a world in which the get-rich-quick methods of his businessman brother Fayiz seem to be rampant.

At night he still went to the monastery square, wrapped in darkness, guided by the stars… He sat down in al-Nagi’s old spot and listened to the dancing rhythms. Didn’t these men of God care about what happened to God’s creatures? When would they open the gate or knock down the wall? He wanted to ask them…why egotists and criminals prospered, while the good and loving came to nothing. Why the harafish were in a deep sleep.

It is telling that while Fayiz is allowed to scoff at the conservative ways of the alley, he is given little chance to speak for his chosen life of “brokerage” and “speculation,” that is to say, for the methods of modern capitalism: he is soon killed off, and we are told that his fortune has been based not on business at all but on the crime of murdering rich men and taking their money.

The other tone—less true, perhaps—is to be heard in the fairy-tale ending: in the ascendancy of Ashur, the eclipse of the bourgeois “notables,” the awakening of the harafish, and intimations that the day of revelation is at hand.

[Ashur] looked at the great door [of the monastery] in astonishment. Gently, steadily, it was opening. The shadowy figure of a dervish appeared, a breath of night embodied.

Get the flutes and drums ready,” the figure whispered… “Tomorrow the Great Sheikh will come out of his seclusion. He will walk down the alley bestowing his light and give each young man a bamboo club and a mulberry fruit. Get the flutes and drums ready…”

[Ashur] jumped to his feet, drunk on inspiration and power. Don’t be sad, his heart told him. One day the door may open to those who seize life boldly, with the innocence of children and the ambition of angels.

The Harafish is not only largely about men and their fortunes, but sets before itself a particularly male ideal. Nevertheless, there are several amusing seduction scenes (Mahfouz’s men are rarely a match for the wiles of women), while the most striking, and certainly the most lively character in the book is Zahira, mother of Galal. Restless in the role of dutiful wife, mother, and daughter-in-law, she uses the liberal divorce laws of Islam to rid herself of a succession of unsatisfactory husbands, only to be murdered in a deus ex machina ploy that leaves one wondering whether her author had not begun to be disturbed by the question of where the trajectory of this furious, volatile, and ambitious woman might not take her.

As for the translation, speaking as someone who does not read Arabic I can only say that Catherine Cobham’s version reads both authoritatively and fluently. My one quibble is with certain colloquialisms whose American connotations sit uneasily with the faintly (and appropriately) archaic English of the rest. I have in mind phrases like “cover my back,” “son of a gun,” “getting stoned,” “call girl”—which surely depends on the existence of telephones—and “The world’s our oyster.” Calling the campaign for justice mounted by one of the better clan leaders a “crusade” is also, perhaps, an unfortunate word choice.

The text is punctuated with fragments of Persian poetry—songs wafting down the alley from the nearby Sufi monastery—that have been left untranslated. This decision seems to me contentious but probably correct: the harafish of yore would have understood the Persian no better than would Mahfouz’s readers in Cairo today.

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