Monday, April 2, 2007

The Harafish: Summary and Excerpts

The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz, a 406 page novel published in 1994, chronicles the history of the al- Nagi family. Beginning with Ashur al-Nagi who leads his life morally and decently. His following generations, however, begin to stray from such morality. The novel is translated by Catherine Cobham. Her Translator's note which can be found in the beginning of the book says,
"The historical meaning of harafish is the rabble or riffraff. In the novel it means the common people in a positive sense, those in menial jobs, casual workers, and the unemployed and homeless". I think that the time and setting of the novel are purposefully made unclear because the message(s) of the novel are supposed to be universal and timeless.
The first excerpt takes place when death is sweeping the alley in which Ashur and his new wife, Fulla, an ex-prostitute live. Ashur by this time, had already abandoned his first wife Zaynab to marry Fulla- a more beautiful and lustful woman. Sheikh afra had taken in Ashur (an abandoned baby- probably a lovechild) and raised him with ethical and moral principles. What is interesting is that everyone living in the alley and seeing death take many of their neighbors believed that is was complete fate and that there was no escape. Ashur and Fulla leave and when they return, they find an abandoned alley- desolate and dusty. Soon, he and Fulla come across riches in a palace and convince themselves that if they use the $ to benefit the people, then it is fine to take it. When people finally start to trickle back into the alley, Ashur al-Nagi is made chief of the neighborhood. Ashur uses this position to become a great protector of the Harafish. He becomes universally loved and his alley enjoys security and prosterity. I personally liked how Ashur was able to be portrayed as a human (having flaws and weaknesses and mistakes in his past) but yet be loved and a hero. His descendants, however, will not exactly follow in these noble footsteps...

*My first post on this site has a video about the author.

p 36:
He fell asleep for a couple of hours.
He saw Sheikh Afra Zaydan in the middle of the alley and rushed toward him, wild with hope. The sheikh turned and began to walk away, taking two steps for every one of his, and so they progressed along the path and through the graveyard out into the hills and the open country. He tried to call out to the sheikh but his voice stuck in his throat and he woke up in the depths of depression.
. . .
"I had a strange dream" [he said to his wife Fulla]
"I want to go back to sleep," she protested.
"We have to leave the alley without delay," he said with a severity which surprised her.
She stared at him in disbelief.
. . .
"It's not for us to resist death, Ashur,"
He looked down in embarrassment and said, "we have a right to resist death as well as to die at the appointed time."

p 41
The following passage shows that Ashur finds it to be imperative to convert his new wife to Islam. It also gives insight to their relationship:

The occasion arose at last to make Fulla a believer. She was a young and beautiful woman without religion. She knew nothing of God or the prophets, of virtue rewarded or sin punished. All that protected her in this terrifying world were her love and her maternal instincts. Fine, he would bend all his effforts to educating her. If she hadn't had such confidence in him she wouldn't have belived a word he was saying. With great trouble she learned some chapters of the Quran so that she could say her prayers. She would burst out laughing in the middle and interrupt herself, but she prayed obediantly, trying not to provoke her husband's anger and anxious to please him.

p 70
The following passage takes place after Al-nagi Ashur had mysteriously dissappeared. No one thought that his son, Shams al-Din would be able to take his place because he had not inherited his father's stature. Another important difference between father and son was that Shams al-Din was also not keen on living such an ascetic, frugal life. But Shams al-Din was determined to try and become chief. Surprisingly he is able to do so by winning a fight. What is interesting is that the spectators really seemed to believe that everything happens because of God and that God controls every aspect of life.

The crowd watched in stunned silence, waiting for the blood to flow. The seconds passed, molten in the furnace of the sands. The crows held its breath and not a sound was heard. Ghassan's brows met in a furious scowl. He appeared to be challenging the impossible, resisting fate. Stuggling like a drowning man. Fighting the unknown like a madman. Unleashing blind fury against creeping despair. And yet he weakened, despite his persistence and pride and anger. He lost his footing, staggered, and, with a rasping intake of breath, began to sink. Shams al-Din showed him no mercy until his arms sagged, his legs buckled, and he collapsed on the ground.
Shams al-Din stood panting, bathed in sweat. The shocked silence prevailed, broken only when One-Eyed Shaalan handed him his clothes and cried, "Long live our young chief!"
Then the crowd roared out, "God bless him! God bless him!"
"Ashur al-Nagi has risen from the dead!" exclaimed Dahshan.
"His new name shall be Shams al-Din al-Nagi," pronouned One-Eyed Shaalan.
The vast unchanging desert bore unimpassioned witness to his glory and might.


No comments: