Tales of leaders and strong-willed folk

May 10, 1994|By Rebecca Warburton Boylan | Rebecca Warburton Boylan,Special to The Sun

Naguib Mahfouz is a poet who writes novels. The writing of this Nobel Prize winner (1988) is unified by colorful images portrayed in simile and metaphor. Such use of analogy could become tedious and distracting, but Mr. Mahfouz's dynamic plots and diverse characters fascinate us in their own right.

His latest novel, "The Harafish," describes a setting similar to that in his famous Cairo trilogy. This time, the main characters are the harafish, the common people. The harafish neighborhoods are the alleys, bars, basement rooms and the mosque, ironically hidden behind haughtily closed doors. These doors emit soothing anthems to troubled and yearning souls without, but they barricade the redeeming guidance and comfort within the mosque.

Much of the action takes place in the bars, the streets, places of business, and even in the desert. To contrast this novel with others by Mr. Mahfouz is to note the ironic truth that with money comes bondage. In "The Harafish," the women defy their husbands. The men, for the most part, are just as instinctively demanding and quick to violent tempers as in Mr. Mahfouz's earlier works; therefore, the two sexes, both acting on strong, impatient wills, offer exciting action.

On a deeper level, the novel is told as an epic myth, divided into 10 tales. Each tale depicts the lives of a particular generation of the family of Ashur al-Nagi, who is abandoned as a baby. He is rescued by a sheik, Afra, whose spirit enables him to see beyond his blindness and act as savior not only to the abandoned al-Nagi, but also to his people.

Afra's weakness is the angry judgment he places on the mother he assumes is ignoring her infant; the baby cries and thus upsets the quiet that Afra seeks on his morning journey to pray in the mosque.

Impatiently, he strikes his walking stick against the pavement, attempting to find the squalls piercing his own ordered world. When he stumbles upon the lone bundle, Afra's selfish anger becomes saddened indignation for the innocent baby bereft of love, a victim of careless lust. Afra never makes it to the mosque that day to offer prayers, but he does make it home with the baby, whom he and his wife raise lovingly, instructing him in the Koran.

Ashur, not exempt from temptation, in his own way becomes a man of faith. Voices, visions and dreams are the means of communication Ashur experiences with God. Through such communication, Ashur saves his wife and child from the plague that kills off others in his alley.

When he tries to rescue others, they laugh at his visions to seek refuge in desert caves.

Upon returning to the alley after the plague, Ashur and family find that the only other survivor is Darwish, an evil uncle of his.

At first when Ashur returns to his alley, he occupies the same modest room he left. Gradually, Ashur gives up his life as a menial cart driver and takes up residence in an empty, wealthy home. He generously provides the harafish with the tools necessary to earn their own living.

Enter evil and jealous Darwish, whose tattling sends Ashur to prison. While Ashur is behind bars, Darwish tries to buy loyalty from the Harafish with cash he accepts from the wealthy for protection rackets he runs. Upon Ashur's release from jail, Darwish's gang forsakes him and looks to Ashur as the clan chief. Ashur returns to his basement room and trade as a carter, encouraging all to work. Under his regime, his alley gains respect from its neighbors, enjoying justice, honor and security.

The ensuing tales, through exciting twists of conflict, emphasize how selfish pride, greed and lust deter one from commanding the respect needed to be an effective leader for the good of all.

Mr. Mahfouz's language, story and characters are translated fluently by Catherine Cobham, except for the first third of the novel, in which she sets apart each metaphor or simile instead of blending them within the larger context of a given passage. Because many of the images are particular to the Egyptian culture, this literal translation causes abrupt and distracting interruptions to the story.

Still, Mr. Mahfouz uses language unapologetically to his Egyptian drama with character, action and perceptions that offer universal appeal.

Ms. Boylan is a writer who lives in the Washington area.


Title: "The Harafish"

Author: Naguib Mahfouz; translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham

Publisher: Doubleday

Length, price: 406 pages, $22.95

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