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The Harafish

April 28, 2011 - Meg Alexander
I haven't done much reading lately, I confess, but last night I picked "The Harafish" by Naguib Mahfouz from our home library, knowing I would not be able to resist this author's storytelling once I got started.

I was right.

The hour was late, or perhaps early would be more accurate, when I finally put the book down and dragged myself to bed. At this rate, I will probably finish it this weekend. Though I should slow down and savor the beauty of the writing, the story is so interesting I find myself speeding through it.

Written in a series of episodes, "Harafish" gives a fictional but realistic account of a poor urban family's history in the alleys of old Cairo. According to a write-up in The Guardian newspaper, the story “deals with several generations of the same family, universalizing the alley into an image of the human condition.”

The author of “Harafish” was first brought to my attention in a graduate-level world literature class, where we were assigned the first novel in the Cairo Trilogy, “Palace Walk.”

Mahfouz is a fascinating man. He was largely unknown outside the Arab world, until 1988, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. His writing is accessible, evocative, socially and/or historically significant, and always political.

“In all my writings, you will find politics,” Mahfouz once said. “You may find a story which ignores love or any other subject, but not politics; it is the very axis of our thinking."

He died in 1996 at the age of 94, two years after being stabbed in the neck with a kitchen knife by an Islamist extremist. Despite the nerve damage caused by the assault, and despite his failing eyesight, Mahfouz would continue writing for at least a brief period of time every day for as long as his health would permit.

Though he worked as a civil servant for much of his life, Mahfouz was disciplined and organized with his writing, producing more than 30 novels and hundreds of short stories.


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