cover image The Harafish

The Harafish

Naguib Mahfouz, Najib Mahfuz. Doubleday Books, $22.95 (406pp) ISBN 978-0-385-42324-3

The penetrating realism that marked Nobel Prize winner Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy glimmers only faintly in this entertaining and colorful populist epic fable, first published in Arabic in 1977. Ashur, founding chief of the al-Nagi clan, is a pious cart driver who protects the rights of the harafish (common people) and taxes the rich to give to the poor. After his reign, a succession of clan chiefs wallow in decadent luxury, living like thugs and collecting protection money. Characters and plot lines come and go with the speed of a soap opera in a zestful saga studded with murder, scandal, betrayal, tragedy and romance. Craving physical immortality, one clan chief, Galal, builds a strange minaret after consulting a mystical priest but is poisoned by his mistress Zaynat, an ex-prostitute. Finally, a new Ashur, namesake and distant relative of the clan's founder, restores justice and integrity, placing ordinary folk and nobility on equal footing. Mahfouz brings wry humor, political resonance and elegant turns of phrase to a tale that verges on melodrama. (Apr.)