When the story of the common man becomes epic {The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz} @ReadNobels

The epicness of rabble.

About The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz: In this captivating novel, Mahfouz chronicles he dramatic history of the al-Nagi family - a family that moves, over many generations, from the heights of power and glory to the depths of decadence and decay. The Harafish begins with the tale of Ashur al-Nagi, a man who grows from humble origins to become a great leader, a legend among the common people - the harafish of the title. Generation after generation, however, Ashur's descendants grow further from his legendary example, losing touch with their origins and squandering their large fortunes, marrying prostitutes and developing bitter and eventually fatal rivalries. And yet, a small hope always remains that one day they will produce a Nagi who can restore their name to its former glory.

My two cents

Harafish translates to "rabble" and this book chronicles the family history in a community described as a little alleyway in Egypt (I like to imagine it to be like a crowded slum area of a large city).

This is an epic read. It reminds me of the broadness of scope of 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marquez and the complexity of family histories (although Harafish spans not just one but two centuries!). It also reminds me of Homer's books that evoke the grandeur and exaltation of heroism. Lastly, it reminds me of the Bible because of themes that it explores, particularly of the good and bad of human nature. Specifically this reads like Ecclesiastes which questions and challenges the meaninglessness of life.

Chronicling the al-Nagi family's history over generations, this is a fascinating look at how the family pendulums from legendary greatness to folly and destitution. An interesting array of larger-than-life characters make their appearance over the centuries, from the goodness and legendary strength of Ashur; the sexual woman Zahira who is beguiling and calculated; the folly of Galal in his pursuit of immortality (oh, there is more, and I kept shaking my head at how robust and melodramatic the characters are!). Each character's story is a parable and there are nuggets of wisdom to be had from the philosophical musings emanating from their stories.


While I found the translation is beautifully simple and makes this easy reading, it may rile on your nerves a bit as at times it feel almost overly simple.

I also found myself wanting a family tree because of the sheer number of characters and the unfamiliarity of the names.


This is my first Mahfouz book and I wasn't disappointed at the cultural richness and the universality of the themes presented in this epic chronicle of a common family's history.

Random quotes

He and Raifa each lived in hell, in a world of tedium. - p. 29 
[..] was struck by the idea of a woman's weakness is her emotions, and that her relationships with men should be rational and calculated. Life is precious, with vast possibilities, limitless horizons. Love is nothing more than a blind beggar, creeping around the alleyways. - p. 236

Why do people laugh, dance in triumph, feel recklessly secure in positions of power? Why do they not remember the true place in the scheme of things and their inevitable end? - p. 272

Nobel Facts

Naguib Mahfouz is an Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 "who, through works rich in nuance - now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous - has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind." His books are originally written in Arabic. Read more about Mahfouz on Wikipedia.  

Read the Nobels 2016
This is my first read/review for Read the Nobels 2016

1 comment

  1. I have to admit that most of the Nobel winning works I have read... Were not my thing. I should try more but I am not sure if they write in my style...


© guiltless readingMaira Gall