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Authors: Naguib Mahfouz

The Harafish

BOOK: The Harafish
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1977 by Naguib Mahfouz
English translation copyright
1993 by Catherine Cobham

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
The Harafish
was first published in Arabic in 1977, under the title
Malhamat al-harafish
. Protected under the Berne Convention. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday in 1994.

This translation is published by arrangement with the American University in Cairo Press.

Anchor Books and colophon are registered trademarks
of Random House, Inc.

All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Maḥfūẓ, Najīb, 1912–

[Malḥamat al-harāfīsh. English]

The harafish / Naguib Mahfouz : translated by Catherine Cobham.

p.   cm.

1. Egypt—Fiction. I. Cobham, Catherine. II. Title.

PJ7846.A46M2813 1995

892'.736—dc20  94-38311

ISBN 9780385423359

eBook ISBN 9780525431626





The historical meaning of
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 am grateful to Sabry Hafez for help and encouragement, and to Mohamed Malek for the transliterations of the lines of Persian poetry.


St. Andrews

October 1992

The first tale in the epic of the harafish


n the passionate dark of dawn, on the path between death and life, within view of the watchful stars and within earshot of the beautiful, obscure anthems, a voice told of the trials and joys promised to our alley.


He felt his way along with his rough stick, his guide in his eternal darkness. He knew where he was by the smell, by the number of steps he had taken, by how well he could hear the chanting, and by his own inspired instincts. Between his house by the graveyard and the alley was the hardest but also the most delightful part of his route to the Husayn mosque. Unexpectedly there came to his sharp ears the cries of a newborn child. It could have been an echo, magnified in the silence of the dawn. It roused him unceremoniously from the intoxicated visions inspired in him by the sacred chanting. At this hour, mothers are supposed to be totally preoccupied with their children! The noise was growing louder and nearer and he would soon be level with it. He cleared his throat to forestall
a collision in the quiet landscape of dawn, wondering when the child would stop crying so that he could revert to his state of calm repose. Now the crying came insistently on his left-hand side. He moved over to the right until his shoulder brushed the wall of the dervish monastery. He stopped and called out, “Woman! Feed the child!”

But nobody answered him. The crying continued. “Woman! Hello! Is anybody there?” he shouted.

All he could hear was the sound of crying. He was filled with misgivings. Gone was the innocence of the dawn. Very cautiously he advanced in the direction of the sound, keeping his stick close in to his side. He bent forward a little, extending his hand gently until his forefinger touched a bundle of clothing. It was just what he'd expected. He moved his fingers around in its folds until he felt a soft moist face, convulsed with tears.

“The wickedness of human hearts!” he exclaimed under his breath. Then he raised his voice in anger. “May they rot in hell!”

He thought a little but decided not to ignore the bundle even if it meant missing the dawn prayer at the Husayn mosque. The breeze was chilly at this time on a summer's morning, there were a lot of lizards and suchlike about, and God tested his servants in unforeseen ways. He picked the bundle up gently, then resolved to return home to consult his wife. He heard the sound of voices. It was probably worshipers on their way to the dawn prayer. He gave another cough to warn of his presence.

“God's peace on the faithful,” came a voice from the darkness.

“And on you,” he answered quietly.

The speaker recognized his voice and said, “Sheikh Afra Zaydan? What's holding you up?”

“I'm going back home. It's nothing serious.”

“I hope not, Sheikh Afra!”

He hesitated, then said, “I found a newborn child at the foot of the old wall.”

There was the sound of muttering between the men.

“May they rot in hell, the criminals!”

“Take it to the police station!”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“God will guide me,” said Afra with a calm inappropriate to the situation.


Sakina held the lamp up in her left hand. She was alarmed when she saw it was her husband. “Why have you come back?” she demanded. “I hope nothing's wrong?” Then she saw the baby. “Whatever's that?”

“I found it on the path.”

“Merciful God!”

She took the child gently and the sheikh sat on the sofa between the well and the oven, mumbling, “There is no God but God.”

Sakina began rocking the child in her arms. “It's a boy, Sheikh Afra!” she said tenderly.

He nodded silently.

“He must need food,” she went on anxiously.

“What do you know about it? You've never had children.”

“I know some things, and I can always ask. What are you going to do with him?”

“They told me I should take him to the police station.”

“Do you think they'll feed him there? Let's wait until someone comes looking for him.”

“Nobody will.”

A tense silence followed. “Isn't it wrong to keep him any longer than we have to?” muttered the sheikh at length.

“The wrong's already been done,” said his wife with passionate energy.

Then inspiration came to her; she welcomed it delightedly. “I can't hope to have a child of my own now.”

He pushed his turban back to reveal a protruding forehead like the handle of a washbowl. “What are you thinking, Sakina?” he demanded.

“How can I refuse what God has provided?” she said, intoxicated by her idea.

He wiped his closed eyes with his handkerchief and said nothing.

“It's what you want yourself!” she cried triumphantly.

“I've missed the dawn prayer in al-Husayn,” he complained, ignoring her.

She smiled broadly and without taking her eyes off the swollen little face said, “Dawn's only just breaking, and God is forgiving and merciful.”

The sheikh got up to pray as Darwish Zaydan came downstairs, his eyelids heavy with sleep, saying, “I'm hungry, sister-in-law.”

He noticed the baby and looked astonished, as a boy of ten might. “What's that?” he asked.

“A gift from God,” answered Sakina.

He stared hard at it. “What's its name?”

After a moment's hesitation, the woman said almost inaudibly, “Let him take my father's name, Ashur Abdullah, and may God bless him.”

In the background Sheikh Afra recited the dawn prayer.


The days went by to the sound of the beautiful, obscure anthems. One evening Sheikh Afra Zaydan said to his brother Darwish, “You're twenty years old. When are you going to get married?”

“All in good time,” answered the youth nonchalantly.

“You're a fine strong porter. They make a good living!”

“All in good time.”

“Aren't you frightened of being led astray?”

“God protects the faithful.”

The blind Quran reciter shook his head. “You got nothing from Quran school,” he said regretfully, “and you don't know a single chapter of God's book by heart.”

“Work is what counts, and I earn my living by the sweat of my brow,” said Darwish irritably.

The sheikh pondered for a few moments. Then he asked, “Those scars on your face, how did you get them?”

Darwish realized that his sister-in-law must have betrayed him and scowled at her. She was trying to light the oven, helped by Ashur.

“Darwish, do you really expect me to keep it a secret from your brother if you're being harmed?” she smiled.

“So you're modeling yourself on the men of evil and violence?” said the sheikh reprovingly.

“If they pick a fight I'm obviously going to defend myself.”

“Darwish, you've been brought up in the house of a servant of the Quran. Why don't you behave more like your brother Ashur?”

“He's not my brother!” snapped Darwish fiercely.

The sheikh withdrew into angry silence.

Ashur had been following the conversation intently. He was shocked, although he had been expecting it. He did what he could to contribute to the household and was never asked to do more. He cleaned the house, shopped in the market, accompanied his benefactor to al-Husayn every morning for the dawn prayer, drew water, lit the oven, and in the late afternoon sat at the sheikh's feet while he instructed him in the Quran and taught him how to lead a decent life. The sheikh loved him and was pleased with how he was turning out. Sakina used to gaze fondly at him and remark, “He's going to be a good, strong lad.”

“May he use his strength to serve his fellows, and not the devil,” the sheikh would say.


The heavens showered their blessings on Ashur and as the years went by the sheikh rejoiced in him as much as he despaired of Darwish, his own brother and foster child. Why, Lord, when they were reared under the same roof? But once he had set his heart against learning, Darwish moved out of reach of the sheikh's influence as he went in search of a living. He set off into the world a fresh-faced boy and was schooled by harshness and violence before
he was fully grown, and before his spirit had acquired strength and purity. Right from the beginning, Ashur responded to the beauty and radiance in the world, to the harmonies of the sacred anthems. He grew huge like the monastery door, tall and broad, with arms as solid as the stones of the old city wall and legs like the trunks of mulberry trees. He had a large, noble head and strong well-proportioned features where the sap of life flowed abundantly. His strength showed in his zeal for work, his endurance, his cheerful persistence. The sheikh often said to him, “May your strength be used to serve your fellows, and not the devil.”

One day the sheikh announced that he wanted to make him a reciter of the Quran like himself.

“Don't you think the sight of his huge frame would be enough to frighten off his audience?” laughed Darwish scathingly.

The sheikh ignored this remark but was forced to abandon his plan when it became clear that Ashur's voice was not up to it. It went out of tune easily, had no sweetness or flexibility, and lacked clarity, so that it sounded as if he were singing in a tunnel. Furthermore, he was incapable of learning a long chapter by heart.

Ashur was content with what he did, happy with his life, and imagined he would remain in this paradise till the end of time. He believed what he was told, that the sheikh had taken charge of him at the death of his parents, good people cut down in their prime, and thanked God that in His mercy and might He had provided him with a home whose kindness was unrivaled by any other in the alley. Then one day Sheikh Afra decided his upbringing and education were complete and it was time to send him to learn a trade. However, events overtook the sheikh, he fell ill with a fever which popular remedies failed to cure, and went to join his Maker. Sakina found herself with no income or means of supporting herself, and went back to her village in Qalyubiyya. She and Ashur parted tearfully. She kissed him, uttered a charm to protect him from evil, and left. All at once he felt alone in the world, at the mercy of his inflexible new master, Darwish Zaydan.

He closed his heavy eyelids, deep in thought, feeling that things were sliding into a gulf of emptiness, that he wanted to climb the sun's rays, melt away in a dewdrop, or ride the wind that
rumbled through the archway; but a voice in his heart told him that the emptiness would be filled with the power of God's spirit and the earth would live again.


Darwish examined him as he squatted dejectedly by the oven. What a giant! With the jaws of a beast of prey and mustaches like a ram's horns. A redundant, shiftless power, doomed to lie fallow. Lucky he had never learned a trade, but he should guard against underestimating him. Why did he dislike him? As he sat hunched, rooted to the floor, he reminded him of a sharp rock blocking the way, a dust-laden blast of hot wind, an open tomb on a feast day, disquieting and provocative. Damn him! He ought to use him somehow! “How will you earn a living?” he asked, not looking at him.

Ashur opened his large deepset eyes and said resignedly, “I'm at your service, master Darwish.”

“I don't need any help,” said Darwish coldly.

“Then I'll have to go away.”

He hesitated, then added hopefully, “Won't you let me go on living here? It's the only home I've known.”

“It's not a hotel.”

The oven's mouth gaped, dark and lifeless, and from the shelf above came the rustle of a mouse scampering over dry garlic stalks.

Darwish cleared his throat. “Where will you go?”

“The world's a big place.”

BOOK: The Harafish
3.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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