On holiday

Amit Chaudhuri

Naguib Mahfouz made his name with his trilogy of Cairo life – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street – first published in Arabic in the late Fifties. At first glance, The Harafish, which was originally published in 1977, bears little resemblance to, say, Palace Walk. The latter is a story of a family in an ‘alley’ in Cairo in the first half of the 20th century, and is told in a straightforward chronological manner that seems to owe something to the 19th-century European novel. The Harafish is more rambling, less realistic (without being ‘magical’), telling the mythic story of the descendants of the heroic Ashur-al-Nagi and covering births, weddings, murders and entire generations, sometimes in the course of a chapter. It is set in a time that for the most part appears to be medieval, given its plagues, dervishes and clan chiefs, but occasionally edges towards the modern with the appearance, for example, of a police inspector.

There are, however, superficial resemblances between the better-known earlier work and the later novel: among them, an appetite for weddings and an interest in stories that explore the interrelationships in a large family. But there are deeper affinities between the books that are perhaps central to Mahfouz’s work and, indeed, his genius: the questions his writing raises obliquely about what in his vision is native and rooted and what the result of his contact with Western culture, about the ways these strands of foreignness and rootedness animate his work, and give rise to the superb amoral moralism of his characters.

Western influence, especially that of the 19th-century novel, is evident in the most obvious way in the style and form in which Mahfouz’s major novels are written – with a strong, gradually unfolding narrative, told from the viewpoint of a near-omniscient narrator, the story always clearly pitched socially and historically. The same biographical note that appears at the end of each of his books, under the rubric ‘About the Author’, admits as much in a bland, unrevealing way: ‘A student of philosophy and an avid reader, he has been influenced by many Western writers, including Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and, above all, Proust.’ A quote on the jacket from Edward Said, writing for the London Review of Books, says: ‘He is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romains.’ While this may be apposite, and worth pointing out, it skims over the way in which contact with a dissimilar Western culture shapes, and differentiates, the colonial novelist. For Mahfouz, one suspects, writing has not simply been a business of putting Egyptian subject-matter into a Western form, of pouring an Arab wine into a European container he happened to inherit. The contact with, rather than just the influence of, Western culture runs through his work in more subtle and less easily identifiable ways. The strong, onward-moving story does echo the 19th-century narrative, but also, in its solidity, hints deceptively at a cultural rootedness from which Mahfouz’s sensibility actually estranges us.

The main character in Palace Walk is Al-Sayyid Ahmad, a merchant and shop-owner, who has one wife, Amina, three sons, one of them by a former wife whom he has divorced, and two daughters. The sons and daughters (except for the youngest son, Kamal) are at that stage of their lives when marriage is a major preoccupation; for the daughters, romances bloom and dissipate through the slats of windows; all that the women, it seems, know of the world is the view of the alley through the window, though a sense of the greater world comes to Amina from glimpsing the minarets that constitute the skyline. This sense of the house’s feminised, constricted interiority, a house which for Amina is a universe, is beautifully evoked in the first chapter, where she is shown waiting for her husband’s arrival:

She continued to watch the road and listen to the people chat until she heard a horse’s hoof-beats. She turned her head toward al-Nahhasin Street and saw a carriage slowly approaching, its lamps shining in the darkness. She sighed with relief and murmured, ‘Finally ...’ It was the carriage of one of his friends, bringing him to the door of his house after their evening out before continuing on as usual to al-Khurunfush with the owner and some other friends who lived there. The carriage stopped in front of the house, and her husband’s voice rang out cheerfully: ‘May God keep you.’

  She would listen lovingly and with amazement to her husband’s voice when he said good night to his friends. If she had not heard him every night at about this hour, she would have not believed it. She and the children were accustomed to nothing but prudence, dignity and gravity from him. How did he come by these joyful, jesting sounds, which flowed out so merrily and graciously?

Also swiftly evoked in this passage, through a series of contrasts and impressions, are the man’s status as head of his family, his personality, his wife’s timid but unquestioning acceptance of him, and the nature of her largely imaginary relationship with the outside world. The man, we discover, is a god and tyrant at home, and at work a respected and honourable merchant. His private life includes regular visits to the voluptuous courtesan and singer, Zubayda; as head of the family, he hardly speaks to and constantly tyrannises his wife. He also interferes with and thwarts his children’s desire to marry people of their choice.

The lives of the characters are inseparable from their faith – each of them quotes the Koran whenever they have the opportunity – centred on social custom, and structured around the family unit, which is both oppressive and life-giving. No alternative lifestyles are suggested, there are no heroes who rebel against the ‘system’. In the process of reading, we marvel at how natural and humane, in spite of everything, the ‘system’ is simply because of the ways in which it holds people together; we understand that Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s amoralism, because it is an acceptable part of the larger culture, is a natural and indispensable part of his personality, rather than something to be repressed. Mahfouz makes no comment on what would seem to be the amoral constituents of his culture’s idea of morality, including them without any kind of underscoring in his picture of Cairo society because they are a natural part of it, and thus our acquaintance with this world entails a rethinking of what is ‘moral’, and a reconsideration of the fact of cultural ‘difference’.

Interestingly, though, the ‘naturalness’ of this world, which makes us empathise with its characters, is also what distances us from it and gives us a vantage point on it, because the ‘naturalness’ is a deliberate literary effect and Mahfouz’s moral detachment the result of his distance from his characters. It is as if when he writes about them he is appraising them as an outsider would, although the only thing that conveys his distance is the ‘naturalness’ with which his world is described and his lack of direct comment on it. And it is in this deliberate suspension of judgment, which is not simply an artistic or novelistic policy, but an acknowledgment and appraisal of his culture’s ‘difference’, that we feel the profound impact of Mahfouz’s contact with Western culture, a contact which turns him into both chronicler and outsider.

In a sub-heading, Mahfouz calls The Harafish (the word, according to a translator’s note, means the ‘common people’) an ‘epic’, and his chapters ‘tales’; together they read like yarns spun for the pure pleasure of storytelling, with plots and sub-plots that go everywhere, unconstrained by the requirements of verisimilitude. One has a sense of the novelist on holiday, picking up the thread of a story and then doing with it more or less what he likes. The novel begins with an account of a blind man taking into his house an abandoned child, whom he hears crying in the dark. The child grows up to be Ashur-al-Nagi, a saintly and physically powerful person: ‘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.’ Ashur takes up a job as a stable-hand and, one day, notices his master’s daughter, Zaynab: ‘He glanced for a few brief moments, and regretted it immediately. His remorse grew as a hot flame burnt through his chest and innards and settled in his groin, blazing with unbridled desire.’

The rest of Ashur’s story is, briefly, that he marries Zaynab, finds happiness, has two sons, marries another woman, Fulla, who is a courtesan in a bar, finds happiness again, has a son, survives a plague by fleeing with Fulla and their son to a cave on the outskirts of the town, returns to a deserted alley, occupies a rich man’s empty house, and becomes the clan chief as the ‘harafish’ return. In spite of Ashur’s extraordinary tale and his often extraordinary actions, his saintliness and humanity are never in doubt either to the reader or to the harafish. One day Ashur mysteriously disappears, never to return, and then Mahfouz begins to unfold, or invent, the story of Ashur’s descendants, who either live up to his ideal or fail to, until the last ‘tale’ in the book tells us of the life of the latest descendant, once more called Ashur, who shares some of his forefather’s qualities. In the process, we have witnessed murders, deceptions, noble aspirations degenerating into questionable impulses, betrayals by both husbands and wives, lust, on both sides, for sex and power, and the characters’ will to survive.

In some ways, Mahfouz reminds me not so much of the 19th-century European novelists as of certain Indian writers such as Bibhuti Bhushan Banerjee, the author of Pather Panchali, a writer who chronicled, with great affection and in great detail, scenes from his early life in a village, and used ‘naturalness’ to set up an inner tension in his work which conveyed the poignancy of his distance from the culture he described. Like Mahfouz, Banerjee, too, wrote of a pre-liberal bourgeois world, where the effects of the colonial or Western middle-class culture were still largely unfelt: a world of customs, superstitions, gods, large families and poverty. But Banerjee himself had already emerged into another world, in which, through the impact of colonialism, a new, native middle class was being created; and the most powerful sense of the distance between this new world to which Banerjee now belonged, and the old one he was writing about, came from the ‘naturalness’ with which he described the old world and the lack of judgment in his writing. As in Mahfouz, the ‘naturalness’ was a literary effect which put the old world in perspective, and indicated, without actually saying anything, that the writer was a part of a historical process which, ironically, was taking his beloved subject-matter further and further away from him.