Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
Jaafar was silent for a long time. When he spoke again, I tried to imagine the scene as he described it: “I can’t forget his face. I mean, after I dug the sharp letter opener into his neck. His face slowly lost its life and fell into the depths of darkness. He stopped fighting back and submitted to the unknown, leaving behind his debates, his bright mind and glory. Everything came to an end.”
“You killed a man, Jaafar!” I shouted.
“Yes, Jaafar al-Rawi had become a killer.”
“What a pity!” I said.
Jaafar went on describing the crime scene: “I stood there, looking at his body lying between the desk and the leather sofa, in a state of eternal icy dazedness. I felt as if I had unloaded in one move all of life’s burdens and emotions. Then I plunged, suddenly, into the depths of the world of knowledge; and I saw through a crack in its crumbling wall the phantom of the tragedy running away from me, running to a different and opposite universe with which I had no human contact. Then I heard a voice, maybe my own voice or maybe someone else’s, shouting, ‘Oh my blessed mind, why have you abandoned me?’”
“What a pity,” I said again.
“From the head of a party to a life sentence.”
After a short but intense silence, I asked him, “Was there an excuse for the murder?”
“On the one hand, there is always a justification for killing; but on the other hand, nothing justifies a murder.”
I rephrased my question. “I mean, did you find anything to confirm your suspicions about your wife and therefore justify the murder?”
“Believe me, there was nothing at all. My wife’s breakdown over her concern for me confirmed my stupidity. It was as if the tragedy had occurred to ridicule the worshiper of the mind, that was all.”
“Was there any mention of your suspicions during the trial?” I asked.
“No, and I categorically refused that approach. The case was presented as a struggle between two communists that led to murder. In prison, I insisted on the status of a political criminal, but they considered me plainly and simply a killer. To this day I consider myself a political criminal. What do you think?”
“You are probably a semi-political criminal,” I said.
“But if it were not for politics, the crime would not have occurred.”
“Maybe. But what was your grandfather’s reaction?” I asked.
“A few days before the accident, Muhammad Shakroun informed me that my grandfather was very ill, and suggested I visit him together with Huda and my children. I discussed the matter with Huda and she welcomed the idea. We postponed the visit to Friday, but the crime occurred on Thursday evening, and I never received a word from him. I do not even know if he learned of my crime.
“Though I requested to be treated like a political criminal in prison, there is no difference between the treatment of the political criminal and of the regular criminal. My request made me the subject of ridicule and jokes, and I was punished with lashes for causing commotion. Huda visited me only once.”
“Why did she stop after that?”
“She passed away,” he said.
He continued telling me his story: “I was very sad and I worried about the children. But Muhammad Shakroun told me that the children’s maternal aunt had offered to care for them and had taken them to Minya to live with her. I have no doubt that they forgot me very quickly, as I had forgotten my mother. In a second visit, Shakroun told me that he was going on a tour in North Africa, and that was the last I
heard from him. Jaafar al-Rawi died, and so did the world outside the walls of the prison.
“I promoted my new doctrine in prison, but was faced with ignorance, passivity, and sarcasm. I even extended an invitation to join my party to the prison warden, who was kind to me because of my family background, my profession, and my bad luck.
“My eyesight weakened in prison, and I contracted many illnesses. I left in the condition you see me in today.”
am in shambles, an old sick man, half blind, with a handful of memories that no one can believe, but I have not lost my clarity of mind or my strong determination, and the seduction of debates is still alive in my heart.
“I thought that if I found Muhammad Shakroun, I would be able to locate the link that would take me to the heart of matters. But there was no trace of him, and I did not meet anyone who knew him, as if he had not entertained a generation of Egyptians with his voice. At the Institute of Oriental Music I was told that Shakroun lived for some time in Morocco, but that since then no one had heard from him.
“I went to the Hilmiya Palace and found a huge building in its place, property of an insurance company. I had inherited a large sum of money from my wife, but spent most of it in prison on cigarettes and other matters, and I had hardly any money left. I went to Eshashal-Turguman but found no trace of the old place. It had become a modern suburb with a park and a gas station.
“I met many of my old colleagues, some retired, others still working in the field of law. I must tell you, though, that no one tried to avoid me. On the contrary, some received me very warmly. There were those who had kept their enthusiasm for their own doctrines, while others had been pulled away by life’s worries and its needs.
“I wondered where Marwana’s and Huda’s children were! But I decided that no good would come of finding them and that I had better leave them alone.
“I find pleasure sometimes in imagining their lives and those of their children—my grandchildren. There are certainly among them bandits and judges, and they are possibly more numerous than I think. I might meet them in my wanderings, but I wouldn’t recognize them and they wouldn’t recognize me.
“Once all those pressing matters were settled, I thought about resuming my struggle for my doctrine and establishing my party. But I faced insurmountable obstacles, among them my advanced age, my extreme frailty, and my appearance, which provoked pity and sometimes disgust. A leader, as you well know, must have a charismatic and appealing personality. Furthermore, the field of politics was filled with lively and influential people. I told myself that I had better write down my theory in a book. If I failed to do so, however—which was a distinct possibility—I would still preach my doctrine wherever I went. It might be picked up by someone more capable than I; someone who would make it work.
“I was convinced then that all I had left to do was face a forced short rest, before the eternal rest.”
Jaafar fell silent for quite a long time, then whispered calmly, “Al-Rawi’s face came back to me from my past memory.”
As I was about to speak, he continued. “I did not doubt that he had died, but I wondered about his money and his palace. I stood under the walls of the huge palace, as imposing as a mountain, then slipped toward the blind alley, toward the gate. To my surprise it was ajar.”
Jaafar stopped for a few seconds, then went on, “I pushed the gate and went in. I was surprised by what I saw. I had never expected or imagined it would happen. There was no garden and no salamlik. The flowers and their scent were gone, and so was the chirping of the birds.
There was nothing left but a huge wasteland with piles of garbage and a group of beggars.”
I shouted in my surprise: “What happened? Was it demolished?”
“There was nothing but waste everywhere, surrounded by the high walls and the imposing front gate. The beggars looked at me with concern and fear, but I stomped my feet on the ground and went to see if any of my grandfather’s companions were still alive. I learned that al-Rawi had died one year after my imprisonment, and that he had spent all his wealth on charitable organizations and the needy, without leaving me or any of my descendants a single penny. As for the palace, it had been destroyed when a bomb fell on it during one of the aerial attacks on Cairo, and the rubble had been cleared out. This is the whole story from beginning to end. I soon realized that I wouldn’t get any peace during the short period of respite that precedes the eternal rest. I also decided to set up house in the ruins of my grandfather’s palace. There I sleep, usually between dawn and forenoon, like any beggar.”
He laughed a short laugh. I said with pity, “An unhappy old age.”
“No!” he shouted. “I refuse pity and compassion. Never forget that you are talking to a great man, and a proof of his greatness is his ability to adapt to the most difficult of conditions and situations, and face them with pride and a smile!”
I was convinced, and said, “Anyhow, the monthly financial support which—”
He interrupted me sharply. “I have made a decision regarding that!”
“I don’t think you are serious about your decision.”
“I am extremely serious,” he retorted.
“Do you mean that you won’t write the petition?”
“I certainly won’t!”
“This is pure madness,” I said.
“Call it whatever you like. Since al-Rawi deprived me of my inheritance, I refuse to beg for even one penny of it!”
“Jaafar, you are old, weak, and poor, and the little money you have left will soon be spent.”
“I know all that very, very well, but I am more stubborn than al-Rawi himself.”
“Let me write the petition.”
“I refuse,” he said.
I protested, but he insisted, saying, “I will not discuss the subject anymore.”
There was silence. He was a tired storyteller and I was a tired listener. I yawned.
He laughed and said, “I do not yawn before dawn.”
I mumbled listlessly, “Bravo.”
“I am a roaming beggar. I leave al-Rawi’s wasteland to wander in the streets, from Margush to al-Khurunfish to al-Nahhasin and finally to Khan Jaafar. Everywhere I go I have a memory and a secret. There are memories in al-Hilmiya, and in Bab al-Khalq Square my heart beats. Everywhere I go I spread my doctrine. I invite humanity to save itself.”
“Your doctrine?” I inquired.
“You do that openly?”
“You must be wary of troubles,” I warned.
“I do not fear troubles.”
I told myself that his appearance did not convey seriousness and he was not in any danger.
We both fell silent, nearly lulled into an exhausted sleep.
In that moment of inertia and sorrow, we heard the voice of the muezzin floating over the waves of obscurity. Jaafar stretched and said in his harsh voice, “It is time for us to go.”
We walked side by side on our way to the square.
Jaafar whispered, “Let life be filled with holy madness to the last breath.”
My head was ringing with the talk of the night.
diploma awarded by al-Azhar in Egypt at the end of the specified period of study.
traditional women singers.
cooked fava beans, usually eaten for breakfast.
long loose garment worn by men in Egypt.
long garment worn under the
by imams and students enrolled in al-Azhar, preparing them to assume the responsibility of imam.
a dish consisting of sheep trotters.
the night that falls between the 26th and the 27th of Ramadan. It marks the night on which the Quran was revealed.
the litter once sent to Mecca by the Egyptian government during the Hajj (pilgrimage) carrying the covering for the Kaaba. The name is derived from the verb
, ‘to carry.’
long outer coat worn by imams over the gibba.
follower of a reform movement in Islam launched by Muhammad Abduh in Egypt.
word of Turkish origin referring to a reception room.
derived from al-Samad, one of God’s attributes and meaning ‘the master obeyed by all.’ The Samadiya is the chapter in the Quran entitled ‘Surat al-Ikhlas.’
a large tent erected to receive a large number of guests outside the house for either happy events or a death in the family.
a form of Arabic poetry consisting of stanzas, often set to music and sung.
expression used to mean ‘so what! I couldn’t care less.’
; consists in endowing private property for charitable purposes. The income generated by
or the services they provide (hospitals, schools, libraries) are aimed at the needy. In Egypt, where this novel takes place,
are run by the Ministry of Awqaf, a government agency. The concept of the waqf dates back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad and has undergone transformations throughout history. The waqf par excellence is the Kaaba in Mecca.