Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
“There’s no rush. Let me think about it. I might write the petition or I might consult a lawyer. I might even go on with my life without a petition or a lawyer. No need to rush.”
“You know what you should do,” I said.
“There is no possibility of communication between the two of us. You fear life and I despise it. What you fear even in your imagination I have endured, and everything you ask God to spare you I have sought with my own free will.”
“This is great, Jaafar,” I said.
“Do you like what I say?” he asked.
“Would you like to hear more?”
“I assure you that I would.”
“You have treated me to a wonderful meal and will offer me serious help in the coming days. We are the children of the same neighborhood, so let’s go to Wadud’s café at the Green Gate.”
We walked side by side in the direction of the old neighborhood, passing beneath the historic arch that leads to the Green Gate. There we settled down, smoked hash, and drank coffee, and talked in the quiet of the long night.
ab al-Akhdar alley fell into silence under cover of night. It is then that the hordes of beggars return to their spots, the lunatics clutter the corners, and the smell of incense fills the air. No outsider roams there at night except the few customers of Café Wadud. They are all hash smokers.
“Let me tell you about the time of the legend,” said Jaafar.
“You mean your childhood years,” I said.
He was quick to respond, “I mean what I said, so do not interrupt me. There is no childhood, but a dream and a legend, the age of the dream and of the legend. It forces itself on you in a tender and possibly deceitful manner, usually because of the hardships of the present. It echoes strongly in my psyche, but when I analyze it I come out empty-handed, which confirms its illusionary nature. Suffice it to say that I know nothing of any significance about its two basic poles, my father and my mother.”
“Did they pass away during your childhood?” I asked.
“I do not remember my father at all, and I have no visual memory of him. He did not leave a photo to remind me of him. He left the world before fathering another child. I remember only one incident connected to him, and that somewhat obscurely. It was on the day of
the celebration of the mahmal, as we watched from a window overlooking Margush. I was sitting on his shoulders watching the crowds and the head of the golden mahmal swaying at the level of the window. It was a situation imbued with compassion and affection, don’t you agree? The mahmal is one of the landmarks of the legend. As for the crowds, they were a special kind of reality. The memory revived one day in my office in Bab al-Khalq square, making me shout in Saad Kabir’s face these words—”
But I interrupted him, “We are in the midst of the legend. Do not overstep its boundaries!”
“Let me talk freely. I hate restrictions.”
“But the story will be scattered by the stream of thoughts and I might lose my way between its fragments.”
He laughed loudly. “Won’t you allow me to toy with time the way it toyed with me? Well, let’s go back to the legend, to the brazen jinn, to the playful inanimate objects, to the spectral truths, and to the real dreams. I have already told you that I do not remember my father, but I will never forget my mother’s hand.”
“Your mother’s hand?”
“Be patient,” he said. “My father died, but I do not know how or why. He died in his youth, as I was told years later. I was five years old or slightly younger, and unable to even remember the house in Margush district. There was possibly a room that could be accessed from the hallway via two steps. There was also a high bed that could be reached by climbing on a wooden stool that was very tempting to play with, and a water pipe was placed high on top of an armoire, out of my reach. There were spoiled cats, a mangle, a dark storeroom inhabited by all types of jinn, black mice, an incense holder, and a clay jug seated on a tray, filled with water in which sliced limes floated. There were also a coal heater and sacks of coal, chickens, and a conceited rooster. I do not know what caused my father’s death or what his job was, but I can tell you about death itself. I am an expert in it. I once deserved the title of life giver because when anger takes over and words turn to flames, swallowing the celestial words, mysterious doors open, through which
devils slip. Satan himself arrives in his fiery parade, surrounded by judges, policemen, and jailers. At that moment Jaafar al-Rawi changes his name, his surname, and his skin.”
“But what about your father’s death?” I asked.
“May God forgive you,” he said. “You crush inspiration. You insist on learning how my father died as if he were your father. What do I know about his death? I woke up on a dark night to discover that I was in my mother’s arms and she was taking me to the neighbor’s. I must have fallen asleep, and when I awoke in the morning I found myself in a strange place. I cried. When the neighbor brought me food, I asked her about my mother. She explained, ‘Your mother is running an errand and will be back soon. Eat your food.’
“I ate despite my anxiety, as I was continuously hearing crying; though in a way, crying and ululations were a usual thing in our neighborhood. I went back home that night, or the following day, and found a strange and gloomy atmosphere. I felt there was a painful secret that I could not decipher, but one that made me feel weird and anxious. My mother had changed completely. She was dressed in black, her face was pale, and she looked sick. Her gaze had withered and seemed worn out. The house had lost its wholesome atmosphere and genuine cheerfulness. I asked her, ‘What is wrong with you, Mother?’
“‘Everything is fine. Play,’ she said.
“‘Where is my father?’
“She turned her face away from mine and said, ‘He is on a trip. Go on playing; you have the whole roof. Do not ask so many questions.’
“Her attitude toward me had changed: she was rough and unconcerned. My mother was avoiding me; she was avoiding my gaze and my company. She cried behind my back. My father did not return from his travels. I was not totally ignorant. I had heard things about God, the devil and the jinn, paradise and hell. I had even heard threatening things about death that had nothing to do with joy. I was wondering when my father would come back and when my mother’s face would return to its usual serenity. My anxious wait for my father lasted a long time. I was overcome with despair about his absence, but when
precisely I lost hope in his return and how I forgot him and went on with my life as if nothing had happened, I can’t remember. There is no way I can recall all that, but I will never forget my mother’s hand.”
“You have mentioned your mother’s hand many times already,” I said.
“She would hold my hand or I would hold hers, and we would wander together in the alleys and souks.”
“To shop or for pleasure?” I asked.
I was getting used to his live soul among the ruins and the memories. He seemed happy and grateful for the dinner, and for the hash he smoked, and for having an attentive listener for his story.
He said, “Sometimes I try to remember my mother’s image but I can’t see it. How tall was she? I was naturally much smaller than her and always looked up whenever I spoke to her, but this in no way indicates anything or measures her height. I have no idea about her weight either, or the color of her eyes or skin. I have a rather vague idea of subdued tones and movements. I remember strong emotions, smiles and laughter, and reprimands that were closer to visions from dreams. I can, however, affirm that she was beautiful, and had it not been for her beauty the tragedy would not have happened. I remember a comment made by our neighbor on a forgotten occasion: ‘Hey, Jaafar, son of the beautiful woman!’ But she did not live long enough to give me time to protect her image from destruction. Only the memory of her hand has stayed with me. To this day I feel her touch, her pressure and her tugging, and when she let go, as we walked from one place to the other across covered and uncovered alleys, among hordes of men and women, donkeys and carts, in front of shops and saints’ tombs and monasteries. She took me to the gatherings of the lunatics and the fortune tellers, the sweet vendors, and the toy sellers. On those trips, I wore a gallabiya and a colorful hat decorated with an amulet.
“My mother’s conversations were varied and contained a poetic tone that she adopted while talking with all creatures, each in its own language. She would address God Almighty, the prophets and the angels, and the holy men in their tombs. She even talked to the jinn, the
birds, inanimate beings, and the dead. She would interrupt her conversations with moans about her bad luck. The world around us was alive, aware of those conversations that it received and returned and participated in through its hidden will in our daily life, without discrimination between an angel and the door of a saint’s tomb, between the hoopoe and the gates of old Cairo. Even the jinn mellowed to her magic words and this saved me from numerous dangers.”
Noticing his serious demeanor, I could not help but laugh. Surprised, he asked, “Why do you laugh?”
I said apologetically, “You are narrating a dream that you can now interpret and explain.”
He replied, “Do not think you know the world half as well as I know it.”
“Is that so?”
“I am a sea of knowledge and I say that without boasting.”
“But you do not differentiate between truth and fiction.”
He explained, “There is no ‘truth and fiction,’ but different kinds of truths that vary depending on the phases of life and the quality of the system that helps us become aware of them. Legends are truths like the truths of nature, mathematics, and history. Each one has its spiritual system. Let me give you an example. One day my mother took me to visit my father’s tomb, located in an open area among the tombs of the poor. She addressed him, saying, ‘Your wife and son greet you and ask God to have mercy on you, most beloved and generous person. I complain to you about my loneliness and my misery. Pray God for us, oh beloved.’ I then stuck my ear to the wall of the tomb and heard moaning and words that I repeated to my mother. She told me, ‘You are blessed to the Day of Judgment.’”
“What did your father tell you?” I asked.
He replied, “You are not qualified to believe me and therefore I won’t tell you.”
I had a feeling he was covering up his playfulness with an appearance of harsh seriousness, or that he wanted to surround his legend with an appropriate atmosphere to satisfy his heart’s nostalgia.
I mumbled, “For every learned man there is someone more learned than him.”
“Our world was alive, throbbing with desires, feelings, and dreams. It was a mixture of seriousness and joking, joy and sadness; and all—humans, jinn, animals, and inanimate objects—equally shared in relationships of understanding.”
“But do you understand all that?” I asked.
“Completely, passionately, and doggedly.”
“Weren’t you overcome with fear?”
“Sometimes, but I soon acquired tools of defense and attack and became the master of the world. One evening I was playing with the lemons spread around the water jugs on the windowsill, when I suddenly saw the head of a being level with the window, looking at me from the street. His eyes were alight in the dark and his legs were planted in the ground. I was troubled and moved away, falling on my back. My scream ripped the silence of the night. I later learned that the encounter between a human and a jinn should not take place in this manner. My mother told me that it was high time I memorized the Samadiya. As for the jinn of our house, those that lived in the storeroom, they were inclined to joking and were incapable of any serious harm. They were in the habit of mixing cheese with honey or hiding the clarified butter for their own use. Sometimes they extinguished the light of the lamp carried by people at night. Their worst jokes, however, consisted of changing dreams into nightmares.”
“Can you give me an id ea about how they looked?” I asked.
“No, you are not predisposed to believe,” he said. “Moreover, the jinn disappear from a person’s life at the end of the time of the legend. He quickly forgets them and even denies their existence, though he encounters them daily in new images of human beings. In such situations they commit serious evil and cause great harm. You insist that the jinn are a mere superstition. On the other hand, I had the good luck of seeing the holy light on Laylat al-Qadr, the night of destiny, while sitting on my mother’s lap looking at the sky! A window opened and out of it came a bright light that dimmed the light of the stars.”
I laughed and told him, “It is said that only those who are destined for a life of happiness see the light on Laylat al-Qadr.”
He laughed as well. “Touché! You beat me this time, but only to an extent. It is true that I am the example of extreme wretchedness, but what counts is how all this will end. The end is still unknown and I might find the answer in paradise. I happen to have a long history with paradise. My mother used to talk to me about it as if she had been there. I fell deeply in love with it, my mind spellbound by its vision. It became my fascinating dream, the magical paradise where one could see, hear, and talk to God, a garden with rivers, music, and eternal youth.
“But let’s go back to my mother’s conversation and how she managed to live after my father’s death. I asked myself this question but could not answer it. We used to leave our house every day, visit the saints’ tombs and the shops, buy whatever we needed, and then return home, where my mother busied herself with housework, while I went to my earthly paradise, among the cats and the chickens. Sometimes our neighbor visited us. I did not have relatives and neither did my mother. To this day, I have not found out if she had money. She dressed in black after my father’s death and cried whenever she was alone. I often discovered her crying. And finally I understood the relationship between her crying and my father’s disappearance.
“‘Don’t you say that my father is in God’s hands?’ I asked her. She nodded approvingly. ‘Why do you cry then?’ I asked.
“‘I know it is wrong to cry, Jaafar, but tears flow despite myself.’