Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
“This did not discourage me from pursuing my daily adventures. I would proceed joyfully, collecting eggs, chasing mice, and defying the jinn. My adventures lasted for a whole year after my father’s death, and then I became attracted to the stories told at the sound of the rabab in the coffeehouse located under my window. I listened to them with great interest, as much as I could understand them, and I saw fights break out between the supporters of the different heroes of the legends. From the same window I watched bullies fight in weddings, and my admiration
for them equaled my admiration for the jinn. I dreamed long of becoming a bully in case I failed to become a jinn.”
“Have any of your childhood dreams been fulfilled?” I asked.
“Do not make fun of me, and be patient. I want to talk to you about love in the time of the legend.”
“But the time of the legend is not the time of love!”
“I experienced love at age six,” he said. “I liked to sit in the midst of girls during Ramadan nights. The only serious beating my mother gave me was because of love, when I had seduced a girl my age and took her to a wooden box and pulled down the cover. No sooner had I settled down than I was surprised by someone removing the cover. When I looked up, I saw my mother’s shocked look and felt her braid touch my face. By the way, it was a very long braid and I used to play with it whenever I could. I would undo it, tie it, and twist it like a rope. My mother was undoubtedly beautiful, and, as I have already told you, were it not for her beauty, the tragedy would not have happened in the first place.”
“Tell me about childhood love,” I said.
He laughed. “It seemed like an aimless pastime, but I do remember that it was filled with sharp reactions. It was almost like being drunk.”
“This is abnormal!”
“I am not a moralist, but I can assure you that sex was not an overpowering factor in my life. It played a decisive role during a specific time only. During my childhood, however, it contributed in its own limited way to the creation of the legend, but the legend received an unexpected and fatal blow. One day I woke up alone without my mother’s help, and I became aware of that when I saw her deeply asleep, lying face down. I was happy to have the opportunity to wake her up for the first time. I placed my mouth close to her ear and called her name a few times, but to no avail. She did not respond. I shook her gently, calling her at the same time. Gradually my voice rose and I shook her more strongly, but received no response. I went on stubbornly trying to wake her up, my voice filling the room. I was desperate, and ended up leaving the room.
I took a pomegranate from a dish and went up on the roof. Peeling the fruit, I ate its amber seeds and gave the bitter part to the chickens.
“I saw our neighbor. We talked, and the conversation turned to my mother and the way I had left her in her room. The neighbor questioned me carefully and finally asked me to open the apartment door for her. She rushed to my mother’s room, bent down, and then struck her breast with her hand, shouting, ‘What a calamity! Oh Umm Jaafar!’ She came to me, lifted me, and held me against her chest. Then she took me to her house. Her behavior saddened and oppressed me, reminding me of similar behavior when my father had disappeared for good. I cried, saying, ‘I want my mother, I want my mother.’ I spent two miserable days in our neighbor’s house. They were the worst days in the time of the legend. At the end of the second day the neighbor calmed me down and said, ‘Do not worry, Jaafar, God is merciful and compassionate.’
“I said, desperate, ‘I understand, my mother went to be with my father.’
“Her eyes filled with tears and she whispered words of encouragment. ‘God is with you. He is the father and the mother. He is everything.’
“Her husband intervened, saying, ‘Something must be done, even if it means going to the government.’
“His wife replied, ‘Even a stone would feel sorry for him.’
“Days passed while I lived absentmindedly, lost in my thoughts, until the neighbor announced cheerfully, ‘Rejoice, my dear, God is merciful. You will be going to your grandfather.’
“I did not understand anything she said. I was hearing the word ‘grandfather’ for the first time.”
urprised, I asked him, “For the first time?”
“Yes, for the first time.”
I asked again, “He was never mentioned during your mother’s lifetime?”
“Never, though he lived in the same neighborhood.”
“Why did she keep you in the dark about him?”
“Maybe because she was upset with him. Anyhow, our neighbor explained the relationship to me and told me that he was my father’s father. His house was not too far from Margush, and in a way it was a familiar place, as my mother and I often walked by its high walls on our way to al-Hussein.
“I remember that I once asked my mother about the wall that stretched up quite high, like a mountain in front of the vaulted roof of the judge’s house. She explained briefly and hastily, saying, ‘It is a prison where criminals spend their lives in darkness.’
“The wall was not isolated from the other houses, in keeping with the tradition of design in popular neighborhoods, where the houses of the poor and the rich are adjacent. Nothing could be seen of the house or its garden. The only thing visible was the wall, which overlooked the treasury. It was a stone wall, long and high, truly like a prison wall or the wall of a citadel, and its door opened onto a dead end.
“I saw the garden for the first time when we crossed the gate. I had no knowledge of gardens, had not even seen a plant, except for a palm tree in the square where the judge’s house was located and a cactus tree in the cemetery. My ears filled with the singing of a nightingale and the chirping of other birds. The branches were filled with those multicolored birds flitting around. I saw a flock of pigeons hover over a tower behind a vine-covered trellis. The tower overlooked a creek that crossed the garden from one side to the other. A gardener holding a basket in his hand was standing in the middle of the garden, his legs sunk into the ground up to his calves. I was overwhelmed to the point of intoxication by the mixture of heavenly scents that invaded my nose. Mesmerized, I could hardly contain myself from expressing my enchantment at the top of my voice. I walked down a path bordered by colorful flowers, on my way to the salamlik.
“The neighbor squeezed my hand and whispered in my ear, ‘Jaafar, this is your new home.’
“I was totally bewildered. I saw my grandfather in the middle of the salamlik, sitting on a sofa with arabesque designs carved into its high back. My neighbor had a short talk with my grandfather, kissed his hand, then left. I found myself alone with my grandfather, not yet recovered from the magic of the birds, the flowers, and the stream; and the profound sorrow in my heart had not subsided. My grandfather sat cross-legged, wearing a large white robe and wrapped in an embroidered shawl, his head covered with a white cap. He had a long, thin face, brown skin, a large forehead, and a long, proud nose. His look was peaceful, and his white beard reached his upper chest. We exchanged a glance, and I did not see anything frightening on his part. He appeared quite old to me, but had a noble and distinguished demeanor. He looked like a worthy owner of that fascinating garden.
“I stood at some distance from him, neither close nor far. I was wearing my striped robe and my embroidered cap with the talisman attached to it, and colorful slippers. I carried a package containing my few belongings. He looked at me for so long that I was overcome with the urge to run away. Then, as if he had guessed my reaction, he smiled and directed me to come closer. I told him eagerly, ‘I want to go back to my mother.’ He held out his hand, and I walked to him and shook it. I was suffused with an urge to cry, but I controlled myself and did not shed a tear. His touch filled me with warmth.
“He said gently, ‘Welcome,’” and sat me beside him. ‘You are in your house. Do you like the garden?’
“I nodded eagerly to express my admiration, but he asked me to speak up. ‘Talk. I like words.’
“I mumbled an inaudible ‘Yes.’
“My grandfather asked me if I knew who he was and what being a grandfather meant.
“‘My father’s father,’ I said.
“‘Do you believe it?’ he asked.
“He asked if I remembered my father.
“‘He used to carry me to see the mahmal,’ I explained, ‘but I remember my mother.’ I then broke into tears, but he tapped me on the back and asked if I remembered something else about my father.
“‘I visited his tomb,’ I said.
“He turned his face away from me, then asked, ‘What is your name?’
“‘Jaafar Ibrahim Sayyid al-Rawi. Repeat after me.’
“I did as he asked, and he went on questioning me. ‘Who created you?’
“‘Who is your prophet?’
“‘Do you pray?’
“‘What have you memorized from the Quran?’
Say: He is God, the One
“‘Haven’t you memorized the Fatiha?’
“‘Why did you start with “
Say: He is God, the One
“‘Because of its power to control the jinn,’ I said.
“‘Do you deal with the jinn?’
“‘Yes. Many of them live in our storeroom and they fill Margush by night.’
“‘Have you seen them with your own eyes?’ he asked.
“‘Often,’ I said.
“‘You are lying to your grandfather.’
“‘I saw them and dealt with them,’ I insisted.
“He gently passed his finger over the contour of my face. I felt close to him and got over my nervousness.
“‘Do not lie, Jaafar. I do not like lies.’
“‘I am telling the truth.’
“‘Look with your eyes and do not imagine what does not exist.’
“‘Grandfather,’ I said.
“He looked at me inquisitively.
“‘Why haven’t you ever visited us?’
“He turned his gaze in direction of the garden. ‘Your grandfather is old, as you can see.’
“‘Why haven’t you invited us to your house?’
“He was silent for a long time, then said, “Your father refused!’
“‘Will I be living here for good?’
“‘It is your house, Jaafar.’
“‘Will I be able to play in the garden?’
“‘You will, but your life will not be all play. You are six years old and you must begin to live.’ And my new life began.”
Jaafar stopped and said angrily to me, “That was my grandfather, al-Rawi, the owner of the waqf. What law deprives me of my legitimate right?”
“Let’s return to your new life,” I suggested.
“I am not an insignificant being, as you seem to think,” he declared. “I have rights and I am educated. I can talk to you about the drawbacks of democracy and those of communism.”
“You can talk to me about all this throughout your story, but do return now to your new life.”
He shrugged and said, “What a shame—my eyesight is failing and I will lose it totally one day. There are not many years left for me to live. Human beings still endure pain and anxiety. We die, leaving behind a fulfilled but forgotten hope, and seven disappointments preoccupy us to the time of our death. And here you are, asking me to relate my life story according to the way you like it, rather than the way it suits me.”
“We need to be organized so I can learn your life story in the few remaining days of your life.”
He gave in to my pleadings and resumed his tale.
“My new life was a fascinating dream. I forgot the past. My ungrateful heart forgot my dead mother whose tomb I never visited. One night I dreamed of her, and when I woke up my heart was heavy and I cried. But young hearts find consolation very quickly. I was entranced by the stream and the henna trees, the palm and lemon trees, the vineyard, the frogs, the birds, the nightingales, the pigeons, and the doves. Even the furniture fired my imagination. I was fascinated by the copper utensils decorated with gold, the Persian rugs, the luxurious cupboard, the huge carved mirror, the colorful curtains, and the comfortable couches. There was also the balcony covered by English ivy and the large bathroom with its tiled floor and unusual water tank. I continually discovered new objects that were valuable and historical, and had new names and a gorgeous appearance. I was awed by this display of wealth, but never fell in love with it. It did not truly touch my heart.
“The needs of children were not taken into consideration when the palace was designed, which explains why I was most impressed by the gardener’s donkey. I found a friend and a playmate in him, and spent long hours riding him back and forth in the alley, carefully avoiding the low-lying branches. I admired greatly the water pump, the well, the water fountain, and the peacock that stood on a marble pole in its center.
“A kind old copper-skinned woman called Bahga took care of me. It did not take long for us to bond. On various occasions, and over a rather long period of time, Bahga told me a great deal about the tragedy surrounding my birth. I discovered that my grandfather lived alone, surrounded by a retinue of servants. My grandmother had died a short time ago and my father had passed away far from the house. My father was the only son out of eight children who reached manhood. The other seven died, some in their childhood and others in their youth. He was the hope, after so much pain and the dream of the future; but that future, in my grandfather’s opinion, resulted in a disappointment worse than death. Otherwise, he would not have had the courage to punish my father to such a degree, completely severing ties with him, exiling him like an enemy and excluding him from the house, the family, and the inheritance.