Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
“All this contributed to making my grandfather a puzzle to me. His personality conveyed compassion, magnanimity, and sweetness, but anger transformed him into a devil or a hard stone. When I met him he was semi-retired in his house, but originally he was a graduate of al-Azhar, and inherited from his father and forefathers a huge fortune and a connection to that great university. Despite all that, he never worked in public office, either in a religious or a teaching position. His only activity was looking after the properties he owned. In his free time he read and studied religious and philosophical books, and works dealing with economics, politics, and literature. His reception hall was the meeting place of men of religion and Sufis, and those who were concerned with politics and literature.”
I asked him if his grandfather did writing of any sort.
“No,” he said. “But he used to write down his daily activities in a journal. I know nothing about it, however.”
“Was this the case with his father and grandfather?”
“They were counted among the reputable scholars of their time. He is the only one who chose to invest his wealth and run his business, and live without any constraint.”
“Do you know who was the self-made man in the lineage of your ancestors? I mean, the poor man who was the source of this accumulated wealth?”
“It is an old family well-known for its wealth and piety,” he said, then added, “I must be its first vagabond.”
We both laughed, and he went on. “My father had a religious upbringing. He followed in the footsteps of previous family members and received his Alamiya degree from al-Azhar. He wanted to travel to Europe to visit and study. My grandfather hesitated a very long time before letting him go. In France, he studied French and attended lectures on philosophy and theology, though only to educate himself. He
returned to Egypt without a degree and expressed his wish to help run the family business. My grandfather agreed.
“My father occasionally published articles in various newspapers. He fell in love with my mother as my grandfather was preparing to marry him to the daughter of the dean of al-Azhar. Unconcerned, my father married my mother. I do not know what problem my grandfather had with her. Perhaps it was her poverty. I must say that I never met any of her family members, an uncle or an aunt, close or distant relatives. In any case, old al-Rawi was extremely angry with his son. He repudiated him and broke all ties with him. It appeared to everyone that al-Rawi’s lineage had ended, with all its historical significance. I have no doubt that my father could not care less about the al-Rawi lineage. He wanted to fulfill himself in a different way. I admired him for doing so and I felt sorry for his death, though I did not mourn him, since I was so young.”
“Do you have an idea about the articles your father published in the press?” I asked.
“I looked them up in the archives of some newspapers. They call for the reconciliation between religion and science and philosophy. In all objectivity, I consider them timely and progressive, and I can generally classify my father as a liberal. I also learned that my father had been working as a translator for
newspaper when he broke with his father. When I reached an age that permitted me to engage in discussions, I asked my grandfather, during an informal gathering, ‘Grandfather, how did you find it in your heart to reject my father for marrying a woman who was a commoner? You are a religious man, of a pure soul and a noble nature. How could you do that?’
“Obviously, he was not thrilled by my question, but he answered me in these words: ‘You are wrong in your interpretation. I put people in two categories: godly and worldly. The godly person lives in God’s
presence all the time, even if he is a highway robber; and the worldly person leads a worldly life, even if he is a man of religion.’
“‘Was my father a bad man, then?’ I asked.
“‘He was only worldly.’
“‘But my mother was good-hearted and noble.’
“‘May her soul rest in peace,’ he mumbled.
“He said, after a moment of silence, “I was not wrong and I never regretted my decision, but I was very sad for a long time.’
“Of this I was sure, and were it not for his deep sorrow, he would not have been compassionate with me. He went on, saying, ‘I opened my heart and my home to you. Everything will be yours, but you must be a godly person. I am not asking you to become an ascetic. Here I am actively involved in running my business, looking after my real estate.’
“He immediately made arrangements for a tutor to teach me the principles of religion, mathematics, and Arabic. I was taught the notions of a religion, different from the one I learned from my mother. Hers was a religion of adventure, legends, miracles, dreams, and ghosts. But this was a religion that began with serious learning, the memorization of suras and their explanations, prayers and fasting and familiarity with rules. It was both a theoretical and an applied religion. The teacher was strict and gave my grandfather weekly reports. He was happy with my performance and told me so: ‘You are a blessed boy. May you continue to be the subject of God’s grace.’
“I had a powerful memory, quick understanding, and I loved to work. I was happy to pray and fast, confident in my grandfather. I did not forget my first religion, however, and the new teachings piled on top of the old notions. My mother’s voice continued to echo deep inside me. In a discussion about a saint’s tomb, my teacher said, ‘It is only a building, and the saint is simply a corpse.’
“But I said, ‘Everything has a life that never ends.’
“He said, smiling, ‘Let’s leave our misunderstandings to time and greater knowledge.’
“I must have achieved noticeable progress, because my grandfather began inviting me to attend his gatherings, which were frequented by
some of the most prominent religious scholars and men of society. He would let me stay for a limited time in accordance with my education, but I often heard his guests praise my ancestors and their legendary positions, filling me with pride for those outstanding men who were known for their knowledge, their generosity, and their virtuous natures. I was saddened, however, by the absence of any mention of my father and the mystery that surrounded my mother’s origin. The older I grew, the more painful her memory became. I was convinced that my parents’ tragedy was contrary to the religious education I was receiving and practicing, and my grandfather acted sometimes like an unbeliever! My mother was gone, but I had inherited her religion and her tragedy, which would remain part of my inner self for a long time, longer than I ever imagined.
“My grandfather overwhelmed me with his love and tenderness, all the while keeping an eye on my progress and success. He said to me one day, ‘Jaafar, I find you worthy of reviving the youth of our blessed family tree!’ On another occasion, he told me, ‘Walk hand in hand with wisdom and do whatever you want.’ He also said, ‘Blessed is he who surrounds himself with God’s inspiration. The diligent person has the possibility to ascend the throne.’ In a moment of optimistic elation, he declared, ‘Your continued success is blessed, and you will be soon admitted to al-Azhar. Does this please you?’
“I replied, with all sincerity, ‘It would please me greatly, Grandfather, and I would like to go to Europe later.’
“I could read a deep interest in his eyes as he wondered about the motivation behind my proposed European trip. ‘I want to follow in my father’s footsteps,’ I said.
“Smoothing his long white beard, he muttered, ‘You must first adorn yourself with God’s inspiration; then you can do whatever you want.’
“‘Was my father’s marriage to my mother his only sin?’ I asked, after a moment of hesitation.
“Looking gloomy, he said angrily, ‘What is past is past.’ Then he closed his eyes as if to release some of his resentment. He added, ‘I have explained the situation to you, but you do not want to understand.’
“He looked sullen, but I saw something much worse than that, and it lasted more than a mere moment. It was a transformation of his appearance into a frightening person. His look was flinty, his facial muscles hardened, his color changed, and I had the impression I was looking at someone I had never seen before. He was like a foe launching out of a volcano’s mouth and bearing the anger of the world, akin to a hurricane, or even to death itself. But after a short while, my grandfather returned to his usual self.
“Apart from that moment, he wasn’t cruel, frightening, or unbearable. He exuded humanity and acted so lovingly that it was hard for me to believe he had treated my father the way he had. I often thought that he might have entertained forgiveness, waiting for the right time to pardon his son, had it not been for my father’s early death. Even after I observed his frightening expression, I felt in his words, ‘What is past is past,’ the pain that the memory revived, and a remorse that haunted him. His suffering might have been the result of his exaggerated idealism, as he expected others to be noble, pure, and perfect, conforming to his vision of life. He despised weakness and what he considered to be the dissolution and degradation of human nature. I was thus convinced that the way to his affection was clear and straightforward, but required effort, patience, and sweat, in addition to strength, progress, and loftiness. This was what he meant when he referred to the ‘godly human being.’
“During the religious festival seasons, his guests gathered to listen to the songs that filled the garden with Sufi chanting performed by the most famous singers. My grandfather was enamored of music and singing. His taste reflected his appreciation for the wordly and the sacred in equal measure. I waited for those soirées with the longing of a lover and stayed up till dawn to listen to the chants. My grandfather once caught me singing ‘Bring Back the Memory of the One I Love.’
“I was sitting on a mat under a lemon tree, imitating the sheikh, when I noticed his shadow covering me. I stopped singing, extremely
embarrassed and bashful. I stood before him politely, but he smiled and whispered, ‘What is that? Your voice is not bad at all, Jaafar.’
“I lowered my head, contented and grateful. He asked, ‘What do you sing when you are alone?’
“‘Songs from the past,’ I said.
“‘Which ones?’ he asked.
“I hesitated a little, then said, ‘My Bird, Mother, My Bird.’
“He continued to smile and said, ‘See, you are learning sacred songs here.’ He then went on his way, checking the garden, looking august and dignified.
“During my free time I would sit with Bahga and listen to her stories. Sometimes I sang or rode the donkey in the garden, or played with the children of the gardener, the cook, and the carriage driver, but I longed to go out to play in the alley. How could I forget my trips in the narrow streets of Cairo, holding my mother’s hand? When I shared with my grandfather my wish to go out, he invited me to join him in his carriage in the evening.
“I said, ‘I want to play in the alley.’
“‘Isn’t the garden more beautiful than the alley?’
“‘I want to play with the children, in the alley,’ I explained.
“He shook his head and gave up. His acceptance was conditional, however. ‘You must remain under Bahga’s supervision all the time and not miss any of the prayer times.’
“So I went out to the street from where I came. Bahga sat on a chair in front of the door to watch me from a distance. I quickly became acquainted with the neighbors’ children, and especially Muhammad Shakroun, the son of a cart driver. He was handsome, despite his big nose and his limp. He challenged me to a race on the first day we met. He looked funny when he ran, but he was stubborn and every now and then he took a devilish jump that propelled him over an unbelievably long distance, thus overcoming his natural weakness. He was kind and honest, and when he was declared the winner he said to me, ‘You are the grandson of the venerable sheikh, and a wealthy boy like you must buy us red chewing gum and subiya.’
“After he ate and drank he was happy and began singing:
From the top of the mountain I hear a melody at night.
The love of virgin girls has exhausted me
From the top of the mountain