Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
“He had a beautiful, pure voice that moved the soul. I knew immediately I could not compete with him. Nevertheless, I sang whatever I could remember from his song. He repeated what my grandfather had already said, that my voice was not bad at all.
“‘It is you, Shakroun, who has a truly beautiful voice,’ I said.
“He replied proudly, ‘One day I will become a famous singer.’
“We quickly became good friends, a true friendship among many superficial ones. Our friendship was deep and strong, and we shared a love for singing, especially during Ramadan nights. I invited him to attend the religious chanting soirées at my grandfather’s house; it made him very happy. He was delighted to hear the famous singers and follow closely their prowess in chanting, the differences in their voices, and their ability to entertain and impress. I could see his strong emotional reaction, his passion and entrancement, and dared him to brave the dignity of the council. One day, no sooner had one singer ended his verse than Muhammad Shakroun left his place near me and began chanting, ‘Welcome to a full moon, filled with the essence of beauty.’
“He captivated the chanters and the guests with his beautiful voice and his youth. My grandfather could not hide his admiration for him. There was among the guests a sheikh called Taher al-Bunduqi, a Sufi composer and a close friend of my grandfather. Shakroun impressed him greatly, and he talked with Shakroun at length. He learned everything about him, his origins and his dreams. This is the magic of singing. The jinn enjoy our songs and we do theirs. Some of Margush’s inhabitants claimed that they heard a jinn sing before dawn and—”
I interrupted Jaafar, begging, “Let’s forget about the jinn. We are now in al-Rawi’s house and I am strongly convinced that you do not believe any of those stories.”
“Memories pour heavily like rain,” he said.
“They always do,” I said, “but it is up to you to channel them into a clear stream.”
He went on relating Shakroun’s story.
“Sheikh Taher al-Bunduqi visited my grandfather a week after Shakroun’s adventure and told him he wished to teach Shakroun oriental music and train him as a singer. My grandfather agreed immediately, and offered to pay for the lessons and the training. This convinced me of my grandfather’s deep love for music and singing. It was a separate emotion, totally independent of his religious feelings. When he informed me of his decision to support my friend, I said to him, ‘You do like singing, Grandfather.’
“He smiled and said, ‘Why not? It is the soul’s intimate friend.’
“‘Have you heard the famous singers, Grandfather?’
“‘Yes,’ he said. ‘In my friends’ homes, during the celebration of happy occasions.’
“His financial support for Shakroun’s music lessons was one example of how he took care of the needy in our district.”
I said impulsively, “Your grandfather topped all that by willing his real estate to charity.”
“No,” Jaafar said loudly, “that is not charity. Nothing good comes out of a charitable act based on evil.”
“I apologize for the interruption,” I said.
“It is more important to apologize for your opinion.”
I did. He got over his ire, then continued.
“Muhammad Shakroun became Sheikh Taher al-Bunduqi’s student. Our friendship brought him luck and I was the gate to his success. I was very happy for him, and I exaggerated my feeling of happiness when talking with my grandfather. He was suspicious of me, which made him ask, ‘Is your happiness mixed with jealousy?’
“I denied any such feeling strongly.
“Dissatisfied, he said, ‘Jealousy is a vice, and at your age you can be excused for your feelings, but there is no excuse for lying. Don’t ever lie, Jaafar, always be truthful. Do not upset your grandfather, he likes purity. God gave you a bright mind the way He gave your friend a beautiful voice, so enjoy the gift you have been given and do not ruffle your serenity with what you lack. Had you been gifted at singing, I would not have minded you becoming a singer. A singer can be a godly human being. God’s mercy makes it possible for anyone to be godly, even the garbage collector. As for you, Jaafar, you must get ready to enter al-Azhar.’
“I said, with all sincerity, ‘My dearest wish, Grandfather, is to be successful in my religious life.’
“I can’t deny that I felt slightly jealous of Shakroun, and it bothered me that my grandfather was able to penetrate my inner self with his great ability to read what was in my heart. In any case, I was jealous. Here was Shakroun excelling with a gift that did not require special diligence, while I was enduring conflicting feelings in my tortured heart. My dreams, however, revolved around religion and religious life, and I had a vague feeling that a certain mission was waiting for me in this sacred domain. I was eagerly looking forward to it, without losing sight of the huge inheritance that awaited me, the Marg farm, numerous buildings, and huge amounts of money. I was not concerned about work, but I dreamed of the mission, of sitting on my grandfather’s bench and welcoming the men of the world and the men of religion, to discuss important topics with them, and relish the company of singers.”
I interrupted him again. “I remember,” I said, “the limping singer, as I remember you wearing the gibba and the quftan.”
He said, boasting, “Then you saw how handsome God created me!”
“You were truly handsome.”
“I was handsome,” he said, “with a good reputation, and I had noble hopes. I enrolled in al-Azhar during my adolescence, filled with an enlightening power. I felt like a celestial prince and I found myself in
an authentic environment, enduring poverty and sorrow, and deprived of true humanity, except through strict effort, sustained diligence, and the relentless acquisition of knowledge. I met a large number of peers and befriended many of them. Their folksy ways and their superstitions reminded me of Margush, of my mother’s hand and my true tragic origin. I loved them despite everything, and invited them to my house for dinner every Friday evening. A select group among them used to eat iftar and suhur with me during the month of Ramadan. We spent the time between iftar and suhur studying and engaging in discussions. All that placed me in a unique position rarely experienced by a student. My grandfather noticed how I relished this role, and he was quick to warn me, ‘Beware of conceit! Fill your heart with the love of those noble poor and always remember the blessings that God bestowed on you.’
“My excellent performance in my studies won me my grandfather’s favor. The sheikh teaching theology praised me to my grandfather, and so did the professors of jurisprudence, syntax, and logic. All this delighted my grandfather, who told me that I would make an excellent sheikh, but added this recommendation to his compliment: ‘What is more important than all this is for you to proceed firmly on the path of purity.’
“I told my grandfather about my future plans. ‘I want to dedicate my life to religion, but I do not know exactly how yet. I have no inclination toward preaching or teaching.’
“‘It does not matter at all,’ he said. ‘What counts for me are your pure will, your faith, and your love of religion. You will find out that every book is a book about religion and every location is a place of worship, whether in Egypt or in Europe. God will help you in your search for wisdom, to make you a provider of wisdom in words or in action. This is the godly life.’
“I was greatly motivated by his words and was pushing ahead with a heart filled with faith and piety, guided by my grandfather’s example, his rich, beautiful life that I shared with him in his palace, meeting his friends and listening to his discussions and his songs and music. But I also experienced dark hours that sneaked up on me
and changed the quality of my life. Clouds of black memories swept over me, reminding me of the rejection my father had endured and my mother’s tragedy, my mother whose life remained mysterious and unknown to me. Whenever this happened, my anger against my grandfather would boil up and I would subject him to a severe judgment in my imagination. He would then appear like a devil disguised as an angel, a mere bourgeois enjoying the beautiful things in life, pretending to be a saint.
“The only person with whom I could share my feelings was Muhammad Shakroun. He was beginning to make a name for himself in a field crowded with established singers. He loved my grandfather and was grateful for his help, referring to him as ‘a noble man, descendant of a noble family, unmatched among God’s creatures.’ Upon hearing those words I would ask him, ‘What do you think of his attitude toward my parents?’ His response came always in the form of a long tirade: ‘The relationship of a father with his son is mysterious despite its superficial clarity. Sometimes it overflows with affection and sometimes it hardens as a result of cruelty. My limp was caused by my father in a moment of anger. The true conduct of a man can only be assessed in light of his relationship with others.’
“I was not convinced by his theory, and told him, ‘The character of a man, any man, is whole and cannot be divided.’
“Though I was assailed by those dark moments, they were passing moments and not fixed opinions. I would return quickly to the serenity of my soul and the clarity of my vision. The true crisis I endured at this time was a sexual one, that of an adolescent longing for holiness but enduring a continual struggle with his strong natural instincts. I often remembered the wooden box and the girl, now totally unknown to me. I was extremely surprised by my grandfather, who discussed all kinds of ideas I had but was totally oblivious to the true battle raging inside me.
“There were three women in the house, in addition to old Bahga. They were in their fifties, and plain, but they possessed a remnant of charm that could attract a repressed adolescent. I even found the decently dressed women I saw on the street very provocative. I
experienced continuous conflict between my conscience and my instincts, but was finally able to overcome temptation with a strong will worthy of admiration. It was as if my longing for God had overtaken everything else and defeated Satan in all his dwellings.
“Bahga was in fact concerned by my glances at her companions. From her position as my surrogate mother, she shared her concern with me, imploring, ‘Do not disgrace yourself. Your grandfather considers every person in this house an extension of himself and views an infringement on their honors an infringement on his. You have so far enjoyed his approval, and you have certainly found that to be a true blessing, for which you should be grateful. There is another side to your grandfather, however, which you are well positioned to know.’
“Alarmed, I said, ‘My father!’
“‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘You are a true believer and your prayers are sincere. Why don’t you think seriously about getting married? Your grandfather is capable of marrying you to a girl who would fulfill all your dreams and then some.’
“Her words came as a total surprise. ‘I had not thought about that and I don’t think this is the right time for it,’ I said. ‘I also reject the idea of marriage as a substitute for the fear of sin.’
“‘I do not understand your thinking,’ she said, ‘but if you need help, I am ready to lend a hand.’
“I told Muhammad Shakroun, who was aware of my struggle and my dilemma, about that conversation. He had often wondered about my attitude, and had told me time and again, ‘Come with me to the houses of the awalim. The gatherings in their homes provide wonderful opportunities for interaction. All you have to do is change your religious clothes in my house before you go there.’
“I laughed and refused all solutions with pride and dignity. I was happy to endure my pain and overcome it, saying to myself, ‘Blessings be upon me. I defeat Satan at least once a day. I am truly worthy of my chaste future.’
“I turned my attention to other matters, and asked Bahga for the first time about my grandmother: ‘When did she die?’
“‘May her soul rest in peace,’ she said, ‘she died almost twenty years ago.’
“‘Did my father’s tragedy have anything to do with her death?’
“‘Only God decides a person’s death.’
“‘Why didn’t my grandfather remarry after her death?’ I asked.
“‘That’s his business.’