Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
“I wondered about my grandfather’s sexual life, but shivered at the strangeness of the idea. I said to myself that, as usual, he would read my thoughts in my eyes and a new tragedy would occur. I thought that part of me was pursuing my grandfather with an inclination for revenge. This meant that my love for him was not whole, but was tainted by my inability to completely forget my father’s tragedy. I persisted with my questions to Bahga, until she admitted that my mother had been the daughter of a peddler who frequently visited the house. I asked if she was a woman of ill repute, which she denied, saying, ‘Your grandfather does not acknowledge anonymous people!’
“I was resentful, and objected: ‘But all people, with very few exceptions, are anonymous. He dreams of a world filled with “divine beings,” as he says, but isn’t he aware of the cruelty of his dream?’
“I decided to fast during the three months of Rajab, Shaaban, and Ramadan every year. My life was one of endeavor, diligence, and purity, followed closely and attentively by my grandfather. He would often say to me, ‘God’s will is great.’”
was walking with Muhammad Shakroun at the edge of al-Darrasa when we encountered a herd of sheep led by two women. When we stepped aside to let them pass, I was able to see the women up close, most probably a mother and a daughter, very much alike. The daughter wore a long belted black dress, was draped in a black shawl, and had on a loose burqa that revealed her eyes. She was barefoot and held a spindle.”
Jaafar fell silent for a long time.
“What happened?” I asked.
He turned toward me and said, “I, too, wonder what happened.”
“What do you mean?”
He went on: “To sum it up, I looked at the girl’s eyes and was struck by a state of total madness. But let’s leave this for the time being and discuss it later. I will tell you now what happened. I felt I had died and that a new person was born through me. You will even agree with me that it was a new person in the full meaning of the word, a person with no connection to the one who had just died, a drunkard whose heart overflowed with passion and who had an extraordinary capacity for defiance and struggle. I heard Muhammad Shakroun say, ‘When will you resume walking?’ He then examined me closely and smiling, said, ‘It must be the shepherdess!’
“‘It’s fate,’ I replied.
“‘What are you thinking?’ he asked.
“‘We must find out where she lives.’
“‘Fine,’ said Shakroun, ‘but remember that you are wearing a turban.’
“A force of another kind guided me. We walked behind the herd, crossing al-Nahhasin district, then al-Husseiniya, and then I saw al-Abbasiya and al-Wayliya. I did not feel any fatigue and I had no pity for my friend’s limp, but walked extremely fast, like a crazy, intoxicated man. The springs of adventure overwhelmed my heart, though Muhammad Shakroun uttered a litany of complaints.
“‘May God forgive you,’ he said.
“‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked.
“‘The girl is aware that you are following her.’
“‘These are gypsies; they’re worse than devils,’ I said.
“‘Tell me, I beg you, what exactly do you want?’ asked Shakroun.
“We finally saw the herd enter the campground of Eshash al-Turguman, as the sun’s rays were withdrawing from that eerie open space and disappearing at the horizon. The rays were bidding good-bye to the metal-roofed huts and their wild inhabitants, with their nomadic
life so different from that of city dwellers. Muhammad Shakroun stopped and grabbed my arm.
“‘Not a single step farther,’ he said. ‘There is no place for a stranger here.’ He added, ‘You have bloodied our feet.’
“I was floating in a distant sphere, the world of emotions, as I said to Shakroun, ‘She bid me good-bye with a fiery look before disappearing.’
“He begged me to hire a carriage for the return trip.
“Shakroun did not leave me that evening, staying till midnight and watching me in disbelief. ‘What happened to you?’
“I said in distress, ‘You see with your own eyes.’
“‘I don’t understand.’
“‘I am crazy about the girl,’ I said.
“‘But she is a shepherdess and belongs to an evil group of people!’ he exclaimed.
“‘It is destiny and there is no escaping it,’ I replied.
“He went on, wondering, ‘How can she be seduced? Would she be inclined to that? How can we arrange matters without causing a scandal? What can you do if none of that is possible?’
“I insisted, saying, ‘No matter what, I must have her.’
“From that day on I spent sunsets at the edge of al-Darrasa, with my friend or alone, sitting on a rock and surrounded by grazing sheep and goats, with the book of logic open on my lap. I caught glimpses of her as she sat close to her mother, weaving. The place was practically empty, frequented only by vagrants returning to the Muqattam neighborhood. When the sun set, the herd and its herders went on their daily return journey, leaving me with a gloomy and empty heart. I would leave and go to the mosque for the evening prayer, and then attend my lesson on the subject of logic.
“One day I hid a glass in my caftan pocket, and as they reached the place where I sat, I walked to the mother and gave her the glass,
asking for some milk. Marwana, as I heard her mother call her, jumped immediately to her feet, went to a goat, and milked it. She handed me the glass full of foaming milk. I took it and thanked her, saying, ‘May your hands be safe, Marwana.’ She smiled with her eyes. Her mother looked at me suspiciously as I drank the milk and said, ‘To your health.’ When I thanked her, she replied in a tone that carried a specific message, ‘You sheikhs are God’s people.’ I said, grateful, ‘Thanks be to God.’
“I was delighted to have established this contact and struck up a conversation with them. I was overcome with a tremendous feeling of happiness that lasted until the moment of separation.
“Shakroun, who was investigating possible solutions, reached the following conclusion: ‘I inquired enough to know that this group commits every kind of evil except the one that you are drooling about.’
“I said scornfully, ‘A giant will come out of the lamp one day and you will not recognize him no matter how strongly you claim to have been his friend.’
“Shakroun was not aware of the revolutionary nature of my words. He didn’t know that I had become the king of kings and could do whatever I wanted. I was intoxicated with an outpouring of red madness.
“The glass of milk established a silken but fatal link between Marwana and me. When I again asked for milk, I accidentally touched her fingertips as I took the glass from her and said, ‘You are generous, Marwana!’
“She gathered her veil around her head and glanced at me mischievously. I said to her very softly, ‘Your eyes are so beautiful!’ As she was turning away, I added, ‘I come here for you only.’
“The mother stopped weaving and stood up. Taking a pebble from the ground, she threw it far away, in the direction of the mountain. As I watched her, surprised, she explained, ‘It is a good way to scare away reptiles and insects.’
“I said, distrustfully, ‘God is the best protector.’ She replied forcefully, ‘It is incumbent upon us to fight evil with the language it understands.’”
Jaafar laughed and said to me, “Believe everything I am telling you without hesitation. Do not be fooled by my present appearance. Whoever sees me now thinks that I was born in a dumpster and my only actions have been those connected to vomiting. Tell me, what do you think of love?”
I was taken aback by the difficult nature of the question and said, “Love is what it is. I believe everything people say about it.”
“Do you also believe that it is a miracle maker and produces wonders?” he asked.
“I do. I am not a greenhorn, but tell me about your love, Jaafar. How was it? A barefoot shepherdess is bound to make one’s blood boil!”
Jaafar confirmed my words. “That is how it was: a call for blood, a loud call that led to action, to madness and destruction. It invaded one’s life through doors and windows and led to crimes and suicide.”
Surprised, I said, “But you were one of God’s holy men.”
“In order to understand my experience, imagine that you suddenly lost your memory and became a new person.”
“I thought that a person changes gradually.”
“Not me. I change from one extreme to another, suddenly!”
I offered an explanation. “Many things can, undoubtedly, happen in the obscure regions of your subconscious.”
He had his own explanation. “Man invents logic, but surpasses it in his life. Nature, my dear man, makes use of impetuosity as well as evolution!”
“Go on. Let me hear what you have to say, Jaafar.”
He continued: “One day, my grandfather invited me to sit with him, then inquired about my studies. I understood immediately that he had asked me to join him for another reason, since my teachers were informing him about my exceptional progress. I reassured him about my earnestness and my aim to always please him. ‘But the road is long and full of hardships,’ he said. I replied with affected enthusiasm, ‘A believer is not deterred by the road ahead.’
“‘Fine words, but good deeds are more important than fine words.’
“‘This is true.’
“He hesitated for a few seconds then said, ‘There are things that call for some consideration. I had a dream, and when I woke I made up my mind to do something about it.’
“‘What is that dream, Grandfather?’ I asked.
“‘It is of no importance, and dreams are easily forgotten, but what counts is the decision I made.’
“I asked if it concerned me. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘and you will be happy with it. I decided to marry you to an honorable girl.’
“I was shocked and dumbfounded. I told myself that the man knew everything. How had I ever thought that an unusual evening stroll by al-Rawi’s grandson wouldn’t attract attention and provoke comments? Many would volunteer to inform my grandfather. He definitely knew everything and was trying to salvage what he could.
“‘Anything wrong, my son?’ he asked.
“‘The idea had not crossed my mind,’ I replied.
“‘Think about it then.’ And he added, ‘A number of young men do not marry, for reasons beyond their control, but God has given you the means to marry. So what is the point of delaying what is considered half your religious duty?’
“‘Give me time to think about the matter.’
“‘I will choose an exceptional bride and will let you decide.’
“I went back to my room in a state of extreme anger, unable to sleep. I heard the dawn call to prayer and felt a surge of enormous energy, with a strong desire to attack the walls and destroy them. The giant inside me was released and eager for confrontation, determined to get his girl at the expense of the whole neighborhood, not just the palace. I invoked my mother and my father, and my anger against my grandfather was limitless as I considered his continual tendency to control and repress others. In my state of perplexity, as conflicting thoughts fought for control, a dialogue began between me and my grandfather. I can’t be sure whether it was in a dream, a delusional condition of the night, or a state between sleep and awakening. I said to him, ‘Grandfather, I refuse.’
“‘You turn down my generosity?’
“‘I am against repression.’
“‘Even coming from me?’
“‘Even from you.’
“‘You are ungrateful. You turn down beauty and purity in exchange for what?’
“‘The shepherdess,’ he said.
“‘I follow the call of blood, the life of a vagabond, and fresh air.’
“‘It is rather the madness that leads the crazy individuals out of my old house.’
“‘True felicity is in a state of madness,’ I told him.
“‘You are your parents’ child.’
“‘I will take pride in that forever.’
“‘Part of you wants to take revenge on me.’
“‘I do not want to think, so let me act.’
“‘What about your clothing, the gibba and the quftan?’
“‘I will get rid of them immediately.’
“‘You are reneging, then!’
“‘I do not want religion to be a profession.’
“‘What do you want to do then?’
“‘I want to practice love, madness, and murder!’
“I believe that through this dialogue I clearly expressed my feelings. When I shared my secrets with Muhammad Shakroun, he was shocked, and could not believe his ears. When he understood that I was serious, he asked me, ‘Do you truly turn down your grandfather’s offer for Marwana’s sake?’
“I replied affirmatively. But he went on, ‘Would you leave the house for the sake of a shepherdess?’
“He asked again, ‘What does this all mean?’
“I told him, ‘Consider me crazy if you want.’
“He was concerned: ‘Don’t you fear that he’ll deprive you of your inheritance and you’ll end up a pauper?’
“‘It’s possible,’ I said.
“‘No woman deserves such a huge sacrifice,’ said Shakroun. I took his words lightly, making fun of them. ‘I do not understand you,’ he said.
“‘There is nothing to understand,’ I said. ‘It is reality.’
“‘How do you explain it? Is there a secret?’
“‘It is a splendid madness, and I am mesmerized by it.’