Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
“He advised me to be patient, in hopes of finding a compromise, but I objected, saying that I disliked compromise. He offered another solution: ‘You can remain in your grandfather’s care. Pursue your education and experience your mad love.’
“‘No. No. These are very contradictory matters and I have made my choice.’
“‘What have you chosen?’
“I informed him of my decision to leave my grandfather’s house as well as al-Azhar. He said it was not necessary, so I explained my position. ‘It is imperative. I will lead a new life. Otherwise, I will be expelled from both places.’ Shakroun was convinced I had been hit by the evil eye, so I explained further: ‘Only a divine person can live in my grandfather’s house. As for al-Azhar, I never wanted to turn it into a profession. Faith does not require all these complications.’
“Saddened, Shakroun commented, ‘I wish you were abandoning all that for something better.’
“I told him, ‘Adventure is much better, and so is madness.’ He said he would never understand me, and I said, sarcastically, ‘Despite your follies, Shakroun, you have not known madness yet.’
“He asked, ‘Does that mean that you are abandoning your past because of love?’
“‘It is because of love that I have known madness in adventure!’
“Muhammad Shakroun finally gave in to reality. I sensed that he truly believed the tragedy did not lack real madness. He felt obligated to promise to help me determine Marwana’s and her mother’s inclination, saying that a lover needed support from a singer. His investigations confirmed for him that a person like Marwana would rather be killed
than accept an illegitimate relationship. He asked me, annoyed, ‘What about your future? Even free adventurers need to eat.’
“Strangely, I had not given the matter the attention it deserved. For a moment I considered teaching Arabic and religion in a public school, but soon abandoned the idea. It clashed with the magical nature of my adventure. I replaced it with another idea—forming a singing group to interpret tawashih praising the Prophet. Shakroun gave me an honest assessment of my chances in that field.
“‘A long time would pass before you could hold such an evening, and your success is not guaranteed and requires hard work. The traditional way is to begin as a member in a group—something that does not suit you.’
“I thought about the matter and said, ‘I prefer to work in your band.’
“‘My band!’ he said, surprised.
“‘Why not? My voice is better than any of your support singers.’
“He said, ‘I owe you a lot, but …’
“I did not give him a chance to finish his sentence. ‘No buts, please. You entertain at parties at least one-third of the month, and are becoming better known every day.’
“Muhammad Shakroun fell silent, which encouraged me to tell him with great enthusiasm, ‘My desire to form a religious band will not wane. I will do it at the same time.’
“‘This is important,’ said Shakroun. ‘And you can count on my friendship with the agents of the religious ceremonies. I can’t believe what we are planning; it is like living a dream. But I still say that it would be possible to deal with the matter in a different way.’
“‘I will not go back even one step,’ I insisted. ‘I will have two outfits: a costume for your ceremonies and the gibba and the quftan for the religious band. Isn’t this amazing!’”
Jaafar looked at me in the quiet of the night and asked, “How much do you believe me?”
“I am old enough to believe anything,” I said.
“I want a stronger commitment,” he said. “Many are those who did not believe me, which both hurt and gratified me. I was hurt
because innovative work requires witnesses, and I was happy to see my enterprising spirit acknowledged. I demand that people recognize me as an exceptional human being. It is my right to demand that. Few are capable of abandoning the lavish life I enjoyed, as swiftly as I did.”
“Was all this for love alone?” I asked.
He replied, disapprovingly, “Isn’t love sufficient? Love is creative madness!”
“Was Marwana so beautiful?”
“What is beauty?” he wondered. “The matter is a call that activates an electric key.”
“Didn’t you also want to deprive your grandfather of his only heir?”
“I never forgot my father’s tragedy, but my decision was pure, free of any hidden or declared desire for revenge.”
I ventured a second explanation: “Was it a reaction to the severe restrictions you imposed on yourself as a divine human being?”
He objected. “I refuse this explanation as well. I told you that it was an angelic move, like a song at dawn. Love ignited the spark, and its light revealed a dream that was taking shape, ready to raze the walls of the palace. It was getting ready to live, to confront wealth and restrictions and wallow in the dust of the eternal mother, like Buddha, who left his palace one day for a reason no one around him understood. These things happen suddenly and are not the result of a process of evolution, as you seem to think. It is a practical confirmation of a sudden creativity. I will give you a live example that took place at this exact instant: I have just decided against writing the petition.”
“What do you mean?”
He explained that he was referring to the petition concerning the monthly financial support from his grandfather’s waqf.
“Is this a return to a futile court case?” I asked.
“There will be neither a case nor a petition,” he replied.
I objected, and asked him to postpone discussing this question and carry on with his story. He laughed loudly as usual, and continued to narrate his story.
“One evening Muhammad Shakroun, limping, and I behind him, approached the old Bedouin woman sitting in her tent. When she saw Shakroun, she put aside her weaving tool and stood up, fearful. He said to her, ‘My friend would like to marry your daughter according to God’s laws.’
“The woman was shocked. Marwana ran far from the tent while Muhammad Shakroun was saying, ‘We are at your service.’ When she regained control of herself, she told him, ‘We have people we need to consult.’
“They had a distant relative we had to meet. It was a strange day. We were the first two strangers to enter Eshashal-Turguman in plain daylight without being killed. Some evil eyes stared at us, mockingly inquisitive and defiant. All activities stopped for a short while: the training of the monkeys, the herding of sheep, the weighing of drugs, the polishing of stolen goods, and the beating of drums. A group of children surrounded us and greeted us, chanting,
‘Pull the turban, pull.
Under the turban is a monkey.’
“We proceeded to meet a man sitting in front of his hut, while Marwana’s mother stood beside him. We greeted the very old man, who seemed on the verge of death, and Marwana’s mother talked on his behalf. ‘He welcomes you,’ she said.
“The old man hit her on the back and said, ‘You are damned because you consent to this.’
“Muhammad Shakroun said to him, ‘My friend is from a respectable family.’
“‘Tuzz,’ said the old man after he spat. “Embarrassed, Muhammad Shakroun added, ‘He has also a job.’ “The old man interrupted him, saying, ‘We do not care about a job either!’
“‘His conduct—’ began Shakroun, only to be interrupted again by the old man, saying, ‘Neither do we care about conduct.’
“Showing a great deal of patience, Shakroun said, ‘In a few words, we would like to ask for your girl’s hand according to the laws of God and the Prophet.’
“The old man laughed, revealing a toothless mouth. ‘Good riddance, but talk about her dowry.’
“Shakroun invited him to indicate the amount out of respect for his old age. Feeling important, the old man declared, ‘I want ten pounds placed in my hand.’ He stretched his hand out as he talked, provoking an angry reaction from Marwana’s mother, but the old man frowned and said, ‘Let’s read the Fatiha.’ Joyful ululations erupted everywhere around us.
“Sensitive to my feelings, Muhammad Shakroun did not make a single comment, and I decided to inform my grandfather of the truth, like any young man who has come of age and has completed an important part of his education. I sat close to his couch in the salamlik as he held a rosary in his hand, glorifying God, and his Siamese cat purring by his side. I felt an air of expectation and apprehension settle between us, provoked by my hidden intentions and his ability to discern people’s thinking. He asked his usual question: ‘How are you doing?’
“I replied absentmindedly, ‘I am fine, thanks be to God.’
“He went on, ‘The engagement will be made public in three months, after Ramadan.’
“I decided to try my newfound strength without delay, and said, ‘Sorry, Grandfather, but I have chosen another wife.’
“‘Really?’ he said, without betraying any reaction.
“‘It is God’s will, anyhow,’ I explained.
“‘What I heard then is true?’ he said.
“When I did not reply, he added, ‘A shepherdess?’
“I said simply, ‘Yes, Grandfather.’
“His only comment was: ‘You have reached the age of reason and you know where your interest lies.’
“I asked if he would bless my choice, but he went on praising God on his rosary. I asked if this meant I had to leave the house. Without turning to me, he said, ‘Forever.’
“I immediately kissed his hand and left.
“Saying good-bye to Bahga was tearful and painful. She suggested asking my grandfather for money, but I told her that I had saved more
than a hundred pounds. She cried, saying, ‘Sorrows in this house begin with marriage.’ She then whispered in my ear, ‘Believe me, your grandfather is a very unfortunate man. He rarely sleeps more than one hour at night.’
“I told her sincerely, ‘I love him and I reject him.’
“I then left the house where I had lived for fourteen chaste years.
“I moved into a new two-bedroom apartment located in al-Khurunfish with my bride. Muhammad Shakroun helped me rent it and furnish it. Marwana was stunning in her wedding dress. I saw her true skin color for the first time, after the intensive cleaning she had undergone in the special bridal bath. I can’t say that I was thrilled with the change, as I had gotten used to her metallic skin color, which was such an integral part of the image that had turned my life upside down. Nevertheless, I was strongly attracted to her, and totally enthralled by her. I felt I was a prisoner, at the mercy of a brutal power that knew no pity or clemency. She was instinctively seductive, like a tongue of fire. She was proud and she exalted her people, enrobing them with holiness, enriching the modest environment where she grew up like a wildflower. Even her feminine shyness was like a transparent veil, and not at all a sign of innate weakness or natural indolence. I immediately became aware that I was in the company of a strong, ageless woman, a source of fascination, charm, and defiance. I surrendered to her, clearly revealing my own weakness. I acted like a hunted man, or a crazy man who had thrown his senses and his caution to the wind. My new companions nicknamed me ‘the happy man’ and ‘the weak happy man.’ I was overwhelmed with warnings and advice.
“I did not forget my new work during my honeymoon, and I approached it with great energy and some apprehension. I was moving into new surroundings and mixing with people whose serious activities in life were fun and games. They would greet me, saying, ‘Welcome to al-Rawi’s grandson.’
“That greeting followed me like my shadow everywhere I went. I heard it in al-Khurunfish, in Muhammad Shakroun’s band, and among the members of the choir that had agreed to work with me when
needed. I applied myself to studying and training, quickly getting ready for the music band and the choir. Even during my honeymoon, I performed with the band to celebrate a wedding in al-Darb al-Ahmar, and I had to wear a suit and a fez for the first time in my life. When Muhammad Shakroun saw me, he said admiringly, ‘May God be praised for his creation.’
“I was nervous as I walked into the midst of the guests and onlookers. I was one of only two members of the band who relied solely on his voice, without a musical instrument in my hand. Muhammad Shakroun offered me a glass of wine. ‘A must,’ he explained, ‘if you do not want your voice to fail.’
“I became acquainted with wine and narcotics in the same week, and I sang forcefully and accurately, as I was the second-best voice in the choir. I infused new life into the band, and boosted its enthusiasm as I sang, ‘I miss you so much, you’re my life.’
“Our singing was well received. A drunk guest made an allusion to my condition and shouted, ‘A scholar can produce a dissolute man,’ provoking loud laughter among the guests. Muhammad Shakroun turned to me and whispered, ‘Laugh with them.’
“Afterward, I thought about the man’s words, and realized that people believed I was a good sheikh who’d gone astray, becoming a singer in a band, drinking wine and taking drugs. This was not the case. All I did was change my profession; instead of teaching and preaching, I sang. As for my soul, it rose a few degrees higher. My heart was not corrupt and my faith was not shaken. My grandfather himself had said that even a garbage collector could be a divine creature.
“I might have been transported at that time by the raging flood of my feelings, because I was not aware of the significance of my experience then as I was later, or as I am today. Despite that, I was upset by the drunk’s comment, and saw in it an unfair and boisterous joke. In any case, I began my new work with confidence and success, but I waited a long time before I began chanting tawashih in praise of the Prophet at the head of a respectable group. My happiness in my marriage was the most important thing in my life, and had priority over
success in my work. I was proud of my marriage, praised it, and shared the secrets of a happily married life and its benefits with others. I became an example to emulate.
“At the height of my happiness, I failed to look at my family critically, or even with a neutral probing eye. I welcomed the first signs of motherhood with a feeling close to religious ecstasy. There are, in all honesty, moments of betrayal even during a time of pure happiness; moments when you detach yourself from the flow of your life, when you stand on a hill overlooking a beach and observe it in total ecstasy. During those moments I felt as if someone had fooled me and I wondered what had happened. I would look at Marwana baffled, desiring strongly to take revenge on her. I couldn’t explain that feeling. It was as if I hated her suddenly, for no reason. It generally lasted but a fleeting moment, like the sudden contraction of a muscle, after which life regained its happy course, surrounded by fiery passion.