Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
“I was surprised by my ability to live in a messy house. I did not complain about Marwana’s inability to cook or keep a tidy, clean house; how she went about the house half-naked and disheveled, defiant and ready to quarrel with the wind. She would frequently take my hand and drag me to visit her mother and her aging relative, living in the devils’ camp.
“The senile old man would either laugh at me, saying, ‘Wouldn’t it have been better for you to be an imam in a mosque?’ Or he would bless my wife’s belly, telling the unborn child, ‘Honor us by becoming a killer. We are fed up with thieves and smugglers.’ He made fun of my noble origins on occasion, saying, ‘Your grandfather is not al-Rawi. I am your true grandfather. I donated this beautiful woman to you, the woman who sucks up your devilish instincts.’
“‘My grandfather is a man of God,’ I would say in defense, but he would laugh at me, saying, ‘We are the true men of God, the vengeful, powerful God, creator of hell and earthquakes. Look at these wastrels. They are the men of God, an image of God in His might and vengefulness.’
“One day I met my mother’s neighbor in Bayn al-Surayn. She did not recognize me, but I introduced myself to her. She was surprised and
wished me well. I remembered then that I did not know my mother’s name, and neither did Bahga. I used to call my mother ‘Amma,’ and that was the name she answered to until the day she died. I asked the neighbor if she knew her name. ‘May her soul rest in peace, she was called Sakina,’ she said. I was tempted to ask more questions about my mother’s origin and her life, but I repressed my desire, out of respect for her memory. I shook hands with the neighbor and went on my way. Thus I learned my mother’s name by pure accident.
“Marwana and I had four sons, but the flame of passion faded away. I liked it when people said that I had abandoned a life of comfort for love and freedom. I appreciated Marwana’s love for the short, lively songs Muhammad Shakroun’s group sang and I forgave her dislike for the tawashih I prepared for my own group. I struggled against poverty with hard work, wine, and narcotics, a fight that kept me busy from dawn to dawn. It was a life of slavery!
“Then came the days of drought, aversion, and cruelty. Marwana became confrontational, verbally and physically abusive, as if she was born to fight. I told her once, ‘A man has to be respected.’
“‘And so does the woman!’ She then added cruelly, ‘There are no men outside Eshashal-Turguman.’
“Saddened, I asked, ‘Is this how you reward the man who provided you with a beautifully furnished home?’
“‘I hate the smell of houses!’ she shouted.
“We dived deeper into the days of drought and cruelty. Muhammad Shakroun watched my condition with sorrow. He said to me, ‘I dread mad love and prefer moderation.’
“I replied, feeling sadder than he could ever have guessed, ‘I am the victim of blind desire.’
“‘Married life necessarily goes through periods of trouble that require the wisdom of experts,’ he said.
“‘I have entered the zone of desperation!’ I said, despondent.
“I realized that this partnership had turned into a battle that was fought covertly at times and overtly at other times. I became aware that once Marwana was stripped of her madly provocative inclinations, she
was reduced to nothing, nothing at all. She became like a she-wolf. Whenever she was furious she destroyed everything she could reach, tore my clothes, threw my songbook out the window, and attacked me physically. During those moments I told her that I hated her more than I hated death, and she told me that she hated me more than an oozing sore.
“Those periods of deep hatred often lasted a long time, and peace was usually reestablished by the intervention of the children. Then desire would revive for brief moments, recalling the memory of our dreams, but only from a very distant past.”
I asked him with great interest, “What really destroyed your marriage?”
“Haven’t I made that clear?” he said.
“No, not as far as I’m concerned,” I replied. “I still need specific reasons.”
He said, “It was a state of madness that attached me to her. Once I passed this condition, I found myself with a woman I did not know and had no reason to be with. My general attitude must have betrayed my hidden feelings and upset her.”
“The state of madness ends, but the children remain,” I said. “The children prolonged the life of my marriage but did not protect it from devastation. Marwana was only a sexual provocation; not a housewife, a mother, or a woman in the true sense of the word. Her genuine qualities would better suit a man and even a highway robber.”
“What about her—didn’t she love you?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. It might have been a mad, passing emotion or a curious adventure to her. I did not represent the man she dreamed of. Our marriage brought together two adventurers, and it was doomed to fail the moment the adventure turned into a life of routine. I guess this is clear now.”
I agreed with him, and he continued his narrative. “I, too, had my hidden dreams. I wished to escape from reality, from the house. I
wished to be alone, and even my children did not inhabit my dreams. But I did not know where to go. My work did not leave me time to look ahead, as tawashih chanters do not have a role model to emulate. Besides, God did not grant me the ability to be content and accept my fate. I was not the only one dreaming. Marwana was also dreaming. After one of our fights she remained angry and refused all attempts at reconciliation. She even confronted me, saying coldly, ‘We must reconsider our life.’
“I heard in her tone a strong determination that depressed me. I mumbled, ‘Our life?’
“‘Frankly,’ she said, ‘it is unfair to remain together any longer.’
“I heard the voices of the children from a distance and listened sadly to them. Then I told her, ‘All couples do that.’
“She replied, with frightening calm, ‘But I want to leave.’
“‘Where to?’ I asked stupidly.
“‘To be with my family.’
“I controlled myself and said, despite my anger, ‘Don’t you like living in this house?’
“‘No, I do not,’ she said. ‘You think that we owe you—this is your problem.’
“‘But I sacrificed a lot for you,’ I said.
“‘I am your first victim.’
“‘Listen,’ I said, then stopped to avoid fighting.
“She said loudly, ‘I hate this life with all my heart!’
“I kept saying, ‘What about the children, the children?’
“‘I have the right to take them with me.’
“Do you want them to grow up in Eshashal-Turguman?’
“‘I want them to grow up to be men!’
“I told her that she was crazy, but she returned the insult, saying, ‘You’re the crazy one, and I can swear to that. No sane man lives from the use of his voice like a woman does.’
“There was no use arguing with her, but when she asked to go, I insisted on keeping the children.
“‘What would you do with them?’ she asked. ‘You wake up in late afternoon and do not return home till dawn or even later, and in a terrible state. How can they survive? Do you mean what you say?’
“Defeated, I said, ‘That is why this house must remain open for their sake.’
“She objected, and the conversation did not lead to any solution.
“I thought of the children and realized that they couldn’t live with me. I had to be patient for their sake, no matter how hard it was for me. But Marwana settled the matter in her own way: I returned home at dawn one day to find the house empty. Not a single soul was there. I went immediately to Eshashal-Turguman, reaching it early in the morning. Marwana’s mother met me; she was in a sulky mood.
“‘Go away peacefully,’ she said, ‘and do what men do for once!’
“‘What about the children?’ I said.
“‘They are our children!’ she replied disdainfully.
“Then the old man arrived, surrounded by a band of fierce-looking men. He addressed me, saying, ‘You are a failure. Go back home.’
“The men muttered vague words, and I became aware of the danger I faced. The old man spoke again. ‘Divorce her and give her all her rights, and if the sharia gives you rights now or later, I advise you to give them up if you want to save your skin. Leave before the sun shines on your face. I might commit a heinous crime if I see it in daylight.’
“I left immediately, and began the divorce process. I postponed thinking about the problem of my children, telling myself I would wait until my oldest reached the legal age when I could reclaim him. It was an escape. I knew very well that I wouldn’t seriously try to claim my children since that would mean confronting a people who supplied Cairo with its violent criminals. It would also mean bringing them to a life where they could not possibly be cared for. Those children, descendants of al-Rawi, were destined to be lost wherever they went. Their only hope was in the radical salvation of the whole society.
“This is the way Marwana left me, taking with her a story of love, madness, and failure, a story of emotional drought and hatred. Nothing was left of it but the memory of an amazing desire, the power of
confrontation, and obstinate arrogance. It was like a storm: frightening, destructive, and worthy of admiration. After the loss of the children, I was overcome with a sadness that wedged into the depths of my soul and settled in the room of sorrow, joining the memory of my mother and my father.
“I could not carry on living as if nothing had happened. Muhammad Shakroun felt sorry for me and watched over me carefully. One day, he asked me, ‘How long will you go on singing, drinking wine, and taking drugs?’
“When Marwana and the children were living with me, my life had a semblance of normality, regardless of the quality of that life. Now, Shakroun’s question was reasonable. I replied, without meaning what I said, ‘Until death.’
“He said, very seriously, ‘It is time for you to return to your grandfather.’
“‘Sheikh Jaafar al-Rawi is finished.’
“‘He can start all over again. We have to try,’ said Shakroun.
“‘I refuse to try.’
“‘Is it pride?’ asked Shakroun.
“‘I am simply being realistic.’
“‘What kind of reality is this?’
“‘It is not my favorite choice, but I have categorically and definitively given up the religious life. The life that my grandfather planned for me is totally unacceptable, and he won’t take me back unless I return to it.’
“‘He might give you your personal freedom,’ Shakroun said.
“‘He won’t. You do not know him like I do. I refuse to submit to a demeaning experience.’
“Shakroun said sincerely (and I never doubted his feelings), ‘You are a dear friend, and it is my duty to tell you honestly that you are leading a life unworthy of you. You are neither a singer nor a composer, and you must consider your future more seriously.’
“‘I can do that without living with my grandfather.’
“‘You do not seem to be happy now.’
“‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘but I embarked on a crazy adventure I will always be proud of. I am proud of the fact that I can adapt to any kind of life without complaint or weakness. You find me full of hope whether I live the life of a prince or a pauper. Here I am, holding on to the life of a pauper, and I refuse to go back to live in the palace. I refuse to be a respectable sheikh and a noble husband; to live by the fine traditions and norms not out of my own free will, but to fulfill my grandfather’s vision and enticed by the inheritance.’
“‘What about your future?’ asked Shakroun.
“‘I am thinking seriously about studying music and composition with Sheikh Taher al-Bunduqi. I can’t go through my life without a goal.’
“Marwana was the symbol of a past life, and an excuse to live a normal life without a goal. When she left I found myself adrift; I had to rethink my life. It was at this critical time that I met Huda Sadeeq.”
t a soirée in the Lipton Garden where Muhammad Shakroun was entertaining we were invited to meet Huda Sadeeq in her loge during the intermission. She received us with a smile that reflected her self-confidence. A very dark-complexioned woman sat beside her, and from her extreme politeness I guessed she was Huda Sadeeq’s lady-in-waiting.
“I was struck by Huda’s beauty, her conservative but elegant dress, and a certain pride that remained within the boundaries of politeness. She was enveloped in a halo of serious charm, but her feminine beauty was all in her eyes and her round face. I was certain that she was in her forties.
“She made a good impression on me, as I stood among the older members of the group, a healthy and tall young man, proud of my new suit. She invited us to sit down and ordered refreshments for us. She praised Muhammad Shakroun with these words,
“‘Your voice is pure and your group is excellent. I belong to a family that adores beautiful voices.’
“Shakroun thanked her profusely and mentioned her late father, whom artists remembered very well, in flattering terms.
“‘I have often heard my teacher, Sheikh Taher al-Bunduqi, say that your father’s palace was the home of eastern music.’
“She smiled approvingly and our eyes met more than once. Shakroun introduced me proudly: ‘My colleague Jaafar, grandson of Sayyid al-Rawi.’
“‘Is that so?’ she asked, interested.