Authors: Naguib Mahfouz
“‘He is in love with art, as we all are,’ he added.
“‘Wonderful, but does the older Rawi approve of that?’ she asked.
“‘It is rare that a grandfather approves of the activities of his grandson,’ I replied.
“The lady turned to Muhammad Shakroun and said, ‘We shall meet again soon.’
“We left feeling happy, and Muhammad Shakroun explained to me that we would soon be invited to celebrate a soirée in her house. He added, very seriously, ‘She is from the al-Sadeeq family. She is the daughter of a great man and an extremely rich and cultured widow.’ He fell silent for a moment, choosing his words, and then said, ‘I believe she likes you.’
“I was elated. ‘Are you an expert in the interpretation of women’s glances?’ I asked him.
“‘Yes, I am. I saw her looking at you several times during the performance, even before she knew who you were.’
“‘May you be right, my friend.’
“He cautioned me: ‘Remember that she is a respectable woman.’
“I said, objecting, ‘What a pity!’
“I thought about her. She was, undoubtedly, a precious person, and the fact that she was at least ten years my senior did not diminish her value. On the contrary, it increased her appeal. But the madness that had once ensnared me could not be repeated.
“‘It is a great opportunity,’ said Shakroun.
“‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
“‘She is an excellent woman, as sweet as cream.’
“‘Suppose I do not love her?’ I said.
“‘Is this possible? Haven’t you smelled her sweet perfume?’
“I laughed loudly. Not long ago Muhammad Shakroun had fallen in love with a dancer and married her. He was happy.
“We went to al-Sadeeq’s house in Hilmiya to celebrate the circumcision of a child. The salamlik and the garden reminded me of my grandfather’s palace, though the garden was smaller and the wall was lower, and did not hide the house from the outside. A suradiq, the traditional tent, was set for us in the garden, where the fragrance of orange blossoms filled the air. It was springtime.
“Muhammad Shakroun sang with great joy, and we repeated after him with unusual enthusiasm. My voice rose above the others as I sang, ‘My heart worries about you, my heart cares for you.’
“After the second part of the program, wine and drugs had a strong effect on me. I sat under an orange tree in a state of total exhaustion. When Huda Hanim came to check on us and praise our performance, I stood to greet her, swaying.
“‘You are in a terrible state,’ she said.
“‘This is what happiness does to me,’ I explained.
“She ordered that a glass of lemonade with soda be brought to me, then said, ‘I like a spirit of adventure.’
“I realized she was alluding to my modest role in Muhammad Shakroun’s group. I said to her, ‘I decide my fate by my own free will.’
“She smiled. ‘The true adventure is in man’s mind.’
“‘What do you mean, my lady?’ I asked.
“She ignored the question and said, ‘I heard exciting accounts of a misunderstanding between you and your grandfather.’
“I said, defenseless, ‘So here we are. The news of my perdition is circulating among the ranks of high society.’
“She smiled charmingly and left. I felt that the gate to a new life was slowly opening. At the end of the party, Muhammad Shakroun escorted me to a café in Bab al-Khalq and talked to me in a serious tone.
“‘We have to manage matters,’ he said.
“I asked, mischievously, ‘What matters, my skylark?’
“‘Do not play dumb. I know from her lady-in-waiting that they know everything about you.’
“Shakroun went on, ‘Their inquiry is meaningful.’
“‘And the answers can have negative consequences,’ I added.
“He stared at me inquisitively, then carried on. ‘Despite everything else, you are invited to a rendezvous in the Lipton Garden. I was asked to inform you.’
“I said, shocked, ‘This is beyond my imagination.’
“‘It is the plain truth,’ said Shakroun.
“‘We have to formulate a plan.’
“‘You haven’t asked me about my feelings for her,’ I said.
“‘I don’t think they’re hostile!’
“‘Of course not.’
“‘This is sufficient. I think the lady has fallen for you the way you did one day in the past,’ explained Shakroun.
“‘You are exaggerating,’ I said.
“‘Tell me, wouldn’t you be happy to marry her?’ he asked.
“‘Do you think she has marriage in mind?’
“‘She is against illegitimate relationships.’
“‘Would she marry a vagabond?’
“‘I know the story of a prince who left his palace to marry a vagabond,’ he commented.
“‘What about your feelings?’ he asked.
“‘I admire her greatly—her personality, her beauty. Marrying her would undoubtedly make me happy.’
“‘This is love, or a kind of love, or a good predisposition for love.’
“‘I agree,’ I said.
“‘In that case, you have to take the first step, out of respect for her dignity.’
“‘Provide me with more explanation, please.’
“He did, saying, ‘She took the first positive steps and she is inviting you now for a romantic meeting. Would you wait like a girl for her to declare her love for you? No, you should be the one to begin out of respect for her dignity, as I already told you.’
“‘Do you think so?’
“‘It is a matter of good manners, first and foremost. Do not forget the sacrifices she is expected to make. Though she is free, and the wealthiest in her family, her marriage to you will lead to breakups and conflicts. I have no doubt about that. She is quite courageous to face all this.’
“‘I wouldn’t have believed that, had I not lived a similar experience.’
“‘Exactly: you experienced a similar situation. Do not forget that she wants you, even though your ties with al-Rawi are broken and you are Marwana’s previous husband and the father of four children living in Eshashal-Turguman. It is an impossibility becoming a possibility.’
“I considered the matter from all angles and was convinced, emotionally and mentally. I told Shakroun, ‘If this amazing marriage takes place, I will be forced to leave my work with the band.’
“‘You will certainly have to do that.’
“I wondered, ‘How would I accept living with no job other than being the lady’s husband?’
“He said with confidence, ‘You will do something. I don’t know what, but there are many jobs that require capital and human effort, and you can provide the human effort.’ He added, as if to encourage me, ‘Here is an adventure for you, O grand adventurer.’
“I said coldly, ‘The true adventure is a response to a state of madness. This step would be taken with poise and logical thinking. It would take me from one extreme to another.’
“‘To a better one,’ said Shakroun.
“‘So be it. I always chase the new and the exciting, armed with my usual capacity for adaptation and disregard for difficulties. Am I not living as if I have forgotten my four children? But the wound of the heart cannot heal.’
“I went to meet Huda in the Lipton Garden at the specified time. I approached her with courage and self-confidence, thus erasing our differences and making the meeting one between a man and a woman. We sat at a covered table while Umm Hussein, her lady-in-waiting, sat at a respectful distance from us. Despite her own confidence, Huda was somewhat nervous. She asked if her invitation annoyed me.
“I said boldly, ‘Rest assured that it came as a fulfillment of my own dreams.’
“‘Truly?’ she asked.
“I went on, ‘I was wishing for it to happen, but did not know how to go about it.’
“‘Really? But why?’
“‘This would require a long explanation. I would rather listen to you now.’
“She said eagerly, ‘That is not important. Tell me why you were hoping for this meeting to take place.’
“I said in a warm voice, ‘This is what a man who has fallen in love with you, with all his heart, would do.’
“She lowered her gaze, blushing, and fell into a silence that meant acceptance, happiness, and satisfaction. I repeated, ‘Yes, with all my heart.’
“I recalled the situation later and did not find it embarrassing. Both my heart and my mind had accepted her. I welcomed wholeheartedly the prospect of marrying her and was not in the least interested in her fortune. Her love for me, of which I was certain, required an admission of my affection, out of consideration for her dignity. I did not lie. Or rather, I did not lie to the degree that would make me a liar. We discussed our future frankly, and I said that I had no intention of reestablishing my relationship with my grandfather, but that I doubted he would deprive me of my whole inheritance. I told her very clearly that I would be unhappy to live my life without working.
“Smiling and unperturbed, she said, ‘Such concerns do not form a true obstacle to love. As for your grandfather and your inheritance, they do not matter to me. I also know that a man cannot live without work.’ She added, laughing, ‘But do you consider your work with the band to be a real job?’
“‘It was part of a bigger adventure. That is all there is to it.’
“‘I agree with you totally.’
“I thought long and hard about our love. As far as I was concerned, I had met a lady from a decent family, educated, wise, and poised, who promised a happy union. I liked her in my own way, and I rejoiced at the idea of sharing my life with her. But how could I explain her love for me? I was a lost man, an outcast, semi-employed and semi-literate, and without a future. Her love was sincere and deep, a love that did not need justification and reasoning. Her love might spring from a desire to pull me out of perdition and reshape me into a new being. If there is sadism and masochism in love, it is motivated, sometimes, by motherly feeling and a strong desire to save the other. This is how I perceived the love that bound me to Huda and led to a marriage that caused her family to sever all ties with her.
“I did not understand it then as clearly as I do now. I interpreted it in a way that satisfied my youth and my pride, and made up for the insult that I endured when Marwana abandoned me.
“I bid Muhammad Shakroun and my colleagues in the band goodbye, and took leave of the members of my religious chants band. They were all volunteers working with different second-class singers, depending on the work available. Everybody was invited to our wedding, at which Muhammad Shakroun sang. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and felt that we were bidding farewell to the age of frivolity.
“I said to Muhammad Shakroun, ‘Nothing will come between us.’
“His eyes filled with tears as he replied, ‘God forbid, my dearest friend.’
“The wedding was celebrated in Huda’s house in Hilmiya and nobody from her family attended. The only guests were her neighbors.
“Muhammad Shakroun had hoped that my grandfather would make peace with me, with a letter, a gift, or a bouquet of flowers, but there was nothing but silence from his side. Shakroun told me that he had visited my grandfather on the occasion of the Islamic New Year. As he bent to kiss his hand, Shakroun said to him, ‘It is my duty to report to you good news regarding Jaafar.’
“My grandfather ignored his words completely, which led Shakroun to add, ‘He begins a new life with the honorable Huda Hanim Sadeeq.’
“My grandfather went on ignoring Shakroun’s words and talked about something else that had nothing to do with me. ‘Despite his attitude,’ Shakroun went on to say, ‘he seemed moved, and his emotion was visible in the way he held his rosary when your name was mentioned.’ Shakroun advised me to take my firstborn baby to my grandfather and ask for his blessings. But I did not care about my grandfather’s blessings. I was still very angry with him.
“My second honeymoon went well, filled with days of pure emotions and love. It was a time for both of us to enjoy a happy vacation before delving into an active life.
“I found myself comparing Marwana and Huda, two very different women. Marwana was a genius in the games of the body, whereas Huda raised the body to the level of the heart. Her passion was not fiery, but it provided me with a sense of security, of stability and endurance. Yet, despite this overflow of sentiment and flooding affection, I missed Marwana’s eternal hell.
“So when Huda said, ‘I wouldn’t like you to be one more day without work,’ her words couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I kissed her, grateful. She added cautiously, ‘Even managing my estate is not considered a convincing job, and is not an activity that would satisfy my ambition for you.’
“I asked gently, ‘You have an ambition, then?’
“‘Wouldn’t you like to complete your studies at al-Azhar?’
“My refusal was categorical.
“‘Why then did your grandfather push you in that direction?’ she asked.
“‘He has a special way of thinking. One day I will tell you how he views a godly human being.’
“She resumed: ‘I will tell you frankly what I have in mind. I would like you to study at home.’
“‘Take regular classes?’ I asked.
“‘Yes, until you get your high-school degree. Then I would like you to study for a higher degree, maybe specializing in law and working as a lawyer.’
“‘I would need ten years,’ I said.