Ali Taha remained in his room until the sun began to set. He sat by the window with his eyes trained on the balcony of a small, old house that had a cigarette store at its entrance. Facing the student hostel, it stood on the corner of al-Izba Street, which was a prolongation of Rashad Pasha Street in the direction of the district of al-Doqqi. He wore his street clothes, except for his fez, and looked as trim as ever. Anyone seeing his broad shoulders would assume he was an athlete. He was a handsome young man with green eyes and blond hair that was almost golden and that suggested a distinguished pedigree. He kept anxiously watching the small, old house’s balcony with expectant and apprehensive eyes until an alert vitality seized him when a girl appeared. Then he rose, waving his hands, and she smiled at him and gestured toward the street. So he donned his fez and quit first his room and then the building. He rushed to Rashad Pasha Street and then strolled along the avenue at a leisurely pace. On both sides stood lofty trees, behind which palaces and villas crouched. He began to glance back, from one moment to the next, until he saw, by the light of a peaceful sunset, the young woman from the balcony approaching with a dancing step. His heart pounding with delight, he turned and headed toward her, blushing. Then their hands met, right with left and left with right, and the young man murmured, “Welcome.”

Her face resplendent with a charming smile, she murmured, “Good evening.”

She gently freed her hands and took his arm. They resumed their walk toward Giza Street, keeping the pace of a loiterer out for a stroll. She was a girl of eighteen, and her countenance was illuminated by ivory skin. Her black eyes’ clarity and her lashes had a special magic. Her jet-black hair combined with her fair complexion to dazzle the eye. Her gray overcoat enclosed a supple, ripe body diffusing enchantment and radiance. They walked along slowly, their youth and vitality providing a delightful sight. Ali Taha began to scout the street cautiously as if expecting to be taken unaware, while the girl, who waited with joyful desire, observed him circumspectly until the youth was reassured that no one was watching. Then placing his fingers beneath her chin he drew her face toward him and planted his lips on hers in a juicy kiss. Afterward he raised his head with a profound sigh and they silently continued their walk. She noticed that he was examining her carefully and remembered, despite the magic and enchantment of the scene, that her coat was almost worn out. Then her delight faded. Without meaning to, she asked, “Do you dislike seeing this old coat all the time?”

The young man’s disapproval was apparent in his expression. He chided her, “How can you heed such trifles? The coat encompasses a treasure that has made it a lucky omen for me.”

She did not agree with him that the coat was a “trifle.” Indeed, she had repeatedly told herself regretfully: a happy life means being young and well dressed. Noticing his elegant wool suit, she felt like scolding him. So she said, “What a rascal you are! Do you think clothes are unimportant when you’re so proud of your elegance?”

He blushed, looking like a bewildered child. Then he said apologetically, “The suit’s new. You can’t buy an old suit, but clothes are insignificant incidentals. Isn’t that so, darling?”

All the same, she feared starting a discussion with him, because he would leap at the chance for a debate and saw himself as her instructor, an assumption that made her uncomfortable. In point of fact, he did harbor contradictory positions. He frequently disparaged the importance of clothing, fine foods, and the class system but remained particular about how he dressed, ate gourmet food till he was satiated, and spent freely. Ihsan Shihata, however, had something to say, something she knew he was waiting to hear. So in her melodious, flirtatious voice she remarked, “I’ve almost finished the book you lent me.”

His interest was apparent from his expression; he wanted to love her mind as much as he loved her person. He asked, “What do you think?”

She replied candidly, “I only understood a little of it and couldn’t do much with that.”

Disappointed, he asked, “Why?”

Smiling at him to lighten the impact of her words, she explained, “The gist of this book, which you call a story, is ideas and opinions. What I look for in books is life and emotion.”

“But life is thought and emotion!”

She summoned all her courage to say, “Don’t try to tie me down with your logic, for I may not be able to defend myself against it, but that won’t change my taste. In my opinion, music is the true measure of art. Any part of a book that goes beyond the range of music should not be considered art at all.”

Her opinion appalled him. He smiled wanly and said regretfully, “You’re depriving yourself of the tastiest fruit of true art.”

She laughingly replied, “Magdeleine, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the suffering figures of Raphael—these are the masterpieces I like.”

She made this remark in the tone of someone quoting the Qur’an to the effect, “You have your religion and I have mine.” So the young man fell silent, wondering whether he would really have to renounce changing her opinion. He sincerely wished for them to love each other with their hearts and their minds, for their lives to mesh perfectly, and for him to find in her a lover, colleague, and respected peer. His love for her dominated his heart and soul, but he aspired to fashion her over time into a spouse of a type unknown till then in Eastern households. Their stroll took them as far as Giza Street, where they turned left. The young man sighed with relief, because the street was almost deserted and the weather was fairly overcast. He raised her hand to his mouth and kissed it passionately. Then turning toward her he calmly helped himself to a sweet kiss from her full, tender lips. When he noticed that she closed her eyelids in response to the kiss, his powerful body trembled and sparks of delight shot through his spirit. Swallowing, he said, “How sweet you are … how beautiful!”

A delicious moment of delectable magic flitted past. Then he sighed and said somewhat regretfully, “I only have a few short months before the final exam. How about you?”

She replied, “The baccalaureate is in June. Where do you think I should study?”

The youth said enthusiastically, “My faculty.”

Although straitened circumstances forced her to complete her education, she would have liked him to say, for example, “You’ve studied enough. Let’s make a nest for ourselves.” She asked him with a certain reserve, “Why should I choose your department?”

“So we can become a single mind with an identical craft and career.”

“The same career?”

He said with undiminished enthusiasm, “Yes, darling. A woman’s job is far more important than being a homemaker. It’s impossible for me to betray my principles or for me to consent to deprive society of a beautiful and useful contributor like you.”

She knew he was right on the one hand, because financial need dictated that she should choose a career some day, although his enthusiasm for his own opinion—for some reason—annoyed her. She would have preferred to be the one who forced him to accept this idea over his hesitation and objections.

They continued along the deserted street, drawing inspiration for their conversation, which was punctuated by kisses, from their dreams.

Ihsan Shihata was supremely conscious of two things: her beauty and her poverty. Her beauty was astounding. The hostel’s residents had fallen prey to it, and the rooms’ inhabitants had begun to broadcast the fervor of their souls, which all focused on the small, dilapidated house’s balcony, where they abandoned themselves at the feet of the beautiful, vainglorious girl. Her home lacked a mirror that could truly reflect this graceful beauty, however, because poverty was an equally conspicuous reality. Her seven young brothers strengthened her consciousness of it, especially since they all depended on the income from the cigarette store, which was only one meter square, with a clientele composed predominantly of students. She had long feared the consequences of poverty’s outrages, including poor nutrition, on her beauty. As a matter of fact, had it not been for the recipes of her mother, who before she married Master Shihata Turki had been one of the singers based on Muhammad Ali Street, she would have grown skinny and her rump, which a poet from the College of Medicine had celebrated in a resounding ode, would have withered. When she met Ali Taha, her heart had chosen him out of all the residents of the student hostel. His youth, good looks, noble pedigree, and promising future excited her admiration. Two important matters, however, contended for control of her heart from the word go: her romantic life and her family life. Put another way, the struggle was between Ali Taha and her seven young brothers. Before Ali Taha, a wealthy young law student had courted her. Sensing from his conduct that he sought amusement for his heart and entertainment for his youth, she had remained on guard with him. Her parents were fully informed about all the secrets of her life, and the only thing that alarmed her was her mother’s prodding and her father’s greedy concern with the young man’s fortune. Thus she came face-to-face with the bitter realities of her life and its grievous truths. As a matter of fact, her parents had no moral scruples. Before evolving into marriage, their relationship had been a passionate affair. Her father had made a living from his good looks and impudence until her mother married him and gave him her life savings to invest. Then he squandered most of this on drugs and gambling till he was left with only the cigarette shop. Even so he would console himself by reflecting, “It’s true that my life’s been a waste, but Ihsan’s a blessing.” The girl discovered that he and her mother were Satan’s willing allies plotting her downfall. She was in no hurry to fall, however. She took offense at any unintentional slight, and her alert pride saved her. She saw her young boyfriend sitting with her father one day in the shop and realized that they were haggling over her virtue. Feeling disgraced and dishonored, she became furious and broke off with the youth so brutally that he was left without hope. She emerged victorious from this experience, but only after learning that she lived in an abyss. She was also conscious deep inside of being liberated suddenly from all supervision or restraint. She was now free to do whatever she wanted without any explanation. Her consciousness of this total freedom created a revolution within her soul, and she remained for a time without any goal—or obstacle for that matter. A wild awakening, however, spread through her emotions and surfaced, even though modesty and caution restrained them. If the atmosphere was stifling, her lungs were healthy. Her circumstances suggested an inevitable conclusion, a done deal. Her dissolute father commented to her sorrowfully on the loss of the wealthy young man, “You’re responsible for all of us, especially your seven brothers.” Good Lord, how would she be able to shape her own future when faced by such corrupt impulses? Couldn’t her parents counsel each other to be patient till she finished her studies at the teacher training institute and found an honorable job to support herself? She had surrendered to the fates without confidence or belief, the way weak-willed people do, until Ali Taha came along. With Ali she found true affection, powerful sincerity, and a lofty goal. So he provided support for her tottering willpower and rescued her from a flood of anxiety and fear, restoring to her a feeling of self-respect and pride. She fell in love with him and hung her hopes on him. Master Shihata Turki regarded the new young man with displeasure, saying of him, “He’s a poor fellow; he doesn’t even smoke!” He once told the girl sarcastically, “Congratulations on the handsome young man whom God has sent to starve us to death!” She ignored her father, however, and placed her hopes on the future, which bore responsibility for providing a respectable career for her and realizing her heart’s dreams.

Now Ali Taha was a young man with many fine points. He was a good example of someone with true social consciousness. In secondary school he had been a distinguished member of the advanced placement division, the school outings association, the debate team, and the student newspaper. He had excelled in debate, oratory, cooking, and singing and had exhibited a commendable enthusiasm for inquiry and culture and a sincere allegiance to virtue. On entering the university, the field of his activities narrowed but deepened and matured. He became Mr. Ali, the president of the Debate Society, and was distinguished from his peers by his oratorical prowess, his broad cultural grounding, and his quick wit. He was interested in ideals and spoke with zeal and conviction about the virtuous city. Those who knew him believed him, but some critics spread a rumor that he was a rascal worse than any other, that cloaked in virtue he raided every circle merely to chase beautiful women in the name of science and virtue, and that he discussed ethics the way a matchmaker discusses a bride she has never seen. But they exaggerated and lied. The truth was that the young man was sincere and truthful and that if he loved beauty, he loved it respectfully and sincerely. All the same, his life had seen its share of violent crises, because his religious faith had been shaken and exposed to deadly pains of transformation since the beginning of his university life. Still he was courageous and truthful. So he welcomed his new life with an enthusiastic will and an intellect obsessed with the truth. He was not a sneering buffoon and did not hide his admiration for Ma’mun Radwan’s truthfulness and courage. He, however, threw himself into the embrace of materialist philosophy. So although he read Hegel, he also read natural scientists like Ostwald and Mach. He adopted a materialist explanation of life and felt totally comfortable with the claims that existence is matter, that life and spirit are complex material processes, and that consciousness is a characteristic but inconsequential attribute comparable to the sound a wheel makes while revolving without itself having any effect of its own. Ma’mun Radwan kept telling him that materialist philosophy was an easy philosophy but one that failed to solve even a single problem in a satisfactory way. Ali Taha, however, was a socially active young man who did not have the patience for lengthy reflection. He would take a week to study what Ma’mun covered in two days. The time he spent reading had to be balanced against periods for sports, debate, travel, love, and so forth. This comprehensive materialist explanation was enough philosophy to allow him to get on with his life. There was, however, one practical difficulty that threatened to become a major stumbling block: ethics. In the past his ethical system had been buttressed by religion. So what could support it today? If not God, what could sustain the value of the virtues? Or, should he scorn them the way he scorned his former belief system and throw himself into life’s torrential current without any anchor or conscience? The logic was straightforward and the conclusion preordained, but he hesitated, held himself back, and was leery about letting himself go. He asked himself whether it would not be possible to live the way Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma‘arri had. Abu al-Ala’, however, had been blind, pockmarked, and melancholy, whereas he was a handsome young man with rippling muscles and a social temperament. So how could he embrace asceticism and the simple life? He found himself in the same confusion that Ihsan Shihata did following her liberation from her parents’ supervision. Finally Ali Taha discovered in Auguste Comte his savior, just as Ihsan Shihata found hers in Ali Taha. This philosopher brought him the glad tidings of a new god (society) and of a new religion (science). He believed in human society and human science and held the conviction that the atheist—like the monotheist—has principles and ideals if he so chooses and his volition follows suit, and that good has more profound roots in human nature than in religion. Mankind had created religion in ancient times; religion had not produced mankind as he had once imagined. He began to say of himself, “I used to be virtuous because of religion, but mindlessly so. Today I’m virtuous because of my mind and without the superstition.” He returned to his ideals self-confidently and devotedly, filled with zeal, force, and a passion for social reform, dreaming of a terrestrial paradise. So he studied social theorists till he felt comfortable calling himself a socialist. Thus his spiritual peregrinations, which had begun in Mecca, terminated in Moscow. At one point he yearned to attract his closest friends to socialism, but the attempt failed. Ahmad Badir told him apologetically, “I’m a Wafdist journalist, and the Wafd is a capitalist party.” Ma’mun Radwan told him with typical conviction, “Islam has a sensible type of socialism. It has zakat, which guarantees social justice, if scrupulously observed, without suppressing the instincts from which man draws support for his struggle. If you desire a world system that prepares for true brotherhood and happiness, Islam awaits you.” Mahgub Abd al-Da’im merely shrugged his shoulders and replied tersely, “Tuzz.” All the same, Ali Taha had discovered a goal that preserved him from anxiety, anarchy, and depravity. He had a right to say of himself happily, “Here’s my identity card, which needs no explanation: poor and socialist, atheist and honorable, a Platonic lover.”

Cairo Modern