Mahgub Abd al-Da’im also waited in his room but did not change his clothes, because unlike his two friends he did not own a special outfit for Thursday night. Since he was watching the street from his window, he saw Ma’mun Radwan leave the hostel with his military gait, noticed the love signal from the balcony of the small, old house, and then saw the two young lovers accompany each other to Rashad Pasha Street. He bade each of them farewell with a “tuzz” replete with sarcasm and resentment, because his sarcasm always harbored some resentment. He too was waiting for a rendezvous but preferred the dark and loved dissimulation. So the hostel was virtually empty except for him. Like Ma’mun Radwan, Mahgub Abd al-Da’im was tall and lean, but he had a sallow complexion and frizzy hair. His face was distinguished by protruding, honey-colored eyes and jutting eyebrows. Along with all this, the gleam of his anxious, mercurial glance suggested defiant irony. Unlike his two friends, he was not good looking, although there was nothing repulsively ugly about his features either. A person observing him would not miss the most challenging aspect of his appearance: his mouth that remained slightly open, as if he might hurl a wisecrack, taunt, or mordant remark at his interlocutor. Thinking his life was filled with problems, he placed at the head of the list his sexual difficulties, which he described succinctly as a problem as hard to resolve as the Egyptian “question.” He saw Ihsan Shihata, who had long excited the volcano of his desire—just as he saw every other woman—as breast, butt, and legs. Even one of these charming features was enough to release an electric charge in his chest. The girl, however, according to his stated opinion, had made a wise choice in preferring the blond youth with green eyes. His own life continued to be forlorn and lonely. So his heart was gloomy and his mind in continual revolt. He had borrowed his philosophy of life from various thinkers, according to his whims. His philosophy was freedom as he understood the concept, and “tuzz” was its most accurate watchword. His philosophy called for liberation from everything: from values, ideals, belief systems and principles, from social culture as a whole. He would tell himself sarcastically, “Since my family won’t leave me anything that gladdens me, I shouldn’t inherit anything from them that saddens me.” He would also say, “The truest equation in the world is: religion + science + philosophy + ethics = tuzz.” He explained systems of philosophy with a cynical logic that matched his desires. He would marvel at Descartes’ statement, “I think, therefore I am” and agree with him that the soul is the basis of existence. Next he would say that his soul was the most important thing in existence and that its happiness was all that mattered. He also liked the social theorists’ claim that societies create all their ethical and religious values. Thus he thought it ignorant and stupid to allow a principle or value to block his soul’s pursuit of happiness. Even if science had prepared the way for his liberation from figments of the imagination, this did not mean he believed in it or that he should devote his life to it. His plan was rather to exploit science and benefit from it. He was as sarcastic about scientists as about theologians. His objective in life was pleasure and power, achieved by the easiest routes and means, without any regard for morality, religion, or virtue. His acceptance of this philosophy had been guided by his passions, but he had worked his way to this point over the years. His childhood was shaped by the street and by his native gifts, because his parents were good but uneducated people. Their circumstances dictated that he spent his formative years on the streets of the city of al-Qanatir. His playmates were shrewd lads who obeyed their natural instincts, unrestrained by oversight or manners. So he cursed, called people names, assaulted and was assaulted, and went from bad to worse. When he moved to a new setting—school—he began to realize that he was living a foul life, and his soul suffered bitter disgrace, fear, anxiety, and rebellion. Then he found himself in a new environment once again as a student at the university. He observed around him cultured young men who nourished lofty hopes and high ideals. He likewise stumbled upon eccentric trends and ideas that had never before crossed his mind. He came across fashionable atheism and theories popularized by psychologists, sociologists, and scholars of human conduct and other social phenomena. He derived a demonic pleasure from all this, assembling from the dregs a personal philosophy that satisfied his heart, which had previously been enervated by a feeling of inferiority. Formerly an inconsequential fallen rogue, in the twinkling of an eye he became a philosopher. Society was an ancient sorcerer that had declared some things virtues and others vices. Now that he had learned society’s secret and mastered its sorcery, would he turn virtues into vices and vices into virtues? He rubbed his hands together with delight, recalling his past positively and gazing into his future with a sense of promise, and freed himself from his feelings of inferiority. From the outset, however, he realized that he would need to keep his philosophy secret. It was possible for Ma’mun Radwan to advocate Islam publicly. It was appropriate for Ali Taha to announce his adoption of free thought and socialism. Mahgub’s philosophy, though, had to remain secret, not out of respect for public opinion (contempt for everything was one of its principles) but because it would only bear fruit if he were the sole convert. If everyone aspired to be vicious, he would obviously lose his edge of superiority. For this reason, he kept it to himself and did not even proclaim fashionable aspects of it like atheism and free thought. If he felt stressed or desolate he would relieve his heart with sarcastic mockery. So people thought him a clown rather than a criminally predisposed demon. He went about his business, poverty-stricken and amoral, scouting for opportunities and pouncing on them with boundless audacity.

He stayed in his room, waiting for it to get dark. His heart had had its share of adventures, but his love, like his philosophy, could not survive the light of day. His girlfriend was by profession a cigarette butt collector. He was infuriated by his luck in love, but what could he do when his funds barely sufficed for life’s necessities? He would frequently mock himself, saying, “I’m no better than she is. She recycles leftover tobacco and I recycle leftover philosophy. Furthermore, society thinks worse of me than of her.” He consoled himself, “When a man humbles himself before God, God raises him.” Chance had cast her his way, and he had not allowed this opportunity to escape. One evening when he was walking along al-Izba Street, which was deserted, he spotted her behind a fig tree with a doorman from Rashad Pasha Street. He lay in wait for her until he saw her leave by herself after the Nubian doorman had returned to the other street. Then he accosted her with his normal audacity and, touching her shoulder, said with a smile, “I saw everything.”

The girl stopped and stared at him with amazement. He examined her by the streetlight and discovered that she was dark brown and had swelling breasts. He started panting and eyed her like a predatory leopard. The girl snapped out of her astonished daze and asked him disdainfully, “What did you see?”

Mahgub’s eyes told her, “Everything!” but he replied, “A fig tree, the doorman.”

With the same disdainful tone she asked, “What do you want?”

He said in a tormented voice, “The same.”


“How about the same place?”

She turned back but declared in an admonitory tone before proceeding any further, “Three piasters!”

He murmured with relief, “Fine.”

The price was a pittance and would not upset his budget. Moreover the girl had swelling breasts. He merely hoped that the dark brown was her natural color and not layers of dirt and that all he needed to worry about was her body’s foul odor. Never mind; something was better than nothing, and could he forget that he himself had—back in al-Qanatir—bathed only for festivals? Indeed, he asked himself, “Don’t all women look alike in the dark?” When they were finished, he asked, “Have you been going with that doorman a long time?”

“No. This was the first night.”

“Didn’t you arrange another meeting?”

“Certainly not.”

Mahgub said with relief, “But this won’t be our last night.”

While arranging the veil around her head, she murmured, “Gladly.”

Although darkness was swallowing the world, he remained at his station by the window, waiting for his rendezvous with his girlfriend. Then he heard a knock at the door and sauntered to open it. He saw the hostel’s concierge waving a letter at him. He took it and shut the door again. Casting a quick glance at the envelope he saw that it had been posted in al-Qanatir. Then he noticed easily that the handwriting was not his father’s. Who could be writing him? He had not seen this handwriting before.

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