He opened the envelope in astonishment and read the following.

Young Master Mahgub Effendi Abd al-Da’im:
May you enjoy God’s peace and compassion.
We are sad to inform you that your dear father is ill and
bedridden. We ask God to provide a satisfactory outcome,
but you must come as quickly as possible to reassure your
self about his condition. They asked me to write you this
letter. So don’t delay. Peace.

Shalabi al-Afash
(Proprietor of the Grocery Store of al-Qanatir al-Khayriya)

This meant that his father was too ill to hold a pen. What had happened to him? As he read the letter a second time, apprehension showed on his pallid face and caused him to tug on his left eyebrow. The amazing thing was that he never remembered his father complaining of ill health a single day. His body had always been strong and his step firm. No doubt a grave illness had gotten the better of him and debilitated him. Mahgub wondered what the future concealed for him. What did it have in store for him and his mother?

But it was wrong to waste time with pointless conjectures or to delay his journey even a minute. He scribbled a note to Ma’mun Radwan explaining his sudden departure, wrapped his gallabiya in an old newspaper, and then left the hostel. He did not head to al-Izba Street as he had been longing to do minutes before. Instead he took Rashad Pasha Street, or Ali-and-Ihsan’s street, as he called it sarcastically. He proceeded to tell himself: If the man’s time has come, all my hopes will be buried alive. My Lord! Is it possible that this is happening when I’m only four months from the final examination? He hurried down that deserted street where the mansions were sunk in majestic silence, hearing only the sound of his footsteps till he reached Giza Street and boarded the tram. Melancholy cast a shadow over his face and eyes. Sitting there grief-stricken, his mind turned to the two friends closest to him: Ma’mun Radwan and Ali Taha. He envied them their contentment and confidence. Ma’mun Radwan’s father taught in the institutes and had a nice salary—so his family did not live in the shadow of fear. He gave his son more than enough. If it were not for Ma’mun’s stupidity, which caused him to devote his life to learning and worship, he would have enjoyed life’s pleasures. But he was stupid, and stupid people are always lucky. Ali Taha’s father was a translator for the city of Alexandria and received a huge salary. His friend was not immune to life’s pleasures, within the limits set by his ideals. He was a happy young man. All he needed to be happy was Ihsan. Possibly no other person so excited Mahgub’s envy as this handsome, successful young man. Whereas he … he was wretched! His father—do you suppose he still had a father?—was a clerk in a Greek-owned creamery in al-Qanatir. He had worked there for twenty-five years and earned eight pounds. If he stopped working, he would only be recompensed for a few more months. The man allocated three pounds to him every month during the academic year. This sum covered necessities like housing, food, and clothing, and the young man was grudgingly satisfied, though he eyed Cairo’s pleasures from afar, eavesdropping on news of them with woeful avidity. His unruly passion blended with unbridled ambition. These ideas occurred to him in succession, spoiling that hour more than ever before. Then, oblivious to the vistas of fields and waterways that the tram afforded in its speedy transit, he thought about his relationship with the two young men and what people call friendship. Did he really have a friend? Certainly not; what was friendship if not one of the virtues he scorned? He actually was partial to them. Ma’mun’s debates attracted him, and Ali’s spirit endeared him to Mahgub. He enjoyed spending time with them, discussing and debating, but what did all that have to do with friendship? Besides, he envied and despised them. He would not hesitate to destroy them if he found that to his advantage. He proceeded to say, as if egging himself on, “Total freedom, total tuzz. Let me take Satan for my role model—the perfect symbol for total perfection. He represents true rebellion, true arrogance, true ambition, and a revolt against all principles.” The tram’s last stop was al-Is’af, where he got off and boarded another tram for Maydan al-Mahatta. Then he entered the train station itself and rushed to the third-class window to buy a ticket. When he moved away from the window he found himself face-to-face with a young man who was in his thirties, of medium build, on the short side, and somewhat portly, with a large, triangular face, thick eyebrows, penetrating gaze, and round eyes, and who was casting a completely self-confident, vain, and supercilious look at everything around him. Recognizing this fellow, Mahgub approached, holding out his hand and calling out respectfully, “Mr. Salim al-Ikhshidi! Greetings.”

He turned toward Mahgub without altering his expression, which he rarely modified, for he was not surprised or startled and looked neither glad nor sad. Whenever he wished to express his anger, which he frequently did, he would speak in a rude tone of voice. Turning toward Mahgub, he said with calm composure, “How are you, Mahgub?”

“Thanks to you and praise to God! But, sir, what brings you to the railway station?”

Al-Ikhshidi replied in his composed voice, “I’m traveling to our hometown, al-Qanatir, to visit my father. But what brings you? It’s not time for your vacation.”

Mahgub said with obvious sorrow, “I’m heading to al-Qanatir as well to tend to my sick father.”

“Abd al-Da’im Effendi’s ill? May God restore his health! Give him my greetings.”

Then they walked side by side to the platform for al-Qanatir. Not having heard any news of al-Ikhshidi for some time, Mahgub asked, “Sir, are you still Qasim Bey Fahmi’s secretary?”

Al-Ikhshidi, whose eyes showed the hint of a smile, replied, “I’ve now been nominated to become his office manager. The memo is with personnel.”

Mahgub responded with unalloyed delight, “Congratulations, congratulations, sir!”

Raising his eyebrows arrogantly, the other man added tersely, “Level five.”

Mahgub exclaimed, “Congratulations, congratulations! Next it will be level four!”

Al-Ikhshidi said philosophically, “Our country has been plundered and looted. Its affairs are in the hands of weak fools. No matter how high we advance, it will always be less than we deserve.”

Mahgub endorsed this statement, remarking, “That’s true, sir.”

Then al-Ikhshidi excused himself and headed toward the first-class carriage. The young man watched till he disappeared. So he made his way to third class, his distress and his dreams both visible in his expression. He took a seat in the coach, his mind reflecting busily, al-Ikhshidi never far from his thoughts. Two years before, al-Ikhshidi had been a final-year student just as he, Mahgub, was now. Perhaps he too had lost his belief in principles, only without broadcasting that fact or making a fuss about it. Perhaps there was no fundamental difference between the two of them. Intellectually and morally—or amorally—they were the same. Their temperaments, however, were quite different. Salim al-Ikhshidi weighed his words carefully, and Mahgub had never heard him disparage any principle or ethical maxim. Mahgub, on the other hand, despite his caution, made fun of everything. Something that Mahgub remembered and would not forget was that his acquaintance was known toward the end of his university years as an important student leader, a hero of the boycott committees, and a distributor of pamphlets opposing the new constitution. He also remembered that al-Ikhshidi was once invited to meet the minister. Many predictions were made about the meeting, and many people expected that some injustice or outrage would occur. Instead, the young man did an abrupt about-face and withdrew entirely from politics, terminating his previously boundless activities. From that time on he was seen only in lecture halls. If anyone asked him the secret behind this transformation, he would reply as coolly as ever, “The real arena for student activism is learning!” When he received his degree, he was appointed to government service—ahead of the top students—to serve as Qasim Bey Fahmi’s secretary, sponsored by the minister himself. Moreover, he started at the sixth level, which at that time seemed a mythical paradise. Now he was a candidate for the fifth level, less than two years after his first appointment—long after the minister who had recruited him had resigned. This fact showed that he had earned the trust of Qasim Bey himself and would continue to advance. What a role model! He certainly was a man who deserved admiration and envy. The glory of his post and his prosperity clearly set him apart. So what if Ma’mun Radwan and Ali Taha despised him? Tuzz.

The train barreled along, and cold air penetrated the interior, even though the windows were shut tight. He only became conscious of the chill, however, when he reached the end of this series of reflections. So he buttoned his jacket and sat up straight. He quickly recalled his father’s illness and realized that he had been exploring dreams while ignoring the abyss before him. His gloom returned. He looked about sorrowfully and dejectedly till the train stopped at al-Qanatir. Then he collected his parcel and disembarked. As he quit the station for the street, he cast a comprehensive look at the town and cried out, “Qanatir, our city, may you distribute good fortune equitably among all your citizens!”

Cairo Modern