The three friends congregated in Ma’mun Radwan’s room. The window was closed and the heater in the center of the room had a layer of ashes on top. Ma’mun was criticizing the Friday sermon he had heard that noon. He began by saying that sermons needed radical revision and that in their present state they were a frank incitement to ignorance and superstition.
His two companions paid no attention to sermons, but all the same, Ali Taha said, “The really pressing need is for preachers of a new type: from our college, not from al-Azhar. They would tell people that their rights have been plundered and show them how to liberate themselves.”
Mahgub Abd al-Da’im customarily participated in his friends’ discussions, not to defend one of his beliefs, because he did not have any, but from a love for contentious, mocking debate. This evening, though, more than ever, he felt he was one of those wretched people to whom Ali referred. He wanted to get some relief for the tightness in his chest by speaking. Although he was not concerned with the welfare of people in general, the only way he could refer to his own concerns was by couching them in universal terms. So he said, “Fine, our problem is poverty.”
Then Ali Taha said fervently, “That’s right. Poverty’s fetid air stifles science, health, and virtue. Anyone who’s content with the peasant’s living conditions is a beast or a demon.”
Ma’mun Radwan, adjusting his skullcap, said, “Religion. Islam’s the balm for all our pains.”
Stretching his legs out till they almost touched the heater and ignoring what his host had just said, Ali Taha replied, “The government and parliament.”
So Mahgub objected, “ ‘Government’ implies rich folks and major families. The government is one big family. The ministers select deputies from their relatives. The deputies choose directors from a pool of relatives. Directors select department chiefs from relatives. Chiefs pick office workers from their relatives. Even janitors are chosen from among the servants in important homes. So the government is a single family or a single class of multiple families. And it’s a fact that this class sacrifices the people’s welfare whenever that conflicts with its own interests.”
“How about parliament?”
Smiling mischievously, Mahgub answered, “A representative who spends hundreds of pounds to get elected can’t represent impoverished people. Parliament’s no different in this regard from any other organization. Look at Qasr al-Aini Hospital, for example. It’s termed a hospital for the indigent, but actually it’s a laboratory for potentially lethal experiments on the poor.”
Ali Taha observed calmly, “Outrage is a sacred sentiment, but despair is an illness. In any event, parliament is a lake where separate streams meet. Inevitably these waters mix together and from them a new spring wells up.”
Smiling bitterly, Mahgub muttered, “These are the names I admire: Ahmosis and the Hyksos, Merenptah and the Jews, Urabi and the Circassians!”
Mahgub laughed so hard that he ended up coughing. He replied, “We impose far too much on ourselves—as if this room were responsible for the world’s welfare.”
Ali Taha said, “As long as it houses students, its walls will hear the hopes of successive generations.”
Ma’mun Radwan observed attentively, “This room is an incubator. So what’s next?”
Mahgub replied with malicious delight, “Prison—if any of us means what he says!”
Then, remembering the worries he had brought back with him from al-Qanatir, he lost his enthusiasm for debate. Rising, he excused himself, alleging that his trip had tired him. He went to his room, where he sat thinking sadly at his small desk. When January ended, his present “welfare” would end. Yes, this life had seemed an inferno to him in the past. Compared to what awaited him in the future, it would seem a lost paradise. There was no doubt that the next three months would bring forms of suffering he had never imagined. So what was he to do? He tugged on his left eyebrow, frowning, while determination and defiance flooded his pale face.