During the remaining days of January he busied himself searching for a cheap room. He had trouble, both because the neighborhood was heavily populated and because it was crowded with students who competed vigorously for isolated rooms on rooftops. Then, finally, he located a rooftop room in a new building on Jarkas Street, near Giza Square, but its newness proved a disaster for him when the building’s owner refused to rent the room for less than forty piasters. Mahgub was forced to accept this rent unwillingly. He told his friends he would move to a room in a new building, informing them with a wink that special circumstances required it. He said that, even though he knew he would be unable to afford trysts with the cigarette butt collector in the future. All the same, he preferred a lie to humiliation. He found that he would need to pay for transportation and to purchase a kerosene lantern. Looking through his meager furnishings, he found nothing he could spare except his small wardrobe, which was more like a trunk than an armoire. With the concierge’s assistance, he sold this secretly for thirty piasters. On the first of February, he bundled his possessions together, said goodbye to his friends, and moved to the new room. He paid the rent in advance, and then all he had left of his new allowance was sixty piasters, which had to last him the whole month: two piasters a day for food and kerosene, not to mention laundry—an unavoidable necessity. He could forget about paying a cleaner, and then there was shaving. As for his cup of coffee—that was a forbidden luxury. Among his miserable furnishings there was nothing he could spare or that would conceivably fetch a helpful price. His bed, which was his most important possession, was barely worth half a pound, whereas its utility was inestimable. He slept on top of it and stored his garments beneath it. He shook his head with its frizzy hair and mumbled, “The three months will pass like any others. I won’t die of hunger at any rate.” So he spent his first night in his new digs.
The next morning he left the room after closing everything. The concierge offered to clean it for him, but he rejected this offer with thanks. Actually he fled, because he could not sacrifice even a millieme to him. Reaching Giza Square, he cast his eyes around till they fell on a ful shop, which he glumly approached. He found groups of workmen seated on the curb in front of the shop devouring their food while talking and laughing among themselves. He told himself, “I’ve become one of these laborers Ali Taha pities.” He ordered half a pita bread stewed bean sandwich, which he ate with gusto after stepping aside. When he finished he was still hungry. By nature, he had a large appetite, and his normal breakfast was a plate of beans with a loaf of flat bread, not to mention an onion and some pickles, but now he could only eat two small snacks a day. Shrugging his shoulders, he headed toward the university, telling himself, “I desperately need to remain clearheaded, because either I succeed or kill myself.” The school day passed as usual, and he met all his friends. They spent a considerable amount of time in the Orman Gardens discussing their lectures. When lunchtime arrived, he left them as they headed to the cafeteria. He returned to Giza Square. Only the day before, he had eaten in the cafeteria with Ali, Ma’mun, and Ahmad Badir. His lunch had been a plate of spinach with lamb and rice and then an orange. But today! As he approached the ful shop, the proprietor greeted him with a smile, saying “Welcome.” This greeting hurt his feelings and deflated his pride. Next to the ful shop was a kebab stand, and the aroma of grilled meat wafted to his nostrils. He salivated and his stomach hurt. Then he took a complete pita bread sandwich, filled with ful midammis, and fled from the tantalizing scent. When he returned to his room and opened the door, the air smelled stale because he had left the window closed. Even so, he saw that dust covered his desk, his books, and his quilt, which lay on the bed. He realized that for the foreseeable future he would be a student, a servant, and perhaps a laundress, too. Vexed and rebellious, he set about his new tasks. This new life was hard and exhausting. He would doubtless continue with his studies. He would pursue them with stubborn determination, but hunger would not leave him alone and he would never feel rested. He lay awake nights, prey to hunger, or sat at his desk for long hours, his limbs frozen and his back bowed. His new circumstances might ruin his appearance and expose him to mockery and sarcasm. Perhaps hunger would debilitate and sicken him.
But he had no choice—he had to struggle stubbornly and obstinately. He was obliged to defy people, fortune, and the world at large. He had to become furious, to hate, and to fly off the handle. He kept working till midnight when he abandoned his desk for his bed. Lying down exhausted, he mumbled, “So ends the first night of my ordeal.”