The next morning he woke up tired and headachy. Amazingly, he was not hungry, although he remembered his hunger pangs from the previous night, for the ful sandwich had not lasted him through the evening. Instead it had left in its wake an excruciatingly painful hunger. He thought about skipping breakfast so he could have a sandwich and a half for lunch. That would allow him to feel more comfortable during the evening and thus study with his mind at ease. During the first hours of the day, his courses would distract him from his stomach. This fine idea was appropriate for a poor, distraught head. He would rely on habituation to defang the pain. Nevertheless, he had barely taken a sip of water and inhaled the morning breezes on the street when his beastly stomach flexed its muscles, and his resolve broke down. So he hastened to the beanery, oblivious to anything else. While eating, he began to reflect on what people said about Hindu ascetics. He was amazed by their extraordinary ability to withstand hunger. How could they cope with this pain with such bitter patience and derive an elevated pleasure from the whole experience? Oh, my Lord! How this unique word “pleasure” varied according to human temperament! In his case, both pleasure and privation were clearly demarcated. Even the butt collector had become too precious to touch. He went to the faculty, attended his first class, and then went to the garden to wait for the second one, which began two hours later. He sat on a bench surrounded by a bunch of students who were basking in the sun’s gentle rays, which February provided with a limited generosity. With youthful zeal, flitting from topic to topic as the spirit moved them, they discussed: the plump young woman whose volume was erratic and whose voice quavered when she rose to recite a text; Mr. Irving, the golden-haired Latin teacher, who should have been born a woman, whereas the brilliant young woman should have been a man; the cinema and how it threatened true culture and refined art; whiskey and hashish (which was more enjoyable); whether the 1923 constitution would be restored; who should be given more credit for founding the university (the king or the late Saad Zaghlul); whether members of the Young Egypt Association were sincere fellows or conspirators; who deserved more credit for the theater’s resurgence (Yusuf Wahbi or Fatma Rushdi); and which would be better for the nation: that Prince Farouk should complete his studies in Italy, as his father wished, or in England, as the British wanted. Opinions and comments filled the air, which rang with laughter and shouts. Mahgub participated in the talk to some extent, listening cynically as usual to what was said. Then he rose and strolled through the vast garden. When it was just about time for class, he shot back to the faculty. Once that class was over, he left—arm-in-arm with Ahmad Badir.

The youthful journalist said, “Congratulations on your new digs.”

Smiling, Mahgub replied, “Thanks.”

Ahmad Badir asked, with a crafty smile, “From a good family or a good-time girl?”

Mahgub immediately grasped his companion’s meaning and was relieved by it. With a mysterious smile, he replied, “This is a secret that cannot be disclosed.”

“Does she live with you or come every night?”

Mahgub proclaimed proudly, “As you know, cohabitation courts suspicions.”

The journalist nodded his head and puckered his lips. Then he exclaimed, “Lucky devil!”

As February’s days passed and the cares of life beat him down, hunger’s ghost haunted him night and day, because his stomach felt full for only limited moments. In addition to his schoolwork, he swept his room, cleaned his desk, made his bed, and washed his handkerchiefs, socks, and shirts. He did not know how to acquire necessities others would have considered a trivial expense whether a bar of soap, kerosene for the lamp, or the paper he needed. Some days he was forced to limit himself to one meal. Hunger ground him down. He grew ever leaner and his face more sallow, until he feared for his life, for his person, which he loved more than the whole world or which he loved even without loving the world. In a room that some of his friends thought a nest of fiery passion, he holed up, hungry and solitary. Why didn’t he ask his brethren to feed him? Had he asked Ali Taha, that young man would not have hesitated or delayed. If he had asked Ma’mun Radwan, he would have shared his food with him, even if only a morsel of bread. What prevented him? A sense of honor? Pride? Damn that! Hadn’t he spurned everything? Didn’t he disparage all values? What were honor and pride to him? Damn it! His philosophy was still merely words and nonsense. When would he become a true man? When would he liberate himself from honor and reputation as if brushing dirt from his shoe?

His distress peaked when he was required to buy a Latin text that cost twenty-five piasters. He was dumbfounded. He did not even have a millieme he could devote to that, and the exam loomed ever nearer. What was he going to do? To ask one of his friends was an odious, hateful solution—especially since he knew he would never be able to repay the money. So what was he to do? One day after another passed as his life became ever more disturbed. He had almost given in to despair when he remembered his mother’s distinguished relative—Ahmad Bey Hamdis. How could he despair when he had a notable relation like this? It was true that his father held a serious grudge against him, saying he was an ungrateful fellow who had forgotten his family and snubbed them. This was actually true, but his father was wrong to be angry. The bey’s conduct was appropriate. If his relative put on airs, so did all men like him. They had a right to be uppity. The stupid rural moral code was solely responsible for his father’s anger. Although the bey was conceited, that would not prevent him from viewing Mahgub’s plight with an affectionate eye and from extending a helping hand. So he should seek out the bey in good conscience instead of loathing him.

Cairo Modern