He left his room, fully resolved to visit his relative and try his luck. He spared no expense in getting ready. He pressed his fez and shined his shoes for a whole piaster—in other words, the price of an entire meal. Even so, he looked like an invalid with a pale face and emaciated body. He looked up his relative’s address in the telephone directory—al-Fustat Street in Zamalek—and hurried off.
On his way there, his imagination soared through a world of half-forgotten memories illuminating a distant period when he was eight and his relative was still Ahmad Effendi Hamdis, an engineer in al-Qanatir. The engineer’s family consisted of his lovely wife, their daughter Tahiya, who was four, and a little boy of two. It was a happy family that drew strength from the exceptionally beautiful lady of the house. At that time the Hamdis family had not grown too important to exchange social visits with the Abd al-Da’im family, and Abd al-Da’im went all out to honor this dear family. How often he rushed to the markets to buy chickens and pigeons to prepare a tasty meal for them! Mahgub himself had won the affection of Hamdis Bey’s spouse, who praised his intelligence and admired his cleverness. She allowed Tahiya to play with him in the yard and the street. What would Tahiya be like now? Would she remember him? That era had been buried by fifteen years. It was forgotten, obliterated, and finished. Memories of it had been carried away by time and neglect. If they were of any significance, some trace of them must lie in a deep layer of memory. The Hamdis family, however, had ascended and become significant, whereas his family had remained as nondescript and insignificant as ever. Al-Qanatir had been erased from life’s record and memories of it had sunk into the past’s gloomy stretches. Abd al-Da’im Effendi, as a clerk in a Greek-owned firm, had been dismissed from mind. What was Tahiya like? Wasn’t it possible she would remember him? That boy who carried her in his arms and ran with her from the house to the train station! Hamdis Bey could not have forgotten him; even if he had, he would remember him the moment he set eyes on him. He would not refuse to give him a hand.
He reached Zamalek and found his way—after asking for directions—to al-Fustat Street. Like Rashad Pasha Street, it was grand and still. On either side, towering trees were massed, and their branches met overhead, forming a canopy of red flowers. He cast an incredulous look at the mansions with his protruding eyes. This look seemed to ask, “Is it possible for suffering to penetrate these thick walls? Is what claimants to wisdom say true or do they enclose inflamed hearts?” With steady steps he approached the villa at number 14, where he asked the doorman in a refined accent and dignified tone for the bey, informing the man that he was a relative who had come to visit. So the Nubian doorman invited him into the parlor, and he entered a large, splendidly furnished chamber. He had never been in a house like this before or found himself in such a room. So he examined everything with a mixture of astonishment, admiration, and regret. Looking out a nearby window, he saw part of a garden that was filled with nature’s fragrant beauties. How would the bey receive him? Would his wife invite him in so she could see what had become of the boy now that he was grown? Would they remember the time in al-Qanatir and ask affectionately about their old friend Abd al-Da’im Effendi? Would they be moved by his illness and discern the motive that had induced Mahgub to knock on their door and then extend a helping hand to him out of their good will? What a fine room! Wasn’t it possible that he might own such a mansion that needy people would seek out?
Hearing footsteps, he looked toward the door. Then he saw the bey, whom he recognized at first glance, although his appearance had changed and he was older. As the bey approached, he rose and advanced toward him politely, extending his hand. They shook hands, and the bey scrutinized him. Then, smiling, the bey said, “So it’s you! I didn’t recognize the name at first, but then my memory came to my aid. Now you’re a man. How are your parents?”
I didn’t recognize the name at first! So it’s you!
Mahgub overlooked all that and replied respectfully, “My mother’s fine, but my father’s ill. In fact, his condition is serious.”
Then they sat down. The bey was wearing an overcoat. So it seemed he was preparing to leave the house. Leaning back in his chair, the man said, “I hope he’ll recover. What’s the matter?”
Mahgub said carefully and clearly, “My father had a stroke that has left him paralyzed in bed. He’s had to quit his job and things are rough.”
His hopes rested on this final phrase: things are rough. He stole a glance at the bey just after speaking but noticed no impact. Without any alteration in his glacial expression, the bey said, “That’s too bad. I hope you’ll give him my greetings. How about you, Mahgub—have you finished your studies?”
“Excellent … congratulations in advance.”
Then he rose, saying, “I’m so sorry to leave you now, but I have an important appointment.”
Full of despair and rage, the young man stood up, inwardly cursing a meeting that had lasted less than two minutes after a separation of fifteen years. Didn’t the bey grasp the motive that had led him to his mansion? Hadn’t the phrase “things are rough” suggested his reason for coming? With intense anxiety he followed the bey outside. He could grasp the bey’s arm and yell at him, “I’m destitute and need your help. Give me a hand!” He was ready to spring into action, risking everything, when he saw a young woman and an adolescent boy calmly mounting the steps nearby. His resolve collapsed, and his look honed in on the approaching pair. He recognized Tahiya at first glance, in spite of the big difference between the beautiful image in front of him and the one in his memory. From the resemblance between her and the teenage boy he realized that this was her brother. He forgot his resolve and was aware both of floating in suspended animation and of his pride. The bey smiled at his children. Gesturing toward Mahgub, he said, “Mr. Mahgub, my relative … Tahiya, my daughter and her brother Fadil.”
They shook hands. Smiling, Mahgub said, “I remember them clearly.”
The bey, who was moving toward the automobile that awaited him, said, “In that case, stay and visit with them.”
Should he? They exchanged curious, smiling glances. Fadil was a handsome youth of noble appearance. Mahgub hated him at first glance for his elegance, good looks, and nobility. Tahiya was an extraordinarily beautiful girl. Ihsan Shihata’s beauty might be more captivating, but Tahiya was a perfect model of elegance and pride, a living paragon of the aristocracy. She quickly dazzled his senses and he immediately discovered in her a vital symbol for the high society life to which his heart aspired. She set fire to his emotions and roused his ambition, even if she did not awaken his lust the way Ihsan did. She also did not awaken any lofty emotions in him, since he was unfamiliar with these. Instead his admiration for her was mixed with resentment, and his desire was blended with defiance. Deep inside he felt a longing to dominate and ravage her. He immediately decided to tarry with them. The three sat down in the magnificent parlor, and he felt certain that his shabby appearance was not lost on them. Even so, he felt only contempt for this fact, since he truly enjoyed an amazing ability to vanquish timidity and discomfort and to arm himself with boundless disdain.
Smiling, Fadil asked, “Do you really remember us, sir?”
Mahgub answered calmly, “We lived in the same town fifteen years ago when the bey was an engineer in al-Qanatir. We played together in our house’s garden.”
The youth said with astonishment, “I don’t remember anything from that time!”
Tahiya commented in a voice as polished as her appearance, “It’s almost the same for me.”
That hurt him. Papering over his emotions with a smile, he said, “You were both young, but I was eight.”
Nodding his head, the beaming Fadil asked, “Have you finished your studies?”
Was this question customary in aristocratic families? He answered, “I’ll be done in May.”
Mahgub immediately responded, “I’m even happier because I’ve discovered two relatives.”
Tahiya had been examining him with feminine eyes. Simply to make polite conversation she commented, “We haven’t visited al-Qanatir since we left.”
Uncharacteristically Mahgub felt at a loss. Should he invite them to visit al-Qanatir to see the house with its “garden” where they had played? Fadil, however, rescued him from his quandary by asking his sister sarcastically, “Have you visited Cairo, where you live? All you know are living rooms and the cinema.”
Tahiya, blushing, smiled and retorted, “What a sarcastic exaggerator you are! Don’t you realize that I know Cairo overall and have even visited the antiquities museum and the Pyramids like the tourists?”
An extraordinary idea occurred to Mahgub, who—on being released from his perplexity—immediately suggested, “The antiquities museum and the Pyramids are stale destinations. Have you visited the new excavations?”
Turning toward the speaker, Tahiya inquired, “New excavations?”
Pointing toward his chest as if personally responsible for the discoveries, he said, “The university’s excavations—a few minutes’ walk from the Pyramids—a strange world surrounded by barbed wire. All the people involved are my friends and colleagues. So when shall we go together to see them?”
Delighted, she replied, “I don’t know, but I’ll go some day. Isn’t that so, Fadil?”
Fadil, who was beginning to feel listless, replied automatically, “Of course, of course.”
Walking through the villa’s garden after his visit, Mahgub Abd al-Da’im sensed that it was possible that a type of what people call friendship might grow between him and his two cousins. He wondered what he could get out of this friendship if it did arise—or would he emerge from it as empty-handed as from his visit with the bey?