He asked for the office of Mr. Salim al-Ikhshidi, secretary to Qasim Bey Fahmi, but was told, “No, he’s office manager.” They gave him directions. A tall, broad-shouldered office messenger with a luxuriant mustache stood at the door. He asked permission to enter from this man, who disappeared for a moment and then returned to say in a gruff voice, “Enter.” Then he found a room packed with seated people, men and women. Al-Ikhshidi and his office were obscured by a half-circle of lower-ranking employees who were presenting their files. The young man looked at his surroundings and asked himself: When will this mass of humanity clear out? When would he get a chance to put in a word? Al-Ikhshidi’s voice resounded through the room, and its tones rang with authority and power, as he commented, criticized, and chastised. The voices of his subalterns whined with explanation, interpretation, and apology. The subordinates eventually collected their files and left, one after the other, until the director was finished with them. Then he noticed the young man, offered him his hand, and invited him to have a seat. Next he turned to the visitors, lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and puffed out the smoke with pleased exhilaration. Delight and pride lit up his face while Mahgub stole some fleeting glances at him. He was smug and happy. Doubtless he had breakfasted on butter, cream, and honey. He looked healthy and contented in his large chair. Mahgub hated him and wondered sarcastically why he had not hung in his large office a picture of his revered mother—Umm Salim—in her black gallabiya soiled with straw. As usual the visitors came with special requests. Some presented pleas to be exempted from school fees, a lady asked for his help in advancing her son to the fifth level, a man asked that a relative be transferred to Cairo after spending twenty years serving in rural areas, and a young man asked permission to see the bey to present a composition about a child’s life to the age of five. He heard all these people respectfully and deferentially refer to Salim as “Your Excellency,” while he responded deliberately, haughtily, and arrogantly. Mahgub waited patiently with pained anxiety till this administrator had time for him. Then the miracle occurred, and the room was empty.

Al-Ikhshidi turned toward him and said, “This is how I spend my day. Then it resumes at night in the bey’s mansion.”

Mahgub wondered resentfully: Do you want me to pray to God to relieve you of your post? Then, smiling, he said flatteringly, “The more judicious a person is, the more judgments he’s asked to make.”

Al-Ikhshidi nodded his large head. He never tired of extolling his own grandeur and of mocking the merit of others. He was known for his sharp tongue and for attacking enemies and friends alike. It was truly said of him that he had constructed his life on the basis of continual labor, self-promotion, and slander of his competitors. His egoism, however, portrayed most of those in contact with him as competitors, and therefore only a few were spared his malice. He paid no attention to what was said of him, and it seemed he unconsciously preferred for people to call him atrocious rather than excellent. If some negative comment about him came to his attention, he would say disdainfully, “Everyone who loves truth is hated.”

Nodding his large head, he told the young man, “I work nonstop, but has that protected me from people’s slander? Far from it! Some people will never cease repeating that al-Ikhshidi advanced to the fifth level without spending even two years in the sixth.”

Pretending to be incredulous, Mahgub said, “Was the merit promotion system devised to discount qualifications?”

“On the face of it I work in a ministry. The fact of the matter is that it’s a dunghill. Now, my dear friend, what do you need?”

Mahgub swallowed, sat up straight, and then in a hopeful tone said, “Salim Bey, you’re a former neighbor and a former classmate, and our refuge in difficult times. Your Excellency, my father is bedridden, and we’re suffering. I’m in a desperate crisis. My money has run out. So allow me to ask you for some assistance.”

Examining him with round eyes, Al-Ikhshidi saw he was emaciated. He had no training at all, however, in giving and no background in charity. He was not one of those “weaklings” whose hearts are swayed by visible manifestations of misery. Thus he considered the young man and his wants a ridiculous impediment to his chain of thoughts. His first reaction was to act to eradicate this impediment. But what would be the appropriate thing to do? Should he apologize to the young man? He hated apologizing, especially to the powerless. Then, remembering something, he asked the youth, “Are you good in French and English?”

Mahgub felt disappointed. He had been expecting more than a pointless question. All the same, he replied, “Yes, I’m good at both.”

“Excellent. Do you know the magazine The Star? The owner is my friend and classmate. He might welcome you as a favor to me.”

“Would I translate some pieces?”

“Yes, articles … humorous pieces. Take my card to him. I’ll speak with him about you by phone. You must excuse me now; I’m going to present my files to the bey. Isn’t this the most honorable and expeditious solution for you?”

Al-Ikhshidi stood up, and—taking a file in his left hand—held out his right to the youth. Shaking hands, the miserable young man asked, “Does this kind of work pay well?”

Al-Ikhshidi laughed—Mahgub hated him intensely then—and said, “Perhaps you’ve heard about the wealth of journalists! It will be enough for you if your immediate needs are satisfied.” Al-Ikhshidi preceded him to the door. Mahgub felt extremely apprehensive and was about to shout to request a few piasters, but the door opened before he could, and the office messenger’s tall, burly body appeared. So he quit the room carrying away the card. He left the ministry gloomy and anxious, since his crisis was unresolved. The Star magazine, even if his initiative met with success, was a long-range solution. So what was he to do? How could he get hold of the cash? It was going on three p.m. and the weather was as cold as it had been that morning. He was walking along the street aimlessly, his mind clouded by despondency. The whole world had rejected him. Making a threatening fist, he said resentfully and angrily, in a voice that was almost a sob, “The whole world will pay for all my pains!” He had realized that his only hope was to ask Ali Taha and Ma’mun Radwan. He hated asking them but had no alternative now. The inevitable is inevitable. As he headed for the tram he wondered which would be better. Each of them was a noble young man, but he did not love Ali whereas he did not hate Ma’mun. Moreover, Ma’mun was a religious, God-fearing person who could be trusted to keep a secret, leaving it in the realm of mystery. He would most likely be forbearing if he was late in repaying his debt.

He went to the hostel and headed for Ma’mun Radwan’s room. The young man welcomed him with delight and asked, “Why did you skip class today?”

Mahgub replied, “Bad stuff, brother. I’m really in a bind.”

With his large, black eyes, Ma’mun examined his face and was alarmed by how emaciated and despondent it looked. He asked with concern and compassion, “What’s wrong, Mr. Mahgub?”

Without beating around the bush, he replied, “Rough times. I’ve lost my last millieme. I don’t have even a millieme to buy the text for Latin.”

Ma’mun stood up without uttering a word, went to the clothes rack, thrust his hand into the pocket of his jacket, and took out three ten-piaster bills, which he handed to the young man. Incredulous, Mahgub took them. He opened his mouth to thank his friend, but Ma’mun hastily put a finger to his lips, mumbling, “Hush.”

Mahgub left the hostel, oblivious to everything. He did not even give a fleeting glance to Ihsan’s house. He was both pleased and furious; pleased at obtaining the money and furious that he was indebted to Ma’mun Radwan.

Cairo Modern