The day for the Friday rendezvous arrived, and he went to the bus station shortly before the appointed time, wondering whether they would be true to their word. A magnificent automobile pulled up in front of the station right on time, and the beautiful face peered out of the window. His heart pounded and he hastened toward her. A door was opened for him and he took his place. Only then did he realize that Tahiya had come alone. He was amazed by that, but his amazement did not last long, because an all-encompassing delight overwhelmed him. Even so he asked with mock disapproval, “Where’s Fadil Bey?”

The girl ordered the chauffeur to drive on. Then she turned to Mahgub and said in a critical tone, “We set out together, but on the way he saw ‘some people’ and renounced the trip, leaving me to make his apologies to you.”

Mahgub looked down to hide his delight. He asked politely, “How are your excellent parents?”

“Praise God … they thank you for this lovely excursion.”

“It’s nothing, really.”

In an expectant voice she said, “We’ll see amazing things, isn’t that so?”

Although he was going there for the first time, he assured her, “Absolutely.”

Then they were silent. The girl was looking out the window, and he began to peer at her stealthily. This was the first time he had ever been alone with a female who really deserved to be described as feminine. And where were they? In a magnificent automobile that would “turn people green with envy”—he preferred that expression to saying, “turn heads.” His nostrils were intoxicated by a sweet fragrance—instead of the smell of sweat encased in dirt. He could have been a man gasping for air who is brought into a room pumped full of oxygen. He had not an iota of preparation for the creation of pure, celestial images. Thus his desire was channeled into one representation: that of throwing himself upon her. He felt his lust beginning to pulse through his blood. Looking outside, he wondered what had detained Fadil. Had he seen a pretty girl and chased after her? Or, had Tahiya herself contrived to get rid of him? His sexual conceit beguiled him. So he told himself that he and she were of one blood and that, as they say, “Blood creates sympathy.” Nothing was impossible. He told himself: If intuition can be trusted, you’ll see delightful things to your heart’s content. The chauffeur? He doesn’t count.

He couldn’t imagine that one and the same person could be both rich and chaste. “No doubt these drivers are trained to turn a blind eye. Yes, yes—why else would she have come alone?” An exceptionally beautiful maxim states, “When a man is alone with a woman, Satan is also present.” Where was Satan so he could bow and kiss his feet? He had long followed the devil as his disciple; wouldn’t the devil reward him affectionately for his loyalty? He moved his eyes back inside and felt moved to draw her into conversation. So he asked, “Are you at the university?”

She shook her head no and said with a smile, “Banat al-Ashraf College.”

He said delightedly, “Marvelous … marvelous.”

Tahiya asked him, “What do you plan to do once you’ve earned your degree?”

Her question caught him off guard. His contemporaries spoke of the future with sorrow and despair. Recent graduates hunched behind desks in ministries, where they used their diplomas to fan brows made feverish by the humiliation of government service at the eighth level. With typical audacity, however, he freed himself from his bewilderment and replied with confident certainty, even though he knew he was lying, “I’ll have to choose one of two paths: either entering diplomatic service or continuing on to a Ph.D. and teaching at the university.”

“Marvelous,” she commented, smiling.

Why did she use the same word he had? Was this she-devil mocking him or did she know nothing about such matters? Wishing to sound her out, he asked, “Which would you prefer?”

“Me? This is your concern.”

With shrewd cunning, he explained, “It concerns you too, since we’re related.”

Blushing, she said, “Diplomacy is nicer.”

He pictured Hamdis Bey going to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to recommend his appointment. Then he said, “That’s what I think. How beautiful it would be to spend one’s whole life stationed in Brussels, Paris, and Vienna.”

She giggled and asked, “Or in Damascus, Ankara, and Addis Ababa?”

He laughed along with her but added cleverly, “These are not capitals to which a relative of Hamdis Bey would be posted.”

They both smiled. He told himself contentedly that a discerning person grasps indirect allusions; and that sufficed for him at the moment. As for the future, his heart told him that this girl would never disappear from his life without a trace. Who could say? He did not lack boldness; indeed, perhaps he was too bold for his own good. He surrendered to the stream of his thoughts until he saw that the automobile was climbing the twisting road to the Pyramids Plateau. They left the car at the foot of the Great Pyramid.

He said, “The excavations are some distance beyond the Sphinx.”

They set off on a daunting path where their feet began to sink into the sand to be extracted only with some effort. It was late afternoon and the weather was cold even though the sky was clear and the sun shone down unveiled. By the light of day his clothes did not look elegant or attractive. He felt nervous and told himself sarcastically: Perhaps she’s wondering why his Excellency the Ambassador isn’t wearing a jacket. After walking for twenty minutes, they caught sight of the excavations, which were surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Then Mahgub stammered, “Here we are.”

The young man went up to the watchman, whom he dispatched with a note to the superintendent. The guard soon returned and admitted them. Then the inspector, who was a young man in his twenties, came. He was a friend of Mahgub’s and welcomed them warmly. He explained apologetically, “You’ll see the areas where visitors are allowed. These are where digging has finished, but I can’t accompany you because I’m really busy right now, and I don’t think you need a guide.” Mahgub nodded his head in agreement. “Fine. Here’s the Temple of the Sun. It’s part of the ancient temple complex known as the Temple of the Sphinx. Adjoining it is part of the rear section of the tomb of Prince Sennefer.”

Mahgub told himself: God has ordained, for a reason He alone knows, that I be alone with her today. If all of God’s wisdom is on a par with this, then I’m a believer! He escorted his precious treasure to the Temple of the Sun. They descended some recently constructed steps and found themselves in a granite-floored chamber with a row of columns on each side. There was no ceiling and nothing to astonish or excite a person’s amazement. The girl cast a disinterested glance around her, and Mahgub was no less disappointed. Determined to extol the importance of this excursion, however, he said, “Look at these columns and how they have withstood the ages!”

She smiled—almost sneering—and replied, “What difference would it have made if they had been obliterated?”

Pointing to the carvings on the columns, he said, “If we could read the hieroglyphics, we would learn astonishing things.”


“Certainly. Don’t you know pharaonic history?”

She shook her head no. Thus the first part of the visit came to an end. As they approached the tomb behind the temple, Tahiya asked, “Aren’t there other ruins besides this tomb?”

Sensing the boredom that prompted this inquiry, Mahgub felt nonplussed and answered, “There are many ruins, but we aren’t allowed to visit the others.”

Descending some steps, they found themselves in a long, narrow room the walls of which were decorated with carvings and frescoes. Their heads almost touched the ceiling. They cast a look around. Then the young man fixated on the frescoes and said in a faint voice, “Let’s look at the pictures. See how brilliant the colors are.”

They began near the entrance with the wall where the beneficiary of the tomb was portrayed with his wife on his left and their children between them. They were surrounded by servants and retainers. In the following panel they saw a picture of an expansive field that was being cultivated by oxen pulling plows. Standing here and there were naked peasants. Tahiya spent hardly any time at all on this image and moved on to the third panel. Mahgub realized that the pictures of naked people embarrassed her. As he examined these images with bulging eyes, a malicious smile spread across his lips. His heart beat faster, and he sensed even more strongly their isolation. He did not leave the picture of the field and did not turn his eyes away from the representations of naked people. Thus his soul was filled with this extraordinary reality: that they were alone together in front of naked people. He gazed so assiduously that he imagined the figures were becoming three-dimensional before his eyes and starting to throb with life as blood flowed through their veins, their bodies were washed with an incandescent reddish hue, and fleeting glances flashed in their eyes. Then their necks craned toward … the fleeing girl, whose cheeks were crimson from embarrassment. His heart pounded violently, and his limbs were inflamed by his strong emotion. He tried in vain to control himself. He remembered that she had come alone and recalled their conversation in the automobile, her affability, their isolation, and their presence in this tomb, which enveloped them with a centuries-old savagery. He imagined that the fruit was ready to pick, and his inner turmoil bubbled up until he became a savage beast deficient in both mind and volition. He swallowed, making a weird sound. His eyes were fixed on the naked figures, even though he no longer saw anything. He asked, “Haven’t you looked at this field that’s full of …”

She retorted tersely in a way that suggested boredom, “There’s nothing worth seeing.”

He turned his head and almost whispered, “How easily bored you are, Miss.”

He moved closer to her till he was beside her. Then he began to study along with her a picture of a servant kneading bread. He leaned over a little as if to inspect a detail of the picture, brushing against her shoulder and right hand. Then straightening again, he looked into her eyes and said in a quavering voice, “Don’t you like anything?”

She laughed delicately and replied frankly, “The fact is that we haven’t found anything to justify the trip.”

In a shaky voice, his eyes piercing hers, Mahgub said, “But the place is beautiful and calm.…”

She noticed his trembling voice and sensed his intense, fiery gaze. Then her eyes twitched and she looked down. Frowning anxiously, she said, “It’s time for us to leave.”

He nodded his head and tried to say something but found he could not speak. So he seized her hand, which she quickly took back, gazing at him with disgust. He paid no attention to this, took her hand again by force, and said—as emotion swept like a wave over the surface of his visage, “Let’s stay a little longer.” The devil of desire seized control of him. So he pressed her to him violently and put his arms around her. His mouth, which was burning to devour her, descended toward her. She, however, fended him off with her right hand and pulled her head away from him. Anger flared in her beautiful face, and she shouted at him in a voice that echoed disturbingly in the silent tomb, “You’re crazy! Let me go! Let go of my hand!”

Almost insane with torment, he pleaded with her, “Don’t be angry … I beg you … come to me.”

She broke free of his arms, however, with a wild force she did not know she possessed and shouted with stern determination, “Stay where you are! Don’t you dare touch me. Don’t you try to stop me.”

She headed for the door. He yielded and followed her, his head bowed, silent, weighed down by feelings of shame and embarrassment. They walked along silently, retracing the route they had traversed as happy friends. Her beautiful face was overcast by an angry dark red. She held her head high with pride and conceit. He did not know how to atone for his error. The longer the silence lasted, the more desperate and defeated he felt, as he wondered regretfully if he should have been more patient. He told himself sadly: Obviously a girl like Tahiya shouldn’t be treated like the butt collector. Perhaps he had not allocated to Tahiya a due amount of suave courtship. If only he had employed more deliberation and patience with her, he might well have succeeded. Damn unruly passion! It had cost him an auspicious opportunity.

When they reached the automobile, without glancing at him, Tahiya commanded, “Stay where you are!”

She climbed into the car, closed the door, and ordered the chauffeur to depart. He followed her with his eyes until she was lost from sight as the automobile quit the Pyramids Plateau, leaving him alone. He stayed where he was for a time—just as she had ordered—feeling gloomy. Then he shrugged his shoulders. As the spirit of contempt returned, he almost laughed at himself. He looked at the pyramid for a long time. Then he muttered sarcastically, “Forty centuries have watched my tragedy from the top of this pyramid.” A sudden wave of anger overwhelmed him, his pale face turned red, and his nostrils quivered. He felt like pelting Cairo with huge stones from the pyramids. His feet started moving, even though anger still devoured him. Why was he sad? She was just a female and no better than his girlfriend, the butt collector. Right. All the same, he had blown an opportunity, losing Tahiya and her father forever. He thought for a moment. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he murmured contemptuously, “Tuzz.”

Cairo Modern