A period of relative stability ensued.
Mahgub put his failure behind him and set to work enthusiastically. He met the editor of The Star and was commissioned to translate some pieces at a rate of fifty piasters a month. So his income rose to a pound fifty, and this sufficed to ward off the prospect of starving to death. It rendered his life tolerable at any rate. He began to work nonstop, night and day, at both his university studies and his undemanding journalistic chores. He had no free time and thus rarely thought about himself or ruminated about his afflictions. Whole days passed when he did not clench his fist in anger or yell “Tuzz!” with sardonic fury. Yes, he experienced a few brief moments of inevitable rage when he prepared to consume his vile food, for example, when he saw Ali Taha’s athletic body and happy smile, or when he remembered knocking on doors to beg for a few piasters. Except for these occasions, life proceeded with tolerable comfort.
March passed with its mild weather, fine winds, and a sky that was beginning to shed its winter cloak to welcome spring’s heat and fragrance. Next came April with its sun—as jaunty as any other upstart—and its dust-laden winds and bilious, grimy weather. His father’s usual monthly letter arrived at the beginning of May. In it he said he was sending the last pound note he could spare. He prayed for his son’s good fortune and success. Then he added that he was expecting his son’s support, which he so badly needed, from that time forward. He included the good news that, God willing, he would soon be able to move and perhaps even to walk with a cane. There was nothing in the letter they had not already agreed on, but Mahgub could not repress the rage that shook him as he remembered his black nights—nights when he was starving and delirious. He kept saying of his parents, “If only they had been … I would have been.… If only they had been … I would have been.…”
Then the examination came on the first of May, and the results were announced by the twentieth. The four friends, who had been classmates for four full years, all passed. The examination was for Mahgub not merely an academic exercise. As a matter of fact, it was his one and only opportunity to reap the reward for fifteen years of effort. So he was doubly delighted, breathing a huge sigh of relief. A graduate’s delight with his success is, however, brief. Indeed, it is a joy that lasts merely through the night the results appear. The next morning, especially if his circumstances resemble Mahgub’s, he is burdened by concerns of a new type—those of a young person whose student’s cloak has been shed only to confront alone the veiled tyrant, which brings opportunities for happiness and pitfalls threatening misery, called the future. The companions began to meet almost every evening at the university club where news reached them of classmates—with connections and family influence—for whom the doors of government service had opened. The four friends discussed their futures with positive comments and criticism, both optimistic and pessimistic. Ahmad Badir was wont to say contentedly, “My life’s plan isn’t going to change, because I’m not searching for a new career. Yesterday I was a student and a journalist. Now I can concentrate on journalism.”
Ma’mun Radwan did not know whether he would be sent to France or would stay in Egypt, but his objective, which was Islam, remained the same in either case. He once asked, “Couldn’t we start our real struggle with a Young Muslims Association? We would purify Islam of all the dusty pagan practices and reclaim its youthful spirit. We would broadcast our appeal across the entire Arab East before blanketing all Muslim lands.” Ali Taha’s objectives were unclear, and he seemed confused about how to achieve any of them. He was ready to get involved with politics, but only under the kind of political system that appealed to him, not with what was currently available. If he could find a party with progressive social principles, he would join without hesitation, but where was such a party? Should he wait for parties of this type to arise before entering politics or should he take the initiative now? It was doubtless easier to wait and also more judicious, since what use was there in advocating social reform in a country that was preoccupied by its constitution and pact with Great Britain. Perhaps it would be better to wait a little till he stockpiled more knowledge and information, and so on. He had not set his heart on a career appointment but also would not turn one down if it were offered.
Only Mahgub Abd al-Da’im was panic-stricken. Islam, politics, and social reform were topics that did not interest him. His sole concern was fending off death by starvation and that meant a job that paid a living wage. If he failed to find work, starvation threatened not only him this time but his parents as well. He was less concerned about them than about the awkward position in which they had placed him. What could he do? There actually was no patron who would help him, and no one received a government position without such support. He thought for a long time but did nothing more than write to tell his father that he was about to look for work and that he hoped to be able to fulfill his duty toward his family soon. He explained the difficulties he faced. Then the French professor of philosophy nominated Ma’mun Radwan for a fellowship at the Sorbonne and also recommended Ali Taha for an appointment at the university library, where he would find a suitable atmosphere for preparing an MA thesis. On hearing this, Mahgub compared his luck to his comrades’. Soon Ma’mun, child of the most miserable village in al-Gharbiya Province, would move to Paris. Soon Ali would settle comfortably into his chair at the library, preparing his thesis and announcing his engagement to Ihsan. Bravo, bravo! What was he doing? Would the black days of February return? He went to meet Ali Taha at the library a week after his appointment, expecting to find him overjoyed. The young man greeted him with his customary smile, but Mahgub did not detect in his expression the joy he had anticipated. Indeed, he imagined he saw instead an unfamiliar languor. He was totally amazed and so perplexed by this that he suspected the young man was attempting to hide his happiness behind the mask of listlessness. They talked at length, and Ali announced his intention to leave the position.
He said, “This is a time for me to wait and think while I discover a way to enter public affairs. Perhaps I’ll choose journalism when the moment is right.”
Mahgub was reminded of his work at The Star and of the vast wealth it showered on him. A sarcastic smile spread across his lips. Then Ali Taha continued, “I’m preparing to write a study of the distribution of wealth in Egypt.”
Crushed by his friend’s expectations, Mahgub asked bluntly if there was any possibility he could find a job at the library. The young man took him to the personnel officer to ask his opinion. The man was very blunt. He took Mahgub’s hand and told him sharply, “Listen, son. Forget your qualifications. Don’t waste money on applying for a job. The question boils down to one thing: Do you have someone who will intercede for you? Are you related to someone in a position of power? Can you become engaged to the daughter of someone in the government? If you say yes, then accept my congratulations in advance. If you say no, then direct your energies elsewhere.”
He left the library, his eyes clouded by despair and failure’s bitter taste. What he had heard wasn’t news to him. All the same, it infuriated him as if he were hearing it for the first time. Gloomy and despairing, he proceeded to stomp around the Orman Gardens. Oh, if only he had stayed on good terms with the Hamdis family! If only he had not ended that relationship by acting like a barbarian that day at the pyramids! Why couldn’t he ever do anything right? Why couldn’t he grasp his share of happiness and satisfaction? Why should hunger stalk him as if it could find no other prey? The world as a whole was happily ignoring him. Spring pulsed through the green boughs and crimson blossoms, flew high with the sparrows and larger birds, and danced on the red lips that were busy speaking to his right and left. The entire world was happy and blissful. Faces beamed. The Orman Gardens were a collage of human, animal, and plant delights. The earth itself and the sky were enveloped by a silent rapture surpassing any words. Would he starve to death in such a world? The question seemed bizarrely eccentric to him. He laughed mockingly, sarcastically, defiantly. He asked rebelliously, “Should I die of hunger? May rain never fall. May rain never fall.” How could he starve to death while rejecting conscience, chastity, religion, patriotism, and virtue too? Had anyone who was really depraved gone hungry in this world? No, weren’t they accused instead of appropriating all the good things in life? Why shouldn’t he print a classified ad in al-Ahram saying, “Young man of twenty-four with university degree, ready to undertake any job no matter how depraved. With a clear conscience, he will sully his honor, chastity, and conscience in exchange for seeing his ambitions satisfied.” Wouldn’t prominent figures fight for his services? But who would publish such an announcement for him? Who would take him by the hand? It was no use running to his former classmates, his professors, or to Hamdis Bey. There was only one person left, and that was Salim al-Ikhshidi, who was neither chivalrous nor benevolent. But who else was there?