Fifty piasters! The sum truly was insignificant, but how was he going to get hold of it? He had actually earmarked his desk and books to sell to support him during the month before his first paycheck. Do you suppose he would ever receive this salary? Who would give him the price of the ticket? Ma’mun Radwan had gone to Tanta to say goodbye to his family before leaving for Europe. So that only left Ali Taha. What was inevitable was inevitable.

He went to the university library Saturday morning, and Ali Taha greeted him with his customary smile, but Mahgub saw at first glance that his friend was feeling sad. This was not the Ali Taha he knew; the brilliant light of his eyes had gone out. His vivacious, energetic spirit had died. All of this might have delighted Mahgub in other circumstances. Today, however, he was worried that this sorrow might prove a stumbling block for his visit’s objective. Pretending not to notice his friend’s expression, he asked, “How’s your study coming?”

Ali Taha swelled with vexation and replied with palpable despair, “I don’t know. I can’t do anything now.”

Mahgub frowned, pretending to sympathize. Secretly cursing his inescapable bad luck, he said, “May God suppress this evil. What are you talking about?”

Ali had a nervous temperament and could barely conceal his secret. So he said, “As you might guess, it concerns Ihsan!”

Cold water might as well have been splashed on Mahgub’s face. His interest aroused, he stammered inquisitively, “Your fiancée?”

“My fiancée,” Ali sighed with brokenhearted grief.

Mahgub’s astonishment increased. He commented as if wanting to know everything, “I don’t understand at all.”

Ali hesitated for a second. Should he reveal his secret? He was not secretive by nature and Mahgub was a friend with whom he had shared the story of his love. Moreover he badly needed to talk about it. So in a voice that clearly revealed his deep affliction and despair, he said, “I don’t either. I can’t tell you how dumbfounded and perplexed I’ve been. I keep asking myself: What happened? What wretched, furtive motives exuded their poisons in the dark? Life was proceeding beautifully. We were in love, and our love increased over time. We understood each other and grew closer as the days passed. We knew our past and appreciated it. We were conscious of our present and were satisfied with it. We had hopes for our future and looked forward to it. We met repeatedly and felt perfectly comfortable with each other. Our affection sank deep roots.”

He fell silent for a moment. His companion’s eyes never left his gloomy face. Then, enchanted by the fervor of the conversation, he burst out, “What spoiled our life? It’s incredible, but that’s the unvarnished truth. How did this occur? She began to change. At first the change was slight, but it didn’t escape my wakeful, vigilant heart. I detected an anxious, perplexed look in her eyes. She was absentminded at times, and her smiles grew lukewarm. She began to avoid talk about love. She was on guard against any mention of our hopes and promises. I privately vowed to be patient for a time, although I felt bitter anxiety and painful doubt. But this was to no avail, because nothing changed. I shared my suspicions with her, telling her that our love was worth nothing if she kept secrets from me. But she accused me of exaggerating and apologized for any change by referring to her indispositions. So my torment and pain doubled. How could I believe that a love like ours would suddenly die, without any warning? I longed for her but our meetings became a living hell. Finally she broke up with me. Can you believe that? I went crazy, stalking her. I sent her letters and persevered stubbornly, pursuing her. So she agreed to meet me. She arrived shattered by sorrow and shame. I shouted at her that her changes would drive me insane.”

The young man ceased speaking. Mahgub had been following him intently, hanging on his words with such interest that he nearly forgot why he had come. He pretended to be deeply moved in order to encourage his friend to continue speaking.

Ali said, “I told her that her transformation would drive me insane. Then she said that meeting me really did drive her crazy. She told me that our hopes were destined to expire and that we should tend our sorrow sagely, satisfying ourselves with the inevitable conclusion. Should I agree to suffer without any attempt to defend myself? Should I forsake my happiness without asking why? She told me that it was her parents’ desire and that she had given up attempting to change their minds after trying everything possible. She finally begged me to withdraw so I wouldn’t add to her suffering.”

The young man looked at Mahgub for a long time till he lost some of the intoxication of his recital. Then he blushed and asked, “Why am I boring you? Everything’s over. My hopes are shattered. Studying wisdom is pointless.”

Mahgub was totally amazed. Why would Uncle Shihata Turki, a cigarette vendor, reject Mr. Ali Taha? Did he think the young man wasn’t fit to marry into his family? Or did the man want his daughter to finish her studies and support his family? Then something occurred to him. He asked his friend, “Isn’t it possible that some rich and prominent fellow wants the girl and her father would like to marry her to him?”

Ali raised his eyebrows anxiously but said nothing. Remembering the original goal of his visit, Mahgub now wished to pave the way for it. Ali’s confession delighted his soul, which felt energized and joyful. All the same, he told his friend, employing a preacher’s jargon, “In any event, you shouldn’t surrender to sorrow. I tell you that no matter what the true motive for this rupture was, your girl no doubt played some role. So consider her something that never existed and toss the whole affair—cause and effect—into the wastebasket.”

Ali protested sorrowfully, “The wound hasn’t healed yet!”

“This is what you get for yielding to your theory about love. Don’t you see that dogs deal with love in a way that’s more conducive to happiness and contentment? We’re always responsible for our own suffering.”

Ali remained silent. So the preacher continued, “Forgetfulness … forgetfulness. Do you want to turn into one of those maniacs whose lives were ruined by love?”

Silence prevailed. A powerful reason for him to loathe Ali Taha had now been erased. He no longer hated him the way he had. The weight of his aversion was lightened and he began to ask himself: What harm does it do him to lose Ihsan? He still has his job, youth, and good looks. Since Ihsan had long set Mahgub’s emotions on fire, it was a relief that his rival had not won her—even if a third party had. He stood up, preparing to obtain what he wanted. Leaning toward his friend as they shook hands, he said in a scarcely audible voice, “Mr. Ali, your brother needs fifty piasters till the end of the month.”

Ali thrust a hand in his pocket and then handed Mahgub the money. Mahgub took it, saying, “Thank you, thank you, dear friend.”

He left the library feeling good, asking himself as he tugged at his left eyebrow: When will my pocket be filled with the government’s money?

Cairo Modern