He made his preparations. He bathed, ironed his suit, shirt, and fez, shined his shoes, shaved, and combed his hair. He looked like a new person, even if he was still skinny and his complexion sallow.
He arrived rather early at the home of the Society for Blind Women and found it to be a large, elegant house surrounded by a luxuriant and heavily shaded garden. He entered a large hall with a big stage at the end. Rows of green chairs were squeezed together. On either side, balcony doors overlooked the garden. Only a few guests were present when he made his entry. So he calmly selected a seat and started examining the place with jaded eyes. He wondered whether his trip through this house would actually lead him into the government. An unbroken flow of people was arriving. They were greeted by a group of lovely young women. After sitting there for twenty minutes, he found that the number of guests had increased substantially as women and men crowded together wearing the most splendid frocks and magnificent suits. Beauty was everywhere and fragrant perfumes spread throughout the room. Mahgub’s field of vision wandered as his protruding eyes hesitated between pretty faces, radiant throats, high backs, and swelling breasts. His blood rushed through his veins with renewed vitality as anxiety shot through his nervous system. He marveled at this dazzling world. Where had it been hiding? The fine clothes and precious jewelry, of which a single piece would suffice to support all the students at the university and all these women—how many there were and how beautiful. It was truly unfortunate that at least one man hovered around each of them. Most were speaking French fluently—these fallen Muslims! It almost seemed that French was the house’s official language. How did they communicate with the blind women? Sarcasm (blended with spite) washed over him, but not because he felt chauvinistic about his country’s language. He was merely trying to marshal reasons for an instinctive hatred. He wondered where His Excellency, Mrs. Umm Salim’s son, might be. He glanced toward the entrance in time to catch the arrival of a dazzlingly beautiful lady, whom he recognized at first sight. He remembered al-Qanatir in a bygone era and recalled the youthful engineer of al-Qanatir and his gorgeous wife. Yes, it was Hamdis Bey’s wife, and no one else. Behind her came the bey, followed by Tahiya and Fadil. He trained his eyes on the family as they made their way to their seats in the front row. His pale face reddened as he remembered their trip to the Pyramids. He imagined he heard the car door clanging shut again, leaving him outside. Clenching his teeth, he felt an infernal desire to assault this elegant, haughty maiden. Oh, if only one of these beautiful women would take his arm, allowing him to parade past his “relative’s” family! That noble family had taken the trouble to visit this chamber in order to be charitable and merciful. He must prevail, unrestrained by any impediment or law, prick of conscience or moral maxim. When would he sit with them in the front rows? In a magnificent tuxedo, not a journalist’s suit! Before leaving this reverie, he spotted in the distance Mr. Salim al-Ikhshidi, who was moving forward with his customary composure and leisurely gait, as if alone in the chamber. He recognized with a nod of his head many of the upper echelon—women and men. Mahgub’s eyes followed him till he sat down. Mahgub was filled with admiration and envy. This was a real life, an enjoyable life, a life to satisfy all of a person’s drives. Al-Ikhshidi was his role model, and what an ideal role model he was. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning to his right he saw Mr. Ahmad Badir seated beside him. They shook hands warmly, and Mahgub asked, “Sir, what has brought you here?”
The young man looked at him as if to say: What brings you? He answered with astonishment, “My work! Aren’t I a reporter?”
Mahgub told him, “I’m a reporter too—for The Star magazine.”
They both laughed. Ahmad Badir was about to ask his companion whether he planned to become a professional journalist when the curtain rose. A distinguished lady with a shining forehead and a round, dignified face appeared on the stage. Although almost sixty, she had retained vestiges of her beauty. She was greeted with animated, long-lasting applause, which she received with the serenity of a person accustomed to it. She bowed her head to greet her admirers and then spread out a piece of paper. Mahgub studied her for a long time. He heard Ahmad Badir say in a low voice, “Mrs. Ikram Nayruz, founder of the home.”
Right. He had grasped that intuitively. He wondered what role she would play in his life.
Ahmad Badir continued, “She’s an old woman but fond of young men!”
Realizing that Ahmad Badir would be chattier than usual, Mahgub actually was delighted, because it was vexing to plunge into a new world without a guide. Meanwhile Mrs. Ikram Nayruz was delivering her introductory remarks in a calm, melodious, and lovely voice. She welcomed her guests, praising the benevolence that had nested in their bosoms. Then she discussed the Society for Blind Women and its lofty goals. She delivered her speech in Arabic, but there was scarcely a sentence that lacked a grammatical error or an ill-chosen word. The two friends exchanged a smile.
Ahmad remarked, “There’s no cause for concern. There’s no one here who could detect a mistake.”
Mahgub pretended to defend her: “Her mistakes can be forgiven. Isn’t she speaking a foreign tongue?”
The audience watched a scene from a play by Molière. Madame Thérèse sang a French song that made a profound impression. Next everyone was invited to another room, a circular chamber that had been cleared for dancing. At the back of the room was an Italian band. Tables were set out on either side of the chamber. Music played, dancers danced, and drinks were passed around. The two friends stood chatting at the entrance to one of the balconies as they watched the dancing. Mahgub had never witnessed social dancing before, and it excited his astonished admiration. He saw chests that almost touched breasts and arms that encircled waists. He was amazed that these people could control their impulses. He wished he were dancing. Scrutinizing faces with anxious bulging eyes, he whispered to himself, “Wealth. Wealth equals sovereignty and power. It’s everything in the world.” His eyes happened upon a swelling bosom that almost made him dream it would poke through the diaphanous white gown. His lust aroused, he raised his eyes to discover his sweetheart’s face. What he found was an ugly crone, even if she was a coquette. He nudged his companion, directing his attention to the woman as he whispered, “How can an old woman have such breasts?”
Mahgub frowned in anger or mock-anger and replied, “Let the blind women go to hell! A bar’s better and longer lasting.”
His eyes made the rounds once more and he noticed Tahiya Hamdis. He spotted her dancing with a handsome young man with rippling muscles. He was as tall as Ma’mun Radwan and as powerfully built as Ali Taha. He sensed that he—that other young man—could floor him with a single punch. He scowled and asked Ahmad Badir about him.
His friend said, “A deputy attorney and a nationally ranked tennis player.”
Mahgub sighed. Had he been able to become great then—even by a crime for which he would be put to death—he would not have hesitated. What stopped him from being one of these young people? The whole world! The existential forces that shaped history, established social classes, and apportioned fortunes had made Abd al-Da’im Effendi his father and al-Qanatir his place of birth. Then he heard Ahmad Badir whisper urgently to him, “Look at the balcony!” Turning his head that way he saw a lady whose face was almost hidden by a fan of ostrich feathers. Bowing over her hand was a man well advanced in years. When he straightened up, Mahgub recognized him from photos published in the papers from time to time.
Ahmad Badir commented, “This is Anis Bey Ibrahim’s wife and the pasha is one of her admirers. She’s said to be finagling to have her husband named a pasha.”
The music stopped, and many people scampered to the balconies and garden. So the two young men withdrew to the balcony. Ahmad Badir said, “When I first started attending these social affairs, my status brought me endless suffering. I imagined that everyone had nothing to do except to examine me from head to foot. How about you?”
As Mahgub considered his outfit and pale, withered face, blood rushed to his cheeks. Soon, however, he was able to tap into his brashness and insolence. Then he replied calmly, “As we stand here, I feel I’m a man wandering through a herd of cattle!”
He had barely finished his statement when he found himself face to face with Hamdis Bey. His heart pounded violently. He favored his relative with a glance that he wholeheartedly attempted to cleanse of fear and anxiety. He wondered how the man would address him. What would he say? What would he do?
Hamdis Bey recognized him, smiled, and held out his hand, saying, “How are you, Mahgub?”
They shook hands and parted without incident. Astonishment overwhelmed him. Tahiya must have kept the affair to herself! He had never thought that possible. He realized that Ahmad Badir was asking him a second time, “Do you know Hamdis Bey?”
He answered proudly, “Of course, naturally. He’s my mother’s paternal uncle’s son.”
“Why haven’t you ever told us about this distinguished relative?”
As though still buoyed by his delightful salvation, Mahgub replied in the same tone, “Tuzz!”
They descended the steps to the garden, and his eyes kept searching for Salim al-Ikhshidi. When would he introduce him to the lady? Was there any benefit to be hoped for? He passed clusters of women and men and examined an elite group of celebrities, some of whom were reserved while others were quite vivacious. A strange-looking individual attracted his attention. The gentleman had a huge, ill-proportioned body and a potbelly. He seemed animate matter that had yet to be molded into anything. He walked with his legs splayed apart as though disabled. All the same, he appeared to be esteemed, loved, and honored. He chatted with the high and mighty with an easy familiarity, teasing them and nonchalantly raising his voice while conversing with them or guffawing loudly. Mahgub was amazed and asked, “Since you know everything about everyone, who’s that?”
Ahmad Badir laughed and said, “How could you not know him? Azuz Darim was once a respected government official. Then he was forced to resign on a morals charge. So he worked in the private sector. He knew influential people and was returned to government service, prospering there without relinquishing his private enterprise.”
“How can he do both?”
“His business is his elegant apartment, which contains a gaming table and superbly endowed young women.”
Mahgub thought for a time, feeling depressed and disturbed. How could he excel in such a society? These people surpassed him in his own cynical principles, even without having to reason through them. They were just as irresponsible and daring as he was. So what was the use? Wouldn’t it be better for him to become a reformer like Ma’mun Radwan or Ali Taha? His reflections were interrupted by the appearance of a young man as handsome as the full moon. He was slender, extraordinarily good looking, smooth-complexioned, possessed of fascinating eyes, attractive features, and gleaming hair. He moved like a gazelle, exuding charm that was both feminine and masculine at once.
Mahgub could not keep himself from stammering, “My God! How handsome he is! Do you know him?”
Smiling, Ahmad Badir said, “Ahmad Midhat. He’s universally celebrated. They quite rightly call him ‘The Star of the East.’ ”
“A government official?”
“Thirty pounds! Who is his sponsor?”
Badir laughed. “Idiot, he’s his own sponsor.”
The bell rang to call the guests, who were scattered throughout the garden, back to the recital hall. They all returned to take their seats in a calm and orderly fashion. The curtain soon rose to reveal a troupe of upper-class maidens in ravishing pharaonic costumes. They danced together a fascinating tableau that was sensitively expressed and that stole everyone’s heart. Even Ahmad Badir sang softly a line from Sayyid Darwish’s song, “Don’t let anyone disparage Egyptian women.” The audience applauded enthusiastically and appreciatively for the dancers.
When the beauty pageant was announced next, a tremor of desire and interest traveled through the audience. Onlookers were pervaded by an amazing delight. The panel of judges appeared on the stage. The pageant was the most enjoyable part of the soirée; in fact it was the only segment that aroused universal interest. After scrutinizing the judges carefully, Ahmad Badir smiled ironically and extracted from his pocket a card on which a word or two was written. He folded it till it looked like a twig and slipped it into Mahgub’s pocket, saying, “Keep this card till the winner is announced. When you unfold it, you’ll find the name of the beauty queen.”
Mahgub asked with astonishment, “How do you know?”
“Hush! Pay attention!”
Everyone’s eyes were directed to one place as the first contestant was called. She rose on the stage’s firmament like a luminous star; she was that brilliant and elegant. She paraded past in a gown of white silk, smiling quietly and graciously, although she failed to disguise her anxiety.
As ironic as ever, Mahgub inquired, “Why don’t they choose judges who have inside experience?”
Everyone stared and some held binoculars. Others jotted down their observations in notebooks. The presentation and scrutiny continued without anyone being troubled by weariness or boredom. Faces as beautiful as the moon passed by in succession. Then the panel of judges disappeared for their consultation. A hubbub ensued as debate grew animated and many wagers were placed. The panel soon returned and announced the winner’s name: Miss Huda Haydar. Everyone applauded, her father the loudest of all. Mahgub drew the card from his pocket, unfolded it, and found that the winner’s name—Huda Haydar—was clearly inscribed on it. With an astonished expression on his face he asked his companion, “What’s the meaning of this?”
Ahmad Badir smiled—proud of his prognostication and his behind-the-scenes knowledge. He wanted to leave his friend in the dark, but Mahgub gave him such a hard time he felt compelled to silence him. So he said in a voice that was in no way exultant, “I learned this by accident. I saw the winner at the foot of the Great Pyramid two days ago with the journalists who are on the panel of judges. Does it astonish you?”
Mahgub Abd al-Da’im hated to be truly astonished. So he reined himself in and commented sullenly, “Of course not; nothing astonishes me. The appointment of government officials is rigged, the award of contracts is rigged, and elections themselves are rigged; so why shouldn’t the choice of a beauty queen also be rigged?”
The party was almost over when Mahgub remembered why he had come. He saw Mr. Salim al-Ikhshidi heading toward one of the doors. So he said goodbye to his friend and chased after al-Ikhshidi. The gentleman had forgotten all about him. They shook hands and walked together into the next room, which was large and magnificently furnished. Mrs. Nayruz was presiding over a small group of friends. Mahgub summoned his daring to keep from feeling awkward. Together with his patron he approached the distinguished lady. Al-Ikhshidi bent humbly over her hand and introduced him to her in his calm, resolute voice: “Mr. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im, representing The Star! A university graduate, he admires the astounding renaissance Your Excellency has orchestrated.”
Mahgub bowed to her, and she extended her hand, saying, “I’m proud of the new generation.” Then she concluded in French, “The vase is full of dirty water and must be cleansed and refilled.”
Mahgub replied in French, “That’s true, my lady.”
Al-Ikhshidi provided publicity for her in some newspapers, either personally or through the resources of friends. He hoped to add whatever Mahgub might produce to his previous credits. The lady directed some questions to the young man to gauge his cultural acuity, specialization, and aspirations. Mahgub answered suavely. When the conversation veered in a different direction, al-Ikhshidi excused himself and his protégé. As he left the premises, when saying goodbye to Mahgub, he told him, “It’s all up to your pen.”
Really? Did the realization of his hopes depend on his article about the charity event today? He returned to Giza, lost in thought and under the sway of his dreams. He passed a sleepless night like those back when hunger had kept him awake nights in February. He wandered through a valley of dreams and hopes. Then he recalled at length the soirée where he had spent half of his evening—how lovely luxury was: the spectacular affluence, beauty’s manifestations, the splendor of passion, and the insanity of licentiousness. This was the dazzling life for which his spirit pined.