The next day, late in the morning, he was pacing back and forth in his tiny room, thinking about this all-important article. What should he say? How should he begin? What would his conclusion be? Then he challenged himself to select the key points. Finally his reasoning led him to an elegant method of displaying these significant points. He spread out a piece of paper, divided it down the center with a line, and gave a title to each section.

   The Truth

   What I Should Write

  1. Ikram Nayruz is the daughter of a man who profited from the British occupation of Egypt.
  2. She loves young men.
  3. She is proficient in French but weak in Arabic.
  4. The Society for Blind Women is a saloon.
  5. Her guests are just like her.
  6. These guests are interested in everything except blind women.
  1. Ikram Nayruz’s family has a long, patriotic history.
  2. She is a loyal wife and a devoted mother.
  3. At home in Arab and French cultures.
  4. Her philanthropic projects.
  5. Her guests are just like her.
  6. Her benevolence.

In this way he educed the key points for this important topic. Then he sat at his desk, preparing to write. He had scarcely picked up his pen, though, when he heard a knock on the door, for the first time since he had moved there from the hostel. Upset and angry, he rose and opened the door. A huge body was blocking the doorway. Then he recognized the man and his heart pounded with terror. It was Salim al-Ikhshidi’s messenger—in the flesh. He looked up at the man inquisitively and eagerly. The smiling man told him—albeit in a gruff voice, “His Excellency the Bey wants to see you now.”

“Salim Bey?”



“In his office at the ministry.” Then the man told him how he had gone as ordered by his boss to the hostel and how the doorman there had described the location of Mahgub’s new dwelling. But Mahgub heard none of this. He was dressing quickly and asking himself, “What is it? Is it possible? But so quickly? This is flat-out magic! The woman is an empress. No, a she-devil. Say, instead, a goddess. Oh, how I fear the summons is for something else and that this insane delight will be in vain. But why would he summon me if not for this?”

They set off for the ministry, reaching it around 12:30. He went to the office of al-Ikhshidi, who welcomed him with unprecedented graciousness. He then ordered the messenger to admit no one to the office until he said so. Mahgub sat down near him and the other man turned his calm, triangular face toward Mahgub, but this time the calmness was a mask concealing violent emotions. Smiling, he said, “I’ve summoned you about an issue relating to your future.”

That was what he wanted to hear! His delight would not be stillborn. Emotion got the best of him as he replied in a quavering voice, “I haven’t finished the article yet.”

“Drop that article and forget about Ikram Nayruz. A much more beneficial opportunity has presented itself like a nearby fruit that needs someone to pluck it.”

His staring eyes were full of questions as he replied, swallowing, “With your help, I will.”

Al-Ikhshidi took his time, scrutinizing the young man’s face with a cunning Mahgub did not notice, because he was observing nothing. Then he volunteered, “I’ve found a position.”

Mahgub’s pale faced turned red during the ensuing silence. Then al-Ikhshidi proclaimed, “Level six!”


“A secretary.”

Panting, unable to believe his ears, he asked, “Whose secretary?”

Al-Ikhshidi lit a cigarette, showing no mercy toward his fretful companion. Ignoring Mahgub’s question, he said, “This beautiful opportunity is a treasure for the person who will seize it but an occasion for regret for anyone who hesitates. Do you remember how the flooding of the Mississippi River some years ago proved a blessing for the cotton crop of our nation, where land was being left fallow?”

The young man was burning with eagerness and declared with firm determination, “It’s inconceivable, Your Excellency, that I would hesitate.”

Al-Ikhshidi was delighted by Mahgub’s eagerness, and his own anxiety was somewhat calmed. Then he continued, “I’ve previously hinted that to receive you must be ready to give.”

What could he give? What did he own that he could give away? He felt choked by this unexpected disappointment, and the gleam in his eyes went out. In a devastated, inquisitive tone he protested, “But … how could I give anything?”

“Money’s not the only hot commodity on the opportunities market.” Mahgub sighed audibly. “Man has some characteristics that are not dependent on wealth. The question boils down to this: Are you daring, cunning, and deserving of good things or are you tossed by your fantasies on life’s beach, where they are trod underfoot like dirt?”

His anxiety was visible in his bulging eyes. The young man even removed his fez and wiped his frizzy hair. Then he quickly replaced it and said, “I hope I won’t disappoint you.”

“That’s why I thought of you. My hunch was on the money.” He looked at Mahgub with round eyes and asked, “Would you consent to marry?”

He was stunned. It had never occurred to him to get married. He did not say a thing. Al-Ikhshidi was staring at him. In a sarcastic tone, he commented, “Now it’s my turn to goad you on.”

“Couldn’t I have time to reflect?”

Al-Ikhshidi shrugged his shoulders disdainfully and replied, “I thought you were really eager. Why should I wait? There are a thousand and one potential bridegrooms and one must be chosen today.”


“In the next hour.”

Mahgub sighed. His normal boldness reasserted itself and he said submissively, “Then I accept.”

Al-Ikhshidi smiled craftily and said, “That’s a good beginning, but there’s more.”

What did the devil want? There was more to this than met the eye at first glance. The marriage wasn’t everything. What more could there be? He heard al-Ikhshidi observe in his odious voice, “But your boldness and decisiveness give me cause for hope. The position is in our office. I held it a few weeks ago. The position is secretary to Qasim Bey Fahmi.”

Amazing! Was this credible? Was it truly possible that fate could shower such happiness on him? Why had al-Ikhshidi, whom he had never thought of as chivalrous or generous, chosen him? He was asking him, in exchange for this position, to marry. But what kind of marriage was this? Yes, what was this marriage? Concealing his anxiety, he said delightedly, “Such happiness is like a dream. May God reward you for me.”

Smiling and feeling ever more resolute and reassured, al-Ikhshidi said, “Let me tell you about your wife.”

This word “wife” produced a tremor in the young man. He gazed at al-Ikhshidi with inquisitive eyes, as if to ask, Who is she? What does she look like? Why am I marrying her?

Al-Ikhshidi said, “She’s a fine girl from Qasim Bey Fahmi’s ‘circle.’ ”

Circle? The young man asked with alarm, “One of his relatives?”

“Almost right; she’s one of his acquaintances.”

Mahgub swallowed and, pretending not to understand, asked, “A neighbor? He’s a friend of her parents?”

Al-Ikhshidi replied simply and scornfully, “Close. His Excellency himself is her friend.”

The unvarnished truth was clear. He grasped what was expected of him. He learned the price of this fancy post. Al-Ikhshidi had not sent his office messenger to search for him out of any love for Mahgub’s black eyes but to exploit his wretchedness. He definitely loathed al-Ikhshidi, but that was irrelevant. His face was stained a bright red, and he felt his head grow hot. He began to appeal to his effrontery and licentiousness. Yes, why was he embarrassed? What was there to cause him pain? Did he believe in marriage? Did he believe in chastity? Should he feel demeaned by his companion’s candor? Here life was proposing to test his philosophy, to ascertain via a real-life experiment whether it was sophistry and intellectual wrangling or a creed to live by. So, inner turmoil, cease. Anger, hush. He should discuss his fallen wife as if speaking about the weather in Brazil. Channeling his contempt and sarcasm, he asked his companion, “A virgin?”

Beaming, al-Ikhshidi replied, “She was!”

They were silent for a time. Mahgub’s sallow face was still pink. Then al-Ikhshidi continued, “You certainly shouldn’t assume that great men have no faults. The bey is serious about making good on his error. If you support his noble goal, you will earn his approval and prepare a fine future for yourself. A job like this calls for a big heart, vast intellect, and deep cultural background. On the other hand, if you see things through the eyes of the masses, then that will end our relationship. Don’t think that I’m running after you. Countless men would accept this offer, although I’d rather have you working with me in the office because I know you’re bright and sincere. Moreover, we’re former neighbors, and the sixth level is a treasure.”

He grasped the ulterior motives that had prompted al-Ikhshidi to send his office messenger to him. Al-Ikhshidi wanted to serve his master and to curry his favor. Perhaps if he did not procure a suitable husband for the girl the bey had seduced, al-Ikhshidi would be obliged to present himself as the ram for the sacrifice. That was clear and understandable. But there were other facts that were even more important to consider. There was the position as secretary and there was the sixth level. Were these worth the sacrifice? Why? Did he care about what people referred to as reputation? Hardly. Did he believe in what people called honor? Damn that. He was quite clear in his own mind about all this. So he had to decide without any hesitation. Hesitating would mean that he did not live up to his own bold philosophy. Damn him. Could he forget his hungry nights? Could he forget the ful? Could he forget stumbling around the streets of Cairo like a panhandling beggar? Ali Taha was in the library and Ma’mun Radwan was en route to Paris—and he was hesitating? Hamdis Bey could not force himself to sit for five minutes with him and he was hesitating? Tahiya—and at this point he became enraged—had slammed the car door in his face, and he was hesitating? He plucked at his left eyebrow, looked up at his companion, and asked, “Who is she? I want to know everything.”

Al-Ikhshidi replied, “You’ll learn all that in due time and have no regrets.”

Mahgub raised his eyebrows scornfully and said, “So be it. When will the appointment be announced?”

Cairo Modern