He woke up early, went to the ministry, and waited for al-Ikhshidi in his room. The office manager arrived punctually at nine. They shook hands with apparent affection and drank coffee together. While tidying up his desk, al-Ikhshidi commented, “It’s incredible! Do you know that most of the requests to waive school fees come from affluent people?”
At that moment at least, Mahgub was not interested in such matters. He felt obliged, however, to pretend to be astonished, saying, “That’s really incredible! How do they justify their requests?”
Al-Ikhshidi replied, “There’s no pressing need for any justification. All it takes is for one of them to guffaw and tell Qasim Bey, ‘The price of cotton has fallen—what else do we need?’ So they joke around, exchange pleasantries, and the waiver is granted.”
Then, as he always did, he mocked conditions in the country and the stratagems of its senior and junior bureaucrats. Only Qasim Bey was spared his sharp tongue, and perhaps his turn would come in time. Looking toward Mahgub, he said, “Don’t forget that your work will require finesse and good management skills.” Then, overcome by a proclivity to belittle other people’s concerns and positions, he added, “It’s actually easy. In fact, it’s a game. The truth is that it requires no philosophy or learning—simply finesse.”
Mahgub responded attentively, “I hope to profit from your guidance.”
“I’m delighted to find a sincere assistant. That’s why I reserved this position for you, even though many were competing for it. That’s also why we need to work hand in glove, because we have many enemies. Don’t let a smile seduce you, because government officials normally humor anyone in power as long as he prospers. Once his star sets, the most generous men simply turn their back on him without sinking in their talons. So let’s work hand in glove.”
Uncharacteristically, al-Ikhshidi spoke for a long time. Mahgub reflected at length about his plea that they should work hand in glove. He responded mentally: You’ve encountered someone even worse than you are. Fortune has led you to an assistant cut from the same cloth. His understanding of loyalty is identical to yours. Everything has its special nemesis. My status with the bey is equivalent to yours. If you are his jester or pimp, I’m his lover’s spouse.
The burly office messenger entered to announce the arrival of Qasim Bey. So al-Ikhshidi rose and escorted Mahgub to his office, where the bey delightedly shook hands with them and congratulated the young man on assuming the position. He said amiably, “I wish you success and a brilliant future.”
Al-Ikhshidi presented him some documents while Mahgub stood there pondering his “brilliant future.” They say, “He’s a lucky fellow whose boss is his uncle.” His new boss was even closer to him than an uncle. He snuck a look at the bey to get a clear picture of the man who had trapped Ihsan and caused her to act rashly. He gazed at him with awe, as if trying to discover his magical secret. Was it good looks, status, or some other concealed quality that Ihsan had found, fortunately or unfortunately, for her? The amazing thing about these men in positions of authority was that they committed major offenses so casually, ignoring what innocents would consider a dilemma or problem, and contriving a facile solution to an affair in the wink of an eye. He himself was just such an easy solution. How had Ihsan fallen? He would feel apprehensive till he learned the truth of the matter. Ali Taha was just as handsome as the bey and younger. So how had she succumbed? Had she married him, he could have said she preferred the bey for his money, but she … Good Lord! Damn these powerful men! They don’t take no for an answer. Either Ihsan was a great liar when she promised the idiotic social reformer or she … He had to learn the truth.
The two young men left the bey’s office, and al-Ikhshidi conducted him to the “Private Secretary’s” office. An elderly office messenger stood by the door. The long room was lined with leather armchairs, and a large desk stood at the end. Al-Ikhshidi said, “I’ll leave you in God’s care. I’ll tell the employees that you are assuming your position today.” He himself was wondering whether it would not have been more judicious to employ the young man outside the bey’s office. It made him uncomfortable to have in the same office a person with such an intimate connection to the bey. But what could he have done? The situation was precarious, the bey was upset and fearful, and the position was vacant. Had he not stumbled upon Mahgub, perhaps he himself would have become the bridegroom! Time would possibly prove that the young man could be molded to suit his purposes.
He left Mahgub alone in the office. Mahgub was so giddy with delight that he could have danced. He sat on the swivel chair beaming and placed his hand on the telephone receiver. He had never used a telephone! He began to move to the right and left in the chair. He was obviously an important government official. Tomorrow his belly would be stuffed with meat and vegetables. Down with those philosophers who claimed that happiness consists in simplicity. Wasn’t indigestion preferable to starvation’s torments?
He spent an hour by himself before his solitude began to seem oppressive. He wanted to do something—no matter what. So he pressed the buzzer. The door opened and the aged office messenger entered. He said politely, “Yes, Your Excellency?” Mahgub blushed. The new rank had a delightful, musical ring to it, although he pretended to be nonchalant. He said tersely, “Coffee.” The door had scarcely closed once more when the telephone rang and his heartstrings reverberated in response. He lifted the receiver anxiously and put it to his ear. Then he said in a timid voice, “Yes.”
“Qasim Bey’s secretary?”
“Is the bey there?”
“Let me speak to him. Tell him it’s Muhammad Rashad.”
He assumed he had to go to the bey’s office to inform him. So he replaced the receiver, cutting the line without meaning to. Entering the bey’s office, he said respectfully, “Muhammad Rashad … Bey … wishes to speak with Your Excellency.”
“Send him in.”
“He’s on the phone.”
The astonished bey asked, “Why didn’t you transfer the call?”
When he didn’t respond, the bey—on seeing the unusual, bewildered look on his face—laughed and explained, “Transfer the call to me. On occasions like this use the ‘connector.’ ”
He left the room confused, realizing that he had made a mistake. How did he transfer a call? What was this “connector”? Returning to his office, he lifted the receiver and then heard a continuous buzzing. He said, “Your Excellency.…”
No one replied no matter how many times he repeated the request. All he heard was a persistent buzzing. He felt even more bewildered and feared that he had committed some new blunder. He felt miffed. He had not realized that telephones have a special drill he would need to learn. He grudgingly summoned the messenger to instruct him in the secrets of telephones. He jotted down notes on a piece of paper so he would not forget what he had to remember in the future. Then his office came to life as a wide assortment of people from different walks of life arrived to request permission to see Qasim Bey Fahmi. He received them calmly, because his natural audacity helped him control his nerves and project a self-possessed, firm façade. He welcomed one of the well-known pashas whom he had only seen from a distance before. The pasha greeted him diffidently, asking permission to see the bey. Although Mahgub presented a calm appearance, he was fighting to suppress his feelings of happiness and joy. He passed the workday in constant motion, unflagging activity, and limitless delight. This nonstop exertion helped him forget his reflections and shadowy suspicions. So without being conscious of it, he calmed down. He left the ministry fit as a fiddle, as if arising from a sound sleep.
He was not the same lad who had rushed to work that morning. He had welcomed beys and pashas, mastered the art of the telephone, and had been called “Mahgub Bey” tens of times. He felt immensely confident and proud. Indeed, his gait and his way of looking at things had changed. He remembered—in the intoxication of this surprising glory—his relative Ahmad Bey Hamdis and hoped he would arrive one day to see Qasim Bey. On entering Mahgub’s office deferentially—what a surprise would await him! They would shake hands as equals, and then Hamdis Bey would tell his family what he had seen. So Tahiya would hear and realize that she had slammed the door of her car on a boy who had achieved renown and glory. How he would like Tahiya to see him with his gorgeous wife, who excelled her in charm and beauty. He would like to watch her face as she looked askance at his wife after realizing how fascinatingly beautiful she was.