When he opened his eyes early the next morning, they fell on the mirror of the fancy armoire. He saw his reflection and that of the precious treasure lying beside him. He leaned on his elbows and then his eyes took a break while he was deluged by memories of the previous night, which had left indelible traces on his soul and body. Ihsan was still sound asleep, and her tresses were spread across the silk pillow. How beautifully pure this skin was! How deep the black of this hair! His breast shook with ecstasy. Then his full lips landed on her smooth cheek.

As he drank thirstily from this abundant well the first week of this new life passed. He quickly realized, from the first moment, that his pleasure—their pleasure—needed to be complemented by something totally novel in order for him to forget what he needed to forget and so she could ignore what it would be best for her to ignore, in order to clear the air for them to enjoy their life in the finest possible manner. He actually experimented with this necessity, about which he had heard a lot. This was booze. Only a little of it sufficed for both of them, but it had a magical utility. With its assistance, Ihsan dissolved into amiability, exuding magic, and he would rest in her arms, sipping in all the delights of his good fortune. Life on the surface was tipsy with pleasure rendered intoxicating by desire. Beneath the surface, however, there were concealed, turbulent currents. Mahgub could not stop wondering about Ali Taha, Qasim Fahmi, and Ihsan’s heart. Occasionally doubt stirred and he would censure his ego and upbraid it, telling himself that it was sheer stupidity that whispered to him, rousing him from his pleasure in order to light thought’s fire. He tried repeatedly to shield himself with sarcasm and began to advise himself: Kill doubt. Erase “honor” from your dictionary. Beware of jealousy. Apply yourself to your passion. Pursue your ambition enthusiastically and remember that you’re engaged in the first and final test of your philosophy. Say “tuzz” now. Say it with your tongue, heart, and will.

Ihsan also had some issues that upset her. She had finally learned her destiny and found her niche. The curtain had descended on the dreams of her earlier life, and her hopes of marrying a mighty bey had been deceived. She found herself the mistress of an amazing residence where two men vied for dominance. She no longer said no. Why should a drowning person fear getting wet? She thought it wise to consider her circumstances. The heart that Ali Taha had awakened had been obliterated and disappeared. The security that Qasim Fahmi had waved before her eyes had not panned out and had vanished. All she was left with was this animal appetite that her father had unleashed early on. Perhaps she pitied Ali Taha, felt resentful toward Qasim Bey, or loathed Mahgub Abd al-Da’im. She did not, however, allow any of these emotions to expand or grow. Her character and circumstances inclined her toward total submission. What could she hope to gain from grieving over a past that would never return? The best thing was for her to direct her attention to the present and future. She should delight in pleasure, accumulate power, spend freely, and shower her family with every boon known to mankind. Only in this way would her sacrifice not have been in vain. Her husband deserved her consideration more than anyone else. She had been ready to despise him more than once, but for what? Because he …? But she had too.… She had no more reason to condemn him than he had to condemn her. Actually, something else united them. He was apparently a victim of poverty and ambition like her. Each of them was the victim of a single evil. How appropriate it would be for them to get along and cooperate. Each of them was addressing his issues sagely, attempting as far as possible to banish any suffering. So life continued as pleasurably as drink and a desire to be happy could make it. Mahgub was better than she was at mastering his reservations due to his famous scornfulness. She was a recent convert to amorality. Thus she may well have felt despair while alone. Perhaps she longed for those first, radiant hopes about love and an honorable life. In this regard, she resembled a migrant in a strange land at the moment his new house welcomes him the first night. All the same, she mastered her ailment—and longing is an ailment—with the pragmatism for which women are famous and through a genuine desire for the good things of life. For this reason, when Mahgub asked her one day during the first week while pinching her cheek, “Are you happy?” she immediately replied, “Yes, praise God.”

Then the young man told her delightedly, “Life spreads before us. Opportunities are in reach. So let’s dash into the flowers and pluck the fruit.”

Smiling with pearl-like teeth, she replied, “Let’s go and harvest.”

He said, “Pay no heed to the crusty maxims by which people define happiness. It’s not about life; all of life’s circumstances are comparable regarding happiness. It’s really a matter of willpower. Happiness will obey anyone who enjoys it by force of volition—willingly or not.”

She favored him with a thoughtful look of her extraordinary black eyes. Cautiously and humbly he continued, “If what you desire doesn’t exist, then desire what does.”

She replied calmly, “There’s no need for that.” Then, remembering a verse from al-Mutannabi, she recited, “Any place glory flourishes is fine.”

He took her hand as if proposing to her, hesitated a moment, and then said in a different tone of voice, “There’s one other thing. We shouldn’t live a solitary life. Let’s take life at large by storm and grab it with both hands.”

He wished to enjoy every advantage of his new social status and to sanctify its universally valued if fraudulent manifestations. His need to conceal the deviant aspects of his life was in play here. Therefore, he thought seriously about taking his bride to visit the Hamdis family to heal an old wound and to satisfy his desire to show off. But wasn’t there some genuine obstacle to this project?

Cairo Modern