He began to recite, “No wound hurts a dead man” the next day as evening approached and he was preparing to depart. Then he asked himself when his feeling of being wounded would die? He was supremely confident in himself and his philosophy, but his consternation made him feel that his philosophy—when it emerged from his brain to the world of realities—might encounter the same difficulties a projectile does on emerging from a cannon, when it explodes and disintegrates into fragments. He attempted to recover his normal sangfroid and coolheadedness. He tried to say “tuzz” but failed, or—as he put it—failed temporarily. He began to wonder whether she knew. Looking at the telephone, he conjectured that the bey had dispatched the happy news to her. The telephone was the apartment’s second pimp. What might her true feelings be? Was she delighted by this all-too-predictable tryst? Was she waiting for him eagerly or lackadaisically? Should this pretty head be split open as if it were a coconut to see what was inside? As the serpent of jealousy poisoned his heart, releasing its lethal venom, he left home and walked along Nagi Street without any destination in mind. The most he wanted was to regain his self-control or to return to his senses.

He found himself in front of a bar called “La Rose.” So he made for it without any hesitation, as though this had been his goal all along. People seeking beer were flocking there, fleeing from July’s scorching heat and thronging the sidewalk tables. Mahgub hated crowds and sought a place inside. The sole person near him was a young man who was alone with his drink. Within five minutes of his arrival Mahgub was raising a glass to his full lips and draining it. Then he clapped his hands to order another. He drank with uncharacteristic fervor, even though this was the first time in his life that he had set foot in a bar. His mind continued to reflect busily, not swayed by his surroundings. His anger at his anxiety was no less severe than his anxiety itself. It was intolerable that he should feel upset about a trifling value like those he had rebelliously rejected. Was it really his honor that was troubling him? What was honor? Hadn’t he freed himself from all those shackles? Of course he wasn’t angry about an affront to his honor. Honor wasn’t something a person should get agitated about. He was suffering from jealousy. He thought for a time and then asked himself: Is jealousy something natural or is it a social construct like honor? No, it’s definitely part of human nature. Animals suffer its burden just like men. We are jealous while in love as long as we think ourselves fit to be loved. That was what he told himself, without feeling fully convinced or relieved. Something still troubled him. Might not this jealousy threaten to destroy everything he had gained via his philosophy and liberation? He criticized, analyzed, and dissected, but all the same frightening images presented themselves. An automobile came to a stop in front of the Schleicher Building. The elegant bey got out, took the elevator, rang the doorbell. The door of the apartment opened. “Good evening, bride. Your real groom has arrived.” How would she receive him? In the same room on the same bed? He clapped his hands violently to order another drink.

Then he happened to notice the young man alone with his drink—his drinks. He realized that the man was staring at him with astonished delight. The young man had been observing him since he arrived and had noticed his agitation and involuntary gestures, wondering what was upsetting him. The delight and pleasure, however, were attributable to his advanced state of inebriation. When their eyes met, the man smiled. So Mahgub smiled back. Drunks make friends quickly, even if their affection is superficial. They exchanged greetings, and the stranger appeared to be appealing to his new friend for comfort in his loneliness, which inebriation had rendered unbearable. Mahgub sought refuge with him from his thoughts and sorrows and invited him to his table. In no time at all they were seated facing each other—two tipsy young men who attached no importance to anything. They introduced themselves. Then the young stranger said, “I saw you engage in a fierce debate with yourself and felt like intervening to comfort you.”

Mahgub laughed so loudly it was clear that sobriety had fled. He asked, “Was I really talking out loud?”

“Yes, you were furious … even spiteful.”

He was forced to speak because he had been invited to converse and because he felt like getting some things off his chest. He saw no harm in this, for his condition and his friend’s allowed for rash and impudent talk that was uncensored. He asked, “When does a man talk to himself?”

“On rare occasions.”

“Give me some examples.”

“In the flush of delight, during extraordinary grief, or in other conditions unrelated to either of these.”

“What does that leave?”

“Occasions when a man debates with another person.”

Clutching his glass, Mahgub observed anxiously, “I can hardly tell heads from tails.”

“Me too! In a social congress, as in a political one, it does not matter whether you understand what is said. The important thing is to say something.”

“Anything at all?”

“Whatever you feel like.”

This suggestion pleased him. So he cast thought aside and—his protruding eyes red from drink—began, “I’m in this room while the ram’s in the field.”

“Muhammad wrote down the lesson.”

“Work in your world as though you would die tomorrow and prepare for the next world as though you would live forever.”

“But you won’t live forever; you may not make it to tomorrow morning ‘cause you’re drinking too much.”

“Then let’s order another round.”

“What does the fact that bars are full of patrons suggest?”

“That the 1923 Constitution was better than the 1930 one.”

“Do you think the 1923 Constitution will return?”

“Where is it now?”

“In Saad Zaghlul’s tomb with the pharaohs’ corpses.”

“They should keep it there till we deserve it.”

“Are you a member of the Wafd Party?”

“No, I’m a Hanbali.”

“What’s the difference between the two?”

“A Hanbali becomes ritually impure just by thinking of a dog.”

“How about the Wafdist?”

“He becomes ritually impure just by thinking of patronage.”

“Then you’re a liberal constitutionalist!”

“Me? I’m in the field.”

“Then you’re a ram with two horns!”

Mahgub was stunned and upset as if he had been roused from his stupor by a hammer. He shot a fiery look at his friend but found he was smiling lightheartedly, preparing to respond to anything Mahgub flung at him. Forcing himself to be positive, he asked the young stranger, “Tell me: Does a pimp have a good life?”

The young man laughed along with him, seeing that Mahgub was throwing more wood on the fire. Wishing to be of assistance, he replied, “You should know!”

Mahgub laughed so loud the room shook. Then he said, “Tell me what you know about the different forms of infidelity.”

“There’s blind infidelity when the victim is in the dark—like my lover’s husband.”

“That’s one.”

“Then there’s a type when the husband knows about the infidelity but pretends he doesn’t—to avoid causing trouble. This variety is widespread in some circles.”


“Infidelity the husband chooses either for his own pleasure or for some other boon. Are you married?”

He laughed again and continued laughing to mask his nervous tension. Then he said with disguised resentment, “There’s a fourth type that combines the characteristics of the other three. This is how it happens to you. First of all you don’t realize you have a problem. Then you catch on but pretend not to know, to avoid a fight. Finally you adjust and learn to enjoy it.”

They burst out laughing again. Then the young stranger said in a mock-serious manner, “The fact is that infidelity is one of the knottiest problems for marriage in modern times.”

“The truth is that marriage is one of the knottiest problems for infidelity.”

“You’re right. Otherwise, why do you suppose young people are avoiding marriage? They continue to live at home instead.”

“Living with relatives is more fun when you don’t have to pay.”

They spoke deliriously for a long time, without feeling bored or tired, until almost midnight.

He felt like roaming the streets before returning home. He chanted as though moaning, “I’m in the room and the ram’s in the field.” Then he began to say, “I’m in the bar and the bey’s in the room.” But he was at the apogee of intoxication and delight, and his rapture had reached such heights that all his sorrows had melted away. It seemed to him that nothing in the world equaled an atom of despair. He found the power that would enable him to implement his philosophy should he so choose, without any hesitation, reflection, or emotion. He realized then that his philosophy and liquor were essentially identical. Returning home, he entered the bedroom, where everything was calm and still. She was sound asleep. He stood at the center of the room, staring at her face with dull red eyes and remained there until it seemed the earth was starting to revolve. He thought of something that cheered him, although he did not pause to think it through. Instead he implemented the idea in less time than it had taken him to think it up. He went over to the bed and threw himself on top of her as though preparing to do Swedish calisthenics. Ihsan awoke. A scream sprang from her mouth. She stared at him with terrified eyes. Then she pushed him off after realizing what was afoot. She shoved him away furiously and resentfully and yelled at him, “You’re drunk! You almost killed me! Get away!”

He began to stare at her in bewilderment, filling his eyes with her indignant, angry face. Then he smiled. His smirk was either meaningless or a smile of delight at the pain and rage he had caused her. She became even more resentful and said sharply, “You’ve broken my ribs with your insanity. Get away from me. You’re drunk. Don’t sleep in this room.”

The smile stayed plastered on his lips. Then a light laugh escaped from his mouth. When her anger intensified, he lapsed into laughter so profound it shook his very being.

Cairo Modern