After lunch he stretched out in bed, but his eyes were still open. She was sleeping beside him as usual, and he began to listen to her now familiar, regular breathing. Then he yielded to the turbulent current of his thoughts, which had denied him the pleasure of sleep. Today Ma’mun had parted company with him. Not that long before he had parted company with Ali Taha. Thus his ties to the people closest to him had been severed.

Friendship had never been anything he craved, but he felt alienated and solitary, as if he were in one valley and the rest of the world in another. Yes, he had never taken any pains to befriend anyone, but more than one person had befriended him, leaving him the feeling of being on amiable terms with people. Now that the slender threads tying him to other people had snapped, one after the other, he was falling into a deep isolation. Before, the oddity of his ideas had occasionally afflicted him with a sense of desolation. As he put some of his ideas into practice, this feeling of desolation increased, and he felt that he was alone in a valley while the rest of the world was in another. He asked himself apprehensively how he could expel these clouds from his breast. There was not a single individual he liked in his world. With the other government employees he knew there was merely an obligatory form of camaraderie. Salim al-Ikhshidi’s only concern was his personal self-interest. Where would he find the antidote? He glanced at the face of the person sleeping beside him, and heard her regular breathing. Yes, she was his consolation, his solace, the essence of what remained to him of his life. If he could win her, he would complain of nothing. His anxiety today was not really inspired by his rupture with Ma’mun so much as by remembering Ali Taha and his passion. His heart fell prey to jealousy, and he no longer believed that marriage was merely the safety release valve on the boiler, as he had liked to say when asked about love or women. His perceived need for a wife was violent and powerful. Perhaps this was a consequence of his feeling of desolation or perhaps he was responsible for it. Even in his current condition he didn’t believe in love the way Ali Taha understood it. He didn’t force his eyes to look to the heavens; there was no dream of ideals and fantasies, even though he experienced his need for the girl as a tyrannical, brute force that wasn’t merely a result of his sexual maturation. It was a reciprocal desire and a reciprocated longing, without which he would not feel he had shaken off his desolation and achieved any solace. This tyrannical, brute force mocked domineering intellects, presumptuous souls, and sarcastic philosophies. He smiled ironically and started to say, “To hell with all this despicable jealousy.” What point was there to the vanities of this life if the world lost its savor in response to nothing more than a dismissive gesture from this gracious animal? The reality of his new feelings wasn’t lost on him. Initially he had agreed to the marriage as part of a self-interested bargain and had hoped to overcome his irregular status by embracing absolute freedom and limitless ambition. Now, however, he craved more than his wife’s body. He craved her love. If his fortune had united him with a different woman—not Ihsan, the girl he had adored in the old days—perhaps the situation would have been different. With Ihsan, however, he had no choice but to love her when his mind was tormented by such thoughts, which he considered a warning that threatened his existence and life. He told himself sadly: Perhaps they’re symptoms of a passing malady caused by my frightful desolation.

That afternoon they were sitting together on the balcony, drinking coffee. He had been unable to extricate himself from his ruminations for a moment and looked tired and anxious. His bulging eyes kept glancing at her face until she noticed. Sensing his fatigue and anxiety as well, she guessed that the cause could be traced back to the previous night. She said nothing but cast him an inquisitive glance. Wanting to explain how he felt to her, he said, “I didn’t sleep after lunch.”

Pretending to be indifferent, she asked, “Why?”

He did not answer her question, because he felt some force prompting him to plunge into the enigma that over-whelmed and upset him. Resting his eyes on her, he said, “You’re a secret I need to understand.”

Her beautiful face, which still looked drowsy, revealed her astonishment. She stammered, “Secret?”

“Yes. I think we ought to be candid with each other.”

“Be candid?”

He ignored her astonishment, thinking it a charade. He explained, “Your life poses troubling questions for my soul.”

She closed her eyes, made no response, and looked glum. But no force, no matter how powerful, was going to dissuade him from proceeding. He said, “Candor in our situation is priceless. Each of us must understand the other so we can cooperate to perfect the happiness of our life together. Never forget that we’re partners and that anything outside of this partnership is ephemeral.”

Draining her coffee cup, she put it back on the table between them without uttering a word or displaying any desire to speak. So he continued, asking her boldly, “Why did you do what you did?”

She turned red and retorted sharply, “Why did you agree?”

He responded quickly in a tender voice that sounded apologetic, “I’m not trying to get even; I simply wish to understand. Why? Didn’t you …”

He closed his mouth involuntarily. He was blushing. Then he resumed, “Ali Taha?”

She attacked him immediately in a sharp, angry tone. “There’s no need to mention him.”

So he asked in a weak voice, “And Qasim Bey?”

She frowned and began to chew passionately on her fingernail. Then she said sharply, “My reason for making his acquaintance was identical to yours for agreeing to this marriage.”

Feeling relieved by this answer, he said tenderly, “Don’t get angry. As I told you, I’m not trying to settle accounts. I would simply like to know: Don’t.… I mean, your heart, yes, your heart!”

“My heart! Candor will achieve nothing—or nothing good. My heart? What are you asking? Aren’t we … happy?”

“Yes, of course.”

He said this quickly. After some reflection, he asked her with amazing boldness, “What if I forbade you from seeing the bey?”

Huffing disapprovingly, she said, “I would obey my husband.”

He sensed the sarcasm of her remark, and that wounded him deeply. He wondered if he had gained anything from his daring interrogation, for he found himself feeling the same anxiety and apprehension he had before. He realized that Ali Taha was still responsible for his anger and resentment. “There’s no need to mention him.” What did that mean? She had said it angrily.

He was angry that he felt so weak. Why shouldn’t he combat these malignant emotions till he destroyed them? Should he succumb the way other idiotic human beings did? Let her love Ali Taha or Qasim Bey. Let the bey visit every night if he wanted. He should respond to all of these provocations with superhuman scorn and mockery. That was his challenge—no more, no less. At the same time, his ambition should know no limits. Every malady has its antidote, and the antidote for the desolation affecting him was glory and liquor. Since he himself was a victim of exploitation, he had to exploit others. On the morrow, he would search for houses of ill repute and love women of all kinds. If his wife’s secret ever was discovered, people would say, “Her husband corrupted her with his wantonness. He’s nothing but a debauched young fellow.” He sighed with something approaching relief at this conclusion to his deliberations. The relief was short-lived, however, because he remembered, sullenly, that he was always afraid of people, that he feared them more than he should, and that this fear stood in stark contrast to his philosophy. Why should he stumble and feel anxious? When would he raise his life to the level of perfection he desired?

Cairo Modern