He did not attempt a conversation like this again and did his utmost to avoid anything that could rile their composure or trouble their peace of mind. To defend his happiness, he fought with a desperate brutality that spared nothing. If true married life was not an option for him, he played it to perfection—like an actor who adopts his role so fully that he forgets himself and really laughs and weeps. They presented themselves to the world as a happy couple. Both of them wished to succeed and yearned for happiness. Whenever they felt any estrangement or coolness, a shared drink (or two) would fix anything that threatened to cause tension. He was determined to devote all his time to his new life so that insinuating whispers would find no path to his heart. Since his job consumed most of his day, he thought he would plunge into the socializing he had begun with his visit to the Hamdis family. He would fill his leftover time and reap any pleasures of a social life’s external manifestations that would be showered on a person like him. He discussed the idea with Ihsan, seizing a favorable moment one day to tell her, “I’ve gotten to know a select group of young government officials and some other distinguished individuals, and one of them has invited me—invited both of us—to a party he’s giving for his son’s birthday. So I joyfully accepted.”
She looked up at him with large black eyes, not knowing what to say. He continued enthusiastically, “We shouldn’t sit home. Look at al-Ikhshidi. He knows all the top figures in high society, and those ties support his life and serve as a foundation for his future.”
Deep inside, she hankered for diversion, consolation, and fun. She wanted to see and learn and forget. So she embraced the suggestion. After her smile had already signaled her acceptance, she said, “Let’s go.”
The young man was delighted. He had always wanted her to share his interests and hopes. He felt instinctively that if he succeeded in drawing her into his ambitions, he would be guaranteed a huge success. So he was pleased and said, “A person plunging into this extraordinary life is like a daring explorer who can’t return empty-handed. Because of my job I enjoy an excellent status and you hold a lofty position because of your beauty.”
They attended the birthday party. Ihsan made a noticeable impression with her fascinating beauty, and Mahgub relied on his audacity to help him play his role. He was able to create a fitting opportunity to reveal his close relationship to Ahmad Bey Hamdis. For her part, Ihsan won the admiration of a young swell named Ali Iffat, who invited them to share his “Baignoire” box at the Fantasio Theatre two days later.
The remaining days of July passed with a vibrant, merry social life. They frequented the cinema and summer receptions. He was invited to cafés like al-Bodega, Groppi’s, and the Soult Parlour. One day he confided his delight to al-Ikhshidi, who grimaced contemptuously and said, “The upper crust are out of the country right now. Cairo’s real life will return by the middle of October.”
This idea appalled him, but he was content with his new acquaintances. Perhaps such people were closer to him than the elite who were touring foreign realms. One thing did upset him, however: the expense of this jolly, entertaining life, which obliged him to pay precisely as great attention to his clothing as women did and to purchase expensive brands and select beautiful colors, taking every precaution that a critical eye would not find him in any outfit more than once. Among these young men he had befriended, he found no one who discussed the Arab identity or debated socialism or Auguste Comte’s ideas. Many were university graduates, but they came from provincial schools and had not a word to say about the Orman Gardens or the student hostel in Giza. He found that he was growing fond of smoking and of watching the gaming tables.
But how could he compete in this life with his tiny salary? Yes, Qasim Bey paid all the bills for his apartment and his spouse, but that left all his own expenses, which grew day after day and became more diversified by the hour. After reflecting about this for a long time, he told himself: People like me rise quickly in government; I can’t fall behind!
Society life agreed with Ihsan. She was attracted by its diversions and merriment as well as by the opportunities it afforded to show off, boast, and elicit admiration. She was interested in novelties, and a spirit of curiosity and enthusiasm became an established feature of her existence, saving her from having to brood about her life—past, present, and future—and from surrendering to reflection.
She delighted in the success and affection she met. Qasim Bey Fahmi was so madly in love with her that this became his dominant passion. He pursued her affections without regard to rank, family, or children. He spent so much money on her that she was the ornament of every gathering thanks to her beauty and attire. This was a life! On the other hand, to sit at home and wait for either of her two men—that was more than she could bear. Moreover, she felt the emptiness and ennui of a young woman whose heart has been deprived of love. She did not love the bey; his amazing charm no longer dominated her. Chances are that his charm evaporated when she discerned his treachery. She may well have harbored some rancor and resentment toward him. She was, however, very attentive toward him, lest her “sacrifice should have been in vain.” Since she was a young woman of a practical bent, she deposited her past on the road to forgetfulness and turned her back on it, ignoring the occasional impact it made on her heart. The past and its handsome symbol—Ali Taha—were two milestones that would never return. She focused her attention on her husband, since he was her life partner as well as her current and future companion and since life had demanded of him—as of her—a hideous sacrifice. He too—like her—was focused on a single goal. In addition to all this, he was a young man who could love her and provide her with a happy married life. She encouraged his attempts to promote their mutual happiness, sharing a drink with him, exchanging kisses, and hoping that their playacting would mature into a genuine life. Had Ihsan’s nature merely been carnal she would have achieved all the happiness she craved. Her heart, however, still yearned for affection and love that she didn’t find in the pleasure and luxury her life afforded her. For this reason she continued to feel empty and bored. The more this feeling plagued her, the more ardently she embarked on her life of merriment and opulence, till she surpassed even her husband’s aspirations.
She normally left home every morning once her husband went to work. She felt such an aversion for the apartment that she could not abide to stay there alone. Her favorite destinations were major stores, where she cruised past their displays, made her way down their crowded aisles, and perhaps purchased something she needed, ignoring the young men who ventured to flirt with her. What need did she have for a new man when she had two at home? Besides, her heart kept telling her that she would eventually adjust to her husband, fall in love with him, and emerge from all her anxiety. When ennui did chance to get the better of her and she felt disgusted, she might forget discretion and remember her life’s shortcomings (her parents, her fall, and her present life). Then a rebellious surge would sweep through her and her soul would tell her to pursue pleasure to the limit. But she would not succumb. She burned no bridges in such circumstances, differing in this respect from Mahgub. She puttered about each morning like a man out of work. Perhaps she would catch a tram or bus for a return trip to an outlying suburb. One day she learned that a friend of hers was moving soon to Rome where her husband would serve with the legation. This news had an amazing effect on her. She felt like touring all the countries of the world. Such an active life would be a fitting way for a worried person to forget his woes and to pull down a thick curtain over life’s banality. She told Mahgub, once she had shared this news, “How delightful it would be to travel to Rome!”
He asked her with astonishment, “Do you really want to travel?”
“Yes, why not?”
With a smile on his lips, he inquired, “What about the bey?”
“Perhaps he’ll extend this favor to me later on.”
He grasped what she meant by “later on.” Shrugging his shoulders he said, “If his passion ever flags, he’ll do nothing at all.”
Their eyes met in a moment of shared realization. He wished to exploit this propitious opportunity to the full and commented, “At present he yields to your every desire. So don’t let this lovely opportunity escape you. Such a happy break only comes once in a lifetime. Forget this sudden desire to travel, for it’s a fantasy. Remember that if you lose his love one day, life will become a dreary, glum affair. If we don’t make the best of our current circumstances, in the future we’ll be forced to leave this neighborhood for an impoverished one. Then refined society will surely close its doors in our faces and we’ll become the target of witty laughter. So we need to plan carefully for the long term.”
Reflecting briefly on what he had said, he realized that he had spoken with the easy nonchalance of a pimp. He was delighted by this, counting it a manifest victory for his philosophy and willpower. Ihsan thought for a long time about what he had said and was soon convinced of the wisdom and farsightedness of his comments.