August arrived and he drew the first payment of his government salary, which was beyond anything he had even dreamed of during his days of starvation. It truly was amazing that he was not delighted by it. He was, however, beset by cravings as his desires multiplied and his life became an insatiable, importunate fire. The payment reminded him of his parents who were waiting eagerly for their cut. His father’s indemnity payment had no doubt run out. Perhaps he was now selling household furniture as he himself had done last February. His father would definitely be unable to pay the rent for his dwelling. Perhaps his parents now lacked shelter or food. What could he do?
He had surely been wise when he decided to conceal his appointment from his parents. He had taken precautions about the matter, asking al-Ikhshidi not to say anything about it in al-Qanatir, to prevent anyone from learning about it until the appropriate moment, but when might that be? His salary did not suffice for the expenses of this fancy living. He realized that it was inadequate to pay for the necessary show. If he sacrificed two or three pounds to his parents, his budget would be compromised, he would be disgraced, and his hopes would be shattered. How could he cope with these difficulties? Anger gripped him. He always grew angry when anxious or perplexed—as if he believed deep down that there was nothing worth being anxious or perplexed about. In spite of himself, however, he remembered his parents as they appeared in his mind’s eye. He saw his father in his sickbed—but this image didn’t trouble him much—and his mother with her weak eyes, dreadful silence, and profound belief in him and his future. He tried to flee from her and to banish her from his mind, but to no avail. So he resolved to vanquish vehemently and rudely the emotion these images caused him. Love for his parents was not his main reason for thinking about them. Instead it was his feeling of responsibility toward them. He had grasped this fact from the outset, and this was one reason for his increased anger. Did his soul still retain such fantastic notions? What did filial duty mean? Wasn’t this a silly custom associated with the social construct of the family? Yes, indeed! He would jettison this idea the same way he had previously rid himself of other related notions. He would care only for himself, his glory, and his pleasure. He wondered why they were still alive. What use were they? What meaning did their lives have? Why didn’t they die, enjoy eternal peace, and leave other people in peace too? Filial piety turned into an evil once it limited a son’s happiness. Indeed, everything that interfered with an individual’s happiness was evil. That was self-evident. He believed this profoundly, but what was he to do? Should he sever every tie with al-Qanatir and allow his parents to fend for themselves? How could he marshal the funds they needed? The truth was that he couldn’t spend anything on them. It was equally apparent that he would be unable to forget them.
He continued to feel worried and pensive till he left the ministry. He had reached no decision, even if his feeling of selfishness had not triumphed. At Qasr al-Aini Street he ran into Mr. Ahmad Badir, who was coming out of the newspaper’s headquarters. They shook hands warmly and Mahgub was immediately overwhelmed by the fear he felt whenever he remembered this terrifying friend. They walked along, side-by-side, chatting the way they once had on the road to the university and in the Orman Gardens. The young journalist asked him how he was and about his job and Qasim Bey. He also commented on the difficulties of his life as a journalist. Then Mahgub, as if wanting to flatter him, said, “Journalism is a deadly serious art. Compared to it, government positions are fun and games.”
Ahamd Badir replied delightedly, “You’re so right, dear friend. That’s why it astonished me that a young man not unlike us should forsake his government position and leave a respectable career to struggle in the field of journalism.”
“Really?” Mahgub stammered as an inquisitive expression appeared on his face.
“Yes. I’m referring to our friend Ali Taha.”
His protruding eyes became anxious. He frowned but cloaked his concern with astonishment as he exclaimed, “Ali Taha!”
Ahmad Badir replied, “He’s a daring young idealist and quickly became frustrated with the university library. He has agreed with some of our classmates to publish a weekly magazine advocating social reform.”
“What about his master’s degree?”
Ahmad Badir replied, “He told me, ‘Let’s leave research to researchers and focus our attention on something grander. Let’s devote all our effort to transforming Egypt from a nation of slaves to a nation of free men.’ ”
Mahgub Abd al-Da’im’s face was expressionless for a time as he reflected. Then he said, “The fact is that Mr. Ali Taha has a practical bent rather than a talent for abstract thought.”
Eying him critically, the journalist said, “And that’s to his credit! Both temperaments, although different, are lofty ones. The truth is that our friend is a sincere and zealous young man. He’s renounced a comfortable life to advocate his ideals, even though this will mean hardship and risk for him. The principles our friend believes in are not ones that provide a journalist much cover. Fools may contest them and bigots may attack them. Perhaps it will be worse than that. What should someone advocating belief in science, society, and socialism expect?”
Mahgub did not respond. Instead he asked, “Has the magazine appeared yet?”
“The first issue will come out early this month.”
After some hesitation, Mahgub inquired, “Where did he get the money for a project like this?”
“His father gave him a hundred pounds.”
Mahgub asked a bit sarcastically, “Does his wealthy father believe in socialism?”
Ahmad Badir laughed and replied, “Perhaps he considers the magazine an investment. He’s done his part to help out, and now its fate is up to his son.”
Mahgub shook his head and said in a somewhat disparaging tone, “In the hostel Ali Taha told us about his principles time and again, and conversation like that is a pleasant way of spending an evening, but for a man to quit his job and make a career of discussing his principles—an act that could lead him to prison dungeons—is conduct of which the least one can say is that it’s insanity. Our friend isn’t crazy; so how could he have done this? Look at our friend Ma’mun Radwan and how he kept talking about Islam. Then see how he’s traveling off to Paris to prepare for a grand career as a professor. There’s a wise young man.”
Ahmad Badir retorted in a tone that revealed his astonishment, “Ma’mun Radwan is also a sincere young man. I assure you that he will finish his studies with distinction, as always, and will doubtless become a Muslim imam.”
“I have my doubts.”
Badir shrugged his shoulders but did not contest his friend’s claim because they were drawing near to Ismailiya Square, where they would need to part. He simply observed, “Mr. Ma’mun got married yesterday, and the newlyweds will travel abroad at the end of this month.”
Here the first lines of these diverging lives were being drawn on the wide page of the world. No one knew how they would extend in the near and distant future or what varieties of luck and fate awaited the respective parties. All he knew was that any of these lives, except for his, could be publicized by a narrator like Ahmad Badir. For his life story to be made public would constitute a scandal. He could care less about this, but it meant he had to beware of untoward consequences—like anyone who lived surrounded by idiots and fools. He could not afford to feel overconfident or to dismiss too lightly the catastrophe that could befall him. It was amazing that although he and Ali Taha were exact opposites, it was entirely possible that society would throw both of them into a dungeon, making no distinction between the former who worshiped the status quo and the latter who rejected it. When they reached the square, they heard newspaper vendors hawking their wares and touting a meeting of the ruling party. Remembering something, Mr. Badir said, as he shook hands, “That reminds me. The prime minister has lost the palace’s confidence.”
Mahgub was disturbed, because he recalled that Qasim Bey Fahmi was a prominent figure in the current alliance. He asked, “How about the English?”
The young man grimaced and said, “The High Commissioner’s affections have shifted.” The two young men parted, and Mahgub headed for Sulaiman Pasha Street, frowning and depressed. This new concern, however, rescued him from the anxiety that had overwhelmed him since he received his salary. Faced by this looming danger, he no longer hesitated to decide about his parents. They were the first victims of the political crisis.