With in a few days the new minister had taken up residence in Cairo—rather than Bulkeley—because of chronic asthma. On the fourth day after the bey’s appointment as minister, Mahgub learned that a decision had been made to choose him for the position of office manager. Ihsan greeted him with a smile and said proudly, “Congratulations!” His heart pounded with delight, and he was bowled over by the surprise—as if he had not focused his entire attention on this hope for the past four days. The aspiration had turned into a splendid reality. He would become a senior government official. The fifth level wasn’t anything to scoff at. So what if it was a stepping stone to the fourth? In his mind’s eye he could see the fourth boldly inscribed. Then the words evolved into images: an armchair surrounded by assistants as many people of all classes approached deferentially. Had he been able to see himself imagining this glory, he would have been as scornful as ever, because he was frowning haughtily and casting a lofty gaze around from a supercilious head. At that time he took pleasure in flipping through the pages of his recent past: those February nights, the ful shop in Giza Square, the trip to the Pyramids, his comings and goings between Giza, al-Fustat Street, and al-Ikhshidi—his hand extended to beg—his marriage, and then this culmination! His head, which was crammed full of daring and philosophy, seemed a lamp illuminating the right path. So he felt good and rubbed his hands together gleefully.
He went to the ministry early the next day and sat in his office, which he was about to quit and which seemed rather mean. He was, however, not the only person to arrive early. The door opened and Mr. Salim al-Ikhshidi appeared on his doorstep. He felt uncomfortable but naturally did not allow his discomfort to show on his face. He rose smiling to welcome his guest. He was wondering what had inspired the man to swallow his pride and come to his office. Holding his hand out to him with delight, he said, “Welcome, Your Excellency. Come in and have a seat!”
They both sat down. Al-Ikhshidi volunteered one of his rare smiles and spoke in general terms about the new cabinet and the bey who would replace Qasim Bey. Then with his customary composure he said, “I have something I want to disclose to you. I’ve instructed your messenger not to allow anyone to enter.”
The young man guessed what he wanted to say and felt spiteful and resentful but in his welcoming, delighted tone said, “That’s fine. Here I am at your command.”
Al-Ikhshidi focused his round eyes on him and said, “The matter is deadly serious since it concerns our future and we definitely both stand to profit from it. But I would like to ask you first of all: Haven’t you found me to be a sincere friend?”
“Of course, the best of friends.”
Mahgub said that, feeling amazed by this pleasant, gracious tone, which he had not heard al-Ikhshidi use before. What had become of all the commanding, forbidding, and scolding? Where were the coldness and the haughtiness? He felt deep inside intrusive resentment and scorn. Then he heard him say, “Thank you. Our friendship is a precious treasure. Because of it we will be able to plunge into any difficulties like a hand in a glove.”
He secretly observed: You may speak as much as treachery requires about friendship. Cunning devil, I know you as well as you know yourself. It’s enough for me to understand myself to understand you. Every bane has its corresponding nemesis!
Al-Ikhshidi gave him a piercing look and said, “I’ve learned that a memo is being drafted to appoint you the minister’s office manager.”
This was the essential point. Did he want him to relinquish the post to him? How stupid he was! How could he have forgotten that Mahgub was his pupil? Religion, morality, and etiquette could not keep him from this position. Did the man think that his “friendship” would succeed where all other powers had failed? He said calmly, “Yes. I learned that only yesterday.”
Al-Ikhshidi replied, “This pleases me as it does you, although I would like to direct your attention to the fact that the office manager position is at the fourth level and you’re at the sixth. If a fifth level had been vacant, you would have achieved your objective. If you take my position and let me have your new job, that will realize all our hopes.”
Mahgub wondered privately whether al-Ikhshidi was a numbskull or just pretending to be one. Didn’t he realize that he was aspiring to the fourth level itself? And suppose that a leap to the fourth level wasn’t feasible for him, was there any doubt that he would rather have both of them at the fifth level than have al-Ikhshidi pave the way for his eventual promotion? Looking at his companion with pretended concern, he asked, “What do you want me to do?”
Al-Ikhshidi said, “Tell the minister that you would be satisfied with my position.”
The critical moment had arrived. He realized that the friendship myth they had chanted in unison doubtless hung on a single word. He hesitated a little, remembering that al-Ikhshidi’s enmity was not something to be dismissed lightly, since he was not a man like Ali Taha or Ma’mun Radwan whose vengeance would be limited by their honor. This was a man—just like him—who had no morals and no principles and who knew everything. What could he do? He reflected for a time. He told himself his secret would certainly come out some day, if people like Ahmad Badir did not actually know it. And what effect had Badir’s mocking comments about the heroes of the party of the Society for Blind Women had on them? Tuzz! Then he shouldn’t hesitate. Let al-Ikhshidi and his friendship go to hell. As a storm of disdain swept through him, he said, “Don’t you think, Salim Bey, that this would mean rejecting an honor that the minister has chosen for me?”
Al-Ikhshidi cast him a look that seemed to say, “You son of a bitch!” With amazing self-control, though, he retained his composure. He was silent for a moment. He was ready to ask him to reconsider. One of his smiles was almost traced on his lips as graceful comments were lining up on his tongue. He almost said something about friendship and cooperation, but his will prevented all this. So he remained silent as his face and regard froze. He confined his commentary to asking in an expressionless voice, “Is that what you think?”
Mahgub replied nonchalantly after his guardian demon had gained the upper hand, “Yes. Don’t you agree with me?”
Turning his eyes away, al-Ikhshidi muttered, “That makes sense. You’re right. Thanks. Congratulations!”
He quit the room with unhurried steps, his pride having returned. Mahgub rested his elbows on his desk thoughtfully. He had previously lost Ali Taha and Ma’mun Radwan and had quickly forgotten. This time he was assailed by fear. Enraged by this fear, he clenched his fist angrily. Apparently wishing to forget his concern, he rose and left the room for the personnel office to see for himself the memo of his appointment.