Mr. Mahgub Abd al-Da’im—henceforth to be known as Mahgub Bey Abd al-Da’im—settled into the room reserved for the office manager. The senior staff of the ministry came in a delegation to congratulate him. It was a great day of memorable glory. Some of them congratulated him “in anticipation” on his promotion to the fourth level, as if it were a done deal. Salim al-Ikhshidi, however, did not come to offer his felicitations and thus frankly declared his enmity. News made the rounds in the ministry that al-Ikhshidi would transfer to Foreign Affairs, where he would be promoted to the fourth level. It was not difficult for Mahgub to guess the source of this rumor. He did not, however, discount its validity, because he knew of the man’s links to leading statesmen. He told himself: Al-Ikhshidi’s powerful—there’s no dispute about that. Had it not been for my wife, I wouldn’t have defeated him. He would have my place today. He felt delighted. If al-Ikhshidi really did transfer, that would clear the air for him and he would become the minister’s right-hand man just as his wife was already tops with the minister. Although he was no doubt overjoyed by this, his joy did not last long. He began brooding again about al-Ikhshidi’s anger and the forms his revenge might take. Soon his spirit of scornful contempt resurfaced and his good humor returned. He began to tell himself: People love appearances and are deceived by dissimulation. If he was forced to defend himself, he would provide them with all the deceptive surface gloss they wanted, even if he were obliged to join the Society for Muslim Youth, for example. So tuzz for everything, except not for people, at least not in public. He was incapable of banishing al-Ikhshidi and his anger from his mind, however. He had a thought that troubled him greatly. Why hadn’t this occurred to him before? Al-Ikhshidi was a former neighbor from al-Qanatir. Wasn’t it possible that his desire for vengeance would be so great that he would spill the secret in some manner to his parents? He swallowed with difficulty and his face turned a pale yellow. He started to tug at his eyebrow with pensive discomfort. He remained thoughtful and uncomfortable until he realized that he should not sacrifice his joy on this glorious day to whispered insinuations that might never materialize. He snorted with resentful rage, clenched his fist angrily, and told himself: The course has been set. What’s done is done. So let the results be what they may. It was quite a remote possibility that al-Ikhshidi would tell the truth about his marriage, because he himself knew facts about him that were no less damning. Moreover, al-Ikhshidi was too judicious to disclose a secret that would expose himself to Qasim Bey’s wrath. On the other hand, he should anticipate that his father would hear about his appointment. He had better arrange to provide for the man’s needs and to safe-guard his honor. Wishing to shake off his concerns, he spread a piece of paper on his desk and wrote down the sum of his new salary: twenty-five pounds. His protruding eyes rested on the figure till he beamed. He would receive that much on the first of October, which was not too far off. Could the owner of the beanery in Giza Square imagine that? Indeed, not even Ma’mun Radwan himself would earn more after he returned from studying abroad—in eight years! Tuzz had scored a dazzling victory! He felt such relief at this realization that it consoled him for all the pain, discomfort, anxiety, and grief he had suffered. He felt a pure delight at his liberation from this imaginary but malignant malady called conscience or remorse. He did fear people at times, and jealousy tormented him on other occasions, but remorse was quite a different kettle of fish. His rejection of society and its values was dazzlingly complete. He certainly believed he would continue to be powerful and free to the end and that he would not soften or weaken even if stricken by ill health or forced to live in reduced circumstances. How beautiful it was to taunt death when dying and to stare at annihilation with an eye capable of processing what was happening without any terror about some imaginary force or nugatory god. In this way a free intellect could vanquish blind instincts and trumped-up superstitions. He recalled Qasim Bey Fahmi, al-Ikhshidi, and tens of others with whom he was in contact in his new life. All of them seemed to belong to his school. No—he haughtily rejected that idea. Those men did evil knowing it was evil. Some committed an act without distinguishing between good and evil. Others simply did not take the trouble to reflect. Some did evil believing it to be good. He was unlike all the others, because he denied the existence of both good and evil and spurned the society that had concocted them. He believed in himself and nothing else. Some things were pleasant or painful, useful or harmful, but good and evil were purely pointless fantasies. Many a person would say, “If everyone believed that, everyone would perish.” That was true. There was no debate about that. But he wasn’t a big enough fool to seek converts to his point of view, which he reserved for himself alone. If he did speak, it would be to men like himself who were liberated from those idiotic believers. Society tolerated people who were good at concealment—like him. Since society was only interested in its continued existence, it was hostile even to its well-wishers who sang about perfecting it—people like Ali Taha and Ma’mun Radwan. Society resembled a conceited woman who spurns any admirer she finds criticizing her. Thus society’s critics are destined to fatigue, struggle, and perhaps even prison.
Life was good. Then, remembering something, he corrected himself, Except for one thing. That was Ihsan or the tyrannical emotion that appears only with love. Where was love? The young woman shared his hopes and was a model spouse, but he felt she was conscientiously performing a duty. She resembled an employee who loves the profession rather than the job itself or who doesn’t love or hate it. She had tied her destiny to his and loved life the way he did. She was as fond of luxury as he was. But something was missing that kept their relationship from being totally perfect. This deficiency alarmed him even during those brief moments when they both seemed tipsily happy—lip to lip and breast to breast. The missing thing was important, even if he would say of it in the throes of despair: tuzz! Indeed it provoked a revolution inside him similar to the one hunger had once fomented. Thus he seriously thought he should do as he had been done by. Indeed, he toyed with the idea of renting a room and furnishing it, just in case. Who knew? Perhaps people would seek it out sooner or later. As he had given, so should he receive.
On the evening of that glorious day, friends streamed into the elegant apartment in the Schleicher Building to present their felicitations to the office manager’s wife. During their conversation, which was merry and joyous, someone suggested they should all celebrate Mahgub’s promotion. One man, addressing Ihsan, remarked, “Next Thursday is the middle of the Islamic month and the full moon will be enthroned in the sky. Many folks will be heading downriver to al-Qanatir. What do you think about a moonlit cruise?” At this juncture he glanced discreetly at Iffat and continued with a wink of his eye, “And Iffat Bey has a beautiful little yacht.”
Iffat was beside himself with joy, since his admiration for Ihsan was increasing day by day. He agreed with an alacrity that spoke for itself: “The yacht and its owner are at your command!”
The moment Mahgub heard the name al-Qanatir, a cold tremor pulsed through his body. Knowing also that the friends’ enthusiasm was not directed at him in person, he objected, “This moonlit excursion isn’t appropriate for September’s cold, damp weather.”
Iffat laughed. Fearful that this golden opportunity might elude him, he said, “It’s obvious that your important position has infected you with some senior-citizen bug that makes you shake even in nice weather.”
In other circumstances, this praise couched as blame would have pleased Mahgub. His alarm, however, did not allow him to enjoy it. He argued vigorously, “It’s a big world. Choose any place you want, but as for al-Qanatir …”
So many objected that the rest of his statement was lost. He did not know how to convince or dissuade them. Faced by their protests, he felt overruled.
Meanwhile Iffat began, “It’s pointless to object. The best thing would be for you to listen to _______. The yacht will be at Qasr al-Nil at the time you all specify. A charming buffet and one bottle of whiskey for every three people. Let me count you.”
The roar of approval mounted and Ihsan joined in their delight. Mahgub started glancing anxiously at their faces, a meaningless smile inscribed on his lips. There was no way for him to opt out of this trip to al-Qanatir. He would stroll through the gardens there in the moonlight. Wasn’t it likely that he would encounter a resident who knew him? Yes, indeed; this was likely. Therefore the best thing he could do was to find some excuse for staying on the yacht. Yes, he could not resist the rowdy, obstinate fun-lovers. So he would go, because he was forced to. At any rate the gardens were far removed from the train station, far from the dilapidated, miserable abode.