For four days he derived pure enjoyment from his important position. All the employees—junior and senior staff—who came in contact with him sensed that he was a presumptuous official who would have to be accorded his due in full measure, who would pardon no error, and who spoke only to command. The more accommodating his staff members became—and they had no choice about this—the more extreme and despotic he was. He enjoyed this aggressive despotism so much that he would at times have liked to spend his entire day at the ministry, commanding and scolding.
Then it was Thursday, the appointed time for the excursion. The couple left their home and proceeded toward Qasr al-Nil. As they walked along, Ihsan muttered, “You’re perhaps the only member of the group who doesn’t own a car!”
Laughing, Mahgub replied, “Slow means safe.”
Her comment, however, prompted him to flag down a taxi, even though they did not have far to go. Thinking of her grumbling tone, he commented sarcastically to himself: It’s shocking that Uncle Shihata Turki’s daughter doesn’t have a car of her own. Then he remembered the burdens that his new life imposed on him like his desire to rent and furnish a room, budgeting a few pounds from his salary for his father, and his need for other luxuries and expenses. The matter frightened him. He commiserated with himself: No matter how long I live, I’ll always be short of cash. They soon reached the yacht’s mooring. Leaving the taxi behind them, they headed toward their waiting friends as the night’s gloom descended on the horizons. They were warmly received. Iffat Bey came toward the couple, shook hands with them, and then offered his arm to Ihsan. She accepted and the pair led the first group onto the yacht. Mahgub did not like the yacht’s owner. He had started to dislike him ever since accepting his invitation to the Fantasio. He could see in the man’s handsome eyes telltale signs of infatuation with his wife. So he was annoyed, felt outraged, and glared at the other man’s red hair, light complexion, and athletic body with angry, hate-filled eyes.
The vessel was small but beautiful and elegant. It had two levels. The lower held the cabins and the upper was a deck surrounded by a railing against which cozy seats were arranged in a circle. At the bow, they found tables covered with delectable edibles. Iffat Bey gave the order to hoist the anchor. So the yacht left its mooring and headed north, guided by the splendid moon at the center of the eastern horizon, where it was rising behind the palm trees. Thus the voyage began.
The friends, who sat facing each other, started to chat, enjoying the pleasant, moist air. Mahgub began to glance at the beaming faces and slender physiques. This array of youthful good looks dazzled him. He discovered that his wife was surrounded by a halo of admiration and admirers some distance away. He recalled the days when he admired her from the window of his room in the hostel, although he recognized that she was even more radiantly beautiful and enchanting now. He sensed the profound gulf that separated them. Quick, agitated images passed before his mind’s eye. He saw Ali Taha both joyful and sad, Uncle Shihata Turki, the Minister, Salim al-Ikhshidi, and his own bedchamber in the Schleicher Building. He found himself wondering whether he would rather have Ihsan’s heart and body for his own in a quiet, honorable, conjugal dwelling, even if that meant he was merely an inglorious, low-ranking government employee. He had no ready answer for this question. Yes, his ambition was as strong as his emotion. Indeed, his ambition possibly was the stronger, but what was the use of the comparison? To distract himself he glanced at the Nile and then looked up at the full moon, which was gradually rising higher and becoming more limpid. The darker the night became, the more luminous and radiant it was. He was not, however, the type of person entranced by nature’s charms. He liked to say, “Rapturous love of nature spoils the intellect and, since the beginning of time, has been the source of superstitions that still shackle us.” He remembered his friend Ma’mun Radwan, who would wake at dawn for prayer and devotions. He would gaze at the stars and recite in a loving voice, his clear eyes gleaming like bright stars, the Qur’anic verses, By night when it descends and By the heavens and by the night star. Did any of the young men and women present love nature? He scrutinized them but found them too preoccupied with personal matters to show any interest in the physical world.
He heard Miss Fifi suggest seductively, “Why don’t we dance?”
Ali Iffat immediately replied, “Dance if you want to, but can you dance without music?”
Ahmad Asim piped up, “Here’s good news. I’ve brought my accordion.”
People exclaimed appreciatively and glanced about to search for a sweetheart. Ahmad Asim took out his instrument and began to play, swaying in his seat to the dance tunes. Everyone rose to dance, except for Ihsan and Mahgub, who did not know how to, and Iffat Bey, who chose to keep them company. They began to watch the dancers with silent admiration. Then Iffat Bey announced that he was skeptical about Ihsan’s claim that she did not know how to dance. He encouraged Ihsan, “I’ll teach you. This is something you need to know. What do you think?”
With her eyes fixed on the dancers, she stammered, “I don’t know.”
“A person who doesn’t know how to dance will feel out of place at fancy balls. Don’t you agree, Mahgub Bey?”
Mahgub sensed the danger encompassing him and wanted to evade it. So he remarked casually, “I don’t think so.…”
Iffat laughed out loud and said, “What a nineteenth-century couple!”
Ihsan laughed along with him and said, “We may be your pupils one day.”
The young man’s eagerness showed in his face and gushing with delight he said, “Any time you want.”
Mahgub said nothing. He was pretending to watch the dancers with interest while repressing his resentment and outrage. This idiotic young man, who was preoccupied by his own good looks, was preparing to assault his honor and would clearly act if he found an unguarded moment. Mahgub, however, was certainly going to deny him the opportunity. No fool like this was going to cause a new pair of horns to sprout on his head. He had volunteered his head for the golden horns, horns of glory and power. But how would she respond to this flirtation? Would this mysterious, fascinating young woman prove an easy target? He felt the fangs of venomous jealousy rip into his breast.
The dancing continued until Ahmad Asim grew tired or bored and stopped playing. Then the couples separated and returned to their seats with beaming faces. The full moon had risen into the heavens and its light had been appropriated by the Nile’s undulating waters, which reflected it back and forth, sprinkling it around like pearls that ravished the eye.
Someone asked, “When can we start the buffet?”
A companion answered, “Not till the yacht is moored at the garden, you hungry scamp.”
Someone else asked, “Why don’t we play cards?”
Many people, however, objected to this suggestion, complaining that it would spoil the pristine character of the excursion. So they resumed their chatting. Mahgub was drawn out of his reflections by the voice of Mr. Husni Shawkat, who was saying, “How can it not be important? The Nazi Party’s successful rise to power is a very grave matter.”
Ahmad Asim protested, “But the personal prestige of President Hindenberg will most probably swallow Hitler.”
“Look ahead. Don’t you see that Hitler’s in the prime of his youth while the president’s at the end of his life?”
“Then the future holds a bloody war.”
“That seems reasonable, although France won’t wait for Germany to regain strength or prepare to pounce on it. There is a strong circle of states that are allied with France—like Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans. Don’t forget that mighty Italy considers itself to be Austria’s protector. If these nations make common cause— and perhaps Russia will join—the steel ring will slowly and gradually tighten till Germany is eventually strangled and annihilated.”
“How about England? Would it look the other way while Germany is being strangled?”
“England’s too cunning to allow France—or any other country—to dominate Europe.”
Mahgub listened to this conversation with interest. Despite his vast familiarity with domestic politics, he was sublimely ignorant of world affairs. He advised himself to pay attention to foreign news so he would be able to offer an opinion when appropriate. He pretended to be contemplating the moon, oblivious to his surroundings, to keep anyone from noticing his silence. He actually did lose the train of the conversation for some minutes. When his attention reverted to the session, he found talk had somehow switched to domestic issues. He heard one of them say, “Any ruler can subdue Egypt without any risk.”
“As a matter of fact, any government established in Egypt becomes a dictatorship.”
“This is a country where people say, ‘I’m honored by your blow, sir.’ ”
Ahmad Asim stated categorically, “Egypt will never win its independence.”
“It’s used to being ruled by foreigners.”
Iffat laughed and asked, “Why does Egypt need to be independent? Its leaders fight each other for power, and the people are unfit to govern themselves.”
Mahgub thought this was a fitting opportunity to offer a moralizing comment in order to help shape a positive reputation for himself in line with a plan he had focused on since thinking about joining the Muslim Brotherhood. With a smile, he said, “Aren’t you ashamed to say something like this about your own nation?”
Iffat laughed again and replied in a loud voice, “I don’t have a drop of Egyptian blood in my veins.”
His remark provoked a storm of laughter, but Mahgub’s hatred for the man was doubled, not from chauvinistic anger but from disgust at his conceit. He remembered a ringing speech that Iffat’s father had delivered in the Senate. Thinking he had a stranglehold on the young man, he said in a victorious tone, “So how do you explain the speech your father, the pasha, gave in the Senate during a budget discussion in which he defended the peasant in a magnificently nationalist fashion?”
Iffat guffawed and replied a bit sarcastically, “That was in the Senate. At home we both agree—my father and I—that the best policy for the peasant is the whip.”
Everyone present—both men and women—laughed loudly. Mahgub smiled to mask his defeat. His fear had dissipated and he felt comfortable at being singled out as the defender of Egyptian nationalism. He told himself: Our true dress uniform is a cloak of hypocrisy. I won’t abandon that! He wondered sarcastically: How do you suppose Ali Taha would reform these noble people? How would he implement his ideals?
With the passage of time the yacht progressed through the waves as if swimming through the resplendent light. Mahgub was roused from his thoughts a third time when a young man explained, “Doubtless the wife obliged her husband, the pasha, to move into a hotel while she retained the chauffeur.”
A young woman asked with interest, “Did the pasha really make her choose between him and the chauffeur?”
He continued to listen selectively, to this person and that, feeling alert and attentive at times and absentminded and distracted at others, until al-Qanatir’s gardens appeared in the moonlight like the sweetest dreams. Then all the friends rose eagerly as Iffat Bey invited them to the buffet.