They rushed to be first to the tables and took their seats. Glasses were filled, and Iffat poured a glass for Ihsan. This was the first time she drank in public. In a low voice, she said, “One’s enough for me.”

The young man laughed and remarked, “You might as well cover yourself with a veil of piety and head down to al-Sayyida Zaynab’s shrine to preach and counsel.”

Then he whispered in her ear, “Look at Hikmat. She can drink an entire bottle without ever divulging a secret.”

Ihsan saw that everyone was waiting for her to launch the party. So, she raised her glass a bit apprehensively and hands shot up with glasses to toast the office manager. Then they drained their glasses. Knives quickly sliced into the meat and forks pierced it to convey it to greedy mouths. The buffet area turned into a battlefield remarkable both for violence and delight as the casualties inflicted on food and drink multiplied. Ihsan noticed that Iffat Bey deliberately touched her each time he leaned forward to fill her glass and that his shoe had scuffed hers more than once—but she did nothing to encourage him. For his part Mahgub ate and drank voraciously, not because he felt like it but to escape from his emotions, since he had not stopped thinking about the house opposite the train station ever since the yacht anchored at the Barrages Garden quay. He was afflicted by a feeling of despair and fear he could not shake off. What might his parents be doing at that moment? Was his father still bedridden? What do you suppose his mother was doing? Had their money run out? Had they sold off some of the old furniture? Couldn’t they have put to good use some of these tables’ scraps? How could he free himself from this feeling of discomfort and despair? Who could help him train his emotions to obey the stern commands of his free intellect? He drank to excess and chattered on indiscriminately, making a good faith effort to evade his personal concerns and to impose himself on those around him, participating fully in the conversation. Someone asked the group of married couples whether marriage had lived up to their dreams. After exchanging anxious looks, the married couples burst into laughter. Another guest asked what the most enjoyable aspect of marriage was. A young husband replied, “It’s love.” Another said, “It’s being rid of love!” A third volunteered, “Birth control!” Mahgub observed privately, “No, it’s the golden horn!” Husni Shawkat volunteered for no apparent reason, “I lost fifteen pounds last week.”

His fiancée exclaimed, “The rest next week!”

Ahmad Asim observed, “They say: unlucky at the gaming table, lucky at love.”

A smiling young woman commented, “That’s because someone who is an ill-starred gambler doesn’t know how to cheat!”

Shawkat piped up again, “The strangest wager I ever witnessed was a young man who bet his sweetheart.”

Everyone seemed interested, and many asked, “Really? How could that be?”

The inebriated young man answered, “He’s a dear friend who once took his sweetheart to a private gaming club. He lost all his money, and eveyone had drunk so much they couldn’t think straight. Then a drunk suggested that he should bet his sweetheart against all his losses. That way he would get all his cash back or lose his girlfriend. He accepted the proposal, made the bet, and lost his sweetheart.”

“What did the woman think?”

“She was dead drunk. The winner acquired possession of her, or—put more accurately—she acquired possession of him.”

“Who could that friend of yours be?”

“I can’t tell you, because one of the parties is here.”

Looks of disbelief were exchanged, mouths smiled skeptically, and curiosity showed clearly on every face—especially the women’s. Ihsan asked Iffat Bey, “Who do you think the gambler is?”

Delighted by this question, the young man glossed it to fit his purposes, replying, “Only Mr. Shawkat knows that, and perhaps even he doesn’t know.”

“Do you approve of this type of wager?”

He responded with mock indignation, “I don’t gamble with someone I love.”

She realized that she had said more than was appropriate and resolved that her third glass would be her last. Many heads felt dizzy, and a couple began to quarrel, exchanging abusive comments. Mr. Husni Shawkat was almost delirious, and Mahgub Abd al-Da’im was drunk. Liquor had rewired his mind, allowing him to forget his cares and to dedicate himself eagerly to conversation and laughter.

Once the platters and bottles were empty, Iffat yelled at them, “To the garden!”

They echoed his call, “To the garden, to the garden,” as they set off singly and in pairs. Mahgub wanted to stay behind on the yacht in keeping with his plan and stepped aside, even though he was severely intoxicated. He chanced to see, however, his wife leading the pack, arm-in-arm with Iffat Bey. His blood boiled and he clenched his teeth angrily. One of the brethren chanced upon him and took his arm, inviting him to walk with him. He did not resist, forgetting his resolve and fears. The garden was flooded with waves of sightseers—women and men. Some were walking and laughing together while others were seated, eating and drinking. These two varieties of fun-lovers spread merriment everywhere. Blissful harbingers and youthful bonds joined them all together harmoniously, not to mention their joyful love of mirth and jesting. Thus complete strangers struck up conversations and pelted each other with wisecracks without so much as a by-your-leave. They climbed a grassy hillock, descended a gully bordered by flowers, sheltered in a bower covered with jasmine and hyacinth-bean blossoms, or crossed a bridge over a creek that flowed silver in the moonlight, while the full moon peered down at them from the heavens’ heights during its never-ending procession amidst the planets and stars, flooding the world with its brilliant light. Souls felt relaxed and pure. Anyone with a good voice began to sing, and musicians caused their strings to speak. The party from the yacht proceeded down the paths, creating an uproar and a din, and Mr. Husni Shawkat nonchalantly picked fights; so people stared at them. Mahgub, on his wife’s right—Iffat Bey was beside her—was drunk. He was speaking and laughing, even though he was furious at the boy, who was sticking as close to his wife as her shadow. Despite his intoxication and jollity, he could not forget that he was in al-Qanatir, his hometown, and close to his wretched parents. He began to look around cautiously as he struggled to ward off the anxiety afflicting him. He considered heading back to the yacht more than once but kept yielding to the pull of his companions. Then Husni Shawkat made them stop so he could buy figs from a vendor—an elderly man who hobbled along, so old and infirm that he leaned on a stick. Mahgub immediately thought of his father. When they continued on their way, the man’s image stayed with him. His father, if he were able to leave his bed, would look just like this man, leaning on a stick at every step. He reflected for a time and then told himself: It’s not unlikely that if his funds give out he’ll pick up a basket of figs and roam the town with them. Perhaps he was struggling through the town somewhere with a basket of figs at that moment. He looked toward the train station as he staggered forward, feeling severely depressed. He no longer shared in his companions’ amusement and delight. His good humor and joy had deserted him, and he felt anxious, sorrowful, and fearful. Coming here had been a big mistake. If he had stayed behind, however, would that have changed anything? If his father’s estimate was accurate, he would have gone for three months without any support. What had the man done for himself and his mother? Given his weakness and ill health, how had he been able to confront life’s severity? Three months or more: June, July, and August together with this week of September: in other words, the period when he had savored prosperity and the good life. His head felt heavy as his inebriation subsided leaving behind a hangover and a splitting headache. His audacity, which mocked everything, had betrayed him. So he wondered with alarm whether this awakening was what people call conscience. After the destructive rebellion that had characterized all his university life, after competing in this crucial trial that had lasted for three whole months and emerging with unequivocal success, how could his soul flounder in this despicable state of cowardice and pain? Clenching his fist violently and obstinately, he refused to admit that he felt lost and afraid, that the moan in his breast was his conscience, or that he still could be moved by filial emotions. He refused all this stubbornly and furiously. To console and strengthen himself he dismissed his qualms as merely fear of a scandal that might threaten his social status. He did not pity his parents but was afraid their misery might induce them to upset his life and to cloud his glory’s serenity. Their time would come on the first of October. When he received his new salary, he would purchase some peace of mind by sending his father a few pounds. Then he would be done with this torment. He repeated this notion to himself and affirmed it vehemently, attempting to recover his courage and ecstasy. When he noticed his surroundings once more, he found that he was stumbling about alone. Looking around blankly, he saw only Mr. Ahmad Asim. He asked him, “Where are our friends?” The man shrugged his shoulders, saying, “I don’t know.” Mahgub realized that he had lost the group. He felt tired and, suddenly, nauseous. Then he started vomiting. His companion took him by the hand and led him to the yacht and down to a cabin, where he stretched out on a bunk and fell asleep. He did not know how long he had been there, but in his imagination he kept seeing the fig seller till he imagined the man actually was his father, who had been forced by penury to accept the ignominy of begging.

Cairo Modern