Naguib Mahfouz

Cairo Modern


he sun had begun a slow descent from its heavenly apogee, and over the university’s magnificent dome its disc appeared to be bursting into the sky or returning from its rounds. It flooded treetops, verdant earth, silver-walled buildings, and the great avenue running through the Orman Gardens with rays gentled by frigid January, which had tempered their flame and infused them with benign compassion. Standing at the head of two rows of lofty trees lining the avenue, the dome resembled a god before whom worshipful priests kneel for afternoon prayer. The sky was clear except for some thin, far-flung clouds at the horizon. A chill breeze shook the trees, and their leaves responded with moans and sighs.

Bewildered kites circled overhead and down below — engrossed in separate discussions — groups of students walked along, spilling from the university campus onto the avenue. Then, in the midst of these young men, appeared a group of no more than five female students who advanced diffidently, exchanging confidences. The presence of women at the university was still a novelty that evoked interest and curiosity, especially among the first-year students, who began to exchange glances as they whispered to each other, although their voices occasionally rose loud enough to reach their comrades’ ears.

A student asked, “Doesn’t even one of them have a face worth seeing?”

Another answered rather sarcastically, “They’re ambassadors of learning, not of passion.”

A third remarked with censorious zeal as he examined the appearance of the spindly young women, “But God created them to be ambassadors of passion!”

The first youth guffawed and — motivated by a spirit of mischievous defiance — observed, “Remember we’re at the university, a place where you’re not allowed to mention God or passion.”

“It’s very logical that God wouldn’t be mentioned, but passion?”

One of them responded in a reportorial tone more professional than scholarly, “This university is God’s enemy, not nature’s.”

“What you say is true and you derive no pleasure from their sickening appearance, but this is merely the first installment of the fair sex. They’ll be followed by others. The university is a new trend that will soon catch on among females. If you keep your eyes on tomorrow, it won’t be long in coming.”

“Do you think young women will accept the university as readily as they have the cinema, for example?”

“More readily. You’ll see young women here quite unlike this sorry lot.”

“And they’ll press against the young men mercilessly.”

“Mercy in such circumstances would be reprehensible.”

“They won’t try to behave, because a strong person doesn’t bother to be well behaved.”

“Perhaps passions will flare up between the two sexes.”

“How beautiful that would be!”

“Consider the trees and the thickets: love arises there as spontaneously as maggots in jars of mish cheese.”

“My Lord! Will we live to see this happy age?”

“You’ll be able to wait for it if you choose.”

“We’re just starting and the future is dazzling.”

Having finished their general comments, they began to analyze the girls individually with bitter mockery and stinging sarcasm.

* * *

Four young men walked along together slowly. They were also conversing and had probably listened with interest to the prattle of the other students. These were final year students who were almost twenty-four, and their faces shone with pride in their maturity and learning. They were not blind to their importance — or put more precisely — they were inordinately conscious of it.

Ma’mun Radwan remarked critically, “All boys talk about is girls.”

Ali Taha responded to his companion’s critique, “What’s wrong with that? We’re two halves of a whole and have been seeking each other since eternity.”

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im commented, “Don’t hold it against them, Mr. Ma’mun. It’s Thursday, and for male students Thursday is always a day to enjoy the ladies.”

Ahmad Badir, who was both a student and a journalist, smiled gently and declared oratorically, “Brothers, I invite you to state your ideas about women in a few brief words. What do you say, Mr. Ma’mun Radwan?”

The young man was perplexed. Then he smiled and asked, “Are you trying to tempt me into the type of discussion I’ve criticized?”

“Don’t try to squirm out of it. Come on. Just a few words. I’m a journalist, and a journalist never wearies of discussion.”

Ma’mun Radwan realized that evading Ahmad Badir would be difficult and yielded. “I say what my Lord said. If you want to know my personal take on it: woman is man’s solace in this world and a level path toward solace for the next.”

Ahmad Badir turned to Ali Taha and with a nod of his head asked his friend to speak. The young man said, “A woman is a man’s partner in life, so they say, but — in my opinion — it should be a partnership with identical rights and obligations.”

Turning toward Mahgub Abd al-Da’im, Ahmad Badir asked jocularly, “And what does our dear devil think?”

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im replied theatrically, “Woman is … the safety valve on the boiler.”

They all laughed as they normally did when they heard one of his notions. Then they asked Ahmad Badir, “And you, what do you think?”

The young man replied dismissively, “A journalist should listen and not speak, especially nowadays.”


hey turned at the avenue’s first intersection and headed toward the governorate building. Ma’mun Radwan was the tallest, although Mahgub Abd al-Da’im was almost as tall. Ali Taha was of medium height and stocky, and Ahmad Badir was quite short with a very large head. Ma’mun Radwan wanted to conclude their day’s pursuits in the best possible way before greeting the day of rest. So he said in his tremulous voice, which seemed to rise straight from his heart, “Talking about women has distracted us from the topic at hand. What’s your final word on the debate we just attended?”

The debate had been about principles: whether they are necessary for mankind or should be dispensed with. Addressing Ma’mun Radwan, Ali Taha said, “We both agree that man needs principles. They’re the compass guiding the ship.”

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im said calmly and gravely, “Tuzz.”

Ali Taha, however, ignored him and continued to address Ma’mun. “Although we differ about the nature of these principles.…”

Shrugging his shoulders, Ahmad Badir observed, “As always!”

Ma’mun, whose eyes glittered with a fleeting light when he was excited — as at present — remarked, “All we need are the principles that God Almighty decreed.”

Mahgub Abd al-Da’im commented as if astonished, “I’m stunned that a man like you believes in legends.”

Ali Taha continued, “I believe in society, in the living human hive. Let’s respect society’s principles — on

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