Naguib Mahfouz

The day the leader was killed

Muhtashimi Zayed

Little sleep.
Then a moment of expectation full of warmth beneath the heavy cover.
The window lets in a faint streak of light which powerfully penetrates the forbidding darkness of the room. O Lord, I sleep at Thy command and awaken at Thy command! Thou art Lord of things. There goes the call to the dawn prayer marking the birth of a new day for me. There it is calling Thy name from the depth of silence. O Lord, help me tear myself away from my warm bed and face the bitter cold of this long winter! My dear one is bundled up deep in sleep in the other bed. Let me grope my way in the dark so as not to wake him up. How cold the ablution water is! But I derive warmth from Thy mercy. Prayer is communion and annihilation. God loves those who love to commune with Him. Blessed not is the day in which I draw not closer to the Lord.

At long last, I tear myself away from my reveries to awaken those asleep. I am the alarm clock of this exhausted household. It is good to be of some use at this advanced age of mine. Old, indeed, but healthy, praised be the Lord! Now it is all right to switch on the light and knock on the door, calling, “Fawwaz,” till I am able to hear his voice crying out, “Good morning, Father.”

I then return to my room and switch on the light there too. Here lies my grandson, fast asleep, nothing showing except the center of his face, tucked in between bedcover and bonnet.

Nothing doing.
I must drag him out of the realm of peace and into hell.

My heart goes out to him and his generation as I whisper, “Elwan, wake up.” He opens his light brown eyes and yawns as he mutters with a smile, “Good morning, Grandpa.”

This is followed by a rush of feet and a loosening of tongues as life begins to throb between the bathroom and the dining room. I sit and listen to the morning recitation of the Quran on the radio until Hanaa, my daughter- in-law, cries out, “Uncle, breakfast is ready!” Food is the single most important thing that remains for me out of the pleasures of life. Manifold indeed are God’s blessings in this life of ours. O Lord, protect me from sickness and disability.

No one any longer to take care of anyone anymore.
And no money left over in case of sickness. Woe unto him who falls! Now it is beans or falafel for breakfast. Both of these are more important than the Suez Canal. Gone are the days of eggs, cheese, pastrami, and jam. Those were the days of the ancien régime or B.I. — that is, Before Infitah, Sadat’s open-door economic policy. Prices have long since rocketed; everything has gone berserk. On a diet rich in bread, Fawwaz continues to gain weight. Hanaa too, but she is also aging prematurely. At fifty, today, one appears to be sixty.

“On certain days now, we’ll have to be working mornings and evenings at the Ministry, so I’ll have to give up my job at the firm,” said Fawwaz in his loud voice.

I grew perturbed. Both he and his wife work in a private-sector firm. Their income, my pension, and Elwan’s salary combined are hardly sufficient to meet the bare necessities of life, so how would it be if he were to leave the firm?

“It may be for just a short while,” I said in a hopeful tone.

“I’ll do some of your work for you and bring the rest home. And I’ll explain your circumstances to the Chief of Division,” said Hanaa.

“That means I’d have to work from crack of dawn to midnight,” Fawwaz retorted angrily.

I have always been hoping that we could try not to discuss our problems at mealtimes.

But how?

“The father of my professor, Alyaa Samih, drives a cab in his spare time and, of course, earns much more this way,” said Elwan.

“Does he own the cab?” his father asked him.

“I think so.”

“And how would I buy one? Is your professor’s father rich or does he take bribes?”

“All I know is that he’s a respectable man.”

“When all’s said and done, he has chosen a respectable path,” I said.

“Maybe one day I’ll choose a similar path,” Elwan said, laughing.

“What would you do?” asked Hanaa in all earnestness.

“I’d round up a gang to rob banks!”

“Best thing you can do,” snapped back Fawwaz.

I wiped the dishes properly and Hanaa took them back to the kitchen. The moment they had said goodbye and left, I found myself, as usual, all alone in the small flat. O Lord, provide for them and protect them from the vicissitudes of time! O Lord, grant me the grace of Thy protection! Were I to leave this house as it is, it would remain a total mess until the evening. I do what I can with my bedroom and the living room, where I while away my solitude listening to the Quran, to songs, and to the news on the radio and television. Had there been a fourth room, Elwan could have settled down in it. Praised be the Lord, I do not question His authority.

One day, Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, the pious sage, came across a group of people crowding around a bakery in Cairo in a year when prices had risen tremendously. His heart went out to them. It occurred to him that if he had had some small change, he could have helped these people, whereupon he felt some weight in his pocket. When he put his hand in it, he found a few coins, which he promptly gave to the baker in exchange for some bread, which he went on to dole out to the people. After he had left, the baker discovered that the coins were false. So he cried out for help until he caught the man, who then realized that the feelings of pity he had felt for the people had been a sort of objection on his part to God’s ways to men. Repentant, he begged the Lord’s forgiveness and, no sooner had he done that, than the baker realized that the coins had in fact been genuine! That is indeed a perfectly holy man. Holiness is bestowed only upon those who shun the world. I am close to eighty but am unable to shun the world. It is God’s world and His short-lasting gift to us, so how am I to shun it? I love it, but with the love of one who is a free, devout worshiper. Why, then, doest Thou begrudge me holiness?

I am interested in the Quran and the Hadith, just as I am interested in the Infitah and in my beans mixed with oil, cumin, and lemon. When will I be graced with God’s boundless mercy so that I may one day be able to point to the light from afar and it would just be switched on without my ever having to touch the light switch? I have only one good friend left and, even then, old age has come between us.

Solitude of the soul, of place, and of time.
It is a year now since I was last able to read. I get very little sleep, but I am not afraid of death. I shall welcome it when it comes, but not before it is due.

When King Fuad inaugurated our school, I was called upon to give a speech on behalf of the teachers.

A day of glory.
My heart warmed as the pupils cheered: “Long live the King, long live Saad Zaghloul!” The cheering has changed and so have the songs. Prices have exploded. Behind the closed panes, I can see the River Nile and the trees. Our house is the oldest and smallest one on Nile Street: a dwarf amid modern buildings. The River Nile itself has changed and, like me, it is struggling against loneliness and old age. We share the same predicament: it, too, has lost its glory and grandeur and is now no longer even able to get into a tantrum. And then, so much poverty and so many loved ones departed; so many cars, so many fortunes!
A cloudy day with premonitions of rain.
On such days, it was fun to go on a trip to the Qanater Gardens. Old friends would get together for a meal of fried chicken, potatoes, and drinks.
And the record player playing old favorites.
They are all skeletons now and their carefree, mirthful laughter has gone with the wind! They all stood behind me in a row on my wedding night, the night I unveiled Fatma for the first time. Five years have gone by since I last visited your grave. What mad speed and what crowds, the likes of which the trees have never witnessed since they were planted in the days of Khedive Ismail! Madmen rush unawares to meet their fate in accidents. The Prophet, God bless him and grant him salvation, said: “Ye slave of God,
in this world as a stranger or passerby and reckon yourself among the dead.” The Messenger of God has truly spoken.

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