AlifAhmad Muhammad IbrahimThe sky was a clear blue, the shadows of walnut trees slumbered on the ground, and the surface of the old square shone in the sunlight and clamored with endless noise from the surrounding alleys. Bare feet, ornamental slippers, pantofles, and the hooves of horses, donkeys, and mules trampled over Bayt al-Qadi Square, where the new police station met the old courthouse. Ahmad emerged into this vast playground and quickly forgot the house he came from, his parents' house in Watawit. He was four years old when he was brought to his maternal grandfather's house on Bayt al-Qadi Square to relieve the loneliness of his uncle Qasim, who was a year and a half older than him. With the other sons and daughters married, the house was empty; no one was left except the father, Amr Effendi, the mother, Radia, and their youngest child, Qasim. Qasim only knew his sisters, Sadriya, Matariya, Samira, and Habiba, and brothers, Amer and Hamid, as fleeting guests of his parents and would visit them in the same manner he would visit the branches of the family living on Khayrat Square and in Suq al-Zalat and East Abbasiya. At his sister Matariya's house in Watawit he liked her son Ahmad best. Ahmad had an older brother called Shazli and a baby sister, Amana, but Ahmad was by far his favorite. Matariya loved Qasim like a son so let Ahmad go and live with his grandparents and relieve Qasim's loneliness in the big empty house. Muhammad Effendi Ibrahim, Ahmad's father, did not like the idea and nor did his mother, Aunt Matariya, but they let him go, determined to reclaim him the moment he was old enough to attend Qur'an school. Qasim knew nothing of their hidden plan and delighted in the company with unadulterated happiness.Ahmad was a paragon of beauty. He had a rosy complexion, blue eyes, soft hair, and a winning personality. He would follow his uncle about the square like a shadow. The two of them watched the snake charmers, watering carts, and policemen filing by. They met Amm Karim the ice-cream seller together and observed funeral processions with a sense of dread. Women from the neighborhood would gaze at Ahmad as they passed."Who's this handsome lad?" one would ask."Ahmad, Aunt Matariya's son," Qasim would reply proudly."The handsome son of a beautiful lady," she would say and go on her way."Don't fill Ahmad's head with tales of ifrit," Muhammad Effendi Ibrahim used to chide Qasim's mother, Radia. She regarded him with contempt and replied, "What an ignorant teacher you are!" The man laughed, revealing his overlapping front teeth, and continued smoking his pipe. This was because it was usually Radia who put the two boys to bed. Elation would fill their hearts as they listened to her fairy tales before going to sleep, as the miracles of saints and the mischief of ifrit flooded their imaginations and reality submerged in a world of dreams, marvels, and divine signs. In their spare time she took them around different houses and the tombs of the saints and the Prophet's family. The fun and entertainment continued until one day Qasim was taken off to begin a new life at Qur'an school and Ahmad was denied his friendship for two-thirds of the day. The Qur'an school was situated a few steps from the house in a recess in the Kababgi Building, but it was surrounded by a fence of strict tradition that turned it into a prison where divine principles were learned under threat of the cane. It was no place for entreaties and tears. Qasim would leave in the afternoon and find Ahmad and Umm Kamil waiting for him at the gate. The world was not the same anymore; inescapable worries had crept in. His instincts told him Muhammad Ibrahim, Ahmad's father, posed a further danger for he did not like living apart from his son. His bulging eyes began to regard him coldly."I don't like that man," he said to his mother.Her long brown face darkened. "How ungrateful you are! Didn't he send you his son?" she said."But he wants him back."She laughed. "Do you want him to give up what is his for your sake?"One day Ahmad was not waiting for him when he left the Qur'an school. Instead, he found his mother looking more grave than usual."Your friend is sick," she said.He found Ahmad in a deep sleep in his bed. His mother prepared vinegar compresses, muttering, "Dear boy, you're scorching like a fire."She recited verses from the Qur'an nonstop. When Amr Effendi came home in the evening he decided to send Umm Kamil to notify Matariya and her husband. When the incense and incantations did not succeed in bringing the fever down, Amr Effendi fetched the neighborhood doctor, but he said he was only an eye doctor and recommended they send for Doctor Abd al-Latif who lived in Bab al-Sha'riya."But he is married to the belly dancer Bamba Kashar!" Amr protested.The doctor laughed. "Bamba Kashar doesn't mean he can't be a good doctor, Amr Effendi."The doctor married to the famous belly dancer arrived. Qasim could feel the tension in the air. He heard his mother say, "I don't trust doctors. I recognize only one doctor--_the Creator of heaven and earth."Days went by. Where was Ahmad? Qasim wondered. Where had his freshness and beauty gone?One afternoon he returned from Qur'an school and met a new scene at home. His family sat in a strange silence. His mother and Ahmad's grandmother were in Ahmad's room and his brothers and sisters--_Amer, Hamid, Sadriya, Samira, and Habiba--_were in the living room. Matariya was sobbing and Muhammad Ibrahim was next to her, smoking his pipe despondently. His heart was infused with fear at the somber atmosphere. He realized that the enemy he had heard about on formal occasions in the past, that he had seen reigning over funeral processions heading toward al-Hussein, had somehow invaded his house and snatched away the person he loved most in the world. He screamed and cried until Umm Kamil carried him up to the top of the house. Through the summer room jalousie he saw Ahmad's grandmother, with an embroidered bundle in her arms, board a carriage with her daughter and Amr Effendi. The carriage moved off, followed by a second carrying Amer, Hamid, and Qasim's uncle, Surur Effendi--_a funeral procession of a new kind. Was this the end of Ahmad? He refused to believe or accept it. He was convinced they would bring him back that day, sweet and rosy once more. But he still could not stop crying. In the evening everyone dispersed."That's enough!" his father chastised."Where did you take him?" he asked expectantly."You're not a child anymore," said Amr. "You attend the Qur'an school and learn suras from the Qur'an by heart. Ahmad has died. Everyone dies according to God's decree. It's the will of God.""But why?" he protested."The will of God. Don't you understand?""No, Papa.""Stop. . . . This is no way to behave before God. Ahmad will go straight to paradise, which is a wonderful destiny. Be careful not to misbehave.""I'm very sad, Papa!" he shouted."Recite the opening sura and your heart will be soothed."But his heart was not soothed. He wept whenever he thought of Ahmad and it was said he was even sadder than Ahmad's mother. He did not recover from his grief until his world fell to pieces and a new creature no one had predicted was born.Ahmad Ata al-MurakibiA giant among men, tall and broad, the contours of his face might have been found on a statue. His blood coursed vigorously under his tan, and his thick mustache, outspread palm, and hirsute hands made him the image of a hero of popular legend. He would fill the whole seat of the carriage as it sauntered through Bayt al-Qadi Square and came to a halt in front of the old house when he visited in the halo of a great feudal lord. He would receive his nephew Amr Effendi--_who was the same age--_with a heartfelt embrace and greet Radia warmly, then set his presents down on the console, asking, "Where's Qasim?" His voice was calm and soft, which was peculiar considering the colossal body it came from, and in his brown eyes shone a languid, friendly look furnished with kindness and peace, as though he were a huge mosque where glory and security unite. "Tell us, how are our children?" he would say, referring to Amr and Radia's sons and daughters. He visited everyone in the family periodically, in particular the daughters, so as to reinforce their standing before their husbands. He heaped candy on Qasim and was saddened by Ahmad's death, whom he had been very fond of, for he was such a handsome boy.He would usually stay for dinner, on the condition that Radia serve one of the traditional Egyptian dishes for which she was famous alongside pre-prepared ta'miya and kebab side dishes, then spend the evening with Amr and his brother, Surur, at the Misri Club. The poor branch of the family was happy when rich relatives, like the Murakibis and the Dawuds, came to visit and reveled in the lasting effect it had in the quarter, although Radia would nevertheless remark to Amr, "None of them have roots. They all come from the soil," then turn to Qasim and carry on provocatively, "One man vanquishes them all and that's your grandfather, Shaykh Mu'awiya." Amr would smile and remain silent, preferring peace.Yet Qasim never got over the magic of the Murakibi mansion on Khayrat Square. As big as Bayt al-Qadi Square and as tall as the Citadel, it had a garden like a zoo, countless rooms, and nothing could match its furniture; what wonderful antiques of all shapes and sizes, and bronze and plaster statues in the corners! The wives of Ahmad Bey and Mahmud Bey, Fawziya Hanem and Nazli Hanem, had amazing complexions and blue eyes. Here was a real-life world even more magical than the world of fairy tales and dreams. Qasim's grandmother, Ni'ma Ata al-Murakibi, was the sister of Ahmad Bey and Mahmud Bey, but she was poor and had nothing in the world but her two sons, Amr and Surur, and daughter, Rashwana. Nevertheless, the two wealthy brothers loved their sister and her children, especially Amr Effendi, who was marked by natural wisdom. Ahmad Bey strengthened his ties with Dawud's family, the relatives of his sister Ni'ma's children, and other relatives through marriage--_despite the mutual jealousy between the rich branches--_and would invite them to the mansion on Khayrat Square. Abd al-Azim Pasha Dawud preferred Ahmad to his brother, Mahmud, as he was gentle-natured, straightforward, and modest, but when the Murakibi family was mentioned at Amr's house he would nevertheless declare scornfully, "They're even more ignorant than they are rich. Where do they come from? A poor pantofle seller in Salihiya!"While Mahmud Ata would say of Dawud's family, "Resounding titles but they're mere hirelings at the end of the day!""We're all children of Adam and Eve," Ahmad would say in his usual pious way.Amr, Surur, Mahmud, and Ahmad started school around the same time and made do with the primary school certificate. Amr and Surur entered the civil service because they were poor, and Mahmud plunged into life's tribulations under his father's wing, but Ahmad gravitated to calm and a life of luxury so was discounted from his father's plans. He spent some time on the farm in Beni Suef on the margins of farming then returned alone, or rather with Fawziya Hanem, to his rooms on the third floor of the mansion in Cairo. He spent his time visiting family and receiving friends. His magnificent drawing room was made up to receive friends and relatives. They would sip tea, coffee, and cinnamon, play backgammon and chess, send for lunch and dinner, and stay up until dawn during Ramadan and on festivals. The phonograph was his companion when he was alone, the carriage his recreation, Shubra and al-Qubba Gardens his visiting spots, and al-Sayyida his place of worship on a Friday. Some nights he attended Sufi gatherings with his cousin Amr, who was a member of the Dimirdashiya order.When his father, Ata al-Murakibi, died, his tranquil evergreen life suffered a violent blow that shook him thoroughly. He was suddenly faced with a huge responsibility he was not equipped to deal with: managing the land left to him--_three hundred feddans, not to mention the additional hundred or so from his wife."You'll learn everything," said Mahmud Bey. "There are people to help you. But," the man clenched his hulking hand into a fist and continued, "you'll need to give up your amicable ways. You can't treat peasants and tenants as you do friends and relatives."Ahmad thought for a long time, groping about the snare, then said, "You're my older brother. I've known only kindness and loyalty from you. I wasn't made for this."Thus, Mahmud took his father's place. Fawziya Hanem was unimpressed with the decision. "You decided too quickly and didn't consult anyone," she said politely."Do you doubt my brother?" he asked, confused."He may be your brother but why grant him trusteeship?" she said in good faith."He's my brother and dear friend and you're his wife's sister. Our family is a model of harmony and affection. I did what I thought was right," he said.His comfortable life continued and he received his share of the profits without inspecting it; everything was fine and he had no worries. Then the 1919 Revolution pounced and shook him profoundly. He was ignited by the leader's charm and, at his brother's suggestion, donated ten thousand Egyptian pounds to the cause. They followed their father's old exhortation of maintaining a distance from politics and avoiding anything that might arouse the anger of legal, or any other, authorities: the tide is too strong to swim against. But when discord between Sa'd and his opponent, Adli, began to emerge and the party split, the men deliberated about what to do; or, rather, Mahmud reflected and Ahmad went along with him."The time for sentimentality is over. It's time to be smart," said Mahmud."The whole nation is behind Sa'd," said Ahmad."We should go where our interests are best served."Ahmad paid attention."Don't be taken in by the rhetoric," Mahmud went on. "The English are the real power. Adli is close to them but he won't bring security forever. The power with a permanent channel to the English is the Crown. Let's pledge allegiance to the king.""You're right as always, brother," said Ahmad with resignation.Their stance was soon known in Bayt al-Qadi, where Amr and Surur lived next door to one another."It's inappropriate," Amr muttered with characteristic calm.
Copyright © 2009 by Naguib Mahfouz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.