Aswany / THE AUTOMOBILE CLUB OF EGYPT
The story started when a man called Karl Benz met a woman called Bertha.
In the only extant photograph of him, Karl Benz appears distracted, his mind so preoccupied by something other than the details of daily life that he has forgotten to do up the buttons of his jacket as he stands for the camera. His face appears to show a deep-grained sadness, a look of despondency left by a hard childhood. His father, a railroad engineer, had died in a terrible accident when Karl was just two, and his mother fought hard to provide him a good education. Still, he had had to start working at a young age in order to help support his siblings. The photograph shows his intelligence and determination, but it also portrays him as somewhat distant, as if he is looking at something on the far horizon that only he can see. Bertha’s photograph, on the other hand, reflects a special type of beauty, one not sensual but brimming with maternal tenderness. Still, the captivating graciousness and angelic modesty of her features cannot hide a steely determination of her own and a readiness to sacrifice herself for duty.
It was July 20, 1872. In the German city of Mannheim, the church was full to the rafters with men and women in their Sunday best, so many people having been invited that some had to stand during the ceremony. Despite rebukes and reprimands, the children kept babbling and fidgeting. The smell of the freshly painted church walls permeating the hot air did nothing to relieve the stifling heat as the women muttered and rapidly fanned themselves with their patterned silk fans. Suddenly, cries of joy went up, along with scattered clapping, as Karl Benz appeared in his elegant white suit, arm in arm with his bride, Bertha, who glittered in a beautiful gown of green French lace encrusted with small clusters of diamanté, the gown glistening and the deep round neckline showing off her exquisite skin. It was pulled in tightly to highlight her fabulous waist and below that puffed out in a bell shape like a ballet dancer’s costume. The couple walked slowly up the aisle to the altar and then repeated the marriage vows uttered first by the corpulent priest, who, due to the heat, took a sip after every sentence from a glass of cold water placed near him and wiped the sweat from his brow with a large white handkerchief.
Karl held Bertha’s hand and spoke his vow in a staccato and rasping voice, as if he was reticent about the words. When it was Bertha’s turn, her face reddened slightly, her breath becoming irregular, and the words came out in the disjointed fashion of a schoolgirl reading out a difficult text for a demanding teacher: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I take thee, Karl Benz, to be my lawfully wedded husband. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”
A dinner for the family and some close friends followed the ceremony. Just before midnight, Karl opened the door to their new house, and Bertha paused before walking across the threshold. She thought about how one part of her life was coming to an end and a new one was beginning, and she whispered a prayer to God to bless their life together.
The bedroom was upstairs. Bertha had only ever permitted Karl to give her a few furtive kisses. Her vigilant Protestant conscience only allowed her to give her body to him after a licit marriage in the house of God. Thus, their first act of physical union took on a unique and celebratory dimension, every last detail of it to remain imprinted in her memory forever. Bertha, her whole life long, never forgot those first spontaneous, confused, eager, feverish yet delightful moments—their attempts at conversation on a scattering of subjects, the speechlessness which struck them both, how Karl edged toward her and started kissing her gently, his warm breath smelling of cigar and alcohol and the feel of his prickly mustache and the fresh aroma of his white silk pajamas mixed with that of his body. She would always remember how she almost passed out from shyness as she whispered to him to turn out the light, the string of kisses that made her body gradually relax until she felt she was swimming in a wide open void and then the way their bodies clave to each other in a strange yet familiar way, causing her at first a little pain, which soon gave way to the wonderful feeling that they were now truly joined together for life.
Bertha would always recall those days with a smile of satisfaction and tenderness. Those first days of marriage were a period of utter contentment. She did everything she could to make her husband happy, in the hope that they would create an upright Christian family that would be like a fruiting tree in the Lord’s garden. Unfortunately, though, clouds started gathering and obscured the sun. Bertha quickly found out that her husband was more eccentric than any other man she had known or heard about. He was different from her father and brothers and the husbands of her friends. He sometimes appeared so unpredictable that he could almost be two different people in one body.
The gentle, mild-tempered and affectionate Karl whom she loved and married could be suddenly beset by demons and turn into another person, absentminded, irritable, nervous, ready to quarrel over the slightest matter. He could be curt in a way that she had never expected. He could become unfathomable, shrouding everything he did with such secrecy that she started to wonder whether she really knew anything about him.
She knew that he was an engineer at a workshop and that he had set something up with a partner in order to earn a living. One day he came asking her to lend him a sum of money to buy out the partner. She did not hesitate for a moment but handed over the amount from her own savings, with Karl kissing her hands in gratitude. He said excitedly that he would never forget her kindness, but within a few days he had gone back to his odd ways. He told her that he had rented the cellar of the Millers’ house in the next street as a workshop. There, he said rather brusquely, he would be able to finish what he had started in the workshop. Then he avoided answering any of her questions, smiled cryptically and left the house.
Karl started spending long hours at the cellar, refusing to allow Bertha to see it, and when she asked him who was cleaning the place for him, he pretended not to hear. As the days passed, his behavior became more erratic. He would settle himself down in the far corner of the sitting room, smoking a cigar and saying nothing, completely aloof from everything around him, when suddenly he’d jump to his feet and rush out of the house as if he had just remembered some urgent chore. He would be gone for hours on end and, when he returned, would carry on as if nothing was awry.
One night when they were in bed, their bodies joined in the passion of lovemaking, Bertha opened her eyes and, in the glimmer of light coming through the window, she saw his face. Karl, in their most intimate moments, looked distant and distracted. He was with her in body but his mind was elsewhere.
That night Bertha realized that she had lost him forever. She agonized over having a husband who seemed to be thinking of something else when making love to his wife. Then it came to her in a blinding flash: Karl must be in love with another woman. This was the only way to explain things, but who was the other woman? Was she more beautiful than Bertha? How and when did they fall in love? Why did he not marry her instead of deceiving Bertha? Could she be sure that he had used her money to start a business of his own, as he claimed, or might he be spending her money on that other woman? Could she even be sure that he was using the cellar as a workshop? The Miller family, known for their greed, might well turn a blind eye on adulterous activities in their cellar provided they received a decent rent.
Bertha was wracked by such doubts when one night she woke up to find Karl was not lying there next to her. She sprang out of bed and found him in his study, smoking and writing something on a sheet of paper, but the moment he saw her, he tried to cover it up. She asked him about it, but he tucked it away, saying, “I’ve got some work to finish tonight.”
She stood there looking at him. Did he have so little shame as to leave his marital bed to write a letter to his girlfriend? She thought of lunging forward and grabbing the paper from his hand, come what may. But she hesitated and then just went back to the bedroom.
She lay awake wondering why she had not confronted him and why she had not snatched the letter away, the proof of his guilt.
Deep down, she was afraid of confronting the truth. Anxiety over her adulterous husband had been gnawing away mercilessly at her soul, and there was only the most remote possibility of his innocence. What if she were to confront him and he confessed to adultery? What would she do then? Should she tell her family, walk out on him? She had to think it through properly first. She decided to play for time while preparing to have it out with him, remembering that once you start out on the road downhill, there is no stopping.
One morning after breakfast, as he was about to leave for work, she was standing by the door to see him off and was surprised to hear him say, avoiding her gaze, “I won’t be home tonight.”
“For what reason?”
“I’ve got some work that I can’t put off, so I am going to work through the night in the cellar.”
Now, for the first time, Bertha could not control herself. She exploded, and her voice could be heard throughout the house, “Just stop it, Karl. I can’t continue putting up with your lies. What work would make you spend the night out of the house? What do you take me for? I am neither a child nor a fool. I know what has been going on. You’re cheating on me, Karl. But why live a life of lies with me? Leave me and go to her, if you’re in love.”
She said all of this, standing with her hands on her hips, her hair disheveled, a look of fury on her face and her greenish eyes exuding bitterness and anger. She was raging, ready to fight it out, but then she burst into tears. Karl looked at her calmly, in a state of incomprehension. He knitted his brows and said nothing but tried to embrace her. She pushed him away forcefully, sobbing, and she shouted, “Get away from me!”
Then, suddenly, he grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the door as she cried out, “What are you doing?”
“Come with me.”
He grasped her hand more tightly and pulled her outside.
The autumn sky was dull, overcast and threatening rain. Karl strode forth while Bertha tried to wriggle out of his grasp, almost falling a few times; they were such an odd sight that some passersby started giving them sidelong glances. When they reached the Millers’ house, he led her down to the cellar and unlocked the door with his right hand while keeping hold of her with his left. The door screeched open in response to his kick. He pulled her inside, finally letting go of her hand to turn on the lamp.
Rubbing her now freed wrist, she looked around. The space was full of strange objects, machines great and small, bicycles of various sizes lying on the floor, a large blackboard covered with scores of equations, technical drawings hanging on the walls, a wooden workbench with engine parts on it with countless nails and screws in containers nearby. Karl sat her down on the only chair, and he leaned against the old wall covered in flakes of paint as he started to explain. As she listened to him, she started to put the whole picture together, and her sullenness turned into astonishment. When he’d finished explaining, she asked him a few questions, to which he gave straightforward and complete answers. Finally, there was nothing left to say, and a pregnant silence fell over them. Karl knelt down beside her, kissed her hands and knees and said, “Bertha, I love you. I will never love another woman. I am so sorry that my work has kept me away from you, but I have been working for years to achieve the dream I have been living for. I am trying, one day, to invent a horseless carriage. A carriage driven by a motor.”
She flung her arms around him, pressing her nose into his hair, and whispered, “I love you too.”
That night she gave herself to him as never before. Unfurling like a rose refreshed by the dew, she threw herself at him as if he had just returned from a long voyage, kissing him all over, cradling him like a child, as if her long mistrust of his faithfulness had turned, in an instant, into feelings of guilt, unleashing a torrent of affection. Thereafter, Bertha understood how to love her husband for what he was and not to wish to change him. She no longer cared if his mind wandered elsewhere when he was with her or if he spent the whole day outside the house. Now that it was clear he was not an adulterer but a devoted, industrious and upright Christian, nothing worried her any more. She could want no better. If he had things to do that took up most of his time, so be it. At least he would not be drinking, gambling or wandering, as many other husbands did. Bertha was happy and bore him four children. They took up most of her energy, and he carried on spending most of his time in the workshop, obsessed with his work.
One evening, as she was busy making dinner, the back door flew open, and Karl stood there with oil-spattered hands. “Bertha,” he cried, “drop everything and come with me!”
She had no idea why, but the overwhelming joy on his face was contagious, and so she dried her hands, undid her pinafore and went off with him. The moment she entered the workshop, she beheld something very strange indeed: a giant bicycle the likes of which she had never seen before, with three large wheels, two at the back and one in front, and a seat wide enough for two people. Behind the seat was a metal cylinder from which hung a black leather drive belt.
Karl looked at her, gave a shout and clapped his hands. He threw his arms around her and lifted her up as he showered her with kisses. “Bertha!” he cried. “This is the greatest day in my life. I have made the first motor carriage in history.” He went over to the carriage, took hold of the leather strip and explained, “Look. It doesn’t need a horse to pull it. It is propelled by an engine!”
As the significance of what he was saying dawned on her, she exclaimed, “Oh that’s wonderful. Thank God.”
“Tomorrow,” Karl said dreamily, “I’m going to register the patent in my name. I’ll find investors for a factory. It’ll be called the Benz carriage, and we’ll sell thousands of them and earn millions.”
A thought came to Bertha’s mind, and she asked gently, “But Karl, do you really think that people would buy this carriage?”
“Certainly. They won’t need horses anymore. They’ll drive my carriage. The Benz carriage.”
“Karl, I don’t know if it’s that simple. It’s hard to get people to change their ways, and I don’t think that they’ll spend their money on something they don’t know anything about.”
Then, as Karl looked at her pensively, she got up slowly and walked toward him with a look of determination. She took his head in her hands, planted a kiss on his forehead and whispered, “Karl, I am just as happy as you about your invention. I’m proud of you. But our work isn’t over. It has just begun.”
The next day Bertha set to work on her plan.
She invited Mannheim’s most famous photographer, Tom Miesenberg, to the workshop. He was a tall, slim man in his seventies with completely white hair. His clothes were as shabby and creased as if he had slept in them. As usual, he was drunk on arrival and insisted upon receiving payment in advance. Then he spent the whole day taking pictures of the carriage from various angles. When he had developed the images, Bertha chose the most dazzling one for distribution in the local newspaper, accompanied by a paid advertisement, which appeared in the Sunday edition with the following text:
“The engineer Karl Benz is pleased to announce to the people of the city of Mannheim that, after long years of strenuous effort, he has invented the Benz carriage, the first motor wagon in history. This carriage requires no horse to draw it but is driven by a small gasoline-powered engine. This astonishing new means of transport promises a great improvement to our way of life. Karl Benz will offer a demonstration of his motor wagon this Sunday, May 15, in front of his residence, at exactly one o’clock. All are invited to attend.”
The advertisement caused a great stir in Mannheim and the neighboring localities, with controversy raging around the new invention: most people were simply dumbfounded and wondered how a carriage could move without being drawn by a horse. Some scientifically minded enthusiasts thought such a thing was theoretically possible while others publicly mocked Karl and his claim of a horseless carriage. His fiercest and most outspoken opponents, however, were the conservative Christians, who insisted that “the notion of a horseless carriage is impossible. The Lord did not create the universe in vain, and horses he created for us specifically to draw our carriages. This eternal truth cannot be altered by Karl Benz or anyone else.”
The fundamentalists went all over Mannheim furiously uttering their imprecations: “You who believe in Jesus! This new carriage is not an invention but a trick sent by Satan, who will not rest until he has tempted the faithful and shaken their belief in God. Karl Benz is neither a man of learning nor an inventor. He is a swindler who, along with his wife, summons evil spirits. But Satan’s snares are weaker than a spider’s thread, as the Lord Himself has confirmed, and you will see for yourselves how these tricksters will meet a terrible end, in time the same punishment of all those who sell their souls to Satan.”
The hubbub about the Benz carriage only grew until the naysayers and the yea-sayers, together with the merely dubious, were all swept along in a storm that engulfed all other topics of conversation in Mannheim.
By the appointed hour, Karl and Bertha had prepared everything meticulously. Karl had cleaned and polished the carriage until it gleamed all over, and the two then brought the carriage out of the workshop and set it in front of their residence. The whole street filled with onlookers, thronging the roads leading to the Benz residence until there was so much pushing and shoving that the police had to come and restore order. At one o’clock exactly, Karl Benz appeared accompanied by his wife. He was wearing a light-gray suit with a white shirt and a deep-red bow tie. Bertha was wearing an elegant sky-blue dress, bought especially for the occasion, and a matching blue hat with white ribbons.
The whispers started to turn into a clamor as the couple edged their way through the assembled throng toward the covered vehicle. Then with one flick of his hand, Karl pulled off the tarpaulin. Some shouts and nervous laughs rang out from the spectators. Karl stood looking at the crowd, as if he were about to speak. When the crowd had quieted down, Karl spoke out in a shaky voice:
“Ladies and gentlemen! I would like to thank you for coming here today, and I should like to confirm that you are about to witness the beginning of a new era, a moment that will change the world. One day you will tell your grandchildren that you saw the first Benz motor wagon. Here is a carriage that has no need of a horse and is propelled entirely by means of a rear-mounted engine. It is also easy to handle, as you shall now see for yourselves.”
Karl placed his right foot on the step attached to the undercarriage and climbed into the driver’s seat. There was almost total silence as people jostled forward to see exactly what would happen. They held their breath and stared at Karl, who struggled to keep smiling as he held on to the steering handle with his right hand and grasped the black leather drive belt with his left hand. He gave the latter a violent pull, and the carriage gave out a loud, angry roar, puffing out thick smoke and then lurching forward. The crowd shrieked in unison as if they were aboard a wildly swaying ship sinking into the ocean, and as if, until that moment, they had been absolutely convinced that what was happening in front of their eyes was real. The carriage set off down the street, the crowd running after it, shouting and clapping and cheering, with Karl in perfect control of the machine, steering it easily and capably like a masterful rider bending his steed to his will. As the carriage sped forward, Karl steered it onto the main road, the people still running along behind it. Karl was doing so well that a triumphant smile appeared on Bertha’s face as she watched.
Karl managed to follow the road until he came to a large tree, where he pulled on the metal brake arm. He gave it a few sharp pulls, but unfortunately, it did not respond. Karl was struggling to control the steering handle, but the vehicle, now moving at full throttle, as if in defiance, started to meander wildly before mounting the sidewalk, where it crashed into a tree and overturned. Thus ended the excursion, with the carriage upturned and its wheels hissing and turning as the motor whined and blew out thick smoke. The carriage looked like a giant nightmarish insect lying on its side, unable to right itself. And Karl was stuck underneath it, choking from the smoke and coughing loudly. He finally managed to wriggle free, his face, hands, and elegant suit all covered in oil. There was complete and utter silence. The stupefied onlookers needed a few moments to absorb what had just happened, but their feelings, momentarily suppressed, all burst out at once, and they started shouting, jumping and laughing like madmen. Karl left the carriage where it lay and, with his head downcast, walked back to his house with Bertha following him as he endured the mockery raining down on him from all sides like poisoned darts.
“Oy, Mr. Benz! At least a horse doesn’t overturn our carriages!”
“You want us to give up our horses and ride a carriage of death?”
“Thanks for the comedy show, Mr. Benz. You should do it in a circus!”
“That’s your due for challenging God’s laws.”
“Tell your spirits to make you one that doesn’t flip over next time!”
The following days saw the couple subjected to more grief and gloating. Benz’s carriage became a laughingstock in Mannheim, and no sooner had the newspapers expressed encouragement for the invention than their tune changed to trenchant sniping. Karl felt unable to go out in public. Worst of all were the drunken layabouts who would fill up on wine in the tavern and then, having nothing else to do so early, go to Karl Benz’s house to gawk at the carriage. Some plucked up the cheek to knock on his door and pretend to want to see the horseless carriage as a serious customer thinking of buying one might do. Karl realized that they were probably nothing of the kind, but on the slightest chance that they were, he would lead them to the workshop anyway, and no sooner would he start describing it to them than they would start bombarding him with stupid questions and comments. Only when dead certain that they were making fun of him would he walk to a chair in the corner, where he would sit quietly until they had had their fun and left. Karl bore all of these travails, and Bertha did her best to ease his anguish either with sincere words of consolation or else by ignoring the subject and carrying on as usual. But his disappointment was like a heavy black cloud casting a shadow over the couple wherever they went.
One hot August day, Bertha suggested that they take their supper in the garden. She had prepared Karl’s favorite dish of roast chicken, and they drank a bottle of chilled, refreshing rosé. She tried to make the dinner enjoyable, or at the very least ordinary, by speaking about anything other than the carriage and the failed demonstration. Everything was going well until a man in his late forties in a white shirt and blue trousers suddenly appeared at the garden gate. They wished him a good evening, whereupon he said in a loud voice, “Excuse me, sir. Are you Karl Benz, who invented the horseless carriage? If it’s no trouble, I’d like to see it.”
Karl said nothing for a moment and in a deep voice replied, “I’m very sorry, but there’s nothing to see.”
“What do you mean? I’d like to see the carriage you invented.”
Karl looked down for a moment and then raised his head toward the man before quietly repeating his response, “There’s nothing to see.”
The man kept looking at him and then with a bow politely said, “All right, Mr. Benz. I’m so sorry to have disturbed you. Have a nice evening.”
That night, the couple lay stretched out near each other in bed, in the dark, saying nothing. Bertha put her arm around him, and as if on command, he shifted his body a little and laid his head on her chest. She asked him gently, “Why wouldn’t you show the carriage to that man?”
He said nothing for a few seconds, then sighed and in a weak voice, as if speaking to himself, replied, “I’m just tired of being taken for a fool, Bertha. I just can’t stand any more of those skeptical glances, the preposterous questions and the gloating laughter.”
“They are the fools. They have no idea of the value of your invention.”
“Stop it, Bertha, my darling, I have failed. That’s the truth of the matter, and I have to face up to it. I have been building a castle in Spain, chasing a chimera.”
He said nothing for a little and then continued in a whisper, “Bertha, please swear as God is your witness that you won’t talk to me about the carriage ever again.”
His head was still on Bertha’s bosom. They fell back into silence, and she felt his body start to tremble. Her Karl was weeping. She thought her heart would break, and she held him firmly. They stayed like that, clinging to each other, until she heard his breathing become regular, and she could tell that he had fallen asleep. Gently, she placed his head back on the pillow.
She stayed sitting up in bed, wide-awake and musing away in the darkness. By the time the first glimmer of light came through the open window, she had made up her mind. She tiptoed to the wardrobe and took some clothes out in the dark, went downstairs and got dressed in the sitting room. She then woke up her two sons, Richard and Eugen, who were fourteen and fifteen years old, respectively. She asked them to get washed and dressed as quickly as they could. When they asked her where they were going, she thundered back, “I’ll tell you later.”
She carefully opened the front door to avoid its squeaking and then stopped as if she had just remembered something. Leaving the children standing there, she went to the kitchen and on a large piece of paper in large letters she wrote, “Karl. Don’t worry about us. We’ve gone to visit my mother. Back tomorrow.”
She pinned the note where he would see it when he woke up. Then she went out and locked the front door. Holding her children by the hand, she walked them to the workshop, where the three of them pushed the carriage onto the street. Then she helped them in, sitting between them on the seat. She grabbed the leather drive belt with both hands and jerked it as hard as she could. At that moment, the motor growled and gave off a puff of smoke, and the carriage lurched forward.
Copyright © 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.