The door opened to reveal an infinitely spacious room: a whole world of meanings and motivations, not just a limited space buried in a mass of detail. Those who entered it, he believed, were swallowed up, melted down. And as his consciousness caught fire, he was lost in a magical sense of wonder. At first, his concentration wandered. He forgot what his soul yearned to see--the floor, the walls, the ceiling: even the god sitting behind the magnificent desk. An electric shock went through him, setting off in his innermost heart an insane love for the gloriousness of life on the pinnacle of power. At this point the clarion call of power urged him to kneel down and offer himself in sacrifice. But he followed, like the rest, the less extreme path of pious submissiveness, of subservience, of security. Many childlike tears he would have to shed before he could impose his will. Yielding to an irresistible temptation, he cast a furtive glance at the divinity hunched behind the desk and lowered his eyes with all the humility he possessed.
Hamza al-Suwayfi, the Director of Administration, led in the procession.
"These are the new employees, Your Excellency," he said, addressing the Director General.
The Director General's eyes surveyed their faces, including his. He felt he was becoming part of the history of government and that he stood in the divine presence. He thought he heard a strange whispering sound. Perhaps he alone heard it. Perhaps it was the voice of Destiny itself. When His Excellency had completed his examination of their faces, he opened his mouth. He spoke in a quiet and gentle voice, revealing little or nothing of his inner self.
"Have they all got the Secondary Education Diploma?" he inquired.
"Two of them have the Intermediate Diploma of Commerce," Hamza al-Suwayfi replied.
"The world is progressing," said the Director General in an encouraging tone. "Everything is changing. And now here is the Diploma, replacing the Certificate of Primary Education."
This was reassuring, but they all sought to conceal their delight under still greater submissiveness.
"Live up to what's expected of you," His Excellency went on, "through hard work and honesty."
He looked over a list of their names and suddenly asked, "Which of you is Othman Bayyumi?"
Othman's heart pounded within him. That His Excellency had uttered his very own name shook him to the core. Without raising his eyes he took a step forward and mumbled, "Me, Your Excellency."
"You got an excellent grade in your Diploma. Why didn't you go on to finish your education?"
In his confusion he remained silent. The fact was he did not know what to say, even though he knew the answer.
The Director of Administration answered for him, apologetically, "Perhaps it was his circumstances, Your Excellency."
Again he heard that strange whispering, the voice of Destiny. And for the first time he felt a sensation of blue skies and of a strange but pleasant fragrance pervading the room. The reference to his "circumstances" was no worry to him, now that he had been sanctified by His Excellency's kindly and appreciative notice. He thought to himself that he could take on a whole army and vanquish it all alone. Indeed his spirit soared upward, higher and higher, till his head disappeared into the clouds in a surge of wild intoxication. But His Excellency tapped the edge of the desk and said, by way of ending the interview, "Thank you. Good morning."
Othman went out of the room, silently reciting the Throne verse from the Qur'an.
I am on fire, Oh God.
Flames were devouring his soul from top to bottom as it soared upward into a world of dreams. In a single moment of revelation he perceived the world as a surge of dazzling light which he pressed to his bosom and held on to like one demented. He had always dreamed and desired and yearned, but this time he was really ablaze, and in the light of this sacred fire he glimpsed the meaning of life.
But down on earth it was decided that he should join the Archives Section. It did not matter how he started; life itself evolved from a single cell or perhaps from something even less. He descended to his new abode in the basement of the ministry, his wings still fluttering. He was greeted by gloom and the musty smell of old paper. Outside, through a barred window, he saw that the ground was on the same level as his head. Inside, the huge room spread out in front of him. Rows of filing cabinets stood on either side, and another long row divided the room down the middle. Staff desks were placed in gaps between cabinets. He walked behind one of the employees toward a desk at the front placed crosswise in a recess like a prayer niche. At the desk was seated the Head of the Archives Section. Othman had not yet recovered from the upsurge of divine inspiration. Even his descent into the basement could not wake him up. He walked behind the clerk, perplexed, distracted, and excited.
"Man's aspirations are infinite," he said to himself.
The clerk introduced him to the Head of Section: "Mr. Othman Bayyumi, the new clerk," he said, and then introduced the Section Head to him: "Our chief, Mr. Sa'fan Basyuni."
He recognized something familiar in the man's features, as if he were a native of his own alley. He liked the protruding bones of his face, its dark and taut skin and the white, disheveled hair of his head. He liked even more the kind and friendly look in his eyes which strove in vain to reflect an air of authority. The man smiled, revealing his ugliest feature: black teeth with wide gaps in between them.
"Welcome to the Archives Section! Sit down!" he said, and started to shuffle through the documents of his appointment.
"Welcome! Welcome! Life," he went on to say, "can be summed up in two words: hello and goodbye." Yet it was infinite, Othman thought. There blew around him a strange mysterious wind, full of all kinds of probabilities.
It was infinite, he thought again, and because of that it demanded infinite willpower.
The Head of Section pointed to a vacant, neutral-colored desk whose leather top was worn-out and spotted with faded stains of ink.
"Your desk," he said. "Examine the chair carefully. The tiniest nail can rip a new suit."
"My suit is very old anyway," replied Othman.
"And remember," the man carried on with his warning, "to recite a prayer before opening a filing cabinet. On the eve of last Bairam festival a snake, at least three feet long, came out of one of the cabinets." He choked with laughter and continued, "But it wasn't a poisonous one."
"How can one tell whether it is poisonous or not?" asked Othman anxiously.
"You ask the section messenger. He comes from Abu Rawwash, the city of snakes."
Othman took the warning for a joke and let it pass. He chided himself for failing to study meticulously His Excellency the Director General's room and print on his mind's eye a full picture of the man's face and his person, for not trying to unravel the secret of the magic with which he dominated everyone and had them at his beck and call. This was the power to be worshipped. It was the ultimate beauty too. It was one of the secrets of the universe. On earth there existed divine secrets without number for those who had eyes to see and minds to think. The time between hello and goodbye was short. But it was infinite as well. Woe betide anyone who ignored this truth. There were people who never moved, like Mr. Sa'fan Basyuni. Well-meaning, but miserable, paying tribute to a wisdom of which he had learned nothing. But not so those whose hearts had been touched by the sacred fire. There was a happy path which began at the eighth grade in the government service and ended at the splendid position of His Excellency the Director General. This was the highest ideal available to the common people, beyond which they could not aspire. This was the highest heaven where both divine mercy and human pride became manifest. The eighth grade. The seventh. The sixth. The fifth. The fourth. The third. The second. The first. Director General. The miracle could be brought about in thirty-two years. Or perhaps rather more. Those who fell by the wayside were innumerable. Still the celestial order did not necessarily apply to mankind, least of all to government employees. Time nestled in his arms like a gentle child, but one could not prophesy one's future. He was on fire: that was all. And it seemed to him that this fire blazing in his breast was the same as that which lit the stars in their courses. We were creatures of mystery whose secrets were hidden to all but their Creator.
"You will first learn to handle the incoming mail," said Mr. Basyuni. "It is easier." He then added, laughing, "An archivist should take off his jacket while working. Or at least have elbow patches sewn on his sleeves to protect them against dust and paper clips." All that was easy. What was really difficult was how to deal with time.
In his one-room flat he could subject himself to scrutiny. There, the meaning of his life took shape before him. He lived with his senses always on the alert and with heightened awareness, constantly seeking to provide himself with every possible weapon. From his small window he could see the place where he was born: al-Husayni Alley, an extension of his body and soul. A long back street with a sharp bend, famous for its parking area for carts and its watering trough for donkeys. The house where he had been born and brought up had been demolished. In its place there was now a little plot for pushcarts. Few of the natives of the alley ever left it for good except for the grave. They went to work in various quarters: al-Mabyada, al-Darrasa, al-Sikka al-Jadida, or even beyond, but they came back at the end of the day. One of the characteristics of the alley was that it knew no murmurs or whispers. Voices here were very loud, sometimes crude, sometimes full of wisdom. Among them was one very close to him, a strong, coarse voice which age had not weakened, the voice of Omm Husni, the landlady. Dreams of eternity were wearisome indeed. But what had he been yesterday, and what was he today? He would do well not to recoil from the impossible. He would do well not to surrender himself to the current without a definite plan. An exact plan. He often dreamed that he was urinating, but always woke up at the right moment. What did that mean? Omm Husni had been a workmate of his mother's. A lifetime friend and confidante. Both were married to cart drivers and both had slaved away with the patience and persistence of ants for a few piastres with which to help their husbands and keep their homes together. They had worked as peddlers, hairdressers, marriage brokers, and so on. His mother was still working when she died. As for Omm Husni, she went on slaving away with great zeal. She had more luck and earned more than his mother and thus was able to save up enough money to build her three-story house: a timber store on the ground floor and two flats above. She lived in one and Othman in the other. As for her son Husni, the days of war and hardship had led him to distant lands where he settled down, and all he had left behind was his name.
Did he not have the right to dream? Dream he did, thanks to the holy flame burning in his breast. Thanks to his small room too. He got used to his dreams just as he got used to the bed, the settee, the chest, the mat, and, for that matter, the sound of his own voice, sometimes shrill, sometimes melodious, which echoed against the dark, solid walls.
What had he been yesterday? His father had wanted to make of him a cart driver like himself, but the sheikh of the local Qur'an school said to him, "Put your trust in God, Mr. Bayyumi, and enroll the boy at the primary school."
His father did not seem to comprehend.
"Has he not learned enough Qur'an for him to perform the prayers?" he asked.
"The boy is clever and intelligent. One day he could make a civil servant," replied the sheikh.
Mr. Bayyumi guffawed incredulously.
"Try the charity schools. He might be accepted free," the sheikh said.
Mr. Bayyumi had hesitated for a while, but eventually the miracle took place. At school Othman achieved astonishing success until he finally obtained the Primary Certificate. He drew ahead of his barefooted playmates from the alley and was acutely aware of the first holy spark from his throbbing heart. He was certain that God had blessed his footsteps and that the gates of infinity lay open before him. He joined a secondary school, also free, and achieved greater success than anyone in al-Husayni Alley could believe. But when he was still in the second form, his father contracted a terminal illness. He felt miserable at what he had "done" to his son.
"I am leaving you behind a helpless schoolboy," he said to him. "Who will drive the cart? Who will provide for the family?"
His father died a sad man. But his mother worked twice as hard, hoping that God would make a great man of her son. Was not God all-powerful? If it had not been for the unexpected death of his mother, Othman would have completed his higher education. His anguish was great, all the more so because of his heightened awareness of his ambition and the sacred aspirations throbbing within him. Sacred too was the memory of his parents. And on every religious occasion he would visit their grave, a paupers' grave which lay in an open piece of land amid a host of the forgotten. Now he was alone. A branch cut off a tree. His elder brother, who had been a policeman, had been killed in a demonstration. His sister had died of typhoid in the fever hospital. Another brother had died in prison. The memory of his family was painful to him, and how he mourned for his parents! He linked these happenings with an exalted drama which he contemplated with respect and awe. For fortunes were determined in the alley through conflicting wills and unknown forces and then consecrated in eternity. By this token his belief in himself was boundless, though in the end he depended on Almighty God. And for the same reason he would never miss a prayer, least of all the Friday service at al-Husayn Mosque. Like the people of his alley, he made no distinction between religion and life. Religion was for life and life for religion, and a glittering jewel like the position of Director General was only a sacred station on the divine and infinite path. Living among his colleagues with his senses alert and shining, he picked up the sort of ideas and maxims that seemed important to him. He then devoted himself to laying out a precise plan for the future, which he translated into a working schedule to be studied every morning before going out to work:
Copyright © 2001 by Naguib Mahfouz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.