General Ahmad Alwany had no need of an alarm clock.
The moment the dawn prayer was called, he’d wake up of his own accord. He’d lie on his back in bed, eyes open, repeating the words of the call in a whisper, then rise and go to the bathroom, where he’d quickly perform his ablutions, comb his black hair (carefully dyed, apart from two thin white streaks of equal length that he left, one on each side), then don his chic track suit and set off for the nearby mosque. The head of his security detail had asked him more than once to put up a mosque inside the villa so that he could be more easily protected, but General Alwany refused. He liked to pray alongside everyone else, just like any ordinary person, so he’d cross the street on foot, surrounded by four members of his guard, who kept their eyes on the road, weapons poised to fire at any moment. At the door to the mosque, the guard split up, two staying outside while the other two stood inside, guarding him while he prayed. During those blessed, radiant moments, General Alwany would leave our world for another. A deep and genuine humility would flood over him, his guards and the other worshippers would disappear from before his eyes, and he would cease to think of his job, or his children, or his wife. Placing his shoes under his arm, like any other worshipper, he would walk, head bowed, to a distant corner, perform the two prostrations of greeting to the mosque followed by two more in accordance with the Prophet’s morning custom, and then continue uttering thanks to God and entreaties for forgiveness until the collective prayer commenced. Despite the pressing requests of the other worshippers, General Alwany always refused to lead them, insisting instead on praying in the back row, head bowed in submission, the tears often gushing from his eyes when the imam recited, in a sweet and melodious voice, verses from the Koran. Prayer liberated him, made him feel as though he were a new person. His soul became limpid, his worries drifted away, and a sense of serenity came over him, as though the prayer were a draught of cool water offered him when thirsty, in the heat of the day. The world ceased to have any importance in his eyes and shrank to the size of a gnat’s wing. He would wonder at men’s struggles over their selfish interests, their panting after passing pleasures. Why all the scrapping and the competition? What was the point of all the lying, the envy, and the plotting? Were we not all merely travellers on the road? Were we not, in the end, all dead men? Would we not, one day, lay ourselves down in the moist earth, while our souls ascended to their Maker that He might hold us to account for our deeds? On that day, neither rank nor wealth will avail us, and nought will save us but good works.
For fifty-eight years, the general had lived as a pious, observant Muslim, never missing a religious obligation or even a voluntary practice. He had never embarked on anything new without first ascertaining whether it was permissible. Not once in his life had he tasted a drop of alcohol or inhaled a draught of hashish. He had never smoked and had never known a woman outside of the marital bed (aside from a few fumbling sexual adventures as an adolescent, for which he asked God’s forgiveness). He had, thanks be to God, made the full pilgrimage to God’s Holy House twice, and the lesser pilgrimage three times. He was renowned for his charity. Ten whole families lived off monthly subventions that he paid from his own pocket, and when one of these people thanked him, the general would smile and whisper, “Say, ‘I seek forgiveness from God!’ my boy! Nothing that I give you comes out of my pocket. All wealth is from God, and I am but its guardian. Just promise me, my dear friend, that you’ll remember me in your prayers. Hopefully, God will then excuse my shortcomings.” Unlike many of those who hold high rank in our country, General Alwany also preferred that people refer to him by his religious title of Hagg rather than saying “Your Excellency the General” or “Basha.”
Now, following the prayer, he returned to his house and sat, as was his habit, on the luxurious sofa in the spacious hall to recite from the Koran. He began with the two “prayers of refuge” and some of the short chapters, then recited a portion from the “Chapter of the Cow” including the part of which the Prophet has said, “If anyone recites it in his house during the day, Satan will not enter that house for three days.” After final praises of God’s glory and requests for His forgiveness, General Alwany then took the lift to his suite on the second floor, had a hot shower, put his dressing gown over his naked body, and entered the small kitchen to make his own breakfast—two large spoonfuls of top-quality mountain honey (sent to him, with unfailing regularity, by Yemen’s ambassador to Cairo), a few slices of toast spread with a thick layer of the Swiss cheese that he loved, and, finally, pancakes, covered with strawberries and melted chocolate and washed down with a giant cup of milky tea, followed by a cup of medium-sweet Turkish coffee.
And what did His Excellency do then?
There is no call for embarrassment when speaking of matters of which religion approves. General Ahmad Alwany was one of those who feel sexually energised in the morning, a fact attributable to his lengthy labours on the night shift, which had caused him to adopt this matutinal regime. Now, then, he sat on the edge of the bed where Hagga Tahany, his wife, lay fast asleep. Reaching for the remote, he tuned in to a pornography channel, regulated the sound so that it would be audible only inside the room, stared at the torrid intercourse taking place on screen until he could bear the excitement no longer, and, taking off his dressing gown and throwing it on the floor, launched himself onto his wife, kissing her passionately while fondling her body and taken by surprise at her immediate, ardent response (of a nature that suggested she too had been watching the film from under the covers). General Alwany’s uprightness, his avoidance of all depravities, his military training, the care he took to keep fit, and his healthy diet had all combined to preserve his sexual capacity without the aid of aphrodisiacs, and, holding images from the obscene film in his head, he was able to gambol and frisk in the bed like a forty-year-old.
Some might ask, “How could a God-fearing Muslim like General Alwany watch pornographic films?”
A foolish question that only ignoramuses, or the malevolent, could entertain! It is true that watching pornography is an act disapproved of by religion but it is not considered a major sin like murder, fornication, or the consumption of alcohol. The True Religion may allow, on occasion, the commission of an act that is disapproved of if it prevents the believer from committing a greater sin, in accordance with the legal principle that “necessity permits the prohibited.”
By virtue of his elevated position as head of the Apparatus, General Alwany dealt on a daily basis with the most beautiful women in Egypt, many of whom would have loved to have an affair with him so that they could exploit his influence, not to mention that foreign intelligence services frequently thrust beauties into his path, either so as to be able to influence or blackmail him, or to spy on state secrets. All of these were real dangers that dogged his heels. Hagga Tahany Tuleima, his respected wife, who was over fifty, whose face was under attack from wrinkles, and who refused to have cosmetic surgery because it is forbidden by religion, was all he had as he faced the insistent, imperious charms of women. Hagga Tahany’s body had turned flabby and acquired an outer layer of fat, and she now weighed 120 kilos and had an enormous belly that began immediately below her exhausted breasts and reached its greatest girth at her navel before dropping away suddenly to form a hemisphere. This unique, almost masculine belly would have been enough on its own to put an end to General Alwany’s sexual appetite without the porn movies to which he resorted to inflame his imagination. As His Excellency once told his friends, “If you’re forced to eat the same food for thirty years, you have to add a few spices to get through it.”
After the morning routine—prayer and recitation of the Koran followed by breakfast and sexual intercourse with his lawfully wedded wife—it was time for work. The moment General Alwany exited the villa, the soldiers of the guard performed a military salute and one of them hurried to open the door of the black, bulletproof Mercedes. His Excellency settled himself on the back seat and the vehicle moved slowly off, preceded and followed by a car for his guards, the cavalcade led by four motorcycles ridden by armed officers. Covering the distance between the house and the Apparatus’s building ought not to take more than half an hour, but in fact took twice that time as the guard commander insisted on changing the route daily to avoid the possibility of ambush or terrorist attack. The general devoted the time to studying the reports that had been issued overnight and issuing urgent instructions by telephone. The moment the car passed through the gateway to the Apparatus’s headquarters, a shout of “Attention!” went up, followed by the sound of rifle butts clattering on the ground as those holding them performed the military salute. General Alwany leapt nimbly from the car and returned the salute of his aides who knew, from long service with His Excellency, that they had to be waiting for him at the door. They could read his face and on that particular morning were aware, from the first instant, that he was in a bad mood. Looking at them with a frown, he asked, “Did the boy talk?”
“Lt. Col. Tareq is interrogating him, sir,” one of them answered.
Annoyance registered itself on the general’s face, he dismissed his aides, and instead of going upstairs to his office on the third floor, he ordered the lift operator to take him down to the interrogation rooms. As the iron gate opened, emitting a gloomy creak, the damp, foetid air of the basement assailed his nostrils. The general walked ahead, returning the salutes of the soldiers one after the other, till he arrived at a spacious chamber with high, narrow windows covered by iron bars and, here and there, metal instruments with arms and wheels, which one might at first glance have taken for sports equipment. A man wearing a blindfold was hanging by his hands from a thick rope attached to a metal ring that dangled from the ceiling. He was naked but for his underpants and his body was covered with cuts and bruises, while his face was swollen and blood had congealed around his lips and eyes. Four police goons stood opposite him and seated at a desk was an officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel, who jumped up and saluted the moment he caught sight of General Alwany. General Alwany drew the officer aside and held a whispered conversation with him, after which they returned to where the man hung suspended, only for the latter to let out a sudden moan, as though begging the newcomer for pity. “What’s your name, sonny?” General Alwany asked him in a gruff voice.
“Arabi El Sayed Shousha.”
“Speak louder. I didn’t hear.”
“Arabi El Sayed Shousha.”
Each time the general told him to raise his voice, the goons rained blows on the man with sticks, causing him to scream louder and louder, then suddenly burst into tears. When this happened, the general gestured to the goons and they stopped the beating. In a calm, knowing voice like that used by a doctor advising a patient, he said, “Listen, Arabi. If you want to go home to your family, you have to talk. We won’t let you go. We’ll beat you till you die and we’ll bury you here and no one will know where you are.”
In a voice full of tears, the man screamed, “Basha, I swear by Almighty God, I don’t know anything.”
“And I swear by the Almighty,” replied the general almost tenderly, “that this attitude of yours truly saddens me. Come to your senses, my boy, before you destroy yourself.”
“Have mercy on me, Basha!” the man shrieked.
“Have mercy on yourself and talk.”
“Sir, I don’t know anything.”
Furious, Lt. Col. Tareq now yelled, “You expect us to believe that, you bastard?”
It was a signal. One of the goons bent over a large black piece of equipment resembling an air conditioner and pulled towards him a thick cable that ended in two round metal ends, which he attached to the man’s testicles. Then he pressed the button. The man shuddered violently and let out an uninterrupted succession of high-pitched screams that resounded through the chamber. The shock was administered several times, until General Alwany brought it to an end with a wave of his hand and yelled in a voice like thunder, “We’ve brought your wife, Marwa. I swear to God, you son of a whore, if you don’t talk, I’ll let one of the soldiers jump on top of her in front of you.”
“How can you do such things?” the man shouted.
General Alwany glanced at the goons and they hurried out, then returned holding a woman wearing a torn housedress, her hair dishevelled, her face showing signs of having been beaten. As the goons started hitting her, she began to scream, and the man recognised her voice.
“Leave me my honour!” he screamed.
“Strip her!” the general yelled.
The goons fell on her. She resisted valiantly but they were stronger and were able to rip her dress completely open. When her underwear showed, General Alwany laughed and said, “Now there’s a lovely sight! You’re a lucky man, Arabi, your wife has a padded cotton bra. That type was fashionable ages ago. They called it a ‘straitjacket bra.’ ”
Everyone laughed at His Excellency the general’s wit and the sarcastic comments followed thick and fast. Then the general said cheerfully, “Take off her bra. What are your wife’s nipples like, Arabi? Personally, I go for the big, dark ones.”
The goons ripped off the bra, revealing the woman’s breasts, and she let out a single, long scream.
The man convulsed and screamed, “Enough, Basha! I’ll talk. I’ll talk.”
Lt. Col. Tareq went over to him and yelled, “You had better talk, you son of a whore, or I’ll have the men string her up!”
“I’ll talk, I swear by Almighty God!”
Copyright © 2021 by Alaa Al Aswany. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.