THE FRAGRANCE OF EGYPT
THROUGH FIVE STORIES
by George Loukas
A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS IN CAIRO
THE SPORTING LIFE
A CASE OF SELF RESPECT
LETTERS TO DR. FATTHI AND OTHER SECRETS
ALF LEILA OU LEILA FI AL-KAHIRA
(A Thousand and One Nights in Cairo)
One cannot shake off one's roots. I keep returning to the country of my birth in my flights of memory. To my life, there, to its people, to its tortured history. I feel a need to express my love and hate and prejudices. To talk about the Good and the Bad. God and the Devil. Adam and Eve. The Sheikhs and the Hypocrites. The Humble and the Arrogant. To talk about a dream I had. Which was, perhaps, not a dream.
This is a love story. Love is all that counts.
Rodolfo Valentino was a dashing Sheikh. In Egypt, even if he is long forgotten, his name still holds good to describe a dashing fellow, a seducer of women. Or since seductions have been on the wane in the wake of the Islamic renaissance of the past two or three decades and the strengthening of religious orthodoxy, one is called, a mite ironically, a Valentino if one gets along well with the opposite sex and is appropriately narcissistic. I imagine the Sheikh that Valentino portrayed, for I did not see the legendary film, was an emir, a prince, a leader of a clan and such persons in Islamic history had always a direct connection to the Prophet and hence to God. A political leader was always at the same time a religious leader. Being autocratic and dictatorial, Sheikhs needed divine dispensation, a divine raison d' être.
But ordinarily, a Sheikh is a holy man of Islam. He might be a learned religious scholar or an illiterate person who is devoted to religion and lives by its tenets and practices, as well as he knows them and understands them and as honestly and earnestly as he is willing to follow them. Let me come out at once with my prejudices and biases.
To be fair to myself, these biases are the accretion of my experiences of the half-century I have been alive on this earth, living and working in a Moslem country. I do not wish to calumniate anyone, much less genuinely holy people. The few, the very, very few that exist. But it has been my experience that, generally, the more a man prays, the more he refers to God, the more he alludes his attachment to his faith, the less his goodness, his decency, honesty and rectitude. The greater his hypocrisy and moral degeneration. This, of course, is not a feature solely of Islam but of all religions where God is thought to be intimately implicated in and to be fine-tuning the lives of the faithful. It is much more obvious in Egypt as both Moslems and Copts, being basically one and the same race, are obsessed by God and sheikhs proliferate. God is the constant reference point of their fortunes and misfortunes, of the homilies and sayings that color their conversations. They are forever grateful to Him for the good and the bad in their lives and He is the sole repository of their hopes.
I have had my ample share of Sheikhs. I have learnt much from them for they are, after all, human beings but with this peculiarity that tends to exaggerate and reveal their failings and, rather less frequently, any positive qualities they might possess. I have witnessed, without fully understanding, their proliferation as a result of a dramatic growth in the strict religious adherence of the populace primarily to Islam. It was already reasonably strong in the sixties; it has become practically an obsession at the turn of the millenium. Apparent in the faithful observance to the duties of a Moslem. Prayer, fasting, 2
the preoccupation even of the poorer Moslems with the pilgrimage to Mecca and to almsgiving, which is necessarily less apparent and private. Also, the spurning of alcohol by former consumers and especially the covering up of women has fascinated me. More so because it has taken place with the fullest approval of the female population. It is a sort of complacent and masochistic self-classification of their sex to an inferior category to men. All this, quite apart from the growth of fanaticism, extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism.
What is it that manages to distort the human mind and lead it to these extremes of belief and behavior? That keeps it forever obsessed by the concept of God, His requirements, demands and rewards? I believe it is the unholy alliance of ignorance and poverty with an emphasis on poverty as the main cause because ignorance is very much a result of it. I have lived and worked in the midst of poverty. In the midst of ignorance.
When I returned, Egypt was firmly anchored in the thralls of socialism. I had come from another socialist country, England, ruled these last few years by a socialist Labor Government. There should not have been much of a difference. I am not referring to wealth. There could be no comparison. I was thinking of the spirit, the quintessence of socialism. But, alas, it was another world. Egypt seemed to have concentrated in its political and social landscape all of socialism's evils. To start with, it was a dictatorship.
Gamal Abdel Nasser was firmly on the saddle. He was not a murderous Stalin but he did have a fearful security network, a fair amount of torture, some ' desaparecidos' and one was not apt to express one's opinions too freely or too loudly. He did have concentration camps but these were far away from us as we were not involved in any subversive political activities and had no manifest affection either for communism or for Moslem brotherhoods.
We, the governed, just experienced the ordinary everyday miseries, the petty and not so petty corruptions all around us, the unending rumors that a managed press generates, the long queues outside the cooperatives and waiting lists to buy the shoddy products of our nationalized industries. To suffer the arrogance of our rulers and army officers who were far better able to oppress than defend their countrymen, as history has shown. Above all, the progress which was nothing more than a gradual but steady downward slide in the material and moral circumstances of the country and resulted, two decades later, in the government's desperate recourse to capitalism to redress the ills of socialism. But was it not already too late?
It is ridiculous to try to compress the processes of decades in a paragraph and perhaps it is also unfair. It obviously needs many tomes of historical detail and analysis by a dispassionate historian. Can one be dispassionate after fifty years of the 1952
Revolution? Perhaps not. In any case, I make no such claims and I am out just to give some personal impressions and relive and take stock of the early days after my return from England to enter my father's business, which he was no longer able to manage due to illness and old age. It is my life that concerns me, that dominates my memories. And it is my memories that engross me at this stage of my life. Why this contemplation of the past? I do not rightly know for, in truth, I do not count. I do not matter. I have not made the slightest mark, nay, the faintest trace in history. What history? I have not made the slightest mark even in my milieu. I have not been admired or noticed much. I have achieved nothing remarkable. So why am I so anxious to put my life down in writing?
Let the story decide.
Let the reader.
From England to Egypt in the late sixties. Two countries that have in common not much more than the first capital letter of their names. The contrast literally slams you at the airport.
Cairo. Al Kahira. Not of a thousand and one nights but a city of a thousand and one years. With a thousand and one reasons to hate it. With a thousand and one reasons to love it.
The airport. First impressions: noise, movement, confusion, the lack of order, the diversity of the populace, the obsequiousness of the poor to the rich, of the low ranks to the high. The bowing, the military-style saluting, the ingratiating smiles, the body language of mute requests for baksheesh, the perpetual dissatisfaction with the amount offered, the readiness to cheat, the breaking of ranks of the influential to get their passports stamped, their luggage retrieved before everyone else. The flagrant, unhesitating one-upmanship. The arrogance of the police officers who check your passport without a sign of civility, without a smile. The titles Bey and Pasha thrown carelessly around, remnants of a feudalist culture that the Socialist Revolution has not eradicated but, oddly, reinforced. The dust, the rubbish strewn around, the smells that assail your nostrils, the ramshackle taxis at the entrance and their cantankerous, dishonest drivers. The enterprising porters that grab your luggage without being asked. The Egyptians, short, swarthy, badly dressed and scruffy. Not a good-looking lot but with operatic vocal chords and an innate need to exercise them to the fullest. You are in a daze. It's all coming back. It is amusing and oppressing.
You are finally out. You have kissed your loved ones. You look at the sky and see the stars in the crystal clear atmosphere. Yes, this is Egypt. You have left the cold, the clouds and the rain and you feel comfortable in the cool night. You do not know if you did the right thing to return. The fatigued countenance of your father tells you, you did well. You are not reassured. You have been away too long. You have left part of your life behind just as you are returning to the part of your life before that.
The car crosses a stretch of desert. You remember your love of the desert. It is because it is so empty. It is a place where you can be alone in a terrible vastness. It reminds you that you are not the center of the universe. Just another grain of sand. It is a place that heals. You remember the Sunday outings, there, with your parents. Many, many years ago. Stopping by the road near a hillock of very fine, very clean, pastel yellow sand. You remember the running and rolling and somersaults. The feel of the sand. Soft and dry and fluid. You remember trying to reach the top of the hillock with the sand sliding continuously preventing you from climbing any further however hard you tried with hands and feet. You remember that grandmother was present in her black Sunday finery. She is long gone. We are all birds of passage. You remember the English army camps and the convoys of trucks passing by and the pink English faces. How strange and out of place they were. The war had ended and they were about to leave. The final days of Empire.
You reach home. The suburbs have grown and changed but downtown Cairo is the same. More worn out and shabby but otherwise much the same. Socialism has not been kind to it. It has not been kind to anyone except the élite. The élite of arrogance and mediocrity that are ruling the country. It has not been kind to our apartment building.
With the diminution of rents, by law, to ridiculous levels there is no longer any desire or 4
initiative by the landlords to upkeep their property. Only the very poor bless the Revolution and feel blessed. They do not know how temporary these blessings are. You see familiar faces five years later. You have grown, they have aged. You kiss your servant. He is shorter than you remember, darker and stouter, but as jolly as ever. He does not take life seriously. He has surrendered responsibility to the will of Allah. He has little to lose, little to gain. Perhaps that is the secret for happiness. A difficult formula. You enter your room. It has shrunk a little but it is the home in your home. Your sanctum with your bed and your books. You lie down. You think. So that's that. There's no going back.
A week to rest, to be acclimatized. To fall in line smoothly. To forget your life there. You did not have an overriding reason to stay. You were both lucky and unlucky.
Lucky not to have fallen desperately in love, which would involve a wrenching separation. But also unlucky not to have fallen desperately in love. It was your dream to live passionately. Except that you lived in the wrong century. You did not have the time, the wealth, your castle and horses and a ravishing maiden to lose your mind over. Your days were more mundane. It helped that you always considered England to be something temporary. Your life there, your jobs, your friendships, your dallying with girls, your crushes and occasional attachments. You knew they would end sooner rather than later.
Now you tried to forget.
You tried to rediscover Egypt. Beyond the obvious, the almost banal. Could the Nile ever be banal? The Nile you loved? The Nile that awed you, that satisfied your aesthetic nature, beautified the city and quenched the thirst of half a continent? Could the pyramids be banal, the Sphinx, the tombs and antiquities? The Islamic past, the mosques, the artistry, the unique surviving buildings and artifacts? And the present which is still in the past? The desert, the peaceful countryside, the fellaheen still tilling and watering the land in the manner of the Pharaohs. The water buffaloes, tiny donkeys pulling the carts, the date palm trees and the clear blue skies? You set out to find the heart that beats in the thick of the city.
You went for long walks outside the 'European' city center. In the poorer fringes of Cairo. Depressing, drab streets and poverty. You stared and were stared at. You were an intruder in the helplessness, in the dirt, in the stench. In the hopelessness of unwashed, barefoot children. A witness to a galloping birth rate. To the improved hospitals and hygiene that kept them alive to have them play ball with a stuffed sock amid rubbish, stagnant, muddy ditches and clouds of flies. On to a sketchy, unmotivated education, a God-fearing fatalistic ignorance, an early emergence in the job market, an early marriage to have them, in their turn, perpetuate the senseless proliferation of human life and the cycle of misery of their lot. No. You did not get much out of those walks. Not much hope. Not much optimism. Just a sense of powerlessness and the realization of the very poor long-term prospects of Egypt.
You did not neglect the amenities of your class. You went to the club to play squash racquets and tennis, to swim in the pool, to meet old friends. They would be useful to make your life bearable. And you wondered about girls and sex. That would be a problem. Egypt was still Victorian. Well, not quite, but pretty close. And you did not feel ready for marriage. You had hardly started to earn your living. You still yearned for the passionate love affair but the climate promised nothing.
You entered the family business. A small industrial concern. You entered at the top and learned from subordinates. Father was there for a time to guide you. Then he left 5
the country and a little later left this world. You started learning a new alphabet.
Absorbing and revolting at the same time. The Revolution had turned socialist and the government had nationalized all the major industries and had grouped them, as was the usual method, into huge agglomerations. It had done the same with the import-export trade. A few giant governmental companies managed the commercial exchanges of the country. We had just managed to slip through the sweep up of nationalization being too small but were delegated to purgatory. We had all the business we could manage but were treated by the government with contempt and a deliberate discrimination that was not only unfair but also logically inexplicable.
Our lifeline was in the hands of the governmental organizations. We had to beg, wheedle and bribe for our raw materials and the tools we needed for our work and put up with the arrogance of petty bureaucrats who had the power to negate and deny our requests with no appeal. Our money had no value without their nod of assent. Socialism had cancelled the laws of supply and demand. Could such perversity have, possibly, had results other than the ones the country experienced? The moral and material bankruptcy of socialism and the desperate recourse to private initiative two decades later.
The other side of the coin was that the governmental organizations were our major clients. The government had prohibited the commissions that were until then freely paid to the persons responsible for cooperating with you and yet bribing flowered to unprecedented levels. There was no contract that could be executed in a trouble-free manner without the indispensable bribe. Ironically, the illegality multiplied the prospective beneficiaries. Whereas, previously, you dealt with the main person responsible, with the new prohibitions responsibilities vanished and all the people that could throw a wrench in the gears had to be mollified with a little something.
I would paraphrase the saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, to, socialism corrupts and absolute socialism corrupts absolutely. Systems of government based on idealism, altruism and enforced equality never work for the simple reason that people are neither equal nor selfless. The only reliable principle on which to base a political system is that of self-interest. Oh yes, it can be deformed and perverted but it is, finally, given our human nature, indeed the nature of every species on this earth, the only realistic proposition.
I started the story by talking of Sheiks and I am about to return to them. It is not an irrelevant diversion. I made it clear above, the main subject is myself, and my memories. Sheiks come into it because they were part of the landscape I inhabited in those days and because of one extraordinary man, a truly holy man, who crossed and marked my life. Holy and compassionate in the most unusual, unconventionally generous and selfless way I could have ever imagined. It was a generosity born of a deep love and the desire to be fair to a person who had offered him beauty and happiness in his life. He was not a Sheikh though he would have been a model. Had the full extent of his goodness been known he would have been laughed at, ridiculed. Perhaps, even insulted.
Our workforce was a mixed bag. I sometimes think of them. A few, I liked. For most I felt a contempt born of but also tempered by familiarity. Some I despised. Well, it is normal to have differing views for different individuals. You cannot love or hate wholesale; though many a time, I came pretty close to that. They were a hundred and fifty strong. A dozen white-collar employees, half of the rest skilled technicians and the other half apprentices and a few porters who did the lifting and hauling of heavy work pieces.
Most were Moslem with a few Copts reflecting their ten percent of the national structure.
Most were uneducated. A few could read a newspaper, most could just about sign their names and some used their inked fingerprints for signature on documents they could not read. It was quite safe. What could you steal or misappropriate from a person who had nothing? For they did live lives of privation and misery.
Of course, one gets used to the most atrocious conditions but I have had occasion to shudder at the living standards of some of our workers. The deprived of poor countries live in a hellish underworld of narrow, unpaved, muddy lanes, rickety housing, cramped space, lack of privacy and sanitary facilities, proliferation of smells, insects, pests and refuse. They are the perpetrators of the inevitable racket and quarrels that arise in such conditions of packed humanity and glut of children. No wonder most of our employees spent their out-of-work periods in coffee houses. They only went home to sleep after the kids were packed like sardines on a mattress on the floor of the single room the whole family lived in. Even their meals were wolfed down on the go, disorderly, as hunger struck. Foul (bean) sandwiches, koshari (lentils and rice), sweet potatoes, macaroni packed in the hollow of the local bread with spiced tomato sauce and, on payday, a liver and sausage sandwich or a little kebab (meat on the spit). For dessert, a large sweet Pepsi would be fine. Heaven knows what the wife and children would eat. They had to make do with the weekly sum that the father allotted for the home.
Meat was a luxury. A constant obsession and conversation topic. Well, it was not totally absent from their diet but the extent of the poverty of the country, of the Arab lands in general, was evident in the nature of their feasts. One was for eating meat, another where they gorged on sweets and yet another where they bought new clothes. It was funny and sad to see the whole of the poor population proudly parading on the streets on the day of the feast in brand-new, cheap, ill-fitting clothes, limping in toe-pinching shoes that would have to last them until the next feast.
Sociologists debate as to whether one can assign the concept of national character to a country of a more or less homogeneous population. Whether such a concept can be objective and scientific when so much depends on environmental conditions and innumerable variables.
Can one accuse Egyptians of being inherently dirty without taking into account their living standards and sanitary facilities? Even keeping a city clean presupposes adequate funds. Education can instill awareness, good habits and a conscientious work ethic. Can one accuse Egyptian workers of being lazy when they cannot write their own name, when they can hardly fill their bellies and keep their family clothed? Can one accuse them of thoughtlessness at the rate of which they reproduce when the means for contraception are lacking, when their culture is fatalistic and asserts that everyone is born with his fate preordained and that God forgets no one? When it is acceptable to send away a beggar by telling him, May God ease your situation. Can I call them a nation of liars when they have been throughout most their history under foreign domination and had to cringe and steal and lie to survive? Can I deride them for being fixated on religion when their present is so pathetic and their future so lacking in the slightest hope of improvement that religion provides their only source of solace through the promise of an afterlife of plenty to sate their lurking hunger and sexual obsessions? I am providing excuses for these traits I allege lest I be called a racist.
Ignorance is the pedestal of religious fanaticism. Religion thrives in a climate of ignorance. It is a vicious circle that is a noose around the Moslem nations and can only be broken by education. Other political factors come into play but education is the only effective remedy to the rantings of the mullahs. However, education presupposes better living standards and so the problem looms vast and insoluble. Quite beyond my abilities to write a prescription. I have only my memories to contend with and to help me provide a quaint picture to my reader.
From Sheikh Ali I learnt patience. A Moslem prays five times a day, three of which were scheduled during working hours. Before every single prayer the faithful must wash their face, ears and neck, rinse their mouths and blow their noses, wash their arms up to their elbow and their feet up to the knee. Sheikh Ali was a young man of twenty-five, short and thin with the traditional beard of the Sheikh without a mustache. He was not unpleasant to look at and had a piercing gaze though usually, in conversation, he did not look at you in the eye. Every time I entered the factory, Sheikh Ali seemed either to be going to the bathroom for pre-prayer ablutions or coming out of it with his towel, heading for the spot where his mat was placed facing Mecca for his prayers. I often wondered at this ability of Moslems to know instinctively, like a human compass, the direction of Mecca. Well, the prayer lasts around ten minutes and I suspected, in his earnestness, he would repeat more than once the eight distinct acts required. I often told him he made a mockery of the saying, time is money, and he used to smile shyly and tell me, „ Ya Khawaga, khalli aal Allah,‟ leave it to God. That was all I could do! I could hardly pick up a fight with God. Sheikh Ali often spent his nights at the mosque praying and sleeping there. He fully gave God his due. I cannot say the same about his work.
From Sheikh Ahmadani I learnt of strange and fascinating things. He was constantly telling me what God said and whether God approves of one thing and disapproves of another. I often asked him, how, for Heaven's sake, did he know? I kept forgetting that the Prophet Mohammed ascended to the seventh Heaven and talked with God and that his teachings are straight from the Horse's mouth. One piece of information that unsettled me was that on our left and right shoulders sit two angels. One records the good deeds of our life and the other the bad. I could not help feeling that for most Sheiks the angel responsible for the bad references must have been overworked to exhaustion.
When a man dies the angels in Heaven balance the good deeds with the bad to determine how much purification the believer must undergo before entering Heaven. It is believed that no Moslem can go permanently to hell, which is apparently reserved for apostates and unbelievers. I told Sheikh Ahmadani that it was all very well for men to go to Paradise to enjoy the mountains of succulent food and the shapely houris but what about the women? Have they no Paradise of their own with virile, well-endowed studs to supply them with never-ending orgasms? He was shocked and outraged. The thought of it! May God forgive you ya Messiou, he told me. Please stop blaspheming. Women have no souls!
From Sheikh Ahmad I learnt tolerance. I learnt to adapt and work with the most unsavory characters. Even to grow fond of them. He was my only office employee who wore a galabeya, the traditional cotton robe and a white cotton skullcap. He was a cripple with one leg shorter than the other, with deformation and ankylosis. He was clever and sly and a shameless liar. Clever enough to know the limits beyond which you would no longer tolerate his fibs and he kept within them. He banked on the fact that one would 8
rather swallow an inconsequential lie than enter into an unpleasant confrontation. He talked always in a loud voice as if to an audience. If there were people nearby, his loud voice and manner automatically included them in any conversation he had with you. God was constantly on his lips and he wanted people to witness his devotion to Allah. He had all the qualities that made me despise holier-than-thou persons. I do not understand the psycho synthesis of such warped minds. I do not understand why God is such an irresistible focus of their lives.
From Sheikh Abdel Raouf I learnt to listen, to absorb and to enjoy the mixture of popular wisdom and considerable doses of ignorance. From his conversations, for we did have long conversations, I tried to imagine what life was like at the far edges of poverty and want. I tried to understand a culture and its customs and practices that was so close to us, Egyptian-born Europeans, and yet so unfamiliar and strange. We were two worlds apart. There is a unique gentleness and approachability to the Egyptian poor. I do not think they bear the grudge towards the rich that the European poor do. Marx and Lenin would not have found fertile ground for their teachings and revolutions in Egypt. Perhaps it has to do with the fatalism and submission that the Moslem religion requires of the faithful. The belief in the supreme majesty of the one and only Deity in the universe, Allah. Allah is Power and Mercy. 'Allah is not to be inquired as to what he does.' and 'It shall be as Allah pleases.' Are typical phrases. The first duty of a Moslem is unquestioning obedience and submission. He is the 'abd' or slave of Allah, not a child of God. Hence the centuries-old tradition and tolerance of authoritarian governments in Arab lands right up to our day. Hence the lack of resentment of the poor for their lot and acceptance that the rich have a right to their riches, which they should not try to appropriate.
Sheikh Abdel Raouf was a large thickset man with a large face, a ludicrous nose and a missing eye. He was an oversize Quasimodo without the hump and with a huge belly built on bread and 'mish', a sort of viscous, super-salty cheese, which had the double virtue of being cheap and due to its saltiness one could only consume tiny doses of it with each mouthful of bread. The advantage was that a small amount went a long way. Abdel Raouf was the night watchman of our plant. The attendance to his duties was casual and when he was not present we just locked up and it was just as well. I could have fired him legally because of his innumerable absences but this was inconceivable. I would have lost my after-hours entertainment. His other part-time occupation was reciting prayers at his neighborhood cemetery. Before setting off to work he would pass by the cemetery, to see if there was any bread to be earned at a funeral or memorial prayers. If there were, he would forget his night watch. And who can blame him. He probably earned several times over the wage we paid. He could neither read nor write. He knew large tracts of the Koran by heart. I often had him recite his psalms and chants to me and enjoyed the rhythms, rhymes and alliterations and the deep-throated guttural sounds of formal Arabic.
Needless to say, I understood hardly a word.
Abdel Raouf had a son and a daughter. His wife was a small, worn out, scruffy woman with all the hardships of life lining her face. I never saw the daughter but the son was a bright, good-looking young man. I never cease to marvel at nature when the offspring are so much superior to the parents. Conversing with Sheikh Abdel Raouf was mostly for laughs but I did learn about the lives of the poor. Lives we tend to dismiss.
Lives, which do not interest us. Lives less precious than our own and of our class. Yet 9
lives with the same pains and passions and hopes even if their feelings are numbed and blunted by the oppression of poverty and sense of powerlessness, vulnerability and the belief that everything is fated.
The following paragraph is probably in bad taste but I cannot resist relating it. I often liked to question the pious about sin. Their attitudes and the way it was rejected were always revealing. Abdel Raouf had a casual and somewhat tolerant attitude towards it, though his heart was mostly in the right place. He was honest in the sense that he never stole but was not averse to a little harmless lying. I asked him if he was ever unfaithful.
He said he had sinned with married women before his marriage; with women who asked for it, but that there is nothing better than 'hallal' or blessed, legitimate sex. There is nothing better than taking your wife, stripping her naked and playing with her to your heart's content. I could not help smiling at the thought of the sex-deprived (depraved/
kinky?) married women who felt so great a passion for our Sheikh Casanova as to transgress the very strict Islamic laws on adultery. I could not help smiling at the thought of the love-play between the huge, thickset, thick-jointed Sheikh with outsize extremities and the tiny, harassed woman, his wife. I could not help wondering if she derived any pleasure from his attentions and how she could accommodate the genitals of a donkey.
From Sheikh Ebeid I learnt compassion. Not from anything he did but from the sense of desperation he conveyed to me on his last day at work. He was a thin, high-strung person who was very quiet and self-effacing but often exploded in fits of temper when annoyed. His thin voice, the incongruity of an uncontrollable temper in such a gentle person and his spastic movements often caused me to laugh as I tried to calm him down so we could quietly solve the problem that had aroused his irk. He was working in a section of our factory, which had very little work and I planned to close it down as soon as Sheikh Ebeid retired.
Finally, the time of his retirement arrived and we arranged our habitual ceremony at our offices to give him a small memento and wish him good luck. We had brought cakes and soft drinks and everyone was in good spirits. Everyone, that is, except Sheikh Ebeid. He was shattered and seemed to be lost. He was unable to form a smile on his lips and heard out the speeches we made praising his long years of work at our Company with a look of incomprehension, as if we were talking a foreign language. He constantly looked at me, silently imploring me to keep him on, even on a part-time basis. His pension would be a fraction of his salary and overtime earnings. He could hardly manage as it was. How would he ever cope with less? I could not help understanding and feeling sorry. But I was not running a welfare institution. I could not afford to keep him on. I felt a dreadful hypocrite when I said good-bye to him at the end of the gathering mouthing the words, „God be with you. God does not forget anyone.‟
I beg my readers' indulgence for the long introduction to our tale of love. I understand their impatience. For although l'argent fait la guerre, and people are in a constant, mad rush to acquire it, it is love that makes the world go round. So while we bid good bye to the Sheiks we talked about and the many more who are at least as undeserving and as interesting, we must return to our office to pick up the thread of our tale from its start.
Sherif effendi was my one-man public relations department. He was a good-looking man of about fifty-five. He showed me faded, brownish, cardboard pictures of his youth wearing a tarbush, the red Turkish fez-like headgear with a black tassel hanging on 10
the side, and he was at least as handsome as the better-looking crop of our current movie heartthrobs. He boasted of many conquests and in particular that an Englishwoman in the days of Empire was madly in love with him. Madly in love, deeply in love. Words that make you dream. Anyway, Sherif effendi's duties were to keep in touch with the public sector companies, keep track of tenders and run after the supplies of raw materials and tools we needed to function but were sold with great reluctance due to the government shortages of foreign currencies required to purchase them from abroad, in the first place.
He had an easy if somewhat ingratiating manner and was good at cultivating friendships with the employees in those companies and this of course eased his task.
In one of the larger public sector trading companies he developed a close rapport with one of the directors and was able through him to keep our Company supplied with grinding wheels and the carbide tipped tools used in our machinery. He often talked to me about this man, his unusual politeness, his refusal to be bribed or corrupted which set him apart from the generally shady environment of these companies. As a matter of routine courtesy Sherif effendi usually extended to Talaat bey my regards and my thanks for the many services he offered us and always delivered Talaat's courteous response. He also asked me to go and thank him in person at his office, as personal contacts with highly placed bureaucrats are always beneficial.
“In any case,” he said, “I have told Talaat bey so many good things about you that he is eager to meet you.”
I met Talaat bey soon after that at his office in the headquarters of the huge government trading company. He was a gray-haired man of fifty or so, tall and well built with a pleasant face and a kindly smile. He was dressed in an impeccably tailored suit and when I entered, he hurried around his office desk to greet me and Sherif effendi who accompanied me. He had all the graciousness of the old Egyptian moneyed classes that was so utterly lacking in the new people, which the Revolution placed at the head of these conglomerates. The new managers were usually brash army officers who thought they could run commercial enterprises like an army battalion and treat their subordinates and private sector clients like army recruits.
Talaat bey was independently wealthy and though the government sequestrated much of his family's land, he, nevertheless, retained the hundred-acre limit and a farm.
He had entered the company, Tractor Engineering, which originally sold agricultural implements as soon as he finished his university studies and was one of the top managers until the company was nationalized after Nasser's revolution and integrated into the present huge organization. In the shuffle he was ignored as all the top managerial positions were allotted to army officers but Talaat bey chose to remain in a less important post rather than leave the company, as he was never sure that the remainder of his land would not eventually be taken away as well. However, he did not thrive in the new circumstances. He was not one of the boys. The other managers were contemptuous of his patrician ways and wary of his refusal to get involved in dubious deals.
In the half hour we stayed in his office for the traditional coffee I felt we planted the seeds of friendship and of a mutual affinity. He seemed hearty and pleased to make my acquaintance. He inquired how well I had adapted to life in Egypt after five years in England and asked me if I was happy. I said I was keeping busy with work and sports and the few friends I had. I also had a passion for modern literature and this helped me not to feel lonely when I was alone. On the whole, I told him, I could not describe myself as 11
totally satisfied with my life but I was not unhappy either. In any case, I had no other options. He invited Sherif effendi and me to visit him at his farm where he spent his weekends.
“I want you to meet my wife,” he said, addressing me. “She, also, has had an English education and reads a lot. She will be so happy to meet a young person. You see,” he added, “I married late in life and we do have some years' difference in age.” He smiled. “It has not been so bad until now but as I grow older she seems more and more like a daughter to me than a wife. We do not have any children and I suspect she gets terribly bored with my family and my friends who are of my age.” A week or so later, Sherif effendi reminded me of the invitation and suggested we take it up. The farm was not far. About an hour's drive from Cairo. I told him I would rather go to the club to put in a little exercise than try to entertain Talaat bey's wife. Was that part of the price I had to pay to buy my grinding wheels? What a strange request that was. Totally out of character in Egypt. An Egyptian man would hardly ever mention his wife, let alone express the wish that I meet her. Sherif effendi asked me if I had any objections if he went on his own and I said that, of course, I did not.
Monday is a difficult day. It is the start of the week, of a thousand things to do, a thousand more to think about. At one point Sherif effendi came into my office and sat down.
“They were both very disappointed you did not come,” he said.
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“Talaat Bey and his wife.”
“Oh? So you did go after all.”
“Did you have a good time?”
“Yes, of course. Talaat bey is an extraordinary man. He insisted I stay for lunch.
He even offered me whisky. There were a few other guests as well. I left late in the afternoon. Just before sundown.”
“What about the wife?”
“She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life.”
“Oh, come on! Surely you exaggerate. For a Valentino of your calibre this is no mean statement.”
“I assure you.”
“How old is she?”
“Very precise information, I see.”
“Well, yes. You see, after the guests left and Leila went into the house for a nap, I sat with Talaat bey in the garden for a cup of tea and we exchanged confidences. Doesn't it ever happen with you that sometimes you feel well with another person and all of a sudden you have an urge to unburden yourself? I felt exactly that way. I felt I was with a friend although obviously I am not in his class. He is rich and educated and I am neither but he is a gentle human being and his friendliness and amiable smile makes you trust him and open your heart to him. It is I who started to talk.”
“Leila is the wife?”
“I told him that after my wife died, my life went awry. I lost control over my two boys. The elder one, at least, works in the police. He is very good looking, just like I was in my youth, and he married a rich elder woman but Osama, the younger one left the house and I don't know where he is. I don't even want to find out because of some rumors I heard. They say he is living with some rich Arabs. It would cause me unbearable pain to find out this was true. Also, my house was a mess. I needed someone to take care of things. I could hardly afford a servant and so I decided to marry again. Some family friends proposed a match with a woman recently widowed without children and I agreed to marry her even before I saw her. I was that desperate. Well, I married her and she is a good woman and takes good care of me and of the house but I am not a man with her. I don't know if it is my age or the way she looks but I have not the slightest desire to touch her. We have been sleeping on the same bed for three years now, like brother and sister. I know it is 'haram', it is a sin, and may God forgive me but it is beyond my strength. Of course, you know all this, ya Messiou. I am just telling you what I told Talaat bey.”
“Yes, go on.”
“Talaat bey's face expressed sympathy and sadness. He told me we were roughly the same age and had the same problem for different reasons. He made me swear not to tell anyone what he was about to confess, except you.”
“I don't know. I did not want to pry and ask him for the reason. Perhaps, because he liked you and felt you would sympathize. He has taken an extraordinary liking to you.
He kept on mentioning your name and asking me questions about you.”
“What sort of questions?”
“Whether you were good and kind. Whether you were married or had a relationship with a woman. Whether you planned to spend the rest of your life in Egypt.
Many questions about your life in general.”
“And what did you answer?”
“I said you were a Sheikh. Too good to be involved with all that scum at work.
That I hoped you would one day leave this crummy country.”
“Oh, you shameless flatterer. No wonder people like you.”
“It's true, ya Messiou.”
“You're not even close to the truth. Anyway, what did Talaat bey confess?”
“He said, about a year or so ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had an operation, radical prostatectomy I think he called it. It was very painful but the worst of it was that it left him impotent. Such operations usually have that result. He told me that he doesn't care much for himself. He is simply disconsolate when he thinks that Leila, who is still so young, will have to forego sexual pleasure. He blames himself for his selfishness, for having married so young a person. She was eighteen when he fell in love with her. He was thirty-five. Now, she is thirty-six and in some ways at her sexual peak. He thought it was so sad that at this particular moment she has to get on without sex. He did not know how to solve the problem. He was not strong enough to divorce her so that she might find another man of her age. They did not have children and with her beauty it would not have been difficult to make a good marriage. But he could not even start to think of it. He loved her too much. Or perhaps not enough to prevail over his 13
selfish need of her. Sometimes, he even contemplated suicide. It was the only way he could give her up.”
“So, my friend,” I told Sherif effendi making light of his tale, “I see now why you are so spry. You and Talaat bey had your catharsis crying on each other's shoulder. You are now feeling much more cheerful and relieved.”
“How can we feel cheerful and relieved,” he said. “We have solved nothing.” What a sad world of pain we inhabit. Show me a truly happy man and I'll pay you a million pounds. I haven't the money, of course, but I'm not worried. There's not the slightest chance I'll have to pay it out. How can one ever believe in a benevolent God, when the whole of his creation is warped? When the whole of nature is perverse in every possible way. Starting from the food we consume to stay alive. The concept, the survival of the fittest, tells it all. I recently saw a documentary about a certain species of monkeys.
The strongest monkey was the leader of the bunch and he walked about with his penis in constant erection. Lest anyone forget it, lest anyone get any funny ideas about mating with a female. They were all his!
Admittedly humans are a little better and have the potential to improve though they often show a savagery and cruelty that trounces the worst of the animal kingdom.
God, it is said, created us in his image. Oh, what vanity! What universal fairy tales. What a horrendous Devil this God would have been! We are all of us little walking egos, funny and ridiculous. Sad, also, because we do have a brain and we did achieve astounding, unbelievable progress in every field of science. We did not manage, however, to accomplish something infinitely more important: Happiness. Instead, we are trying like mad to concoct an artificial substitute. Happiness through psychotherapy and medicines, drugs and narcotics, materialism and perversions, pedophilia and child pornography, prostitution and the blatant enslavement of women by despicable, modern-day, male slave traders. And the madness is spreading.
It was Talaat bey's and Sherif effendi's unhappiness that brought forth this outburst and I had better stop before I sound holier-than-thou, myself. In any case, I have not got the answers. Probably not even God does. So, I dismissed the problem and my life absorbed me in the usual flat, repetitive routine, which was not altogether unpleasant.
A few weeks later, I received a phone call, at work, from Talaat bey. He told me that both he and his wife were very disappointed that I did not visit them at the farm and would I honor them with a visit the coming weekend. A vision flashed for a second in my mind: I was sitting in the garden with Talaat bey and he was recounting his woes. No thanks! I excused myself saying I reserved my weekends for sports and I had permanent appointments with friends, which I could not cancel. I would have loved to come but I could not possibly manage it. He said there was no hurry and perhaps I could arrange it for a later date. I said I would try and I would give him a call. I thanked him and forgot all about it.
Again after another few weeks he called me at work. He did not mention the invitation but it was obvious he wanted to remind me of it. We engaged in a social chat of this and that and ended with the mutual hopes that we would meet soon. I felt sorry for him. He was obviously an extremely nice person with exquisite manners and old-style courtesies and flourishes that one only finds in the Middle East. And he seemed to really like me. He often called me, my son, which in any case, I could have been but on the other hand I had no desire to lend my shoulder as a repository of his tears.
Our main plant in Cairo is smack in the middle of the city. It is a part of town where the price of land has reached astronomical heights. It is, however, a slum of the kind I have already described above. Narrow lanes with rickety housing, tiny shops, soggy pathways where barefoot, filthy children play amid pools of scummy water, stray chickens, ducks and mangy dogs; where small donkeys pull miniature carts with huge bronze containers of foul medames, the staple food of the area; where the cries of the children and their mothers mingle with those of the sellers vociferously promoting their wares; where the atmosphere is a nauseating succession of smells; where glancing into the entrances and narrow stairways of the fusty, moldy, humid houses you think that the people living there, almost certainly, do not fear hell for they were living in it and surviving.
Just beyond the slum, separated by a single street is the Nile with its luxury apartments and five-star hotels. One of the great paradoxes of Egypt is that until the recent Islamic fundamentalist terrorism there has been no violent crime. Not all character traits of Egyptians are laudable but there is no doubt that they are generally of a gentle disposition, friendly and fatalistic. They accept their misery as their destiny. There is another world waiting to reward them, if they are good. That they sometimes forget to be good is another matter. It is usually not their fault. They have an amusing way to justify their mistakes. 'Satan fooled me'. 'Satan entered my mind and made me do it'. And why not? The forces of Good and Evil have been battling it out since the beginning of time.
Luckily, to use a term of tennis, it is Advantage to Good. Game and set still to be decided. But wait a minute. Can we be sure even of that? Can we always distinguish clearly between Good and Evil?
It was in the less than luxurious offices of our plant, in the narrow, dirty street where it was situated that I met Leila. Talaat bey phoned me one day, having lost hope that I would ever decide to pay them a visit, and told me that he would be passing by. I did not expect her to come along. I was shocked when I saw both of them coming up the stairs to my office. I was even more shocked at Talaat bey's introductions.
“I want you to meet Leila, my beloved daughter,” he said. “Leila, this is Alex, the young man who has been consistently avoiding us. Perhaps, now that he has seen you he will change his attitude.”
She smiled, dismissing with a playful grimace and a gesture of mock vexation her husband's compliment. I shook their hands and told Talaat bey that it was never my intention to avoid them and that they did me great honor to visit me in my lowly office.
“You should have given me notice,” I told him, “to clean the street and sprinkle it with sand.”
“I see you are learning the courtesies of Egyptians,” he said.
“There is a politeness in them and a turn of expression that I find appealing.”
“If Egyptians instilled a little more substance to them, we would have been a better people.”
“Still, is it not better to have them, empty as they are, than not?”
“I suppose so,” he answered. “Politeness is essential for the harmonious coexistence of a society.”
“So, please sit down and let me offer you a coffee. I am very happy and honored you are here and I am saying this not just through politeness but from the heart.” 15
They sat down on my uncomfortable, dusty chairs and I had a chance to look at Leila. Leila means night but she was as luminous as the day. Perhaps, she was not the most beautiful woman in the world, as Sherif had told me, but she was very beautiful.
Tall, elegant, well-built, she filled the room with her presence. She was not typically Egyptian. I do not disparage the beauty of Egyptian women. Some have an eastern allure with the exotic touch that makes you dream of a thousand and one nights. In any case a beautiful woman be she black, yellow or red is a gift of nature equally fascinating, with the same power to enslave, to make you lose your mind and think of nothing else. Leila had the kind of beauty that comes from a mixture of races and I surmised a little European blood was flowing in her gorgeous body. She had brown hair just straining to become blond but not quite. Egyptian women have skins of different hues. She was white with a perfect facial complexion and regular features that crafted an ode to beauty. Her eyes, brown and large, alert and inquisitive fitted in harmoniously and completed the work of art that nature sometimes achieves. Talaat bey was impeccably dressed with suit and tie and made me feel scruffy with the pair of jeans and well-worn pullover I was wearing. Besides being elegant, he had an aristocratic and distinguished bearing but the age difference between them was less than forgiving.
Over coffee we exchanged courtesies and talked about the political situation. It was a time when one looked over one's shoulder before uttering the slightest disapproval of the government. So I was shocked again when he asked me point blank what I thought of Abdel Nasser. I hawed and hummed and tried to formulate a harmless statement in the style of,
“Well, he did a lot of good things for Egypt's poor and has given the country a new prestige and, well, the nationalizations ruined a lot of people but he is trying to bring a measure of social justice to the country.”
Talaat Bey smiled at me a trifle ironically.
“Relax Alex,” he said. “I have not got a tape recorder hidden on me. I was the first to rejoice with Abdel Nasser's revolution. I hoped he would cleanse the country of the corrupt politicians and he did decimate them but he shackled us with an equally corrupt junta of famished, greedy, power-hungry army officers. For every thief he eliminated, he installed ten. The semblance of democracy we had he replaced with a brazen dictatorship.
Gone is the rule of law, freedom of expression and justice. He installed a socialism that is ruining the country, is spreading corruption and is undermining the work ethic by preaching an irresponsible equality, which prevents the managers from getting any work out of their employees. He has of course ruined the rich but even worse than that is that he has chased all the worthwhile people out of the country. We had a vibrant Jewish community that kept the commerce of the country flourishing and now they are gone. I know this, first hand. My own company, Tractor Engineering, which was owned by the Mosseri family, was earning millions. Now, it has been lumped with another ten companies and they are losing millions.”
“Talaat, Talaat, please let's not delve into this again.” Leila smiled at me. “It is his favorite subject and of course he has all the right to be frustrated. He was hard hit in every way by the revolution but I have heard his complaints so many times. I cannot take it any more. I keep on telling him that getting worked up in this way is bad for his health and, after all, it is our health that counts.”
“Yes, my daughter, you are right.” Talaat smiled at her and the adoration in his eyes was palpable. “We must change the subject.” He turned and looked at me, the smile still lingering on his lips. “Alex, what are the sports you play when you cannot take time off to visit us?”
“Well, the main two sports are swimming and squash and I also do some jogging to keep up my form. Now and then I play some tennis but it is a difficult game and I am not much good at it. It needs a lot of practice and to learn the correct technique one needs coaching by a professional. Whereas squash does not require as much skill but is very vigorous and provides plenty of exercise.”
“Yes, I used to play tennis until a few years ago,” said Talaat bey, “and I know what you mean. But why all this frenzy of activity?”
“Well, I have very few friends and practically no social life. I am a bit of a loner and sport helps relieve my tensions.”
“Ah yes, that is what I wanted to hear. My daughter Leila is a little irritable these days. I am no longer as active as I once was and we stay at home more than is healthy for a young woman. Do you think, Alex, you could let her join you once or twice a week at the club for a game of squash or tennis or even a little jogging? She will not be a drag on you. You will find she is quite a sportswoman. And she has a mind of her own. You will find that out too, soon enough.”
“Talaat, leave Alex in peace,” Leila interjected. “We cannot impose on him in this way.”
“I am not imposing. I have a sincere liking for him and I shall just give him our phone number. He is, of course, absolutely free to call or not. If he feels like it, he can call you up and invite you to a game. Alex, this is my card with our home number. I consider you a friend and there will be no hard feelings if other engagements prevent you from calling. On the other hand, you do owe us a visit at the farm. I shall not insist on a date. You can come whenever you want.”
They lingered after the coffee for another half hour and Talaat bey was doing most of the talking. He was in high spirits. He talked a lot about his „daughter' and she feigned exasperation when his compliments were too effusive.
“Talaat, please stop,” she kept on telling him. And addressing me with a smile,
“After politics, I am second on his list of favorite subjects.”
“One can only blame him for not putting you on top of the list,” I said and they were both pleased with the less than subtle insinuation.
Leila was the luminous presence of our little impromptu gathering in my dusty office. She was reserved and polite but her eyes kept turning on me, examining me minutely, which made me uncomfortable. I gave all my attention to Talaat bey feeling awkward under Leila's gaze but when our eyes met we smiled. I learnt that my hunch was correct. She had an English grandmother. She had gone to St Clare's, an English girls'
school in Heliopolis and had enrolled at the American University to study literature when she met an up-and-coming, rich and handsome young man who fell madly in love with her and asked her to marry him. She dropped the university to become his wife because she, too, was dazzled by the mature, successful, exquisitely mannered Talaat. They lived happily despite the repeated blows the revolution heaped upon them. The only disappointment was that they did not have any children. In a sense even this seemed to have its compensations. It bound them more closely together.
I thought it was unfortunate that she had now ceased being his wife and had become his daughter. But what was I to do about it? I did not really understand what role I was supposed to assume. Because obviously something was being asked of me. Was I to be her new sports coach? Her new playmate? How far would this relationship be allowed to go? But hell, Leila would have no use for a young man ten years younger than herself. Women were, if anything, practical minded and would weigh the odds carefully.
They tended to fall in love with persons who would offer them security. Sex to them was rarely an end in itself. It was usually a means to an end. Whereas, I was much more vulnerable. I was sure if I saw too much of her, I would fall in love. It was unavoidable for she was much too beautiful. I assumed Talaat bey would be keeping a close eye on us.
Would a false step on my part stop the flow of grinding wheels and carbide-tipped tools for our factory? Talaat bey did not seem to be that kind of a person but one never knew.
I did not call her up. I tried to convince myself that I was using delaying tactics but, in reality, I was rather apprehensive about setting this whole process in motion. I also felt uncomfortable about making an appointment with another man's wife even if it was just for a game of squash, even if he, himself, requested it. Two weeks later she called me at the office and after a few routine civilities told me that Talaat bey wanted me to send Sherif effendi to his office because a new batch of grinding wheels of good quality had arrived from Czechoslovakia and we should hurry to get our quota before they were all sold. Not a word was exchanged about our planned sporting activities.
“Goodbye Alex,” she said when we ended our short exchange.
“Goodbye Mrs. Leila, please send my regards and thanks to Talaat bey.”