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Excerpt

Heart of the Night 

Naguib Mahfouz (translated by Aida Bamia)

December 22, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Naguib Mahfouz's novel, Heart of the Night, translated by Aida Bamia. Mahfouz (1911-2006) wrote nearly forty novels and hundreds of short stories ranging from re-imaginings of ancient myths to subtle commentaries on contemporary Egyptian politics and culture. In 1988, he was the first writer in Arabic to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Bamia (translator) is professor emeritus of Arabic language and literature at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

I looked at him closely and said, “I remember you very well.” He bent over my desk, his foggy sight fixed on me. His proximity, his roaming look, and his efforts to see clearly, revealed his weak eyesight. Seeming unaware of his closeness to me and the small size of the quiet room, he said in a harsh, high-pitched tone, “You do! I do not trust my memory anymore, and on top of that I do not see very well.”

“The days of Khan Jaafar cannot be forgotten!” I said.

“Welcome. You are from that district then?”

I introduced myself and invited him to sit down. He said,

“We do not belong to the same generation but there are things impossible to forget.” He sat down. “I believe I changed completely. Time has placed on my face an ugly mask of its own making, not the one my father gave me.”

He proudly introduced himself, though he did not need to. “Al-Rawi. I am Jaafar al-Rawi, Jaafar Ibrahim Sayyid al-Rawi.”

I was not blind to the pride he felt in saying his full name. There was a strong contradiction between his miserable look and his proud tone. He continued to reminisce.

“You take me back to some very dear memories, to the blessed district of Khan Jaafar and al-Hussein, the days of happiness and adventures.”

“There were some exciting incidents and strange stories,” I said, provoking his laughter. His tall, thin body shook so much, I worried his worn-out suit might tear.

He raised his tanned face toward me, scratched his head covered with gray sticky hair, and said, “We are family, and I am entitled to be optimistic about the fairness of my case.”

I asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee, to delay possible disagreements. He replied boldly and without hesitation, “Let’s begin with a fuul sandwich, then order me coffee.”

I watched him eat voraciously, and was filled with sadness. His smell stayed with me, a mixture of sweat, tobacco, and mud. After he ate and drank he sat up and said, “Thank you. I do not want to take up any more of your time. You must have seen my request by virtue of your position. What do you think?”

I said regretfully, “No use. The waqf[1] system does not allow such a thing.”

“But the truth is as clear as the sun.”

“The waqf is also clear,” I said.

“I studied law, but it seems that everything changes.”

“Everything except the waqf. To this day it has not changed.”

He roared in his rough voice: “My rights will not be lost! Let the Ministry of Awqaf know that.” Then, seeing my calm smile, he grew quiet and asked to meet the director.

I said gently, “The matter is very clear. The al-Rawi waqf is the largest in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Its proceeds are held in trust for the benefit of the two holy mosques and the Imam al-Hussein mosque, in addition to charitable organizations, schools, monasteries, and public fountains. A charitable waqf cannot, by any means, be owned by anyone.”

He interrupted me, explaining his position: “But I am the grandson of al-Rawi, his only heir, and in urgent need of a penny, whereas the Imam al-Hussein is happily settled in paradise.”

“But it is a waqf,” I repeated.

“I will take legal action.”

“It will be useless.”

“I will consult a sharia lawyer, but it has to be free of charge, because money is an unknown entity in my world.”

“I have many friends among the sharia lawyers and I can arrange a meeting for you with one of them, but do not waste your time running after a hope that will not materialize.”

“You treat me like a child.”

“God forbid,” I said. “I am only reminding you of a reality that you cannot change.”

He went on, “But I am al-Rawi’s grandson. This is easy to prove.”

“Yes, but al-Rawi’s estate became a charitable waqf.”

“Is it fair that I should be left to beg?”

“The procedure for a person in your situation is to submit a request asking for a monthly donation from the waqf income, on condition that you prove your relation to the owner of the waqf.”

“A monthly donation,” he repeated. “How unfair! How much would that be?”

I hesitated for a moment. “It might reach five pounds or slightly more.”

He laughed sarcastically, revealing black, broken teeth. “I will fight, you’d better believe it! I have lived a life that even the jinn would not put up with. Let the battle commence! I will not stop fighting until I obtain my rights in full from the inheritance of my wicked grandfather.”

I could not help smiling. “May his soul rest in peace and reward him for all the good he did.”

He thumped my desk with his fist and said, “There is nothing good about a man who forgets his grandson.”

“Why did he forget you?” I asked.

He clutched his chin but did not answer. I felt that the storm would clear sooner rather than later, and that he would end up writing a request for help like the many other descendants of pashas, princes, and kings in our country. I was convinced that no one rejected his heirs for no reason. What had you done, Jaafar?

He turned his failing eyesight toward the empty space and went on, saying, “Establishing a charitable waqf, and depriving me of the inheritance, that was how he always conducted himself, combining bad and good. He continues to exercise his power now that he’s dead, as he did when he was alive. And here I am, struggling after his death as I did during his lifetime, and will continue to do until my death.”

*

My relationship with Jaafar al-Rawi grew stronger with time. In his loneliness, he was ready to cling to anyone who would encourage him, be it only with a smile. I ventured into this friendship with the strong conviction that it would end soon. His disturbed personality did not suggest a desire to settle down into a lasting friendship and it did not take much to satisfy him. There were obvious reasons that drew me to him, but there was also an intangible motive: past memories and my own fascination with the al-Rawi family, their stories, the rumors about Jaafar’s crazy adventures, and my attraction to Jaafar despite his repulsive appearance. I felt sorry for him, living his final days in this miserable way. He was quite tall, and were it not for his poverty and possibly some illnesses, his old age would have been glorious and beautiful.

One day, after a meal of kawari in one of the Muhammad Ali Street restaurants, I asked him how he lived. His answer was quick. “I roam the streets during the day until almost midnight.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“Among the ruins.”

Surprised, I asked what ruins he was referring to.

“They belong to me by reason of occupancy. This is what is left of my grandfather’s house.”

I did not know that the house had fallen into ruin, as I had not visited the neighborhood in a very long time.

“Don’t you have relatives?” I asked.

“They might fill the globe.”

I smiled.

He explained, “I have children who are judges and others who are criminals.”

“Is that true?” I asked.

“And despite that, I am alone.”

“What a way to talk!”

“Give me back the waqf and I promise you that I will be surrounded by children and grandchildren. Otherwise I will remain alone, an outcast.”

“You seem to like puzzles,” I commented.

He laughed. “I like a good meal and the waqf. I’d also like to damn those responsible for the waqf.”

“Don’t you have any income in your old age?” I asked.

“I have some old friends. Whenever I meet one of them, he shakes my hand and puts in it whatever he feels like giving me. I roll in the mud now, but I originally fell from the sky.”

Saddened, I said, “This is not a way to live. Write your petition immediately.”

“It is the true, authentic life. Try it if you have the courage. Open doors boldly, don’t be servile: everything you want is your right. This life belongs to the human being, to everyone. You have to get rid of your stupid habits; that is all you need to do.”

“Yet you wish to regain your grandfather’s inheritance,” I said.

Laughing loudly, he said, “Do not hold me responsible for my contradictions. I am a pack of contradictions. Don’t forget also that I am an old man, and have been engaged in a battle with my grandfather for a very long time.”

“I’d like to know why he deprived you of your inheritance.”

“This is my battle,” he explained. “Do not rush matters. I am not the simpleton I appear to be. Many are fooled by my appearance, and young children even follow me as I roam the streets. Do they think that I like to talk? Because I am alone, I talk to myself. What do people think? I am getting older, and I have not stopped asking questions. Believe me when I tell you that I am not a normal person. Even when I was on the mountain or living in the palace or in the ruins, I was not normal. Despite my loafing and begging, I stand tall in life, my head raised high and defiant, because life respects only those who do not take it seriously.”

I smiled as I watched him defying existence, wearing his wornout suit and with his tanned skin. I whispered, “Good for you.”

He went on, talking about his connections. “I do not interact with humans alone, but I have contacts with non-human things: jinns and devils and the intrinsic components of civilization.” He then changed his tone and asked, “Have you chosen a trustworthy lawyer for me?”

I pleaded with him, “In God’s name, Jaafar, forget this imaginary case.”

“Am I not Jaafar Ibrahim, the grandson of Sayyid al-Rawi?”

“You are,” I said, “but you do not have a case, none whatsoever.”

“I will provoke a revolution that will reverse the order of the universe.”

“That is more feasible than winning your case. Write the petition and do not lose time.”

Laughing, he said, “The employees of the waqf ministry live off the income of our properties, then they stretch out their hands to offer us charity.”

“Write the petition and do not lose time.”

Silence fell over us for a few minutes, and then he said, as if talking to himself,

“Five pounds!”

“You must at least rent a room on a roof.”

“No. The amount will be enough for food, cigarettes, and clothes. As for lodging, how can I rent a room when I own a palace! I will not leave the ruins.”

I told him once more, “Write the petition as soon as possible and send it to the ministry.”

“There’s no rush. Let me think about it. I might write the petition or I might consult a lawyer. I might even go on with my life without a petition or a lawyer. No need to rush.”

“You know what you should do,” I said.

“There is no possibility of communication between the two of us. You fear life and I despise it. What you fear even in your imagination I have endured, and everything you ask God to spare you I have sought with my own free will.”

“This is great, Jaafar,” I said.

“Do you like what I say?” he asked.

“Very much.”

“Would you like to hear more?”

“I assure you that I would.”

“You have treated me to a wonderful meal and will offer me serious help in the coming days. We are the children of the same neighborhood, so let’s go to Wadud’s café at the Green Gate.”

We walked side by side in the direction of the old neighborhood, passing beneath the historic arch that leads to the Green Gate. There we settled down, smoked hash, and drank coffee, and talked in the quiet of the long night.

*

Bab al-Akhdar alley fell into silence under cover of night. It is then that the hordes of beggars return to their spots, the lunatics clutter the corners, and the smell of incense fills the air. No outsider roams there at night except the few customers of Café Wadud. They are all hash smokers.

“Let me tell you about the time of the legend,” said Jaafar.

“You mean your childhood years,” I said.

He was quick to respond, “I mean what I said, so do not interrupt me. There is no childhood, but a dream and a legend, the age of the dream and of the legend. It forces itself on you in a tender and possibly deceitful manner, usually because of the hardships of the present. It echoes strongly in my psyche, but when I analyze it I come out empty-handed, which confirms its illusionary nature. Suffice it to say that I know nothing of any significance about its two basic poles, my father and my mother.”

“Did they pass away during your childhood?” I asked.

“I do not remember my father at all, and I have no visual memory of him. He did not leave a photo to remind me of him. He left the world before fathering another child. I remember only one incident connected to him, and that somewhat obscurely. It was on the day of the celebration of the mahmal, as we watched from a window overlooking Margush. I was sitting on his shoulders watching the crowds and the head of the golden mahmal swaying at the level of the window. It was a situation imbued with compassion and affection, don’t you agree? The mahmal is one of the landmarks of the legend. As for the crowds, they were a special kind of reality. The memory revived one day in my office in Bab al-Khalq square, making me shout in Saad Kabir’s face these words—”

But I interrupted him, “We are in the midst of the legend. Do not overstep its boundaries!”

“Let me talk freely. I hate restrictions.”

“But the story will be scattered by the stream of thoughts and I might lose my way between its fragments.”

He laughed loudly. “Won’t you allow me to toy with time the way it toyed with me? Well, let’s go back to the legend, to the brazen jinn, to the playful inanimate objects, to the spectral truths, and to the real dreams. I have already told you that I do not remember my father, but I will never forget my mother’s hand.”

“Your mother’s hand?”

“Be patient,” he said. “My father died, but I do not know how or why. He died in his youth, as I was told years later. I was five years old or slightly younger, and unable to even remember the house in Margush district. There was possibly a room that could be accessed from the hallway via two steps. There was also a high bed that could be reached by climbing on a wooden stool that was very tempting to play with, and a water pipe was placed high on top of an armoire, out of my reach. There were spoiled cats, a mangle, a dark storeroom inhabited by all types of jinn, black mice, an incense holder, and a clay jug seated on a tray, filled with water in which sliced limes floated. There were also a coal heater and sacks of coal, chickens, and a conceited rooster. I do not know what caused my father’s death or what his job was, but I can tell you about death itself. I am an expert in it. I once deserved the title of life giver because when anger takes over and words turn to flames, swallowing the celestial words, mysterious doors open, through which devils slip. Satan himself arrives in his fiery parade, surrounded by judges, policemen, and jailers. At that moment Jaafar al-Rawi changes his name, his surname, and his skin.”

“But what about your father’s death?” I asked.

“May God forgive you,” he said. “You crush inspiration. You insist on learning how my father died as if he were your father. What do I know about his death? I woke up on a dark night to discover that I was in my mother’s arms and she was taking me to the neighbor’s. I must have fallen asleep, and when I awoke in the morning I found myself in a strange place. I cried. When the neighbor brought me food, I asked her about my mother. She explained, ‘Your mother is running an errand and will be back soon. Eat your food.’

“I ate despite my anxiety, as I was continuously hearing crying; though in a way, crying and ululations were a usual thing in our neighborhood. I went back home that night, or the following day, and found a strange and gloomy atmosphere. I felt there was a painful secret that I could not decipher, but one that made me feel weird and anxious. My mother had changed completely. She was dressed in black, her face was pale, and she looked sick. Her gaze had withered and seemed worn out. The house had lost its wholesome atmosphere and genuine cheerfulness. I asked her, ‘What is wrong with you, Mother?’

“‘Everything is fine. Play,’ she said.

“‘Where is my father?’

“She turned her face away from mine and said, ‘He is on a trip. Go on playing; you have the whole roof. Do not ask so many questions.’

“Her attitude toward me had changed: she was rough and unconcerned. My mother was avoiding me; she was avoiding my gaze and my company. She cried behind my back. My father did not return from his travels. I was not totally ignorant. I had heard things about God, the devil and the jinn, paradise and hell. I had even heard threatening things about death that had nothing to do with joy. I was wondering when my father would come back and when my mother’s face would return to its usual serenity. My anxious wait for my father lasted a long time. I was overcome with despair about his absence, but when precisely I lost hope in his return and how I forgot him and went on with my life as if nothing had happened, I can’t remember. There is no way I can recall all that, but I will never forget my mother’s hand.”

“You have mentioned your mother’s hand many times already,” I said.

“She would hold my hand or I would hold hers, and we would wander together in the alleys and souks.”

“To shop or for pleasure?” I asked.

I was getting used to his live soul among the ruins and the memories. He seemed happy and grateful for the dinner, and for the hash he smoked, and for having an attentive listener for his story.

He said, “Sometimes I try to remember my mother’s image but I can’t see it. How tall was she? I was naturally much smaller than her and always looked up whenever I spoke to her, but this in no way indicates anything or measures her height. I have no idea about her weight either, or the color of her eyes or skin. I have a rather vague idea of subdued tones and movements. I remember strong emotions, smiles and laughter, and reprimands that were closer to visions from dreams. I can, however, affirm that she was beautiful, and had it not been for her beauty the tragedy would not have happened. I remember a comment made by our neighbor on a forgotten occasion: ‘Hey, Jaafar, son of the beautiful woman!’ But she did not live long enough to give me time to protect her image from destruction. Only the memory of her hand has stayed with me. To this day I feel her touch, her pressure and her tugging, and when she let go, as we walked from one place to the other across covered and uncovered alleys, among hordes of men and women, donkeys and carts, in front of shops and saints’ tombs and monasteries. She took me to the gatherings of the lunatics and the fortune tellers, the sweet vendors, and the toy sellers. On those trips, I wore a gallabiya and a colorful hat decorated with an amulet.

“My mother’s conversations were varied and contained a poetic tone that she adopted while talking with all creatures, each in its own language. She would address God Almighty, the prophets and the angels, and the holy men in their tombs. She even talked to the jinn, the birds, inanimate beings, and the dead. She would interrupt her conversations with moans about her bad luck. The world around us was alive, aware of those conversations that it received and returned and participated in through its hidden will in our daily life, without discrimination between an angel and the door of a saint’s tomb, between the hoopoe and the gates of old Cairo. Even the jinn mellowed to her magic words and this saved me from numerous dangers.”

Noticing his serious demeanor, I could not help but laugh. Surprised, he asked, “Why do you laugh?”

I said apologetically, “You are narrating a dream that you can now interpret and explain.”

He replied, “Do not think you know the world half as well as I know it.”

“Is that so?”

“I am a sea of knowledge and I say that without boasting.”

“But you do not differentiate between truth and fiction.”

He explained, “There is no ‘truth and fiction,’ but different kinds of truths that vary depending on the phases of life and the quality of the system that helps us become aware of them. Legends are truths like the truths of nature, mathematics, and history. Each one has its spiritual system. Let me give you an example. One day my mother took me to visit my father’s tomb, located in an open area among the tombs of the poor. She addressed him, saying, ‘Your wife and son greet you and ask God to have mercy on you, most beloved and generous person. I complain to you about my loneliness and my misery. Pray God for us, oh beloved.’ I then stuck my ear to the wall of the tomb and heard moaning and words that I repeated to my mother.

She told me, ‘You are blessed to the Day of Judgment.’”

“What did your father tell you?” I asked.

He replied, “You are not qualified to believe me and therefore I won’t tell you.”

I had a feeling he was covering up his playfulness with an appearance of harsh seriousness, or that he wanted to surround his legend with an appropriate atmosphere to satisfy his heart’s nostalgia. I mumbled, “For every learned man there is someone more learned than him.”

“Our world was alive, throbbing with desires, feelings, and dreams. It was a mixture of seriousness and joking, joy and sadness; and all—humans, jinn, animals, and inanimate objects—

equally shared in relationships of understanding.”

“But do you understand all that?” I asked.

“Completely, passionately, and doggedly.”

“Weren’t you overcome with fear?”

“Sometimes, but I soon acquired tools of defense and attack and became the master of the world. One evening I was playing with the lemons spread around the water jugs on the windowsill, when I suddenly saw the head of a being level with the window, looking at me from the street. His eyes were alight in the dark and his legs were planted in the ground. I was troubled and moved away, falling on my back. My scream ripped the silence of the night. I later learned that the encounter between a human and a jinn should not take place in this manner. My mother told me that it was high time I memorized the Samadiya. As for the jinn of our house, those that lived in the storeroom, they were inclined to joking and were incapable of any serious harm. They were in the habit of mixing cheese with honey or hiding the clarified butter for their own use. Sometimes they extinguished the light of the lamp carried by people at night. Their worst jokes, however, consisted of changing dreams into nightmares.”

“Can you give me an id ea about how they looked?” I asked.

“No, you are not predisposed to believe,” he said. “Moreover, the jinn disappear from a person’s life at the end of the time of the legend. He quickly forgets them and even denies their existence, though he encounters them daily in new images of human beings. In such situations they commit serious evil and cause great harm. You insist that the jinn are a mere superstition. On the other hand, I had the good luck of seeing the holy light on Laylat al-Qadr, the night of destiny, while sitting on my mother’s lap looking at the sky! A window opened and out of it came a bright light that dimmed the light of the stars.”

I laughed and told him, “It is said that only those who are destined for a life of happiness see the light on Laylat al-Qadr.”

He laughed as well. “Touché! You beat me this time, but only to an extent. It is true that I am the example of extreme wretchedness, but what counts is how all this will end. The end is still unknown and I might find the answer in paradise. I happen to have a long history with paradise. My mother used to talk to me about it as if she had been there. I fell deeply in love with it, my mind spellbound by its vision. It became my fascinating dream, the magical paradise where one could see, hear, and talk to God, a garden with rivers, music, and eternal youth.

“But let’s go back to my mother’s conversation and how she managed to live after my father’s death. I asked myself this question but could not answer it. We used to leave our house every day, visit the saints’ tombs and the shops, buy whatever we needed, and then return home, where my mother busied herself with housework, while I went to my earthly paradise, among the cats and the chickens. Sometimes our neighbor visited us. I did not have relatives and neither did my mother. To this day, I have not found out if she had money. She dressed in black after my father’s death and cried whenever she was alone. I often discovered her crying. And finally I understood the relationship between her crying and my father’s disappearance.

“‘Don’t you say that my father is in God’s hands?’ I asked her. She nodded approvingly. ‘Why do you cry then?’ I asked.

“‘I know it is wrong to cry, Jaafar, but tears flow despite myself.’

“This did not discourage me from pursuing my daily adventures. I would proceed joyfully, collecting eggs, chasing mice, and defying the jinn. My adventures lasted for a whole year after my father’s death, and then I became attracted to the stories told at the sound of the rabab in the coffeehouse located under my window. I listened to them with great interest, as much as I could understand them, and I saw fights break out between the supporters of the different heroes of the legends. From the same window I watched bullies fight in weddings, and my admiration for them equaled my admiration for the jinn. I dreamed long of becoming a bully in case I failed to become a jinn.”

“Have any of your childhood dreams been fulfilled?” I asked.

“Do not make fun of me, and be patient. I want to talk to you about love in the time of the legend.”

“But the time of the legend is not the time of love!”

“I experienced love at age six,” he said. “I liked to sit in the midst of girls during Ramadan nights. The only serious beating my mother gave me was because of love, when I had seduced a girl my age and took her to a wooden box and pulled down the cover. No sooner had I settled down than I was surprised by someone removing the cover. When I looked up, I saw my mother’s shocked look and felt her braid touch my face. By the way, it was a very long braid and I used to play with it whenever I could. I would undo it, tie it, and twist it like a rope. My mother was undoubtedly beautiful, and, as I have already told you, were it not for her beauty, the tragedy would not have happened in the first place.”

“Tell me about childhood love,” I said.

He laughed. “It seemed like an aimless pastime, but I do remember that it was filled with sharp reactions. It was almost like being drunk.”

“This is abnormal!”

“I am not a moralist, but I can assure you that sex was not an overpowering factor in my life. It played a decisive role during a specific time only. During my childhood, however, it contributed in its own limited way to the creation of the legend, but the legend received an unexpected and fatal blow. One day I woke up alone without my mother’s help, and I became aware of that when I saw her deeply asleep, lying face down. I was happy to have the opportunity to wake her up for the first time. I placed my mouth close to her ear and called her name a few times, but to no avail. She did not respond. I shook her gently, calling her at the same time. Gradually my voice rose and I shook her more strongly, but received no response. I went on stubbornly trying to wake her up, my voice filling the room. I was desperate, and ended up leaving the room. I took a pomegranate from a dish and went up on the roof. Peeling the fruit, I ate its amber seeds and gave the bitter part to the chickens.

“I saw our neighbor. We talked, and the conversation turned to my mother and the way I had left her in her room. The neighbor questioned me carefully and finally asked me to open the apartment door for her. She rushed to my mother’s room, bent down, and then struck her breast with her hand, shouting, ‘What a calamity! Oh Umm Jaafar!’ She came to me, lifted me, and held me against her chest. Then she took me to her house. Her behavior saddened and oppressed me, reminding me of similar behavior when my father had disappeared for good. I cried, saying, ‘I want my mother, I want my mother.’ I spent two miserable days in our neighbor’s house. They were the worst days in the time of the legend. At the end of the second day the neighbor calmed me down and said, ‘Do not worry, Jaafar, God is merciful and compassionate.’

“I said, desperate, ‘I understand, my mother went to be with my father.’

“Her eyes filled with tears and she whispered words of encouragement.

‘God is with you. He is the father and the mother. He is everything.’

“Her husband intervened, saying, ‘Something must be done, even if it means going to the government.’

“His wife replied, ‘Even a stone would feel sorry for him.’

“Days passed while I lived absentmindedly, lost in my thoughts, until the neighbor announced cheerfully, ‘Rejoice, my dear, God is merciful. You will be going to your grandfather.’

“I did not understand anything she said. I was hearing the word ‘grandfather’ for the first time.”

*

[1] Waqf (literally ‘stop’): An Islamic endowment, typically of property, land, or other assets, to be held in trust and used for a charitable or religious purpose.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Heat of the Night by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Aida Bamia. Used with permission of The American University Press. Copyright © 2020 by Aida Bamia.




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