Pissing over the Imam’s head

by qisasukhra

An excerpt from Khairi Shalabi‘s discursive historical and anecdotal tour of the streets of Cairo بطن البقرة (My edition is the Dar Merit 3rd printing from 2009; they first published it in 2007) [The Cow’s Belly]. I’ve included the book’s dedication to give a better idea of what it’s about and put links (Wikipedia) in the text for those interested in the characters mentioned.

Dedication

To my cousin, the late Sheikh Ali Mohammed Okasha…

I rummaged through his library as a young schoolboy and got my hands on the first volume of Al Maqrizi’s Plans. I fell in love with it. It was without cover or title so I gave it a title of my own, inspired by its subject matter—The History of Houses and Streets—and I believe that the spontaneity of feeling embodied in that title still governs my view of this unique science: the study of street-plans; the history of place.

Khairi Shalabi

**********

 

Pissing over the Imam’s head

In our tour of the Khedive’s family tombs we have neglected to mention a grave tacked on to the royal cemetery’s gardens, with their suggestion of a fine mansion or theatrical backdrop. It is clear that the guest was not formally invited into the royal garden by, but rather that time has played its tricks, even here among the graves.

From the moment the Khedival family passed out of existence the burial site’s garden lost its majesty and glamour. Desiccation and neglect crept in and it was taken over by the rabble in the form of the grave-keepers’ offspring. They cut down the majority of its rare trees, destroyed its walls and the burial ground of kings became mixed up with the un-regal grave of a commoner. He was one of Egypt’s great men, it is true, but greatness should not suffice to penetrate the royal palisades.

This is the resting place of the eminent theoretical physicist, Dr. Ali Moustafa.

***

Mindful of the class distinctions that pursue man even in death, we may, having exited the last gateway to this religious foundation in Qaitbey, turn right along a crooked passage between scattered groups of gravestones without enclosures of their own. The passage leads to a broad street that goes by the name of Al Imam Mohammed Abdo Street, which branches off Salah Salem and runs down to Qaitbey Square. This street boasts a group of burial enclosures of antique design and is punctuated by numerous intersections.

We stop at the first intersection we encounter heading up to Salah Salem. It appears that under the monarchy this square patch of ground was distributed among a group of senior police officials, as most of the enclosures bear ranks like Liwa, Qa’imqam, Amirlay and so on. An ugly, tumbledown wall separates them from the street. It has been repaired many times with a clumsy capriciousness that suggests those responsible had not the slightest link to the building trade. In the middle of the wall is a rusted door sunk in the ground and next to this a window, shuttered but perforated with holes.

Heaps of rubbish spill down revoltingly. Passers-by love to piss nowhere better than onto this window. The reek of sour sweat constantly assaults you. It is tumultuous, unbearable, and always and forever, there is someone standing there pissing on the window.

One day I was passing down this street when I saw a young man, ruddy-faced as a foreigner, shrilly quarrelling with some passers-by. He was exceedingly worked up, on the verge of coming to blows, so I intervened to break up the fight.

To my surprise, I found myself in the presence of a youth possessed of a degree of awareness and culture, even though he introduced himself as the grave-keeper responsible for the entire intersection. His name was Eid Bakheit. He had inherited the job from his father and was so devoted to his calling that he had stopped studying in order to dedicate all his time to its pursuit.

The cause of his agitation was despair at the lack of manners and tastelessness that led people to urinate on the graves. When he learnt that I worked in newspapers his face lit up and he cried out for me to help him with this enclosure in particular, then led me to the aforementioned window and pointed inside. I looked and saw three fine marble gravestones drowning in a sea of sewage.

“Like that, do you?” he asked.

Of course I didn’t, I replied.

With genuine anguish he said, “This tomb belongs to a man who was once the Hikimdar: the chief of police in Cairo. He sleeps beneath this gravestone with some of his siblings and under the next stone lies his wife.”

“Cheer up,” I said. “That’s time at work: the wheel of fortune! This hikimdar must have treated people harshly when he was alive, and time’s wheel has punished him with this miserable fate.”

But young Eid Bakheit did not smile. His misery only increased and he cried:

“It’s not just the chief of police I’m sad for, it’s the Imam, as well!”

I was confused.

“What Imam?”

He spoke as though weeping: “Imam Mohammed Abdo.”

“What’s Mohammed Abdo got to do with it?”

“Because he’s buried on this same plot,” he said sorrowfully.

I was astonished.

“What do you mean, man?”

He said, “Could you wait here just a minute,” and dashed off towards his immaculate house in an alley facing the enclosure. He vanished for a little while then returned carrying a key and some documents, which he handed to me.

“These are the full set of burial papers. Careful they don’t fall apart in your hands. Old age and damp have weakened them.”

I leafed through them with a trembling hand: certified copies of the death certificate, the burial licence and the deeds to the plot.

“The hikimdar, God have mercy on his soul, was a friend to Mohammed Abdo when he lived. The Imam died suddenly, without a grave of his own. As you know, Mohammed Abdo wasn’t wealthy, so the hikimdar took pity on him and buried him in his own tomb as an act of charity. As much as I’ve applauded the gallant police chief, I’m angry at him for insisting on recording that word in this document. Look here: …as an act of charity. He almost dishonours the Imam’s corpse by making his kindness official.”

Then he opened the door and we stepped down to the floor of the courtyard, to find ourselves in a flooded space with nothing in it but the shut-up burial chamber and an ancient tree a distant corner, beneath which stood a deeply humble gravestone, like a small block of cement.

He opened the burial chamber to reveal the three fine gravestones, which had been brightly coloured in days gone by, swaying and trembling in a sea of rank blue water. We balanced ourselves on a cluster of rocks and stepped forward until we reached the largest gravestone in order to read the carved inscription: Here lies Imam Mohammed Abdo. Above this was another legend, bearing the name of the tomb’s owner, the date of his death and the post he occupied in life.

We left the chamber with our robes hitched up. He pointed towards the old tree in the corner and said,

“I planted that tree to give the sheikh some shade.”

“The sheikh?” I asked.

Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Rida.”

“As well!?”

“Yes!” he said. “Does the pupil stray from his sheikh? Sheikh Rida gave instructions that he was to be buried alongside his sheikh, regardless of where he lay. If he couldn’t be in the same tomb, then at least in the one next door. My father, God have mercy on him, told me about the day he was buried, when he brought the body here and stayed out in the sun for simply ages, waiting for the owners of the courtyard to arrive, the hikimdar’s children and family. They turned up and absolutely refused to open the burial chamber, but after holding negotiations with some public-spirited citizens, they agreed to dig him a private grave in this corner here. So they dug the grave and my father prepared it beautifully and then I planted this tree when I was a schoolboy, after I found out who Mohammed Rashid Rida was.”

I read the marble plaque on Sheikh Rida’s grave.

“What is it you want help with?” I asked Eid Bakheit.

“Write something in the newspaper calling on the government to rebuild the enclosure and clean up these horrors. Doesn’t the Imam deserve that we take care of his resting place? Is it right that we’re pissing on his corpse in dark days like these? The wall’s fallen down many times and I’ve repaired it at my own expense but I never see any of the tomb’s owners and it looks like they’ve given it up in favour of a new one somewhere else.”

I promised him I would and a few years back did indeed write an article for the Radio and Television magazine, in which I explained the problem and called on the state to intervene. But whose state? The one to whom you call is lifeless, as they say.

The years passed until one night I was taken aback to find Eid Bakheit storming into the coffee shop, saying, “Help me!”

I hoped all was well.

“The tomb’s owners are putting it up for sale. One of their relatives, a guy who’s got rich under Sadat’s economic policies, wants to build a tower block on top of it with a shirt and sock factory on the ground floor.”

The very next day I wrote a new piece calling for the tombs of Mohammed Abdo and Sheikh Rida to be saved but, as per usual, the ones to whom I called were lifeless: the age of responsible governments and a free people was over. And yet, that beautiful young Egyptian managed, by dint of his own efforts—sometimes employing direct threats, sometimes bringing cases to court—to frighten the potential buyer a little, giving him to understand that though the government might shilly-shally in the short term, it would never, when push came to shove, permit the destruction of the burial place of Imam Mohamed Abdo and Sheikh Rida.

The important thing is that the building project faded away but God alone knows what painful future fate has in store for the bodies of that great teacher and his faithful pupil.

***

Yet the one who weaves our Fate is a genial soul, often witty even when his jokes are hardest to take.

I was sitting as usual in my favourite coffee shop when my dear friend Abdo Gabeer came by accompanied by an extremely refined and sweet-tempered woman possessed of considerable beauty, whom he introduced as his wife. He said that he had been showing her some of Cairo’s historical monuments in out-of-the-way neighbourhoods like my own. She was an artist, he said, and Egyptian, but her family lived in America and Lebanon.

We sat and swapped talk about art and politics and worldly affairs. When I found out his wife’s name was Fouzia Rida I immediately shouted,

“Are you related in any way to Sheikh Muhammed Rashid Rida?”

She flushed and her face glowed with pleasure.

“He’s my grandfather!” she said with pride.

I found myself choking back a bitter grief and despite myself, managed to say:

“So do you know where your grandfather’s grave is?”
She sat bolt upright, entranced, and instantly burst into tears: “I’m very sorry to say I don’t.”

“Would you like to see it?”

We rose and went to the courtyard. I called out Eid Bakheit and introduced him to Fouzia. He was overjoyed to meet her and took her to see her grandfather’s tomb. The shock almost killed her but showing great generosity she gave to Eid Barakat everything she could spare to ensure he took care of her beloved relative’s grave, and took to visiting him from time to time. All her generosity managed to accomplish was to brick up that awful window.

It seems she found her family had little interest in the grave’s fate.

 

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