By demand and inclination a translation of the excerpt by Hamdi Abu Golayyel linked to below from his forthcoming novel الشخص المعزوز في شوارع تولوز [The Person of Repute in the Streets of Toulouse]. This will be Abu Golayyel’s third novel after لصوص متقاعدون (Merit, 2002) [Thieves in Retirement] (translated by Marilyn Booth) and الفاعل (Merit, 2009) [A Dog with No Tail], which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature awarded by the American University in Cairo. Along with his many short stories, both these books deserve to be more widely read.
A note: the Abu Tahoun in the song is the local nickname for the village of Daniel
Today, I went to the country.
Maria took me in her Renault and away we went. We were late. We were supposed to be starting at daybreak, but we were late. We stayed up at a club till six, woke up at twelve and got going at three and of course the business was complicated by arguments on the living room sofa. We started in the kitchen and bickered till the bathroom.
Maria’s flat spreads out before me now, surrounds me. I can almost smell it. How wonderful if all-capable man could realize a dream such as this; if one could find oneself in the cherished place just by wishing it so.
The road was quick and crowded and to both sides, behind, in front and on the distant horizon, were green pastures. Instead of concentrating on them I laughed and our village—Daniel, Itsa district, Fayoum province—flooded back to me. I saw before me its canal, its houses, its general prospect and recited to Maria its national anthem:
“The sands of Abu Tahoun, the deserts by the hills,/ Hearts and souls of rock that scorn the impossible!”
The French Campaign came to my mind. Not the French Campaign itself, but the unfortunate young Frenchman who combed through our district in southern Fayoum and recorded everything it contained. I imagined the impact of arid desert wastes and unforgiving hunger on eyes accustomed to these green fields. They were Paradise, I said, gardens and vines; something dreadful must have driven him to us, to our deserts. But Maria cut me off, thwarting me, and embarked on a dull comparison. She loves the desert, she sees magic in it, beauty, fantasy and myth, sees it as the true home of verdure and at times almost screams, “There lies the green!” Driving home her point—or, shall we say, rebuke—she stated with genuine pride, “Paradise is Toulouse,” and added that, of course, Toulouse was not the same as France; that out there lie dry and lifeless wastes.
I almost told her that the problem wasn’t the colour green, but the colours that surrounded it, endless and oppressive, which make of foliage a precious fruit, paradises beneath which rivers run. But I stuck to water. Water, I said, is what counts: from it comes everything that lives. Unfortunately I later found out that what really matters is killing heat and revitalizing cold. It’s no coincidence that all hot countries are backward, or at least lag behind the cold ones.
We returned to the mountains, to the French countryside (or rather the Toulouse countryside, so as not to annoy Maria) and the sprawling forests (some of which, said Maria, were public and others private) separated by tracts of ploughed land exposed to the sun. She said they were set up for planting corn. I think it’s wheat that in a month or so will be sown in Egypt.
Red expanses, like patches over the green hills, and Maria’s Renault dipping and rising with exquisite gentleness.
At four we arrived in Cologne, fifty kilometres from Toulouse. The café and restaurant where we sat was the only one in the square and built like the arcades on Clot Bey Street in Cairo. Perhaps, like them, it dated back to the end of the nineteenth century. I almost asked Maria, but recalled her ignorance of modern history, of anything that did not intrude on her work or life. It was roofed with wood like the houses in our village used to be, vaulted with planks, though tin roofs have taken over now and by land and sea its young men have invaded Italy and France itself and brought back cutting-edge concrete buildings. The wood here is massive: the beams huge blocks, the planks as thick as the beams and the arches resting on the buttresses of red brick (Toulouse’s hallmark and eternal symbol) and on the beams themselves. No, they’re not beams exactly, but vast blocks like the immortal sleeper my grandfather plucked from the railway line during the 1919 revolution, for which he served three years and which holds our ceiling up to this day.
The majority of the houses in Cologne date back to the fourteenth century—so said Maria—and the oldest of them to the twelfth. The commonest design is of two stories with immense balconies rising out in front and the walls of the older homes are of stone held tight with wooden wedges which gives, or gave me, a powerful impression of the security, contentment and ease, but also the wariness and caution, of a strong, upstanding man. The beams of our house are small poles, like works of art compared to these chunks. We refer to our wooden beams as “ropes” for being so finely-turned and smooth, so straight from end to end, while these are no more evolved than natural branches and stumps. Yet in truth they are truly awe-inspiring and you feel as if they have been only just been put up: ancient and stripped for sure, but only just put up.
We ate the delicious French meal: grilled duck breast and lettuce salad. I tried it for the first time in the restaurant of the French Cultural Centre in Mounira and practically puked over the company the moment I touched the duck and blood welled out. I don’t know why they eat it like that. Maria excused it as the gory legacy of their Roman past: The Arabs eat with their hands, the Chinese with chopsticks while us, we prick and poke, we downright stab, with forks and knives.
But the duck in Cologne and Toulouse generally was different, thanks, of course, to Maria’s directions. Cook it good, she told them.
Duck breasts, seasoned and grilled over a low flame, were all the more delectable with drink and we talked of Jean-Claude. I know him well, but only at second-hand. Maria talks about him a lot, about his rejection and mockery of the revolution of 1968, his precocious horror of the miseries inflicted by the all-conquering totalitarian revolutionary regimes of the Soviet Union and China, how he stayed at home while his contemporaries were chanting “Mao Tse Tung” in the streets, then of his unalterable resolution to live out his life on his own. I visualized some powerful, satirical sage.
Maria said that he came from a nearby village, fifty kilometres further down the same road, where she had lived with him for five years of a relationship which had lasted ten. She said she was the only woman in his life, that she had got to know him during the student revolution, but that she had not loved him or lived with him until after her return from Egypt. She was in her early thirties and he the headmaster of a school where she had been appointed and where she still works now. They were together ten years then parted ways.
The fact is, they didn’t part but instead maintained a love purged of ulterior motives and destructive flaws. We two live a life of property, sex and jealousy, cheek by jowl in the same place, but that aside, Maria lives with Jean-Claude. Every day he waits beneath her building and they go to and from the school together and when I see him with her I sense that he harbours some kind of fatherly feeling for her: a maternal tenderness, even. And Maria loves talking about him. She would have kept on going if she hadn’t noticed the sun. Must return before sunset. Driving by night is tricky at the best of times so imagine if the driver’s Maria.
On the road I slept. Unfortunately, as soon as I drink and the fresh air hits me I fall fast asleep and how ashamed of myself I was when Maria told me, angry and disgusted, that I had slept and mocked that I’d let slip a moment the like of which the days might never grant again.