A dead man
An excerpt from the opening of Mohammed Rabie‘s second novel عام التنين (Kotob Khan, 2012) [Year of the Dragon]. Rabie’s first novel, كوكب عنبر (Kotob Khan, 2010) [Amber Planet] won first prize for the youth category in the 2011 Sawiris Awards. The excerpt misses out a small chapter between Tunnel and the letter.
Naeem opens the door himself. He’s the man of the house and no one opens the flat’s front door but him.
The man enters with great aplomb. Naeem’s son Waleed follows after. Waleed looks at the ground, shamming shyness and sadness, but after a few seconds this act is dropped completely: Waleed gazes groundward, thinking of nothing; his feigned sadness replaced by a genuine bewilderment. But the whole process shouldn’t take more than a few minutes and after that he must think what it is he will have to do.
The man sprawls expansively on the living room sofa, as though he is its sole occupant. Naeem sits next to him, gesturing in welcome. Naeem’s happy that he’s come, repeating phrases of welcome—wasn’t this Naeem’s idea in the first place?—while the man fidgets, wanting to get it over with.
The guest asks in whose name the certificate is to be issued. Naeem raises his hand in the guest’s face, indicates that the whole business is about him. The guest takes a single sheet of paper from his pocket. He begins to write. Seconds later he is done. He re-reads it, checks what he’s written, then asks Naeem his name. Waleed answers, giving his father’s full four-part name: Naeem Abdel Naeem Ahmad Abu Sabaa. He holds his father’s identity card and hands it to the guest. The guest checks the name then leaves it on the table. The guest transcribes Naeem’s name onto the sheet in a clear hand then signs. He raises the paper in Naeem’s direction and asks for his approval.
Everything’s ready now, the doctor says. He can complete the process with total confidence and peace of mind.
Calmly, Naeem reads the sheet of paper. He knows exactly what’s on it. No matter how unfamiliar the phrases written there, they all mean the same thing in the end. His son sits beside him and his daughters follow proceedings through a chink in the bedroom door. His wife’s within, seated on the bed. She’s instructed the six girls to give her the signal when the guest takes Naeem’s money. She stays in bed, planning for what will happen in a few moments time. She has no opinion about what’s taking place. Atyat has given up caring about anything and there’s no longer anything to prevent Naeem doing as he pleases. At last, she will be delivered from her cares at last and so shall Naeem; at last, the boy will shut up; the girls, all of them, will be on the best of footings. She is waiting for a signal from the girls, still waiting.
At first Naeem resists, but now the tears pour down his cheeks. The guest attempts to comfort him, but Naeem gives an unintelligible croak, which the guest interprets as a final croak of grief. He tries to divert Naeem from his woe, tells him that his task is now reduced to this: to getting the burial permits issued. Loads of people do this every day. As soon as someone hits sixty (sixty years on earth, not at his job) they do exactly as Naeem is doing: with pious, confident hearts, they ask him to issue certificates. Few weep in such circumstances. They do it of their own free will, with no pressure; they give thanks for their deliverance.
Naeem can’t keep quiet. He starts sobbing like a child. The man pats his shoulder, tells him that nothing’s changed: the one difference is that he is about to enter the realm of reward and punishment, those two most exacting of angels. Initially, Naeem doesn’t get his flippant tone; after a moment’s thought it strikes him that this flippancy is tantamount to blasphemy. For a beat he stares at the sardonic doctor and falls silent, because in that moment he hates him. Impatiently the doctor asks about the cash. The doctor’s hardened tone, a sign of boredom, makes Naeem hate him more. Naeem holds out his hand with the sum they’ve agreed on. He takes it then gets straight to his feet, heading for the door. Simultaneously, at a tiny signal from the girls, Atyat starts screaming and the girls start weeping.
In an instant, without a moment’s hesitation, as though they’d been waiting for the scream, the woman’s neighbours show up, wearing black and shedding heartfelt tears. Then they come into the bedroom. They heard the screams and knew Naeem was dead, God have mercy on his soul. They come in through the flat’s front door, greet Naeem then enter her room. God have mercy on his soul. God have mercy on his soul. At first Naeem responds to the women with a tilt of his head, but after the third or fourth he gets fed up and stops. Since the doctor declared him officially dead he’s been thinking before his every move: Should I do this, or should I do that? He hasn’t moved from his seat since the doctor left. Now, he is attempting to order his actions in his head. He is trying to imagine what will happen today.
After the woman come the men. Waleed stays in the living room with his father (God have mercy on his soul) welcoming the visitors. They shake his hand and squeeze his palm and he squeezes back to show his toughness, his staunchness, to signal his manliness, his new authority: he is the man of the house now.
Every minute brings someone else into the flat until the living room is completely full. When they see there’s no more space in the living room people start moving into the kitchen, standing around to await their release. Then they stack up on the stairs of the building. They start smoking. They make a terrible racket. They’re all waiting. Someone lifts a pot-lid in the kitchen, inquisitive and hungry, and despite the voices, murmurs and screams, Atyat hears the sound and quickly gets up, opens the bedroom door. Everyone looks at her. Then she turns to Naeem and addresses him, asking him to get moving.
Through force of habit he heads through the crowd for the kitchen and fills a glass with water. The water tastes unpleasant and he spits out what he’s drunk. These pre-departure rituals are meaningless: they were meaningless when Naeem was alive and they are certainly meaningless now. To Naeem, it seems as though he really is dead, that death has changed the taste of the water in his throat. Naeem moves towards the door, asking everyone to descend to the street. He spreads his arms as wide as they can go then, looking down, he starts to stir the air as though herding chickens. His actions provoke resentment in some of those present. He was a miser, God have mercy on his soul. But in the end they move off in silence. Naeem waits for a few minutes then comes down after them, down to the street.
He is walking unhurriedly now, ahead of the rest in his role as the dead. Atyat appears on the balcony, screaming heartbroken and longingly. She calls out to Naeem, hails him. She says nothing readily intelligible, just the usual clichéd phrases; meaningless in such circumstances. Her agitation grows and her screams swell louder with every sentence. She is on the verge of collapse. Atyat reaches a state of unusual incoherence and begins repeating her final sentence over and over again, hysterically, words none of those standing down below can understand at first, nor once they’ve been repeated.
Naeem walks calmly on, the cortege behind him. The bystanders don’t understand what’s going on but they join without thinking, walking a few paces then asking their neighbours what the procession’s for. They’re astonished. What about the deceased, they ask, the coffin? The procession starts to speed up. They scamper, as though they’ve had enough or they’re late for some mass appointment. Naeem falls back, keeping to his steady pace, and ends up in the main body of walkers.
A neighbour approaches and demands that he speed up and Naeem looks at him coldly, a mute eloquence that says: It’s my funeral and it’s up to me how fast it goes. The neighbour understands the look at once and starts explaining to Naeem that a flying casket is a mark of the deceased’s piety and that this sluggish pace carries other meanings. Naeem doesn’t understand what he means and starts pondering the word “casket”. There’s no casket in this procession, flying or crawling. Naeem ignores his neighbour and goes on, walking along as calmly as he set out. This he regards as the right thing to do; what he’s thought the right thing his whole life long. He will never scamper. A person walking in a funeral procession should be calm and dignified, he believes. The funeral is the final salute to the deceased. Naeem has never been able to see the connection between a coffin’s flying along and it’s occupant’s piety.
Suddenly, two men raise him aloft, then two more take him, then two by two they start passing him forward, all trying to convey Naeem to the head of the procession. As they bear Naeem along, the procession grows faster. Everyone joins in. Naeem suffers bruises and cuts from calloused palms and long nails. Someone fingers his arse, someone else fingers his arse, then the fingers rain down. This is what Naeem had been afraid of. They put it up him after he married Atyat, they put it up him many times while he lived (and not just with fingers) and today, when he’s dead, they’re putting it up him again. Having endured the pain, the poking fingers, the dizziness from being tossed about in mid air, he loses patience and kicks out at the crowd with his feet. He forces them to bring him back to earth. He pauses while he recovers his breath, watches the procession as it draws away. He watches the people heading off towards the mosque, a long way ahead of him.
They reach the mosque. They rush to remove their shoes and they go inside. Naeem arrives after the rest, furious at what has just happened to him. He’s made up his mind to prevent them putting on a repeat performance in the procession from the mosque to the graveyard. When the prayers are over he’ll take a taxi and leave them to walk to the graves.
Naeem enters the mosque carrying his shoes. He cheers himself up. These are the last prayers he’ll attend in this world, he thinks. The noon prayer has finished a few minutes ago. The Imam takes the microphone and in two short sentences reminds them of the funeral prayer. Naeem tries squeezing into the front row. He pushes people until he reaches the Imam. This is his prayer and he should be standing in the front row. The Imam notices him. He raises his forefinger, casting a stern look at Naeem, then points unwaveringly to the exit. Naeem is ejected from the mosque.
Naeem doesn’t understand what’s going on. The people around the Imam don’t understand his agitated gestures. They look helplessly at the Imam. No one wants to break the sacred silence. The Imam loses patience with their stupidity, approaches the closest person to him and whispers in his ear. Comprehension and concurrence appear on the man’s face. The man walks up to Naeem, takes his arm and calmly escorts him outside the mosque. At last Naeem understands: the Imam will not permit a man to say a prayer over himself. He comes outside, then puts on his shoes and stands waiting for the prayers to finish. Utterly frustrated, he finally understands that people have begun to treat him as a dead man, even before the burial.
Naeem senses people moving behind him. He turns to find them slipping on their shoes. They’ll notice him any minute now. He sprints to the street to get away from them then raises his hand to stop a taxi. He jumps in quickly. Naeem looks smugly out at them standing there, dumbstruck at his behaviour. He pokes his middle finger from the taxi’s window: returning the compliment.
With perfect elegance and a comprehensive knowledge of interpersonal etiquette, the taxi driver refuses to accept the fare from Naeem. He swears terrible oaths in God’s name: he shall not take it and that is that. For his part, Naeem also feels that he is under no obligation to pay the fare. If people have begun treating him as a dead man, then he’ll start treating them like a dead man would. But something in the driver’s determined refusal provokes him. This counter-intuitive insistence insults him, angers him: anger piled on anger, shit on shit. Naeem chucks the banknote into the cab and passes into the graveyard. He walks rapidly until he reaches the family plot. Twitchy and upset he stands waiting for the others. He puts his hand into his trouser pocket.
The gravekeeper approaches Naeem, trying to work out why he’s here. Today isn’t a day for visits. Visits to the tombs usually take place on public holidays. People remember their dead in times of joy. Furthermore it is the burial hour, so the gravekeeper assumes that Naeem is the first of the burial party, that the coffin will be along shortly. The gravekeeper asks Naeem about the deceased’s family, about the deceased’s name; asks him to produce the burial permit. Naeem looks at him, searching for stupidity in the man’s eyes, and almost says, What’s got to do with you? The gravekeeper keeps on talking, explaining that opening the grave will take a while and that he needs to know which grave they want so he can start the process and prepare it for the deceased. The burial permit is the key, he says. Without it, the gravekeeper will never open the grave. The permit’s more important than the deceased.
Naeem let’s his irritation show: here he is, a dead man, with a doctor’s certificate, a clutch of mourners and the family, yet one man won’t recognize him and waits for a piece of paper from the health registry in order to bury him. A piece of paper, signed by a civil servant or two, stamped with the famed eagle. The paper chases after him, in life and in death. Naeem is confident: Waleed is about to arrive from the heath registry with the stamped permit.
Someone approaches Naeem, standing there alone amidst the graves. The man wears a tattered old gown. His beard is patchy, unkempt, ugly. Mechanically, the man sits down and rests against the nearest grave. He holds his right palm against his temple and begins to recite. His voice is ringing, guttural: the faint croak favoured by fans of the art: By the soul and He who set it in order, and inspired it awareness of wrong and right; He who purifies it, succeeds and he who corrupts it, fails… Naeem quivers at the man’s pronunciation. Is that Hindi? Doesn’t he know Arabic? A donkey with a dictionary, is it? This thing graduated from Al-Azhar? This thing graduated? Your peasant voice is fit for warbling about fruit and veg but it won’t do for the Quran. Naeem is on the point of screaming in the man’s face to correct his mistakes, but shame prevents him. Shame and the apathy that has a hold on everyone these days. But the greatest deterrent to Naeem is the fuzzy light encircling the man like a halo. The light stops Naeem setting him straight. Naeem regrets the criticism and scorn he’d directed at the man in his mind. At this blessed moment, a few minutes before his own burial, as the fellow recites the Quran over his suspended soul and muffs the pronunciation, Naeem realizes that doing things right is the exception to the rule.
The gravedigger’s finished digging: a vertical shaft two metres deep or more, then a short tunnel beneath the plot into the burial chamber. The gravedigger returns to the surface. He stands next to Naeem.
The mourners wait around. None of them know what they’re supposed to do now. Half an hour goes by and they all stand there, motionless, silent, everyone waiting for everyone. They waiting for someone to speak and show them what to do. Everyone waits for one man to move, for one man to come and solve the problem.
At last, someone motions to the gravekeeper and gravedigger to fill the hole in. They both look at him stony-faced. The gravekeeper shakes his head, exhibiting incomprehension. He says, Where’s the deceased? Open the coffin, and turns his head to scan the bystanders, looking for the coffin, the coffin that hasn’t made an appearance yet today. Someone calmly informs him that there’s no need for the burial, that he must fill in the hole and that’s an end of it. It looks to everyone like the gravekeeper is going to ruin everything.
Waleed explains the situation to the gravekeeper. He points to his father and tells him that the deceased is standing in front of him. There he is, alive; there’s no need to bury him. Once the grave’s been closed up, it’ll all be over. There’s no need for all this noise, no need for objections and endless talking. On his side, and as a man who respects his profession, the gravekeeper insists on the burial. He looks at the undertaker and asks him if the corpse was washed and wrapped in the graveclothes. The undertaker shakes his head, dumbfounded by what’s taking place around him. The gravekeeper insists on completing the procedure in the correct manner. He asks for soap, a scrubber, a bottle of cologne and linen. With finality, he says: We’ll wash him and wrap him then we’ll bury him.
In illegal dealings such as these people rely on the element of surprise. If that approach fails then pressure must be gradually applied until the thing is brought off. The shock felt by the gravekeeper when he heard Waleed’s words has led to his absolute rejection of what’s happening. Hope hangs on pressure from those around him, the pressure which will slowly bring him round. Lots of people start talking in an effort to persuade him. They speak logically and reasonably. The lawyer explains the relevant articles of the law and points with his forefinger: here’s a loophole. Then he points in the other direction: and here’s another loophole. See how many holes there are, brother? Each one dips his bucket; each one does what he does best. A single rule governs this illegal operation: so long as it stays secret it’s still on. But this time, the gravekeeper’s insistence on completing the burial comes as a surprise to everybody.
The undertaker brings the graveclothes, the soap and a kettle full of water, then a metal basin for washing corpses is produced. It’s all laid out in front of Naeem, while everyone stands there, watching to see what will happen. Naeem looks around as if to say, Are you crazy? Instantly, everyone starts trying to coax him round. The washing will only take a few minutes and then it’ll be done; like you never took your clothes off. They’ve given up hope of prevailing on the stronger party and start trying to impose their will on the weak. Things must go on. In Egypt, things cannot stop, they must go on: even if we do someone an injustice, even if we squander cash and bodies like fools.
At last Naeem gives in and the memory surfaces beside him: on his right hand side (as always) a square metre of the earth’s surface rises up. This time, Naeem feels the memory as an independent entity, enjoying what it’s seeing. An entity that’s pleased at what will befall Naeem in the minutes ahead.
Naeem takes off his clothes. He lies in the metal basin. Three of those around him remove their shoes so they don’t get dirty and begin to pour the water over him, while he just shields his crotch with his hands. After his body has been covered with soapsuds and his skin scrubbed, Naeem gets out of the basin bare naked. He wraps himself in the graveclothes, leaving only his nose, mouth and eyes showing. Now, he looks like a ghost, or a woman wearing a white gown.
Naeem looks about him, pleading for help. He can’t utter a word. He can’t say a thing, whether he wants to or not. He gestures with his hand as if drinking. Immediately, one of the bystanders hands him a jug to drink from, but the water is bitter. It’s full of sand and dust. Naeem spits out what he’s drunk.
The gravekeeper carries him and takes him to the shaft, but Naeem will not have anyone put him in it. He signals that he’ll enter the shaft himself. He will crawl along the tunnel unassisted. At last, and without any help from gravekeeper, Naeem descends into the shaft. His body, legs and shoulders grate against its sides. Its rough walls threaten to lacerate his body, but he insists on seeing it through to the end. With some effort he reaches the bottom of the main shaft. He doubles up and crawls along the horizontal tunnel, slowly making his way towards the tattered dead. These are his people: father, grandfather, grandmother. At last, Naeem settles amidst the bones. On edge, afraid, his eyes contend with the surrounding darkness, searching for a light that shines, that comes from above. But everything is silent, and still.
So many years, now. I’ve been sending you these letters for how long: twenty? Have we done twenty years? Or is it twenty-five? I don’t remember!
We’ve travelled together from the age of coded letters to coded phone calls then to the fax (so secure and convenient) then on to the Internet and its tricks. We’ve come great distances, Salah.
All this time I’ve never asked you for a single thing: no personal favour, no intercession, no promotion, not even a raise. Nor have I requested any information. And I’ve held to our agreement: I’ve sent you nothing but my personal opinion, based on what I’ve seen, my experience and my reading of people around me. I made no objection when you chose to ignore certain of my suggestions. Naturally, I never expected to adopt them all, nor did I expect that all of what I had to say would suit you.
But forgive me: this time I shall be asking one silly little favour.
I want the name of the donkey who wrote the president’s last speech.
However powerful he is, however many important offices he might hold, he’s a donkey and these offices of his, of which I’m sure he’s proud, can only be his by mistake. I can’t believe your system lets idiots like him occupy sensitive posts, and shame on your system for letting him write the president’s speeches.
Who told him that people want to hear Mubarak talking about melons? I couldn’t believe my ears. The melon, my dear man, is associated in people’s minds with the balding, ground-down government clerk who comes home from work carrying a newspaper and a melon; returning home in the heat of summer, sweat covering him, carrying a melon on one arm and a newspaper wedged in his armpit. He calls out to the missus to put the melon in the cooler while he takes a little rest from the street’s heat then, before it gets cold through, he takes it out of his Ideal refrigerator and cuts it up randomly (stealing as he slices a small piece which he swallows down in a rush) in order to devour half of it after he’s eaten his lunch. And in the evening he tells his friends sitting in the coffee shop about the melon he ate after his meal. It might be rosy-pink, a “baldie” like his head, or full of water, or tasteless, just like him. And then the fellow will fall silent, because in the eyes of his wife he’s a man who doesn’t know how to pick a sweet melon and therefore he’s a simpleton, a man who doesn’t know the inner workings of things. So he shuts right up in front of his friends, because if he spoke about his bald melon he’d become an object of mockery. The melon is a symbol of all that’s mysterious and random and ridiculous.
My dear Salah, we agreed some time ago it was very important that Mubarak not appear in his summer suit and, God be praised, we haven’t seen him in it since. I worry that he might start wearing it again now he’s got all these donkeys around him, writing speeches about melons and other foolishness.
The biggest disaster, Salah, (I almost wept during the speech) was that the president was speaking after opening a new carpet factory. Do we really need to be opening more state-owned Egyptian factories, Salah? And worst of all: it’s a carpet factory! Why is Mubarak talking about the July revolution, about the workers, about Egyptian machinery? Why all this socialist stuff? People have forgotten those days. Abdel Nasser erected factories in order to provide people with jobs, nothing more. He didn’t build them to produce a product or set up an industry. They were spending millions just so he could mention the word “workers” in his speech, just so he could put a tick next to employment, so he could declare to everybody that the Egyptian would find work when he finished his education. A socialist state, Salah, or that’s how they wanted it to look: socialist.
Then the world moved on and the chance at industrialization slipped from our hands into the hands of the Asians. History has shown that we don’t understand the meaning of the word industry. We’re a nation of brokers, of middlemen, midway between buying and selling and industrialization and anything else you can think of, but we’ll never be an industrial nation. Egyptians lack the skills. More important than that, my dear chap, is that most Egyptians have turned their backs on that whole period, on the working class, socialist Sixties. Are you going to remind them of it now? Are you going to reopen the wound of socialism, of the Setback and the wars? Abdel Nasser was a genius because he was able to exploit the revolutions and independence struggles taking place all around him, and he applied it all to Egypt. But things are utterly different these days.
Didn’t we say that Mubarak’s era would be one of stability? That any link between it and past periods of dynamism and disquiet was counter-propaganda? Salah, I want the name of the donkey who wrote the speech.
And what’s all this stuff about factories, anyway? Brother, enough with the factories. Give Mubarak a break; he’s as old as your father. The man’s feet are worn to stumps from all the factories he opens each year. Build as many factories as you like, but don’t plaster the man’s face on them. Egyptian factories are destined to fail. The Egyptian worker’s a faggot by nature, the Egyptian architect’s a thief, the Egyptian manager fools around with the secretary: the factory is bound to fail. The workers will demand higher wages and will work less; the architects will devise labyrinthine frauds and, of course, will keep quiet when the workers rise up (their unspoken motto always: We do us we’re told, preserve us if you please); and the managers will see the workers’ revolution as a sign that they need to replace the secretary.
I repeat: we are a nation of middlemen.
I’m asking you now: What will happen when the workers go on strike and the factory fails, when the fraud and the fevered kisses come to light? Will people make the connection between the factory and the president? Of course they will. They’ll remember the president clutching a pair of flannel pyjamas and chuckling. They’ll remember him quizzing so-and-so and whatshisname about the jobs they do in the factory. They’ll remember him asking the lady with the swollen belly about her pregnancy. They’ll remember the pictures of him opening a factory a day in Egypt.
Fine, brother. Let him talk about melons. Let him open a factory. Let him talk about workers. But opening a factory and talking about melons and workers in a speech at the opening: that’s really pushing it, Salah. If President Mubarak loses half his support, you’ll be to blame.
The plan has to change. The focus must shift. President Mubarak is no longer the simple citizen who rose from ranks to lead the nation. We used to put that image out, but things are different now. The referendum on the president’s fifth term is fast approaching and who knows, maybe there’ll be developments: multi-candidate elections to choose the president. For the first time in their long history, Egyptians could choose a president to rule them. The time has come to change the president’s image.
President Mubarak is the only man capable of steering the ship of state: the only skilled skipper we have. He does what he does because he’s the only one with the experience to do it, the experience that makes him hang on to his position as leader. You understand me, of course. This new image must be put out there: the image of the expert. Everyone should be asking: Who’s the right man for president, instead of Mubarak? And the answer should always be: No one. No other human being is capable of taking Mubarak’s place.