An excerpt from Muhamed Abdel Nabi’s very beautiful, moving and clever debut novel رجوع الشيخ (Rawafid, 2012) [The Return of the Sheikh], which was longlisted for the 2013 IPAF. Muhamed has three short story collections to his name, وردة للخونة (General Authority for Cultural Palaces, 2003) [A Rose for the Traitors], شبح أنطون تشيخوف (First Edition: Dar Fikra, 2008; Second Edition: General Egyptian Book Organization, 2012) [The Ghost of Anton Chekhov], which won the 2010 Sawiris Award for short stories by a young writer–with the title story translated here by Anna Swank–and most recently, كما يذهب السيل بقرية نائمة (Merit, 2013) [As the Flood Sweeps Away a Sleeping Village]. Meanwhile, بعد أن يخرج الأمير للصيد (Merit, 2007) [After the Prince Goes Out to Hunt], is a set of seven separate but interrelated texts. And then as if all that isn’t enough he’s a prolific translator from English to Arabic.
One of my father’s colleagues at the school must have urged him to hand me over to Captain Talat, and whoever that anonymous tipster was, I am in his debt. Captain Talat was not only the Al Sahel Youth Club’s football coach, he was also, in word and deed, an uncle to these same young men and as far as status went his word trumped that of those higher up the pecking order.
Behind my back my father informed him that should my addiction to self-abuse continue I was in danger of losing my mind and sight, and that his colleague—i.e. my father’s: Captain Talat later told me his name, which I then forgot, as usual—had suggested sport, to release the energy pent-up in the boy’s seething body that it might fall still and settle.
I took against Captain Talat from the moment I first set eyes on him, from the first day of the summer holiday that I spent in his company on the pitch. He was short and compact, running to plump, and never stopped talking even when trotting about by himself—and always swearing and cursing in the foulest terms, the lowest phrases. It strikes me now that his abuse of us and everyone else was a talent, that he was virtuoso in picking the choice word and the tone to carry it: “What’s up faggot? Itching for a fuck?” – “Now, now ducky, want me to call Mummy for you?” In short, he terrified me. He was the equal of any Shubra-born boy when it came to taking care of his appearance, to growing out his hair and sideburns Beatles-style, to wearing trousers that were wide below and so tight at the waist you couldn’t breathe and the garish striped shirts. And he was their equal in other things, like competing to eat the largest possible quantity of hot sauce-saturated koshari—with the loser footing the bill, of course… and Talat never lost. All this I learnt after the first few foolish days had passed, after I’d hated and despised him and cursed his forebears hundreds of times. I further discovered that as a young man he had been signed with Zamalek football club and that he’d left the club, also as a young man, following a mysterious injury. No one knew where or how this injury had occurred: a fight at a nightclub involving a dancer and a group of rich kids, on the pitch itself, or when the bus he was riding on a visit to his mother in Mahalla Al Kubra overturned. He himself gave a number of versions; the sole certainty in all of this was the picture of him in his Zamalek kit surrounded by teammates before the start of some ancient, obscure match.
His footballing future was over almost before it had begun and this extraordinary, unpretentious man did not give in or despair—he wasn’t the type (i.e. my type, Emad’s type, Kamal Abdel Jawad’s type, or that of numerous others like us real and fictional alike). Armed with the credentials of his modest vocational education he soldiered on until he was appointed coach at the youth club on the recommendation of an influential acquaintance from the sporting world. And it was on the strength of this determination, his old and somewhat dubious connections and a streak of mental instability evident to the dullest mind that he proceeded to extend himself at the youth club and poke his nose into everything.
His relationship with us—the young cubs, as he called us—was paradoxical and fraught, shot through with equal measures of veneration and mockery . No sooner was he gone than everyone would compete to make fun at him, to ridicule the way he walked and talked and echo his notorious watchword, “Ugh!” which he’d spit out twenty times a minute and use to give expression to a wide spectrum of thoughts and feelings: when one of us played badly, when he saw a pretty woman, when the laces of his Bata football boots came undone.
As far as I was concerned the youth club was a place quite unlike any I’d known before. I would go there alone with my uninspiringly paltry pocket money, after school in term time and early in the morning during the holidays. I liked football, but wasn’t so good at it that it was in my blood, and dabbled in gymnastics; sometimes I’d even stop by the weights room and other rooms besides—without any of this having the slightest impact on my desire to masturbate, quite the opposite in fact. No sooner had I eaten supper than I’d flop down on the bed and wake a few hours later with an aching, burning hard-on importuning me to do my duty and which, between sleep and wakefulness, amid fantasies (I marvel now at how readily and constantly my mind supplied them), I would dispose of then I either slept on or, fully alert, took a shower and cradled a book in bed till daybreak. Looking back at this period now I see with astonishment that contrary to what some claim, happiness is a simple business and quite attainable, with its foundations in dumb repetition, not a delusion or a sham peddled to us by cannibals… and that I myself had sampled it and had not realized at the time. Quite simply, I see that life has never denied me anything, not even a second father, one who casts no blood-red glare across my existence: a father we could open up to, could invite to lunch, to mincemeat sandwiches, liver, even kebab and kofta if we could scrape enough together—and solely so we could draw close to him, the spiritual guide whose powers extended beyond the youth club to more distant horizons that bewitched us and set our mouths watering, like houses of secret delights and hash dens.
God have mercy on your soul, Captain Talat, for without you I might still be a silly adolescent, even now, approaching sixty.
Mona asked me (and how much she asks! her and that other one, young Ragaei) about my first full sexual experience and how it went. I successfully covered my confusion and acted as though this were a perfectly normal question. Answering with a frown and a wandering eye, as though struggling and failing to remember, I said that she had been a prostitute and I’d been in my last year of secondary school. That I’d been led to her room by an older man, who had adopted me and some friends from Shubra, a man called Captain Talat, a very great man who had died laughing at a joke he himself had told during a session smoking hash.
Later, on my own, I went back over this and realized that it was wrong. It definitely hadn’t been my first experience. My first experience had been that extraordinary woman in the snug little house in Deir Al Mallak, before Captain Talat had ever opened our eyes to those sealed and unmapped trails.
That night I’d stayed up till dawn with a delightful novel, as was my wont back then, whether Crime and Punishment or War and Peace I can’t now recall; what’s certain is that the title was two words sitting either side of “and”. The end of primary school or the start of secondary? No way to be sure and no wonder that I’d forgotten about this woman when ambushed by Mona’s question. They say that the first time’s never forgotten. I’m not convinced. Whatever I retain of this precocious experience can’t be relied on: fragments, snippets, faded scenes swirled in a thick fog. Memory, in the end, is worse than useless: always conspiring against us, deluding us that behind all this great confusion sits a self that’s tangible and true. Ah well! I finished the novel as the dawn prayer sounded, but drowsiness would not come and I stayed awake. I had a cup of tea, took a shower and decided to go out, to wander over to the ancient library in Deir Al Mallak. Instead of sleeping past noon as I usually did in the summer holidays, I’d go and swap this novel for a new one then return exhausted and go straight to bed.
Just how I, a Shubra boy, knew the location of this public library in Deir Al Mallak is something else that forgetting has fallen over like a veil. What’s not in doubt was my permanent hunger for reading and for books; snuffling out their scent from leagues away, like a police dog.
The library was housed inside an old palace that dated back to the days of the monarchy when the neighbourhood had been home to the titled rich. The palace itself was like something out of a ghost story, riddled with passages and stairways and hidden crannies and no hand had ever reached out to care for it or restore it: spiders nested in its nooks and wove their frail homes, the shelves were coated with a permanent layer of dust, and as for the books, every one of them elegantly bound in leather with gold-tooled titles on their spines, their yellowed pages would almost crumble away as I leafed through them. It enchanted me and frightened me. By the time the library vanished—a Delphic decree from the government—I had got through most of the classics, the works of Al Aqqad, Al Hakim, Mahfouz, Haqqi and more, not to mention tomes about which I no longer remember a thing on religion, history and the countries that I dreamed of travelling to one day.
I can still smell the dust and damp that hovered in the library-palace’s halls and my mind’s eye still sees the watchful, perhaps accusing, expressions of its female employees. They were all of a single type reduplicated: rough hair gathered any-old-how with black clips, high-set brows, lipstick unevenly applied, and forever absorbed in their needlework. I must have asked myself a hundred times what they did with all the scarves and coats and socks they worked on so devotedly all day. Despite these baleful witches, despite the dust and damp and the sinister atmosphere of the small palace’s hallways and chambers, my Paradise—should God deign to fashion us each a Paradise to be his alone—would be of all things closest to this place, a thought inspired by Borges: an endless library, a palace of paper, a castle of words with no beginning and no end.
One of these brutish custodians received me and it appeared that she was irritated by my showing up at such an early hour: not all of them were there yet, let alone had had their tea. Behind the lenses of her thick spectacles, her eyes seemed exceptionally bulbous, excessively so, and with unmistakeable froideur she said, “Too early, my dear. We don’t start lending for another hour or so.”
I’d no money on me. My father was clear about such things. If you want cash, he said, go and work, but I’m not buying your smokes and silly, godless books. Did he know about the smoking back then? Had he stopped beating me?
The point is that sitting at some nearby café was out of the question, a habit that in any case I hadn’t yet acquired, even with money. If I went home I would immediately fall asleep, the errand would be a washout and I wouldn’t get my hands on a new novel with which to pass the nights ahead—or that coming night, at least. I’ll just stroll around for an hour or two, I told myself. I’ll explore the neighbourhood then back to the black widows in the library.
Immediately beyond the library in Toraat Al Jabal Street I noticed a narrow passageway, to the right of which hung a faded sign: “Church of the Brethren Alley”. The church itself was impossible to miss, its stone wall running along to my right and its bell tower visible in the near distance. Down the passageway I went and was delivered into a broad, sunlit square which I crossed, passing a café, a milk-seller and a few other shops just opening up and sprinkling water outside their doors. The prospect pleased, the day’s unsullied freshness revived me and the dullness of my head after a night awake made me feel that I was dreaming. Here and there I rambled as though hypnotised, the sights and sounds of this new morning rising up at me like visions. From alley to alley I went, from one street to another, until I became aware that the time had come to return to the library. But how to get back? I tried retracing the way I’d come but it slipped through my hands as though it had never existed. The streets ran together, looked all alike, and however far I walked and plunged headlong through the neighbourhood in the direction that should lead me the main road, I only strayed further and my complete inability to exit the maze without asking a passer-by or shopkeeper was brought home—though that I would never do, even if I was to spend the whole day lost there.
This is who I am: Ahmed Ragaei, the consummate stray, lost, and in his hand an old novel whose title he doesn’t know. Perhaps—without him being aware of the fact—it’s The Return of the Sheikh, or the House of Mirrors, or the Palace of Paper, all potential titles for my life story, which I’m scrawling down in one of my two ledgers. Take a look at him: no more than a pathetic child, a lost kid, an adolescent too proud to ask someone to set him on the right road, yet to return to the place he started out. He never will return, he can’t, and maybe he doesn’t even want to.
Then the alley appeared like salvation itself and at the sight of it some way off he relaxed. He entered it and found that it was blocked. Two facing houses, one on either side, and contemplating one another in silence. A cool and peaceful alley, its only tree quite free of birds as though cut off from any kind of life that we might be familiar with and clinging to another life, a life alien to the laboured din of humankind, the clamour of petty creatures, a life far distant from time’s incessant tolling over the heads of this world’s mortal inhabitants—sprawled, still, outside this world.
Let me philosophize now. The land of dreams, I say, is just like the land of memory: it has no time. In its immutability it is constantly taking shape and changing, renewed at every instant and in every reiteration a new creation, something from nothing.
The lost kid is still out there, still lost, even if he tells and alters and reshapes his tale a thousand and one times. Whether this applies to me or to that tender, budding youth, I can no longer tell.
Before I turned to retrace my steps I saw her standing outside the house to the right of the alley’s entrance, a shawl of blue velvet thrown over her shoulders—not to ward off the slight chill in the morning air but because her nightshirt left her supple white shoulders exposed. Standing there, as though waiting for me, as though she knew the labyrinth would hand me to her sure as fate. Standing since the day I was born maybe, since God answered the prayers of his humble servant Abdel Mutaal and furnished him with a boy—until this moment, when she takes me in to feed me the fruit that is sweet because forbidden or forbidden because it is sweet.
She beckoned to me with her eyes. I hung back. She made that sound you make to cats and I went over, still wading through my heavy-headed dream, the lack of sleep heightening my confusion and my arousal. Two paces from her, my first woman said something, a brief line that worked like magic, a phrase that put indecision aside and calmed my thudding heart, that set everything in its proper place as simply as that. Something like, “Don’t tell me you had to get yourself lost to get here! Come, now: come in,” or, “What kept you?” or chiding me even: “I’ve been waiting since the crack of dawn: get inside…”
The adolescent Ahmed Ragaei that was me so, so long ago, followed her unhesitatingly, heedless of the beating of my heart, of the novel I carried, of my loss—yet to take place—despite the fact I’d found her.
I found the entrance to the old house, which was more like a courtyard open to the sky and cast into shadow by a roof of woven branches from which looped a thickly leaved vine devoid of grapes. In the corner a water jar and a wooden bench propped against the wall as she led me by the hand, like a mother leading a child lost then found, who she fears she’ll lose again in the market’s crowds.
She took me up stairs without banisters, took me upstairs surefootedly, expertly, fearlessly, and I was ashamed of the fear I had that I might lose my balance and fall and, after a fleeting moment of hesitation, I reached out and clung on to her waist, then fondled her behind. She turned to me and gently removed my hand and murmured with a seductive throatiness, “Just look at you! You can’t wait…”
Before the final step she let off a light fart that brushed my face. I caught its rich, warm fragrance and was unable to hold back a giggle. She stopped my mouth with her hand and with her foot she opened the twin leaves of her bedroom door, then pushed me inside, admonishing me, “You’ll get us in trouble. That was hardly a fart!”
I tell you know—the Prophet’s name guard and preserve me from envy—I wasn’t one of those pale and sickly teenagers: I was the complete article; a fully-grown man. Dark hairs carpeted my hidden places, I had a naturally mature voice and my prick was nothing to be ashamed of, albeit I wasn’t aware of this at the time (unfortunately), though the beauty from Deir Al Mallak must have been.
I surrendered to her as, humming, she removed my clothes. What was she warbling, that wench? Oh, if only old Ahmed Ragaei could remember I’d place my faith in memory for real and stop filling the cracks with shameless fantasy. Did she sing in a whisper, “The postmen complain at all the letters I get…”? Was it, “A moon of many nights…”?
My prick upright and engorged, she took me to a big bed that almost swallowed the room, wide though it was: a bed with four posts of polished brass adorned with charming painted maidens. From these posts, and surrounding the bed, hung curtains of white cotton with images of more maidens and knights on horseback—or maybe just the replicated image of a single knight and maiden.
With a great effort I opened my eyes as wide as they would go, watching her as she shed her blue satin nightshirt to reveal the folds, one atop the other, in her massed white flesh, then as she took from her hair a red kerchief and unfurled it across her shoulders for a moment, before climbing in beside me, the mattress rocking to the motion of her tremendous bulk, and letting her breasts fall over my face, which disappeared entirely. She encircled me with her thighs and pushed my prick between them and it, too, disappeared, and for the first time I felt warm wet flesh surround my member. I would later return to this memory, over and over, nourishing my fantasies during bouts of masturbation without beginning or end.
She was rocking lightly on top of me when, suddenly, I conquered my uncertainty and fear and driven by desire alone rose up, firmly lifted her off me then rolled her onto the other side of the bed and mounted her as I’d seen men doing to women in pornographic magazines, and it was at this juncture that she laughed and said something, a brief line, a phrase that worked on me like magic, something like, “Ah, that’s it,” or, “You’ve got the fire in you, boy,” or maybe, “Go easy, lover…” Then she brought her fingers to my mouth. I didn’t get it until she slipped a finger between my lips, and then I began to lick and nibble—gently, gently—and then it was my delight to suck her fingers one by one and it seemed that it was hers as well, and very soon she shuddered mightily beneath me.
Triumph, pride, achievement—the furthest things from my mind during those moments, though later, reliving the moment for thousandth and first time, I’d find them present. What about that, Ahmed? You got what you always wanted… With a happy grin you move from the ranks of ignorant boys to stand in line with men of the world.
Then sleep snatched me away, her fingers playing in my soft, thick brown hair. She was smoking, gazing through the curtains at the sun gleaming on the horizon. I woke, strangely enough, to church bells sounding clearly and nearby. I remembered everything and found no trace of my gracious lady. I got into my clothes in seconds, opened the door and stole a glance from the top of the staircase, and I saw her: sitting in front of a small tin bowl—her, and another younger and prettier woman who was set before a bowl containing two slaughtered birds—ducks or geese, I’d never know—the pair of them plucking feathers with the viciousness of experts. I came down the stairs half in retreat, not knowing what I should say or do, crippled by shyness and tormented by doubts. The woman laughed and said, “You up, sweetheart? I didn’t like to disturb you.” The other gasped, “And what the hell’s that?” at which my lady snapped back, “What’s it to you, woman?”
I’d barely opened my mouth before she’d pointed me towards the privy beneath the stairs. I was bursting and it was as though she’d read my mind. In I went and took a long piss then I emerged and headed straight for the front door. She was still sitting by her bowl, still cursing the other woman and giving her hell, and when I reached the threshold she said, “Come and see us again, lover. Let us look after you properly next time.”
And at last, before I vanished for good, I spoke: “Of course, for sure!”
This time I found my way with astonishing ease, the paths and passages unfurling and opening in front of me, and I found myself in the alley by the Church of the Brethren that led directly onto the street where the old library stood and where the ladies were about to shut their ledgers and gather up their threads, and it was only when I was standing in front of them that I remembered the novel.
In vain would the adolescent Ahmed Ragei attempt to reach that house a second time in order to reclaim his novel—the lost novel of my life, or a novel borrowed from the Deir Al Mallak library. Everything vanished, like magic: the woman, the house, the calm little one-way alley. A huge eraser rubbed the lot off the face of the earth, as if the story ended there and there was nowhere left for it to go other than to mutate into a lustful myth in my mind, a memory whose truth or untruth none can know but the All-Knowing.