This lock-in Monday, as part of our ongoing series of stay-at-home literature, a short story by Naguib Mahfouz, which appeared in English — in Karim Zidan’s translation — in the EYE issue of ArabLit Quarterly. It will be available online through the end of the month:
THE MAN IN THE PICTURE
By Naguib Mahfouz
Translated by Karim Zidan
His disappearance came as a violent shock to the community, for he was a distinguished man with many financial investments, a firm and influential presence in politics, and a reputation for kindness and generosity.
He disappeared on a day he usually spent at the club. When he failed to come home, his wife Madame Sorayra and their son Isa grew distressed, for Sheikhun never deviated from his routine without first letting them know.
Madam Sorayra called her husband’s friends from the club, who told her that Sheikhun had spent an hour with them before leaving to visit his brother Mahmoud Muharram at his home in Zamalek. She immediately called Mahmoud Muharram, but his wife answered, saying that her husband was on his way back from a trip to the Red Sea, and that Sheikhun had not visited them in more than a week.
The family driver later confirmed that Sheikhun had left the club, ordering him to wait behind while he continued on foot. The driver had waited at the club until the sun rose on the following morning, but Sheikhun had not returned.
And so began a long and miserable search for Sheikhun. They searched in all his favorite places. They searched among his friends and colleagues, and in Alexandria and the farmhouse, but were met with disappointment. Their hearts were filled with anxiety and grief, made worse by their growing doubt that they would ever find him.
A search party of friends and acquaintances, headed by Sheikhun’s brother, gathered at the family home. They exchanged ideas and discussed their plans until Madame Sorayra interrupted, exclaiming, “If he were alright, he would’ve called us!”
A decision was made to inform the police, who undertook a thorough search that included police stations and hospitals. The puzzle of Sheikhun’s disappearance became murkier, and pessimism grew. It was as though the man were a scent that had evaporated into the sky.
Days went by. Madame Sorayra tormented herself about the disappearance until it became a black rock, immovable under the weight of her hope.
Sheikhun Muharram had disappeared as though he had never existed.
Then came an official enquiry, although it brought no new leads, for Sheikhun had no enemies nor suspicious activities that would have put him at risk of being the victim of crime.
Overcome with despair, Madame Sorayra told her son, “I didn’t share everything I knew during the investigation!”
Astonished by this revelation, the boy asked, “There’s something else?”
“I said that your father had no enemies.”
“No…” she said, before adding adamantly: “Your uncle.”
“No, no. The problem is you’ve never liked him. You don’t have a single piece of evidence.”
“I have my heart.”
“That isn’t enough. You hate him.”
“Only because he hated your father.”
“I don’t agree. They had a great relationship.”
“It appeared that way. But your uncle was a criminal. Haven’t you heard what they say about his victims in the countryside?”
“That’s nothing to do with this…”
“He’s a criminal by nature.”
“He loved my father, and my father loved him.”
“My heart doesn’t lie. I could see it in his eyes. He was jealous of your father’s wealth and success.”
“My uncle isn’t poor.”
“But there’s a secret you don’t know. Your uncle was close to ruin, and he would’ve had to sell his land if your father hadn’t saved him. He saved him without a contract—you know how noble your father is — but religion has its own rules, and your uncle shouldn’t ignore them.’
Frustrated, the boy said: “The thing is that you have a bad opinion of my uncle.”
“The thing is that you insist on having a good opinion of him.”
“Because I respect him.”
“The last thing we heard about your father was that he was going to visit your uncle!”
“And then we found out that my uncle was on a trip with a friend.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time your uncle killed an innocent without being near the scene of the crime.”
“These are accusations without proof. Why do you hate him?”
“My heart—don’t you believe the hadith about the heart?”
“No. I believe only in material evidence.”
“That means you don’t believe in anything!”
“Did you tell Father about your suspicions?”
“He had a pure nature, and so he didn’t believe me.”
“But he did admit they’d had a conflict in the past!”
“That’s true of all people.”
The mother was more stubborn than the son could have anticipated, and she focused her anxieties on finding the truth.
The uncle, Mahmoud Muharram, conducted his own thorough investigation, and while that brought no change in the case, it led to an incident that shook the foundations on which the family tree stood. Sorayra asked for the money her husband had loaned his brother, but her son’s uncle claimed he’d already paid his debt and that, in any case, there had never been any formal agreement between the brothers. This didn’t dissuade her, but rather added to her misgivings.
Yet, perhaps strangely, Mahmoud Muharram continued to honor his brother’s memory, and he even invited Isa to a private meeting at the club, where he said:
“I have plenty of reasons to be angry, but I’m determined to keep a close relationship with your family. Always remember that I’m your uncle, just as I always remember that you’re my nephew.”
The days went on, followed by months and then years. Sheikhun Muharram was no more! But he lived on as a memory in Madame Sorayra’s consciousness, a living memory that would not die, that never wavered, and that fed and maintained her love. She was confident that justice would be served, and she always told her son: “Your father demands justice, and we are the only ones who can deliver it.”
Isa took over his father’s position at the administration, and work kept him busy, as did his life and its daily delights. He avoided discussions with his mother whenever possible.
One day, exercised by his response, she shouted: “Haven’t you noticed that I have not, until this moment, shed a single tear?”
He replied as gently as he could manage. “That’s how the wise warn of disaster.”
“Do you think I’m crazy?”
“You didn’t inherit anything but his property,” she said, sorrowfully.
The son thought this difficulty could be resolved when he approached Sorayra one day and said: “Mother, open your heart to the news I have to share.”
She looked at him in anger as he went on: “I have decided to marry Sameeha!”
The woman felt faint. Her skin went yellow and she began to tremble. Noticing this, the son said, in great anger: “This would be a simple matter if it wasn’t for your baseless suspicions.”
She was startled, and replied: “Since you expected this reaction—expected it like the inevitability of death — then smile in the face of resentment without regret.”
With bitterness, she added: “His daughter murdered your father!”
“My uncle’s daughter?”
Bent in her seat from the depth of her pain, the woman said, sharply: “This is a permanent barrier between you and me!”
The woman left the city and moved to the village, where she lived in a small home in profound isolation. It was there that she fell into her obsession, such that her voice could be heard as she debated with herself without interruption. She drowned in the loss of her beloved husband.
Isa married Sameeha. His uncle insisted that they travel to the village as a gesture of propriety, and to ask for his mother’s blessing, but the woman refused to meet any of them, exclaiming:
“This is the murderer achieving his goal. He pours the wealth of his victims on his offspring!”
She was tormented until pain separated her from her senses. In her distress, she began to see the calamity from new angles. An inspiring thought glowed within her; things were being born anew. Whispers reverberated in her ears, delivering cryptic messages. Her belief in the crime faded, and her depression and despair evaporated. She emerged from her torment and returned to public life. She went out with dignity, carrying a picture of Sheikhun; whenever someone crossed her path, she asked them about the picture, waiting day after day for a satisfying answer, although one never came. She did not grow tired of repeating the question, nor was she discouraged by the responses.
News of her behavior reached Isa, who considered taking some action, but decided against it. Instead, he assigned one of his men in the village to watch over her from afar. She didn’t relent in her search, although years went by and time aged her.
After a lonely period
Isa was seated in the sélamlique one evening when he saw an old man moving toward the house with the aid of a walking stick. He ran over to meet him. Anxiety and astonishment overtook him, and he exclaimed: “Father!”
Isa held what remained of the old man in his arms and carried him to bed. He called for a doctor, who concluded that the man was frail and senile. He did not leave the bed until he’d regained his strength, at which point he was transformed into a different person. When he awoke from his long sleep, Isa assumed his father had regained his vigor and asked in a loving voice: “Where were you, Father? What kept you away for such a long time?”
His father did not respond. He did not seem to hear what his son had said – it was as though he were an illusion on a distant horizon. Isa asked again, but his father continued to ignore him, instead muttering to himself:
“The green mountains.”
“Were you abroad?” the son asked attentively.
The old man continued his internal dialogue: “And the blue lagoons.”
The old man sighed and said in a whisper: “In the nest of love and pain.”
Isa cried out in grief for his father, who merely whispered: “In the nest of love and pain!”
Isa stopped appealing to his father. Yet he decided to reunite his parents in the hopes of restoring their sanity.
His mother came against her will. She was weeping, but stopped when they seated her next to the man asleep on the bed. Isa’s heart pounded in anticipation. But nothing happened. The couple did not exchange a look, whether of blame, happiness, or sorrow. They continued to stare into space, each plunging further into a world that had no relation to the other’s. It was as though he did not know her, and she did not know him.
A feeling of dread and deep sorrow charged the air. Isa felt as though he were standing between parents he did not even know.
As though irritated by sitting, his mother rose. She approached the bed until she brushed up against it. She placed the picture in front of the old man’s eyes and asked her changeless question: “Can you please direct me to the man in the picture?”
‘The Man in the Picture’ (صاحب الصورة) was written in the Arabic by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz and published in his short story collection Love on the Pyramid’s Plateau in 1979.
Karim Zidan is a journalist, fiction writer, and translator with bylines at The Guardian, Foreign Policy, HBO, World Literature Today, and VOX Media. He is also the manager of the art estate belonging to the late Menhat Helmy, a renowned Egyptian artist and printmaking pioneer.
Other translations in our stay-at-home series:
Ali el-Makk’s ‘Forty-One Minarets’, tr. Adil Babikir
‘Eyes Shut’ by Rami Tawil, tr. Nashwa Gowanlock
Bushra Fadil’s ‘Phosphorus at the Bottom of a Well.’ tr. Mustafa Adam
‘A Street in the Pandemic’ & Other Poems by Jawdat Fakhreddine, tr. Huda Fakhreddine
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