This satiric short story — which follows a newspaperman in retirement — comes from Abdel-Mawgoud’s 2018 collection, Charming Wars:
By Hassan Abdel-Mawgoud
Translated from the Arabic by Omar Ibrahim
That day, he passed the limit by one single cigarette. He caught a glimpse of four cigarette butts in the ashtray on the table in front of him, and he felt angry with himself, as this was probably the first time he’d broken his own rules in a whole year.
He decided to punish himself by deducting one cigarette from the following day’s share, but not only that—he also decided to forbid himself from going to the 26th of July Café that day. He wrote the punishment down in his notebook. And, to further multiply the pangs of remorse, he skimmed through the notebook, to remind himself of the sins he had committed over the past three years, in the time since his retirement.
His wife sat like a marble statue under sunbeams that shoved into the living room from a window overlooking the 15th of May Bridge. He felt that, if he touched her, he would burn her with his flaming hands. Also, for some reason, he felt that he hadn’t seen her for months, or even that she was an outsider. He always had the feeling that her huge face didn’t fit her slim body, as if the sculptor who’d carved her had made a slight error in estimating her size.
As time passed, her neck had disappeared. He guessed that her head was the reason, as if her head had been pressing down on her neck, implanting it like a seed into her barrel-like body. He’d thought that God had decided to punish him when He’d altered her features to resemble his. Their heads were almost identical, except that she had curly gray hair and he was as bald as an egg. “God is not the reason,” he told himself now. He believed that living with a person for long years would make him a copy of that person. He remembered one university professor in the Japanese department who had become just such a copy!
For years, he did not come near his wife. Neither did she, in any way, ask to have sex with him. And at that moment, he thought of slapping her on the cheeks so that she’d wake up from her constant drowsing; it seemed as if life had long ago deserted that absent-minded woman. He imagined how she might be moved by some mysterious energy that remained in her body.
The day went by, and they exchanged a few comments about how he was a peculiar man. She never showed whether or not she worried about him. He wished that she would reprimand him for smoking an extra cigarette, or even for smoking in general. He asked himself, in surprise, “Does she ever worry about me?”
He didn’t remember the last time she’d showed any emotion. He didn’t even think that she knew anything about him anymore. She no longer knew how he thought. But, for him to exist, she must exist. She gave him the feeling that life was normal and would go on. And even though he didn’t think about her much, he wanted to go on seeing her move slowly around him.
He asked her whether she’d seen his crocodile. She exhaled angrily.
His mobile never rang. Sorrowfully, he remembered how he’d once owned three mobile phones that never stopped ringing. Celebrities from all sectors used to woo him, either so that he’d publish news about them in his newspaper, or so that he’d end campaigns launched against them. They would complain to him about tough critics, or they’d thank him for his laudatory reviews, or they’d ask to be interviewed. A single word in one of his op-eds could cause a tremor in Cairo. The government would turn topsy-turvy if he was angry. And he was always angry. The prime minister always called to scold him for his anger, asking him to calm down. But he never cared, since his newspaper was not a national one.
Now, his important colleagues no longer remembered him, and they never answered his calls. He’d been sharply wounded when one of them hung up on him. Even the journalists who he’d trained up—such that they became heads of departments—didn’t answer his calls. He thought that they’d go on writing about him on his birthday, but it passed without even a hint. He never stopped reading the newspaper. He never stopped feeling deeply sorry about what had happened to it. The editor-in-chief didn’t care about politics, and he allocated a huge section of the front page to sports and arts. The political analysis grew shallow. After the revolution, a few young journalists emerged, but their writing was superficial. And even though they spoke confidently, and their grammar was good, what they said was meaningless and empty.
He thought that the newspaper was surely collapsing. There was no need to ask about the number of copies being distributed; when he was still working there, the numbers reached 300,000. Now, he thought it must be down to a few thousand copies.
He was tormented every day by such thoughts.
He didn’t know why his wife thought him peculiar. He simply lacked attention. He had no problem with lying, if that was what it took to get what he wanted, just like Hugo Loetscher’s colonel. However, he had not adopted only the colonel’s negative side. He also imitated the colonel in imposing a strict regime on himself, and how the colonel would punish himself if he violated his system.
Still, he sometimes decided not to punish himself, thanks to accumulated good behavior, and that was what he was going to do now. The day had passed without him smoking a cigarette. It seemed he wasn’t going to exceed the limit he’d set for himself, which was only two. Therefore, because of his good behavior, he decided to go to the Zamalek café which was right under the 15th of May Bridge.
Before reaching the café, he stopped a man. He told him, in a tone of warning, that a raging bull had escaped the butcher’s and he might meet it if he went on in the same direction. The trick didn’t work, and the guy looked bluntly at him. He put his headphones back into his ears and continued to walk on, normally.
“If the bull trick doesn’t work, then I should try the colonel trick,” he thought.
After spending some time in the café, he rose and shouted at a few customers he didn’t know. He said that his crocodile had been tied to his chair, but now he couldn’t find it. He clarified that its jaws were tied shut with a rope and that there was nothing to worry about. He was just asking that they move their legs so that he could see whether or not the crocodile was crawling around them. Then he added, loudly, that the crocodile might have made its way to the street without anyone noticing.
These new customers rose up in dread, while the regulars—some of whom were retired journalists—just smiled at him. He saw one of them whisper something in another one’s ear, surely about him. He was pleased by his old café friends’ collusion. The waiter came and told the customers that the gentleman, as always, was joking, and that there were no crocodiles at all. They looked at him with surprise and anger, and at that moment he felt very comfortable. Of course he wasn’t joking, but he’d finally drawn everyone’s attention in the café, as he’d wanted. He made sure to sit in a spot where everybody could see him, as if they all were an audience, and he a star on stage. He only wanted to listen to their applause while he sat cross-legged.
There was nothing specific that he intended to do in the following hours. But then came a brilliant idea that illuminated his darkened mind. He must go immediately to the newspaper building. It was five o’clock, and they would still have at least an hour to finish the front page. It wasn’t far from Zamalek to Garden City. He just wished the streets were empty so that he could get there in time.
The security officer did not stop him, but instead welcomed him with an amazed look and a few murmurs. He walked down the hall, heading for a corridor that led to the executive office. He didn’t notice anyone he knew; most of the faces were new to him. When he entered the office, the executives rose. They were extremely surprised, but they welcomed him. He asked about the editor-in-chief. Someone said that he’d finished the front page and gone to his office. He asked to see him at once, saying there were some modifications he wanted to make. The person responsible for the page was nervous, and the rest of his colleagues were shocked. The executive held himself together, opened the front page and began following the instructions. He had to delete an art review, maximize the politics section, change some headlines, and so on.
Meanwhile, one of the executives snuck outside and summoned an army of editorial directors. Soon after, the editor-in-chief appeared, and his facial expressions conveyed feelings of great surprise and perhaps anger, but he shook the man’s hand, saying, “You, Sir, should have come first to my office.”
He walked him outside and the army, which had arrived, followed them. They sat in a meeting room and looked at him in astonishment. Then suddenly he slammed a hand down on the huge table and began delivering a long speech about how the newspaper was falling. He said that the editor-in-chief didn’t care about politics, even though their independent newspaper had been established, in the first place to be a voice for the voiceless. Even though it appeared neutral, it was still an opposition paper. It was not a left-wing, but it tended slightly in that direction. Unfortunately, he went on, the newspaper was seeking popularity through paying too much attention to art and sports. He also knew there had been a huge drop in sales, which meant that neither art nor sports could recover the losses. He warned them that the newspaper must not deviate from its path. He wondered which young journalists were allowed to write columns. They were in their twenties, and they’d taken the place of prominent names. He continued talking without any interruption until he slammed the table with his hands again and rose to leave.
“Just so you know,” the editor-in-chief said, “the sales quadrupled!”
He didn’t seem to have heard the last statement, since he didn’t stop, but rushed outside like a bullet, feeling a bit proud. He thought most of the journalists must be looking at him with interest, maybe also with respect, and that his words surely had had an impact. They might now have the courage to speak up and tell the editor-in-chief their frank opinions. The sales wouldn’t matter anymore. And who said that the editor-in-chief was honest? No editor-in-chief could declare the real sales numbers.
He’d been driven by duty, as he wasn’t being paid to give his opinion in a place to which he’d helped found, a place that was falling before his eyes. But they wouldn’t, by any means, be able to stop what he intended to do next.
When he opened the door to his house, he saw his wife sitting on a chair beside a lampshade, looking closely at a needle and trying to pass a thread through its opening. She glanced at him through the bottoms of her glasses and then ignored his presence. He was very excited and started speaking loudly. He wanted anyone to listen to him, literally anyone, even his wife. He described his heroism, how the journalists had been amazed by the changes he’d suggested for the front page, and how the editor-in-chief shouted: “Your headlines are unbelievable!” After this warm welcome, he’d enthusiastically told them that he would pass by whenever possible. The editor-in-chief called him “the professor,” something no one said these days, and that he was a role model to them all. The editor-in-chief had reproved himself for what he’d done to the first page, as if it were a meal the ingredients of which wouldn’t have been perfectly cooked had it not been for the professor’s intervention. He went on to say that the editorial directors were also astonished, and that they had been his protégés when they were still editors. Their tutor had returned, and therefore they’d returned to their previous state of amazement. He would never hold back from advising them, because this was what his position demanded.
He went on talking until, suddenly, his wife screamed. He stopped, in order to see what had happened. Her finger was bleeding because the needle had stabbed it. She screamed twice or three times, and maybe he heard her snort. He couldn’t tell. His enthusiasm faded.
The next day, he made sure to arrive at the newspaper half an hour earlier. When he entered the hall, he heard someone call his name, but he didn’t turn. He was worried that perhaps they had finished the front page. He had to hurry. He saw the newspaper building’s display case. He was very good at putting the newspapers in order. He had established four successful independent newspapers, and he wouldn’t let this one, the closest one to his heart, collapse before his eyes.
The editor-in-chief and the editorial directors were all standing around a screen. He greeted them with a booming voice, as he always did, but they had no clear reply. Their murmurs increased but, despite that, he saw that they warmly welcomed him. Then he pointed to an executive, saying, “You! Maximize the photo.” The editor-in-chief suddenly yelled out that what he was doing was strange, and that a sane person could not have done such a thing, which was to break all rules of respect. The editor-in-chief asked him whether he would have accepted such treatment in his place. He didn’t answer.
At that moment, he was eager to look into eyes of the editorial directors. In them, he saw anger. They looked as if they were about to explode with rage at what the editor-in-chief had said, because the man should not have spoken in such a manner with their “professor.” As a matter of fact, they dared not declare what was in their minds, because they feared him.
That was satisfying, completely satisfying, to him. He didn’t want more than those looks of rage and compassion before he left the place. He felt sorry for his protégés, who now worked with an editor-in-chief who knew nothing about journalism. He didn’t allow the man the chance to go on, but instead he went outside to make him shut up forever. He crossed the passage to the hall and saw lots of their shadows fall upon him. The security officer was standing still in front of the door, and the officer’s eyes held an expression he could not interpret. He didn’t bother. His mind was at peace, and he didn’t care about the threats the editor-in-chief directed at the security officer, about never allowing him to enter the place again. What made him nervous was that the editor-in-chief rebuked the security officer. In no time, he thought of his crocodile. He turned to find them looking at him. That was the perfect time to blow up his bomb. He pointed at their feet and shouted, warning them not to tread on his crocodile. He didn’t laugh, but instead bent over, moving his head back and forth, as if he really were searching between their feet. Utterly startled, they began moving away from each other like cards that had fallen from someone’s hands, scattering everywhere. Some of them were actually searching for the crocodile, while others watched him straighten up, open the glass door, and leave.
Abdel-Mawgoud’s “Into the Emptiness” in the Book of Cairo, in translation by Thoraya El-Rayyes
Hassan Abdel Mawgoud is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He has published two novels and two short-story collections. His novel Cat’s Eye won a Sawiris Cultural Prize in 2005 and has been translated into German. His work of non-fiction, Stories of the Monks of Wadi Natrun, won an Egyptian cultural journalism prize in 2003.
Omar Ibrahim is an Egyptian literary translator, poet and essayist. He translated Mahmoud Morsi’s collection of poems It’s Time I Confess into English, and his Arabic translation of H. P. Lovecraft’s novellaThe Whisper in Darkness was on the bestselling list of many bookstores. He also has his own poetry collection, titled Fragments of My Mind, and two upcoming translations.
Other short stories in our stay-at-home series:
Tareq Emam’s ‘The Tale of the Woman with One Eye,’ translated by Katherine Van de Vate
Zakaria Tamer’s ‘The Flower,’ tr. Marilyn Hacker
Lock-in Limited Release: Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘The Man in the Picture’, tr. Karim Zidan
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
Poems in our stay-at-home series
Ghareeb Iskander’s ‘A Letter to Adil’, translated by Hassan Abdulrazzaq
4 Poems by Jan Dost, translated by Mey Dost
Issa Hassan Al-Yasiri’s ‘A Primitive Prayer for Uruk,’ translated by Ghareeb Iskander, with thanks to Hassan Abdulrazzak
‘A Street in the Pandemic’ & Other Poems by Jawdat Fakhreddine, tr. Huda Fakhreddine
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