This excerpt comes from Ibrahim Aslan’s witty, charming خلوة الغلبان, published by Dar El Shorouk. It appears with permission.
By Ibrahim Aslan
Translated by Faten M. Hafez
For as long as I can remember, al-Aqqad had been a unique source of endless dread, even after I had read some of his great works without becoming either a fanatic or a critical reader.
It happens that I, too, only got an elementary school diploma; yet, as I carried books and passed by friends or family members, I would now and again hear them say this intimidating phrase: “The master thinks he is al-Aqqad.”
That is how this man, along with Taha Hussein—both of whom were legendary figures who dominated our intellectual and spiritual life—transformed into a mighty monster, one whose only virtue was to degrade me.
In fact, every time we talked about him, my father, while sitting on the couch and fiddling with his sebha, would declare, “Indeed, he is formidable.”
This, despite the fact that my father, God bless his soul, never read a single letter in any of his books.
But this was the time when writers were transformed into phrases rife with meanings. These meanings developed lives independent of their proprietors and spread impressively among the people, affecting their emotions more than their writings ever would.
Back in those days, I remembered a friend once told me that al-Aqqad wrote a daily column in al-Akbar newspaper, saying that those who did not read al-Hariri’s poems were not “litterateurs.”
I went insane looking far and wide for these poems until I found them in an old and hard-cover edition in a bookstore, or rather an old shop located in al-Azhar Square. While there, I anxiously followed the vendor, who was wearing an old jacket over a gelbab, standing up on his own chair and searching for them in a wall safe.
I spent months avidly reading the poems until I learned them by heart. I routinely recited them while strolling among people: “when I moved abroad, darkness cloaked my exodus and the dusty vastness of space cut me off from my beloved while the calamities of time flung me to Sana’a of Yemen…”…to the last words.
I did this roughly throughout the forty-one poems without having the slightest feeling that I had become a “litterateur.” A few words remained etched in my memory, along with what I had recited, and other words like “a pupil, wine, and a roasted goat.” But perhaps what astonished me most was that each page was divided into two sections, in which the words in the top section were numbered while in the bottom section a footnote listed these numbers as they provided, in a simple and clear language, the meaning for each word.
I used to think that it was the author, Abu Muhammad al-Qasim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Uthman, al-Hariri of Basra, who had devised these illustrative footnotes, and I often wondered about the reasons that stopped him from using a simple language in the first place? Why would he write them in a complicated form and then goes back to rewrite them in a simple one? But later I learned, although too late, that it was a work done by others, and it was never him.
I never met al-Aqqad, nor did I know of anyone who would have met him. That is, until one day in the many days of the year 1963, when I went to visit my friend the late writer Mohammed al- Sharkawi at the compost company located in the Immobilia Building. After I left, as I walked down Sherief Street, I saw al-Aqqad walking down the sidewalk right toward me.
I was frozen in place.
But I managed to comprehend the whole scene: this tall figure, this light-colored striped suit, the glasses, the long thin scarf, and the tarboush, which he wore in a jaunty angle…was he really wearing a tarboush? Or was this the workings of my imagination?
Like any brilliant legend that walked on two feet, he occupied the entire framework allotted to him within my soul; no more, no less. When he got close and we faced each other, I raised my head and I saw his two clear eyes. When he passed by me, I turned around and followed.
While tracking him, I was consumed by one notion: if al-Aqqad were a finger length taller or shorter, he would not be al-Aqqad.
It was not long before he stopped in front of a small shop. It was one of those shops that has two distinct entrances facing the same street. This shop did not have books for sale, but stationary items stacked on a clean hanging glass shelf. I saw al-Aqqad, at a reasonable distance from the entrance, leaning forward, due to his height, perusing a pen in an open box placed on one of these shelves. He then searched within an inside pocket of his suit and got out a pen. He leaned more forward while holding his own pen, looked at it, and went back to perusing the one on display. He spent sometimes comparing the two pens.
I cautiously stepped closer, thinking that he had found the perfect match for his pen.
I stood two steps away, on his right side, and I looked at the pen that was on display and the pen, he was holding between his fingers. I was a bit surprised, because they were not similar and could not be compared, neither in size nor in color.
Like any other customer, I stood calmly in the store, staring at the objects on display. I believe that he felt my presence even though he never attempted to look at me. He then took a final look at both pens, straightened up his posture, and returned his pen back into his pocket.
He grew farther away as he slowly rambled down the sidewalk and turned the corner by a large building, and then disappeared.
A few months later, he passed away.
Egyptian writer Ibrahim Aslan was born in Tanta in 1935, but he famously grew up in the Kit Kat neighborhood of Imbaba, which became the setting for many of his short stories and novels. His The Heron and Nile Sparrows are both available in English translation, translated by Elliott Colla and Mona El-Ghobashy, respectively. The Heron was adapted into the beloved film Kit Kat.
Translator Faten Hafez is a poet and writer, and also teaches literature and composition at Kean University.