In celebration of the English-language publication of Ihsan Abdel Kouddous’s I Do Not Sleep, translated by Jonathan Smolin, we have a small special section on Abdel Kouddous.
God is Love
By Ihsan Abdel Kouddous
Translated by Rahma Bavelaar
I have no stake in this story outside of a desire to tell it.
The story was related to me by a young Coptic woman who fell in love with a Muslim man. The affair ended in agony. The young woman continued to rub salt into her wound by collecting the stories of girls who faced similar trials: Coptic girls who fell for Muslim boys, and Muslim girls who fell in love with Coptic boys.
I wrote this story because the problem dwells in more than one home and heart. Ignoring it is no way out.
Nothing in their relationship seemed out of the ordinary. They carried on like any other young couple. No hint of anything exceptional, peculiar, or portentous of tragedy.
He was the brother of one of her friends. At first, she saw him whenever she met his sister. Then she saw his sister whenever she met him. Eventually, she met him without seeing his sister.
Then, she longed for him all the time. For his coffee-colored skin. His dark intelligent eyes. His stature—oh, he was as tall as a young Pharaoh, yet distinguished by his excellent manners. His resonant voice and carefully chosen words. He spoke slowly, as if drawing the words up from a deep well, in the Sa’idi accent he was keen on, although his visits to Upper Egypt were limited to collecting the harvest from his land once or twice a year.
Eventually, he was always with her—in her memory of his gestures, of his touch, and of his rare smile. The thought of his accent always made her smile, and she learned to mimic it perfectly.
The first time they kissed, she knew that she loved him, and that she had been unaware of how far she would go for that love.
She was in no doubt that he loved her too. She saw it in his eyes, drank it from his lips, and sensed it on his breaths.
She loved him, but to what end?
Where could this love go?
She tried to escape the question, to run from her future, to flee from the truth she had ignored since the moment she first saw him and fell in love.
He was a Copt.
And she a Muslim.
Agony filled up her days, and her eyes dulled under the weight of her tears. She withered away. A shadow fell over her face, shrouding her in a permanent haze. He appeared to have her tears in his eyes. She saw him living alongside her in the fog, aware that he suffered just as she did, or worse.
And yet, he did not confront her with the truth.
He didn’t ask her: Where is this going?
She didn’t ask him: Where to?
She couldn’t keep running from the question, nor from what was to come. Every time their lips met the wedding feast tambourines cracked in her ears. Every time she rested her head on his chest, she reclined on the kusha, a bride on her throne. When he approached her from a distance, the angels chanted around her: “Congratulations, ‘his lightness’ your groom!”
She decided that she must find a solution. An ending that would safeguard her love.
Her thoughts turned pragmatic. If he converted to Islam, they could marry.
It would be no more than a formality. He could go to the Shari’a court and declare in front of the judge: “I testify that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is His servant and messenger” . . . and then on to the marriage registrar.
The thought comforted her. She would urge him to do it.
When they next met and he withdrew his lips from hers, he said in his slow baritone, as if by prior agreement:
— I’ve thought about this long and hard. We have to find a solution.
She responded with a cry of joy:
— Will you convert to Islam?
In the long pause that followed, his fine lips seemed to disappear into his face.
She felt her happiness dissipate.
— You don’t want to marry me?
Slowly, his lips moved:
— I have one question.
— What is it?
— If I ask you to abandon your religion, will you do it?
She responded swiftly, thoughtlessly. She didn’t want to think.
Then she fell silent, struck by the gravity of what she had agreed to. She felt an unknown thing of great magnitude abandon her, leaving her suspended between heaven and earth. Rancid air engulfed her and filled her chest, and a storm gathered in her veins.
He smiled at her affectionately and stroked the top of her head, his hand blessing her like a benevolent priest’s:
— You would go that far?
She spoke without looking him in the eye, a trill in her voice:
— I said we have to find a solution. Any solution.
Gauging her meaning, he said:
— We’re both willing to sacrifice what is most dear to us for the other. But I don’t want you to feel that you were forced to give something up—if only because I’d never forgive myself for it. I don’t want to sacrifice my religion either, just because someone demands it. Let’s let God decide for us. He is the Master of my religion and yours.
—How will God decide?
— Let chance be the judge. It’s the purest form of destiny.
He pulled a silver coin from his pocket and held it up to her:
— Heads or tails?
She attempted a smile and chose heads. He chose tails, placed the coin in his palm and said:
— Toss it. Whoever’s side comes up will convert!
She tried and failed to smile again. She stood frozen, as if she were about to walk the tightrope suspended over hellfire. Tossing the coin felt like tossing her heart.
She turned, fixed her eyes on the ground, and held her breath. Inhaling slowly, she lifted her head. Her unsteady eyes sought the coin and her features hardened.
She was to convert to Christianity.
He stood by her side, confused and unsure of what to say. Feigning a chuckle, he said:
— Did you really believe me? I was joking, of course. It was just a fib for your amusement. Don’t take it seriously. People don’t gamble with their faith, and this was a sort of gamble.
— It’s meant to be. Love is destiny!
— No. I won’t let you…
—Don’t worry…I made my decision…
She turned to him and held his gaze:
— Tell me, would you have converted to Islam if I had refused to embrace Christianity?
He was silent, but she noticed the dampness of his eyes; evidence of his love and an oath sworn by all religions that he was hers. She embraced him and cried. Tears united them in a single faith.
That night she lay awake.
Islam and being Muslim roused little emotion in her. Yet it occurred to her that all her life and memories were wrapped up in the religion. Details she thought she had forgotten came back to her, like fragments from her life.
Hajja Umm Ibrahim, her father’s nanny, purifying their home with incense every week. She spun the incense burner on her head while reciting litanies and supplications; Umm Abduh, the “coiffeuse,” taking her into the washroom when she was little, scrubbing her virginal body while pouring hot water over her head; her visits to Qaraafa to recite the Fatiha over her father’s grave. And Ramadan, when the family gathered around the table in anticipation of the cannon shot that announced the end of the fast; the joys of Eid; the sing-song voice of the Qur’an reciter rising up out of the radio; her oaths in the Prophet’s name on all occasions. In which prophet’s name would she take oaths today?
She was a Muslim, although she had been unaware of Islam’s importance to her everyday life. She neither prayed nor fasted. But something in Islam surpassed prayer and fasting—something mixed into her blood, something that escaped observation but circulated on her breaths. Who was conscious of blood flowing and lungs respirating?
It nearly drove her mad.
— My God, why didn’t you make all religions one?
—Oh God, if this is your will, did I do something wrong?
Her eyelids were sore when she rose the next morning, as if she were emerging from a coma.
She met him, and together they headed to a priest to ask about the procedures to be followed. She walked beside him in silence, stiff-backed and with an unsteady gaze, as if she were a recent arrival from another world. His voice seemed to reach her from very far away. She responded with nods, as if the denizens of the world from which she’d just arrived did not have tongues.
She stared at the priest without seeing him. He appeared to her like a black-clad giant with a large head—no, an enormous head—and a dark beard billowing down to his knees. She did not hear a thing the men were discussing above her head. Her eyes flitted around the room, settling on a framed image on the wall. She noticed a written text in the frame, words her eyes could not bring into focus. The letters swirled and churned as if written in water.
She strained her eyes and fixed her gaze, willing her mind to focus until the words settled in front of her:
“God is Love,” she read.
A smile started on her lips, then animated her whole face. Her strained nerves and flitting eyes relaxed, and she felt her heart cheer and fill the whole world with laughter.
—Indeed, God is love.
God is love
This meant she was on God’s side. She was in love and had come here for love’s sake.
She turned to the priest as if seeing him for the first time. He looked beautiful now. Gorgeous. Cupid, the god of love, the way he was depicted in books.
The priest approached her and gently patted her on the shoulder. He spoke with the voice of a reed flute—the flute of David:
—May God bless you, my daughter.
She lowered her head and let happiness course through her until she felt embarrassed by it. Then she left with her lover.
On the street, she asked him:
—Where are we going?
— To the Shari’a court.
— Didn’t you hear what the priest said?
—You can’t convert because you’re still a minor.
— What should we do?
— I’m going to convert to Islam.
She folded her arms around his neck and kissed him all over his face.
As he was driving the car, he said:
— This time it’s destiny!
He officially declared his Islam.
To him, the procedure was strictly a formality, imposed by society. A paper signed to satisfy the government. Whatever connected him to God in his heart and his bed was no business of society, the government, or the sheikhs. Nor was it a matter for priests. God had no need of these procedures to know the nature of his faith. These official steps would change nothing about his relationship to Him.
He felt nothing when he declared his Islam, except for a sense of provocation. A provocation of his people. Of his lover’s people. Perhaps a quiver animated his lips when he pronounced the shahadatayn. Maybe a tremor unsteadied his hand when he signed the form. But he dismissed the quiver and ignored the tremor, convincing himself that he was performing a duty required by honor, chivalry, and love—Divine attributes, all.
After completing these steps, he had to visit the young woman’s brother to obtain his permission for the engagement, a step he found harder than the conversion. He had not truly abandoned his religion until he sat across from the brother like a perplexed student in front of an examination board, trying and failing to remember all he had stored up in his brain.
The elder brother said calmly:
— It is not my place to oppose you. You have all the characteristics of an ideal husband. However…
The brother fell silent. The young man’s breath hung suspended between his lips. Then the brother continued:
—Will you respond truthfully to anything I ask you?
— I will try.
— Did you convert to Islam out of conviction, or only to marry my sister?
For a long time, the young man remained silent. Blood rushed to his face. He massaged one of his hands with his other. Then he answered, weighing his words carefully, afraid to say something wrong. He felt as if he were searching for a space to put his foot down on a road covered in thorns.
— The truth is that I was never observant. I was a Copt by birth, and I occasionally participated in religious rituals and customs with my family. But I never made an effort to engage with the religion in the full sense, or to believe with complete faith. Yet my faith in God has always been absolute and sincere. I feared Him, and I feared His anger. I believed with sincerity, integrity, and other lofty thoughts, but without connecting faith and religion. Since that was my state when I was a Copt, don’t expect me to tell you that I believe in Islam as a separate religion. I confess that I know nothing about Islam, except that it’s a heavenly religion.
— So, you believe neither in Islam nor in Christianity!?
— I believe in God, and all religions come from God!
—Faith needs to be anchored in principles. It needs to be defined within borders so that it’s not amorphous and subject to the whims of the ego and human desire. When God made it an obligation to have faith in Him, he also prescribed the forms of that faith in all their particulars. He defined it with firmness and precision, so no loophole remains for polemicists to sneak through—with the devils in their wake—to mislead servants in the name of God, most transcendent in His praise.
— I envy your faith. It’s the kind that demands a spiritual strength I don’t possess…But I don’t want to marry your sister in the Hereafter. I want to marry her in this world. The world places no conditions on this marriage other than my ability to make her happy—so be content with that in holding me to account, and let God be the judge of everything else.
—Faith is a condition for life in this world as well as the next, and God will call you to account in this world and the next. I hold you accountable by God’s name, and by the book of the Muslims and the book of the Copts.
— But I love her, and God is with love!
—Love is faith…and faith starts with God and religion.
— God connected our hearts. Yet you want to separate us. You are the one challenging God!
—May God pardon me. If marriage were no more than your union as husband and wife, you could leave it to God to issue his judgement. But marriage is also children and community. I can’t look away from a crime committed against the rights of children who have not yet been born, as well as against society at large. Just imagine, your children will grow up not knowing whether they’re Muslims or Copts, not knowing which prophet to revere, not knowing the saints and friends of God and how to emulate their lives. They will not be told any of the religious stories that may seem superficial, but that in reality leave profound traces on children’s souls—traces that will grow along with them and will safeguard their moral foundations. They won’t practice religious customs and rituals that may seem outdated and silly, but, in reality, they cover little hearts in a protective layer of spiritual distinction and the sediment of faith, drop by drop, until those hearts grow strong and fortified against evil and sin.
The elder brother was quiet for while, as if observing the effect of his words on the young man. The young man hung his head and rhythmically tapped the floor with his foot. He was not interested in what he had heard, and he wanted to end the conversation.
The brother persisted:
—Look at yourself, you are an honorable young man. Do you know the secret of your virtue and strength of character? They are rooted in your childhood and upbringing. You grew up with knowledge of your religion and prophet. You were brought up to fear God. You imbibed sincerity, devotion, and other important virtues with your mother’s milk, regardless of whether you deny the particulars and rites of religion today. I want my sister’s children to be like you and me. I don’t want them to feel bewildered, between a mother who has freely chosen Islam, and a father who has freely chosen Christianity, while both keep their inner belief hidden for fear of angering the other. Each one fears imparting their religious stories to the children, or performing their religious rites and traditions in front of them. Then there is the community…and…
The young man cut off the brother’s sentence, slapping his palm on his knee in frustration.
—It looks like we won’t agree. I’m losing hope!
— Despair is better for you…
— So, you won’t agree to the marriage?
— I will try to stop it with all the strength I possess.
— You’ll abandon us to eternal agony?
— I’m sparing my sister a grievous torment.
— And you think God is pleased with you?
— I fear God’s wrath!
The young man jerked to his feet, extended a cold hand to the brother, and walked to the door. In the foyer, he met the young woman, an anxious question on her brow. She read the news in his burning face, in his blazing eyes, and in lips pursed so tight they nearly disappeared. She drew in a sharp breath and pressed her palm to her lips to stifle the sobs. A look of pain and terror surfaced in her eyes, as if she was being forced to witness the impalement of her own heart.
The young man paused in front of her for a moment. He did not speak or reach out to her. He looked back at her brother and left.
That night, the brother brought his sister to his farm, where he left her with only her tears for company.
With every passing day, she lost a fragment of herself, until people started believing that she was losing her mind.
She dried up like a log of firewood, unmoved by smiles or tears. Everything she had been was exiled, until nothing remained. She no longer spoke. Nor did she listen when her brother spoke to her. She no longer felt hunger or satiety, thirst or its quenching. She no longer stood in front of her mirror or changed her dresses. She had become a dumbfounded creature, roaming like a mare between four walls.
Her eyes were the single vital sign that remained in her, animated by sudden flashes, always wide open, in search of something. Something in her heart or mind, perhaps, or beyond this life.
She grew close to one of the women who lived on the estate. She invited her over all the time, ate only the food she prepared, and spoke only to her. The woman doted on her and spoiled her. She was fully dedicated to her service.
Then one day the young woman sat down and wrote a letter. A very short letter. A few tremulous words.
“I can no longer bear it, this madness crawling under my skin. I will return to God. My God and yours. Perhaps we shall meet each other there!”
She gave the letter to the woman to drop in the mailbox, out of sight of her brother. Two days later, she asked her to stand at the entrance to the farm to wait for the mailman, in case he carried a response. And the response came. Just a few words in a tremulous hand.
“Do not go alone. Wait for me. I will come with you. Let me know when you will go, and how. The precise date and time, so we can depart together, so that we don’t get lost on the way to our meeting place. God will celebrate our marriage and the angels will prepare the wedding feast!”
And so, on an appointed day, at an appointed hour, two cries of pain rang out at the same moment. One on Shukri Farm in Kafr Saqr, the other on Shikulany Street in Shubra. A car turned out of Shukri Farm, burning up its tires to get to the medical center and request a doctor. The journey was long, and the doctor took his time, so by the time the car finally returned with him to the farm, the cry had been extinguished forever.
In Shubra, the local doctor arrived promptly and managed to chase death away by extracting the poison from the young man’s gut before it struck him down.
They had coordinated everything—the day, the hour, the poison—so all that lay ahead of them was the wedding in the sky.
Rahma Bavelaar is an anthropologist based between Cairo and Leiden.
Ali Shakir: The Silencing of Ihsan Abdel Kouddous
Short stories by Abdel Kouddous: