Short Story: ‘The Qur’an’ by Ihsan Abdel Kouddous

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.

The Qur’an

By Ihsan Abdel Kouddous

Translated by Rahma Bavelaar

The small village had grown used to hosting a Qur’an reciter from Cairo in the month of Ramadan. His melodious recital enlivened the nights and lent the villagers a proud edge over the people of the surrounding hamlets. 

It had been the custom for the Sayid to cover the reciter’s fee and the cost of his lodgings. Yet for the past two years, he had ceased to extend the invitation, in protest of the Agrarian Reform Directorate’s confiscation of 60 feddans of his land.

Last year, the villagers convened a quasi-meeting to discuss the matter of the reciter from Cairo. 

Hamdan fumed: 

— Our village has nothing, except in Ramadan…People from villages all around flocked to us to listen to Shaykh Abdel Basit…This year, our heads will hang in shame. We’ll have no Ramadan spirit! 

Mu’allim Qura, the funeral undertaker, said:

—The radio will have to do for you lot this year…

‘Awadayn the gardener exclaimed:

— Radio…what radio, man? For one thing…it’s a sin! 

Faraj Allah put in:

— Let’s go talk to the Bey. Maybe we can change his mind and convince him to bring us Shaykh Abdel Basit!

Futuh said:

— The Agricultural Directorate grabbed the land, so it’s on them to bring the shaykh!

Mu’allim Qura snapped back:

— Are you saying the Directorate took the land and put it in its pocket? They’re distributing land to the peasants! Come up with a better idea, Futuh!

Then Shaykh Tamam, the imam of the mosque, spoke:

— There is only one way to go about this. We’ll each put in our two pennies to bring over Shaykh Abdel Basit. As the poem says, ”Nothing can scratch an itch like one’s own nail.”

Faraj Allah asked:

— How do we find out what he charges?

Mu’allem Qura said:

— Thirty pounds…excluding sweets. And the distribution of refreshments. And the tea. And excluding the platform that’s set up for the audience every night.

‘Awadayn the gardener put in:

— That totals up to 50 pounds. I’ll cover two pounds, and I’ll throw in in two pearly kidneys to boot!

Faraj Allah said:

— I saved up three pounds for Settohom’s dower. I’ll put in those, may God recompense us. We don’t want to lose face and hear them say Kafr Mamuna has no light in Ramadan!

The villagers coughed up whatever they could until the 50 pounds had been collected.

And so Shaykh Abdel Basit came and made the nights of Ramadan come alive, elevating Kafr Mamuna over all surrounding towns and hamlets. The crowds flooded in daily, eager to listen to the voice of the Cairene reciter. The villagers welcomed them, feeling more self-confident than ever before. They were no longer the men of the Sayid, but the lords of their village. They had paid the reciter’s fee out of their own pockets!

That was last year…

This year, the small meeting was called again to decide on the matter of inviting Shaykh Abdel Basit.

Faraj Allah said:

— This year, my affairs are in God’s hands. I didn’t even manage to get back the few pennies I paid last year.

‘Awadayn said:

— In truth, friends, I have nothing left to give. The trifle of corn I own will scarcely be enough for the kids.

Hamdan added:

— There’s nothing for it but to sell off the cattle! 

Mu’allim Qura, the funeral undertaker, said:

—As the saying goes: “Poverty and arrogance. . . .” Didn’t we say the radio would be good enough? By God, I’m not paying a penny. You all know it’s been a rotten year, may God extend your lives. What is the world coming to? People even refuse to die!

Futuh countered:

—Don’t tempt fate!

Shaykh Tamam said:

— So Ramadan will pass in silence? In twenty years, this has never happened.You must come up with a plan!

Faraj Allah said:

— Even Kafr Hatata is hosting nights with Shaykh Shalhuny this year, just to taunt us.

—Al-Shalhuny who? He’s no competition for Shaykh Abdel Basit!

Shaykh Tamam said:

—Wallahi here’s a thought…what do you say we make a deal with the people of Hatata and combine our resources? We’ll bring over Shaykh Abdel Basit together!

Futuh shot back:

—Are you kidding? Where will he spend the night, with us or with them? Another conundrum!

Shaykh Tamam said:

— That can be resolved, my good man. He will alternate the nights between us!

Faraj Allah put in:

— What about Laylat al-Qadr—with them, or with us? Yet another obstacle!

Shaykh Tamam snapped:

— Come on folks, don’t complicate things! With us, with them, it’s all the same. Aren’t we all Muslims and believers? The night will go to whoever’s turn comes up on Laylat al-Qadr! 

Mu’allim Qurra, the funeral undertaker, cried out:

—I’m not paying!

‘Awadayn sneered:

— No, by God, you will! Or we’ll all swear on our marriages to never drop dead, or to refuse to be buried by your hand!

The small gathering exploded with laughter.

And so it came to pass that a delegation from Kafr Mamuna proceeded to Kafr Hatata to negotiate, and that the two hamlets agreed to share the cost of inviting Shaykh Abdel Basit to enliven the nights of Ramadan.

By the end of the blessed month, Kafr Mamuna and Kafr Hatata had celebrated five marriages between them!


Rahma Bavelaar is an anthropologist based between Cairo and Leiden.


Read more:

An excerpt from I Do Not Sleep

A Talk with Jonathan Smolin: On the Intersections of Abdel Kouddous’s Politics and His Fiction

Ali Shakir: The Silencing of Ihsan Abdel Kouddous

Photos & Films: Ihsan Abdel Kouddous

Two short stories by Abdel Kouddous:

“God is Love,” translated by Rahma Bavelaar

Book talks:

January 11, with Jonathan Smolin, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, and M Lynx Qualey

January 27, with Jonathan Smolin and Alaa al-Aswany