An Excerpt from Ahmed El Fakharany’s ‘The Quail King: An Alexandrian Odyssey’

“And know that you—[the perfected human being]—are the intended goal. The causes only came into existence because of you, so that you might appear.”

Meccan Revelations, Ibn `Arabi

The House of Pleasure

By Ahmed El-Fakharany

Translated by Nancy Roberts

Translator’s Preface

1

I was nineteen years old, working in Mu`allim Idris’s workshop, when I asked him about the age of the Universe.

“A thousand thousand years,” he replied.

His answer wasn’t correct, of course. It’s just that it seemed like a huge number to him, as far as he knew how to count.

I think there’s a bigger number than that, one’s that’s impossible to count. A frightening number with the eyes of a monster and a yawning mouth that swallows up all the other numbers and, with them: terror, death, evils, diseases, fires, massacres, meaninglessness, madness, deviations, and lusts. This number is the final guardian of the secret. For secrets must be kept shrouded in mystery to all but certain chosen ones, who traverse long distances and endure brutal tests, who possess the strength of will, acuity of spirit, and purity of mettle that will ensure their sole arrival.

Ahmed El-Fakharany. Photo courtesy Sawiris Foundation.

         Uncle Idris didn’t take me seriously. He was convinced that my questions were stupid due to a dullness in my features and my sluggish, sleepy, lusterless eye. He didn’t know I was on fire inside. But since he could make such dazzling, exquisite statues out of clay, I thought he knew everything.

When I asked him why night and day follow each other in a never-ending repetition, he said disdainfully, “So that they can be an irrefutable sign to those who don’t believe, and so that dolts like you will pay attention.”

I said, “Maybe people have an excuse. After all, when they see the same thing over and over again for a thousand years, they don’t notice the miracle, and instead of being enlightened, they become blind. Is that why people don’t get angry at frightening darkness and overwhelming light?”

Idris said, “You’ll go on being a donkey, Saeed. It’s been more than ten years now, and you still haven’t learned anything about the craft. All you’ve done is ask stupid questions.”

I looked at my fingers, which longed to create the way his did. Then I bowed my head and looked down at the floor with a shame that he took to be dimwittedness.

2

When the maghrib call to prayer sounded, the muezzin’s voice came from the Attarine Mosque, signaling his hearers to turn to God. But when it crossed over into Syrian Square where Idris’s workshop was located, all it signaled was that we had to vacate the place immediately. Within half an hour, the second-hand clothes vendors had shuttered their stalls, watch repairmen had folded up their tables, and the dingy cafes had closed down, as did our workshop. Then along would come “Bamboo,” accompanied by a band of down-and-outers and street sweepers to clear away the filth and the poor. Colored lamps would be lit, the ground would be sprinkled with water and perfume, decorations would be hung, and the smell of grilled meat would waft through the air to the sound of music.

As for us, we’d make ourselves scarce. We weren’t supposed to trouble the folks who came in fancy cars from the other end of town  with the stench of poverty. That was the way things were: By day, Syrian Square belonged to everybody, but by night, it was a maze to which entry was barred without permission from the two figures who shared the neighborhood’s nocturnal throne: the owner of the Quail Restaurant, known as “the Quail King”—who hid from the treachery of time in a room of his own, set off from the rest of the establishment by a high threshold and guarded by a loaded revolver—and Bamboo, king of the night and the Quail King’s bodyguard.

The restaurant operated two days a week, and on the remaining days, the second-hand clothes vendors’ tin stalls were transformed into dens of prostitution and drug dealing, run by Bamboo from atop a throne.

I used to linger a bit before leaving the neighborhood so that I could get a glimpse of the throne, which would be erected on top of a thousand beer bottles stuck together with powerful glue and covered with straw. The “throne” was an old chair that Bamboo had filched in broad daylight from an antique vendor in al-Attarine, and whose splendor was only made complete by his settling atop it and viewing everyone from aloft.

I never wanted to leave, since the terrifying night meant going back to my mother’s house.

3

When I arrived, my mother was planted in the bay window like a flowerpot. The low window’s frame was painted a dreary pale blue, its cracks inhabited by ants, and its far corner animated by the delirious ravings of a spider. Her eyes were windows framed by cheap kohl. The ghosts of the street would pass through them, but nothing between heaven and earth escaped their notice. They observed everything as though they saw nothing so that, if the world had collapsed, she wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.

The same scene repeated itself every day: She would reach out, latch onto something that wasn’t there, and close her hand over it, gently at first. Then she would tighten her grip as though she were wresting something precious from the world. After giving it a hungry sniff, she would bring it slowly to her mouth, and her lips—rendered dreadful-looking by too much smoking—would part to reveal a toothless cavern. Then, with great relish, she would take a nibble out of the air and chew it. She paid no attention to the sarcastic comments that awaited the scene every day, demanding that she share some of her gift from heaven with those looking on. Then she would gratefully send flying what remained of her precious something, with a giggle at the rustling of non-existent wings.

The winks and titters were lashes that showed me no mercy. They furrowed my back, not hers. I had never accepted the description of her as crazy, even though that was the truth of the matter. I’d gotten into fights over and over on her behalf, but in the end I gave up. Every time I was defeated, she would laugh. I’d be wounded, but she’d be unfazed, as unmoved as a stagnant pond. Then I’d go into the house angry, shut myself in my room, and cry.

My mother had bushy eyebrows and harsh, scary-looking features. Her face was so wrinkled, it looked like a crumpled-up treasure map. Her frizzy, wild hair was silver, and the gray strands that ran through it lent her madness a tinge of horror. Even so, it didn’t take long for passersby to get used to her, and soon she was the butt of their daily jokes. As for her eyes, they were always fixed, never moving either this way or that. I didn’t know if this was a sign of waning sanity or of total madness. Whichever it was, her words—which grew fewer and farther between as time went by—were as grave and solemn as could be.

I could never figure out what she enjoyed about watching the narrow side street, sometimes for hours on end. Other times, she would barely sit there for half a minute before getting up and coming back inside, muttering a dyslexic, “God mad you all!” to those passing by.

Sometimes she would write everything down in notebooks. She didn’t miss a thing: the women’s gossip, the rustling of ants, the din in the coffee shop, the sound of footsteps, little boys at play, the lurking of cats. She would listen to the buzz of wood saws and the clanging of metal in the workshops the way some people listen to Umm Kulthum, and she delighted in the sparks produced by the welder like a little girl watching fireworks. She used to go up to the roof and rip the pages out of the notebooks one by one, then send them flying through the air. When they fell to the ground, she would be sad, since she’d been trying her best to propel them skyward. Then she would come back down, crestfallen. Yet she never wearied of trying.

At first, the falling pages were a source of alarm, since she had written on them in strange letters that looked like Arabic, but weren’t, and people thought they were magic spells and curses. But as time went on, they realized these were nothing but words of delirium.

I sat in the café across the street from the house and close to Syrian Square. It was on an alley inside an alley, like the eye of a needle in the haystack of the world. It was the only place I could go where I didn’t have to pay up front.

I looked away from her, contemplating my cursed fingers. Like Idris, they’d been gifted with the passion to create, and contrary to his belief, they weren’t incapable of doing so. But people are cruel. You tell them you’re going to make a sculpture of a sparrow, and they reply that they already know what a sparrow looks like, and that that’s all they need. You say: But my sparrow will be something different. Why will they forgive something strange like beautiful, charming fingers on an ugly body, but they won’t forgive my statues that don’t look like sparrows?

I was jolted out of my reverie by a humiliating slap to the back of the neck by a young boy, who called me “the crazy lady’s son,” then disappeared. I jumped out of my seat as if I’d been stung, my head hot with rage. Wild-eyed, I searched for the kid, trying to deafen myself to the stinging laughter that filled the side street.

Determined to put an end to this, I directed my zeal and rage at the window. My mother was putting on her daily performance: reaching out to receive her imaginary sustenance.

Taking her hand, I forced her balled fist open. “There’s nothing there!” I screamed at her. “There’s nothing in your hand! You understand?”

She gave me an innocent, bewildered look as if to say, “I know.”

Ashamed, I retreated a step or two before adding, “I’m going to close that window for good.”

Then I raised my voice again. “I’ve had enough of being the neighborhood spectacle!” Although I knew full well that my shouting and my insistence on exposing her madness really had made us into the neighborhood spectacle. My mother went meekly inside. It grieved me, and I detested everything.

Heading back to the café across from the house, I ordered a glass of iced jujube and a shisha to help calm myself down. I thought about going back to apologize. I thought of kneeling at her feet and telling her she could do whatever she wanted, and to hell with the neighborhood and its sleazeballs.

 But instead, I just sat there, shackled by pride, anger, and cowardice. Then I heard women screaming, and I saw the light of a fire on the roof, and my mother’s body. I froze in place from the shock. Her flaming body was tottering, about to fall over the wall that rimmed the roof. Had she thought she would propel herself to heaven rather than fall to the ground? She didn’t land directly in front of me. But I can’t think back on that scene without seeing her corpse at my feet, her eyes fixed on me in a look of odious forgiveness.

The looks of the people in the street pronounced a guilty verdict that admitted of no appeal: “You murdered her.” The only exception was my neighbor Thuraya, who rushed outside in a fright wearing her nightgown. Taking me in her arms without a thought for the people looking on, she said, “My precious boy…”

The world was cracking open on my chest like an egg the size of the moon. Its viscous yolk, disagreeable and filthy, splattered all over. I could only bear it in silence, unresisting, staring at my mother’s body without any attempt to understand, and seeking refuge from the world in Suraya’s embrace. Her brassiere was exquisite.

4

I’m thinking about how beginnings are always sweet. So why did this beginning grip my heart as though the end was near?

Was it because my mother’s end was the beginning of my own harrowing story?

(I still don’t know how you’re going to tell it. Will you leave my sufferings out? Or will you pander to readers’ preference for monologue and melodrama? I don’t even know what they mean, but you’ll put them in my mouth, and they’ll dissolve like a sweet flake of opium. But tell me: Who of us wouldn’t like to get up on a stage and prattle loudly on and on about their life?)

5

My mother had no wake. However, the people of the neighborhood took on the burden of burying her. They wanted to make sure I’d forever bear the cross of her suicide in their stead.

I didn’t cry. It was as if my eyes had been carved out of stone. I might even have felt a bit grateful for the emptiness that had erected its towers in my soul.

I trembled at the sight of the window devoid of my mother’s image. My steps heavy, I stood for a few seconds at the door to the flat. Hesitantly, I took out the key. There was no light. I was spooked by a cat that jumped out of a garbage can, scattering its contents every which way. I couldn’t get the key to go into the lock on the first try. Slowly, I opened the door, but I didn’t cross the threshold. The house had an ominous feel about it, as though it concealed some irate avenger in every corner. Or maybe I was afraid of what would happen to me if I was deprived of my dim hope of seeing my mother in the house as if nothing had happened, so that I could carry on with my life, and she could carry on with her good-natured madness with the same collusion as always.

Then suddenly I was showered with light from behind. Slowly, Suraya’s door opened, the way the opening in her bra had signaled the presence of the treasure within. She came just like that, without my asking. Enchanted, I did an about-face and crossed the chasm that separated dream from reality. The tenderness and sympathy in her eyes were as vast and generous as air and water.

The door closed behind us. Her black nightgown intensified the sweetness and allure of her voluptuous body. She was twenty years my senior. Without a word, she took my hand, and I nearly floated into her room. With her eyes she said, “Hayta lak—Come to me.” Not having it in me to reject God’s gracious gift, I removed her nightgown. Her body was radiant, like a lamp amid a dark, billowing sea, her hair an endless night. Out of her beautiful eyes wafted a summer breeze, and on her bosom stood two sentries guarding towers of ivory and marble.

(That’s a nauseating exaggeration that nobody but an intellectual snob like you would have come up with. Instead, just say: She had tits that jiggled like milk pudding.)

I flung myself at her: hungry, insatiable, wounded. Lights shone down and delights escorted us in solemn procession. It was my first time, and in it, images in my imagination were transformed into concrete realities. The entire night we alternated between joy and laughter, pleasure and reproach, ascents and descents.

Where had I been before? I’d been blind, and now I saw. I felt as light as a bird in paradise, like a bodiless essence, pure spirit. My kingdom was no longer of this world. Between her thighs I’d been rescued, and I wept bitter, real tears without questions, as though all wounds could be healed, as though, if I delved deeper, I could fill in the secret well of sorrow once and for all.

But no sooner had we finished than guilt reared its ugly head. Like an adder, it tore at my flesh, hissing and sending its venom streaming through my veins. Then the blindness returned, and emptiness gripped my soul. All I could see now was the heaviness and filth of this body of mine, and I felt unspeakable contempt for myself and for her. One minute I blamed my weakness of will, and the next, her seduction.

(I didn’t write all this. Where would I get such eloquence? You must have placed the words on these awkward lips of mine, to melt there like a sweet opium flake.)

In any case, I suddenly jumped up, got dressed, and left without looking at her or uttering so much as a word of thanks. As I left, I made a point of slamming the door loudly behind me in a show of contempt and rage. But that did nothing to assuage my self-hatred and guilt, which were compounded by the thought of my mother’s body newly in the grave. I knew what I needed to do: I’d go to God.

6

The path to the Attarine Mosque was carpeted with God’s orphans. Gathering my fear of disappointment into a tight, trembling fist, I stepped fearfully toward hope. The rain was being held back like urine in a bladder, while the moon with its pain was concealed from the light of creation. Feeling spiteful, I ignored its pain, as a final bargaining chip in the event that my need wasn’t met. Despite the guilt that weighed me down, my innocence was apparent, and the miracle it granted was that I could see the full moon even as it waned.

I paused once or twice to kick an illusory rock, even though there was nothing in my way but crowds of people, and there wouldn’t have been any room to kick a rock even if there had been one in front of me. I looked at the illuminated sign that bore the name Allah. It had once filled me with happiness, but now it encountered a heart of stone that even the subtlest essence couldn’t have penetrated. And I attributed this to my guilt.

I reached the mosque and bent down to take off my shoes, but all I could feel was a frightening emptiness. I’ll do the ablution, I thought to myself. As I passed among those waiting for the prayer to begin, the Qur’an reciter’s voice tore me up as he chanted: {If only they had attempted the steep Ascent.}

(Do you understand this verse? It ignites a fire of rage inside me. Is there no bliss to be found anywhere but on the most impossible paths?)

I stumbled over somebody who was fast asleep on the mosque floor. I apologized, but I hadn’t even wakened him. He seemed to be immersed in a lake of weariness, which I resented. I wished I could enjoy a slumber like that, enveloped in silence and stillness, a slumber that would remove hardship, lift the weight of responsibility, and put an end to all questions.

I waited for the flow of fresh water to wash me clean. But all I could feel was nothingness upon nothingness. Neither did the water soften the heart, nor did the recitations quench my thirst or restore my connection to God. I thought it might come back during the Sunna prayer. But no sooner had I raised my hands to utter the opening Allahu akbar than I let a small fart. Although I tried to tell myself it hadn’t happened, I viewed it as a cynical sign of divine rejection. So I didn’t go back to the ablution faucets. Instead, I headed for the exit and put on my shoes. Nobody noticed my retreat. I pretended I’d forgotten something, giving my imaginary observers the impression that I’d be back.

I hovered around the mosque like a thief. After circling it several times, I sat down with my back up against the wall. The call to the isha’ prayer hadn’t yet sounded.

Pangs of hunger exacerbated the emptiness and meaninglessness of my pain. I thought of buying a hot raghif samin, but both my ear and my heart clung to the mosque. The Qur’an reciter had a beautiful, melodious voice that had always enthralled me, but at that moment, my heart was closed like a forgotten, rusted-over cabinet. Besides, its contents were frightening to contemplate. What lay inside it: light, or vipers? God, or the emptiness of despair?

When the call to prayer sounded, a beggar came up and asked me to give him some of what God had given me, so I pointed to my male organ, and he walked away bewildered and offended. Then I regretted it, so I went running after him and gave him five pounds, which was all I had left in my pocket.

I watched passersby with a distracted, envious eye. I pelted the people walking into the mosque with spiteful looks, wishing I could stop them.

The prayer commenced, but nothing stirred in my heart. I tried to cry when I heard the first Allahu akbar. Then I tried again with the slow, mournful recitation of bismillah al-rahman al-rahim—“in the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate”—that comes at the beginning of the Fatiha. Why do we seek refuge in God from the accursed Satan before we recite the basmala? Have you ever thought about that before? Bismillah, in the name of God. But what is His name, really?

I waited for the outpouring of abundance from the Most Merciful, and acceptance from the Most Compassionate. By the end of the prayer, I’d reached the point of total despair, and I nearly left again. But some mysterious something came flowing through a hidden crack in my heart. Maybe it was the temptation to regret the pleasure I had missed. I rushed inside the mosque again, thinking: I’ll pray with the first group that arrives.

I performed the ablution and felt the pleasure of having the imagined uncleanness fall away from my body, tons and tons of it. But for what sin? I prayed with total reverence. I didn’t manage to cry, but I could feel God close by and gentle: pardoning, forgiving, and understanding. And now I think it’s naïve always to associate God’s presence with the tears I shed when I prostrate. I said, “Ya hayy, ya hayy, ya hayy—O Living One, O Living One, O Living One, bring Your dead to life, for hope has faded. Ya qayyum, ya qayyum, ya qayyum—O Self-Existent One, O Self-Existent One, O Self-Existent One, restore my ability to share intimate communion with You, for I lack both will and ambition. I have no place on earth, so how can you deprive me of heaven? The path is so rugged and steep, how can I make my way toward what can’t be known?”

(But I didn’t say all this. You put the words in my mouth.)

I shouted, “Oh Lord!” It was a loud, desperate shout that wounded my thirsty palate. Maybe that’s why it didn’t have any effect, and the heavens didn’t shake. Or maybe they did? Whatever happened, my outburst startled those worshiping and sleeping in the mosque, and, for a few moments, everything—the Earth, time, people—seemed to stand still. I could feel people’s eyes burning holes in me, their stares piercing my skin like knife blades. It was as though they’d never heard those words spoken before with that particular blend of hope and reproach.

Embarrassed, I finished praying in a hurry. Then a huge, burly man wearing a patched green jilbab started roughing me up, saying: “Show some manners in the house of God, will you?”

I didn’t need his hands to tell me how coarse and inconsiderate he was. I can recognize hard-hearted people from their stony eyes, and from the helplessness that comes over me when I come face to face with them.

“Is it good manners to hit me in His house?” I asked, trembling as the words came out of my mouth. Then I pushed him away in self-defense.

“So,” he bellowed, punching me vindictively in the chest, “you’re going to lift your hand against a man who’s old enough to be your father?”

 “My father never hit me once till the day he died,” I stammered, seeking refuge in my orphaned status.

Other worshippers gathered around in support of the man, who was determined to kick me out. Equally determined not to budge, I squatted on the floor and said, “Nobody can kick me out of God’s house.”

Then, wooden-eyed, I retreated into silence. Bewildered by my doggedness, people in the congregation tried pulling me by the hand, but I resisted even more, knowing that if I got up, it would be all over. The man cursed me, and they called me crazy. But in the end, they gave up and made him leave me alone.

Even so, my small victory hadn’t mended my tattered pride.

The imam approached me. I saw a look of sympathy in his eyes, although I couldn’t tell whether it was sincere or not.

 “What’s the matter?” he asked calmly, patting me on the shoulder.

The stony tears in my eyes softened. I looked hopeless and exhausted. He sat down beside me.

Hungry for reassurance, I said, “I’ve committed fornication, Mawlana. Will I go to hell?”

I expected him to talk about God’s door being open to those who sincerely repent. But instead, he just gazed steadily into my eyes for a long time. Then, in a pitying voice, he said, “You’ll never rid yourself of the memory of what you did. You’ve tasted its sweetness. Now ask Him for mercy.”

I was upset by what he’d said. “Mad you!” I thought to myself. I didn’t tell him about my real question, which, if it had passed my lips, would have been the end of me: “Will God forgive somebody who killed his mother?”

Outside the mosque, I looked up at the moon. It was pleading, and I was angry. But my heart softened toward it, and I granted it a pardon. The rain came down in torrents, relieving the sky’s distended bladder.

7

I’d left the mosque determined not to repeat what I’d done. I intended to prove to “the blind of sight” that God, the King of Kings, was capable of granting me the willpower I needed.

The cold was making me shiver, and the rain was softening my dry, cracked soil and awakening me from a deep hibernation. I broke down and cried, and my tears seemed more copious than the rain. I didn’t understand the reason for them, but they were watering the seed of my longing for the unknown, a seed that was growing and bursting through the soil of my heart. I hated the pain. It was incomprehensible, and it would go on being that way. It had turned the world into a riddle and a struggle and convinced me that everything was nothingness. Could somebody like me—simple-minded, poor in spirit, weak-willed—ever find happiness? Or what do you call it—deliverance? I don’t think they’re exactly the same thing. After all, my mother, who had set herself on fire and died with a fractured skull and shattered bones, had found a path to deliverance. But it had been a miserable one.

When I’d finished crying, I felt a serenity of spirit. Lifting up a prayer of repentance, I murmured: “I trust in You, and I am repentant and remorseful for what I have done. Please, don’t believe that sheikh!”

At that moment, the air felt pure and fresh, like the breaths of God.

I could almost feel God’s approval, as though I were seeing things for the first time. The streets I’d seen as dreadful places had become beautiful gardens and fruit-bearing groves, and people steeped in cruelty and hysteria were like my brothers in the vast fatherhood of God, sharing freely given tenderness and kindness in this world of destruction and death. I thought: God’s paradises are everywhere if we look closely, and His heaven is as near as near can be.

I felt as though I had all the willpower in the Universe. But as soon as I approached my ugly house, electricity tore me limb from limb.

I stared up at Suraya’s window, which was next to my mother’s. Suraya wasn’t beautiful, but she was delectable, and her pungent perfume, mixed by an herbalist who held the powers of good and evil in his hand, did me in. Although there wasn’t a trace of it in the air, I kept it in the depths of my heart.

Holding fast to my will, I began reciting `Iddiyat Ya Sin.

When I was seven years old, I memorized the entire Qur’an under my father’s supervision. After that, the world ate up half of it, then half of that half. But I held onto the last fourth, plus miscellaneous passages that guarantee a person’s salvation. Clinging to my connection to God, I’ve known it since childhood. It possesses me—heart, mind, and soul—whether I’m following right guidance or going astray. It never leaves me even if I’m disobedient. Without it, I’d be afraid of my own shadow. I’d lose all hope, devoured by this world’s beasts of prey.

Even so, `Iddiyat Ya Sin didn’t save me.

I changed my mind about going up to the house, and I went to the coffee shop instead. I thought: I’ll order some iced jujube to cool down the fire raging inside me. Then I’ll keep myself so busy asking God’s forgiveness that I won’t have time to think about Suraya. I drank the jujube, but it wasn’t enough. The fire went out, and I devoured the ashes. But then my eyes were drawn to her window, and I couldn’t tear them away. My nostrils were filled with the imagined fragrance of her perfume.

I went on thinking about Suraya: the sweet, the delectable, the luscious; the abode of pleasure, the abode of fire; the wanton but severe, the portal to the world, the daughter of fortune . . . I’d never listed her names before.

Then she came to me. She was wearing a black nightie that showed her cleavage. I buried my face in her awesome bosom and disappeared.

8

For fear that I’d leave her once we’d finished pleasuring each other, Suraya developed a peculiar habit. She would take my hand, contemplate my fingers, and then start slowly kissing and licking them. This would keep me by her side and fill my emptiness the way a mother soothes a baby by rocking it.

Meanwhile, I was obsessed with gathering clay. For more than ten years, I’d failed to master anything in Idris’s workshop but the process of preparing the clay for his statues. I would fill plastic containers and pails with one part clay and two parts water. After crumbling the hard clay into little pieces, I would stir it into the water, then let the impurities float to the top. After that, I’d pour the water into another container and repeat the process several more times until all the impurities were gone and wait for the clean clay to settle at the bottom. Then I would strain off the last of the water with a piece of cloth, and the result was my pure gold: a lump of clay fit to be shaped by Mu`allim Idris’s masterful hands.

“Your fingers are stunning,” Suraya whispered in my ear. “They’re delicate and slender, as though they were made for an artist.”

“I got them by accident!” I said sarcastically. I didn’t tell her that the passion for creation stored up in those fingers was my curse. After all, the world is ill-tempered. You tell it you’ve got a sparrow, and it replies that it already knows what a sparrow looks like, and that that’s all it needs. You say: But my sparrow is different. In fact, it’s not a sparrow at all. It’s hideous-looking, and completely original. There’s nothing else like it. Why will the world forgive something strange like beautiful, captivating fingers on an ugly body, but it won’t forgive statues that don’t look like sparrows?

(Have I said this before? No, you’re the one who said it before … only this time I said it myself.)

9

One time after we’d finished, I asked Suraya, “Where is God’s face?” And she pointed to the closed window.

For forty days and forty nights, I was buried between her thighs. Her body marked the world’s boundaries. Enduring bliss was possible after all, and paradise was at my fingertips. I reveled in food, cigarettes, and the pleasures of the flesh. I didn’t leave the house. When Suraya went to her job at the Insurance Authority, I’d sleep until she came home. I didn’t even go to Idris’s workshop, and he didn’t ask about me. It was as if my absence had freed him from a heavy burden.

Suraya’s window was always shuttered so that I wouldn’t be seen by people in the street. However, its being shuttered didn’t stop the malicious whispers and gossip. They knew I was taking the place of the husband who’d been absent in distant lands for years on end.

They all coveted the room, which she had never opened to anyone but strangers who came under cover of darkness. I was the first person she’d ever accepted from the neighborhood, and the first to enjoy a thousand nights of union. All I needed to do to keep up the pretense, and to silence hatred and resentment, was not to open the window.

Nevertheless, taking advantage of the cover afforded by the night, I opened it for the first time in forty days and nights. The window was low, but it still gave me a view of the moon.

Exhaling my cigarette smoke, I said, “This is a caring, forgiving, understanding moon. I bear no grudge against it. However, I do hold plenty of grudges, and if I exploded, the whole world would go up in flames. Or maybe I’d be the only one to burn up. I’m a big nobody. God and the moon claim to protect me, but all I am is something that was born as a glob of spittle, and that will die as a pile of excrement, neither of which draws any attention except for the nuisance they cause at birth or death. I truly desire lasting peace with my soul, and my soul belongs to God. But God cares nothing for fornicators and adulterers. On the contrary, He commands them to be stoned to death.

Ignoring Suraya’s threat, I didn’t close the window. I was just wondering what had so fascinated my mother about the side street that she would have wanted to monitor it every day, when all that was there was monotony and stagnation—the same old misery.

When some men passed by on their way to the dawn prayer, one of them muttered a prayer for protection from the accursed Satan and the filth of sinners. Eyeballing him defiantly, I said, “Yeah, I’m fucking Suraya. And if you’ve got a problem with that, I’ll do the same to your mother.”

The man glued his eyes to the ground and went on his way. The look on my face must have been frightening.

The next day, I didn’t watch the moon from the window. I thought: The moon sets, and I don’t like things that set.

*

Ahmed El-Fakhrany is a novelist and journalist. He has published novels, a short-story collection, and a collection of poetry, including Laialina Bar, Conquering the Dog, Biyasat Al-Shawam (or “The Quail King,” which won the 2020 Sawiris Prize), and Mandorla (shortlisted for the Sawiris Prize in 2016). He has published articles in the Arab and Egyptian press, and he won the Hani Darwish Prize for Journalism.

Nancy Roberts is a freelance Arabic-to-English translator and editor with experience in the areas of modern Arabic literature, politics and education; international development; Arab women’s economic and political empowerment; Islamic jurisprudence and theology; Islamist thought and movements; and interreligious dialogue. Literary translations include works by Ghada Samman, Ahlem Mostaghanemi, Naguib Mahjouz, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Ibrahim al-Koni, Salman al-Farsi, Laila Al Johani, and Haji Jabir, among others. Her translation of Ghada Samman’s Beirut ’75 won the 1994 Arkansas Arabic Translation Award; her rendition of Salwa Bakr’s The Man From Bashmour (Cairo: AUC Press, 2007) was awarded a commendation in the 2008 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Translation, while her English translations of Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Gaza Weddings (Cairo: Hoopoe Press, 2017), Lanterns of the King of Galilee (AUC Press, 2015) and Time of White Horses (Cairo: Hoopoe Reprint, 2016) won her the 2018 Sheikh Hamad Prize for Translation and International Understanding. She is based in Wheaton, Illinois.

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