Arabesques


by Ihab Hassan



        He was already an old man when I met him, a man who could stare eternity down; I had the intolerance of youth and thought romance attended violence in faraway places. Though he never strutted or clowned on the world´s stage, I regarded him a hero who deserved a place in memory. And though no one now will know that he relished the mysteries of the arabesque, angular line and looping tendril meeting at infinity; that he stood before me, thrice tapping his ebony cane on the stone floor of an excavated church; or why it was his body floated below a bridge in Geneva—I, Kadr Hakim, still want to do justice to all the shadowed ambiguities of Uncle Selim. “The vanished are just,”† a poet said; I only know that the name Selim filled my childhood and haunts my old age.



***


        Once they had addressed him as Selim Bey, later as plain Selim. Then he fled Egypt. In Switzerland, he became known among some wits as the Sage of Geneva, fingernails longer than a hermit’s but impeccably groomed. People came to his table at a café on the Rue du Marché and sought his counsel about matters familiar or strange. As they left, they tried to slip an envelope under his cup; gently, he pushed it back. His pocket chess set, folded like a morocco pouch, with tiny pawns red and white, seemed always within his reach. At odd moments, his fingers would move deftly across the open board, perfecting the wild Traxler Variation.

        When the police found him one raw November dawn floating in the churning waters below the Pont de la Machine, they remarked the dark line across his throat. “It’s his past,” some said; “he was out of step with the times,” others rejoined with a shrug. A few intimated suicide. The fact was that no one knew much about Selim. After his wife died, when he was not chatting at the café, people would see him strolling the quays or sitting in the Promenade des Bastions, facing the solemn statues along the wall. Always alone.



*


        In another age, they might have built a statue for Selim in his native Mansura. Lithe and lean as a young man, mildly pigeon-toed, he spoke English with an Oxbridge accent, pursing his lips. His judgment of events—the crash and tumble of civilizations—seemed clairvoyant to his associates; his judgment in marriage—they tsked and tutted behind his back—appeared to them bizarre. But Selim knew that, incongruous as it might seem, his marriage would outlast its critics.

        His wife—a gawky Yorkshire girl called Grace, with gray eyes and rosy cheeks marked with angel-hair veins—never found the Egyptian climate suitable. Why, then, the natives asked, did she ever marry him and settle here? For less than that they would have found reason to dislike an Englishwoman. But they had not reckoned on the intricacies of love, which disregards the claims of nationalism—and they did not know Selim.



*


        When Grace was a nurse in Durham, still longing to see the world beyond the local moors—a cheerless, wintry landscape, overgrown with sedge and gorse—the orderlies wheeled a young man with a fractured tibia into her ward. He had jumped over an icy puddle, landing on cobblestones, limbs bent like a doll’s. The youth had clear brown eyes, a faint, alluring fragrance, and a faraway name.

        At the University Hospital, Grace took charge. Selim seemed to her a rare bird of passage, streaking across a dull horizon—that’s what she had told Ruby, her fellow nurse, blushing. He would be in Durham only a few months, researching medieval taxation in libraries and archives before returning to Cairo. But something in that odd bird caught Grace’s wonder even as he hopped and hobbled about in the ward.

        At first, Ruby had rolled her eyes:

        Don’t be ridiculous, Grace, he’s younger than you are. And what do you know about Egypt?

        Grace flushed again—with anger this time—and went sullenly about her work. At last, Ruby said:

        You could do worse.

        The youth, after all, possessed both good sense and charm; and in those days no mosque in Durham challenged the hulking, rib-vaulted Cathedral, shrine of the Venerable Bede. Within three months, Grace was pregnant, whether by accident or design she neither knew nor cared. But the baby was stillborn.



*


        The newlyweds spent their honeymoon at the Winter Palace in Luxor, then sailed down the Nile on a snub-nosed white steamer trailing wisps of smoke. Grace and Selim settled in Cairo. The turbid Nile rose each season and fell; Selim Bey—it was his title now—continued to rise and never fell. After ten years of civil service, the King himself had appointed him permanent Secretary to the Royal Council of Ministers.

        Selim Bey found himself working late in the august chambers of the Council. Colonial shadows still clung to corners; the spirit of injustices past and injustices yet to come hovered in the marbled halls; ghostly fans whirred overhead. Neatly, Selim copied with his gold Parker pen all the notes he had scribbled during Council meetings, sitting at a gleaming mahogany table topped with ceremonial inkstands. The notes, he convinced himself, might offer him refuge, in his old age, from a world growing more cruel and senseless by the day.

        Things kept turning worse. Every month, bending to the wills of those more highly placed, Selim transmitted certain orders to the Prefect of Police. He sealed the envelope with red wax and stamped it with the Royal Sigil. He would then sit at his desk, holding his brow, dreaming of the old caliphs and their shrewd viziers. Where had the sagacity of rulers fled? When would Egypt rise above the dross of colonial regimes, the stench of corruption, the bones of dead civilizations?

        When Selim returned home at night, eyes glazed—his tie still knotted and firmly placed—Grace would offer him a yogurt or make him some lemonade. He shared with her anecdotes of power, sparing her the worst, and tried to stir her feelings for a land immemorially oppressed. He told her how Egypt would someday awaken from sleep, exhale deeply, and open wide its eyes. Grace would stroke his hair, kiss his brow lightly. Later, in bed, he would sometimes toss and turn fitfully till she shook him with both hands. Then he would sit up, sweat running down his spine, and think: my brain has become a vault filled with iniquities.



*


        No one disliked the Secretary, not even his enemies; nearly everyone disliked Grace, her airs, her down-turned mouth. Besides, didn’t the Union Jack, still flying high on the barracks at Kasr El Nil, taunt every citizen of Cairo? Selim Bey tried to take such things in his loping stride and carefully cultivated a trim salt-and-pepper mustache. But as the hot years passed, the Egyptian and his Inglesiah remained childless. Selim said nothing, though he could not hide his pain from Grace—nor did she hide hers from him. They shared a new, hurtful bond.

        People whispered at the exclusive Sporting Club. “Look,” they said, “they’re childless yet closer than turtledoves.” “Yes, but a Swiss bank account helps,” someone would add. The pashas sipped their scotch and sodas, sitting on the terrace in rattan chairs, and laughed with yellow teeth while the ice rattled in their glasses. Selim Bey understood the ageless cynicism of Egypt and told himself: these things all filter out in the great sieve of time.

        But something was already in the air. It was not only the choking cities, the brown canopy of fumes eclipsing the sun, or the torture cells hidden in the bowels of prisons; it was a seismic change, thrusting irresistibly through the river and mud-walled towns. How many, Selim wondered, how many in their marbled mansions along the Nile or in the rank slums of Khan-al-Khalili, could feel these tremors? Oh, he was certain, when the time came, it would be a time of leopards stalking the land.



*


        When the Coup succeeded, Grace said to Selim:

        This Colonel of yours! Nothing good will come of him.

        My dear, the King was no angel. Let’s wait and see.

        But Grace saw her chance and her tone became shrill with hope:

        Let’s go to England before they throw you in jail.

        They won’t. And what would I do in England, Grace?

        Well, then, to California. Your brother Saleh is already there preparing for medical school. You can teach history or political science.

        Selim thought of Saleh, who had gone to America a few years earlier. It wasn’t a case of the sinking ship and proverbial rats: their parents had simply wanted to give the boy a good education. But Selim had stayed on, believing that Egypt would need him someday.

        Grace guessed her husband’s thoughts and flared out in anger:

        You still feel responsible to this bloody place, Selim! Why?

        With age, the lines on her face had dug deeper into her now-sallow skin; her mouth had tightened into a gash.

        When the time comes, we’ll go. Or you can go ahead, Grace.

        Never! I’m going to make some tea.

        She walked to the kitchen, straight-backed despite bursitis in her left hip, and as Selim followed her with his eyes, he felt his chest cave in.



*


        They boarded the windows of the Royal Council and put armed guards before its florid grille. Crowds looked curiously as they passed by the building, jerking their children by the hand or urging their donkeys on with a stick. Obsolete tanks rumbled across Tahrir Square, looking aimless and bellicose. Selim Bey stayed in his modest villa in Zamalek, listening through closed shutters for the barely audible grinding of history. He played chess against himself, scribbled notes, wrote letters to his friends abroad; and in the evening, he read aloud to Grace from his buckram bound sets of English literature—Dickens, Trollope, Tennyson. They had no friends or relatives they wanted to see, only the impassive Nile outside their bolted, arabesque gate.



*


        Through the years, at his wife’s insistence, Selim had deposited a good part of his earnings in the Credit Suisse. It was perfectly legal. Still, people watched the couple, ready with a sardonic joke, a political sneer, expecting the usual scandal to splatter across the front pages. Selim knew he could expect a different fate. He did not wait long: a formal letter of dismissal arrived in the post one day, signed by the Revolutionary Council, regretting that both the position and the title of Selim el Hakim had been abolished. The newly minted seal of Egypt lacked the royal coat of arms.

        But will they give us an exit visa? Grace asked.

        She stared at him with eyes moist and gray. He said nothing. When the visa came through, Grace said:

        They’ll stop you at the airport, won’t they? That’s what they do.

        They didn’t. But neither Grace nor Selim relaxed—they sat gripping each other’s hands in their upright, belted seats—till the TWA plane banked over the Mokkattam Hills and streaked across the Mediterranean. At Cointrin Airport, Selim found that he still retained enough influence to arrange for a Swiss visa.



*


        In Geneva, the couple rented a dark-timbered loft in the Old Town—the narrow, cobbled streets reminded Grace of her youthful days in Durham. Every morning, Selim read Al Ahram, the International Herald Tribune, and the Journal de Genève over his black coffee. Sometimes, he wrote well-paid articles for magazines; sometimes, he planned chapters of his memoir, for which a publisher had given him a large advance. More often, he penned obscure notes on yellow pads:

        Memoirs distort experience; public records leave nothing on the page but dusty facts. The tide of Islam will overwhelm socialism and ride on innumerable humiliations and miseries. Where is my place on this rising tide? A cracked bottle bobbing among flotsam.

        Occasionally, though, the phone would ring late at night. Selim would pick up the receiver and listen in silence, his lips tightening. He would then replace the receiver without a word and make a brief note on his yellow pad. Once when Grace asked him who was calling at this hour, Selim replied, “Just a wrong number, dear.” Grace put back her head on the pillow and stared into the dark. She never asked him again.

        One afternoon, chatting with her friends at the Anglo-American Club, Grace suddenly bent over in her chair like a tulip wilting on its stem. The crippling stroke left her immobile and speechless. When thrombolysis failed, fatal reperfusion followed. Selim wore a black armband over his black suit as he accompanied his wife’s casket to the grave, his eyes hollow and dry. After twenty-two years of marriage—widowed, exiled, unemployed—he returned to his empty loft in the city of expatriates. Old newspapers piled up in the loft and coffee rings stained the kitchen counter. Selim considered the icy waters of the Rhône. On a new fresh pad, he wrote:

        This cycle is complete. Will another start? Those nocturnal callers persist. Do they call me to action or to the darkness of night? I hear the monotone of hours go by…

        It was then that Saleh flew in from California to share his brother’s bereavement. (“Telepathy,” this radiologist had told his wife before leaving Goleta, “will outwit X-rays any day.”) On their first meeting, barely out of the Customs gate, Saleh huskily cried:

        Come to California with me, Selim. Come, now.

        Selim hugged his young brother till people began to stare. Then, holding him at arm&;s leng#146th, he said:

        Listen, Saleh, I’ll visit you sometime. But not now. Grace is here, buried under a plane tree.



***


        Precisely here, I, Kadr Saleh Hakim, must intervene. My recollections of that period are excruciatingly clear. I was twelve then, Uncle Selim edging eighty. But our encounter was prefigured in countless stories and fables that my father had related to us in Goleta.

        The stories recounted how Selim defied both Nasser´s socialism and Islamic extremism; how he had felt both a repugnance for xenophobia and a deep love of Egypt; how, despite his youth, he had become known among diplomats as a precocious sage; and how he remained to the end loyal to his ungainly English wife. Gradually, Selim displaced my father as an examplar of courage and life´s high achievements. But the stories also left me dissatisfied, as if they offered only sketches or ambrotypes of the man I most wanted to meet. I needed to travel; I needed to see him.

        One evening—I had just started wearing long pants—my father looked up at dinner from his key-lime tart, a sly grin on his ageing face. Mother, a perky Californian with freckles and bangs, cried:

        Uh-oh. Watch out!

        Father raised a jokey finger in the air:

        How would you like to make a visit to Egypt without the heat, dust, or traffic jams? We´ll visit Selim in Geneva. He knows everything there is to know about Egypt. I bet he has some old pictures, too.

        Forks and knives hung midway between plates and mouths.

        And the pyramids, the sphinx, the temples and minarets? I responded indignantly.

        Well, they´re not going anywhere soon.

        Father remained jovial; Mother, though many years his junior, pretended to glare. Suspecting a cheap conspiracy to satisfy my long-standing curiosity about Egypt, I was not amused.

        That´s a bit sudden, Mother finally said, her aquamarine eyes turning a deeper green. We need to discuss this little jaunt.

        My father pushed away his plate, his tart unfinished, pretending disgust:

        I thought you´d be pleased. It´s just the three of us now in this big house in Goleta. The others have gone, and I´m hoping to retire from practice soon.

        That´s not the point, Mother said. This is not about radiology.

        Father´s mood began to sour:

        Well, I don´t know about you, but wild mustangs couldn´t drag me back to Egypt just now.

        I went up to my room to think it over. In our hacienda-style home, with the balcony windows half-closed, the sound of waves drifted in from the Pacific. Palms, bougainvillea, and lemon trees fluttered in the backyard, and glazed urns stood stoically on the patio. As I lay in my bunk bed, staring at the shadows on the ceiling—headlights of passing cars?—I told myself: why not? I can always make it later to Egypt. Better see the man before he turns into legendary dust.



***


        When the family passed through Customs at Cointrin Airport, they saw an erect old man with a shock of white hair, watching them alertly. The man leaned lightly on an ebony cane, and as his smile widened, narrowing his eyes, a few lines creased his temples. Briskly, Saleh pulled his son and his wife by the hand and cried: “Selim!” The two men embraced, feeling each other’s body heat.

        This is my wife, Jean, and Kadr, my son. Finally, you get to see them.

        Selim bowed to air-kiss Jean’s hand, then turned to Kadr:

        Thirty-six years ago, I welcomed your father on this very spot. I never fulfilled my promise to visit him in America. But now, I’m redeeming that promise in a way. Marhaba, marhaba. I’m only sorry Grace can’t join me in welcoming you.

        Selim had reserved for his visitors a suite at the Hotel du Rhône, overlooking the furious river and its waterworks, close to his own flat in the Old Town. As they rode in the taxi, Saleh and Jean chatted away; Kadr kept whipping his head from side to side to look through the back and side windows; Selim listened, a quiet smile on his face, wondering all the while why he hadn’t seen his American relatives through all those decades. Had he envied their domestic happiness, after Grace died? Was he still waiting to be called back to Egypt?

        That same night, when the phone rang, Selim picked up the receiver, listened for thirty seconds with his head tilted to one side, then hung up. On his yellow pad, he wrote:

        I still hear those hard voices over the phone. Will they save the world? I have seen a new face. This boy may not incarnate the much-awaited Mahdi but at least he can reveal the seed from which I have sprung. What do you think of that, Grace? Is he our time-traveling grandson?



*


        They went everywhere together, sometimes all four, more often just the old man and the boy. They stood glumly before Calvin and Knox at the Reformation Wall; smiled at Rousseau with a pigeon on his head near the Pont des Bergues; rambled in the Parc de la Grange while Selim discoursed on arabesque designs, their floral, linear, and calligraphic patterns symbolizing the Three Realities; gawked at the squat tower in Place du Molard, scene of many bloody executions; toured the marbled halls of the Palais des Nations as Selim expounded on colonial history; and on one lazy day, the whole family scrambled up the gangplank of a spangled steamer for an excursion to Chillon. The famous jet d´eau lofted its waters above the white swans, a giant plume fluttering in the sky; a cool alpine breeze rippled the lake.

        Kadr wanted to know everything and Selim did his best to oblige him, however foolish the questions. Once, in the stony hush of the excavations below the Cathédrale St. Pierre, the boy suddenly asked his uncle:

        Which is better, a church or a mosque?

        Selim shifted his weight on the cane:

        One has icons, the other geometries. There were temples before them, with statues of different kinds.

        But Dad doesn’t go to any.

        Neither do I.

        Kadr studied his sneakers and started to kick at a splintered sarcophagus:

        Aren’t you afraid of death, Uncle Selim?

        The old man thought for a while, his eyes searching the crypt, the ageless gloom:

        I’m afraid of fanaticism.

        Why?

        It gnaws away at your guts.

        Selim stood among the ruins, overcome by something inexpressible. But when he spoke again, his voice was plangent:

        Come, he said, thrice tapping his cane on the stone floor. The dead live all around us, Kadr, there’s nothing to fear.

        The boy felt his cheeks burn—his father had never talked to him like that—and vowed never to forget the sound of that cane. Tick-tock-tick, tapping on ancient stone. As they walked to the hotel in the early dusk, the neon signs had begun to glow high above the quays: Movado, Piaget, Rolex, Chopard… ticking to a different time.



*


        A few days before their scheduled departure, Saleh and his family sat on the terrace of the Beau Rivage, waiting for Selim to join them for afternoon tea. Kadr looked around sullenly: sails, ferries, swans, that eternal jet spraying the sky . . . boring! Where were the gods with animal heads? Where the prancing horses in the desert, the turbaned sheiks with muskets and filigreed daggers? Kadr dug his hands into the pockets of his jeans. Boring!

        Here comes Selim now, Jean said brightly, trying to cheer her son. They all stood up to greet the old man. But something seemed to weigh on Selim’s movements that day, something like a reluctant presage of doom. They sat down and presently Selim ordered trois thé complet et une limonade. With an effort, he turned toward Jean:

        You look lovely in this clear, afternoon light, my dear.

        Thank you, Selim. You’ve been wonderful to Kadr. Telling him all about Egypt.

        Well, I’m unreliable, you know. It’s been nearly half a century since I left Cairo. But we did talk about many things. A pigeon on Rousseau’s head. Temples, churches, and mosques. The conquerors who stormed through Egypt, all leaving something behind.

        The dark waiter—Moroccan, Jean decided—brought a glistening tray, heaped with the delicacies of high tea—jam, strawberries, cream, and the Swiss version of scones—and began to unload it ceremoniously as everyone watched. Selim signaled that he would pour.

        How do you mean that? Saleh asked when the waiter left. What did the conquerors leave behind?

        Selim finished pouring for the three adults while Kadr sucked on his straw:

        Well, you know what pigeons deposit. As for the invaders, they all left traces of their civilizations without changing anything. Except for the traces of bitterness. You can taste it in the water. Remember that taste, Saleh?

        I remember the fellah watering his plot by hand. With shaduf or tambour.

        Exactly. For six thousand years.

        They fell silent and sipped their tea. Jean followed the leaps and breaks of the conversation but worried about her son, who had started to fidget. Before she could offer him a slice of cake, Saleh asked:

        And the Islamists? What do they leave behind?

        Selim nodded and looked at Mont Blanc through its thin crown of haze:

        Another kind of bitterness, yes. They still call me in the small hours. They threaten and cajole.

        Why? Saleh asked incredulously.

        They think I have documents from the old days, “compromising secrets.”

        Jean could not resist inquiring:

        What do you say to them, Uncle Selim?

        I hang up politely. Then I read a few pages of The Arabian Nights before going back to sleep.

        Why The Arabian Nights? Kadr blurted out to everyone’s surprise.

        To learn chess from the Jinn, young man. To perfect my game.

        Everyone smiled except Kadr, who kept stirring his glass with the straw:

        If you had one wish, Uncle Selim, what would you ask the Jinn?

        I guess the point is to ask for nothing, Kadr.

        Selim’s tone, eerie and still serene, like the note of a solitary mountain flute, discouraged further comment. Jean thought it best to call it a day:

        We’ll walk you to the Old Town, she said.



*


        At three in the morning, the phone rang in Selim’s flat. It rang ten times; it rang more. He did not pick up the receiver. The bedside clock glowed, casting a bluish light on his face. They have become really insistent, he told himself drowsily. Still thick with sleep, he sat up in bed, searched for his slippers with one hand, and shuffled to his desk. With his old Parker, he wrote:

        My dear Grace has been dead these many years. Kadr is here but will soon depart. These voices calling me in the night persist. Could they be my own? No grievance, no blame. Grievance is shallow; praise and blame meet behind our back.

        Selim held his gold pen in the air, its tip two inches above the pad. He held it there till his head began to nod.



*


        In our house in Goleta, my uncle´s death wandered from room to room like a hesitant ghost, seeking a place to rest. Occasionally, my parents would look silently at one another, as if they had received some intimation from the grave. The word “suicide” was never once uttered.

        At first, I expected a posthumous letter containing an arabesque design that would reveal the secret of my uncle´s death. Then I lay in bed at night, listening to the surf, listening for a hidden rhythm within the sound of waves that might echo a tapping cane. After that, I began to imagine a journey to Egypt in search of Selim, not the old man I had met in Geneva, but the boy who might have been me in some parallel life.

        Eventually, Selim faded—I lost him to the banality of my days. But now, in my old age, I remember him again as I recite a few lines from a poem I read years ago: “The vanished are just. / That´s how we´ll fade too.”



        † Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Die Verschwundenen,” translated as “The Vanquished,” by Rita Dove and Fred Viebahn, Poetry Magazine, v.173, no.1 (October 1998).


Appearing in New England Review (Fall/Winter 2012-2013).


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