by Ihab Hassan
You cock your head as if listening for a bird, a break in the weather, the end of the world. You cock your head: all those years, fame and failure, what happened? What did you expect? A message from the gods, some insuperable grace, relief from the opacity of the heart?
You were always proud, shy, clenched. You never wanted to tell anyone what happened that day, not even your father. Who would have believed you—a talking bird with golden wings and azure eyes? Well, perhaps mad Uncle Moktar, who chiseled stone with delicate hands and spent his life darting in and out of sanatoriums. (Rolling his eyes wildly, he whispered to you: Behind velvet bars.)
It was your fifth birthday when you saw Horus, perched atop that improbable building with pointed domes and soaring minarets—headquarters of the Suez Canal Company—which gleamed in the reflected light of the sea like a palace in The Arabian Nights. Your father—Adli Bey Harb, prominent lawyer for the Company—took you first to his office, paneled with mahogany and scattered with Izmir rugs. There, among shelves filled to the ceiling with books smelling of ink and leather, he whispered to you his surprise: Come, Kareem, let´s put Port Said at your feet.
He led you by the hand, up a narrow, winding stair, all the way up the north tower. From its circular balcony, no wider than a tub, he pointed out the great P & O liners, orange and black, moored by enormous hawsers to the docks; the low-slung British war ships, menacing in their calm like sleeping wolves; the bronze statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, lapped by spume, pointing an imperious finger to the East.
You shaded your eyes and looked westward—even then, you had no interest in the East—then, lifting up your face to avoid vertigo, you saw Horus, there above you, perched on a brazen crescent. Eerie stillness, shining beak and claws. He stared at you as if his indifferent gaze could drill through your skull, and said: Become a hawk. You turned away as any mortal would turn from a god.
Your father did not see the bird. After a moment he took you again by the hand and you descended the stair. Down and down you circled, hopping on small feet. But your father missed the right door—where was his mind?—and both of you ended in a basement lit by bare bulbs. Filing cabinets, broken desks, tilted chairs, carpets moldering in the scabby light, the air thick and dank. Shadows hulked in corners, out of sight. You saw dread come to your father´s face and tightened your grip on his hand.
In subsequent years, you would shut out memories of that basement, but you always recalled the image of a hawk fringed with light.
Adli Harb insists that his pretty young wife, Amina—the family calls her our Sylvia Sidney—deliver their child in the new clinic of the Company. Hawk-nosed, bushy-browed, commanding in appearance if not in fact, no one contradicts him. and why would Amina refuse? Though her father and her uncles all called upon Midwife Soraya—she of the capable, hennaed hands—for family accouchements, that was in another time.
Fifteen years her husbands junior, une femme moderne—she speaks fluent French—Amina really spurns midwives, their fussy, superstitious ways, their silly gossip about mix-ups in hospital wards. In any case, the foreign clinic offers both exacting hygiene and social prestige. Would her own family, the landed Hashmi, expect any less from her, though they may call her a headstrong girl?
When a sallow French nurse, skin dried by the Egyptian sun, brings the infant to Amina, the mother gives it a curious, lingering look before accepting it in her arms. The baby is fair. Its his Albanian blood, Amina tells herself, the light shades of her own grandfather, whom she has never seen. she lifts her arms to accept the small creature, which turns its hairless head away and wails. Despite herself, Amina blinks, wondering: Is he a changeling?
Shall we call it Krim, she says wanly to no one in particular.
Cream? Adli replies, nonplussed.
I mean Kareem, of course. as in generous.
Vaguely cross—cross or puzzled—Amina sinks deeper into the immaculate bedsheets, still cradling her son.
Adli beams as he places a small object—onyx inlaid with amber and turquoise—on the bedside table. It looks like an elongated, unblinking eye. Amina smiles dubiously but her voice betrays irritation:
What is it?
The Eye of Horus. To ward off envy.
Oh, its infallible, Adli jokes, as he awkwardly takes his wifes hand. Remember the story about Horus and his evil brother Seth?
Adli wants to tell her about the great battle, how Seth tore off his brothers eye before losing the primal struggle, how Thoth restored it, how Horus bequeathed it to Osiris who rules the underworld. Instead, he says with a nervous laugh:
The Eye of Horus sees everything.
The expression on his broad face, boasting fatherhood, betrays some hidden weakness—betrays also something like love, all the love he can find to express, for his young wife.
What nonsense, Amina says, as she withdraws her hand.
The sallow nurse bustles in again, giving the Eye of Horus a louche, sidelong glance:
Madame doit se reposer, she declares to the four spotless walls before carrying off the infant.
Adli sighs inaudibly. Amina closes her eyes.
And you, already-Kareem: what did you feel in your first moments in that clinic? Primal separations, from womb to doctor, doctor to nurse, nurse to mother and back again, all within an hour? Did you recognize a change in the texture of skins next to your skin? A gliding sense of motion, subsuming all journeys and all separations thereafter? Did you already know that you carried a changeling gene, the seal of self-exile? Spurning your native soil, did you speed your parents to their grave?
There they lie, side by side, Adli Harb and Amina Hashmi, closer than they ever were, and Moktar lies in the same family crypt, wondering why he wasn´t buried in some unmarked grave.
After Kareems birth, Amina and Adli drift apart, ripples in a dune blown by the vagrant wind. Drift? The child hears quarrels rending the night, furies swirling past his crib. He does not understand, but the violence in his fathers voice, in his mothers wail—which is worse?—shreds his tiny world. sometimes, after a particularly vicious flare of anger in other rooms, he hears shrieks and thuds behind closed doors, naked feet scurrying in the dark. Monsters prowl in his nightmares.
Kareem does not understand but grows inured to the sudden, hot splash of urine between his thighs. He does not understand how his parents seem normal, almost bland, the following day. He looks from one to the other at breakfast: mother sipping her café au lait, father spreading marmalade on toast in his shame-faced way, yes, they seem intact. Three nights later, the monsters return . . . Kareem does not understand. Slowly, the child withdraws to a place within himself, far and safe: no nocturnal fury can reach him there. But each nightmare leaves an invisible trace, some lifelong sediment in his soul, a flinty crust.
The child discerns a subliminal shift in his parents. On the flowery terrace of the Hôtel du Port—those abhorred thés dansants—or on Cairo visits to the Hashmi home, Kareem senses that a subtle energy has flowed from Adli to Amina, like fine sand in some irreversible hourglass. (Did that Lulu, nuzzling its black snout in his mothers lap, sense it too?) His father becomes listless, his mother quick of step. Adlis imaginative brio, once his sons delight, seems to have subsided. (What happened to those speedboat rides on the Canal and those absurd charades, miming the old Egyptian gods?) Amina, by contrast, becomes surer of herself even as discontent settles prissily around her mouth.
In time, the boy notices that his father no longer goes to the paneled office in the palace with soaring towers; often, he stays home playing a whining clarinet behind closed doors, the notes turning and twisting as if caught in a leaden box. Without realizing it—the cunning pliancy of childhood—Kareem adjusts. Female friends of the family continue to dote on his smooth features and long, curled lashes: look at the little prince, they murmur, this boy will make Egypt proud, insha´llah. They dont know: every night before falling asleep, Kareem flees into the desert, runs away to sea. Its a promise, he whispers to Horus, whispers to himself, as he floats away.
What were you fleeing? There´s so much you never realized, never wanted to understand or realize. You never understood why you scorned the father you almost loved or resented the mother who could not love you wholly. You never admitted the boundless egotism of an only child, protecting himself from those who would not love him as he wished to be loved. And so, you sought refuge in internal distances, reckless make-believe, hoping no one would notice?
But your uncle, mad Moktar, saw through you. Though nicknamed Scarface because of the terrible cicatrix that marred his left temple and cheek—a scaffold had collapsed—he remained unblemished in his moral vision and was right to rebuke you. Remember that summer evening at the ezbah, during your school holidays? Your parents had left you with your Grandmother Hoda while they spent a month in Geneva. In one of his lucid intervals, Moktar had come to visit. The evening was warm and dry. You sat all three on the balcony and Moktar insisted on teaching you chess in the dark, under a star-strewn sky. As you fumbled with a knight´s move, he asked casually after your parents. You shrugged rudely, not once but twice. He leaned over and, holding you by the biceps till your arms hurt, said:
Careful, Kareem. No one is beyond the reach of his heart.
You wrenched your arms free and continued to play.
Decades later, when you found yourself alone again after all the tumbling years—your beloved Anne had died and your son, named after Moktar, had fled to another continent—yes, you stood alone then under the American sky and, recalling the words of your uncle, laughed; you felt the bitter irony on your tongue, in the roots of your teeth. Only then would you revisit in your heart Adli and Amina.
Were they not young once? you wondered. What fancies crowded their childhood reveries? You tried to imagine your parents when they first met, skin slightly flushed, chaperones hovering near. Did they study each other slant, curiosity and suspicion, perhaps even desire—you always refused them that—lighting their eyes? After their marriage, did they discover friendship, as their love—if ever it existed—withered and peeled like eucalyptus bark? And what of their last years? When your father, first to die, lay in his satin-lined casket, his collar all fluffed up around his neck, while a cleric chanted a sura from the Koran, just what did your mother feel beneath her mourning veil?
They told you only that, for years before she died—hair thinning on her scalp, eyes emptying themselves of the past—she kept a suitcase fully packed under her bed, expecting your call from America. Dust thickened on the ox hide.
Families, happy or unhappy, hug, squabble, sometimes fight to the death—a carving knife dripping blood, a hole in the wall where a bullet strayed—sometimes bond for life. Egyptian families are no exception. But their passions, the tantrums even of sophisticates, give their quarrels a special tone, part souk, part circus, melodrama always.
Throughout his childhood in Port Said, Kareem hears the echo of these distant rumbles. Their epicenter is Tante Haneyas villa in Cairo. Kareem recalls his aunt with awe: Haneya of the great, kohled eyes, heaving bosom, a voice to curdle milk. Heinous Haneya, they call her, who settles all family matters by threatening to raise her voice. (It would remain raised for three days and three nights till everyone fled.) Yet she could gaze on little Kareem, her son Fawzis closest playmate, with a soul brimming tenderness.
Haneya is no blood relation and this galls the family. She is the second wife of Kareems oldest maternal uncle, Judge Ashraf Hashmi, laid flat in his bed by a mysterious sleeping disease. The doctors come and go, with colored vials and gleaming syringes, but Judge Ashraf turns in his bed, faces the wall, and slumbers, his fingers on the covers grotesquely puffed. Chest heaving, thick arms outstretched, Haneya glares everyone away.
The malady haunts the Hashmi family because Grandmother Hoda believes her son has been hexed. How else could she explain it? Judge Ashraf, recently appointed to the supreme Mixed Courts of Egypt, which rules on torts between Egyptians and foreigners, is honored by all; a reverent hush follows his name. Then one day they discover he has embezzled the Hashmi estate, sold land and orchards of the ezbah behind their backs and transferred funds to accounts in Switzerland. Judge Ashraf? Impossible, hes been hexed. In the house of echolalia, everyone speaks with tongues, sometimes obscenely.
Children, the mothers cry, go out and play in the garden!
But Uncle Moktar—if hes there on a visit rarer than a purple moon—simply leaves, glancing briefly at Kareem on his way out.
In the jasmine garden, lapsed Eden, the children wait for the quarrel to lift like a cloud of locusts and disappear over the spiky minarets of Cairo to drift out over the Sahara—Allah preserve those oases, like Siwa, with their patches of pale green.
You fancied that Moktar´s stare hinted complicity, as if both of you stood aloof from it all, say on a bluff, looking down on a scene of screaming peasants contorted by ergotism. But you understood nothing of families or their fights.
It isn´t just money, Moktar later told you, before he hanged himself in a basement, and it isn´t simply love, who got more, who less. It´s also a scream: I´m here, me against the rest, I´m free.
He had paused then, as if harking to some bird of ill omen, and softly added:
Don´t you know? Freedom is earned by a crime.
That was Moktar, nothing like your parents. Nothing like you either, who lacked his hawk-like will and art with a chisel. But you chose instead to invoke a blue-eyed raptor resting on a crescent, hoping to grow into the man you failed to become. In truth, no one noticed your failure, not Adli, Amina even less, and not Grandmother Hoda, who forgave you everything. As to Moktar, he had already put his head in the noose.
Illiterate and nearly ten times Kareems age, Hoda overflows with love and carries her grandson past the small pains of childhood. all-embracing Hoda, large and dimpled. she fills every armchair, one foot resting on a padded stool, while regaling Kareem with stories about his uncles, his cousins, his ancestors—why never about his mother? —stories meant to establish his place in the world. He listens eagerly but hears a more distant call.
Hoda also drags him to American films—her favorite actor is Edward G. Robinson, whose mouth, not manner, reminds her of Ahmed Bey, may he rest in peace—and tilting her head in the dark, ear close to Kareems mouth, expects a whispered précis of the action. When, engrossed in the film, Kareem fails to explain, she jabs him sharply with her elbow. But their affection has no borders like the silver screens.
Most of the year, Hoda lives at the ezbah, in a sprawling, crumbling country house with molded balconies on every side and a conical turret for nesting pigeons on the roof. There, on his summer holidays, Kareem spends weeks at a time with both his grandmother and Uncle Moktar, when the latter is on leave. (Thats how Moktar puts it, showing his pink cicatrix and rolling his eyes terrifically at the boy, who would squeal Scarface, Scarface!)
Thrice Moktar is certified insane, but after the last psychiatric examination they put him away for good. The padded cell is nearly luxurious, with a riveted-down bed, shatter-proof glass windows, and arabesque grills, which Moktar insists on calling his velvet bars. His strait jacket, when he needs it, is stylish, lined with silk. sometimes, he requests it himself; rarely, he angers his keepers by mocking them with metaphysical riddles or loony pranks, studying his raffish scar in an imaginary mirror on the wall.
On holidays, when Kareem is alone with his grandmother at the ezbah—the Harbs may be in Vichy or Carlsbad for the cure— Moktar comes up from Cairo. Hoda Hanem trusts her mad son, trusts him especially with Kareem. The two take long walks among the speckled cotton fields and trellised orchards of oranges, peaches, and Muscat grapes. Moktar jokes with the fellahin who pass by on the dirt roads—they dismount respectfully from their donkeys as they approach, hopping onto them again after they salaam.
Boy and uncle come to a sakiah. They watch an old shaggy buffalo turn the wheel, mouth frothing, red eyes bulging, head near the ground; round and round it goes, all day, pulling water from the canal to irrigate the flat fields. Moktar pauses and regards the beast for a long time. Is he sketching it in his head, Kareem wonders? Is he meditating on his days in a padded cell? Finally, Moktar says to the boy:
This buffalo is four thousand years old, give or take a thousand. But look at the curve of the neck. all the laws of physics, wallah, are there.
The uncle does not gesticulate or touch the boy; he only gazes at the sakiah with smoky eyes. But Kareem understands his uncle: nothing has changed and things are what they are. still, the drooling buffalo bothers Kareem. Dumb beast, brute pain. Moktar brusquely turns away; they walk in silence along the muddy canal, its churning waters chocolate-brown. With whisks, they wave off the flies.
Sometimes, toward evening, Moktar brings out the chessboard. Kareem never wins, but once he succeeds in playing his uncle to a draw. (On that occasion, Kareem fancies seeing a large hawk circling against the sunset sky, dipping its wings as it flies.) Moktar recognizes the stalemate first: his face twists into a smile and his muscular hand stretches out across the boards endgame. His obsidian eyes glint. Otherwise, the uncle never scolds his nephew, never chats, only points at the chess pieces on the board and strokes his thinning beard.
Later, at supper—pigeons baked in rice, green peas he helped to shuck, stuffed eggplant cooked in oil, compote of almonds and pomegranate seeds—Kareem, still glowing with his triumph, blurts:
I want to be a general when I grow up.
Hoda clucks: are you so eager to die?
Moktar says nothing.
Kareem says: What do you think, Uncle Moktar?
Moktar takes his time to answer:
Be what you want but dont bother everyone about it.
That night, awake in bed, while a baleful owl hoots from the crumbling cornice outside his window, Kareem comes to a resolution. Its quite irrevocable, a thing apart. But hes not sure what the resolution is, only that he cant tell anyone about it, not even Moktar. not even Horus.
You believed that Horus had vouchsafed you a special destiny. Now you know better: your body was always a hybrid of common elements—wind, briny water, dry sand, the fire in the stars. And what you sought to discover in this story—grievance, vindication, grief—has vanished forever, extinction without number or trace in the ineffable universe.
You imagined yourself a changeling—how common, really—because foundlings and changelings, reputedly, are the darlings of destiny. Yet you disliked the story of Moses among the bulrushes, as you disliked bogs, swamps, and marshes. You disliked especially the story of the Prodigal Son. That statue of Rodin was surely misnamed: a kneeling figure, gaunt with aspiration, neck taut and head flung back, the arms with their big hands reaching for heaven—what do they implore? Forgiveness, an end to loneliness, the piety of the return?
No, no, your Uncle Moktar would have cried, that bronze torso is luminous with agony of another kind: the Prodigal Son retains his final solitude.
They find him hanging in the basement of the sanatorium, his neck in a silken noose fashioned from the lining in his straitjacket. His scar is purple, his tongue stuck out at the world. The director, a man with sad, ferret-like features, turns up his palms and says to the coroner:
Moktar Bey stayed with us on his own sufferance and left when and how it suited him.
When the news reaches Port Said, Amina slams her dressing table and turning to Adli cries:
How could an expensive institution allow this to happen? How?
Adli does not speak, does not shrug. What he feels is very strange: an inexplicable envy of Moktar. He leaves his wifes boudoir and goes looking for his son, who has hidden in the basement. Adli finds him sitting in an old, broken trunk full of costumes and toys, holding his knees. Father and son stare at one another in the dim light while tears begin to glisten on Kareems adolescent cheeks. Adli can hear a fly buzzing near the low ceiling.
Still in her boudoir, Amina thinks for a moment of her mother at the ezbah—if word of the calamity has yet reached her. she thinks of Moktar: he was not always a good influence on Kareem. But more than anything, Amina feels anger mixed with throbbing fear. she senses a migraine coming, like those headaches the Khamsin brings in March. But theres no wind now, no hot breath from the desert, only a sense of her imminent loneliness. she has practically lost her husband; her mother will not tarry in this world; and soon her son will depart.
They will send Kareem to some university abroad. To America, Adli has been hinting lately. But why not to Switzerland? Then she could visit Kareem in Zurich or Geneva; she would dance with him at the Dolder or Perle du Lac and pretend that he is her younger brother. Is it so silly to take pride in her sons looks and her own youthful appearance? Is it her fault that she was sixteen when she married? (It had been properly prearranged.)
Amina fondly recalls her wedding day in the house of her childhood, with its baroque cornices and fancy ironwork, and her bridal dress, trailing like a cloud of white lace. In the yard, maids zaghrat joyfully, tambourines jingle and clash; in the receiving rooms, guests in smoking jackets and sequined gowns chat and laugh. The house, windows lit from basement to roof, seems ready to sail away from its foundation, a blazing river boat in the night.
How could you remember the bridal house in Cairo? It was sold shortly after your Grandfather Hashmi died. A stone´s throw from its high, grilled gate, your father told you, the Nile flowed as it had done immemorially, covering the ruin and wrack of Egypt with its silt.
How could you remember your parents´ honeymoon on the Riviera—lavender and yellow mimosa in bloom—where Adli and Amina discovered the original crack in creation? Still, they settled happily enough in Port Said, two years before you arrived, a difficult child. What ails him, your parents wanted to ask each other, but never did—he seems to be listening to something so far away. You listened to sounds far and near: a departing liner, dates dropping on the sill, some strange bird squawking in that thick palm tree by your window.
A child sees its parents out of time, their appearance immutable year after year, their faces, their voices, arrested in memory. But now, in your exorbitant age, you believe that your birth may have preceded your parents´. What conceit! Having outlived them by many years, you believe you have become older than they ever were—believe you are more knowing than Adli, more feeling than Amina. Didn´t you hear their agonies in your dreams? Didn´t they tell you about the sister you never saw, the infidelities you never discovered?
They say children sharpen their teeth on the bones of their parents. On what ignorance did you sharpen your teeth?
Before sailing for newYork, blowing a condescending kiss to de Lesseps, the prow of his Liberty Ship pointing straight at the Pillars of Hercules, Kareem decides to visit the Temple of Horus at Edfu, as farewell to his patrimony of five thousand years. He takes his father aside:
Papa, you gave me a present on my fifth birthday. Remember, the winding stair in the tower? Can I ask now for a going-away present? Im fifteen.
Adli flushes, as an unfamiliar feeling—closer to guilt than elation—mottles his cheeks. He can not recall when his son last asked him for anything; he just beams.
Id like to join a school excursion. Ten days up the Nile to see the old sights again.
Adli hugs his son to hide his tears.
Can you persuade Maman?
The chill hand of reality dries Adlis tears before they spill onto his face:
Of course, of course. Doesnt your mother have your education at heart?
Kareem ignores the false note, the timeless echo of familial lies. The ambiguities of his own feelings for father and mother, for uncle and grandmother, the varieties of his tainted love—that much he admits—have long congealed into one thought: soon hell be free.
Traveling upriver by train, bus, and felucca, you followed the worn path of tourists. But Dendera, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, evoked only pale images in your mind: you had come to reconcile yourself to another idea, perhaps a boyhood dream. (Of what you would later call, in moments of wry nostalgia, Horus absconditus, a self-clarifying destiny?) At the Temple of Horus near Edfu, though, you chose to linger.
Early summer day, the sky an implacable blue, the sun a blistering fire. Few tourists in this heat. You refused the services of a guide and wandered alone, sweat drenching your khaki shirt and soaking the map in your hand; your pith helmet tilted back. The acrid smell of urine and hot sand pierced your nostrils when you paused in a stony vestibule; the notion of a temple built over some two hundred years by the Greek Ptolemy somehow rankled you.
You showed no interest in the soaring pylons at the gate, the endless colonnades and engraved battle scenes, or the hypostyle hall, filtering light in mysterious patterns on the floor. You had seen all this before, when your father brought you on an educational mission a few years back, while your mother, suffering from une migraine atroce, stayed behind in Port Said.
Finally, you stood before the colossus—just on the spot where Horus defeated Seth before time began—looking up at the pouting chest and pitiless beak, the eyes, though bleached by the sun and scrubbed by the wind, still indignantly fierce. But you did not feel dwarfed in front of the god; you swelled with power—power or delusion, you didn´t care which—and in the play of harsh light, you discerned a crack in the stone, just below the left eye.
Granted, all that was unconscionably long ago. But what did you ever retrieve from your tutelary deity? The sense that all families are occult? The superfluity of all ambitions and absolutions? The feeling of a vast, common solitude, akin to love, akin to nothing?
Your mother´s bag is still packed under her bed and your father´s dread still fills the basement of the Company in Port Said. Only Moktar´s scar has ceased to twitch.
Appearing in AGNI 73 (2011)