Heart of the Night
Heart of the Night
This e-book published in 2013 by
The American University in Cairo Press
113 Sharia Kasr el Aini, Cairo, Egypt
420 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10018
English translation copyright © 2011 by Aida A. Bamia
Copyright © 1975 by Naguib Mahfouz
First published in Arabic in 1975 as Qalb al-layl
Protected under the Berne Convention
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Cover photograph by Amr Khadr
Cover design by Andrea El-Akshar
Heart of the Night
Translated by Aida A. Bamia
The American University in Cairo Press
Cairo New York
I looked at him closely and said, “I remember you very well.” b He bent over my desk, his foggy sight fixed on me. His proximity, his roaming look, and his efforts to see clearly, revealed his weak eyesight. Seeming unaware of his closeness to me and the small size of the quiet room, he said in a harsh, high-pitched tone, “You do! I do not trust my memory anymore, and on top of that I do not see very well.”
“The days of Khan Jaafar cannot be forgotten!” I said.
“Welcome. You are from that district then?”
I introduced myself and invited him to sit down. He said, “We do not belong to the same generation but there are things impossible to forget.” He sat down. “I believe I changed completely. Time has placed on my face an ugly mask of its own making, not the one my father gave me.”
He proudly introduced himself, though he did not need to. “Al-Rawi. I am Jaafar al-Rawi, Jaafar Ibrahim Sayyid al-Rawi.”
I was not blind to the pride he felt in saying his full name. There was a strong contradiction between his miserable look and his proud tone. He continued to reminisce.
“You take me back to some very dear memories, to the blessed district of Khan Jaafar and al-Hussein, the days of happiness and adventures.”
“There were some exciting incidents and strange stories,” I said, provoking his laughter. His tall, thin body shook so much, I worried his worn-out suit might tear.
He raised his tanned face toward me, scratched his head covered with gray sticky hair, and said, “We are family, and I am entitled to be optimistic about the fairness of my case.”
I asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee, to delay possible disagreements. He replied boldly and without hesitation, “Let’s begin with a fuul sandwich, then order me coffee.”
I watched him eat voraciously, and was filled with sad-ness. His smell stayed with me, a mixture of sweat, tobacco, and mud. After he ate and drank he sat up and said, “Thank you. I do not want to take up any more of your time. You must have seen my request by virtue of your position. What do you think?”
I said regretfully, “No use. The waqf system does not allow such a thing.”
“But the truth is as clear as the sun.”
“The waqf is also clear,” I said.
“I studied law, but it seems that everything changes.”
“Everything except the waqf. To this day it has not changed.”
He roared in his rough voice: “My rights will not be lost! Let the Ministry of Awqaf know that.” Then, seeing my calm smile, he grew quiet and asked to meet the director.
I said gently, “The matter is very clear. The al-Rawi waqf is the largest in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Its proceeds are held in trust for the benefit of the two holy mosques and the Imam al-Hussein mosque, in addition to charitable organizations, schools, monasteries, and public fountains. A charitable waqf cannot, by any means, be owned by anyone.”
He interrupted me, explaining his position: “But I am the grandson of al-Rawi, his only heir, and in urgent need of a penny, whereas the Imam al-Hussein is happily settled in paradise.”
“But it is a waqf,” I repeated.
“I will take legal action.”
“It will be useless.”
“I will consult a sharia lawyer, but it has to be free of charge, because money is an unknown entity in my world.”
“I have many friends among the sharia lawyers and I can arrange a meeting for you with one of them, but do not waste your time running after a hope that will not materialize.”
“You treat me like a child.”
“God forbid,” I said. “I am only reminding you of a reality that you cannot change.”
He went on, “But I am al-Rawi’s grandson. This is easy to prove.”
“Yes, but al-Rawi’s estate became a charitable waqf.”
“Is it fair that I should be left to beg?”
“The procedure for a person in your situation is to submit a request asking for a monthly donation from the waqf income, on condition that you prove your relation to the owner of the waqf.”
“A monthly donation,” he repeated. “How unfair! How much would that be?”
I hesitated for a moment. “It might reach five pounds or slightly more.”
He laughed sarcastically, revealing black, broken teeth. “I will fight, you’d better believe it! I have lived a life that even the jinn would not put up with. Let the battle commence! I will not stop fighting until I obtain my rights in full from the inheritance of my wicked grandfather.”
I could not help smiling. “May his soul rest in peace and reward him for all the good he did.”
He thumped my desk with his fist and said, “There is nothing good about a man who forgets his grandson.”
“Why did he forget you?” I asked.
He clutched his chin but did not answer. I felt that the storm would clear sooner rather than later, and that he would end up writing a request for help like the many other descendants of pashas, princes, and kings in our country. I was convinced that no one rejected his heirs for no reason. What had you done, Jaafar?
He turned his failing eyesight toward the empty space and went on, saying, “Establishing a charitable waqf, and depriving me of the inheritance, that was how he always conducted himself, combining bad and good. He continues to exercise his power now that he’s dead, as he did when he was alive. And here I am, struggling after his death as I did during his lifetime, and will continue to do until my death.”
My relationship with Jaafar al-Rawi grew stronger with time. In his loneliness, he was ready to cling to anyone who would encourage him, be it only with a smile. I ventured into this friendship with the strong conviction that it would end soon. His disturbed personality did not suggest a desire to settle down into a lasting friendship and it did not take much to satisfy him. There were obvious reasons that drew me to him, but there was also an intangible motive: past memories and my own fascination with the al-Rawi family, their stories, the rumors about Jaafar’s crazy adventures, and my attraction to Jaafar despite his repulsive appearance. I felt sorry for him, living his final days in this miserable way. He was quite tall, and were it not for his poverty and possibly some illnesses, his old age would have been glorious and beautiful.
One day, after a meal of kawari in one of the Muhammad Ali Street restaurants, I asked him how he lived. His answer was quick. “I roam the streets during the day until almost midnight.”
“Where do you live?” I asked.
“Among the ruins.”
Surprised, I asked what ruins he was referring to.
“They belong to me by reason of occupancy. This is what is left of my grandfather?
I did not know that the house had fallen into ruin, as I had not visited the neighborhood in a very long time.
“Don’t you have relatives?” I asked.
“They might fill the globe.”
He explained, “I have children who are judges and others who are criminals.”
“Is that true?” I asked.
“And despite that, I am alone.”
“What a way to talk!”
“Give me back the waqf and I promise you that I will be surrounded by children and grandchildren. Otherwise I will remain alone, an outcast.”
“You seem to like puzzles,” I commented.
He laughed. “I like a good meal and the waqf. I’d also like to damn those responsible for the waqf.”
“Don’t you have any income in your old age?” I asked.
“I have some old friends. Whenever I meet one of them, he shakes my hand and puts in it whatever he feels like giving me. I roll in the mud now, but I originally fell from the sky.”
Saddened, I said, “This is not a way to live. Write your petition immediately.”
“It is the true, authentic life. Try it if you have the courage. Open doors boldly, don’t be servile: everything you want is your right. This life belongs to the human being, to everyone. You have to get rid of your stupid habits; that is all you need to do.”
“Yet you wish to regain your grandfather’s inheritance,” I said.
Laughing loudly, he said, “Do not hold me responsible for my contradictions. I am a pack of contradictions. Don’t forget also that I am an old man, and have been engaged in a battle with my grandfather for a very long time.”
“I’d like to know why he deprived you of your inheritance.”
“This is my battle,” he explained. “Do not rush matters. I am not the simpleton I appear to be. Many are fooled by my appearance, and young children even follow me as I roam the streets. Do they think that I like to talk? Because I am alone, I talk to myself. What do people think? I am getting older, and I have not stopped asking questions. Believe me when I tell you that I am not a normal person. Even when I was on the mountain or living in the palace or in the ruins, I was not normal. Despite my loafing and begging, I stand tall in life, my head raised high and defiant, because life respects only those who do not take it seriously.”
I smiled as I watched him defying existence, wearing his worn-out suit and with his tanned skin. I whispered, “Good for you.”
He went on, talking about his connections. “I do not interact with humans alone, but I have contacts with non-human things: jinns and devils and the intrinsic components of civilization.” He then changed his tone and asked, “Have you chosen a trustworthy lawyer for me?”
I pleaded with him, “In God’s name, Jaafar, forget this imaginary case.”
“Am I not Jaafar Ibrahim, the grandson of Sayyid al-Rawi?”
“You are,” I said, “but you do not have a case, none whatsoever.”
“I will provoke a revolution that will reverse the order of the universe.”
“That is more feasible than winning your case. Write the petition and do not lose time.”
Laughing, he said, “The employees of the waqf ministry live off the income of our properties, then they stretch out their hands to offer us charity.”
“Write the petition and do not lose time.”
Silence fell over us for a few minutes, and then he said, as if talking to himself,
“You must at least rent a room on a roof.”
“No. The amount will be enough for food, cigarettes, and clothes. As for lodging, how can I rent a room when I own a palace! I will not leave the ruins.”
I told him once more, “Write the petition as soon as possible and send it to the ministry.”
“There’s no rush. Let me think about it. I might write the petition or I might consult a lawyer. I might even go on with my life without a petition or a lawyer. No need to rush.”
“You know what you should do,” I said.
“There is no possibility of communication between the two of us. You fear life and I despise it. What you fear even in your imagination I have endured, and everything you ask God to spare you I have sought with my own free will.”
“This is great, Jaafar,” I said.
“Do you like what I say?” he asked.
“Would you like to hear more?”
“I assure you that I would.”
“You have treated me to a wonderful meal and will offer me serious help in the coming days. We are the children of the same neighborhood, so let’s go to Wadud’s café at the Green Gate.”
We walked side by side in the direction of the old neighborhood, passing beneath the historic arch that leads to the Green Gate. There we settled down, smoked hash, and drank coffee, and talked in the quiet of the long night.
Bab al-Akhdar alley fell into silence under cover of night. It is then that the hordes of beggars return to their spots, the lunatics clutter the corners, and the smell of incense fills the air. No outsider roams there at night except the few customers of Café Wadud. They are all hash smokers.
“Let me tell you about the time of the legend,” said Jaafar.
“You mean your childhood years,” I said.
He was quick to respond, “I mean what I said, so do not interrupt me. There is no childhood, but a dream and a legend, the age of the dream and of the legend. It forces itself on you in a tender and possibly deceitful manner, usually because of the hardships of the present. It echoes strongly in my psyche, but when I analyze it I come out empty-handed, which confirms its illusionary nature. Suffice it to say that I know nothing of any significance about its two basic poles, my father and my mother.”
“Did they pass away during your childhood?” I asked.
“I do not remember my father at all, and I have no visual memory of him. He did not leave a photo to remind me of him. He left the world before fathering another child. I remember only one incident connected to him, and that somewhat obscurely. It was on the day of the celebration of the mahmal, as we watched from a window overlooking Margush. I was sitting on his shoulders watching the crowds and the head of the golden mahmal swaying at the level of the window. It was a situation imbued with compassion and affection, don’t you agree? The mahmal is one of the landmarks of the legend. As for the crowds, they were a special kind of reality. The memory revived one day in my office in Bab al-Khalq square, making me shout in Saad Kabir’s face these words—”
But I interrupted him, “We are in the midst of the legend. Do not overstep its boundaries!”
“Let me talk freely. I hate restrictions.”
“But the story will be scattered by the stream of thoughts and I might lose my way between its fragments.”
He laughed loudly. “Won’t you allow me to toy with time the way it toyed with me? Well, let’s go back to the legend, to the brazen jinn, to the playful inanimate objects, to the spectral truths, and to the real dreams. I have already told you that I do not remember my father, but I will never forget my mother’s hand.”
“Your mother’s hand?”
“Be patient,” he said. “My father died, but I do not know how or why. He died in his youth, as I was told years later. I was five years old or slightly younger, and unable to even remember the house in Margush district. There was possibly a room that could be accessed from the hallway via two steps. There was also a high bed that could be reached by climbing on a wooden stool that was very tempting to play with, and a water pipe was placed high on top of an armoire, out of my reach. There were spoiled cats, a mangle, a dark storeroom inhabited by all types of jinn, black mice, an incense holder, and a clay jug seated on a tray, filled with water in which sliced limes floated. There were also a coal heater and sacks of coal, chickens, and a conceited rooster. I do not know what caused my father’s death or what his jo
“But what about your father’s death?” I asked.
“May God forgive you,” he said. “You crush inspiration. You insist on learning how my father died as if he were your father. What do I know about his death? I woke up on a dark night to discover that I was in my mother’s arms and she was taking me to the neighbor’s. I must have fallen asleep, and when I awoke in the morning I found myself in a strange place. I cried. When the neighbor brought me food, I asked her about my mother. She explained, ‘Your mother is running an errand and will be back soon. Eat your food.’
“I ate despite my anxiety, as I was continuously hearing crying; though in a way, crying and ululations were a usual thing in our neighborhood. I went back home that night, or the following day, and found a strange and gloomy atmosphere. I felt there was a painful secret that I could not decipher, but one that made me feel weird and anxious. My mother had changed completely. She was dressed in black, her face was pale, and she looked sick. Her gaze had withered and seemed worn out. The house had lost its wholesome atmosphere and genuine cheerfulness. I asked her, ‘What is wrong with you, Mother?’
“‘Everything is fine. Play,’ she said.
“‘Where is my father?’
“She turned her face away from mine and said, ‘He is on a trip. Go on playing; you have the whole roof. Do not ask so many questions.’
“Her attitude toward me had changed: she was rough and unconcerned. My mother was avoiding me; she was avoiding my gaze and my company. She cried behind my back. My father did not return from his travels. I was not totally ignorant. I had heard things about God, the devil and the jinn, paradise and hell. I had even heard threatening things about death that had nothing to do with joy. I was wondering when my father would come back and when my mother’s face would return to its usual serenity. My anxious wait for my father lasted a long time. I was overcome with despair about his absence, but when precisely I lost hope in his return and how I forgot him and went on with my life as if nothing had happened, I can’t remember. There is no way I can recall all that, but I will never forget my mother’s hand.”