Abbas the barber gazed critically at his reflection in the mirror. Slowly a look of satisfaction came into his slightly protruding eyes. He had curled his hair nicely and carefully brushed away the dust from his suit.
He went outside his saloon and stood waiting. It was his favorite time of day, early evening, and the sky was clear and deep blue. There was a slight warmth in the air, brought on by a whole day of drizzle. The surace of the alley, which was only bathed two or three times a year, was wet; some of the hollows in Sanadiqiyya Street were still filled with thickly clouded clay-dust water.
Uncle Kamil was inside his little shop, asleep in his chair, and Abbas' face glowed with a smile of pleasure. The love deep down within him stirred and he sang quietly to himself:
"Will you, my heart, after your long wait delight.Uncle Kamil opened his eyes and yawned. Then he looked towards the young man, who laughed, standing in the door of the barber's shop. He made his way across the road to him, poked him in the ribs and said delightfully:
Will you soon win your love and in her delight.
Your wounds will mend though you can't tell when.
Something will cure you, you'll never know how.
I've learned the maxim from men of experience.
That the key to happiness, O misery, is patience."
"We are in love and the whole world must laugh with us."
Uncle Kamil sighed and his high-pitched voice piped:
"Congratulations then, but please give me the shroud now before you sell it to get a dowry for your wife."
Abbas laughed and strolled leisurely out of the alley. He wore his grey suit, which was also his only one. A year ago he had reversed its cloth and darned a few holes and, because he took care to clean and press it, it appeared fairly neat. He glowed with excitement and self-confidence and he was experiencing that feeling of deep tension which normally precedes the revelation of the hidden desires of the heart. His love was a mixture of gentle affection, sincere devotion and hungry passion. He longed to feel the warmth of her body and experience the magical, mysterious intoxication of her eyes. Abbas had felt the joy of victory when he approached the girl on the street in arasa and his fancy told him that her resistance was merely what all women pretend in answer to the call of desire.
His intoxication had lasted for days. Then it and his confidence had smouldered and died, and neither renewed themselves. Doubt stirred in him and he asked himself why he saw her resistance as proof of her love. Why shouldn't it be genuine opposition? Was it because she had not been cruel or rude? But then could one expect any worse treatment from a life-long neighbor?
Each morning he appeared in front of his shop ready to catch a glimpse of her if she should open the window to let the sun into her flat. Each evening he sat outside the coffee-house beneath her window, smoking a water pipe and glancing up time after time, hoping to see her lovely form moving behind the shutters of the closed window. He was not satisfied with this lonely vigil and had approached her a second time in Darasa. Again she had snubbed him. Again he had tried and failed.
So it was that he set out once more, filled with hope, confidence and his burning infatuation. He saw Hamida approaching with her companions and he turned to one side to let them pass. Slowly he followed them. He noticed that the girls looked at him with mischievous curiosity, and this pleased and flattered him. Abbas pursued them until the last girl had turned off at the end of the street. Then he quickened his step until he was within an arm's length of her. He smiled at her with a mixture of formal politeness and apprehension and muttered his prepared greeting:
"Good evening, Hamida . . ."
She had anticipated this encounter, but was plagued with doubts; she neither liked nor disliked him. Perhaps it was because he was the only young man in the alley suitable for her that she refrained from ignoring him or dealing with him with decisive cruelty. Hamida decided to excuse his crossing her path once again and satisfy herself with a mild rebuke, for if she had wanted to deal him a stunning blow she could have done so.
In spite of her limited experience in life, she was aware of the great gulf between this humble young man and her own greedy ambitions which could ignite her natural aggressiveness and turn it into uncontrollable savagery and violence. She would be wildly happy if she saw a look of defiance or self-confidence in anyone's eyes, but this look of simple humility in Abbas' eyes left her emotionless. She felt neither attraction nor aversion towards him. But he was the only suitable young man in the alley. Had it not been for her belief in marriage as her natural destiny she would not have hesitated to reject him cruelly. For these reasons she was pleased to encourage him so that she might eventually discover what he was really like and what he wanted. She hoped by this method to solve her own disturbing indecision.
Abbas was afraid she might remain silent until they came to the end of the street and he so muttered imploringly:
"Good evening . . ."
Her handsome bronze-colored face showed the trace of a smile and she slowed her walk, sighed in feigned annoyance and asked:
"What do you want?"
He saw her faint smile and took no notice of her apparent annoyance. He replied hopefully:
"Let's turn off into Azhar Street. It's quieter there and it's beginning to get dark."
She turned towards Azhar Street without a word. And he followed her, almost giddy with joy. The memory of his words, "It's quieter there and it's beginning to get dark," lingered in her mind and she realized that she dreaded the idea of anyone seeing them. The corner of her mouth twisted in a cruel smile. Morals were no part of her rebellious nature. She had grown up in an atmosphere almost entirely outside their shelter and without the restriction that they impose. Her own capricious nature and the fact that her mother was rarely home had only increased her indifference to them. She had always followed her own primitive nature, fighting and quarrelling with no concern for anything, least of all questions of morality.
Abbas now caught up with her and walked at her side. His voice expressed delight:
"That was very nice of you!"
Almost angrily, she replied:
"What do you want from me?"
The young man, doing his best to control his excitement, answered:
"Patience is a virtue, Hamida. Be kind to me. Don't be cruel."
She turned her head towards him, keeping it covered with a corner of her cloak, and said unkindly:
"Will you say what you want at once."
"Patience is a virtue . . . I want . . . I want everything that's good . . ."
"You don't really have anything to say," she grumbled, "and we are still walking, getting further off our route. I can't be late getting back."
He was sorry they were wasting time and said regretfully:
"We'll start back soon. Don't be afraid and don't worry. We'll think of some excuse you can tell your mother. You think a lot about a few minutes, whereas I think about the whole of life, about our life together. This is what I'm concerned about. Don't you believe me? It's the thing I think and worry about most of all, by the life of Husain who blessed this fine quarter."
He was talking simply and sincerely and she found a new interest and pleasure in listening to him, even though he did not manage to stir her frigid heart. She tried to forget her paiful indecision and give him all her attention. She did not, however, know what to say and so took refuge in silence. The young man was gaining confidence and he began to speak with emotion:
"Don't grudge me a few moments or repeat your same question. You ask me what I want, Hamida. Don't you really know what I want to say? Why do I come up to you in the street? Why do my eyes follow you wherever you go? You have what you want, Hamida. Don't you read anything in my eyes. Don't they say that the heart of a believer is clear for all to see? What have you learned? Ask yourself. Ask anyone in Midaq Alley, they all know."
The girl frowned and muttered as though not aware what she was saying:
"You have disgraced me . . ."
These words horrified him and he exclaimed:
"There will be no disgrace in our life and I wish you only well. This mosque of Husain bears witness to what I say and what my intentions are. I love you. I have loved you for a long time. i love you more than your mother loves you. I swear this to you by my belief in Husain, in the grandfather of Husain and in the Lord Husain . . ."
Hamida delighted in these words and her feelings of pride and vanity diminished her usual inclination towards violence and domination. She was experiencing the truth that strong words of love always please the ears, although they do not always appeal to the heart. They release the pent-up emotions.
However, her mind leaped uncontrollably from the present into the future and she asked herself what her life would be like under his protection, if his hopes were fulfilled. He was poor and what he earned was just enough to live on. He would take her from the second floor of Mrs. Saniya Afifi's house to the ground floor of Radwan Husaini's. The most she could expect from her mother would be a second-hand bed, a sofa and a few copper pots and pans. She would only have sweeping, cooking, washing and feeding children to look forward to. No doubt she could hope for no more than a patched dress to wear.
She shuddered as though she had seen some terrifying sight. Her inordinate desire for clothes stirred within her, as did her fierce dislike of children for which the alley women reproached her. All these emotions affected her as well as her painful state of indecision. Now she wondered if she had been right or wrong in agreeing to walk with him.
Meanwhile Abbas gazed at her in fascination. Desire, hope and her silent thoughtfulness increased his tension.
"Why are you silent, Hamida? One word would heal my heart and make the whole world change. One word is enough. Please speak to me, Hamida. Please break your silence."
She still remained silent and full of indecision. Abbas tried again:
"one word would fill my spirit with hope and happiness. Perhaps you don't realize what my love for you has done to me. It has made me feel as I never felt before. It's made a new person of me. It's made me want to take life by the horns quite without fear. Do you know that? I have wakened from my stupor. Tomorrow you'll see me a new man . . ."
What did he mean? She raised her head questioningly, and his heart sang at her interest. He spoke full of confidence and pride:
"Yes, I am going to put my trust in God and try my luck like the others. I am going to work for the British Army and I might easily be as successful as your brother Husain!"
Her eyes gleamed with interest and she asked, almost as if unaware of what she said:
"Really? When will that be?"
He would have preferred her to say something romantic rather than financial. He longed to have her saythat sweet word he wanted so to hear. However, he thought that her interest was merely a veil woven by her modesty to conceal an emotion similar to his own. His heart burst with joy and he said, smiling broadly:
"Very soon. I am going to Tell al-Kabir and I will start work there with a daily wage of 25 piasters. Everyone I have asked has said that this is only a small part of what people working for the army really get. I will do all I can to save as much as possible. When the war is over - and people say that will be a long time - I will come back here and open a new barber shop in New Street or Azhar Street and I will make a luxurious home for us together, if God wishes. Pray for me, Hamida . . ."
This was something unexpected that had not occurred to her. If he were successful he could certainly provide some of the things she craved. A disposition like hers, no matter how rebellious and unmanageable, could be pacified and tamed with money.
Abbas muttered reproachfully:
"Do you not want to pray for me?"
She answered in a quiet voice which sounded beautiful to his ears, although her voice was certainly not equal to her beauty:
"May God grant you success . . ."
Sighing happily, he replied:
"Amen. Answer her prayer, O God. The world will smile on us, with God's grace. If you are good to me, so is the whole world. I ask nothing of you except that you be happy."
Slowly she was emerging from her state of indecision. She had found a gleam of light in the darkness surrounding her, the gleam of glistening gold! Even if he did not interest or excite her perhaps that gleam of light she so wanted might come from him and answer her craving for power and wealth. After all, he was the only suitable young man in the alley. This could not be denied. Happiness filled her as she heard him say:
"Do you hear me, Hamida? All I ask is that you be happy."
A smile spread over her thin lips and she muttered:
"God grant you success . . ."
He continued, overcome with delight:
"It isn't necessary for us to wait until the end of the war! We will be the happiest two in the alley."
With a scowl she spat out:
He looked at her in confusion but made no defense of the alley which he preferred to any place in the whole world. Abbas wondered whether she despised it, as her brother Husain did. They really had sucked from one breast then! Wishing to do all he could to erase the bad impression, he said:
"We will choose a place you like. There's Darasa, Gamaliyya, Bait al-Qadi--choose your home wherever you wish."
She listened in embarrassment to what he said and realized that her tongue had betrayed her in spite of herself. Hamida bit her lip and said disbelievingly:
"My house? What house do you mean? What have I got to do with all this?"
Full of reproach, he asked:
"How can you say that? ARen't you satisfied with torturing me? Don't you really know which house I mean? God forgive you, Hamida. I mean the house we will choose together -- no, the house you will choose all by yourself. It will be your house, just yours and belong to no one else. As I told you, I am going away to earn money for this house. You prayed for success for me and now there is no backing out of the wonderful truth. We have reached an agreement, Hamida, and the matter is decided."
Had they really reached an agreement? Yes, they had! If not she would never have agreed to walk and tal with him and get involved in dreams about the future. Where was the harm in that for her? Was he not bound to be her young man anyway? Despite this she felt some apprehension and hesitancy. Was it true that she had become a different girl who had almost no power over herself any more?
When she reached this point in her thoughts, she felt his hand touch and grip hers, giving warmth to her cold fingers. Should she take her hand away and say: "No, I will have nothing to do with that sort of thing." However, she said and did nothing. They walked along together, her hand in his warm palm. She felt his fingers passionately press her hand and she heard him say:
"We will meet often . . . won't we?"
She refused to say a word. He tried again:
"We will meet often and plan things together. Then I will meet your mother. The agreement must be made before I leave."
She withdrew her palm from his hand and said anxiously:
"Our time is up and we have gone a long way . . . let's go back now."
They turned on their heels together and he laughed delightedly as some of the happiness which had ebbed in his heart returned. They walked off quickly and reached Ghouriyya Street, where they parted, she to go down it and he to turn towards Azhar Stret back to the alley via Husain Street.
Naguib Mahfouz - Midaq Alley