Monday, February 26, 2018

ET: Almanac

The bakery is next to Kirsha's café, near Mrs. Saniya Afifi's house. It is an almost square building, its sides built unevenly. An oven occupies the left side and the wall is lined with shelves. Between the oven and the entrance is a bench on which the owners of the bakery, Husniya and her husband, Jaada, sleep. Darkness would envelop the spot day and night, were it not for the light issuing from the door of the oven.

In the wall facing the entrance, there is a small, wooden door which opens to a grimy little outhouse, smelling of dirt and filth, for it has only one tiny window in the opposite wall overlooking the courtyard of an old house. About an arm's length from the window there is a lighted lamp, placed on a shelf, throwing a dim light on the place, with its dirt floor covered with various and indeterminate rubbish; the room looks like a garbage heap. The shelf supporting the lantern is long and stretches the entire wall; on it are bottles, both large and small, various instruments and a great number of bandages, making it look just like a pharmacist's shelf, were it not so extraordinarily dirty.

On the ground, almost directly beneath the little window, something is piled, no different from the floor of the room in color, filthiness or smell, but possessed of limbs, flesh, and blood, and which therefore, despite everything, deserves to be called a human being. It was Zaita, the man who rented this hole from Husniya the baker.

If you once saw Zaita you would never again forget him, so starkly simple is his appearance. He consists of a thin, black body, and a black gown. Black upon black, were it not for the slits shining with a terrifying whiteness which are his eyes. Zaita is not a Negro; he is an Egyptian, brown-skinned in color. Dirt mixed with the sweat of a lifetime has caked a thick layer of black over his body and over his gown, whcih also was not originally black. Black was the fate of everything within this hole.

He had scarcely anything to do with the alley in which he dwelt. Zaita visited none of its people nor did they visit him. He had no need for anyone nor anyone for him. Except, that is, for Dr. Bushi and the fathers who resorted to scaring their children with his image. His trade was known to all, atrade which gave him the right to the title of "Doctor," although he did not use it out of respect for Bush. It was his profession to create cripples, not the usual, natural cripples, but artificial cripples of a new type.

People came to him who wanted to become beggars and, with his extraordinary craft, the tools of which were piled on the shelf, he would cripple each customer in a manner appropriate to his body. They came to him whole and left blind, rickety, hunchbacked, pigeon-breasted or with arms or legs cut off short. He gained his skill by working for a long time with a travelling circus. Zaita had, moreover, been connected with beggar circles since his boyhood, when he lived with his parents, who were beggars. He began by learning "make-up" an art taught in the circus, first as a pastime, then as a profession when his personal situation became worse.

One disadvantage of his work was that it began at night, or at midnight to be exact. It was, however, a trivial disadvantage to which he had become completely accustomed. During the day, he scarcely left his den and would sit cross-legged, eating or smoking or amusing himself by spying on the baker and his wife. He delighted in listening to their talk, or peeping through a hole int he door and watching the woman beating her husband, morning and night. When night fell he saw them overcome with friendliness towards each other and he would see the bakeress approach her ape-like husband and tease him and talk to him coyly. Zaita detested Jaada, despised him and considered him ugly. Apart from this, he envied him for the full-bodied woman God had given him as a wife, a really bovine woman, as he said. He often said of her that she was among women what Uncle Kamil was among men.

One reason why the people in the alley avoided him was his offensive odor, for water never found its way to either his face or body. He happily reciprocated the dislike people showed for him and he juped with joy when he heard that someone had died. He would say, as though speaking to the dead person: "Now your time has come to taste the dirt, whose color and smell so much offend you on my body." No doubt he spent much time imagining tortures he could inflict on people and found a most satisfying pleasure in doing just this. He would imagine Jaada the baker as a target for tens of hatchets striking at him and leaving him a smashed heap. Or he would imagine Salim Alwan stretched on the ground while a steamroller ran over him again and again his blood running down towards Sanadiqiyya. He would also imagine Radwan Husaini being pulled along by his reddish beard towards the flaming oven and being eventually pulled out as a bag of ashes. Or he might see Kirsha stretched beneath the wheels of a train crushing his limbs, later to be stuffed into a dirty basket and sold to dog-owners for food! There were similar punishments he considered the very least people deserved.

When he set about his work of making cripples at their request, he was as cruel and deliberately vicious as he could be, cunningly employing all the secrets of his trade. When his victims cried out at his torture, his terrifying eyes gleamed with an insane light. Despite all this, beggars were the people dearest to him and he often wished that beggars formed the majority of mankind.


Zaita sat thus engrossed int he wanderings of his imagination, waiting for the time for work to arrive. About midnight he got up, blew out the lamp and a deep darkness took over. He then felt his way to the door and, opening it quietly, he made his way through the bakery into the alley. On his way he met Sheikh Darwish without leaving the coffee-house. They often met in the middle of the night without exchanging a single word. For this reason Sheikh Darwish had a particularly rich reawrd awaiting him in the Court of Investigation to try mankind which Zaita had set up in his imagination!

The cripple-maker crossed over to the Husain Mosque walking with short, deliberate steps.

As he walked, Zaita kept close to the walls of the houses. In spite of the blackness of the shadows, some lights still gleamed, thus someone approaching would almost collide with him before seeing his flashing eyes glinting in the dark like the metal clasp of a policeman's belt.

Walking in the street he felt revived, lively and happy. He only ever walked out here when no one but the beggars, who acknowledged his absolute sovereignty, were about. He crossed to Husain Square, turned towards the Green Gate and reached the ancient arch. As he swept his eyes over the heaps of beggars on both sides of him he was filled with delight. is joy was that of a powerful lord mixed with the delight of a merchant who sees profitable merchandise.

He approached the beggar nearest him who sat cross-legged, his head bent on his shoulders and snoring loudly. He stood for a moment before him, gazing intently as though to probe his sleep and determine whether it was genuine or feigned. Then he kicked the dishevelled head and the man stirred, but not in a startled manner, merely as though gentle ants had wakened him. He raised his head slowly, scratching his sides, back and head. His gaze fell on the figure looking down on him; he stared up for a moment and, despite his blindness, recognized him at once. The beggar sighed and a noise like a groan rose from his depths. He thrust his hand into his breast pocket and withdrew a small coin and placed it in Zaita's palm.

Zaita now turned ot the next beggar, then the next and so on until he had completely encircled one wing of the arch. Then he turned to the other wing and, when he finished there, he went roud the niches and alleys surrounding the mosque, so that not a single beggar escaped him. His enthusiasm at receiving his dues did not make him forget his duty to care for the cripples he created and he frequently asked this or that beggar: "How is your blindness, so and so?" Or perhaps: "How is your lameness?" They would answer him: "Praise be to God . . . praise be to God!"

Zaita now went around the mosque from the other direction and on his way bought a loaf of bread, some sweets and tobacco and returned to Midaq Alley. The silence was complete, only broken from time to time by a laugh or cough from the roof of Radwan Husaini's house, where one of Kirsha's hashish parties was in progress. Zaita made his way past the threshold of the bakery as quietly as he could, taking not to waken the sleeping couple. He carefully pushed open his wooden door and closed it quietly behind him. The den was neither dark nor empty as he had left it; the lamp burned and on the ground beneath it sat three men.

Zaita made his way unconcernedly towards them; their presence neither surprised nor troubled him. He stared at them with piercing eyes and recognized Dr. Bushi. They all stood and Dr. Bushi, after a polite greeting, said:

"These are two poor men who asked me to seek your help for them."

Zaita, feigning boredom and complete disinterest, replied:

"At a time like this, Doctor?"

The "doctor" placed his hand on Zaita's shoulder and said:

"The night is a veil, and our Lord ordained the veil."

Zaita protested, belching out air:

"But I am tired now!"

Dr. Bushi replied hopefully:

"You have never let me down."

The two men begged and pleaded. Zaita yielded, as if unwillingly, and placed his food and tobacco on the shelf. He stood facing them, staring hard and long in silence. Then he fixed his eyes on the taller of the two. He was a giant of a man and Zaita, amazed to see him there, asked:

"You are an ox of a man! Why do you want to become a beggar?"

The man answered falteringly:

"I am never successful at a job. I have tried all kinds of work, even being a beggar. My luck is bad and my mind is worse. I can never understand or remember anything."

Zaita commented spitefully:

"Then you should have been born rich!"

The man did not understand what he meant and attempted to win Zaita's pity by pretending to weep, saying spiritlessly:

"I have failed in everything. I even had no luck as a beggar. Everyone said I was strong and should work, that is when they didn't curse or shout at me. I don't know why."

Zaita nodded:

"Even that you can't grasp!"

"May God inspire you with some way to help me," the big man pleaded.

Zaita continued to examine him thoughtfully and, feeling his limbs, said decisively:

"You are really strong. Your limbs are all healthy. What do you eat?"

"Bread if I can get it, otherwise nothing."

"Yours is really a giant's body, there's no doubt about it. Do you realize what you would be like if you ate as God's animals eat, on whom He lavishes good things?"

The man replied simply:

"I don't know."

"Of course, of course. You don't know anything, we understand that. If you had any sense you would be one of us. Listen, you oaf, there's nothing to be gained by me trying to twist your limbs."

A look of great melancholy came into the man's bullish face and he would have burst out weeping again if Zaita had not spoken:

"It would be very difficult for me to break an arm or a leg for you, no matter how hard I tried. Even then, you wouldn't gain anyone's sympathy. Mules like you only arouse indignation. but don't despair"--Dr. Bushi had been patiently waiting for this expression - "there are other ways. i'll teach you the art of imbelility, for example. You don't seem to lack any talent for that, so idiocy it will be. I'll teach you some ballads in praise of the Prophet."

The huge man's face beamed with delight and he thanked Zaita profusely. Zaita interrupted him:

"Why didn't you work as a highwayman?"

He replied indignantly:

"I am a poor fellow, but I am good and I don't want to harm anyone. I like everyone."

Zaita commented contemptuously:

"Do you wish to convert me to that philosophy?"

He turned to the other man, who was short and frail, and said delightedly:

"Good material, anyway."

The man smiled and said:

"Much praise to God."

"You were created to be a blind, squatting beggar."

The man seemed pleased:

"Taht is because of the bounty of our Lord."

Zaita shook his head and replied slowly:

"The operation is difficult and dangerous. Let me ask what you would do if the worst happened. Supposing you were really to lose your sight because of an accident or carelessness?"

The man hesitated, then replied unconcernedly:

"It would be a blessing from God! Have I ever gained anything by my sight that I should be sorry to lose it?"

Zaita was pleased and commented:

"With a heart like yours you can really face up to the world."

"With God's permission, sir. I will be eternally grateful to you. I will give you half of what the good people give me."

Zaita shot a penetrating look at him and then said harshly:

"I am not interested in talk like that. I want only to millièmes a day, besides the fee for the operation. I know, by the way, how to get my rights if you are thinking of getting away without paying."

At this point Bushi reminded him:

"You didn't remember your share of the bread."

Zaita went on talking:

"Of course . . . of course. Now, let's get down to planning the work. The operation ill be difficult and will test your powers of endurance. Hide the pain as best you can . . ."

Can you imagine what this thin and meager body would suffer under the pounding of Zaita's hands?

A satantical smile played about Zaita's faded lips . . .

Midaq Alley - Naguib Mahfouz

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