Monday, February 26, 2018

ET: Almanac

Mrs. Kirsha, the café owner's wife, was extremely worried. Kirsha had abandoned a much-loved habit and could only have done so for a serious reason: he was enjoying his nightly pleasures outside his own house. Having invited his usual associates to come to his room on the roof at midnight, he remained with them until dawn.

The woman tossed her unhappy memories over in her mind, and the pain which so embittered her life returned. What could attract him to spend the night outside his own house? Was it the same old reason? That filthy disease? The dissolute fellow would probably say that it was just a change to relieve his boredom or else that he had only moved off to a better spot for the winter season. These lying excuses, however, would not satisfy her. She knew that everyone else knew. For these reasons then, she was extremely worried, and was firmly resolved to take a decisive action, whatever its consequences.

Mrs. Kirsha was a strong woman, although approaching fifty, and she had lost none of her courage, as often happens. She was one of those alley women renowned for their tempers - like Husniya the baker's wife and Umm Hamida - and she was particularly famous for the furious ros she had with her husband concerning his dirty habits. She was also well known for her large, broad, snub nose.

She had been a fertile wife and had produced six daughters and one son, Husain Kirsha. All her daughters were married and experiencing lives filled with troubles, even though they had refrained from divorce. A tragedy occurred o their youngest daughter which was the talk of the alley for a while. In the first year of her marriage, she had disappeared and gone to live with a man in Boulaq. The matter ended by her being sent off to prison with him. This disgrace was a heavy burden on the family, but not the only one to afflict them. Kirsha himself had a problem, both old and new, and it seemed endless.

Mrs. Kirsha questioned Uncle Kamil and Sankir, the café waiter, until she learned of the boy who had begun to frequent the coffee-house being served most graciously by Kirsha himself. Secretly she watched the coffee-house visitors until she saw the boy and watched him sit at the café owner's right after receiving a warm welcome. It made her furious and she felt all the old wounds opening again. Mrs. Kirsha spent a tortured, sleepless night and was even worse when she awoke in the morning. She could not make up her mind on a definite course of action. In the past she had often had to battle over this matter, although without success, so she did not hesitate to try again. She wavered, however, not from fear of his anger, but because she did not want to cause a scandal for the gossips.

Husain Kirsha was getting ready for work and she approached him, breathless with anger. with extreme emotion she exclaimed:

"My boy, do you know that your father is preparing a new scandal for us?"

Husain knew at once what she meant, for her words could only mean one well-known thing. He was filled with scorn and his small eyes flashed in anger. What sort of life was this, never a single day free from hardship and scandals. Perhaps this was the reason he threw himself into the arms of the British Army. His new life had only doubled his dissatisfaction with his home, rather than reconciling and calming him. He disliked his family, his house, and the entire alley. Now what his mother said was only fuel to the flames that already raged. He asked her, in a fury:

"What do you want from me? What have I to do with all that? I interfered before and tried to reform him and we nearly came to blows about it. Do you want me to try physical force on my own father?"

His father's misconduct did not concern him in the least. All he objected to were the scandals and disgrace his father caused and the fiery quarrels and scenes at home. The "sin" itself did not bother him in the slightest. Indeed, when the news of it first reached him, he merely shrugged his shoulders in indifference and said unconcernedly: "He is a man and men don't care about anything!" Then he had come with the others to feel irritating and indignation towards his father when he learned his family was the subject of gossip and cruel jokes. Originally, even, his relations with his father had been strained, as always happens when two people of similar characters clash head-on. They were both rude, ill-natured and bad tempered. When this trouble had first arisen, it had doubled their natural friction until they had become like enemies, sometimes fighting, sometimes declaring a truce; but their animosity towards each other never died out.

Mrs. Kirsha did not know what to say, but she had no intention of causing a new enmity to flare up between father and son. She permitted him to leave the flat, livid with anger, and spent a most unhappy morning herself. She was not one to submit to defeat, despite the great and frequent misery the years had brought her. Her mind was made up to reform the sinful man, even though in doing so she might expose herself to the gossips.

Mrs. Kirsha thought it best to convey her warning while her blood was still up. She waited until midnight when the café customers left and her husband was ready to lock up; then she called down to him from her window. The man raised his head, obviously annoyed, and shouted up inquiringly:

"What do you want, woman?"

Her voice came down to him:

"Come up, please, I have something important to tell you."

The café owner made a sign to his "boy" to wait for him where he was and slowly and heavily made his way up the stairs. He stood panting at the threshold of his flat and asked her harshly:

"What do you want? Couldn't you have waited until morning?"

The woman noticed his feet had come to a firm stop at the threshold and that he did not wish to cross it. It was as though he was reluctant to violate the privacy of someone else's home. Anger seethed within her and she stared hard at him, her eyes red from sleeplessness and rage. However, she did not want to show her anger too soon and said, stifling her anger:

"Do please come in!"

Kirsha wondered why she did not speak up if she really wanted to tell him something. At last he asked her roughly:

"What do you want? Speak up now!"

What an impatient fellow he was! He spent the long nights outside their home without being bored and yet he could not bear conversation with her for a couple of minutes. Nevertheless he was her husband in the sight of God, and of men, and the father of all her children. It was amazing that she could not, despite his bad treatment of her, hate him or despise him. He was her husband and her master, and she would spare no efforts to hold him and bring him ack whenever the "sin" threatened to overtake him.

In fact, she was really proud of him, proud of his masculinity, of his position in the alley of the influence he had over his associates. If it were not for this one abominable shortcoming of his, she would not have a single complaint against him. Yet here he was answering the call of the devil and wishing she would finish what she had to say so that he could go off at once to him. Her anger increased and she said sharply:

"Come inside first . . . What are you doing standing there on the threshold like a stranger?"

Kirsha blew into the air with annoyance and disgust and crossed the threshold into the hall and asked in his husky voice:

"What do you want?"

His wife, closing the door behind them, said:

"Sit down for a little . . . What I have to say won't take long."

He looked at her suspiciously. What did the woman want to tell him? Was she going to try and stand in his way once again? He shouted at her:

"Speak up then! What are you wasting my time for?"

She asked sarcastically:

"Are you in a hurry then?"

"Don't you know that I am?"

"What is it that makes you so impatient?"

His suspicions increased and his heart filled with anger as he asked himself why he put up with this woman. His feelings towards her were disturbed and conflicting. Sometimes he disliked her and sometimes he loved her. Dislike, however, was always uppermost when the "sin" appealed to his senses and always increased when the woman attempted to come down on him. Deep inside he wished his wife were just "sensible" and would leave him to his own affairs.

The strange thing was that he always considered himself in the right and was astonished at her attempts to stand in his way without justification. Was it not his right to do as he wished? And was it not her duty to obey and be satisfied as long as her needs were satisfied and she was adequately provided for? She had become one of the necessities of his life, like sleep, hashish and his home, for good or bad and he never really considered dispensing with her. If he had wanted to, there would have been nothing to prevent him, but the fact was that she filled a need and looked after him well. In any case, he wanted her to be his wife. In spite of this and in the midst of his anger, he could not help asking himself why he put up with this woman. He shouted at her:

"Don't be stupid and speak up or else let me go . . ."

"Can't you think of a better way to address me than that?"

Kirsha flew into a rage:

"Now I know you have nothing really to say to me. You had better go off to sleep like sensible women do . . ."

"if only you would go off to sleep like senisble men do!"

Kirsha slapped his hands together and shouted:

"How can I go to sleep at this hour?"

"Why did God create night then?"

Her husband, astonished and furious, exclaimed:

"Since when have I gone to sleep at night? Am I ill, woman?"

She replied in a special tone of voice which she knew he would at once recognize and understand:

"Turn in repentance to God, and pray that He accepts your repentance even though it comes so late!"

He realized what she meant and his doubts gave way before certainty. However, he pretended not to understand and, bursting with anger said:

"What sin is there in staying up talking for which a man should repent?"

His deliberate failure to understand merely increased her fury and she shouted:

"Repent about the night-time and what goes on in it!"

Kirsha replied spitefully:

"Do you want me to give up my whole life?"

She shouted back, now completely overcome with anger:

"Your whole life?"

"That's right. Hashish is my life."

Her eyes flashed:

"And the other hashish?"

He answered sarcastically:

"I only burn one kind."

"It's me you burn! Why don't you have your parties in your usual place on the roof any more?"

"Why shouldn't I have my parties where I please? On the roof, in the government buildings, in Gamaliyya police station? What's it to do with you?"

"Why have you changed the place where you hold your parties?"

Her husband threw up his head and shouted:

"May God bear witness! I have managed to stay out of government courts so far and I am lucky enough to find my own home a permanent court-house! He lowered his head and continued, "It's as though our house were under suspicion and there were investigators prowling around it all the time."

She added bitterly:

"Do you think that shameless youth is one of the investigators who have made you leave your home?"

Oh, so the insinuations were becoming declarations? His near-black face became even darker and he asked her, his voice showing his annoyance:

"What youth is that?"

"The immoral one. The one you yourself serve with tea as if you were a waiter, like Sankir!"

"There's nothing wrong in that. A coffee-house owner serves his customers just as the waiter does."

She asked scornfully, her voice trembling with anger:

"Why don't you serve Uncle Kamil, then? Why do you only serve the immoral one?"

"Wisdom says that one should take care of new customers!"

"Anyone can talk glibly, but your conduct is disgraceful and immoral."

He gestured towards her warningly with his hand and said:

"Hold your tongue, you imbelice!"

"Everyone around here is grown up and acts intelligently . . ."

He ground his teeth, swore and cursed but she took no notice of him and continued:

"Everyone around is grown up and acts intelligently, but your brain seems to have got smaller the bigger you got!"

"You are raving, woman, raving by the life of the Prophet's grandson Husain! May God recompense him for his cruel murder!"

Quivering with emotion, she shouted hoarsely:

"men like you really deserve to be punished. You have brought disgrace on us again! Now we will have another nice scandal!"

"May God recompense him for his cruel murder! May God recompense him!"

Despair na danger got the better of her and shouted out warningly:

"Today only four walls can hear us. Do you want the whole world to hear, tomorrow?"

Kirsha raised his heavy eyebrows and demanded:

"Are you threatening me?"

"I am and I am threatening your whole family! You know me!"

"It seems I'll have to smash that silly head of yours!"

"Ha-ha . . . The hashish and your immoral living haven't let an ounce of strength in your arms. You couldn't even raise your hand! It's come to an end, to an end Kirsha!"

"It's your fault things are where they are. Isn't it always women who put men off women!"

"How sorry I am for a man who is past women altogether!"

"Why? I have fathered six daughters and one son . . . apart from abortions and miscarriages."

Umm Husain, quite beside herself with rage, shouted:

"Aren't you ashamed to mention your children? Doesn't even thinking of them keep you from your filthy behavior?"

Kirsha struck the wall hard with his fist, turned around and made for the door, saying:

"You're completely crazy."

She shouted after him:

"Has your patience run out? Are you longing for him becacuse you had to wait? You'll see the results of your filthy behavior, you pig!"

Kirsha slammed the door hard behind him and the noise shattered the silence of the night. His wife stood wringing her hands in anger and desperation. Her heart overflowed with a desire for revenge.

Naguib Mahfouz - Midaq Alley

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