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2. Aunt Safiyya

Delivery of the monastery’s box of cookies was the last of my errands on the morning of ‘Eid. After I got back, the real holiday would begin, when I would get together with my relatives and friends and we would start our games. We might decide to go to Luxor, to ride bicycles whose frames were decorated with colored paper. And we would go to the movies.

As for the first box, this one I carried happily, in a hurry to arrive, for this was of course the box for my aunt Safiyya. I used to look forward to a generous holiday present and a firm invitation to stay with her awhile. Aunt Safiyya wasn’t more than seven or eight years older than I, as she wasn’t actually my aunt. I thought she was the most beautiful human being in the world, excepting only Faten Hamama,[1] whom I had fallen in love with the very first time I saw one of her films at the Luxor cinema. The happiest moments of my childhood were when Aunt Safiyya would hug me, and I would smell the scent of the jasmine perfume with which she doused herself. That was in the old days, when she still used perfume. Later, though, in the days when I used to bring her a box of cookies at ‘Eid, I was pursued by my mother’s words of warning, which she would keep repeating over and over at the same time she encouraged me: “I know you’re a clever boy, I know you won’t disgrace me. Now, what are you going to say? You’re going to say, ‘This box is for Hassaan.’ Don’t you dare say, ‘My mother sends you this box.’ And how are you going to enter the house?” “Without any fuss,” I would answer my mother. “Exactly,” she would say, “exactly. Smart boy. And mind you don’t look too cheerful or say, ‘Happy holidays,’ or any such thing. Just go in, greet your aunt, and if Hassaan is awake, give him the box without saying anything, or put it to one side without a word.” Then my mother would bite her lip, perhaps brushing away a tear, and say, “Poor Safiyya. Her day of celebration is still a long way off.”

Aunt Safiyya and I were brought up together in the same house. I thought of her as I thought of my four sisters. We were all younger than she, except for the firstborn, Ward es-Sham (whom my father had named after his grandmother, as a sign of respect). But my mother had taught me from an early age to call Safiyya “Aunt.” She was actually my mother’s cousin on her mother’s side. Safiyya’s parents had died together in one of the village’s recurrent outbreaks of malaria. Since my mother was Safiyya’s closest living relative, and my father was paternal first cousin to my mother,[2] it was only natural that she should come and live with us. Of course, Safiyya was also related to everyone else in the village—like me, like all of us. The fact is that everyone was a close or distant relative of everyone else, on either the paternal or the maternal side, from our first citizen, the mayor Hamid Asran, to the humblest tenant farmer. But we were, as I said before, her closest relatives. Moreover, my father had spent two years at the religious institute in Asyut; he sometimes delivered the Friday sermon in the mosque and he led the people in prayer when our imam was away.[3]  Thus he was a well-respected man among the villagers, and the court judge in Luxor, who was also from our village, had entrusted him with the upbringing of this orphan as well as the disposition of her inheritance.

From the time she was small, Safiyya used to turn heads with her beauty. She was fine featured, with a small mouth and nose. Whenever she cut her hair, it grew right back again and fell down her back, soft and thick, and so long it hung below the black headcloth she wore, which covered her shoulders and back. Her eyes were singularly beautiful: they were not black or brown, but I can’t say exactly what color they were. The closest I could come would be to say that, in the shade, they were the color of pale honey; in the sun, or in bright light, those bewitching eyes turned the color of gold, approaching green, but with a mixture of many other colors as well. Very often, as a child, I saw people—men and women—fall silent in midsentence when Aunt Safiyya looked up through her thick lashes at the person with whom she was speaking. After a pause in which no one said anything, they would murmur—so as to ward off the evil eye—bismillaahi maa shaa’ allah. My mother, likewise fearing the evil eye, after guests had gone home would frequently recite incantations over Safiyya and perfume her with incense, to protect her. This roused the jealousy of my sisters, even though they loved Safiyya as much as I did: they were always putting their arms about her neck and kissing her. I was not allowed to do this, since my parents considered me from the age of six almost a man, who must avoid playing with girls, and with my aunt Safiyya in particular.

Just as Aunt Safiyya was the loveliest of girls, my paternal uncle Harbi was the most handsome of men. He was a distant cousin of my father on his father’s side. He too was an orphan. His land was next to ours, and he and my father often joined efforts in cultivating both plots. Harbi was constantly at our house, and my father—who was his mother’s only son—thought of him as a younger brother. So did my mother, who also used to call him by the name that siblings often used with each other: “son of my father.”

Although Safiyya’s suitors began flocking to my father from the time she was about ten years old, he stated firmly that he would not think of marrying her off before she had come of legal age, which at that time was fourteen. My father also wanted Aunt Safiyya to be educated, like my sisters, who at his insistence were required to finish at least primary school. My mother, however, who had grudgingly accepted my father’s wishes in the matter of my sisters’ attending school, could not wait for Safiyya to complete even one year before she put her foot down: she insisted that Safiyya stay at home. She said that she was barely able to protect Safiyya from the evil eye when the girl was confined to the house, so what was she to do if Safiyya was going out every day where any good-for-nothing who wanted to could look at her? “The child has an unlucky star,” said my mother. “She’s an easy target for the evil eye. Since she started school, she’s come down with all kinds of aches and pains.” Because my mother considered Safiyya her personal responsibility, my father let her have her way, and so Safiyya stayed at home. But my sisters Ward es-Sham, Sikeena, and Ruqayya got no such privileges, for all their tears and their begging: they didn’t have an unlucky star, and my father was stubborn.

All the same, Safiyya’s age and the matter of her education were not the only reasons my father turned away her suitors. Above all else was the belief, both in our household and in the rest of the village, that Safiyya was for Harbi, though he had never asked my father for her hand. In fact, he treated her just the way he treated my sisters: as a child.

Harbi was tall, with golden-brown skin. In his cheeks were two ruddy circles; these were set off by his black moustache, its ends always carefully twisted to a point, which made him all the more handsome. His Adam’s apple was prominent in his long neck, and it moved visibly up and down any time he talked or sang. In fact, his strong voice was his best feature. We all knew that, and we were always after him to sing at weddings and parties; or he might spontaneously volunteer, as a favor to the host of the occasion. He sang local folk songs such as “‘abbadi ya wad, ‘abbadi”,[4] or “rann ilkhilkhaal ‘a-ssillim sahhani”.[5] Or he might improvise, adding to the common collection of songs one that praised the host of the party or event.

Harbi’s relationship with the gypsy girl, the golden-haired Amuna el-Baida el-Halabiyya—who danced at weddings—was well known. And everyone knew that she loved him to the exclusion of all those many men who would have liked to get close to her. Once, at a wedding, she made up a song, which quickly became known in the village. When Harbi appeared in their midst, the men would sing it, smiling and winking and raising their voices, “My heart was confounded, my heart was confused, but on the day I met him, it was troubled no more…”[6] Harbi would smile back at the men and joke along with them without embarrassment. For at that time, in our village, such relationships were permitted to men who were still unmarried, and even to some unfaithful married men who simply had no self-control. In any case, there was no reason why this relationship should have prevented Harbi from asking for Safiyya’s hand, if he had wanted to.

But did Safiyya love Harbi?

I can’t say for certain, but I remember from my earliest childhood that she and all my sisters were in the habit of spying on him through half-closed doors when he would sit with my father on the bench in the courtyard, discussing the crops or drinking tea and chatting. I don’t remember whether it was Safiyya or one of my sisters whom I overheard—when I surprised them once, sneaking glances at Harbi—saying of him, “Dear God! He’s like the rising moon!” I threatened to expose them all before our parents for their brashness, but Aunt Safiyya kissed me on the forehead, asking reproachfully, “Would it make you happy to disgrace me, son of my sister?”

All the resolve in my heart melted on the spot.

I remember another time, when I saw Aunt Safiyya sitting by herself in the courtyard—she and I were the only ones at home—singing softly to herself, “My heart was confounded…” Amuna el-Baida’s song was actually a lively one, with a dance melody, but there was Aunt Safiyya—crouched on the ground, holding her head in her hands and singing the words slowly, to a sad tune, like a dirge, her body rocking back and forth, back and forth, now to the right, now to the left. When she realized that I was there behind her, she turned around all at once with a strange gleam in her eye and spoke to me in a harsh tone I had never heard her use before: “What are you doing here, boy? Get out of here!” I froze in my place.

At that time, I had not yet started school; but the years passed, I entered primary school, Safiyya came of age, and Harbi still had not asked for her hand. Months went by, then a year, more…and my parents had no idea what to do about that silence. It became more and more awkward for my father to answer Safiyya’s suitors, but he continued to make excuses to them.

After Safiyya turned sixteen, Harbi came to the house, and with him was the consul-bey.

The consul was the grandson of the great Asran, and like Asran had achieved the rank of a bey in the days when Egypt was still ruled by a king. Although he was the biggest landowner in the village and had the largest house there, he lived in Luxor in a separate house known in our village as “the palace.” This house really was as beautiful as a palace. It was built in the oriental style, its front facade and entryway being composed of a series of arches, like an arcade. The furniture inside consisted of wooden chairs, tables, and couches inlaid with shell. There were expensive Persian carpets on the floor, in addition to those hanging on the walls. There was a chandelier hung from the ceiling whose parts were of wrought silver, encasing lamps that were like candles. But the most beautiful section of this house, which I can picture at any time as if it were before my eyes, was the path in the garden. It was lined on both sides by European palm trees with white trunks, like short pillars set at regular intervals. These were connected by a curb covered in blue mosaic tiles, among which were engraved white flowers. This pathway was broad enough so that in its exact middle, it became a circle, in the center of which was a little fountain, whose rim was of the same blue and engraved mosaic. The water came out and fell in little arcs like palm leaves.

The consul-bey was the pride of our village and one of my favorite people in the province when I was a child. He used to wear always, summer and winter, a dark suit and a white shirt and tie, even in the worst heat, and even when he went about the dusty alleyways of our village. Then there was the red tarbush, which no one except him ever wore anymore, after the revolution: it made him even more dignified, in our eyes. He would always fill his pockets with candy and with small change in new silver coins, which he would hand out to the children. He used to present to me at holidays a new pound note with no creases in it—the only pound note that ever came my way. My mother, however, would always confiscate it and give it to me in installments over time, lest I be corrupted by my wealth.

Although the bey had never in his life worked in the diplomatic corps and had never done anything except farming and commerce, he was nevertheless a real consul. I don’t know the reason, but somehow, while still a young man, he had managed to claim the status of honorary consul from the kingdom of Greece. The same king who had awarded him this status had also honored him with a medal, which was still there in his house in the village, in its red velvet box. There was also a picture of the consul-bey in his youth, the tarbush on his head and this medal on the breast pocket of his jacket. The photographer had taken pains to use the light in such a way as to make the bey’s dark-brown skin appear lighter, his broad mouth less wide—as if the photographer were making the picture into art. For the lower half of the picture was incomplete, while an uneven white halo caused the bey’s black jacket to fade out in different places, making the photograph look like a statue bust, cropped so as to show off the medal in all its splendor.

The bey did not change much after the revolution. It’s true that he was the only one in the village who was subject to the land reform law, but he had accepted that with equanimity. It was said that some of the farmworkers to whom his lands were distributed went to the bey and told him that the land was his, even if the government had deeded it to them. But the consul refused to hear this kind of talk. He said to them, “This is a blessing bestowed upon you by God, so take advantage of it. What do I need the land for? Who but you will inherit it from me? We’re all one family, all related. If you ever need anything, come to me; and if I ever need anything, I’ll come to you.”

Nevertheless, the bey gave up farming after his holdings were reduced to two hundred feddans. He left it to his sister’s son Harbi to oversee the cultivation of the remaining land and to keep accounts for it. Meanwhile, the bey settled in Luxor, where he owned some large wholesale shops. He would send boats to transport goods to and from the Sudan, and he spent the rest of his time putting up buildings in Luxor and Qena—and indeed in Cairo, no less, so it was said. The bey was even able to establish good relations with the officers of the revolution. My father continued to boast for a long time about the day one of the leaders of the revolution, Colonel Salah Saalem—may he rest in peace—had visited the palace with a delegation of leaders from the Sudan. On that day, my father told us, there was an honor guard of soldiers in red berets surrounding the consul’s palace.

But the point is that Harbi came to our house, and the consul-bey came with him, so that the bey could ask for Safiyya’s hand in marriage for himself.

My father was stunned. He sat staring in silence at the bey, who was past the age of sixty at that time, though he had been twice married and widowed without producing any children. But he said—coming to the rescue of my father, who could not find words to speak—that at his age he must have someone to look after him, and so he had thought of the orphaned girl.

When my father still said nothing, Harbi eagerly pointed out that marriage to the bey would be an honor to any girl and would raise her status. At this point, my father managed to stammer that the consul had honored his house with this visit, and that for such an honor he would be ready to offer up his own neck for the consul, if he asked him to. But as to the girl’s marriage, he must consult her. It was no simple matter for my father to refuse the bey directly, as he had refused all her other suitors, and he was trying, with these words, to find a way out. When he had finished speaking, however, Harbi clapped his hands and said, “Then it’s settled—thanks be to God! All we have to do is to let the one concerned decide.”

My father stood up heavily. At that moment, my mother appeared from inside the house, by herself, carrying a tea tray, on which were a china teapot and some small gold-rimmed cups. These things were never brought out except on very important occasions, such as this visit by the consul. Since her hands were occupied, the veil that—in accordance with tradition—covered my mother’s face was held between her teeth, and she was pressing it between her lips. She came slowly forward until she could put down the tea tray on the little table in front of the large armchair on which the bey was seated, and which my father and I had brought from the diwan into the courtyard for this occasion. When my mother had placed the tea before the consul—who, by various ties of either blood or marriage, was her uncle on both sides and her grandfather as well—she approached him, greeted him, and kissed his hand. He let her do this, all the while chuckling quietly. “Greetings,” he said, “to my mother-in-law—may the wedding cup be filled to the brim!” My mother looked at Harbi with a radiant smile. “So?” she asked. “Is this true, Harbi?” My father was afraid she might say something compromising at that moment, and all would be lost. So he took her by the hand, feigning a laugh, and said, “in shaa’ allah, in shaa’ allah.” And with that, he practically dragged her into the house.

Ward es-Sham said later that the color rose in Safiyya’s face when my father brought her the news, and she asked him in a soft voice, “Harbi said that?” “Yes,” my father replied with a sigh of resignation, “Yes, child, Harbi did say that.” My sister said that Safiyya, on hearing this, raised her head: her eyes half-filled her face, and in them was that strange gleam. She said calmly to my father, “Then I agree, Father…I will marry the consul, and I’ll bear him a son.”

Startled, my father replied, “But, daughter…”

Aunt Safiyya covered her face with her veil, saying, “As you wish, Father…the decision is yours…but I am willing to marry the consul-bey.”

My father said nothing for a few moments. Then he sighed, and said, “No, the decision is God’s.” And he went out to tell the bey that Safiyya had accepted his proposal. And so Aunt Safiyya got married, and left our house to live in the palace.

Rumors circulated in the village that Abd el-Wahhab and Umm Kulthoum were to perform at the wedding,[7] as they had at the bey’s two previous weddings, but the consul, maintaining his dignity, laughed and said, “At my age? It’s enough that we offer sharbat, and slaughter a lamb to feed the poor.”

So I lost all hope of a great wedding for my aunt Safiyya, just as I had lost hope for the marriage itself. For there was no drumming or singing, nothing but a dinner at the palace. My mother and sisters and a few female relatives gave out ululations of joy. Harbi danced the “fencing dance” in the palace garden, to melodies performed on a single mizmar. To the consul-bey he sang a well-known song, the lyrics to which he changed so that the last line went, “And our consul is the finest of men.”

After the ma’dhoun had left, Aunt Safiyya appeared before us, her closest relatives. She had made up her face with lipstick, rouge, and powder, and she wore a shining white dress that fell to just above her heels. When I saw her, so shy, not knowing what to do with her hands—lacing her fingers together at one moment, then placing one hand over her heart at another—as she wandered among us, her beautiful eyes full of confusion…when I saw her so, I hid my face in my hands and cried silently. Then I left the party, and sat by the fountain to be alone with my tears.

But a few days after the wedding, Safiyya began to seem like herself again. How proud my mother was of her! She would say, “I brought her up, and she has done us proud!” She said that the consul-bey had never in his long life known happiness such as Safiyya had given him. She said that Safiyya was at the bey’s beck and call. Then she turned to my sisters and said, sounding pained, “Not like these impossible creatures, who sleep until the call for noon prayer!” In this my mother was being unfair to my sisters, who, in spite of their youth and the fact that they went to school five days a week, did all the chores in the house, from making bread and cooking meals to sweeping. But this kind of talk was my mother’s way of keeping them in line.

Aunt Safiyya really did do my mother proud, though. For in the consul’s palace, which was filled with servants, Safiyya rose at dawn and did as my mother had always done: she prepared her husband’s breakfast with her own hands. Then she would remain standing at his shoulder, ready to fulfill his every request, making sure that he had eaten his fill and that there was nothing missing or out of its proper place. After breakfast, she would have his suit all laid out for him, clean and ironed, with a spotlessly clean white shirt. She herself would help him dress. Then she would see him to the door, brushing any lint or dust from his jacket, or straightening his collar. She would warn the driver to be careful driving the car and to remind the bey when lunch was, in case he got caught up in his work at the office and forgot.

I remain puzzled, even to this day—though I am much older now—by the question: how could Safiyya, after that first beautiful love of hers, so love that man who was more than three times her age? But will I ever happen upon the real answer to this question? Will I find out whether she had a particular reason for loving the bey, or whether she loved him out of a kind of weakness, or whether she simply loved him the way any woman might love any man?

This is what I ask myself now, at this distance in time and place. At the time, though, when I was a child beginning primary school, there was nothing in the world that could inflame my heart with jealousy so much as that strange love, the total devotion with which Safiyya treated the consul-bey. She would weep and turn pale if he was late coming home, and she would send out the house servants, each in a different direction, to look for him. She would not eat a bite if he suffered from so much as a slight cold or a headache, but would sit pale faced beside his bed all day, for as long as he was ill. My mother and the consul-bey would both beg her to eat and sleep a little, but all in vain. Her devotion was unaffected by the passage of time: it stayed firm until the end.

Then came the bey’s greatest happiness. One day my mother returned from Luxor, and began—this woman who was always so dignified—to give out ululations of gladness in our house, and she told her daughters to do the same: “My girls,” she said to them, “this is the joy of a lifetime…a joy I never looked for or expected…your aunt Safiyya is pregnant!”

The whole village gathered at our house, and my mother began handing out sharbat and karkadeh. When Harbi heard the news, he came running, seized my father’s rifle from where it hung on the wall, and began firing shots in the air and dancing. “Wallahi,” he declared, “God has decreed happiness for you, Uncle…wallahi, God has rewarded your patience and given back to you full measure for the goodness of your heart!” Then Harbi himself began passing out the sharbat to the men sitting in the diwan. My mother said she had never seen Harbi so happy as he was on that day.

So she said, but it seems the good guys never win in the end, and the devil always gets his due. My mother’s eyes fill with tears as she says, “Wallahi, no one on earth has ever been wronged the way Harbi was—served like el-Hasan and el-Hussein, he was!”

So how did it happen that the bey’s overpowering joy at the birth of his son Hassaan was surpassed only by his terrible anger at Harbi, who before that had been so dear to him, had been his closest confidant? How did our kindhearted consul, who we had thought could do no wrong, come to drive Harbi from the palace garden and order him never to set foot or show his face there again?

That day, Harbi came to my father in a state of alarm. He begged my father to explain to him what had happened. He swore that even if he himself had married and had a child, he would not have rejoiced as he had for the birth of Hassaan. He said to my father, “If you only knew how much I love the bey, not just as my uncle, but as if he were my father, who died so young, and whom I no longer remember…no, I love my uncle more than myself! For who is there that can compare with him, the head of the family…the pride of the family?” He declared that he was ready to die to ransom the dust off the bey’s shoe. What had happened, he wanted to know? He struck his face with his hands, asking my father again, what had happened to make the bey so angry with him. He took a pistol from his breast pocket and held it out to my father. “Give this to the bey,” he said, “so he can shoot me with it if he recalls a single unkind word to him that ever passed my lips. Or shoot me yourself right now if you’ve ever heard that I wronged the bey in any way.”

My father pushed away Harbi’s hand that held the pistol. He spoke sadly, saying, “There is no strength or power, except in God…no strength or power…” Then he turned to me and ordered me to harness the horse to the carriage. This meant he was going to Luxor immediately. But when Harbi tried to go with him, my father told him to stay behind and wait for him.

My father left before noon. Harbi and I sat waiting for him in the diwan outside the house. My father was gone a long time in Luxor. The whole time, Harbi would not taste even a bite of food. Twice he sent back the tray that my mother had me bring out, without touching the food. He would accept nothing except some tea. He sat cross-legged on the couch, his upper body rocking monotonously back and forth, muttering things too indistinct to be heard or understood. From time to time he turned to me, dazedly repeating the words my father had spoken, “There is no strength or power except in God.” He beat his palms one against the other, and his ruddy cheeks grew still more flushed. Every time he heard a sound, or thought he heard a sound, he would leap up and run out toward the street.

But my father stayed away a long time and did not come back until just before sunset. His face was clouded, and he spoke with finality as he jumped down from the carriage. He said to Harbi, who stood there swaying as if he might fall, “Son of my father, leave this matter in God’s hands. Forget about the bey for the time being. Perhaps God will set things to rights…”

This did not satisfy Harbi. He took hold of my father’s arm and begged him to reveal to him the secret of the bey’s anger. My father tried in vain to evade Harbi’s urgent questions, saying only that some people had come between Harbi and the consul. “Who are these people?” Harbi demanded. “What have they said? Why didn’t the bey confront me directly with these accusations? How could the bey believe such slander against me, when I’m the one who has lived his whole life to serve him, without ever demanding anything in return?”

My father was unable to answer all these questions: he didn’t know who those people were. The bey had refused every one of my father’s requests that he disclose their names. And he didn’t know how the consul could believe this slander. He had tried his best to convince the bey that Harbi was innocent, but it was no use.

In the end, in the face of Harbi’s insistence—for Harbi had not let go of my father’s arm or let up in his questioning—my father came close to losing his patience and getting angry. “Son of my father,” he said, “they say that you swore to kill Hassaan in order to claim your inheritance from the bey uncontested. And the consul believes what those damned troublemakers have said, may God have mercy on us all.”

Harbi let go of my father’s arm and stood staring in horror. Then he turned and walked away without a word. When he had gone quite some way, he turned and came back. My father and I were unharnessing the horse from the carriage. Harbi said in a voice of absolute calm, “And you, son of my father? Do you believe that I said that, or that I would even think of such a thing?”

My father replied wearily, his throat constricted with exhaustion and grief, “No, Harbi. I swore to the consul, on the life of my son here, that you never said any such thing, nor ever thought any such thing. But it was no use.”

Harbi said softly, “Thank God.”

And he walked away slowly, in silence.

That night, while my parents were having dinner, I heard my father say sadly to my mother, “Even Safiyya believes that Harbi said those things.”

My mother replied angrily, “But who spread these lies? God’s curse upon him!” My father was quiet for a long time, as if he wanted to think carefully before he spoke. In the same tone as before, he said, “Yes, God’s curse upon whoever started this slander.” Then he sighed, adding, “An evil thing has begun. If only it would go no further than this.”

My father warned me against repeating to anyone a word of what I had heard. But there was no need for me to say anything: after a few days, the whole village was talking about what had happened. A number of people took to defending Harbi, but there were others who poured fuel on the fire. Messages flew back and forth between Luxor and the village. It was said that there were men who had volunteered to stand armed guard over the palace. Such people were among those who were jealous of Harbi because of his long-standing relationship with the bey…or were jealous of Harbi simply because he was Harbi. But when the bey saw them standing about the palace like bad news on the doorstep, he drove them off with curses, declaring that he was capable of protecting his own house. All this further inflamed the bey’s anger.

Not more than a few days after this, something happened that was to determine the course of events to follow. For in the middle of the night, the glass of the door to the balcony outside the room where Hassaan slept was shattered. The serving girl who slept in the room with him screamed and called out for help. Safiyya, the bey, and the servants all came running. They peered down from the balcony and searched the garden, but there was no trace of the intruder.

My father said, in some confusion and without much hope, that glass sometimes shatters of its own accord, without anyone’s having touched it. But how could he convince the bey it was not Harbi who had smashed the glass? How could he convince him that it was not Harbi who had tried to shatter the bey’s joy in his son, the apple of his eye? Once the idea had entered the bey’s mind, it took root there: he was convinced that Harbi wanted to kill Hassaan, so that the child would not inherit the bey’s land and his estate. And who could hope to drive out an idea that had got into the consul’s head?

After that, everything changed. The palace became like an armed fortress, surrounded by men with rifles, whose numbers were concentrated around the gate and in the corners of the gardens. The worst of it was that these men were not from our village. They were brutish Bedouins who respected no one, so that everyone entering the palace or leaving it was subjected to harassment and abuse. Not even women were spared. The consul-bey made no apology for this. His whole manner had changed a great deal, and he was no longer the man we remembered from before. He made no apology for the behavior of his men. As a result, my father put a stop to my mother’s visits to Safiyya, and he himself seldom went to Luxor and the palace.

At that point, contact between our family and the bey’s was mainly confined to Safiyya’s occasional trips by car to visit us on her own. She would arrive laughing and radiant, and she would kiss my mother and sisters…but things were not as they had been. No more would my mother clap Safiyya on the shoulder, teasing her and saying, “What a disappointment you are, Safiyya!” She no longer made a fuss over her, and when my sisters saw her treating Safiyya with reserve and respect, they too quit joking with her as they had done before, except for little Abla, who was only four at that time. Her playfulness and the way she hung on Safiyya’s neck seemed strange in that somber atmosphere. I scolded her and pushed her aside, but Aunt Safiyya protested, saying, “Why do you do that? Leave her be…Abla is my darling, and I’m going to marry her to Hassaan.” Then, as if that thought had reminded her of something, she said, “Oh…I’ve left Hassaan alone, and the bey will be home soon. I’ve got to get back to Luxor.” My mother would urge her to stay for lunch, would insist that she stay, while Safiyya kept repeating that she must be on her way.

But, as my father said, if only the whole thing could have stopped there. And if only my mother had not asked me, that day, to bring lunch to Harbi at his house next to the fields.

Though many years have passed since that day, I remember it as if it were yesterday. I remember that it was a beautiful winter day, warm and sunny. It was like fall, when the sun’s blazing heat lets up and a pleasant breeze blows, carrying no dust and no sign of a storm. It was a beautiful day also because the lentil plants, whose short green stalks covered the fields all along the road, had blossomed yellow overnight. They brightened the earth with their little yellow faces—a golden sea that rippled gently in the breeze, wafting their fresh, mild fragrance. All my life I have loved this scent and have never forgotten it, though those days are long gone.

So why did it all have to happen on such a lovely, pleasant day?

Harbi had asked my mother, who was like a sister to him, to prepare a milk pastry for him. She had done this, and she sent along a bit of lunch as well. He and I sat down to eat it in front of his house, which was right beside the fields, near the shade of a tall date palm. In the midst of this peace, we saw from far away the bey’s car, the big red Ford, slowly approaching on the distant road. It gleamed in the sun, and Harbi could see it just as well as I could, but he bent his head over his food, and said nothing. Only the two ruddy spots in his cheeks flushed more deeply, and his eyes grew dark with sadness. Then we heard the rattle and hum of the car as it approached the edge of the fields. I felt uneasy when I saw the car door open and the bey’s bodyguards—those strangers, with their rifles in hand—get out. Then the bey got out of the car. He was wearing a full suit and tarbush, as usual, and he carried a cane whose head was of ivory inlaid with gold. He approached the field where we were sitting, his men all around him. They didn’t walk on the strip of land that ran beside the canal; rather they plunged into the midst of the crops, trampling them underfoot. Harbi stopped eating and got up. He stood tall and proud. “Welcome, Uncle,” he said. The bey didn’t answer but came toward me where I stood, next to Harbi. He put his hand on my head and asked me with a smile, “How are your mother and father? Go and tell them to prepare tea for me and my men.” But for the first time I was afraid of him, afraid of his smile, and of his false teeth gleaming in the middle of his brown face. I moved away from the bey, and stood closer to Harbi, almost clinging to him as I heard him say once again, “Welcome, Uncle. You have honored your village and your land with your presence.” But before we knew it, Harbi and I, the bey had reached out all at once and struck Harbi’s cheek with a blow that caused the bey’s tarbush and his entire, aging body to shake. His voice cracked as he shouted at Harbi in a tone I had never heard from him, “You dare to use that smooth tongue of yours with me, you dog?” The bey’s feeble hand was not strong enough even to move Harbi’s head, but I felt his whole body grow tense and ready, as if he were about to spring forward with all the strength of that body, and knock the bey to the ground. But instead he hung his head, and all the blood drained from his face. “Forgive me, ya bey,” he said. “I’m your son and your servant. If I’ve done anything wrong, it’s your right to punish me. Kill me if you wish. I wouldn’t hurt the man who has been like a father to me.”

I don’t think that Harbi, as he spoke these words, had seen the four rifles that were pointed at him, or that he saw anyone or anything except the consul, his “father,” whom he kept trying, until the very end, to convince of his innocence, and whose approval he was determined to regain. And I don’t think that the bey—who after striking Harbi remained standing there, shaking with anger, his eyes red rimmed—had heard a thing his nephew said. But he heard me when I said, begging him, almost crying, “Please, ya bey, please don’t hurt Harbi!”

The bey looked at me with his red-rimmed eyes, as if he were seeing me for the first time, and had never known me in his life. He pointed to me and said to his men, “Get the boy out of here.” So one of them dragged me aside, then drew back and punched me with the force of his arm’s full length, a hard blow to the chest. I fell down on the ground, with the wind knocked out of me. Every time I tried to catch my breath, I felt as though thorns were piercing my chest and my heart would burst. I stayed there in my place, sprawled on the ground and unable to get up, barely able to breathe at all. Nevertheless, I opened my eyes wide, not wanting to miss any of what was happening. I saw Harbi about to attack the man who had knocked me down, but at the same moment, the bey said to his men, pointing with his cane toward Harbi, “Strip this dog.” Terrified, I continued to follow Harbi with my eyes as he struggled with the four men who were stripping him of his gallabiyya, vest, and undershirt, until nothing was left but his long underpants.

He was hitting them, and they were hitting him back. In the midst of the fight, he was shouting, “Please, Uncle! Kill me by your own hand…don’t let these strangers do this to me, my father! Don’t make me bear this shame, my grandfather! Kill me yourself!”

The bey was not listening, nor did he look at me or at anything else. He had taken off his tarbush and was drying the sweat on his brow while those men were stripping Harbi of his clothes. When they had finished and Harbi stood before the consul—his face, chest, and long underpants spattered with blood, his face and eyes swollen—the bey said calmly, “Don’t be afraid, Harbi, and don’t be in such a hurry to die. I’ll make you wish for death, but you won’t die.”

Some farmworkers appeared at the edges of the field. They stood frozen when they saw the bey. One of them ventured to step forward, toward the bey, and they saw one of the gang of strangers aim his gun at them. But the bey reached out and lowered the muzzle of the rifle. Then he did no more than turn his head toward the men standing there watching and say, “I don’t want anyone to remain here.” He pointed his cane at Harbi, whom three of the thugs were holding fast. “This dog,” said the bey, “has bitten the hand that fed him. Now leave me to punish him.”

One of the farmers said, “Let him kiss your hand and your feet, ya bey, and then forgive him. We all kiss your hand…” The bey, whom no one had ever heard raise his voice before, flew into a rage. “Get out of here, you dogs!” he shrieked. “All of you would attack my house as he did, if you could! All of you would kill my son if you could, and rob me of my estate while I’m still alive! Get out, you dogs!” The farmers were frightened as they stood there, seeing him shout and wave his cane at them. They drew back some distance. But one old man didn’t hesitate to say, loud and clear, “That’s just the way Asran’s kin used to deal with the peasants in the old days. Leave them now. Let them tear each other limb from limb.”

But the others didn’t see things that way. When one of them noticed me sprawled on the ground, he was reminded of something. “Run,” he said, “go get the boy’s father…The hagg is the only one who can put a stop to this.”

I was still paralyzed with pain and terror. I couldn’t move from where I was, and I wished my father really would come, because he alone would have managed to put a stop to what was happening. I heard Harbi, who was still bleeding from the nose, say in a broken voice, “How can I look anyone in the eye here in the village after this day, my uncle? How can you have wanted to shame your nephew this way…why didn’t you kill me outright instead?”

The bey turned to him and said, “If this is all that’s bothering you, Harbi, why then I’ll put out your eyes, so that you can’t see.” Then he gestured toward his men, who dragged Harbi over to the palm tree. One of them took a long, coiled rope out of his pocket, and began to tie him up. By this time, Harbi had completely given up fighting them: it was all over as soon as the gang of outsiders had succeeded in stripping him of his clothes in public. His hands hung limp…his whole body went slack, and he let them do with him as they wished. Only he kept shaking his head, murmuring as if he were talking to himself, “Is this right, Uncle? Is this right, my father?” Meanwhile, the bey was keeping an eye on his men, and his whole face was drenched with sweat. He said to the men, “Just as I explained to you. You and you—tie him to the tree at the chest and legs, but leave a space between him and the trunk.”

Two of the men held onto Harbi, bound hand and foot, while the other two began tying him to the trunk of the palm tree, wrapping one rope around his chest and the other around his legs, as the bey had ordered them to do. And Harbi allowed them to do all this to him, as if he were no more than a corpse. The bey walked over to him. He had taken hold of his cane, and prodding Harbi in the chest with it, he said, “You want me to kill you, Harbi? You want them to consider you a murder victim, and me to have to answer to them for the sake of a miserable parasite like you? What would you say, Harbi, if I made you wish for death without being able to die? Now, Harbi, you’ll kiss my hand and beg me to kill you…but I won’t give you the satisfaction of dying.”

The bey gestured toward his men again, and two of them, one on either side, began to pull on the rope that bound Harbi by the chest, which was not quite taut. They lifted him up slowly, then set him down on the ground again. At first, Harbi didn’t scream, even as the rough bark of the tree cut into his skin, ripping the flesh of his back and legs, but he cried words that rang with all the anguish of his soul, “Why, my uncle? Why all this…why?”

His uncle paid no attention, but kept right on prodding Harbi in the chest, laughing. “What do you say now, Harbi?” he said. “What say you leave this province and don’t let me or anyone else see your face ever again till the day you die, far away from me and my son? What do you say, Harbi? I have an even better idea. Why don’t you kill yourself with your own hand, and give yourself and me a rest? What do you say, Harbi?”

Harbi had begun to groan, opening his mouth wide, while they twisted him around the trunk of the tree, to the right, to the left, up and down. The blood had begun to flow from both sides, and from his shoulders, and he cried out more loudly now, with just two words, “Enough, Uncle! Enough!”

One of the Bedouin spoke up, warning him, “Ya bey, the skin’s gone off his back, and we’re down to the flesh now. You told us he wasn’t to die. Our agreement didn’t include murder.”

The bey paid no attention. But Harbi, whose skin had been stripped away, and whose blood was now flowing from every part of his back, legs, and arms, gave one great cry as he flung himself forward, his pain alone giving him the strength to do so. The tall palm tree shook with the violence of his movement, and the ropes that had bound him broke. The ropes that had been tied around his chest were also torn free with the thrust, as he screamed the word, “Enough!” Quick as lightning, he bent down, untied his feet, and seized one of the men’s rifles that was lying on the ground. With it he prodded the bey in the chest, still shouting, “Enough!” I cried out, too, when I saw his bloodied back, from which the flesh hung in strips. The bey yelled at his men, “Shoot! Are you men or women?”

But the leader of them said, “Our agreement didn’t include murder, ya bey. We made a deal, and we’re sticking to it, ya bey.” Then the men turned and ran toward the car. They abandoned the bey, who stumbled as he backed away from Harbi, who was pushing him, the muzzle of the gun pressed to his chest. Harbi kept on shouting, “Enough! e-nooooouuuugh!” until finally he fired one shot into the bey’s heart. The bey stood swaying a moment, his eyes bulging. “Oh,” he gasped, “no…,” and with that he collapsed, landing facedown in the field of lentils.

From a distance I saw my father coming at a run, shouting “Stop, Harbi! Stop, ya bey! Harbi, stop…” The mayor was running behind him, and after him the village head watchman. The bey’s men had reached the car, had started it, and were driving off in it. Harbi was gathering up his clothes, the blood still flowing from his body. With the rifle in his hand, he began running in the direction of the mountain. The bey lay stretched out on the ground in his black suit, amidst the yellow flowers.

My father stopped, and stared in horror at the scene before him. He didn’t even see me. I don’t know why, but he bent down and lifted up the bey’s tarbush, which had rolled away into the flowers. He stood brushing it off and wiping it with the sleeve of his gallabiyya, saying over and over, “There is no strength or power, except in God.”

It was the mayor, Hamid Asran, who knelt down and closed the bey’s staring eyes. Then he stood up. He struck his palms together again and again in despair, repeating, “This is the ruin of our village.”

It wasn’t the ruin of the village, though, but of Harbi, whom I saw running, with a limping gait, his upper body bent over in pain. He began to stagger, as he shouted over and over that one word, “Enough!…Enough!”

It was my father who eventually rescued Harbi. He came across him, close to nightfall, lying facedown in the yellow sand.

“I found him,” my father said, “still clutching the rifle. His back looked like some black waterskin, with the blood congealing on it. Harbi was still unconscious when I picked him up in my arms and carried him home.”

And so my father brought Harbi, more dead than alive, to the hospital in Luxor. He waited until he regained consciousness, then persuaded him to report what had happened to the police and to turn himself in.

This is how Harbi’s papers went north, to Asyut, and afterward to Cairo. For the case was tried first in the criminal court at Asyut. Then it was appealed in Cairo.

In Asyut, Harbi was sentenced to prison, at first for fifteen years at hard labor. Then, in Cairo, his lawyer convinced the court that Harbi had acted in self-defense. The testimony of prominent doctors was presented to show that what had happened there by the palm tree could well have been the end of him. After reviewing the case, the court commuted his sentence to ten years at hard labor.

When Aunt Safiyya heard that Harbi’s sentence had been commuted, she said, “What of it? I wish they’d release him tomorrow. I want him here, in front of me. I want Hassaan to get a good look at the man he’s going to kill when he grows up.”

The villagers heard this and were silent. Even my parents and I said nothing.

How can I describe what happened to Safiyya after the bey was killed? I didn’t see how she received the news; I was sick for a long time after that Bedouin’s blow to my chest. Nothing I ate stayed down. My father brought a doctor to the house, who prescribed medication, but this didn’t stop the vomiting; neither did it stop the screaming fits that seized me at night. These drove my mother, who sat up nights with me, into hysterics. She wept and struck her face with her hands, wailing as if a loved one had died, convinced that I was seeing the Angel of Death calling me. My father was forced to carry her bodily from the room, shouting at her, “He’ll be just fine if you don’t kill him yourself by carrying on like this!”

But I am not important to this story. What matters is what happened to my aunt Safiyya. I heard that she didn’t cry or wail when they brought her the news. It was said that she hugged Hassaan to her and didn’t speak for a while, until finally she said, “Too bad for you, Safiyya—your mother, your father, your husband, your son…” Then she kissed Hassaan, saying, “It’s our fate, my child.” It was said that afterward she stood up and went around to all the rooms of the palace, one after another. She gazed into each one then left it as it was, locking every door behind her. She ordered the servants to leave the palace, all of them, and not to lay a hand on anything or change even the position of a single chair…that was all. She asked them to take any food that was in the house, and go. Then she took the long black peasant robe that covers the body from head to foot, and she put it on over her store-bought dress. She took up Hassaan in her arms and told the driver to take her to the village.

She stopped first at the mayor’s house, where the bey’s body had been taken, and where the police chief and the district commissioner had gone. She didn’t get out of the car. The mayor went and spoke to her through the car window. “My dear girl,” he said, “you have my deepest sympathy…” Safiyya interrupted him. “I won’t hear any such talk, ya ‘omda, [8]” she said. “I came to tell you one thing: bury your cousin as you think best, but accept no condolences. Tell everyone there is to be no funeral, and no mourning. There will be a funeral at the palace on the day when Hassaan avenges his father’s death.[9] And on no account are you to tell anyone who killed the bey. Do you understand me, ya ‘omda?”

The mayor did not answer her: there was the district commissioner asking questions about the murderer, and here was Safiyya telling him not to say anything.

But Safiyya did not wait for an answer. She had already waved the driver on, and from there she went to the big house in the village, the house where the bey had so seldom stayed. It was like the rest of our houses, except that it had a mud-brick wall and it contained precious objects unknown in our houses.

I was astonished by the change that came over Safiyya after the bey was killed and she came back to live in the village.

I’m not talking about the fact that she stopped wearing the dresses she had worn at the palace and began wearing, like the rest of our women, the long, black jilbaab with the peasant robe over it, any time she went out. This was natural, since she was in mourning, and since she had decided to live in the village. What I’m talking about, rather, is a complete physical transformation. Within one month, my beautiful aunt Safiyya, who was not yet twenty years old, became an old woman. She even behaved the way old women do—or rather, she was allowed to behave like an old woman.

I know no explanation for what happened. But lines, like wrinkles, began to appear on her face and neck. She no longer wore only the jilbaab and the veil when she was at home, but took to wrapping a wide black kerchief around her neck as well. Her body, which had filled out a bit after the birth of Hassaan, grew thinner than it had ever been. Her soft skin began to roughen, and it grew browner day by day. Would it be improper for me to pass on what I heard my mother say to my sisters, namely that Safiyya, after she returned to the village, no longer took baths as often as she had when she lived in the palace, where she had been in the habit of bathing twice a day? I don’t know whether that was due to sadness, depression, or laziness, but there was something—or so it seemed to me—that began to happen to her along with the darkening of her skin. It seemed to me that she began gradually to resemble the bey more and more, and that she came to sound more like him when she talked. She always spoke of him in the present tense, as if he had not been killed, had never been taken from her.

When she scolded the house servants, she would say, “This mess will annoy the bey.” Or, “What will the bey say if he sees this?” Or, “The bey prefers to plant sugarcane in the eastern plot.” And so on. She would say these things calmly and confidently, so that a stranger might think she was talking about someone who was just in the next room. By the time a few months had passed, there was nothing left of the Aunt Safiyya I had known, except for her green-gold eyes. And even those eyes, there in her brown face, had taken on a frightening intensity, a hardness that struck you when she looked at you. I saw children, the moment her glance fell on them, cry and clutch their mothers’ sleeves. The children became still more frightened at the legends that grew up around her. For she would sometimes say things no one expected to hear.

I saw her once, a few weeks after the bey’s death, when she first came back to live in the village, look into the eyes of a woman who was visiting her that day with some others. “Since when have you been pregnant, girl?” Safiyya asked the woman. The woman hid her face in her veil, embarrassed. “If only I were, Aunt Safiyya,” she said, “but I had my period less than a week ago.” But Aunt Safiyya said decisively, “You’re pregnant.” Less than a month later, the woman was telling this story in all the houses of the village, saying that Aunt Safiyya had known of her pregnancy before she herself was aware of it. A little while after that, Aunt Safiyya was making an agreement with one of the farmers concerning the planting of a certain piece of land. She said to him, “Beware of the snake that lives near this plot. If you kill him, don’t leave his mate alive, for she will seek you out and kill you, even if you cross the seven seas to escape her.” Afterward, when the man saw the big black snake creeping toward him as he worked hoeing the earth, he cut off the snake’s head with his hoe. He didn’t rest until he had searched all through the stalks of hemp that stood in a clump nearby, where he found the female snake guarding her eggs. He killed her and destroyed her eggs.

And yet, there was nothing out of the ordinary in all these things that Safiyya said. There were other women who could tell by intuition alone that a woman was pregnant. They could even determine the sex of the fetus, and their predictions would be right. And the eastern field was next to a jungle of hemp, in which snakes lurked. So Aunt Safiyya’s warning was nothing unusual. Still, after these two incidents, it was widely believed in the village that Safiyya had second sight, and that the bey came to her nightly in her dreams to tell her what had been and what would be.

And so the beautiful Safiyya, whom all the men had desired, became the Aunt Safiyya whom all feared. She was granted the privilege of behaving in ways no one in the village did, except the old women. She would receive men in her home. And she farmed the land herself, in the sense that it was she who rented out the land to the farmworkers and received their payments. More than that, she determined what they should plant in each field—and this was a privilege not granted even to the old women among us who owned land. Normally, a woman would turn over the management of her estate to an uncle or a brother, and as a rule he would then take everything for himself, giving the woman just barely enough of the earnings to keep herself fed and clothed. This was not how it was with my aunt Safiyya, who took charge of the planting and leasing of land herself. She would go over the accounts with the shopworkers in Luxor, and with the real estate agents in Qena and Cairo. The only person she trusted, and to whom she delegated some of her work, was a merchant from Luxor who had been an old friend of the bey’s. And the only thing she allowed him to do was to supervise the passage of the boats to the Sudan and the transport of goods. Had she been able, she would have done even this on her own.

The penniless men in the village, of whom there were a great many, looked on in amazement. They wondered what she was going to do with all the wealth she was amassing in the banks and the safes, in addition to what she had inherited from the bey. “What’s she going to do with all that,” they asked, “when she never goes anywhere, and she’s such a skinflint?” My aunt Safiyya, however, wouldn’t listen to any criticism or accept any teasing on this point. She spoke in the bey’s quiet voice, but with conviction, saying, “No one is going to rob Hassaan of what’s his. Hassaan’s money is for Hassaan.”

At that time, another businesswoman was also seen in our village, though she differed in her methods and manner. This was none other than Amuna el-Baida. All the men had thought they would have a better chance with her, after Harbi’s imprisonment. But she gave up dancing at weddings and celebrations, and began to do as the other gypsies did: she carried a bundle of fabrics and a box of cheap wares, going from house to house, village to village with these things. She also told fortunes by drawing lines in the sand and casting seashells. There was no talk of her ever once having taken another lover after Harbi. As time went on, we saw less and less of her in the village. It was said that she was afraid of Safiyya. This surprised us, because the gypsy women were not usually afraid of anyone; rather it was they who made people afraid of them. Thus everyone became still more frightened of Safiyya.

At wakes, too, my aunt Safiyya started behaving as the old women did. Among our people, the women’s mourning rites were not all sadness and grief. The actual mourning and wailing and reciting of eulogies went on for the first few days. After that, though, and throughout the remaining forty days, the wake would turn into a peaceful session that went on all day and included all the female relatives of the dead person—in other words, all the women of the village. Food would be brought every day from one or more of the houses, and the women would compare one woman’s cooking to another’s. After lunch, a fire would be lit and the gouza prepared. This was an innocent gouza, whose bowl—unlike that of the men’s gouza—never held anything but honeyed tobacco. Then the pipe would go round the circle of old women. They might deign to give a puff to a woman who had been married for a long time. After all this, possibly following a short siesta, one of the women might begin the required rituals. Drawing out the word, she would say, “Oh, beloved!” At this point the wailing and eulogizing would begin, in loud voices, but after a little while the sobbing and weeping would subside again. Then the gouza would make the rounds again, with one woman saying to another, “That’s enough, sister—you’ll kill yourself! That will never do…” “Oh, if only I had died in his place (or her place)…” “Would you oppose the will of the Lord?” “God forbid!…and yet this is torment!” “May God relieve your suffering…here, sister, take the pipe…take a pull and calm yourself a little.” This would go on until just before sunset. With each mourning period lasting forty days, the women were busy practically the whole year through, going from one wake to the next.

Although the gouza was normally forbidden to girls and young women, my aunt Safiyya had claimed the privilege of smoking it from the very first day she attended a wake after the death of the bey. She used to draw a long breath on the pipe and hold it as would someone who had been addicted for years, then exhale in stages through her nose, one puff after another, in a series of little smoke rings. I didn’t like the women who smoked the gouza, but I continued to love Aunt Safiyya.

I was sad when my father quarreled with her for the first time. After the death of the bey, Safiyya retained her respect for my father, continuing to regard him as her father. She would kiss his hand when he arrived at her house, and would put the gouza away before he came in. None of this had changed, even though Safiyya knew that it was he who had saved Harbi’s life, and who had retained the lawyers on his behalf in Asyut and Cairo. She knew, too, that he went once a month to Cairo to visit Harbi in prison. She understood that this was his duty. For his part, my father did not argue with her about her refusal to hold a funeral for the bey, or about her talk of Hassaan’s avenging his father’s death. Each understood that the other was doing what was expected.

But my father flew into a rage when he heard that Safiyya had given to a donkey—one that was used for manuring the fields—the name “Harbi.” She had ordered the servant who tended its pen to bring “Harbi” to the courtyard of her house, where she would beat the animal with a cane, then instruct Hassaan, who was still no more than a baby, to spit on “Harbi.” In this way, Hassaan learned to spit before he learned to talk.

I was with my father the day he went to see her. When he entered the house, and she was about to kiss his hand, he pulled it roughly away from her. “I’m angry with you, Safiyya!” he told her. “By my soul I’m angry with you!” She remained standing before him with her head down, but after a moment she looked up at him. She struck her chest, her eyes blinded by the tears that had suddenly filled them. “This fire, my father,” she said, “just let me quench this fire that burns in me!”

She didn’t ask him why he was angry. She knew as well as he did.

He said to her, “Pray to our Lord for solace. But don’t do what is forbidden.”

The tears vanished from her eyes as suddenly as they had appeared. In their place was that frightening gleam. “Is it not my right,” she protested, “to instruct my son? Shouldn’t he know who killed his father—a saint among men—so he can avenge him?”

My father answered this question carefully. “It was a man who killed Hassaan’s father,” he told her calmly, “not a donkey.” As if she hadn’t understood, she replied, “A man?”

Then my father got angry again. “A human being, Safiyya! A human being, honored by God. It’s a sin to call a donkey by a man’s name! It’s a sin! Do you understand?”

Safiyya let out a shrill cry. Her whole body twitched, and she began to beat her breast over and over, crying, “What about my revenge, ya hagg? What about this fire that consumes me?”

“I didn’t say anything about your revenge, Safiyya,” my father answered. “I said…”

But Safiyya wasn’t listening. She was turning circles there in the broad courtyard, in the burning sun, striking her cheeks and tearing her hair. One of the servants was standing nearby, holding Hassaan, who began to cry when he saw his mother shouting and carrying on. But Safiyya paid no attention to him. She was moaning, a singsong wail, as she danced her crazy dance. “Harbi is my donkey,” she chanted, “Harbi is my donkey. And the hagg wants to rob me of my revenge. Are you content with this, ya bey? Are you content with this, ya bey?”

She was staring at the sky, talking to the bey, whom she alone could see. My father grabbed my hand. He, too, was angry as I had never before seen him. “By God, ya Safiyya,” he said, “if you don’t stop what you’re doing, I’ll never set foot in your house again. For shame! A human being is no donkey!”

But to whom was he speaking? Safiyya continued to rave, turning in circles. A river of sweat poured off her, but still she wouldn’t stop. My father pulled me away, almost dragging me, as he hurried out the door.

Once we were in the road, I could barely keep up with him. Feeling rather confused, I asked him how he could agree with Safiyya’s plan for vengeance, when he was always preaching in the mosque against the vendetta system and trying to reconcile the families among whom quarrels ran rampant. My father was still boiling with anger. “Shut up, boy,” he snapped.

I held my tongue. But his pace slowed a little, and he put his hand on my shoulder. For a little while he said nothing. Then suddenly he laughed softly, saying, “If your son grows up…”

My father came to a halt there in the road. He bent over me and grasped both my shoulders. The anger in his eyes had been replaced by a look that was almost sad. “Listen, my boy,” he said, “I have faith in you…I have faith in Hassaan, once he is educated…I have faith that the time will come, when you and he are both grown…”

He stood looking into my face for a long time, as if to ask me whether I had understood. Then he sighed, took my hand, and we started walking again.

Afterward, there was no need for my father to fulfill his oath or to cut himself off from Safiyya. For a few days later, the servant found the field donkey dead in its pen, lying on its side, its legs sticking up stiffly in the air. They said that it had died of poison. Suspicion did not fall on anyone in particular, as there were many who were angry on Harbi’s behalf.

Safiyya no longer used a donkey to instruct Hassaan after that: she turned to other methods.

But still sometimes—though rarely—I would find Safiyya to be as she had been before. At such times the beautiful Safiyya, whom I had loved, returned. For instance, I remember one occasion, when Hassaan had grown up a bit (he must have been three or four years old), when I had started preparatory school and begun carrying the boxes of cookies to our relatives and to the monastery on my own. In the morning I was wearing a new gallabiyya, skullcap, and shoes. I may also have been wearing the suit I went to school in, freshly ironed by my mother. I went out after my father, staying one step behind him. He embraced everyone he met in the street and gave him the traditional holiday greeting. On this day he wasn’t wearing his gallabiyya. Instead he wore a jubbah and caftan, which had been ironed at a presser’s shop in Luxor specializing in men’s garments. For the people had insisted that my father deliver the holiday sermon. On that day, everyone was ready to open his heart. I can almost hear him now, the way he spoke out in his strong, melodious voice. “The feast day,” he said, “is not for those who wear new clothes. No, it is for those whose hearts are new. If you pluck the spite from your hearts, every day of your life will be a feast day.” I can almost hear him—his voice growing fainter and starting to tremble—when he spoke of the Prophet, all blessings and peace be upon him. He recounted the Prophet’s sufferings before and after the Hijra, his wars and wounds…and my father’s voice grew soft and full of sadness. Then it picked up strength again, swelling with joy as he described how God had rewarded the Prophet, how He joined together hearts that had been at war. He stopped speaking for a few moments, passing his eyes over the group of worshipers. I can almost feel the way he wished to grasp each man by the shoulders and say to him, “I have faith!”

After prayers, I hurried back home. I received my mother’s words of advice as to what I must do with the holiday gifts. She repeated to me a thousand times that I mustn’t appear joyful when I took Safiyya’s box to her. One minute she was pleading with me, the next she was threatening me with punishment if I should make a single mistake. So off I went to my aunt Safiyya’s, pursued by those words of warning. I behaved with the sobriety of a man who goes to visit a woman who is in perpetual mourning. I put the box to one side, saying calmly, “My mother has sent this for Hassaan.” I didn’t bring up the subject of the feast day by mentioning the word “cookies.”

But Aunt Safiyya had lightened her mood that morning, for Hassaan’s sake. She hadn’t taken off her mourning garb, but the black clothes she wore were new. She had washed and brushed her hair, and taken out the gouza, which she had not been allowed to smoke during the month of Ramadan. She had dressed Hassaan in a new outfit and seated him beside her. This and the box I had brought her were all the holiday there was for her. For no one visited her on that morning, and the servants were not allowed, while in the house, to behave as if it were a feast day. Even so, I was glad for this slight change, for I found my aunt Safiyya as she had been when I grew up loving her. She put aside the gouza when she saw me, and greeted me with outstretched arms. “May all of you be always well,”[10] she said. Remembering my mother, I didn’t dare answer her in kind. “And Hassaan, too,” I stammered. I went over to Hassaan and picked him up and kissed him. “Hasn’t Hassaan grown?” she said anxiously. “Just look how he’s grown!” “Bismillaahi maa shaa’ allah,” I replied. “He’s grown a lot. He’s become a man!” She reached out and took him from me. Hugging and kissing him, she said, “I can’t wait to see him become a man like you! If only I could close my eyes, and find when I opened them that he had become a man…” “God give you long life, Aunt Safiyya,” I said to her. “May the Lord hear you,” she said firmly. “I want to live long enough to see his father rest in peace.” She got up then, carrying Hassaan. In the room was a glass cabinet. She went over to it and unlocked it with a small key which she took from her pocket. In the cabinet was a box inlaid with seashells and a red velvet case, which held the bey’s medal. The medal always shone, because Aunt Safiyya polished it every day. She opened the box and took out a new pound note, which she handed to me, saying simply, “The bey has sent you this holiday present.” I tried hard to refuse, as my parents had told me to do, but Safiyya pressed the pound note against my chest. “For heaven’s sake take it,” she said. “Don’t upset the bey.”

And so, with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment, I took it, since Safiyya was no longer intimately connected to me, no longer a member of my family as she had been before. Then she busied herself with a conversation that was forever being repeated between her and Hassaan. Pointing at the medal, she said, “Look, Hassaan, your father is a king! What is your father?” “My father is a king,” answered Hassaan. He must have reached out for the medal then, but she gently moved it out of his reach. “I want to play with the king!” he said to her. She replied laughing, “When you grow up and become worthy of the king.” Hassaan started to cry, and Safiyya tried to distract him.

I felt frightened for the little boy, when I saw how she played with him, and he was scared, too. She was tickling him vigorously and babbling at him, “Du-du, du-du-du, Hassaan-bey is a bey, Hassaan-bey, Hassaan-bey…When they told me ‘It’s a boy!’ I held my head high with pride…du-du, du-du-du, du…” At first Hassaan laughed when she tickled him; then he began to cry, “No, Mommy, no, Mommy!” laughing because he couldn’t help it, then by turns laughing and sobbing loudly. But now Safiyya had grown tired and dizzy. With all this frantic roughhousing, her breath had begun to come in short gasps. This was also on account of her addiction to the gouza. So she called one of the servants and handed over Hassaan, who seemed eager to get away from his mother. She sat down on the floor, which was spread with carpets. She leaned her back against the wall, and before she had even caught her breath, she had already taken out the gouza and was searching among the ashes in the little fireplace for burning embers. I saw her eyes gleaming green and gold, as she grasped the coal with the tongs and blew on it, before placing it in the bowl. She forgot about me for a little while, as she inhaled on the pipe. Her whole face had grown flushed, as she blew the little smoke rings from her nose, expelling them in rapid succession, and then coughing. After a little while, she opened her eyes, and looked at me absentmindedly. “Won’t you stay and have lunch with your aunt Safiyya?” she asked me. But my mother had warned me not to delay, for there were other boxes I had to deliver. A steady look had returned to Safiyya’s green-gold eyes.

How brief were the moments in which this Aunt Safiyya became once again my aunt Safiyya, whom I used to know and love.


1. Popular Egyptian actress, whose career began in the 1940s, when she was still a young girl. [BACK]

2. Literally, “the son of my mother’s father’s brother”: Arab familial relationships are much more closely defined than in Western societies; and in traditional Arab cultures, marriages between first cousins are not uncommon. [BACK]

3.  In Islam, Friday is the day of public worship. [BACK]

4. “Oh handsome boy, handsome boy!” (folk song sung to the groom at weddings in Upper Egypt). [BACK]

5.  Literally, “[her] anklet jingled on the stairs and woke me up.” [BACK]

6. In the Arabic, the first line of this song is a play on words that makes it quite clear Amuna is singing about Harbi. She sings, “Haar bi qalbi,” meaning roughly, “My heart was confounded”; but the combination of the first two words is deliberately meant to resemble Harbi’s name, so that this line could be taken as having a second meaning, “Harbi is my sweetheart.” [BACK]

7. Well-known and highly popular Egyptian singers. [BACK]

8. Village elder—loosely, “mayor” (as it is translated elsewhere in the text). [BACK]

9. According to the conventions of vendetta and blood feud as traditionally practiced in Upper Egypt, the deceased is not formally mourned until his next of kin avenges his death by doing away with his killer. Thus it falls to Hassaan to act as Harbi’s executioner, and the rites of mourning for the bey are to be postponed until he does so. [BACK]

10. Traditional holiday greeting, to which the standard reply is “And you also.” [BACK]

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