AL-SAYYID AHMAD Abd al-Jawad closed the door behind him and crossed the courtyard of his house by the pale light of the stars. His step was lethargic, and his walking stick sank into the dusty earth whenever he leaned on it wearily. He felt on fire and craved cold water so he could wash his face, head, and neck and escape, if only briefly, from the July heat and from the inferno in his belly and head. Cheered by the thought of cool water, he smiled. When he entered the door leading to the stairway, he could see a faint light coming from above. It flowed along the wall, revealing the motion of the hand that held the lamp. He climbed the steps with one hand on the railing and the other on his stick. Its successive taps had long ago acquired a special rhythm, which identified him as easily as his features. Amina was visible at the head of the stairs with the lamp in her hand. On reaching her, he stopped to regain his breath, for his chest was heaving. Then he greeted her in his customary way: "Good evening."
Preceding him with the lamp, Amina murmured, "Good evening, sir."
Once inside his room he rushed to the sofa and collapsed. Letting go of his stick and taking off his fez, he threw his head back and stretched out his legs. The sides of his cloak fell open, and the caftan underneath rode up to reveal the legs of his long underwear tucked into his socks. He shut his eyes and wiped his forehead, cheeks, and neck with a handkerchief.
After placing the lamp on a table, Amina waited for him to rise so she could help remove his clothes. She looked at him with anxious concern. She wished she had the courage to ask him not to stay out so late — now that his health could no longer shrug off excesses — but she did not know how to express her sad thoughts.
A few minutes passed before he opened his eyes. Then he extracted the gold watch from his caftan and took off his diamond ring to place them both in his fez. When he stood up to remove his cloak and caftan with Amina's assistance, his body seemed as tall, broad, and full as ever, although the hair at his temples had been assailed by gray. When he was putting his head in the neck of his white house shirt, a smile suddenly go the better of him. He remember how Mr. Ali Abd al-Rahim had vomited at their party that evening and had apologized for his weakness, attributing it to an upset stomach. They had all singled out their friend, upbraiding him and asserting that he could no longer tolerate alcohol, for only a special kind of man could keep on drinking to the end of his life, and so forth. He remembered he anger and vehemence of Mr. Ali in defending himself against this suspicion. How amazing that some people lent importance to such trivial matters. . . . But if it were not important, then why had he himself boasted in the merry hubbub that he could drink a whole tavern of wine without ill effects?
He sat down again and lifted his feet so that his wife could take off his shoes and socks. Then she disappeared briefly, returning with a basin and a pitcher.
She poured the water for him while he washed his face and neck and rinsed out his mouth. Afterwards he sat with his legs folded beneath him, enjoying the gentle breeze flowing between the latticed balcony and the window overlooking the courtyard.
"What an atrocious summer we're having this year!"
Pulling the pallet out from under the bed and sitting cross-legged at his feet, Amina replied, "May our Lord be gracious to us." She sighed and continued: "The whole world's a blazing pyre, especially the oven room. The roof terrace is the only place you can breathe in summer — once the sun has set."
She sat there as usual, but time had changed her. She had grown thin, and her face seemed longer, if only because her cheeks were hollow. The locks of hair that escaped from her scarf were turning gray and made her seem older than she was. The beauty spot on her cheek had grown slightly larger. In addition to their customary look of submission, her eyes now revealed a mournful absent-mindedness. Her anguish over the changes that had befallen her was considerable, although at first she had welcomed them as an expression of her grief. Then she had begun to wonder anxiously if she might not need her health to get through the remainder of her life. Yes. . . and the others needed her to be healthy too, but how could everything be put back the way it was before? And she was older, if not old enough to warrant such a transformation. Still, her age had to make a difference.
Night after night she had stood on the balcony observing the street through the wooden grille. What she could see of the street had not altered, but change had crept through her.
The voice of the waiter at the coffeehouse echoed through their silent room. She smiled and stole a glance at al-Sayyid Ahmad.
She dearly loved this street, which stayed awake all night keeping her heart company. It was a friend but ignorant of the heart that loved it through the shutters of the enclosed balcony. Its features filled her mind, and its evening inhabitants were live voices inhabiting her ears — like this waiter who never stopped talking, the person with the hoarse voice who commented on the events of the day without getting tired or annoyed, the man with the nervous voice trying his luck at cards with the seven of diamonds and the jack, and the father of Haniya —the little girl with whooping cough — who night after night would reply when asked about her, "Our Lord will be able to cure her." Oh . . . the balcony seemed to be her special corner of the coffeehouse. Memories of the street paraded before her imagination while her eyes remained fixed on the man's head, which was leaning against the back of the sofa. When the flow of remembered images stopped, she concentrated her attention on her husband. She noticed that the sides of his face were bright red, the way she had grown accustomed to seeing them of late when he returned home. She was uncomfortable about it and asked him apprehensively, "Sir, are you well?"
He held his head up and muttered, "Well, praise God." Then he added, "But the weather is atrocious."
Clear raisin liqueur was the best drink in summer. That was what they had repeatedly told him, but he could not stand it. For him it was whiskey or nothing. Thus every day he had to put up with summer hangovers, and it was a ferocious summer. He had really laughed hard that evening. He had laughed until the veins of his neck were sore. But what had all the laughter been about? He could hardly remember. There seemed to be nothing to relate or repeat. Yet the atmosphere of their party had been charged with such a sympathetic electricity that a touch had sufficed to set off a flash. The moment Mr. Ibrahim al-Far said, "Alexandria set sail from Sa'd Zaghlul Pasha today heading for Paris," reversing his words, they had all burst out laughing, since they considered that remark an exquisite example of a slip of the tongue caused by intoxication.
They had been quick to add, "He will continue negotiating until he regains his health, when he will set sail for the invitation in response to the London he received from" or "He will receive Ramsay MacDonald from the independence of the agreement" and "He will return with Egypt for independence." They had begun to discuss the anticipated negotiations, larding their comment with whatever jests they saw fit.
Vast as his world of friends was, it really boiled down to three: Muhammad Iffat, Ali Abd al-Rahim, and Ibahim al-Far. Cold he imagine the world's existence without them? The way their faces lit up with genuine joy when they saw him made him happier than anything else could. His dreamy eyes met Amina's inquisitive ones. As though to remind her of something extremely important, he said, "Tomorrow."
With a beaming face she replied, "How could I forget?"
He did not attempt to conceal his pride when he commented, "It's said that the baccalaureate results were awful this year."
She smiled once more to share in his pride and said, "May our Lord make his efforts successful and let us live long enough to see him obtain his degree."
"Did you go to Sugar Street today?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied, "and I invited everyone. They'll all come except the old lady, who excused herself because she's so tired. Her two sons will congratulate Kamal on her behalf."
Gesturing toward his cloak with his chin, al-Sayyid Ahmad said, "Today Shaykh Mutawalli Abd al-Samad brought me amulets for the children of Khadija and Aisha. His wish for me was: 'God willing, I'll make you amulets for your grandchildren's children.'"
Shaking his head, he smiled and continued, "Nothing's impossible for God. Shaykh Mutawalli himself is like iron even though he's in his eighties."
"May our Lord grant you health and strength."
He reflected for a time while he counted on his fingers. Then he observed, "If my father had lived, may God be compassionate to him, he would not have been much older than the shaykh."
"May God have mercy on all those who have departed this life."
Silence reigned until the impact of the reference to the dead had dissipated. As though remembering something important, the man said, "Zaynab's gotten engaged!"
Amina's eyes grew wide. She raised her head and asked, "Really?"
"Yes, Muhammad Iffat told me tonight."
"Who is it?"
"A civil servant named Muhammad Hasan, who is head of the records office in the Ministry of Education."
She commented despondently, "It sounds as though he's advanced in years."
"Not at all," he objected. "He's in his thirties, thirty-five, thirty-six, forty at the most." He continued sarcastically, "She tried her luck with young men and failed. I mean young men with no backbone. Let her try her luck with mature men."
Amina said sorrowfully, "Yasin would have been better for her, if only because of their son."
Al-Sayyid Ahmad shared her opinion, which he had defended for a long time with Muhammad Iffat. In order to conceal his failure, he did not mention that he agreed and said with annoyance, "Her father no longer trusts Yasin, and in truth he's not trustworthy. That's why I didn't insist on it. I was unwilling to exploit our friendship and make her father accept something that would end badly."
Amina mumbled sympathetically, "A youthful mistake can be forgiven."
Her husband felt he could acknowledge some portion of his unsuccessful effort and remarked, "I didn't neglect Yasin's rights but met with no encouragement. Muhammad Iffat told me, 'My first reason for refusing is my concern that our friendship might be exposed to discord.' He also said, 'I would not be able to refuse a request from you, but our friendship is dearer to me than your request.' So I stopped talking about it."
Muhammad Iffat had actually said that, but only to fend off al-Sayyid Ahmad's insistent urging. Because of his friend's high standing with him and in society, al-Sayyid Ahmad had been very keen to restore his bond with Muhammad Iffat, which was severed when their children were divorced. although he could not hope to find a better wife for Yasin than Zaynab, he was forced to accept the calamity of divorce and remarriage, especially after his friend had told him bluntly at least part of what he knew of Yasin's private life. Muhammad Iffat had even remarked, "Don't tell me we're the same as Yasin. We differ in several respects, and the fact is that I have higher standards for my daughter Zaynab's husband than for her mother's."
Amina inquired, "Does Yasin know what's happened?"
"He'll learn tomorrow or the next day. Do you think he'll mind? He's the last person to be concerned about honor in marriage."
Amina shook her head sadly and asked, "What about Ridwan?"
Al-Sayyid Ahmad replied with a frown, "He'll stay with his grandfather or go with his mother, if he can't bear to be separated from her. May God embarrass those who have caused the boy this embarrassment."
"My Lord, the poor child — his mother one place and his father another. . . . Can Zaynab really bear to be parted from him?"
Her husband replied with apparent disdain, "Necessity has its own laws." Then he asked, "When will he be old enough to come to his father? Do you remember?"
Amina thought for a bit and said, "He's a little younger than Na'ima, Aisha's daughter, and a little older than Khadija's son Abd al-Mun'im. So he must be five, and his father can claim custody in two years. Isn't that right, sir?"
Yawning, al-Sayyid replied, "We'll see when the time comes." Then he went on: "He's been married before. I mean her new husband."
"Does he have children?"
"No. His first wife didn't bear any."
"Perhaps that helped endear him to Mr. Muhammad Iffat."
The man retorted angrily, "Don't forget his rank!"
Amina protested, "If it was merely a question of social status no one could match your son, if only for your sake."
He felt indignant and secretly cursed Muhammad Iffat, despite his love for the man. But then he reiterated the point that consoled him: "Don't forget that had it not been for his desire to safeguard our friendship, he would not have hesitated to honor my request."
Amina echoed this sentiment: "Of course, naturally sir. It's a lifelong friendship and not something to be trifled with or taken lightly."
He began yawning once more and muttered, "Take the lamp."
She rose to carry out his order. He closed his eyes for a moment before rising in a single bound, as though to overcome his inertia. He headed for his bed to stretch out. Now he felt fine. How good it was to lie down when exhausted. Yes, his head pulsed and throbbed, but he almost always had some kind of headache. Let him praise God in any case. Being totally at ease was a thing of the past.
Excerpted from Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz. Copyright © 2011 by Naguib Mahfouz. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.