An Excerpt from Ahmed El Fakharany’s ‘The Quail King: An Alexandrian Odyssey’

Then she would gratefully send flying what remained of her precious something, with a giggle at the rustling of non-existent wings. Ya qayyum, ya qayyum, ya qayyum—O Self-Existent One, O Self-Existent One, O Self-Existent One, restore my ability to share intimate communion with You, for I lack both will and ambition. Then the blindness returned, and emptiness gripped my soul. I paused once or twice to kick an illusory rock, even though there was nothing in my way but crowds of people, and there wouldn’t have been any room to kick a rock even if there had been one in front of me. Even so, my small victory hadn’t mended my tattered pride. Or will you pander to readers’ preference for monologue and melodrama? Or what do you call it—deliverance? He seemed to be immersed in a lake of weariness, which I resented. The imam approached me. It was as though they’d never heard those words spoken before with that particular blend of hope and reproach. But when it crossed over into Syrian Square where Idris’s workshop was located, all it signaled was that we had to vacate the place immediately. Although I tried to tell myself it hadn’t happened, I viewed it as a cynical sign of divine rejection. Then I heard women screaming, and I saw the light of a fire on the roof, and my mother’s body. Taking her hand, I forced her balled fist open. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditTumblrWhatsAppPinterestTelegramPocketSkypeLike this:Like Loading… I prayed with total reverence. But some mysterious something came flowing through a hidden crack in my heart. 6 The path to the Attarine Mosque was carpeted with God’s orphans. I didn’t even go to Idris’s workshop, and he didn’t ask about me. Without a word, she took my hand, and I nearly floated into her room. This number is the final guardian of the secret. I didn’t understand the reason for them, but they were watering the seed of my longing for the unknown, a seed that was growing and bursting through the soil of my heart.          Uncle Idris didn’t take me seriously. 4 I’m thinking about how beginnings are always sweet. Then a huge, burly man wearing a patched green jilbab started roughing me up, saying: “Show some manners in the house of God, will you?” I didn’t need his hands to tell me how coarse and inconsiderate he was. Then I pushed him away in self-defense. But as soon as I approached my ugly house, electricity tore me limb from limb. My mother was putting on her daily performance: reaching out to receive her imaginary sustenance. It was as if my absence had freed him from a heavy burden. For secrets must be kept shrouded in mystery to all but certain chosen ones, who traverse long distances and endure brutal tests, who possess the strength of will, acuity of spirit, and purity of mettle that will ensure their sole arrival. The stony tears in my eyes softened. Neither did the water soften the heart, nor did the recitations quench my thirst or restore my connection to God. She was wearing a black nightie that showed her cleavage. The man cursed me, and they called me crazy. “Mad you!” I thought to myself. I might even have felt a bit grateful for the emptiness that had erected its towers in my soul. Slowly, I opened the door, but I didn’t cross the threshold. Nancy Roberts is a freelance Arabic-to-English translator and editor with experience in the areas of modern Arabic literature, politics and education; international development; Arab women’s economic and political empowerment; Islamic jurisprudence and theology; Islamist thought and movements; and interreligious dialogue. The Qur’an reciter had a beautiful, melodious voice that had always enthralled me, but at that moment, my heart was closed like a forgotten, rusted-over cabinet. Will you leave my sufferings out? Between her thighs I’d been rescued, and I wept bitter, real tears without questions, as though all wounds could be healed, as though, if I delved deeper, I could fill in the secret well of sorrow once and for all. Had she thought she would propel herself to heaven rather than fall to the ground? The door closed behind us. I would fill plastic containers and pails with one part clay and two parts water. Then suddenly I was showered with light from behind. He was convinced that my questions were stupid due to a dullness in my features and my sluggish, sleepy, lusterless eye. Embarrassed, I finished praying in a hurry. Eyeballing him defiantly, I said, “Yeah, I’m fucking Suraya. Maybe it was the temptation to regret the pleasure I had missed. It was as if my eyes had been carved out of stone. Even so, it didn’t take long for passersby to get used to her, and soon she was the butt of their daily jokes. It ignites a fire of rage inside me. She used to go up to the roof and rip the pages out of the notebooks one by one, then send them flying through the air. Ahmed El-Fakharany. Lifting up a prayer of repentance, I murmured: “I trust in You, and I am repentant and remorseful for what I have done. You say: But my sparrow will be something different. Holding fast to my will, I began reciting `Iddiyat Ya Sin. They knew I was taking the place of the husband who’d been absent in distant lands for years on end. I could almost feel God’s approval, as though I were seeing things for the first time. I didn’t know if this was a sign of waning sanity or of total madness. He has published novels, a short-story collection, and a collection of poetry, including Laialina Bar, Conquering the Dog, Biyasat Al-Shawam (or “The Quail King,” which won the 2020 Sawiris Prize), and Mandorla (shortlisted for the Sawiris Prize in 2016). Then I’ll keep myself so busy asking God’s forgiveness that I won’t have time to think about Suraya. Why will the world forgive something strange like beautiful, captivating fingers on an ugly body, but it won’t forgive statues that don’t look like sparrows? We weren’t supposed to trouble the folks who came in fancy cars from the other end of town  with the stench of poverty. But for what sin? Like Idris, they’d been gifted with the passion to create, and contrary to his belief, they weren’t incapable of doing so. I didn’t leave the house. Photo courtesy Sawiris Foundation. I don’t even know what they mean, but you’ll put them in my mouth, and they’ll dissolve like a sweet flake of opium. It’s hideous-looking, and completely original. I drank the jujube, but it wasn’t enough. I was spooked by a cat that jumped out of a garbage can, scattering its contents every which way. As I left, I made a point of slamming the door loudly behind me in a show of contempt and rage. After circling it several times, I sat down with my back up against the wall. When some men passed by on their way to the dawn prayer, one of them muttered a prayer for protection from the accursed Satan and the filth of sinners. As for us, we’d make ourselves scarce. I jumped out of my seat as if I’d been stung, my head hot with rage. I could only bear it in silence, unresisting, staring at my mother’s body without any attempt to understand, and seeking refuge from the world in Suraya’s embrace. Whichever it was, her words—which grew fewer and farther between as time went by—were as grave and solemn as could be. Exhaling my cigarette smoke, I said, “This is a caring, forgiving, understanding moon. The path is so rugged and steep, how can I make my way toward what can’t be known?” (But I didn’t say all this. However, its being shuttered didn’t stop the malicious whispers and gossip. Then I would strain off the last of the water with a piece of cloth, and the result was my pure gold: a lump of clay fit to be shaped by Mu`allim Idris’s masterful hands. Hungry for reassurance, I said, “I’ve committed fornication, Mawlana. Pangs of hunger exacerbated the emptiness and meaninglessness of my pain. Was it because my mother’s end was the beginning of my own harrowing story? Its viscous yolk, disagreeable and filthy, splattered all over. The low window’s frame was painted a dreary pale blue, its cracks inhabited by ants, and its far corner animated by the delirious ravings of a spider. Nobody noticed my retreat. The looks of the people in the street pronounced a guilty verdict that admitted of no appeal: “You murdered her.” The only exception was my neighbor Thuraya, who rushed outside in a fright wearing her nightgown. So I didn’t go back to the ablution faucets. Meanwhile, I was obsessed with gathering clay. I was just wondering what had so fascinated my mother about the side street that she would have wanted to monitor it every day, when all that was there was monotony and stagnation—the same old misery. Then I regretted it, so I went running after him and gave him five pounds, which was all I had left in my pocket. I thought: I’ll order some iced jujube to cool down the fire raging inside me. I changed my mind about going up to the house, and I went to the coffee shop instead. Like an adder, it tore at my flesh, hissing and sending its venom streaming through my veins. But in the end, they gave up and made him leave me alone. The cold was making me shiver, and the rain was softening my dry, cracked soil and awakening me from a deep hibernation. 7 I’d left the mosque determined not to repeat what I’d done. Please, don’t believe that sheikh!” At that moment, the air felt pure and fresh, like the breaths of God. You put the words in my mouth.) I shouted, “Oh Lord!” It was a loud, desperate shout that wounded my thirsty palate. I thought: The moon sets, and I don’t like things that set. He has published articles in the Arab and Egyptian press, and he won the Hani Darwish Prize for Journalism. Her body marked the world’s boundaries. I didn’t tell him about my real question, which, if it had passed my lips, would have been the end of me: “Will God forgive somebody who killed his mother?” Outside the mosque, I looked up at the moon. Out of her beautiful eyes wafted a summer breeze, and on her bosom stood two sentries guarding towers of ivory and marble. Maybe that’s why it didn’t have any effect, and the heavens didn’t shake. When I asked him why night and day follow each other in a never-ending repetition, he said disdainfully, “So that they can be an irrefutable sign to those who don’t believe, and so that dolts like you will pay attention.” I said, “Maybe people have an excuse. When Suraya went to her job at the Insurance Authority, I’d sleep until she came home. All I needed to do to keep up the pretense, and to silence hatred and resentment, was not to open the window. I bear no grudge against it. The fire went out, and I devoured the ashes. Could somebody like me—simple-minded, poor in spirit, weak-willed—ever find happiness? God and the moon claim to protect me, but all I am is something that was born as a glob of spittle, and that will die as a pile of excrement, neither of which draws any attention except for the nuisance they cause at birth or death. With her eyes she said, “Hayta lak—Come to me.” Not having it in me to reject God’s gracious gift, I removed her nightgown. Her frizzy, wild hair was silver, and the gray strands that ran through it lent her madness a tinge of horror. I looked hopeless and exhausted. “So,” he bellowed, punching me vindictively in the chest, “you’re going to lift your hand against a man who’s old enough to be your father?”  “My father never hit me once till the day he died,” I stammered, seeking refuge in my orphaned status. They observed everything as though they saw nothing so that, if the world had collapsed, she wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. She would take my hand, contemplate my fingers, and then start slowly kissing and licking them. “Your fingers are stunning,” Suraya whispered in my ear. Then along would come “Bamboo,” accompanied by a band of down-and-outers and street sweepers to clear away the filth and the poor. “There’s nothing in your hand! They wanted to make sure I’d forever bear the cross of her suicide in their stead. I felt as though I had all the willpower in the Universe. The restaurant operated two days a week, and on the remaining days, the second-hand clothes vendors’ tin stalls were transformed into dens of prostitution and drug dealing, run by Bamboo from atop a throne. I stared up at Suraya’s window, which was next to my mother’s. 8 For fear that I’d leave her once we’d finished pleasuring each other, Suraya developed a peculiar habit. You say: But my sparrow is different. Her face was so wrinkled, it looked like a crumpled-up treasure map. They furrowed my back, not hers. But it had been a miserable one. When they fell to the ground, she would be sad, since she’d been trying her best to propel them skyward. Instead, I headed for the exit and put on my shoes. I froze in place from the shock. I have no place on earth, so how can you deprive me of heaven? It grieved me, and I detested everything. Nevertheless, taking advantage of the cover afforded by the night, I opened it for the first time in forty days and nights. She came just like that, without my asking. I trembled at the sight of the window devoid of my mother’s image. She didn’t land directly in front of me. I broke down and cried, and my tears seemed more copious than the rain. So why did this beginning grip my heart as though the end was near? On the contrary, He commands them to be stoned to death. The same scene repeated itself every day: She would reach out, latch onto something that wasn’t there, and close her hand over it, gently at first. Then she would tighten her grip as though she were wresting something precious from the world. But I can’t think back on that scene without seeing her corpse at my feet, her eyes fixed on me in a look of odious forgiveness. But all I could feel was nothingness upon nothingness. Slowly, Suraya’s door opened, the way the opening in her bra had signaled the presence of the treasure within. You tell it you’ve got a sparrow, and it replies that it already knows what a sparrow looks like, and that that’s all it needs. I thought it might come back during the Sunna prayer. Have you ever thought about that before? You must have placed the words on these awkward lips of mine, to melt there like a sweet opium flake.) In any case, I suddenly jumped up, got dressed, and left without looking at her or uttering so much as a word of thanks. It had turned the world into a riddle and a struggle and convinced me that everything was nothingness. Even so, `Iddiyat Ya Sin didn’t save me. Suraya wasn’t beautiful, but she was delectable, and her pungent perfume, mixed by an herbalist who held the powers of good and evil in his hand, did me in. I said, “Ya hayy, ya hayy, ya hayy—O Living One, O Living One, O Living One, bring Your dead to life, for hope has faded. “Is it good manners to hit me in His house?” I asked, trembling as the words came out of my mouth. I pretended I’d forgotten something, giving my imaginary observers the impression that I’d be back. I couldn’t get the key to go into the lock on the first try. Where would I get such eloquence? * Ahmed El-Fakhrany is a novelist and journalist. Or maybe they did? I went on thinking about Suraya: the sweet, the delectable, the luscious; the abode of pleasure, the abode of fire; the wanton but severe, the portal to the world, the daughter of fortune… I never wanted to leave, since the terrifying night meant going back to my mother’s house. Will I go to hell?” I expected him to talk about God’s door being open to those who sincerely repent. In fact, it’s not a sparrow at all. Yet she never wearied of trying. All you’ve done is ask stupid questions.” I looked at my fingers, which longed to create the way his did. No, you’re the one who said it before … only this time I said it myself.) 9 One time after we’d finished, I asked Suraya, “Where is God’s face?” And she pointed to the closed window. She would listen to the buzz of wood saws and the clanging of metal in the workshops the way some people listen to Umm Kulthum, and she delighted in the sparks produced by the welder like a little girl watching fireworks. Heading back to the café across from the house, I ordered a glass of iced jujube and a shisha to help calm myself down. (I still don’t know how you’re going to tell it. I could never figure out what she enjoyed about watching the narrow side street, sometimes for hours on end. Taking me in her arms without a thought for the people looking on, she said, “My precious boy…” The world was cracking open on my chest like an egg the size of the moon. Her flaming body was tottering, about to fall over the wall that rimmed the roof. Despite the guilt that weighed me down, my innocence was apparent, and the miracle it granted was that I could see the full moon even as it waned. I could feel people’s eyes burning holes in me, their stares piercing my skin like knife blades. I reached the mosque and bent down to take off my shoes, but all I could feel was a frightening emptiness. The “throne” was an old chair that Bamboo had filched in broad daylight from an antique vendor in al-Attarine, and whose splendor was only made complete by his settling atop it and viewing everyone from aloft. All I could see now was the heaviness and filth of this body of mine, and I felt unspeakable contempt for myself and for her. 2 When the maghrib call to prayer sounded, the muezzin’s voice came from the Attarine Mosque, signaling his hearers to turn to God. “A thousand thousand years,” he replied. I was jolted out of my reverie by a humiliating slap to the back of the neck by a young boy, who called me “the crazy lady’s son,” then disappeared. The call to the isha’ prayer hadn’t yet sounded. There was no light. Enduring bliss was possible after all, and paradise was at my fingertips. I’d been blind, and now I saw. After crumbling the hard clay into little pieces, I would stir it into the water, then let the impurities float to the top. I thought: God’s paradises are everywhere if we look closely, and His heaven is as near as near can be. Gathering my fear of disappointment into a tight, trembling fist, I stepped fearfully toward hope. You understand?” She gave me an innocent, bewildered look as if to say, “I know.” Ashamed, I retreated a step or two before adding, “I’m going to close that window for good.” Then I raised my voice again. I hated the pain. Her eyes were windows framed by cheap kohl. Wild-eyed, I searched for the kid, trying to deafen myself to the stinging laughter that filled the side street. Lights shone down and delights escorted us in solemn procession. He sat down beside me. An Excerpt from Ahmed El Fakharany’s ‘The Quail King: An Alexandrian Odyssey’ September 20, 2022September 20, 2022 by mlynxqualey “And know that you—[the perfected human being]—are the intended goal. I’d never listed her names before. I intended to prove to “the blind of sight” that God, the King of Kings, was capable of granting me the willpower I needed. However, the people of the neighborhood took on the burden of burying her. The rain came down in torrents, relieving the sky’s distended bladder. (Have I said this before? She was twenty years my senior. They all coveted the room, which she had never opened to anyone but strangers who came under cover of darkness. I waited for the flow of fresh water to wash me clean. After that, I’d pour the water into another container and repeat the process several more times until all the impurities were gone and wait for the clean clay to settle at the bottom. At first, the falling pages were a source of alarm, since she had written on them in strange letters that looked like Arabic, but weren’t, and people thought they were magic spells and curses. I performed the ablution and felt the pleasure of having the imagined uncleanness fall away from my body, tons and tons of it. But as time went on, they realized these were nothing but words of delirium. He didn’t know I was on fire inside. Her body was radiant, like a lamp amid a dark, billowing sea, her hair an endless night. I hovered around the mosque like a thief. It was incomprehensible, and it would go on being that way. Then she would come back down, crestfallen. The ghosts of the street would pass through them, but nothing between heaven and earth escaped their notice. It had once filled me with happiness, but now it encountered a heart of stone that even the subtlest essence couldn’t have penetrated. And I attributed this to my guilt. Is that why people don’t get angry at frightening darkness and overwhelming light?” Idris said, “You’ll go on being a donkey, Saeed. She didn’t miss a thing: the women’s gossip, the rustling of ants, the din in the coffee shop, the sound of footsteps, little boys at play, the lurking of cats. It’s been more than ten years now, and you still haven’t learned anything about the craft. I’d be wounded, but she’d be unfazed, as unmoved as a stagnant pond. God, or the emptiness of despair? I watched passersby with a distracted, envious eye. Enchanted, I did an about-face and crossed the chasm that separated dream from reality. Her brassiere was exquisite. Bismillah, in the name of God. Bewildered by my doggedness, people in the congregation tried pulling me by the hand, but I resisted even more, knowing that if I got up, it would be all over. The look on my face must have been frightening. I didn’t manage to cry, but I could feel God close by and gentle: pardoning, forgiving, and understanding. Then I tried again with the slow, mournful recitation of bismillah al-rahman al-rahim—“in the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate”—that comes at the beginning of the Fatiha. I knew what I needed to do: I’d go to God. Why do we seek refuge in God from the accursed Satan before we recite the basmala? When I was seven years old, I memorized the entire Qur’an under my father’s supervision. Whatever happened, my outburst startled those worshiping and sleeping in the mosque, and, for a few moments, everything—the Earth, time, people—seemed to stand still. Then she came to me. Within half an hour, the second-hand clothes vendors had shuttered their stalls, watch repairmen had folded up their tables, and the dingy cafes had closed down, as did our workshop. Besides, its contents were frightening to contemplate. Her translation of Ghada Samman’s Beirut ’75 won the 1994 Arkansas Arabic Translation Award; her rendition of Salwa Bakr’s The Man From Bashmour (Cairo: AUC Press, 2007) was awarded a commendation in the 2008 Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Translation, while her English translations of Ibrahim Nasrallah’s Gaza Weddings (Cairo: Hoopoe Press, 2017), Lanterns of the King of Galilee (AUC Press, 2015) and Time of White Horses (Cairo: Hoopoe Reprint, 2016) won her the 2018 Sheikh Hamad Prize for Translation and International Understanding. I’d lose all hope, devoured by this world’s beasts of prey. It’s just that it seemed like a huge number to him, as far as he knew how to count. Then, with great relish, she would take a nibble out of the air and chew it. I waited for the outpouring of abundance from the Most Merciful, and acceptance from the Most Compassionate. Then I’d go into the house angry, shut myself in my room, and cry. By the end of the prayer, I’d reached the point of total despair, and I nearly left again. After that, the world ate up half of it, then half of that half. But no sooner had I raised my hands to utter the opening Allahu akbar than I let a small fart. Is there no bliss to be found anywhere but on the most impossible paths?) I stumbled over somebody who was fast asleep on the mosque floor. I used to linger a bit before leaving the neighborhood so that I could get a glimpse of the throne, which would be erected on top of a thousand beer bottles stuck together with powerful glue and covered with straw. What lay inside it: light, or vipers? But instead, he just gazed steadily into my eyes for a long time. After all, my mother, who had set herself on fire and died with a fractured skull and shattered bones, had found a path to deliverance. Or maybe I was afraid of what would happen to me if I was deprived of my dim hope of seeing my mother in the house as if nothing had happened, so that I could carry on with my life, and she could carry on with her good-natured madness with the same collusion as always. I thought about going back to apologize. And now I think it’s naïve always to associate God’s presence with the tears I shed when I prostrate. The rain was being held back like urine in a bladder, while the moon with its pain was concealed from the light of creation. (I didn’t write all this. You’ve tasted its sweetness. Clinging to my connection to God, I’ve known it since childhood. I saw a look of sympathy in his eyes, although I couldn’t tell whether it was sincere or not. Where had I been before? But tell me: Who of us wouldn’t like to get up on a stage and prattle loudly on and on about their life?) 5 My mother had no wake. The winks and titters were lashes that showed me no mercy. I thought of kneeling at her feet and telling her she could do whatever she wanted, and to hell with the neighborhood and its sleazeballs. Then I bowed my head and looked down at the floor with a shame that he took to be dimwittedness.  But instead, I just sat there, shackled by pride, anger, and cowardice. After all, when they see the same thing over and over again for a thousand years, they don’t notice the miracle, and instead of being enlightened, they become blind. And if you’ve got a problem with that, I’ll do the same to your mother.” The man glued his eyes to the ground and went on his way. The next day, I didn’t watch the moon from the window. Other times, she would barely sit there for half a minute before getting up and coming back inside, muttering a dyslexic, “God mad you all!” to those passing by. But people are cruel. I don’t think they’re exactly the same thing. I apologized, but I hadn’t even wakened him. Determined to put an end to this, I directed my zeal and rage at the window. After all, the world is ill-tempered. But that did nothing to assuage my self-hatred and guilt, which were compounded by the thought of my mother’s body newly in the grave. His answer wasn’t correct, of course. Sometimes she would write everything down in notebooks. One minute I blamed my weakness of will, and the next, her seduction. A frightening number with the eyes of a monster and a yawning mouth that swallows up all the other numbers and, with them: terror, death, evils, diseases, fires, massacres, meaninglessness, madness, deviations, and lusts. I wished I could enjoy a slumber like that, enveloped in silence and stillness, a slumber that would remove hardship, lift the weight of responsibility, and put an end to all questions. Why will they forgive something strange like beautiful, charming fingers on an ugly body, but they won’t forgive my statues that don’t look like sparrows? My mother went meekly inside. Although there wasn’t a trace of it in the air, I kept it in the depths of my heart. It was my first time, and in it, images in my imagination were transformed into concrete realities. I thought of buying a hot raghif samin, but both my ear and my heart clung to the mosque. I rushed inside the mosque again, thinking: I’ll pray with the first group that arrives. But God cares nothing for fornicators and adulterers. Without it, I’d be afraid of my own shadow. Literary translations include works by Ghada Samman, Ahlem Mostaghanemi, Naguib Mahjouz, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Ibrahim al-Koni, Salman al-Farsi, Laila Al Johani, and Haji Jabir, among others. But no sooner had we finished than guilt reared its ugly head. I looked at the illuminated sign that bore the name Allah. I had never accepted the description of her as crazy, even though that was the truth of the matter. That was the way things were: By day, Syrian Square belonged to everybody, but by night, it was a maze to which entry was barred without permission from the two figures who shared the neighborhood’s nocturnal throne: the owner of the Quail Restaurant, known as “the Quail King”—who hid from the treachery of time in a room of his own, set off from the rest of the establishment by a high threshold and guarded by a loaded revolver—and Bamboo, king of the night and the Quail King’s bodyguard. It was on an alley inside an alley, like the eye of a needle in the haystack of the world. The tenderness and sympathy in her eyes were as vast and generous as air and water. I sat in the café across the street from the house and close to Syrian Square. There’s nothing else like it. It was pleading, and I was angry. However, I do hold plenty of grudges, and if I exploded, the whole world would go up in flames. I’d gotten into fights over and over on her behalf, but in the end I gave up. But since he could make such dazzling, exquisite statues out of clay, I thought he knew everything. It never leaves me even if I’m disobedient. I pelted the people walking into the mosque with spiteful looks, wishing I could stop them. Her black nightgown intensified the sweetness and allure of her voluptuous body. Then, in a pitying voice, he said, “You’ll never rid yourself of the memory of what you did. “I’ve had enough of being the neighborhood spectacle!” Although I knew full well that my shouting and my insistence on exposing her madness really had made us into the neighborhood spectacle. 3 When I arrived, my mother was planted in the bay window like a flowerpot. I truly desire lasting peace with my soul, and my soul belongs to God. Instead, just say: She had tits that jiggled like milk pudding.) I flung myself at her: hungry, insatiable, wounded. My kingdom was no longer of this world. The streets I’d seen as dreadful places had become beautiful gardens and fruit-bearing groves, and people steeped in cruelty and hysteria were like my brothers in the vast fatherhood of God, sharing freely given tenderness and kindness in this world of destruction and death. It possesses me—heart, mind, and soul—whether I’m following right guidance or going astray. As I passed among those waiting for the prayer to begin, the Qur’an reciter’s voice tore me up as he chanted: {If only they had attempted the steep Ascent.} (Do you understand this verse? Or maybe I’d be the only one to burn up. Feeling spiteful, I ignored its pain, as a final bargaining chip in the event that my need wasn’t met. You tell them you’re going to make a sculpture of a sparrow, and they reply that they already know what a sparrow looks like, and that that’s all they need. Equally determined not to budge, I squatted on the floor and said, “Nobody can kick me out of God’s house.” Then, wooden-eyed, I retreated into silence. The causes only came into existence because of you, so that you might appear.” Meccan Revelations, Ibn `Arabi The House of Pleasure By Ahmed El-Fakharany Translated by Nancy Roberts Translator’s Preface 1 I was nineteen years old, working in Mu`allim Idris’s workshop, when I asked him about the age of the Universe. I think there’s a bigger number than that, one’s that’s impossible to count. She is based in Wheaton, Illinois. She paid no attention to the sarcastic comments that awaited the scene every day, demanding that she share some of her gift from heaven with those looking on. I reveled in food, cigarettes, and the pleasures of the flesh. I tried to cry when I heard the first Allahu akbar. I’m a big nobody. My steps heavy, I stood for a few seconds at the door to the flat. “They’re delicate and slender, as though they were made for an artist.” “I got them by accident!” I said sarcastically. “There’s nothing there!” I screamed at her. My mother had bushy eyebrows and harsh, scary-looking features. For forty days and forty nights, I was buried between her thighs. I felt as light as a bird in paradise, like a bodiless essence, pure spirit. I was the first person she’d ever accepted from the neighborhood, and the first to enjoy a thousand nights of union. My nostrils were filled with the imagined fragrance of her perfume. Every time I was defeated, she would laugh. (That’s a nauseating exaggeration that nobody but an intellectual snob like you would have come up with. When I’d finished crying, I felt a serenity of spirit. The entire night we alternated between joy and laughter, pleasure and reproach, ascents and descents. This would keep me by her side and fill my emptiness the way a mother soothes a baby by rocking it. Colored lamps would be lit, the ground would be sprinkled with water and perfume, decorations would be hung, and the smell of grilled meat would waft through the air to the sound of music. But my heart softened toward it, and I granted it a pardon. Now ask Him for mercy.” I was upset by what he’d said. I didn’t tell her that the passion for creation stored up in those fingers was my curse. The window was low, but it still gave me a view of the moon. The prayer commenced, but nothing stirred in my heart. Other worshippers gathered around in support of the man, who was determined to kick me out. Ignoring Suraya’s threat, I didn’t close the window. I can recognize hard-hearted people from their stony eyes, and from the helplessness that comes over me when I come face to face with them. After giving it a hungry sniff, she would bring it slowly to her mouth, and her lips—rendered dreadful-looking by too much smoking—would part to reveal a toothless cavern. I’ll do the ablution, I thought to myself. I looked away from her, contemplating my cursed fingers. When the call to prayer sounded, a beggar came up and asked me to give him some of what God had given me, so I pointed to my male organ, and he walked away bewildered and offended. For more than ten years, I’d failed to master anything in Idris’s workshop but the process of preparing the clay for his statues. But then my eyes were drawn to her window, and I couldn’t tear them away. I buried my face in her awesome bosom and disappeared.  “What’s the matter?” he asked calmly, patting me on the shoulder. But what is His name, really? I didn’t cry. It was the only place I could go where I didn’t have to pay up front. As for her eyes, they were always fixed, never moving either this way or that. Hesitantly, I took out the key. Suraya’s window was always shuttered so that I wouldn’t be seen by people in the street. But I held onto the last fourth, plus miscellaneous passages that guarantee a person’s salvation. The house had an ominous feel about it, as though it concealed some irate avenger in every corner.

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