NOTE: Born in 1968, Hamdi Abu Golayyel is of Bedouin origin and lives in Cairo. In keeping with a growing trend in Egyptian fiction, Thieves in Retirement—the novel from which this excerpt is taken—is set in a crowded Cairo apartment building, the various inhabitants of which offer a cross-section of Egyptian society, while highlighting a modern sense of displacement and urban alienation. Thieves in Retirement was published by Syracuse University Press in 2006.
People are delighted—in the normal course of events—when they hear the news that a pious man has been caught red-handed mired in some wrongful act, whether a sin divinely prohibited, a scandalous act undermining the gravity and might of his religiosity, or an error that strips from him the cloak of infallibility to expose him as an ordinary person who doesn’t carry the halo of sainthood after all. Perhaps they react this way because his commitment to virtue has been wounding their consciences, perhaps it’s a question of seeking psychological equilibrium. It’s a relief to be able to rely on the sins of a man who appears close to God in coming to terms with their own sins which they suspect are quite appalling, and they can think optimistically about committing other wrongs that are no less atrocious. Or maybe it’s because people generally find it hard to put up with individuals who lay it on thick when it comes to virtue and commitment–their own as well as what they advise others to acquire.
When Abu Gamal revealed Shaykh Hasan’s secret to the residents of Number 36, every one of them immediately acquired the glazed aura of someone who has worked really hard to obtain something and suddenly finds it right in front of him. Postponing their battles, they freed themselves completely to swap versions of the ins and outs of this secret narrative. What’s more, they built up every aspect, each according to his whims and the powers of his imagination, for it seems this was the appropriate and satisfying response to his counsels which had been unending.
Shaykh Hasan is from Sohag. It was there that he did the heinous deed. He slept with his mother-in-law. Afterward the remorse nearly killed him. He contemplated suicide down to the details, but he discovered that he wasn’t strong enough to face death and so he decided to turn for help to the people of knowledge and learning. He took up his bundle and turned his face to Cairo. Specifically his goal was the Azhar, noble seat of Islamic learning, and a fatwa that would put his conscience at rest. He sought a crutch in his defective piety, a definitive jurisprudential opinion to end his mortal confusion. Waiting for the legal greybeard to whom he would present his woeful case, he met Abu Gamal, who was there on a similar mission.
Or two missions. The first was wicked and really he should be ashamed. He was in search of a misstep Gamal might possibly have made, in order to break his lousy pride and rub his nose in the muddy pit of immorality. Gamal, after all, was living with his wife Hanan even though he had sworn out loud a third time (thus, irrevocably) that he was divorcing her. The second mission was an errand of goodness and charity: to obtain a fatwa legalizing his anticipated grandson who had now completed his eighth month in Nahid’s belly, for Salah had married her after . . . after what? Let it be “after the pen fell into the inkwell” so as not to anger the censors. In her fourth month of expecting the now-anticipated grandson Nahid was wed to Salah with all due ceremony.
In front of the faqih’s door, like invalids exchanging complaints about their ailments as they await the doctor, each confided his problem to the other but with a minor alteration to protect themselves against embarrassment. Abu Gamal thus laid his children’s problems at the door of the household directly across the street, and it was his good fortune that one of the building owner’s sons was also a Gamal. “He’s an old man, poor geezer, so I said to myself (Abu Gamal told Hasan), I’ll do this and gain some credit in heaven. I’ll come see if I can find him an answer to this calamity he’s got in his boys . . . one jumped on top of a good girl from a good family before he married her, the other one’s sleeping with his wife while God frowns on him.”
Hasan, for his part, made up a friend and transferred the burden to his shoulders. “Came begging me for this favor after that awful thing he done, can you believe the cheek?”
Even with the unmistakable ring of sincerity and concern each man suspected the other was lying. On leaving the greybeard’s cubbyhole they confirmed it. Abu Gamal came out prancing, rejoicing out loud that he’d hit upon a loophole in the eyes of God with which he could buy the obeisance of his uncooperative son, and an unambiguous fatwa that his awaited grandson was clear and away legitimate in God’s eyes. In Shaykh Hasan’s case, on the other hand, it was his tears and the bewilderment attending his search for a place of shelter in Cairo now that a return to Sohag was clearly impossible that gave him away. Since the only soul he knew in this city was Abu Gamal, he asked whether his new friend knew anyplace he could hide himself until Our Lord smoothed things out. To tempt Abu Gamal into helping him, Hasan launched into his tale again. He told the whole thing a second time but with perfect honesty this time, no alterations implicating friends. Abu Gamal was so much affected by the story that he burst into sobs and threw himself and all he possessed into succoring this man (for it’s generally true that people are enthusiastic about helping those who are weaker than they are, probably so that they can establish firmly, to their own satisfaction, that they are indeed strong.) Abu Gamal made him a promise in the manner of loyal men. “That secret of yours—it’ll stay deep in the well, fella! Even if this business of finding you a spot means I have to dissolve a contract, change rooms around . . . my man, I’ll put you in two rooms and a sitting room facing north, and don’t worry about a thing in the world. From this day on consider yourself just like my children . . . what’s the world come to now-just keep in mind, now, your Lord is the Patient One when it comes to making a mistake, and He’s the Veiler of All Deeds, too.”
Hasan entered Number 36 in Abu Gamal’s grip and under his protection. He moved into the apartment that the Prof has his eyes on now. From Day One he and Gamal loathed each other mutually and equally for reasons that were obscure, and he gave free rein to his beard so that he could become Shaykh Hasan. “Allah” and “the Prophet” were always on his tongue now, and he was careful to keep to himself and to avoid any impurities from the house to the mosque, and from the mosque to his work. No pals, no wasting time in coffeehouses, and he left no opportunity to seize upon a good deed left unexploited, especially if it was an opportunity that imposed no burden. In his opinion, a good deed offers a kind of bank account susceptible to eternal growth. For lo, the good deed is like ten of its kind. And Allah gives great increase for whomsoever He wishes. And, according to him, a good deed equals its weight in gold—even one good deed, for every good deed is a generous step toward the blessings of Paradise, bringing him closer to heaven while at the same time putting distance between him and the inferno of his accursed secret, in this world and the Hereafter.
And as the Shaykh’s wealth expanded, his fear of poverty underwent rampant inflation. The study of poverty now engrossed him.
Abu Gamal kept abreast of Shaykh Hasan’s every step with great admiration, and likely a measure of envy and distress, too, for the Shaykh seemed to embody the ideal son for whom Abu Gamal had fervently hoped—”instead of Gamal over there, who befriends anyone and everyone and throws his money around for no good reason.”
First, Shaykh Hasan got work at the Helwan Silk Factory as a result of a nice, artery-clogging supper Abu Gamal stuffed into the Director of Employee Affairs. But in short order and for two reasons he left the factory. One reason was Hereafterish and the other was quite worldly. In the first case, the Shaykh’s shift got in the way of the Five Daily Prayers. In the second case, the work itself didn’t mesh with his ambitions for independence and secretiveness. Everyone, that is, always knew exactly what he was doing. So he turned his sights on commerce. He exploited to the full the possibilities inherent in a certain religious occasion, the Mulid Nabawi-commemoration of the Prophet’s Birthday.
Hasan erected a small tent at the entrance to the building and stuffed it full of Mulid sweets, purchased on credit with only a good word to the wholesaler from Abu Gamal as a pledge against payment. As he gave his honorable word to the wholesaler, Abu Gamal also overlooked the expense and trouble he had gone to in providing the artery-clogging supper, which clearly had all been for nothing. Abu Gamal, that is, maintained his manly gallantry at its normally buoyant level.
From the start of his venture Shaykh Hasan upheld the motto of secrecy: “Be Confident, Your Needs Will Be Met Under Cover.” And in reality this slogan did not betray him: indeed, it was among the prime factors contributing to his success. After all, if you truly believe that secretiveness is the leading dynamic behind getting your interests in place, then any breach thereto means failure. And this is what Shaykh Hasan avoided absolutely. Therefore, his business succeeded and expanded, the tent turned into a shop with solid walls, and the seasonal Mulid sweets were replaced by foodstuffs in all their variety.
The Shaykh spun a winning number and his luck played havoc with the relationship cemented by the secret at the door of the greybeard faqih in the Noble Azhar. The increase in his monetary fortunes gave Shaykh Hasan a heady feeling of power. He knew for certain now that he had freed himself from the secret that had so disfigured his existence; or let’s just say he forgot all about it. Now he shrugged off the stranger’s wary remoteness with which he’d led his life, beginning to move about our building and the vicinity as if he were a normal person with the right to voice opinions on whatever went on around him.
Those who are Closest have first dibs on goodness, as the religion instructs us. Therefore, one night at the mosque, immediately after the evening prayer, Shaykh Hasan proclaimed that “Whosever witnesses an act prohibited by the faith will change it by his own hand. And ‘prohibited,’ my brethren, describes exactly what Brother Gamal is doing, for he cohabits with his wife against God’s Law.”
Naturally, this announcement was considered a slip of the tongue and no one paid it any mind.
Nasser’s Newtown was more like a village than it was a seamless part of the capital city; and in the end, its longtime residents (Abu Gamal, for instance) were family; moreover, they were workmates in the factories of Helwan; and every household knew exactly how far the secrets of every other household went and kept them carefully under wraps. No one had the slightest tolerance for a stranger entering their midst to create scandal in this way.
Of course, the loud silence that greeted his rhetoric more than sufficed to convince Hasan to forget his carefully laid strategy for raiding the bango sessions in Gamal’s apartment. Abu Gamal, however, did not forget. He neither forgot Hasan’s proclamation nor considered it a slip of the tongue. And to express just how much it meant to him he began to poke at that old secret, to rejuvenate it in his memory, like a rusty weapon that you clean so that you can avail yourself of it at any moment. The stranger whom he had taken in with open arms because he’d been so frail and needy had grown strong. He didn’t need to be propped up any more. Therefore one was duty-bound, in present circumstances, to seek out the appropriate means of causing him harm (for, according to Abu Gamal, people are of two sorts: either weak, and to be succored with all in one’s possession, or strong, to be enfeebled in any way one can manage). Affectionate sympathy became doubt that quickly crystallized into patent hatred, sparked especially when his recollection of the secret in all its particulars led him to observe that Shaykh Hasan had imposed the law of silence on him even though he—Abu Gamal—had zealously undertaken to succor him in a moment of crying need.
So Abu Gamal followed precedent and resorted first to the mosque (“may we escape all affliction, it’s the Lord’s house, belongs to everyone”). After evening prayer he broadcast Hasan’s secret, without prejudice, in equal measure to all believers. He returned home bent on throwing the bastard out despite entreaties from all, including even Gamal himself.
“He’s an immoral cheat and I’m afraid for my boys’ women.”
And because, when all was said and done, the Shaykh was a stranger and an outsider, what Abu Gamal said was not taken as a mere slip of the tongue. The people of Manshiyat Nasir refused to host the Shaykh even until the next morning. He left the house and the neighborhood, never to return.
Excerpted from the novel Thieves in Retirement by Hamdi Abu Golayyel