Lions of the Church

By AHMED NAJI

Translated from the Arabic by BEN KOERBER

1

Antar Harami’s kingdom stretches from the iron bridge to the gristmills in the east, and from the El Gaz drainage canal southward all the way to the police checkpoint at the International Hospital.

His power and protection extend over all living things in his domain—most especially the dogs. His reputation spreads beyond the borders of his kingdom; his deeds echo throughout the Nile Delta. The epic story of his seizure of the throne is depicted in the graffiti murals that adorn the wall outside the Mother of Believers Secondary School for Girls. For this, he had called on the greatest calligraphers and mural artists of Alexandria—the likes of Gamal al-Dawli and the Queen of Azarita—and tasked them with crafting the narrative of his trials and tribulations; his bitter defeat; and, finally, his sweet, sweet victory. These events were rendered in the visual splendor of nineteen illustrated panels stretching along the wall of the school. It all began when the new state security officer in town, acting on a tip from a local butcher, called Antar in for questioning.

Antar declined the invitation. “I go to no one. He who wants me shall seek me out,” he said to the policeman.

The security officer responded with a police wagon carrying four troopers and three police officers. They arrived at his house, which was built from mud brick and palm trunks. His mother told them he had been out since morning. She was a feisty old woman; she and her son had nothing but hatred and animosity for each other. Perhaps she wanted to get rid of him or just teach him a lesson. Whatever her intention, she tipped them off: “You’ll find him over at Hosh Issa, hanging out with those thugs and hooligans, drinking spirits and sniffing glue.”

Alerted by the siren, the whole gang had fled before the police got there. Except for Antar. He stood there puffing his chest, surrounded by eleven dogs. The second the troopers stepped out of the wagon, the dogs started toward them, growling. One of the troopers grabbed a rock and hurled it at one of the dogs, hitting it in the face. And so the battle began. The dogs pounced on the troopers. Antar’s boozed-up pals looked on from afar as a truly supernatural scene, full of wondrous beasts and strange happenings, unfolded before them. They saw the dogs open the car door and pull out the driver from behind the wheel. It was as if they were following orders, as if every strike was calculated: “Wound, but don’t kill.” The beasts lunged at the troopers and sunk their teeth into their legs, effectively crippling them.

The scene concluded with the policemen covered in blood, encircled by the dogs. Then Antar came up to the head officer and spat in his face. He walked off, followed by all eleven dogs.

Afterward, Antar disappeared. There were all sorts of rumors. The state security officer asked Hajj Ibrahim al-Wali—one of the top roughnecks—to hand Antar over the minute he appeared. Two days later, Hajj Ibrahim al-Wali was himself arrested. It was said that police had discovered large quantities of weed and boxes full of Tramadol, Pancenol, and Paramol. As he was getting arrested, everyone saw Antar standing at the end of the street with two black dogs, laughing and snorting and spitting.

When Antar was accused of betrayal, he responded that it was Hajj Ibrahim who was the real traitor, since he had wanted to take him by the neck and throw him to state security. All Antar had done was have the Hajj for lunch before the Hajj could have him for dinner.

Then it happened that Hind bint Omeira divorced Hajj Ibrahim and married Antar. Those were not happy days, but rather times of conflict, strife, and ruin. The graffiti murals tell most of the story, including the Battle of the Vegetable Market, when Antar forced the tomato sellers to adopt a fixed price. When they pulled out their knives, he set his dogs on them. There was also the Skirmish of the Red Nightgown, when Adel Shakl came by the kingdom to settle a debt with Momo Sameh. Seeing this as an intrusion on his domain and a threat to his authority, Antar pounced on Adel and his men and delivered them a sound thrashing. He slashed Adel in the chest and the ass and cut him a new face. Then he ordered a red nightgown be made for Adel and dragged him through the streets all the way to the edge of his kingdom. The magnificent scene was painted by the artist Queen of Azarita, who portrayed Adel wearing a red nightgown and a black leather mask, which had a gold chain attached to it, pulled along by Antar. The latter was depicted in a white wifebeater splattered with the blood of the battle. He walked proud and tall, surrounded by dogs without collars. Underneath the scene, the calligrapher Gamal al-Dawli had written, in elegant Kufic script, When Khufu is away, the mice will play!

 

2

I got jealous when I saw there was something between them. As my passion and curiosity grew, I’d ask him, in an indirect way, what she was like, trying to push the conversation in that direction. But then I asked him straight out: “Things going okay with Sally?”

“Dude, you know she just sent me a letter.”

“No, really. You serious?”

“…”

I wanted to ask him to show me the letter, but out of jealousy I demurred. And, as always, he changed the subject: “Dude, you know Ahmed Zaki really shaved his head in this movie—it’s not just a wig?”

I wasn’t crazy like him about Ahmed Zaki. But I wouldn’t turn down an invitation to the movies, even if was The Days of Sadat. That day, we skipped school after our first class. To save money, we decided to walk. We kept away from the main road, because Michael was afraid someone he knew might see us and tell his parents. We paced along the road that ran along the drainage canal, heading for the granaries and rice threshers. From there, we turned onto National Company Road, following it all the way to Meshal Square, which took us to the movie theater. I wanted the conversation to get back to Sally and the letter, or for him to tell me again about the kiss and the hug under the staircase. But Michael was carried back to his favorite topic.

“You know why Ahmed Zaki’s such an ingenious actor?” He didn’t wait for me to respond. “It’s because he looks like us. His features are Egyptian. When you see him, you feel he’s speaking for you.”

The spring sun lit up his face, making it a little whiter than usual, with a touch of red on his cheeks. As he turned to look at me, his green eyes threw me into a daze. And those pink, half-parted lips, beckoning to hopes and possibilities, to dreams both ordinary and orgasmic…

At the time, I didn’t have the audacity to kiss Michael or to confess my feelings. And into the future I’d live off the memory of unrequited love while searching for that fair-complexioned boy with colored eyes and pink lips who thought Ahmed Zaki looked like him.

Every time I listen to David Bowie songs, I remember Michael. He was the one who introduced me to Bowie. We’d sit in the courtyard listening to the Walkman, one headphone in my ear and the other in his. Whenever he wished to draw my attention to a particular beat or turn in the lyrics, he’d touch his fingers to my forearm and say, “Listen here…”

We got to the granaries, which were really just the ruins of three silos. Each one was about ten meters high but run-down and abandoned. The place was overrun with weeds and rust.

We were deep in our conversation about Sadat and Ahmed Zaki when I felt someone grab my belt from behind and pull me to the ground. I tripped on a rock and fell flat on my back. Some fat kid grabbed Michael and lifted him up by the collar, while another stood there brandishing a closed switchblade.

“Either one of you kids moves an inch and I slash you a new one.”

There were three of them, all bigger than us, with long, dirty fingernails. The fat one with the belly—the one holding Michael—was barefoot.

My mother always warned me that if I ever got held up, I should hand over whatever they wanted and give them however much money I had on me. “Nothing makes up for a scar on your face,” was how she put it. I was still lying on the ground, and the one who pulled me down held me by my shirt. Michael began to stutter, and as the tears gathered in his eyes, he pleaded in a faltering voice, “Please, mister, I swear, we got nothing on us.”

“‛Mister’?!” snorted one of them. “Hand it over, kid…”

The fat one let him down and was about to reach for his pocket when I was overcome with a divine burst of inspiration.

“By the way, I live over by the iron bridge. That’s Antar Harami’s territory. You wanna mug us, go right ahead. But you can be sure he’ll hear about it.”

The one holding me let go. I got up and brushed myself off. I didn’t know Antar Harami personally, and the only place I’d seen him was on the graffiti murals outside the schools. But I didn’t want them to take everything we’d saved up to buy the movie tickets. I didn’t want to see Michael’s tears if I wasn’t gonna be able to lick them up.

The second I said “Antar,” they started to fumble. They looked at each other, then asked me for my address. I gave them my family’s name, and they got even more agitated. The fat kid grabbed Michael’s wrist, where a small cross was tattooed on the inside, and showed it to his two companions: “This kid’s a dirty Copt.”

The one with the switchblade straightened up his posture and said, “Alright, then. You go get back home safely. But this Bible bitch belongs to us.” Then, to Michael, he said, “Take off your shoes and show us your pockets.”

Having already raised the specter of Antar Harami, I felt compelled to take things further.

“Please, man, don’t do it—take me instead,” I said with exaggerated emotion. “Don’t you know who this is? He’s the priest’s kid, the one at the old church. You’re afraid of Antar and his dogs, and not the church and its lions? Why, Antar himself learned how to handle his dogs from this kid’s dad. Over at the church, they’ve been keeping and training lions to protect themselves. If anything happens to this kid, I’ll be the one who gets in trouble, because I’m supposed to be looking out for him…”

The one with the closed switchblade slashed his weapon in the air and barked, “What a lousy day this has been. So where you taking him, then?”

“We’re headed to the bus station, so I can get him on his way home. He was feeling sick at school, and the principal gave him a permission slip.”

I had the money for the movie ticket in my back pocket, and the money I’d saved on transportation in my right front pocket. I took out the money in my right front pocket and said, “Honest to God, that’s all I got on me. Go ahead and take it, just don’t make me strip.”

He grabbed the half-pound note out of my hand, then hawked up a ball of phlegm and spat it on the ground next to Michael’s feet.

 

3

Our high school had a small courtyard between the music room and the restrooms. I sat there on a stone bench, in the shade of an enormous tree. I held a cheese sandwich in my hand and had the headphones of my Walkman over my ears. All I had was a mixtape that Michael had given me, made up of songs by David Bowie and Queen. I’d listened so much it now bored me. So I dialed through the radio stations until I heard the old hit “Cleopatra,” sung by Mohamed Abdel Wahab. The school was nearly empty that day. Exams were coming up, and most students preferred taking private lessons and studying at home.

The stone bench cooled my body amidst the heat. The breeze filtered through the tangle of branches above and took me away from my loneliness, the humidity and boredom of springtime, and all the crap at school.

Listening to “Cleopatra,” I got nostalgic all of a sudden. I remembered my grandfather’s obsession with Abdel Wahab’s songs, especially his oldies and the ones he sang in Classical Arabic. When I was little, I listened to this song so many times while sitting in his lap, hearing his stories about Abdel Wahab’s private concert, and how his job while working with the great general Shams Badran was to pick up Wahab on the weekends in his private car and bring him to General Shams, for whom a private concert was held. The cassette player on the table and a cup of tea with mint in his hand. He’d take a sip, then give me one too.

My grandfather was a great colonel also, a tough fighter. Still, they blame him and his colleagues for what happened in the Six-Day War; as a result, he was imprisoned for three years. After being pardoned by the new president, he stayed silent most of his life, alienated from everyone. But sometimes he would tell me stories and bits of advice whose full meaning I would grasp only later.

Thinking about my grandfather filled my heart with pathos and love, and I was reminded of Michael. I shed a silent tear and found myself singing along with Abdel Wahab:

I beseech thee, O Mighty Nile,
By your banks and your verdant hills!
Have you seen that soft, supple lad,

Tawny-brow’d, like wine in quivering light,
Rowing a boat forged from the dreams of youth?
If he should pass, and hail from near or far,

Tell me of his looks, tell me twice,
for that boy is my beloved…

A cool breeze blew, wiping away my tear of sorrow. I was gripped by a feeling of transcendence and wished the moment would last forever, complete with myself and my solitude, in the shade of a tree whose name I didn’t know, without worries or plans for tomorrow. I wished my days would pass in simple abandon, troubled only by the hormones of puberty and the bouts of depression that come with adolescence.

That moment is seared in my memory. For me, it’s the first in a series of signs representing the death of one phase and the beginning of a new being. A new spirit inhabited me as an old essence slipped away. The proof of this is that when I look back at the pages of my life prior, I can’t make out the writing or understand its meaning. But I know for sure it was the moment that my heart confronted me with the undeniable truth: “I love Michael, I am not interested in girls, and teats are disgusting.”

Revealing any of these three facts was beyond my ability. I only wanted Michael’s hug and to whisper my confessions to him while sitting on his lap, which wouldn’t happen.

I didn’t feel sadness but poignancy upon burying these three little corpses.

I spotted five kids coming toward me. Three of them weren’t students in our school; the two that were stood off to the side. One of the two pointed at me and said my name.

The three strangers approached. This was the second sign: the proverbial three stars, or three Magi. The shortest of the three asked me if I was so-and-so, and I responded yes, I was he.

The tallest one put his hand on my shoulder, while the short one said, “Antar Harami wants you.”

Had I received a summons of this kind at any other time, my bowels would have run and I’d have burst out crying. I’d have begged them for forgiveness and pleaded with them to let me go back to my mom. But I happened to be experiencing a moment of clarity and bliss. I got up and left with them without fear. My only concern was for the backpack I’d left back at school and the Walkman I quickly hid under my shirt, tucked between my belly and my waistband. We climbed over the school wall to get out, then walked down the road that runs parallel to the drainage canal. But instead of heading toward the grain silos, we took a side street over to the Mosque of God’s Glory, then walked down Farewell Point Road all the way to the graveyard.

They walked through the graves along a path they knew well, while I stumbled behind them through the thorns and crevices. The wilted flowers and cacti on the graves caught my eye. We arrived at a walled tomb with a small courtyard.

They pushed open the iron door. I followed them inside, and there he was: Antar Harami, sitting on a gold-rimmed armchair. I recognized him from the distinctive scar on his face, which cut through his left eyebrow. In front of him was a blood-brown dog sitting on her hind legs, about a meter and a half tall. She had a long neck and a hairless face with wide brown eyes and big droopy ears. They called her Inferno. The biggest dog I’d ever seen. Some claimed she was no dog at all, but a salaawa that Antar had rescued from a dried-up well in the middle of the desert. She’d either fallen in or been thrown down there by her brethren. According to the story, Antar had taken her in and suckled and raised her himself, eventually becoming her master.

There were three barefoot boys sitting on the floor, forming a kind of assembly line for manufacturing Molotov cocktails. They’d fill empty bottles with nails and pieces of glass before adding the gasoline. Then they’d seal the bottles with pieces of cloth and place them in a box.

Antar called out my name. He asked me to sit and gestured toward the ground. One of the kids who’d brought me punched me in the shoulder, and I sat on the dirt beneath his feet.

Inferno lowered her head and sniffed me. I could feel the heat of her breath on my face. Then Antar said, “The other day, you mentioned my name to those sissy Shalabi boys when they tried to jump you. That true?”

I didn’t hesitate, for I felt no fear. Raising my head, I replied, “That’s right. I was invoking your protection, boss. I live over by Uncle Mahmoud’s grocery store, and…”

He cut me off. “You gonna tell me the story of your life? I know who you are, where you’re from, your father and mother. You told those kids that the church’s got lions?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s this all about? Where’d you hear about it?”

Inferno got up on all fours, took a few steps back, and lay down on her belly in the shade. Her eyelids drooped.

I told him it’s well known: most churches have lions and weapons for security and protection. They’ve got vaults full of gold, which they bring out during celebrations and holidays for the priests to wear. When the party’s over, they put it back in the vaults underground, where it’s guarded by the lions. As proof, I told him, go over and look at the church—you’ll see a sign wishing Muslims a happy Eid al-Adha, and next to that you’ll see the church’s “insignia”: a knight on horseback stabbing a lion. Any church with that insignia means it’s “protected.” The sign means that any Christian who faces any trouble in that area can run over and find shelter there.

He’d occasionally interrupt my torrent of deceit and fabrication with questions like “So why don’t we hear these lions?” and “Where do they get food for the lions?” And somehow I was able to respond without a stammer, as though it were inspiration from the Lord on High. Each time they asked me something, I’d knock down their question with a question of my own. If they asked, “Why don’t we hear them?,” I said, “You seen how high and how thick the wall around the church is? Imagine how thick the church’s own walls must be. You seen the amount of reinforced cement they used in building the roof and the domes?” Or I’d say, “Look, boss, Christians and especially their priests don’t eat meat. Fasting for them means they abstain from meat. But look how much meat and poultry the church takes in!”

Some questions I couldn’t answer, like “Where does all the waste and dung from the lions go?” In such cases, I’d just shrug and say, “How am I supposed to know? I’m just a high school kid.”

Antar leaned back and scratched his balls. Then he dismissed me, after making me promise that I’d find answers to the questions I didn’t answer. I was to spy on my Christian friends and report to him any detail I heard about the church and its lions.

Just as I reached the iron gate, he called over to me, saying, “Have no fear. Even if they have lions, there ain’t nothing can stand up to Antar’s dogs.”

I nodded in obeisance, with one eye on the sleeping Inferno.

 

4

I was taking a shower when I got the news. I remember turning off the faucet when I heard a classmate yell, “They say your hometown is on fire!” As I dried myself off, he told me that the security services had entered the village. People were talking about a terrorist attack at the church. I stood there naked, thinking of Michael and his lips and the small dark cross on his wrist. Images from the past I’d worked hard to forget.

I got dressed, then called my mom and asked her what was going on. She denied knowing anything, saying only that she’d heard about a fight at the church but didn’t know the details. I wanted to ask her about Michael, but she didn’t know him, and I hadn’t been in touch with him since I left high school. I asked her if anyone died in the attack.

“May the Lord take them away,” she said finally, without specifying who she meant. Then she wished me luck and asked me what I’d like to eat when I came back on the break.

I was in my final year at college, two months away from graduation. I was to become a uniformed officer with stars on my shoulder. But I aspired to more than just job security. Unlike the rest of my class, I didn’t have any dreams about marriage and getting a home. My dreams were about rising up quickly through the ranks and expanding my circle of contacts and relationships. Strength, power, and pride.

I wanted to be free, but there were few role models. I hadn’t seen anyone free around me except Antar, and I couldn’t be him. He grew up in the street, where street dogs were his family. My dad died when I was young, so I grew up surrounded by my mom’s relatives. My uncles were army officers and judges; the unassuming one became a tax inspector.

When I got back home, I found that what my mom called a “fight” was an attempt to storm the church and burn it down. The perpetrator, according to the newspapers, was “a mentally deranged person called Antar Harami.” He had reportedly wounded seven individuals, including three priests, two of whom were in critical condition. After a few days, one of them would pass away, while the other would have to live with only one eye. The church itself had sustained considerable damage.

It was reported that Antar would regularly hang around outside the church with his dogs and harass the people coming in and out. Then, one time, Inferno attacked a girl trying to enter, and a fight broke out between him and the girl’s family. The priest tried to intervene, but instead of calming down, the situation exploded, with Antar swearing that he’d burn down the church and everyone inside.

Eyewitnesses denied the preceding account. As evidence, they pointed to the fact that the only ones wounded in the attack were men, that there was no girl with a dog bite. They cast blame on the imam of a local mosque, whom they alleged had been inciting people against the church, criticizing its renovations and décor. The imam had demanded that worshipers donate to renovate the mosque and construct a bigger and taller minaret.

I read newspaper reports that denied Antar was mentally deranged, describing him instead as a government informer prior to becoming a gangster. It would have been impossible, they alleged, for him to act on his own in such an attack, especially since it would have brought him no material reward. He’d only have done this if he had protection from the police, and they had ordered him or given him the green light.

I tried to find out the details of what happened when I went back home on break. I learned that it hadn’t been the first battle between Antar and the church, that he’d been in the habit of harassing churchgoers from time to time. Local community leaders had tried to appease him, but every time things would calm down for only a couple of weeks before Antar went back to harassing the churchgoers.

One time, he went so far as to extort money from everyone entering the church, claiming that “they’re loaded.” But the police arrested him and gave him two months in prison, during which he was transferred from prison to prison all over the country. He was calmer when he got out, and kept his distance from the church. Then he just snapped one day and attacked the church, with the intention of slaughtering everyone inside.

Antar was arrested and put on trial. In court he took off his pants and waved his penis at the judge. He banged on the bars of the cage and shouted, “Justice, your honor! Is there no justice for Muslims from a Muslim judge? My only crime was that I wanted to protect Muslims from the lions of the church. You electrocuted my cock and balls! And for what? For the Christians?!”

The court ordered Antar be sent to the psychiatric hospital.

The locals took advantage of Antar’s absence and poisoned his bitch Inferno. They put the poison in some cold cuts—her favorite meal—and left her to writhe and howl in the middle of the street. She tried crawling over to the drainage canal to eat some grass and vomit, but the poison had penetrated. Instead of just letting her die, the locals sent their children to chase after her and pelt her with bricks and rocks. In the end, they couldn’t tell whether she had died from the poison or from loss of the blood that poured from her many wounds. They left her there for two days to rot. Then, on the third day, as her stench became too much to bear, they poured gasoline on the corpse and set her ablaze. Finally, they called the municipal authorities, who sent over a hunter with a rifle, who killed all the other street dogs that had followed Antar.

 

5

Life then became a roller coaster, for me and the whole country: revolutions, coups, elections, repeat.

Yet, in five years, I’d found myself in a luxurious office, equipped with multiple telephones that connected me to officials in various sectors of government. My grandfather’s legacy led me to the same position he had occupied, but now I know the truth about his stories.

At first my responsibilities hardly went beyond the regular duties associated with managing the office of His Excellency, the Lieutenant General. All we did was pass down orders from above, manage His Excellency’s daily schedule, and, of course, help his daughter learn how to drive.

When I saw that he was still feeling down after the death of his wife, I suggested that he try to enjoy himself a little bit. He said that getting married again at his age wasn’t something that appealed to him.

“Who said anything about marriage?” I said. “All we need to do is fill out a ‘companionship form’ with the Agency. It’ll all happen in secret. It’s a service that’s made especially for the top brass who want some relief from the pressures and responsibilities of life.”

This, too, was part of my grandfather’s inheritance. His generation in the fifties was the second rank, below the country’s leaders. He had begun as a control officer, leading the intelligence effort to manipulate actors and singers and compel them to work as spies for the country by escorting and sometimes marrying influential national and international politicians. When “the wheel of history ran over us,” as he used to say, he was one of the offerings to the public. He was depicted as a perverted pimp, corrupting highly ranked officers and politicians through sex and drugs.

My grandfather had died before my graduation. I once asked him about those stories I heard regarding his generation. He said it was all untruths, then added, “Listen, I am proud of everything I did for my country. My only regret was that I trusted my leaders and their orders without caring about papers documenting what I was doing. That is my advice to you: In this shithole country, do everything through papers and keep them. It’s your lifejacket when the shit hits the fan.”

His Excellency couldn’t simply stay at some summer resort and go swimming with civilians. Nor could he be seen somewhere out in public, drinking and dancing with regular citizens. Since everything was fully organized and detailed through forms and applications like any regular bureaucratic process, I made up the “companionship form” with language about respecting the special circumstances and status of the higher-ups, and filled it out.

His Excellency asked me not to tell any of the other higher-ups. And, in fact, the only others to find out about it were the Agency’s deputy chief and the communications officer who helped me coordinate things. We picked one of the hotels we ran in Marsa Matrouh and had the whole place vacated. We brought in two girls we imported from abroad. Then I personally drove His Excellency to the hotel and told him I’d be staying at the hotel next door, if he needed me.

At the end of the week, the girls were deported and given a stamp in their passports that forbade them from reentering the country. His Excellency came back an altogether changed man. A week later, the coup happened. The president was removed, and the Supreme Council took over. As a result, the lieutenant general’s authorities expanded. Since I had earned his trust, he handed over to me many of these new authorities and responsibilities. I became intoxicated with power, and would even jerk off to the thought of myself issuing orders and changing fates.

I hadn’t gotten married yet. The idea terrified me. I’d never kissed a woman or had to even deal with women who were not family. But in order to rise through the ranks, I had to start thinking about whether I should look for someone from a family inside “the business” or outside it. Every time she would visit, my mother would broach the topic repeatedly. All she would talk about was marriage, having children, and her desire to see grandchildren. While moving between these topics, she’d also mention the favors that people back in the village had asked her for. One time, as she was giving her usual spiel, I was only barely listening, flipping the channels on TV or playing with my phone. Then I heard her say the name “Antar.”

I put down whatever was in my hand and paid attention. She said Antar’s mother—I was surprised to hear she was still alive—had paid her a visit and begged her to have me intervene for the release of her son. Before she left, Antar’s mother gave mine a file supposedly containing witness statements proving that her son was not crazy. He must therefore be released from the psychiatric hospital. My mother handed me the file. I read the first line and stopped at the name Tamir Ahmed Yehya Harami. I laughed and said to my mother, “After all this, it turns out he’s a Tamir?”

My mother blessed me, and said Antar was just a poor unfortunate soul, and that four years in that hospital was enough time served. I told her that he was no poor unfortunate soul, but that I would intervene nonetheless.

And so it was.

 

6

His wife refused to go back with him to the village. He didn’t object. He actually welcomed her decision, and secretly hoped that their temporary separation would lead to a more permanent break.

He had been suspended from work. He sent in his vacation request to the General Secretariat of the Ministry of Defense, even though he knew they wouldn’t even look at it. No doubt they would officially declare his retirement at the beginning of the new cycle on the first of the month. All of this was going through his mind as he slipped into bed, back in his room at his mother’s house, which he’d last left when he was in high school. He glanced around the room and wondered whether he’d been right to come back. Then he fell asleep.

With every passing day, the details of what happened began to fade. His professional life since beginning college, his graduation, his job. His climbing to the top of the pyramid, then his skidding back down to the bottom. A summer night’s dream from which he had now woken.

Here he is in his bed, returning to his adolescence and the secrets he’d buried there.

He leaves the house only in the wee hours before dawn. He puts on his clothes and tucks his government-issued pistol in his belt. He walks down the streets he had left as a boy. The path he’d chosen for his life had given him money and power and influence. But, ultimately, it was all for the feeling that other people needed him. The happiest moments of his life were when they groveled and sweetened up to him. Like many others in the business, he saw himself as an angel with wings, stars, and an eagle on his shoulder, taking pity on this poor, hungry, great people.

He passes by the grain silos and remembers Michael.

What did you gain from taking this road? You didn’t live the life you wanted; you didn’t even experiment or enjoy yourself.

He reaches for the handle of his pistol and strokes it. He remembers the time he and Michael got held up on this road. That long-ago moment where his hope still resided. The germ of his desire that he’d crushed before tasting it. The kiss he dreamed of but never attained.

He hasn’t forgotten Michael. Still his first love, his golden-crowned angel.

Tonight he’s not taking the circle road that wraps around the village. Instead he roams through the side streets, walking slowly. He finds himself in front of the Mosque of God’s Glory, now renovated. Or rather, that mosque had been torn down, and another, larger one had been built in its place, no longer called Glory.

Next to the entrance rises the mosque’s tall minaret, which can be seen from ten kilometers away. He stands there and looks up. What kind of design is this? Who put it here?

The minaret has two stories. The first is a four-sided base, three meters tall. Above this sits the four-sided body, approximately five meters tall. Neither the base nor the body has any doors or windows. The stairs wrap around the outside of the structure, in imitation of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun. On the third story is the mosque’s balcony, which is eight-sided, in the Mameluke style. Its railing is covered completely in vegetal arabesque. Finally, on the fourth floor stands the circular gallery, out of which rises the finial and spire, topped off with a golden crescent.

He takes a stroll around the mosque, contemplating its stark contrast with the architecture of the surrounding village. From the Quranic verses written in elegant Kufic script on the walls, to the colors of the paint, which are all hues of brown, yellow, and gold. He turns right at the end of the wall and reaches the back of the mosque. There he is surprised to find a tea stand, some chairs around a table, and a bench attached to the wall of the mosque. There are some overturned soda boxes, and people sitting there smoking, drinking tea, and laughing. He walks next to them, observing them out of the corner of his eye. There are only two groups. One is a bunch of young men sitting on the soda boxes. The other group he doesn’t notice until he approaches. He hears a voice call his name. From the darkness of the corner where they are sitting, a man in a white gallabiya gets up and comes toward him.

He greets the man, trying in vain to remember his name. He knows this face, and knows that he’s a distant relative. The man welcomes him and insists he sit with them, calling over to the server to bring a chair. He tries to excuse himself and leave, but the server brings the chair. As he takes the chair from the server, he instantly recognizes Antar Harami.

The scar remains on his face. But time has rearranged his other features. He’s lost his hair in front, his beard has gone white, and he is thinner. His shoulder bones protrude, and he hunches. He smells of shisha maassel. Antar brushes off the chair for him and says submissively, “Welcome, Sir.”

He sits down and decides to loosen up. He smokes his shisha and listens to the people talking. They’re treating him with fearful respect; they can’t believe he’s sitting with them. They ask him about politics and world news. He offers only terse responses, which make them regard him with even greater awe. Sadness flows like water between his fingers. Why this sadness, these worries? he thinks. He could find a place for himself here, far away from Cairo and the competition. He could live like a king in this village, ruling over this land, his playground.

As Antar is changing the charcoal on the shisha, he whispers, “By the way, Sir, I’m forever in your debt for the favor you did for me, you and your mother. My mom—may God rest her soul—would pray for you day and night. No one ever gave her the kind respect and consideration that you did.”

He takes the shisha pipe out of his mouth and says, “You’re welcome, Tamir. You’re my family, my people.”

They ask him what he plans on doing. He doesn’t give them a clear answer. After an hour, the only person still sitting with him is a relative who imports tractor parts from China. Antar, or Tamir, stands fanning the charcoals. He admits that he was tired of Cairo and its crowdedness, and that recently he’d suffered a bout of illness. The doctors ordered him to avoid work and stress, so he decided to come back home and relax a bit. But now he’s thinking about moving his life and wealth back here. His listeners’ ears perk up, and they turn into slobbering dogs. He asks them about local news, about who’s in charge and how things are going.

As they are talking, he bangs on the wall and says, “Who redid this mosque?”

They exchange silent glances, and then Antar says, “Pardon me, Sir. The whole mosque was redone with your money. A charitable donation made by your mother.”

He recalls all those times his mother had asked. Once she told him she sold a plot of land that she’d inherited. But he didn’t know what she was spending her money on. All the while, she’d been remaking the mosque, and had put his name on it.

Antar continues, “Why, Sir, you must see the new renovations on the minaret. Let’s go up before the dawn prayer.”

He walks toward the entrance, with Antar and his relative following behind him. But when he reaches the door, he turns around and says, “Only Antar’s coming with me.”

Antar goes up the stairs in front of him. Every five steps, he looks behind to make sure he’s still following.

In his mind, meanwhile, he’s walking along the old streets, two angels leading him to the graveyard. He thinks about all the lies, about how he might tie them all together and make them fit, before having to tell them. What might work, and what wouldn’t?

Antar extinguishes the lamp and speaks in a distant voice: “Your mother chose this minaret herself. The architect showed her a number of designs, and she insisted on this one even though it’s the most expensive. Lord Almighty, I didn’t understand the wisdom behind her decision until the construction was complete. Up here you can breathe the air before it goes down to everyone else. She would climb the steps when she could, especially on Friday mornings before people woke up. But, I tell you, you can come up here any time, and stay for however long you want. From up here you can see them when they’re sleeping, when they’re awake. You can watch them coming and going, walking on all fours or all threes, from cradle to grave. You can see them from the hospital to the schoolyard, or on the silo road all the way to the Society Mosque. That’s how it is, up in the minaret. You look, and you see.”

Antar turns around and looks up at the moon. Then he makes a loud snort and says, “Even the church and its lions, you can see from up here.”

He raises his eyes to the full moon, big, bright, and shining, casting its white blanket upon heaven and Earth. Its glow burns the tips of his eyelids. As he gazes, he begins to see shadows form and spread over its surface. He can see the Great Knight, the Quick-to-the-Chase, the Morning Star, up there on his white horse, plunging his spear into the dragon’s throat.

 

Ahmed Naji is currently living in Las Vegas as a Black Mountain Institute Asylum Fellow. He was sentenced to a year in prison in 2016 for publishing his novel Using Life. His latest book, Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison, is being translated into English by McSweeney’s in 2023. Read more at AhmedNaji.net.

Ben Koerber is an associate professor in the department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures at Rutgers University. He is the author of Conspiracy in Modern Egyptian Literature and translator of Ahmed Naji and Ayman Al-Zorkany’s novel Using Life. He is also author-translator of the “anonymous” gothic erotica art novella, ‘Amaliyyat Qurun al-Nahs al-A’dham.

[Purchase Issue 24 here.]

Lions of the Church

Related Posts

Image of a panini with tomato, cheese, and arugula, sliced in half.

You Must Like It All

MATHILDE MEROUANI
I put down my pen, and watched her. I had done that, every now and then, since we were six years old—stopped what I was doing to figure out something about her, to think about her face, or her hair, or the way she always laughed when I talked about death.

Chekhov Portrait

Looking for Anton Chekhov

A. MAURICIO RUIZ
I begin to walk on a red dirt road that meanders down, and in front of me, the vastness of the Crimean terrain opens up, splotches of yellow overgrown grass, young bushes and wildflowers, the quiet dark sea in the distance.

Top-down view of bouquets of various flowers, presumably for sale at a market.

Translation: Poems by Mireille Gansel

MIREILLE GANSEL
this morning while I was going to the docks looking for summer's last flowers at the florist's suddenly the look of this young boy with his mother her head scarf knotted like the Romani women who had offered us hospitality he and she hurrying both of them grasping black bags