[The following is an excerpt from Ibrahim Aslan`s ground-breaking novel of the 1977 Bread Intifada, The Heron. Those who knew Aslan, who passed away on January 7, cannot help but to think of him every time they encounter the infamous blind and long-winded conman of his novel, Sheikh Hosni. We miss you. ]
Sheikh Hosni felt for the edge of the boat, bared his arm, leaned over a bit, and began to play with the water. As he splashed about, he announced, “Sheikh Genid, the water’s really cold!”
Happily, he dried his hand and lit a cigarette. He thought to himself, what form of transportation hadn’t he mastered? He had ridden a bike. He had driven a motorcycle. And now, in a felucca rented at Sheikh Genid’s expense, he was gliding across the surface of the water. He remembered the day he had rented a bike from Abd al-Nabi, leaving his skullcap as a deposit. He rode the bike down al-Bahr Street, then turned left at al-Garaj Street which had an incline. He stopped the bike and parked it in the doorway to the house of his friend Husayn Abd al-Shaﬁ. He climbed the stairs and knocked on the door, greeting his mother, brothers, and sisters. Then, declining their offer to drink tea with them, he announced that he had to leave. When Husayn asked him why he was in such a hurry, Sheikh Hosni said that he’d left the bike in the doorway and that he wanted to return it to the bike man. Everyone in the house, not to mention the entire street, gathered to see the blind Sheikh Hosni, son of Hagg Muhammad Musa. He’d come all the way from Kit Kat on a bicycle, and they wanted to see how he was going to return on it. In his mind, Sheikh Hosni recalled how he’d taken the bicycle out of the doorway, pointed it in the return direction, and, running with it for a bit, jumped on. He shot out of al-Garaj Street to the surprise of the neighborhood’s inhabitants who stood there petriﬁed, talking about what they’d just witnessed, not noticing that the Sheikh forgot to make the right-hand turn from al-Garaj Street onto al-Bahr Street in order to reach Kit Kat. Instead, his speedy ride continued across al-Bahr Street’s width to the riverbank, where he was propelled, still clinging to the bicycle, right into the river.
Sheikh Hosni smiled to himself when he remembered how he was still clutching the handlebars while sunk up to his waist in the water, and how he called out for help to passersby. And because the sun had set, it so happened that people thought he was the river demon that emerged each day to take one or two of Imbaba’s children. It didn’t take long before a crowd came scrambling over al-Bahr Street to throw rocks at the demon in the water. His voice became hoarse from bellowing, and he felt paralyzed when the clods began to hit the water around him, splashing water and drenching his shaved head. The tears began to pour from his empty eye sockets until his large ears recognized Sgt. Abd al-Hamid’s voice from among the many voices shouting along the river’s edge. “Hey Sergeant! Hey Abd al-Hamid!” Sgt. Abd al-Hamid heard the voice and demanded, “Who’s that?”
“It’s Sheikh Hosni!”
“Sheikh Hosni who?”
“Listen. It’s me, Sheikh Hosni!”
“What are you doing in the river?”
“Nothing. I was riding a bicycle and fell in.”
“A bicycle? You say you were riding a bicycle?”
“I swear to God! Listen to this!”
He rang the bicycle’s bell so that they’d believe him.
Sheikh Hosni smiled again when he remembered how he heard Hagg Mahmud al-Shami urging Sgt. Abd al-Hamid to leave immediately, saying, “Amm, we should get out of here right now. I beg you.”
And he shouted, “Come on, it’s me, Sheikh Hosni, Amm Hagg! Just ask your son Ramadan and he’ll tell you! Sheikh Hosni, son of Hagg Muhammad Musa.”
At that point, they lit a ﬁre with some paper and saw that it really was Sheikh Hosni, up to his waist in the water, his hands clutching the bicycle.
As for the motorcycle, he didn’t ride that until he’d become a full adult. He’d rented it and had Husayn Abd al-Shaﬁ ride behind him to do his seeing. He kickstarted the bike by himself and, pulling in the clutch, put it in ﬁrst, accelerated, and went ﬂying out along Murad Street, honking the horn to let people know he was coming. People ran from him in every direction. He didn’t stop until he rode the motorcycle through the front of the Imbaba Pharmacy, breaking everything in his path, ﬁnally hitting Dr. Abd al-Tawwab who was sitting drinking tea behind a curtain that marked off his ofﬁce. The sheikh knocked the doctor to the right, while he and the motorcycle went down to the left. Husayn Abd al-Shaﬁ, who’d jumped off at the entrance to the pharmacy, caught up to him.
Carried away by his reveries, Sheikh Hosni suddenly blurted out, “May you rest in peace, Husayn.”
“Husayn who?” Sheikh Genid asked, puzzled.
“Husayn Abd al-Shaﬁ.”
“What, don’t you know him?”
Embarrassed, Sheikh Genid answered, “Sorry—I wasn’t paying attention, Sheikh Hosni.”
“Listen, who in the world doesn’t know who Husayn Abd al-Shaﬁ is? Egypt’s captain!”
“Of course. The captain of the Egyptian national football team that went to the Munich Olympics in 1936.”
“Is he the one we met at the café yesterday?”
“What café? He’s been dead a long time. They found him drowned.”
Clutching the edge of the felucca, Sheikh Genid asked, “Oh my God. Drowned? How?”
Sheikh Hosni said that he’d drowned the way anyone drowned. Then he added that he didn’t actually ‘drown,’ but committed suicide, since Husayn Abd al-Shaﬁ was an expert swimmer, “You’ve got to realize that everybody in Imbaba knows how to swim.”
“You mean he drowned himself?”
Sheikh Hosni said that Husayn remained on the coroner’s table for a long time until they translated the magazine article and ﬁgured out his name. “You see, Husayn never carried any identiﬁcation or money or anything like I do. But he always had with him a page from a German magazine with his picture on it. It was an image of him greeting Hitler at the inauguration of the games. Husayn standing there wearing his football outﬁt, Hitler standing there wearing his ofﬁcial uniform, a gold crop under his left arm, shaking Husayn’s hand with his right. The seats behind them were packed with Germans.”
He leaned his body a little to rock the boat slightly and Sheikh Genid said, “That’s enough. We seem to have sailed out pretty far.”
“Not at all. There’s the shore, right there. Next time, God willing, we’ll take you from here to the Barrages. But really, I’m amazed. How is it you never heard of Husayn Abd al-Shaﬁ?”
Husayn had the best sense of humor in the world. When Husayn’s father died, Husayn didn’t own a thing. Nothing. And he was confused about what to do. Since he was the internationally known captain of the football team, he didn’t want to create a scandal by borrowing money in order to bury his father. For that reason, he brought out a clean change of his uniform, and took his father down to the river. He undressed the corpse himself and submerged his father’s body three times under the pure water. He recited the shahada twice. Then he dressed him in the clean uniform and brought him back to the riverbank. He put his body in front of him on the bicycle, balancing him between his hands, as if he wasn’t dead. He took him from here until he got to Sidi Omar and buried him there with Abd al-Khaliq the Undertaker’s full knowledge.
Sheikh Genid was listening to this story, sitting still, with his white face and big, blondish beard. His face turned to stone as a deep shock set in. Sheikh Hosni didn’t see it, but he could feel it. He happily related the story of how Husayn, at the end of his life, was living in a room on Hawa Alley: a big room with a large crack running the length of one wall. A veritable chasm! When Husayn sat in the room, he could look out and see the sky through the crack, “Just as you and I are able to see it right now.” One day he was sitting alone in his room when all of a sudden there was an earthquake that shook the room violently. When the dust settled, the crack had disappeared. At which point Husayn lifted his hands to the sky and said, “Send me one more earthquake, Lord, and give this room a fresh coat of paint!”
The two sheikhs burst out laughing. When Sheikh Genid asked God to bless Hosni, Sheikh Hosni stopped laughing and remembered that he was carrying in his interior pocket a page from a magazine with his picture on it shaking the hand of His Royal Highness the King, back when he had ranked ﬁrst in his class. He wasn’t carrying anything but that picture . . . exactly like Husayn Abd al-Shaﬁ when they found him. The strange coincidence made him nervous, and he said in a soft voice, “Hello there, Zein, my boy.”
But there was no answer from Zein.
He said a little louder, “What do you say, Zein?”
But Zein still didn’t respond. And Sheikh Genid said, “Have we drifted out too far?”
Sheikh Hosni replied, “The bank’s in front of us, right there. I just saw that Zein was asleep and wanted to wake him up.”
And he shouted, “Zein!”
But as before, Zein didn’t respond.
Sheikh Hosni rolled up his sleeves and leaned over. Slowly, he put his cane into the water to test the depth. When it didn’t touch bottom, he took it out. He stretched his other hand toward the oar rests, then drew it back. It began to dawn on him that his fate was sealed: he was going to drown and like Husayn Abd al-Shaﬁ they’d identify his body by the picture from the magazine. He was completely still, for a moment, then suddenly screamed, “Help! We’re drowning!”
Sheikh Genid leapt to his feet, his innocent face now pale. He jumped out of the boat, drawing his jubba around him, and disappeared in the river’s waters.
Excerpted from The Heron by Ibrahim Aslan
First published in Arabic as Malik al-hazin, 1983
Copyright © 1983 by Ibrahim Aslan
English translation copyright © 2005 by Elliott Colla
Published by the American University in Cairo Press (www.aucpress.com)