The Errand: A Story

by YUSIF IDRIS

1

WHENEVER Cairo was mentioned, Shabrawi felt a shiver and realized he was not really alive. All his yearnings culminated in one wish — not a very great task for God to fulfill — opportunity and pocket money enough to travel to Cairo and live just one more day as he had when billeted there in army service. He longed in agonized hope for just one brief hour in Qubaisy or the cinema el-Ahali or with Master Craftsman Ahmed in Torgoman. In fact, he became noted for the sentence he repeated again and again: “I’d trade my whole life for just one hour in Cairo!”

But he was not forced to barter his life. Opportunity came unexpectedly and of itself. One day when he was sitting in the police station, just as he had every day for the past four years, a group of noisy people entered. Shouting and confusion filled the jam-packed station. But a few questions cleared everything up. Family, relatives, and neighbors from the nearby village of Kafr Goma had brought in a poor madwoman.

Shabrawi’s heart pounded with hope between his ribs, for they could hardly send the woman to the hospital in Cairo without an escort. And who could be a better escort than he? He did not even have to ask it as a favor or use influence. The other policemen declined the commission with all its responsibilities; so, when he showed his willingness, he got the job. Immediately he sent Antar, the bus boy of the buffet, to tell his wife to pack him some food in a handkerchief and send the fifty piasters hidden in the pillowcase.

In half an hour everything was ready: the letter from the town health inspector and the requisition forms for travel were in his pocket. It was hard for Shabrawi to believe it was all real, that he had only to put his foot on the train, and in a few hours he would truly sec Cairo again — wander in its streets, ride in its streetcars, meet his old friends, and feast on roast spiced goat meat, that wonderful neefa, at Muallim Hanafi’s.

Throbbing with unbelievable happiness, he went to the station, accompanied by more than a hundred people who implored him to take care of Zubaida and to be patient and kind to her.

Her father “winked" a whole rial slyly into his hand and her husband gave him half a rial. Shabrawi nodded knowingly with a wide fixed smile.

The procession attracted attention, and as it passed, people who knew Shabrawi would ask where he was going. He would answer modestly: “Just over there . . .”

And the questioner would persist: “Where’s ‘there’?”

Whereupon Shabrawi would reply even more unconcernedly: “Oh, just Cairo.”

And happiness would tingle through Shabrawi’s intestines like the tickling of crawling ants.

After a long wait, the Delta train arrived, and they got aboard. The woman sat quiet and motionless, and the train moved off under the care of Allah.

For the third time, Shabrawi carefully felt the papers in his inside tunic pocket. All was going smoothly as cream, so he took off his wide police belt and relaxed, almost forgetting Zubaida.

The Delta train finally finished its innumerable stops and stumblings, and crawled into the el-Mansurah station like a long black worm. Holding Zubaida’s hand, Shabrawi crossed over the bridge, murmuring, “Your blessings, O Saint Zainab!”

When he asked for the Cairo train, he found it right there at the platform. They got aboard and he seated Zubaida by the window. The lemonade vendor came and Shabrawi drank two glasses in one gulp. He offered a glass to Zubaida, but she angrily pushed his hand away, so he patted her and sent that glassful chasing after the other two.

The train got under way. Zubaida looked out the window like a little girl, with a faint fresh smile on her lips, and as for Shabrawi, happiness was cracking his knuckles!

But before the train reached Senbellawain, Zubaida abruptly turned from the window, struck her breast, and with a strange look of accusation, shouted the mourning cry: “Ya lahweee!”

Shabrawi came running down from his lofty gardens of happiness, and anxiously asked, “What’s the matter, sister? What’s wrong, Zubaida?”

For answer she put her hand under her nose and with all her might hurled forth a zaghruda, that piercing trill of excited women. Trill followed joyful trill.

In a flash the passengers turned to stare. Shabrawi was shattered, dizzy. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was bone-dry. He gently patted her: “Never mind, O my sister! Do not be cross with me ... be patient a little while . . . please . . . no need for scandal . . .” Zubaida quieted down.

But not the passengers. Their tongues wagged, first in whispers, then loudly, as they stared. One woman said, “She must be his wife, poor fellow . . .” A laugh resounded from the other end of the car. Two children climbed up on seats to gaze the better. Shabrawi had just opened his handkerchief to break his fast, but now he quickly knotted it up again.

A man, singularly unsurprised, asked: “This woman, what’s wrong with her, Sergeant?” Shabrawi recovered his tongue a little: “Never . . . eh . . . nothing . . . She is . . .” He moved the fingers of his right hand in a circle beside his head. The man shook his whole body in assent.

But Shabrawi had hardly stopped moving his hand when Zubaida turned on him. Her features were now sharp, pointed, piercing, and at the top of her voice she screamed: “Nothing? What do you mean, nothing, you damn . . .! ”

Shabrawi looked at her in real alarm as she advanced her face nearer and nearer his. He drew his head back till it struck the wall and held the handkerchief and its contents up between them. But she suddenly stopped, jumped up, stared with unsettled eyes at the car roof as if searching for something there, and finally shrieked with all her strength:

“Down with the Headman of our Village! Long live the King! Long live His Majesty the Chief King, Mohammed Bey the Father of the Duck!” And she ended with an effervescent zaghruda.

The whole car jumped to its feet, and slumber flew from the eyes of the sleeping. The man sitting opposite them pulled his basket from under the seat and hurried away. In a second, they had half the car to themselves. A few passengers abandoned it altogether, while only curiosity held the rest.

Shabrawi’s tunic looked as if it had been washed in his sweat. He tried to force Zubaida down into her seat, but she hit his hand and slipped away, still emitting her zaghrudas and shouting: “Down with our Headman! Long live His Majesty the Chief King, the Father of the Duck!”

The soda pop vendors and peanut sellers laughed, and their laughter dragged after it the laughter of the travelers. Even Shabrawi was laughing. But not for long. He was startled to see Zubaida lift up her dress to take it off. And she had absolutely nothing on underneath. He rushed to prevent it, but she beat him off, trilling her zaghrudas. A bat tle ensued. At last he managed to force her into her seat and tie her with a scarf a passenger offered him. But the cost of the victory nearly drove him mad: she had thrown out the window the expensive red tarboosh that had covered his head since the day he entered the service, leaving his almost bald pate shamefully naked. And even tied down, she shrieked her zaghrudas, and with every trill the Headman went down and the Chief lived long.

As they were approaching Belbais, however, serenity somehow re-entered her brain and she fell silent. The more daring passengers returned to their scats. But it was all Shabrawi could do not to throw her out the window. He was still fuming mad as the train entered Cairo station. He waited till they were the last, then took her arm as with pliers and roughly pulled her along. Such harshness was needless: she now walked beside him smooth as silk.

2

THERE at last was the dreamed-of big square, but the circumstances prevented recurrence of the good old memories. He immediately took the streetcar with Zubaida, who now looked just like everyone else. They got off at Ataba and took a shortcut to el-Azhar Street. There, cursing Zubaida, her father, and the ill-got rial, he spent it on a new tarboosh. But it felt heavy as a stone on his head.

The first thing to do was to get rid of Zubaida. Then, freed of responsibility, he would give himself entirely over to Cairo. The next streetcar was packed with people. He was lost in thoughts of his problems, past and to come. After a while he pulled himself together to see about Zubaida. She was pressing her body tightly, sensuously, against a white-collar worker. Her jaw was dropped in stupid contentment, and the effendi himsell, pretending to read his newspaper, seemed equally satisfied. Shabrawi jolted her to him. Contentment disappeared from her face and was replaced by fury. A zaghruda was trilled, the Headman went down, and the Father of the Duck was raised on high.

Immediately the conductor stopped the car and pushed them off, scolding Shabrawi for bringing such a dangerous person into a public conveyance.

They continued on foot toward the government buildings. Zubaida would not stop her trills. The whole of Mohammed Ali Street crowded around them, and the bigger the audience the louder the trills. Shabrawi, half-fainting, dared not lift his face.

Amid the hubbub, Shabrawi asked the guard at the gate for the governorate physician. The guard pitied him, for it was after six and there was no longer anyone in the government buildings.

“Then what shall I do now?” asked Shabrawi.

“Come back tomorrow,”the guard said calmly.

“Tomorrow? Tomorrow! What do you mean?”

“Tomorrow in the morning.”

The guard shouted to the crowd to disperse, which it did, callously joking over the incident.

Shabrawi pleaded to leave her in the governorate until morning. The guard looked stern and did not answer. Shabrawi understood. They went away.

How, he asked himself, was he to pass the night while this calamity was with him? But first he must rest: he was utterly exhausted, and it had been hours since he had eaten anything. They went into the nearest café in the Bab el-Khalq district. There he sat them down, pressing his shoulder to hers, careless of what the patrons might say. He ordered tea and a pipe, and they soothed him. But, as he relaxed, something began to happen in his insides, something that made him fidget in his chair. He realized that he couldn’t bear it any longer: he had to go. With tormented face he asked the waiter, who pointed to a not-very-distant place.

But . . . Zubaida . . .

He looked at the man next to him. Because he wore an overcoat on top of a native gown, Shabrawi knew he was a governorate detective. So he was obliged to tell his story from hello to good-by, begging him at the end to watch Zubaida until he “did like the people.” Scarcely awaiting his unwilling agreement, Shabrawi sped away like a bullet.

By the time he returned, Zubaida had transformed the café into a carnival. Apologizing humbly to the detective, Shabrawi roughly dragged her out after him. But where to go? Time was passing: the sun had already set. The powerful lights dazzled him, trying to remind him of happier days. But he was in another world. As Zubaida whooped out another enthusiastic zaghruda, Shabrawi thought that if he had a knife, he would slaughter her, even though he would be sent to prison for life. Prison! Why had he not thought of it before? A police station would be the best shelter for the night.

A bus . . . and in a few steps they were in front of the sergeant on duty at the police station of the Saiyida district. The saga which Shabrawi told had by now reached a high pitch of polish.

But the sergeant only shook his head and said: “But this is responsibility, my dear fellow, as you know very well.”

Burning with outrage, Shabrawi replied, “Right. Then put the two of us in custody.”

“Also responsibility.

As he left the station, Shabrawi cursed all responsibility and especially this responsibility into which he had plunged like a water mug into a rain barrel.

3

WHEN he came to his senses, the idea of a hotel flashed across his mind, but he quickly abandoned it. They were two, Zubaida was a woman, and it would thus cost at least fifty or sixty piasters. That he could not afford, merciful heavens!

Feeling he could not go a step farther, he sank to the ground in front of the Mosque of the Saiyida, pulling Zubaida down beside him. Only shame prevented him from weeping. He was sure there wasn’t a more wretched person in the whole world. Meanwhile, the dervishes in their religious ecstasy were milling around like so many mad ants; so when Zubaida let loose another zaghruda, it was lost in the general cacophony of the sheikhs’ chanting the Koran and the women’s chirping and the whirlpools of the praise-names and glory of Allah.

Shabrawi was surprised and delighted. Whatever Zubaida might do would not seem strange here. Indeed, it was he who seemed odd and out of place. He began to forget his sufferings and anger in his amusement at what was going on around him. He studied a sheikh lying sprawled by the wall, his head on his arm, watching the passers-by without showing the least interest in them. On his face was an expression of utmost contentment, as if he were the sovereign of the age. From time to time, he would bow his head, raise it again, gaze at Shabrawi, and in a long sarcastic drawl, say to him:

“Say: ‘God is One!’ ”

And Shabrawi affirmed that He is indeed One.

Then the sheikh would slip back into his ecstasy.

Someone walking past flipped his cigarette butt to within the sheikh’s reach. He picked it up, inhaled deeply, and contentedly emitted a great billow of smoke. Then, through the smoke rings, he gave Shabrawi a long serene gaze, and said:

“Say: ‘God is One!’ ”

Shabrawi couldn’t control himself and burst out laughing. He wished he could lie like the sheikh without cares or responsibility. But when “responsibility” passed over the tongue of his consciousness, he quickly turned toward Zubaida, only to find her yawning. He almost danced for joy.

The yawning didn’t last long. Gradually her body grew heavier. Finally she fell asleep.

For the first time, Shabrawi looked intently into her face. She wasn’t “sweet,”but all the same she had fair skin and her body was small. Her legs and feet were covered with mud and wounds, and there was a silver bangle round her ankle. While she was asleep, there was no distinguishing her from normal people. He noticed her dress was torn, exposing her thigh, and lowered his eyes shyly as he pulled the dress down to cover her.

The night advanced and everything grew silent. The followers of the saint lay snoring in profound sleep like monkeys exhausted by a long day’s play, He was wondering what had wiped the anger from his mind, but only the snoring — enough to wake the saint in her tomb — was there to answer him.

He had resolved to stay awake all night. It was not easy. The long day — and the travel — had exhausted him, and the strain of long and panicky thinking had drained every drop of his strength.

The night lingered long against him as he barely kept awake, fixing his eyes on the clock in the square, trying to speed heavy, slow-gaited Time.

It was scarcely seven before he was back again in the governorate building, shooing away the people who swarmed like flies around them, attracted by the zaghrudas which uninterruptedly pulsated from Zubaida. At last the physician came, and after a long wait, they were before him. He leafed through the papers, and, writing on them, said, “Take her to the Qasr el-Aini Hospital to be put under observation.”

Shabrawi took her and went out submissively. By one streetcar after another, they reached Qasr el-Aini. There another doctor listened to the downfall of the Headman and a long life to the Chief. He laughed enormously at her absurd answers to his questions. But in the end he recovered his gravity and said there was no vacancy in the observation ward. And he wrote this on the papers.

With his soul just under his tongue, Shabrawi asked, “But what shall I do?”

“Go back to the governorate.”

“Again! ”

” Yes, again.”

So he went out, his despair returning. He was tempted to kill Zubaida and all the doctors and pretend he was equally mad. But he quickly drove away this innocent temptation.

He returned to the governorate panting. That doctor read what the other doctor had written, turned the papers over again, and startled Shabrawi by asking whether he had brought any of her relatives to Cairo. This was necessary, the doctor said, for filling out the hospital forms. He would just have to return to where he had come from.

Shabrawi was stunned. “Take her back to elDakahliya? ”

“That’s right.”

Thinking it over, Shabrawi found that perhaps this was the best solution, until he suddenly remembered something.

“But this is impossible, honored sir: I have a requisition for only one return trip . . . for me.”

“My son, it is necessary that a relative ...”

“Please, honored sir, I beg you.”

“My son, this is responsibility: not mine to bear.”

The word “responsibility” burst Shabrawi’s duodenum, but before revolt could overwhelm him and drive him to destroy everything, Zubaida interrupted the conversation with a lively trill. In less than a wink, she slipped off her shabby dress, rushed out, and ran naked through the yard. The stunned bystanders were paralyzed by surprise.

Shabrawi was first to come to; he ran after her with every bit of strength he could muster. Police and even some of the prisoners closed in and cornered her.

Shabrawi managed to seize her, but she struggled, shouting “Down with the Headman,” and bit his hand. He screamed, and struck her in the face. Blood poured from her gums and lips.

Back in the doctor’s room, a strait, jacket was brought; it took four people to put her in it. She rolled on the floor trying to get free, while blood poured from her mouth, and saliva, foamed around it.

Now the doctor filled in the forms quickly while Shabrawi watched her aghast, his body trembling at what she was doing to herself. Suddenly he really comprehended that she was insane, that she hadn’t understood a word she had said, and wasn’t really responsible for what he had suffered. And he realized that she had not eaten or drunk since she was with him — not even in town. A strange feeling of pity seized him as he saw her violently rolling, twisting, and hitting her head on the floor.

“ Finished,” said the doctor.

And thus Shahrawi’s commission and responsibility were ended.

Earlier he had imagined that he would celebrate a night of charity for the sake of God if only this job would come to an end and he could get rid of Zubaida and all her mishaps. But now he received the news as though it concerned someone else.

The car arrived and Zubaida was put in it, still pouring forth her zaghrudas and hailing the majesty of the Chief, while all the bystanders laughed.

Moving like a wounded man, Shabrawi asked the driver to wait a few moments. He went out and bought a loaf of “fino” broad and some halawa, gav e them to the policeman who was to accompany her, and, in a warm plea, said:

“By the Prophet, feed her and take care of her. Please be kind to her. Swear by your dead relatives that you’ll he good to her . . .”

The car moved off and Shabrawi stole away. He went directly to the railway station, for his soul was glutted with Cairo and with the world. From time to time he would glance at the hand which had hit Zubaida, and his body would fill with a shudder of shame such as he had never felt before.

Translated by Ahmed Abu Zaid and William R. Polk