Excerpt from Naji's Novel And Tigers to my room
PEN/Opp presents an excerpt by the Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji's novel "And Tigers to my room" that was published in Arabic 2020.
From Chapter 10
For years, Farah had believed in the possibility of achieving peaceful change; had been a fervent chanter of “Non-violence! Non-violence!” out on marches. Then she watched as the non-violence fell away and lost its impact, or rather, she saw it had never had any impact, that it was a great lie. That the world wasn’t built on good intentions and kindness. Kindness was more likely to produce brute herds, capable of the vilest crimes.
She saw how grand slogans carried personal ambitions in their wake. From a girl’s desire to strip naked to a boy wanting to wave a flag, so many were without a place of their own, so they were told to form ranks behind the slogans of other people, and when they refused, were held up as traitors. “Fuck the revolutionaries,” Farah told herself, but she was surrounded by them: “They’re my people, my crowd.” She knew this. She wanted to point out the mistakes, the source of their errors, but she didn’t have skill to put it into words.
Force did not triumph, nor Justice prevail. Egypt was, as far as Farah could see, in a state of perpetual and untreatable decline, and as for the rest of the world, it was sunk in a fog of stupidity: on the Right you had the lunatics of state nationalism and state religion, and on the Left the slaves of humanitarian compassion, who worshipped the universal declaration of human rights and treated it as a constitution which should govern all life on the planet. But the world was more complex than this; the planet was facing a lack of resources, energy crises, and the other assorted idiocies of modern man, all sufficient to send us back thousands of years into the past.
And then, through the storm of these thoughts, Farah woke up to the fact of Ahmed’s betrayal, at which point she realised that the danger threatening the world was quite capable of coming into her life, and hurting her. Standing in front of the mirror, she saw in her story a reflection of all the stupidities of the revolution and humanitarianism, the foolishnesses of the Right and human rights.
And she resolved to change.
The ones she’d always thought of as evil, the ones she'd called idiots, the ones who smiled at her and preserved their optimism, who brought home flowers to fill their vases, who planned streets and set up streetlights, who carried guns and forced others to obey, who imposed Justice on everyone with its crooked scales, the ones who always came out on top yet tossed crumbs and crap to the rest, who’d always held out their hands to her though she would shrink to shake them—what evidence did she have for her positions, aside from a confusion of hostile ideas and opinions gleaned from books and gorged on?
God’s curse on literature, on tolerance and forgiveness: her happiness was in her hands. The time had come for a new birth, the world unfurling and opening to her like a flower.
She would even travel through time.
The officer asked them where they were headed, and she told him NEOM. He wasn’t wearing the standard Egyptian police uniform, she noticed, but an elegant blend of white and sky-blue unencumbered by stars and eagles, and on his breast an insignia with the words Airport Security stitched across it. No flights to NEOM today, he told them, so she explained that Farid Bey had invited them to travel on his private plane. The officer pointed to a separate gate.
They walked where he had pointed, and Farah noticed that while the police were posted outside the airport building, inside everything was administered and overseen by airport security, who were, it seemed quite clear, an independent force. She took this as a change for the better.
They reached the gate and were met by a member of the cabin crew. She was dressed in pink and holding up a digital screen which read: Dr. Farah Ismail Al Hakim. Farah felt herself stand taller. Then the woman took them into a gold-painted lounge. Had they had breakfast yet? she wanted to know, and when they said they hadn’t, she asked them if they would like to eat it here or on the plane. Farah, who was dying to get going, said, “On the plane’s better.”
The crew member handed them each a glass of a pale gold liquid in which small bubbles fizzed and popped, then led them to the plane, as a man, also in pink, wheeled their cases behind.
Her father had passed away just a few months after her marriage to Ahmed, his health going into steady decline ever since that happy day and Mubarak’s abdication. With the azaa over, Ahmed had gone to spend the night with a friend in Alexandria, while she stayed over at the family house in the company of her aunts. Her mother had exploded. “It’s because of you!” she’d raged, “Because of you! You murdered the man. Shamed him and shamed us all with this wedding of yours. I wish they’d killed you in Tahrir and we’d been rid of you.”
The sheer fury of the attack had shocked Farah, but the shocks were to continue.
Taking part in the revolution and then announcing her engagement to Ahmed: her family’s attitude towards her had changed, and her relationship with her mother, never that good to begin with, had worsened. Her only sister Amal, married to a senior officer in the security services, had refused to talk to her at first, then had confronted her:
“But why Farah? Why are you going down to Tahrir to insult the police and the army? Did my Hassan ever do anything to upset you? What about his family? They’re all police and army, aren’t they? Papa was an army officer, too!”
And Farah, who had never cared for political debates of the everyday variety, who preferred historical, philosophical arguments over talk-show talking points, had embraced her sister, and assured her that she herself never mixed with anyone who insulted either the army or the police, that you got good and bad wherever you went, and that what the demonstrators wanted was to give the good a chance to prove itself in every institution.
She had assumed that it was political differences that were keeping her family at a distance, the way it was in most Egyptian families as the revolutionary unrest took hold, but that night after the azaa it was made clear to her that the true source of their coldness and discomfort was her marriage. Up to this point, she’d managed to persuade herself that her father’s meeting with Ahmed, and his subsequent consent, had come from his accepting not only the need for change, that a new dawn was coming and a new generation on the rise, but also that she and Ahmed were meant for one another. But faced with her screaming mother, the truth she had managed to avoid landed struck her like a gobbet of phlegm to the face: her father’s consent had been given against his will, and to cover up his sense of shame.
As her mother had ranted on, cursing the day her womb had spat Farah out, Amal had dragged her sister into another room and laid it out: how her father had his first heart attack after his return from Tahrir; how they’d all known she was sleeping with Ahmed before they got married and thought of her as a lost cause; how they’d been afraid of the scandal, of the thought she might not marry at all, and so had given their consent.
While he was alive, Farah had believed her father to be the most beautiful soul in the world and the finest father; had thought that, despite his military background and his inflexibility, he had respected her decisions and opinions. Now she learned that as far as her father had been concerned she was nothing but a source of shame that needed to be covered up as swiftly as possible.
She’d told Ahmed none of this. After her father’s death she visited Alexandria only rarely, usually an early morning journey to carry out some unavoidable task, then back by evening; never spending the night. Her mother no longer answered her calls, and she no longer called herself, or bothered to stay in touch with any of them. Except Amal, that is, who from time to time would send her photographs of the children.
As they stepped on board the plane, Farah felt herself swept by delight. She was in the future! A future which welcomed her and promised more. Just eight seats in the main cabin, but each could be pulled out into a bed, and all were upholstered in brown leather. A wool rug was folded on every seat.
The plane took off. Nasseem reached out to Farah but she pulled the rug over her and said, “I’ll sleep for a while.”
If only her father had followed his own instincts, had been more inflexible still and had refused to allow the marriage. Back then, she had in any case been half-ready to make a break with her family, but her father’s coaxing and his willingness to countenance her point of view had meant she’d always rediscovered her love for him, and reconsidered. Now that he was gone, and her sister and mother had confronted her with the truth, she was angrier than ever, both at her father and at the mess he’d landed her in.
And she felt guilty, because he’d loved her, truly loved her, and not wanting to lose her had suppressed his true feelings until they had burst out and killed him. Every time she called her sister or mother on the phone after his death, or gone to see them, they had done everything they could to entrench this sense of guilt, until at last she stopped going round to see them altogether or phoning for their news. There was the Eid when she hadn’t called her mother and her mother hadn’t called her, and when, on the second day, the guilt eating at her, she’d phoned her sister, Amal had told her that her mother had gone on hajj without telling anyone, and was planning to stay out there for months, living in Medina with her aunt who had moved to Saudi Arabia years before: in the home of the Best of Men, the Chosen Prophet, may Prayers and the Purest Peace be upon him.
Because of everything that had happened, Farah never told anyone in her family about the divorce. Amal and her husband had moved to NEOM a while ago, Hassan leaving his job for a better position with NEOM’s security services, while her mother responded to her WhatsApp messages with an automated stream of prayers and Quranic verses.
Pity aside, a person’s greatest enemy was guilt. A lesson she learned the hard way, early on, at high school, when she fell in love with a university student, a man older than her who lived in the building facing hers; he had seen her at the window once, and had smiled at her, or waved.
Bold Farah. Who when she wanted a thing, wouldn’t wait for it to come to her, so when she saw him at the cigarette kiosk, she walked over and asked to use the kiosk’s phone, hanging on its chain, then pretended to make a call. The university student was drinking a coca-cola and running his eyes over her skinny body, inspecting her. Ending her call, she looked straight into his green eyes, and with the kiosk owner distracted, quickly held up the phone screen and whispered, “That’s my number, by the way.”
For the next few days they called each other constantly, soon past the introductions and on to what-are-you-wearing. Still, Farah didn’t accept his invitation to go round to his apartment until he began to feign exhaustion, then illness, claiming he couldn’t get out of bed. Driven by pity and sense of guilt, she slipped out of her building and across the road.
The boy had pushed her down, got on top of her, and penetrated her. Farah went through much pain that day; not just the pain of that wound between her legs, but the pain of his lie, too. He hadn’t been ill at all, and she was a victim of her guilt and the pity that she’d felt for him. She had admired him and liked him, but afterwards Farah hated him. Hated all eyes that weren’t brown. She waited until her period came, then ended their relationship. A few months later, when the academic year came to an end, the university student left the building and returned to his village.
Which is why, when she met Ahmed, she had prevaricated, had avoided giving herself to him completely. Even when she had done, she still held back. She made herself a victim. Told him straight out that what had happened had not been with her consent. She cried. Raged. She played the game of love and she exploited his feelings for her. She held his heart with pity’s gloves on, and bound him to her.
With Ahmed, she learned that love needs clever handling; emotional engineering to keep the beloved held close. It was here that all the books and encyclopaedias and novels she’d wasted her time reading came to her aid. A look at Ahmed’s social background, coupled with personal experience, told her that he, like any other Egyptian man, would be unable to accept that she wasn’t a virgin. She might even lose her hold on his heart. But if she persuaded him that she was a virgin, that her first sexual experience would be with him, then the seed of guilt would automatically be planted in him and a great tree of pity and remorse would grow and bind him to her.
And everything had been going according to plan until she spoiled it all, and out of boredom.
As the revolution stagnated, went from stormy sea to shallow pond, so too did their love, and then the winds of fame and wealth and success had started blowing and carried Ahmed away.
Farah stared out of the window, her vision full of NEOM’s illuminated wonders. She saw whales slipping through the sky, volcanic butterflies pouring from gardens, the swarms of green hornets guarding the living buildings, whose rooftops carried giant lilies which generated electricity from the sun, trains’ worms sliding through their tunnels underground, hovercraft floating inches above the pavements, trees shaped into palm trees, palms shaped into solar-powered lampposts, phone masts and traffic lights with red bulbs glowing on their tips, like heroes with unsleeping eyes, like one-eyed monsters ruled by the laws of the road, a child weeping as water gushed beneath his feet, a camel emerging from the mountain’s rocky slopes, a moon cracked in two, a fire blazing in the heart of the square but without heat or danger, stars desiccated and displayed in glass cases, a three-headed Chinese dragon with a gold crown for every head, museums filled with marvels and no narrative to tell, a region the shape of a state, a state with no collective vision, a woman give birth to the woman who would own her, great green pastures for the camels, greater ones yet for golf courses, shepherds each one taller than the next, three Magian stars, streets laid out in geometric grids like civilisation, vast tracts of tropical garden beneath glass domes, art works and sculptures in huge laser-lit squares.
She stared out at shapes and colours and lights she had no name for. The crew member appeared and asked them to fasten their safety belts, adding in English, “Welcome to NEOM”.
City of the future. Future city. City of a thousand wonders