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from the January 2006 issue

The Dark and The Daylight

NOTE: Mahmoud El-Wardani (born Cairo, 1950) has published six novels and several collections of short stories. Typically his works are dispassionate and discontinuous depictions of ambiguous, disturbing situations. Imprisoned for student activism in the 1970s, el-Wardani was also one of those who transported the bodies of deceased soldiers during the 1973 war. For several years now, el-Wardani has worked as a senior editor of Cairo's weekly literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. In his most recent novel, Musiqa al-Mall (Mall Music, 2005), the hero becomes trapped and then imprisoned in a shopping mall. El-Wardani has explained, "I think it's only normal for a mall to turn into a prison . . . [both] are mechanisms of oppression."

He felt he had been sitting on that chair in the waiting room for a long time, lingering there till the hefty secretary would let him enter the next room and meet the man who would hire him to work for the firm.

He could see the huge glass sign attached to the building across the street even without leaving his seat and deciphered the commanding black letters: "World Trade Company." While he stared at the silhouette of a woman looking down from a balcony opposite him, his eyes encountered an orange billboard at the center of the façade. Its Western lettering was colored orange. Below the silhouetted woman who was looking down, the word "Elite," in large letters, was followed by smaller words he could not decipher.

He sighed as he said, "Night will soon fall and it will grow cold. They haven't offered me anything, even though I've been here since . . . since when?"

Had dawn been breaking when he had headed toward the sleeping city, crossing his street that overlooked the cemeteries, the ancient citadel, which appeared to be perched on top of the mountain, lurking to his left?

On reaching the building's entry, he had checked the number recorded on the wall in Arabic and English and then boarded the elevator.

He had presented the card recommending him to the secretary, who had terrified him with her huge size and her smile as she doffed her prescription glasses and her black eyes winked at him. Then she had touched his hand and drawn so close to him that he had smelled her fetid breath when she whispered, "Have a seat and make yourself comfortable . . . there."

She had gestured with her free hand while the other had gripped his hand and the card. He had felt embarrassed by her eyes, which gleamed with a shameful allure, even though she was so obese that he had appeared minuscule beside her leaning body. He had allowed her to move close enough to him that she virtually clung to him. She had been breathing rapidly as she had pressed against his body, panting. Just when he had thought he should be prepared to be thrown to the ground, she had lessened her pressure. So he had sighed deeply and raced off in the direction she had indicated.

Two desks faced each other there, and numerous leather chairs were arranged in front of a closed window. He reflected that the woman had ignored him ever since he had arrived that morning; here he was snuffing out the last cigarette in his pack.

He had sat tight all day long. He had heard the voices of men yelling and abusing the secretary with ugly insults that she had returned with even more slanderous invectives. She had even snorted rudely at them. Then he had heard sudden crashes that had caused him to leap to his feet, until he grew accustomed to these. Despite the successive voices of children and women and the sound of people knocking on the outside door, he had sat tight and had not stirred from his seat, waiting till the secretary would finally allow him to meet the man inside. Twice in succession a woman's harsh, commanding voice had startled him by calling out his tripartite name, composed of his given name and those of his father and grandfather. She had sounded pained when pronouncing his name and his father's, and before she had reached his grandfather's, she had sobbed as if on the verge of tears because overwhelmed by desire. Still he had not moved. Then he had heard another girl's voice call him by his first name. Children, men, and women had called him by his given name. Even so, he had sat tight.

He was ready plunge into any fray, if only he might ultimately meet the man and earn a job that would free him from spending days in his home that overlooked the city's cemeteries, where sorrow and the scent of the dead pervaded the dark and the daylight.

Then a long time passed while he sat attentively in the waiting room to which the secretary had directed him a long time before, or so it seemed to him. He no longer heard her voice or any of the other sounds. The resonant silence engulfed him.

For a moment it seemed to him that he could dash out, slip past the secretary, and then boldly pounce on the doorknob, heedless of the dangers, and present himself to the director, president, or chief executive of the firm, feeling confident for the first time about the degrees and expertise he had gained over the course of his life.

Nightfall took him by surprise, and he observed the pulsing, soft-white and red neon lights that were trying to work together to form the word "Elite." The soft lights surrounding the billboard for the World Trade Company were also flashing.

Seized by an intense desire to smoke, he rose from his seat but just as quickly sat back down. He stretched out his legs, remembering the increased number of explosions in various parts of the city recently. He had almost been able to count them as he lay in bed beneath the window that overlooked a forest of minarets before he quit his bed to head for his much anticipated interview. Despite all that, here he was sitting tight, having ignored the attempt of the woman to seduce him.

He was forced to resign himself to sitting there. He wanted to rise and to rush off to introduce himself to the director. He considered that idea from every angle. Would he be able to break into the closed room without permission? If the secretary was still sitting at her desk, would she prevent him? She would be able to stop him dead in his tracks with just one glance. Would he dare avoid her eyes--whether she had on her glasses or had removed them with that gesture she deemed exceptionally elegant?

He finally told himself: "At any rate, I've sat tight till now and haven't abandoned my place. I've not been overcome by sleep, my desire to smoke, fear, or insanity."

April 1993

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