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from the February 2006 issue

The Toughest Guy in Utouf

As evening fell, Boss Bayumi al-Fawwal left the Husseiniya Police Station clutching a "caution against vagrancy," his chest about to explode with exasperation and rage. He frothed and foamed as he muttered and snarled until the sounds built up into a shrill crescendo, crude and incomprehensible. The gathering roar grew louder and higher the further he drew away from the scene of his humiliation, gradually turning into curses, insults and sheer defamation--all screamed at the top of his lungs--by the time he reached King Farouq Square. He kept shaking his coarse fist in the breeze in threatened revenge, his eyes like two flaming embers of fury, when they fell upon a taxi stopped in the square. He made his way towards it, and the driver-as though he knew him-swung the door open for him. Lunging inside, Bayumi threw himself onto the passenger seat. Seeing that his friend was seething in revolt, the driver asked what was upsetting him. Seizing on his question as a chance to blow off steam, the thug hurled the citation at him, bellowing in anger, "See how the high and mighty government treats me?" Hand on heart, he recited sarcastically, "Don't you get it? I've been ordered to find gainful employment within twenty days-or else they'll slap me back in the joint all over again. Will wonders never cease?" His expression growing more and more sullen, he shot an evil look from under his heavy brows. All the while, his grave-faced friend kept looking back and forth from the gangster's gloomy visage to the legal warning stretched between his fidgeting fingers.

Boss Bayumi's build was so strong and bold that one could not pass him by without turning to stare. True, his shabby appearance and squalid, threadbare clothes exposed his abject poverty. Yet his solid frame, broad chest and massive, flexing muscles flaunted his power and audacity. The look in his eye and his macho mannerisms were clearly inspired by vanity and violence. Those scars etched across his face and his forehead, along with the traces of a knife-slash along the front of his throat, all testified that he rushed eagerly into battles of terrifying brutality. Hence, when angry, a fearsome silence enveloped him that would still the wagging tongues of taxi drivers' relatives. With rancorous wrath, he turned to his friend and wailed, "Me . . . me--Bayumi al-Fawwal-has the world turned this much against me?" The matter loomed larger and larger to him as he pounded his fist into his palm, his tongue ceaselessly spewing its menacing imprecations. And they could be more than just menacing imprecations . . . In the past, he spoke little when he was angry. Rather, his ire would wrap itself in even more irritation until his harsh retribution landed on the head of his enemy. Now, nothing remained of this past but memories that floated about from time to time in his overburdened brain. Then a brilliant light from the prime of his lost power and glory would briefly radiate through the deepening darkness.

Il-Mi'allim ("Boss") Bayumi grew up in Utouf. From his early youth he displayed a natural-born temerity. He was the pick of the boys that gathered around the one-eyed top thug, the futuwa who terrorized the local residents and ran circles around the forces of law and order. He would sit facing the crime boss, listening to the tales of his adventures, observing his battles, and emerging from the rear-guard of his gang when it rushed into combat with their rivals from Darrasa or Husseiniya at the foot of the Muqattam mountain. In the lap of his gallabeya, rolled and held up with one hand, he would carry bits of gravel and chunks of glass, supplying them to the fighters from his own side. All the while he studied their techniques in combat from close up, filling himself with the zeal for fighting and acts of derring-do. He had not even approached his eighteenth year when his arms became strong and his muscles massive. He had a formidable talent in the art of forehead-butting-but also in using the club, the knife, and the chair, as well. He took part in individual battles as well as group altercations, excelling in them all. His fame as a fighter spread far and wide, as he went out alone to confront scores of men with a heart that held no fear of death. He'd destroy an entire coffeehouse if the waiter so much as asked him to pay for his drink. The one-eyed man, admiring these virtues, granted him preference, treated him like a brother, and made him his own right-hand, sharing his loot and his booty with him. And when One Eye died, Bayumi ascended to the futuwa's throne, alone. His ambitions scorned any kind of peace or rest-so he challenged the futuwa of Husseiniya, and he beat him. Then he took on the boss of Darrasa, and routed him, too. He ventured out with his entourage to the district of Wayli, whose local boss he humbled, trouncing his gang soundly. His name rang throughout all those quarters like a warning of a deadly raid, as the other futuwas surrendered to his superiority. So potent was he that it was said even the Evil Eye could not touch him for at least a generation. He made his headquarters at the Gazelle Cafe in Khurunfush where he met with his helpers and his young hangers-on. He forced the rich folks and the traders, the coffeehouse owners, and even the Suares Company that owned the tram lines, to obey him submissively. Whoever balked at paying what he demanded risked exposing whatever they owned to utter ruin. This was in addition to his acts of personal vengeance and intimidation, as well as his protection of some of the ladies of the night. Many people courted his affection by offering him expensive gifts-which he would accept like one above such things, without a hint of interest or gratitude.

And so Boss Bayumi lived a satisfying life in the shade of his own authority, in opulence and luxury. He wore a gallabeya made of silk, under a camel-hair cape, over which he wrapped a costly cashmere mantle. He rode about in a fancy, gold-daubed carriage drawn by horses of perfect beauty. Then he fell in love with an alma-a woman trained in entertaining men with song, dance and sex-and married her. His wedding feast was made a party for all the people in Gamaliya, Utouf and Darrasa together. The procession was organized by the futuwas in all the nearby neighborhoods, plus a number of ex-convicts, parolees and those who were continually in and out of prison. The nights of this feast were enlivened by the performances of the renowned Shaykh Nada, 'Abd al-Latif al-Banna and Bamba ("Pinkie") Kashr. Afterwards Bayumi kept rising higher and higher until he reached the pinnacle of his glory in the elections of 1924-in which his sway over many politicians in Egypt was established. They gave generously to him, hoping to obtain his backing, haggling over the votes of his followers and underlings. The Gazelle Café witnessed many pashas and beys sitting with Boss Bayumi al-Fawwal, wooing him with chatter. He would listen to them attentively while making himself master over their money. Yet on the day of the polls, he and his close companions went to the police stations to vote for the candidates in the list of Sa'd Zaghloul-who, of course, opposed that of his corrupted cronies.

From that time on, he would call all these pashas and beys "imbeciles"--even while boasting of his contacts with them. Many times in conversation he would let drop, "Pasha So-and-So said to me," or "I said to Pasha Such-and-Such."

But those days disappeared. The time that followed was very cruel, with many grueling hardships. The futuwas did not grasp that the police had become fed up with their reign of terror, and were preparing to put paid to their vicious behavior. They sent a young officer down to Husseiniya who was peerless in courage, strength and obduracy in the whole Interior Ministry.

His primary target was Boss Bayumi. He didn't bother to challenge him. Nor did he wait until he'd gathered legal evidence, because he knew no one would have the nerve to testify against him. He and his troopers just attacked him suddenly. They took him to the station-where he ordered his men to beat him savagely. Bayumi was baffled by such bold aggression against him. All the officer had to do was to repeat the assault once or twice until his bravura was broken. So, surrounded by all his heavily-armed soldiers, he kept driving the futuwa in front of him, slapping him in every alley along the road, kicking him in front of every coffee house, bringing the harshest punishment down on any of his minions that they found. Snapping out of their reverie--with the knot of fear that had tied their tongues now loosened--the people scrambled to the police post to file complaints against him. Hence the officer found the proof he had needed. With it, he tossed Boss Bayumi into the wilderness of prison, to taste the most disgusting of horrors and torments. As a result, the fallen futuwa felt the very terrorism that he himself had inflicted upon others for so long.

He spent several years in confinement. When he finally got out, he found none of the old futuwas there to congratulate or even greet him. No one came to tell him, as they normally would, "Prison is for the brave." Every one of them had gone his own way. Some were themselves in prison, while others had moved from Husseiniya. Still others contented themselves with working for a living, as people do when trying to survive. He returned to the world morose and abandoned, his glory but a painful memory for which no person consoled him by saying, "May God have mercy," as one does to the bereaved. Even his wife grew tired of his begging and penury, leaving him to resume her practice of the thespian arts in the theatres on Muhammad Ali Street. His agonies ground up his giant, arrogant soul, until its owner was staggering so much under their weight that he could not even mouth a word of protest under the dreaded eyes of the police staring at him from every side. He languished in this state of worry and pain until he received the fateful warning against vagrancy, which gave him the choice between gainful employment--and prison.

In these hours of the worst distress, his mind was filled with images of his salad days dancing before his eyes, which were filmed over with angst. During those trying times, his friend the driver would watch him slyly as his fingers played with the warning that caused him so much rage. The matter remained critical in the driver's mind, and as he turned it over and over in his thoughts, he swiveled to look at the former futuwa.

"What would you say, Boss," he asked, "if I offered you a job that would keep the heat off your back?"

Bayumi fixed him with a strange look without saying a word. His silence encouraged his friend to jump ahead by saying, "First I'll teach you how to drive a car--it's a racket you can make a living at. No doubt you're already an expert on all the roads here and how to get around on them. Meanwhile, I can get you a spot in the same garage where I work-on the condition that you humble yourself enough to be happy with it. So what do you say, Boss?"

The mi'allim felt no rush of elation, as might have been expected of one in his situation, simply because work was the one thing he had never known. Never important to professional futuwas, he recoiled from it with instinctive fear. Yet, so long as labor was his sole salvation from a return to prison, he was not in a position to turn down any job. "Is it possible I could be hired for this work before the twenty days are up?" he said to his friend, barely able to conceal his annoyance.

"Without a doubt," he replied. "You're missing just one thing, though."

"What's that?"

"A suit, Boss," he rejoined. "There's no way you can be a professional driver without a suit. Buy or rent one, or borrow one as you please-but there's no choice about having one."

He thought deeply and seriously about this, wondering how he could find a suit. That he might find the elusive object with his friend the driver or with any of his fellows never occurred to him, for he knew that all of them owned only the one suit they always wore. Nevertheless, he did not despair--for he still had the affluent men that not long ago had wished all evil away from him and only good things for him. Surely, it wasn't possible they would begrudge him an old suit that, all his life, the Fates had decreed he would never need. He stood blocking the doorways of the well-dressed people that he once knew, politely begging them--in a language utterly unlike that which they were used to hearing from him--to give up one old suit for his sake. But they answered only with endless excuses. A few pleaded that they owned only one suit besides the one they had on at the moment. Another two or three begged off helping him due to their own straitened conditions, like having too many children, not to mention the pressure of the current economic crisis upon their finances. One man even claimed--with a guilty cough--that his servant deserved to inherit his old suit. All these evasions astounded Bayumi.

A fierce anger gripped him as he swore to himself stubbornly, "So long as a suit will save me from prison, then I'm going to get my hands on one, now matter how dogged I have to be."

He was trampling aimlessly along one day when he found himself facing a laundry shop at the start of Fountain Street. He glanced over it quickly-and saw that suits were hanging inside. He stopped and rested his back against a nearby tree, staring ravenously at the garments crammed tightly together the way that a starving man eyes the cuts of meat dangling over a kabab-griller's stove. He cased the place carefully, noting that the drab, darkened shop was located next to a garage, and behind it was the empty Desert of the Aqueduct. Feverish thoughts whirled madly in his mind--until he arrived at a firm decision.

In the morning the laundry man came to open his shop, and was horrified to find that a hole had been bashed through its back wall. His heart thumping, he rushed over to check on his customers' clothes.

They were all there-except for one suit. His surprise was as great as his sense of dismay.

In any case, Boss Bayumi became a taxi driver, after all-and the officer who ran the Husseiniya police station lost his power over him. For whatever reason, Bayumi chose far-away Giza to be the place where he would mainly work, and so did not bother to dye the suit or otherwise alter it, as an experienced burglar would have done. Nor would he have tolerated his regimen of constant toil, but for the thought of the penitentiary as the more painful and loathsome alternative. Though despising it, he contented himself with obeying people's shouts and ferrying them about. He even began to respect those whom in days of old he had looked down upon with scorn, dismissing them as fools.

His new life was not uneventful, however. One day, just before sunset, when he had spent not quite a month in his job, he was waiting for customers at his usual spot, when a distinguished-looking man appeared at the door of the Casino il-Fantazio and called him over. Speedily the Boss hurried to him, leaping from his seat to open the door for the obviously important gentleman. A moment passed as he waited for him to get in-but the man did not move. Mystified, Bayumi looked at him, only to find that he was staring back at him in disbelief-or rather, he was gaping at his suit. The Boss' heart pounded: he felt like one who had fallen into a trap. He made to get away, but the man reached in and grabbed his jacket's collar. He pulled it back to read the tailor's name-then seized the shocked mi'allim by the arm.

"Stop, you thief!" he screamed. "Where did you get this suit?"

He hailed a policeman at the top of his lungs. Boss Bayumi glared at him as though he could, without a doubt, have knocked him down if he wished. Instead, he felt a strange sense of helplessness and seemed to pass out of consciousness-all he knew was that the cop had laid hold of him. Clearly, the luck which had been his ally of yore had deserted him forever-and he would again endure the agonies of prison.

God alone knows what He did with him after that.

"The Toughest Guy in Utouf" by Naguib Mahfouz. Short story first published in Arabic as Futuwat al-'Utuf copyright (c) 1940 by Naguib Mahfouz. English translation by Raymond Stock copyright (c) 2006. Published by arrangement with The American University in Cairo Press.

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