How Ahmed Salem Abandoned God

When Mubarak stepped down, the cafes re-opened. I thought this would be a good time to go for few glasses of beer and wash away the taste of teargas. I’d take a cab to the Hooreya café, at the end of Cornish on Falaki Square.

The wind from the open cab window ruffled my shirt. The Nile was red with the desert’s piercing sun, boats bobbed in the water, their lights out.

A sand-colored Abrahms tank stood at the intersection, slowing traffic, the barrel pointing towards the city center. At the gun turret slouched a mustached soldier. A younger conscript was checking the papers of the people in our lane, his AK-47 clattering against his shoulder when he leaned into the open windows. His fatigues were colored brown with patches of sweat.

“Good evening,” he said, and glanced at my passport. He indicated that we could carry on. The taxi driver and I exchanged looks.

“It’s freedom,” the driver said with a smile. He was used to the police taking foreigners from his car.

“Let’s not celebrate just yet.”

We continued on, taking the long way around Tahrir Square, which was closed off by the military. At Sad Zaghlul I decided to get out and walk a bit. There were hardly any people on the streets. Shards of broken glass grated under my sandals, and smoke still rose from the smoldering trashcans that had been used as barricades. It felt good to walk in the city center, with nobody out to kill me. I had covered the whole revolution. It took a few days to get used to the tear gas, but not the explosions from the Molotov cocktails or the sound of machine-gun fire. On the other hand, I had become accustomed to living without my usual comforts. Alcohol was the first to go, then I quit smoking, and then as the situation got worse, hot showers, and finally, bedding. It is entirely possible to sleep well on potato sacks, amongst the rats, if you happen to find yourself in a vegetable shop, hiding from a bloodthirsty mob that wants your neck.

Biled, the alcoholic Coptic headwaiter, was standing outside the Hooreya, smoking. I took a long drag from my own cigarette, ground the butt into the side of my sandal, then kicked it into the street.

“I thought they would have arrested you by now,” he said with a smile, when he noticed me.

“They did. Three times.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

“They let me go.”

“Well, that’s a different story. Go on, take a seat in the back.”

We shook hands, and I made my way to the back of the café, which was cordoned off. Biled didn’t like the beer drinkers to sit by the window, lest it provoke the devout Muslims outside. He sent everybody to the back if the place wasn’t full, or if he had yet to drink enough not to care. I sat down. Without asking, he put an Egyptian Stella in front of me. The beer was cold, the foam bubbling over the rim, and flowing down the bottle in a thin stream, wetting my fingers. I lifted it to my lips and took a long swig. I savored the sensation of the bubbly liquid flooding to the back of my mouth until the smell of malt rose into my nose. I felt like a new man.

After I finished the beer, I looked around the café, hoping to spot somebody I knew.  It is not good to drink alone. I didn’t count on finding a foreigner; most had left the country at the first sign of trouble, and the Western journalists would all be drinking at flashy places like the Hilton Ramses or the Estoril, where it’s possible to buy foreign-made beer. A few of the usual gay boys sat at the fly-shit-covered, plastic tableclothed tables, and a few shorthaired Sudanese hookers were waiting around for customers. I called over to Biled to bring me another beer. Somebody at the bar had left behind the day’s issue of Al Ahram. The headline lauded the victims of the revolution. The martyrs’ faces were emblazoned in miniature hand-drawn portraits. The headline printed in red announced: IN THE LAST THREE WEEKS, 840 DIED; underneath it the subheading read THE NUMBER OF WOUNDED STANDS ABOVE 6000.

I looked up when a new customer entered and watched a man of around 60 take a table near me. He was dressed in a white galabiya, and a white haji hat, and he wore a beard that was cut and dyed according to the Sunna dictates. His forehead was darkened by the callous worn by the devout, who prayed, with their head to the rug, five times a day.

“What can I bring you, doctor?” asked Biled.

“A Stella.”

The headwaiter placed a beer in front of the man, who immediately tipped it back.

“Another.”

“As you wish, doctor.”

I sat dumbfounded. You rarely meet an alcoholic Islamist in Cairo. Biled picked up on my surprise, stepped over to my table and intoned quietly in my ear, “Don’t bother Ahmed Salem. I’ll explain the whole thing later.”

I returned to my beer and read more in the paper. The Islamist stared ahead of himself and drank mechanically. After under half an hour, seven empty bottles of Stella sat before him. With my head awash in beer, I lost myself again in the paper. It was great fun reading about how the military and the people were friends, and of the impending democratic reformations, and the celebration of our new heroes. It was then I noticed that somebody was standing next to my table. It was one of the Sudanese prostitutes. She wore a flower-patterned dress, and stood with her hand on her hip, flashing a perfect row of white teeth.

“I know what you’re here for,” she said, and licked her lips. “Buy me a beer?”

I put on my glasses to take her in. Her nipples poked out through her dress, as she had probably pinched them into shape before she came over. She had a beautiful body, young and strong. The image of her naked flesh flashed through my mind: her brown breasts, her totally black nipples. I hadn’t been with a woman in a month, yet still I shook my head no. I had spent too much money over the past weeks to be able to afford the company. Her smile melted away and she clicked her tongue at me scornfully before heading off to the washroom. The Islamist had just finished his ninth beer. When the woman passed his table, he reached out his hand to stop her. He whispered something I couldn’t hear, then the man stood up and reached into the pocket of his galabiya, pulled out a 100-pound note, and dropped it on the table. The girl and the older man staggered arm in arm toward the exit. They made a striking, inexplicable pair.

“Goodbye, Doctor,” called Biled before they disappeared into the night. I looked after their shapes as they receded down the block.

It was approaching curfew, and most of the customers had already left. Only us two were left as the fridge rumbled and the ceiling fans churned about the night air. With one of his filthy rags, Biled swatted a fly, then grabbed a glass, sat next to me, and helped himself to my beer.

“The revolution has brought out something different in everybody,” he said. “The man you just saw, well, he abandoned God.” His face reflected neither sadness nor triumph. He was simply establishing the facts. The beer washed the dirt from the edge of his glass as he tipped it back.

“Is he a friend of yours?” I asked.

“He is called Ahmed Salem.”

“Is he in the Muslim Brotherhood?”

“No, he had nothing to do with politics.”

“He wore Hadji dress, like the Brotherhood.”

“I don’t think he had time to change. It is also possible he doesn’t have any other clothing.”

He took a cigarette from my pack, put it in his mouth, and looked for a lighter in his pocket. When he didn’t find one, he took my gas lighter from the table and lit up.

“How well do you know him?” I asked, also lighting a cigarette.

“He is my neighbor on Kaszr el Eini Street. He is a doctor. I used to go to him for this and that.”

“How do you know he gave up God?”

“Invite me for a beer and I will tell you.”

Biled had a terrible habit of mooching from customers’ drinks, smoking their cigarettes, or simply inviting himself to sit down. His position as headwaiter, however, could mean life or death to a guy like me, so it wasn’t wise to point fingers. I nodded. He stood, retrieved two beers from the fridge, returned, and placed them on the table.

“Here’s how it is. Salem was a deeply religious, good Muslim. He had an unshakable belief that God was everywhere, and he totally submitted himself to his religion.”

Biled took a long swig from the drink in front of him.

“I always envy optimists,” I said dryly.

“Me too. In any case, he kept his faith even when there was reason to doubt. For instance, it seemed he couldn’t advance any higher in his profession, because the head of the hospital was desperately afraid that he was of the Brotherhood. His wife died in childbirth, and he brought up his only daughter alone. Still, he always kept a positive outlook. He knew every beggar by name, and never accepted money from the poor. Yes, there are people like this. They are rare, but they exist.”

“And?”

“When the military began to use live rounds, he thought he would uphold his doctors’ oath. At the hospital they were arresting the injured demonstrators.”

“I heard about this.”

“It happened. The Mukhabarat pulled demonstrators straight from the operating table.”

“What does this have to do with him giving up God?”

“When it dawned on Salem that the demonstrators would rather die on the street than come into the hospital, he and a few other doctors and nurses set up a triage in the Abu Bakr worship room.

“That’s the one on the corner. I was there to take pictures. They operated on the prayer rugs.”

“They slept on them as well.”

Biled stood up and closed the café door, and began to put the chairs up on the table. The sound of the chairs smacking against the plastic tablecloths roused the bugs that congregated around the table legs.

“They saw six hundred people a day.”

“How do you know?”

He shifted in front of me and raised his pant leg. His ankle was swollen and purple. A long black incision ran all the way up to his knee.

“It didn’t break, but I can’t stand on it. It looked uglier than it was, so they placed me next to the burned and broken. The doctors were working twenty-one hour days then. Salem worked his fingers to the bone, only stopping to pray. The corpses were piled in the corner next to where they prayed, yet still they prayed.

“He must have truly been a religious sort.”

“Indeed, but the patients were terrified of him.”

“Because he prayed next to the corpses?”

“No, for another reason. As a surgeon, he took only the most serious cases. There was no medicine, no instruments. It was like out of the Middle Ages, the way they needed to work. Around sixty people died in his hands. It appeared to them that every person he worked on died.”

“And because of this he drinks?”

“This and then some. The wounded cried for him to keep away. Some suffered from hallucinations, and they begged God not to let the Angel of Death touch them. I think it hurt him, because things like this can hurt a man. But it wasn’t because of this that he abandoned God.”

“Then why?”

“On the revolution’s fourth day, the police shot into the crowd in Talat Harbon. The demonstrators brought in their wounded on blankets. By then, the work was routine for Salem. He laid the patients in an orderly line and only worked on those he thought he could save. But on that day, one of them, it turns out, was his own daughter.”

“She was demonstrating on Tahrir?”

“Of course not, she was on her way home. She was shot by a stray bullet. She got it in the lung, and she was already out of it when they brought her in. Her father plugged the wound with his finger to stop the blood loss, and began to operate. All the while, everybody heard him speaking to God, how he said, ‘Just this one, don’t take this one. I was pure, I kept every rule; I never asked for anything. Just do this, I beg of you.'”

“And what happened?” I stood up to bring two more beers from the fridge. Biled lit up another cigarette, sat down and leaned back on his chair.

“He couldn’t save his daughter. It was all over in half an hour.”

“And this is why he drinks. He fell out with God.”

I put the bottles on the table, and marked them on my bill.

“Or, he discovered that no God exists,” said Biled. He blew out some smoke, and opened our beers. Ten more bottles would join our stream of drink that night.

Bios

Sándor Jászberényi

Sándor Jászberényi was born in 1980 in Sopron, Hungary. He works as a correspondent in conflict zones for several Hungarian newspapers, and currently lives in Cairo, Egypt. He started writing short stories in 2006 and has been published in all the major Hungarian literary magazines (including Élet és Irodalom and Kalligram), and in English in Pilvax magazine and B O D Y Literature. His first collection of short stories, Az ördög egy fekete kutya (“The Devil is a Black Dog”), will be out in late 2013.

M. Henderson Ellis

M. Henderson Ellis is the author of the novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café (New Europe Books, February 2013). He lives in Budapest, where he works as a freelance editor at Wordpill Editing, and is a founding editor of the literary review Pilvax.

Ahmed Szalem elhagyja Istent. Copyright (c) Sándor Jászberényi, 2011. English translation copyright (c) M. Henderson Ellis, 2013.