Diary of a Jewish Muslim

Diary of a Jewish Muslim: An Egyptian Novel

Kamal Ruhayyim
Translated by Sarah Enany
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 248
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15m7ktc
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  • Book Info
    Diary of a Jewish Muslim
    Book Description:

    Egyptian Muslims and Jews were not always at odds. Before the Arab–Israeli wars, before the mass exodus of Jews from Egypt, there was harmony. Offering an intimate yet panoramic view of the easy coexistence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in an old neighborhood of Cairo, this sweeping yet personal novel, spanning the 1930s to the 1960s, accompanies Galal, a young boy with a Jewish mother and a Muslim father, through his childhood and boyhood in the vibrant popular quarter of Daher. With his schoolboy crushes and teen rebellions, Galal is deeply Egyptian, knit tightly with his mother, father, and grandfather in old Cairo—a middle-class social fabric of manners and morals, values and traditions that cheerfully incorporates and as cheerfully transcends religion, but a fabric that is about to be torn apart by a bigger world of politics that will also put Galal’s very identity to the test.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-576-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Chapter 1
    (pp. 1-6)

    We only heard about my father’s death a month after the fact.

    We heard two knocks on the window inset into the house’s front door, and I tried to wriggle out of the grasp of Umm Hassan, the neighbor who had volunteered to nurse me along with her own son, Hassan, after my mother’s own milk had run dry. She pushed me gently into her lap with a deft motion of her wrist. I ignored her, twisting my head backwards, eyes smiling at this newcomer, who I thought was my grandfather. It turned out, though, to be one of my...

  3. Chapter 2
    (pp. 7-11)

    The hall of the house we lived in functioned as a living room. It only had two old-fashioned armless wooden couches, placed facing one another and upholstered with cheap cretonne that sported a number of cigarette burns from falling ashes, especially where my grandfather usually sat. At the start of the passageway leading to the kitchen sat two cane chairs, partly hiding a Singer sewing machine that had remained locked for ages. A small woolen kilim rug barely covered the space between the couches. It was worked with a black circle at its center, from which multicolored lines branched out...

  4. Chapter 3
    (pp. 12-17)

    Uncle Shamoun came to visit.

    My mother let him in, then flew to her room. Another guest came in with him, and the two men sat side by side on the couch while my grandparents came out of the other room. My grandfather was freshly shaved, which was not his habit for a weekend. He held a fly whisk, wore a navy blue jacket over a white gallabiya, and had his tarboosh on—the same attire in which he went to synagogue on Saturday. My grandmother wore her wine-red velvet dress that she saved for special occasions. They sat on...

  5. Chapter 4
    (pp. 18-23)

    We grew up together, the kids in my apartment building and I. Hassan, whose mother had nursed me, making us brothers; Fahmi, the son of Mr. Husni, the courthouse clerk; the twins, Ali and Mustafa; and Nadia, the daughter of Madame Subki. They all managed to convince their mothers to let them go play in the street and went to my mother. They stood, paces from the door, begging her to let me come out and play, while she refused. None of the children would dare set foot inside her apartment. They could only stand at her door, and then...

  6. Chapter 5
    (pp. 24-28)

    My grandfather closed the Holy Book as soon as he saw me and my mother dressed up to go out. He stood up, tarboosh in hand. My grandmother remained bent over her book, which she had gotten from a rag-and-bone man in exchange for four empty bottles—it was a pocket book, translated into Arabic, about a murderess in the Italian countryside who had dispatched twenty souls without batting an eye. My grandfather asked her to reconsider and come with us; there was still time. She said no, never taking her eyes off the book. Next to her sat a...

  7. Chapter 6
    (pp. 29-33)

    I was a little older; it was now my job to buy the cooked beans for breakfast, instead of the doorman’s wife. My mother would sing out my name: “Galal! Oh Galal! Gel-gel!” She would keep calling until I opened my eyes to the sunlight streaking in through the closed shutters on the window, laid out in lines on the wall facing me. Remembering the beans, I would jump out of bed at once. A second in the bathroom, then my mother would be putting on my slippers and rolling up my pajama pants at least three times; sometimes she...

  8. Chapter 7
    (pp. 34-39)

    We were on our way back from buying the beans: me and Hassan, whose mother had nursed me. I was swimming in my too-large pajamas, the deep dish balanced on my hands, leaning right and left, never spilling a single bean. I was yelling proudly, “Make way, make way! Make way for Gel-gel, the Valiant! Gel-gel the Brave!”

    Hassan looked at me oddly; I dared him to do as I did. The poor fellow tried, but the dish shook in his hands, and the juice from the beans started spilling over. He stopped and looked at me in annoyance. I...

  9. Chapter 8
    (pp. 40-44)

    One evening, my grandfather and I went out to a wake. I saw him sitting on the couch, dressed to go out, cleaning the edges of his tarboosh with a brush. I asked him to let me come with him; he said he was going to a wake and suggested that I play with the other children on the landing. I asked him again, but he was adamant; when I became more insistent, he raised his voice: “That’s enough, Galal! I said no and I meant no! This place I’m going is no place for children! Stay here with your...

  10. Chapter 9
    (pp. 45-47)

    My grandmother went on drinking wine, despite her promises to herself that she would give it up. My mother would reprove her angrily, “That’s enough! You’re a scandal! The women of the building smell it on your breath and whisper and gossip about you!”

    My grandmother, resentful, would curse their mothers. “They’re no better than me. Why so holier-than-thou? Their husbands smoke hash all night at the cafés, and they wouldn’t say no to opium eating if they had the chance!”

    “At least don’t leave the bottles out in the open when they come to visit!”

    “Do you mean the...

  11. Chapter 10
    (pp. 48-53)

    It was quite a job, but we finally made it to Kitkat Square in Giza. My mother didn’t want to take the privately owned microbuses that charged by the head, although they had set routes; “The government buses,” she maintained, “are cheaper and safer.” Some helpful fellow travelers directed her to the rickety old bus at the stop for the provinces, explaining that it was the fastest and most direct route to Mansouriya, and that it usually made the journey in half an hour.

    The steps of the coach were high and worn down, and but for my mother’s firm...

  12. Chapter 11
    (pp. 54-58)

    No sooner did my father’s father appear at the gate than an electric thrill went through me. The children rushed off, the madman with them. My newfound grandfather was tall and broad, wearing a light wool abaya with wide sleeves. On his head was a turban with fringes that hung down, tucked behind his ears. He stood at some distance from us, leaning with the palm of his right hand on a crook-handled black walking stick. Next to him was his manservant, whom I later found out was called Imam, barefoot and wearing a shirt with no undershirt. Both stared...

  13. Chapter 12
    (pp. 59-63)

    We spent three days at my grandfather’s house as though in exile. They opened up an attic for us that had previously been used as a storage room and pantry. They blocked up the openings that used to let in mice and swept, cleaned, and furnished it. All this, though, didn’t do a thing for the odors that filled it, especially the stink of old mish cheese and buttermilk. They told us before shutting us in, “You’ve got two windows. The first opens onto the street; open it, but just a crack. The window that opens onto the rest of...

  14. Chapter 13
    (pp. 64-68)

    As soon as my grandfather was done with the afternoon prayer, his favorite ritual began: Imam, carrying a mat and two cotton bolsters on his shoulders, would hurry ahead of us to the western wall of the house. The shade would by now have covered the stalks of greenery opposite us and crept up to the middle of the wall. In the distance, the Eucalyptus trees stood clustered round the creek at the entrance of the village. The rings of black smoke that ascended from the mill would have started to fade, and the number of donkeys outside it decreased...

  15. Chapter 14
    (pp. 69-75)

    I had been dressed since sunrise, in my shirt and short pants, and my shoes with the buckles. My mother wrapped a dark shawl around her dress and wore black shoes and stockings. We sat on the edge of the bed, awaiting a signal from the passageway. Then we heard two rapid, stentorian coughs outside our window that indicated my grandfather was calling for us.

    We emerged to find him at the outer door, leaning on his stick, watching Imam place the velvet saddle on the she-mule reserved for his personal errands. Artichoke was by his side, pacing back and...

  16. Chapter 15
    (pp. 76-81)

    Grandfather’s headdress was off, and he was lounging on the bench. Uncle Ibrahim, wearing a long-sleeved undershirt and tight cotton long johns, sat half-reclined on the bench opposite, taking tea with my grandfather as they talked of laborers, melons, watermelons, and zucchini, and the shocking dearth of profit these had made, or rather not made, this year.

    My grandfather’s face lit up with smiles as he saw me coming toward him. He picked me up and sat me down beside him, occupying himself with adjusting my clothing. He tied my shoelaces tight and said, patting my hair, “You’re really going,...

  17. Chapter 16
    (pp. 82-86)

    My grandfather Zaki said my mother wasn’t to pay a penny toward the household expenditures, and that was final. “The money you got from Galal’s family goes into a post-office savings account in his name for a rainy day.”

    When school time approached, as was my grandfather’s wont, he bought me a shirt whose sleeves, fully extended, dangled off my fingertips by a full two inches, and a positively dismal pair of pants. The school’s instructions were, “Shorts should fall two inches below mid-thigh,” whereas my grandfather believed they should, in the name of future expansion, fall three inches below...

  18. Chapter 17
    (pp. 87-91)

    My late grandfather came to me in a dream. It was as though I was playing with the calf in the barn back in the village. I spoke to it, and it answered. I made to pull its tail, and it ran away and hid. From outside, my grandfather’s voice came to me. He sounded weak, pausing every few words to catch his breath. In the brief days I’d known him, I’d never heard him sound like that. Then I heard him coughing painfully, calling on my grandmother to bring him some water.

    I went out searching for him, following...

  19. Chapter 18
    (pp. 92-95)

    Every Friday evening I would stay out in the street playing from the time the call to afternoon prayer sounded until after the evening prayer call, whereupon my grandmother would call down to me from the balcony to come upstairs. I would look up resentfully, not answering, whereupon she would call again, louder and angrier. I would play deaf. She would bend forward, a tell that she was taking off her orange slipper. At first she would just threaten with it, waving it in my face and that was all.

    Her tactics changed, though, starting that summer; she began to...

  20. Chapter 19
    (pp. 96-99)

    After my grandfather’s departure, the household died; my mother lost her bloom. I went off to school while she was still asleep, and came home to find her still in bed. I would buy whatever from the grocery store to keep body and soul together, and she and I would spend most of the day without a word: she in her room, only emerging when there was no way around it, and I in the hall, either lying on the couch or doing my homework. I didn’t have the heart to turn on the television.

    Sometimes I would hear the...

  21. Chapter 20
    (pp. 100-104)

    My mother stopped making hot meals entirely up until my grandfather’s first letter from Paris arrived. It seemed so impossible to me: my grandfather, who would take me to the movies, where we watched actors sing and dance in front of painted backdrops of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, now lived in that fabled city, that setting of romantic fantasies. But the strange stamps and oddly lettered postmark on the envelope stood as proof. My grandparents really were in Paris. The first person he asked after was me, then my mother, and finally his friends, especially Muallim...

  22. Chapter 21
    (pp. 105-108)

    I was a big boy now: I was now in prep school. Still, all I knew of prayer was what I learned in religion class.

    I would stare at Sheikh Zaki avidly when he said to us that prayer was the pillar of religion, and that those who failed to perform it were to be counted as infidels who had abandoned their faith. I watched him intently as he rolled up his sleeves and showed us how to perform ablutions, washing our hands and arms up to the elbows, and took off his turban to show us how to pass...

  23. Chapter 22
    (pp. 109-115)

    The first day of Ramadan, as always, we came to iftar at Umm Hassan’s. My mother recognized her knock on the glass in the door, and her silhouette impatiently fidgeting behind the little window.

    My mother bent to find some slippers, while I was faster, already opening the door.

    In a second, Umm Hassan was sitting beside us, still wearing the clothes she had had on while cooking: a short-sleeve gallabiya, plastic slippers, and a head scarf that appeared to have been hastily thrown on, for it did not cover her arms, while most of her hair poked out from...

  24. Chapter 23
    (pp. 116-121)

    I was the only one of our little gang to make it as far as secondary school. Hassan failed his exams twice and then apprenticed to his father at the family spice store. Fahmi, the accountant Husni’s son, moved to Nasr City with his family. Two of the boys from the building next to ours went into vocational school.

    I had never even noticed Nadia, the daughter of Madame Subki, who lived upstairs, until we bumped into each other one day at the outer door of our building.

    One of the pair of iron gates was closed, unusual for our...

  25. Chapter 24
    (pp. 122-131)

    My mother woke up at exactly a quarter to six each morning. She started her day by making sandwiches: beans, cheese, sometimes halva and boiled eggs, with kosher bread. She wrapped them in newspaper and put them in the outer pocket of my schoolbag, which I packed at night and left by the door. Yawning, she opened the balcony doors, flooding the hallway with daylight, usually faint at this hour, especially in winter.

    The light, of course, made its way into the room where I slept, through the pebbled English glass that formed the upper part of the door. The...

  26. Chapter 25
    (pp. 132-136)

    That was the start of last year. Mr. Busrati took to coming into our classroom breathing fire, a countenance that said he was quite prepared to murder any one of us.

    If any student should so much as make a move, such as we used to in the good old days, Mr. Busrati would grab him, twist his arm up behind his back, and drag him to the headmaster’s office, suggesting that he call the police. The headmaster would try in vain to calm the man down, but he would never rest until the student received a three-day suspension. Mr....

  27. Chapter 26
    (pp. 137-151)

    My heart beat faster whenever I stood at al-Nasr tram station. For two weeks—say, three—I had been knocking, now at the deputy headmaster’s door, now at Mr. Busrati’s, now at the door of Mr. Shenouda, the supervisor of that floor, asking permission to leave after third period.

    They would look up at me in annoyance, and I would meet their gaze with sorrow that I strove to make plausible and truthful. The problem was my eyes: they would not be controlled, and gave me away. To make it more convincing, I would sometimes lift my lower lip and...

  28. Chapter 27
    (pp. 152-159)

    After things settled down and my mother and I were back to normal, I said to myself, ‘What about Nadia? How long am I going to go on like this? It isn’t doing me any good to cut out every day after third period and hang around by the tram stop! I don’t see Nadia any more on the stairs or in the street, and the balcony doors are always closed in the daytime.’ I had no choice but to cut school altogether and beard the lion in his metaphorical den, at the Abbasiya Secondary School for Girls.

    I still...

  29. Chapter 28
    (pp. 160-165)

    We met again, and again. We had a standing date for me to meet her at the tram stop every Tuesday at one o’clock. “If I’m late,” she said, “wait till two. If you’re late, though, I won’t wait for you, not a single minute.”

    I agreed, my hand twining around hers.

    I would always come from school early. I sat on a cement bench in the central portion of the stop, my eyes eagerly seeking the next tram from Abbasiya. When I saw the foremost car in the distance, I wished I could fly and meet it halfway.

    If...

  30. Chapter 29
    (pp. 166-172)

    I didn’t go to school the next day. First, I went to see Amm Idris. I wanted to ask him about it, talk about it, do anything to set my mind at rest. His wife, Sitt Shouq, was sitting in his place on the bench with a tray of rice in front of her, picking it over. She said, her fingers never ceasing their movement over the rice, “He’s inside asleep, Master Galal.”

    “Still asleep? Till this hour?”

    “Yes,” she looked up at me, flicking away a grain of rice that had gotten stuck between her fingers, “and he’ll stay...

  31. Chapter 30
    (pp. 173-177)

    They said Sheikh Khalaf had died. I was sitting in the hall studying; I had just finished a sample exam in math and was comparing it with the model answer in the study guideal-Murshid,finding that I had earned full marks. Leaping up in joy, I went to the balcony, saying to myself, “Medical school, here I come! You’ll get Nadia, Galal, in spite of Sheikh Mohamed and all the sheikhs in the world!”

    I looked down at the street from above: there seemed to be an unusual disturbance. Amm Hagg Mahmoud paced a few steps away from his...

  32. Chapter 31
    (pp. 178-180)

    Dear Galal,

    I write to you the morning of the day we leave the house. Since last night, I haven’t been able to imagine what the morning sun will look like, nor how I shall leave this world where I was born and raised: my room, where I have gone to bed every single day of my life that I can remember, the only street I know.

    I’ve been tossing and turning all night, hurting at leaving you, afraid of the new life I am heading for. I felt sorry for myself and started crying.

    My darling, know that from...

  33. Chapter 32
    (pp. 181-183)

    It was a wonder, to be sure, worthy of theGuinness Book of World Records: a student in 3J scoring 87 percent on the thanawiya amma exam; indeed, it was worthy of alerting the newspapers, as Mr. Murqus, the administrative director, said. The man held the table of grades in his hand as he scrutinized me from the parting in my hair down to my shoelaces, then stared back at the table, then looked at me again over his reading glasses, eyes widening in astonishment, as though hearing a voice that told him he was in a dream. By God,...

  34. Chapter 33
    (pp. 184-186)

    “Listen to me, Galal. This far and no further. I’ve done my duty by you. I bore you and raised you, and I’ve put up with a lot for your sake. Now I want you to do as I ask.”

    This was the first thing my mother said to me as we sat at breakfast the next day. My heartbeat speeded up. ‘She’s definitely going to bring up the emigration business again. Heaven help us.’ I pushed my teacup aside, looking at her surreptitiously. Her eyes were on me, her face somewhat tense: this told me that she had gathered...

  35. Chapter 34
    (pp. 187-194)

    The village appeared from afar when the bus turned left and crossed the stream: the Eucalyptus trees, the smokestack of the mill, newer one-and two-story houses built at the borders of the fields with red brick walls and reinforced concrete pillars springing up amid the crops, with unfinished lengths of rebar protruding and corroded by rust and scraps of burlap tied to the ends and fluttering in the breeze. One man had beaten everybody to the punch and opened up a grocery store in the wide open field. A barrel of oil with black stains around its mouth stood by...

  36. Chapter 35
    (pp. 195-200)

    Our flight landed at Orly Airport, and our feet trod upon the long tube leading to the French soil of the airport.

    The passengers were happily chatting, laughing, and making fun of the flight attendants and of the airline meal we had been served a little while ago. Singled out for special attention was a short attendant with a Hitler-style mustache. He was a veritable wonder in form and function, a goof-off who had failed to fulfill a single passenger’s request. Someone had asked him for tea; a lady had asked him for a pain-killer; and a third passenger, ever...

  37. Chapter 36
    (pp. 201-206)

    Our apartment in Daher was a veritable paradise, compared to the apartment where my grandfather now lived. Two bedrooms: the smaller, which they had designated our room, held a bed, a wardrobe barely big enough for one person’s clothes, and a coat rack that hung on the wall. The room also held two couches, each as old as my grandfather, each convertible to a bed. But how? This was the issue. My grandfather tried to conduct the experiment on one of them in our presence, and failed. I bent to help him, following my grandmother’s instructions as she stood over...

  38. Chapter 37
    (pp. 207-210)

    Rachel came to visit a week later. She wore light gray linen capris with a tie at the calf and a see-through blouse that barely came down to her waistband. It seemed she was braless, or else her bra was so thin that her bust moved freely, her breasts bouncing with her every movement.

    For the first time, I understood the true importance of the word ‘perfume.’ My nose had been living in the gutter, understanding nothing of scent except for the one-pound and one-pound-fifty cologne bottles I bought from Amm Zuzu. Strangely enough, when I asked him for a...

  39. Chapter 38
    (pp. 211-215)

    As I made to sit in the front seat of her car, Rachel said, “I hope you don’t mind; we’ve got to make a quick stop at the Champs-Élysées. I’ve got a work appointment, and then we can go on.” When I nodded, she added, “The Champs-Élysées is on our sightseeing list, anyway, so we can start there.”

    As she drove through the streets, I looked at everything all around, feeling as though I were in a spaceship following the events taking place on another planet: the people hurrying by; the hats; the umbrellas against a sudden squall of rain;...

  40. Chapter 39
    (pp. 216-218)

    “Not again, Galal! Not again! This takes me back to Egypt, when I’d have to drum on the headboard to wake you up!” My mother’s voice was not a little irritated, as though coming from a great distance, and Nadia and I were in another world.

    She and I were in my grandparents’ old room in Daher, steps away from his old armoire with the ancient mirror that distorted everything. My attention was caught by a large sliding aluminum window, closed with a rusty padlock. The window in my grandfather’s room had never been that big, and its two wooden...

  41. Chapter 40
    (pp. 219-222)

    For four weeks, I had gone to Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque of Paris. I went and showered as Muslims do in the morning, performed the morning prayers and the additional Sunna prayers, and concluded the prayer by sitting on the prayer mat reciting my rosary. Then, I would place the rosary in the pocket of my shirt, leaving its green tassel hanging out of my pocket, put my white cap on, and go out into the street. By this time, Amm al-Sheikh Munji al-Ayyari, a Tunisian living in France and owner of the neighboring butcher shop, would have...

  42. Chapter 41
    (pp. 223-231)

    Sheikh Munji al-Ayyari and I would head for the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station. He would buy me an Arabic-language newspaper from the kiosk adjacent to the station, or a bar of chocolate.

    I would make to pull out my wallet, or reciprocate by buying him something in turn, but he would hold back my hand heatedly. He viewed me as a younger brother, or maybe a son. I felt comfortable, and walked docilely and gratefully by his side.

    He went into the station ahead of me, and we would take the escalators down to the platform, and thence the metro to...

  43. Chapter 42
    (pp. 232-234)

    My feet took me to Notre Dame Cathedral. I had visited it twice before, but I had only now noticed the wooden confessionals. I stood close to one of them.

    Inside were priests, and the men and women awaiting confession sat silent and somber on wooden seats. None of them looked up at the other, and if their eyes happened to meet, they nodded then went back to their solitude. With a heavy tread they walked toward the priest who was about to receive their confession, but from whom they were separated by a wooden panel with a small opening...

  44. Chapter 43
    (pp. 235-236)

    Not a week later, I woke my mother one morning. She blinked in disbelief as I stood before her, fully dressed, air ticket and passport in hand.

    Our argument was more of a fight. My grandfather burst in through the door. They all tried to dissuade me from leaving. Even my grandmother appeared upset, and tried to snatch the passport out of my hand. But nothing would sway me: not my mother’s tears, not my grandfather’s pleading eyes.

    My mother plopped down on the edge of the bed, complaining loudly to the world about the life she had wasted raising...

  45. Glossary
    (pp. 237-240)
  46. Back Matter
    (pp. 241-242)