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The Essential Yusuf Idris

The Essential Yusuf Idris: Masterpieces of the Egyptian Short Story

Edited by Denys Johnson-Davies
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 244
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  • Book Info
    The Essential Yusuf Idris
    Book Description:

    Yusuf Idris (1927–91), who belonged to the same generation of pioneering Egyptian writers as Naguib Mahfouz and Tawfiq al-Hakim, is widely celebrated as the father of the Arabic short story. He studied and practiced medicine, but his interests were in politics and the support of the nationalist struggle, and in writing—and his writing, whether in his regular newspaper columns or in his fiction, often reflected his political convictions. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature more than once, and when the prize went to Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, Idris felt that he had been passed over because of his outspoken views on Israel. In all, Yusuf Idris wrote some twelve collections of superbly crafted short stories, mainly about ordinary, poor people, many of which have been translated into English and are included, along with an extract from one of his novels, in this collection of the best of his work.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-167-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)
    Denys Johnson-Davies

    Yusuf Idris was born in 1927, the eldest son of a man whose work required him to be away from home most of the time. Idris endured a lonely childhood controlled by parents and grandparents who seem to have been strict and undemonstrative to a boy who craved love and attention. His student years at university coincided with the era of British occupation, and these years were followed by the period of King Farouk’s rule, a time marked by rampant corruption. Yusuf Idris, a medical student, was active in politics and this interest remained with him throughout his life. However,...

  4. The Cheapest Nights
    (pp. 5-10)

    A little after evening prayers a torrent of abuse gushing out of Abd al-Kerim came pouring down on the entire village, sweeping Tantawi and all his ancestors in its wake.

    No sooner had he rushed through the four prostrations than Abd al-Kerim stole out of the mosque and hurried down the narrow lane, apparently irritated, one hand clasping the other tightly behind his back. He was leaning forward, his shoulders bent, almost as if weighed down by the woolen shawl he was wearing, which he had spun with his own hands from the wool of his ewe. Presently he raised...

  5. You Are Everything to Me
    (pp. 11-20)

    All was quiet. The only sound came from the primus stove like the persistent wailing of a sickly child. It was interrupted at intervals by the noise of the metal tumbler dragging on the tile floor of the bathroom, then the sound of water gurgling out of it, and the crackling of the tin can where the water boiled. The sounds clashed and darted about like bats under the low ceiling of the room until at last the primus gave a last gasp and was silent.

    It was a long time before the bathroom door opened and Ramadan heard his...

  6. The Errand
    (pp. 21-32)

    Whenever anyone mentioned Cairo in his presence al-Shabrawi got terribly upset. It made him feel cheated of his life and he would suddenly long to go back if only to spend one hour at al-Kobessi or Mo‘allem Ahmed’s in the quarter of al-Tourgouman. His memory took him back to the days when he was a conscript and he used to go the length and breadth of Cairo every week, and he would hanker for one of those daytime shows he used to attend at the National Cinema. He sighed bitterly every time, for it was not too much to ask...

  7. Hard Up
    (pp. 33-38)

    Abdou was hard up. Not for the first time. The condition was chronic. He had spent most of his life until now trying to make ends meet.

    He had started out as a cook, having learned the trade from Hagg Fayed, the Syrian, and mastered it to the extent that the master himself used to exclaim over the well-seasoned, perfectly-spiced sauces he could make. But then nothing lasts forever. From being a cook he got himself employed in the workshop next door to the restaurant where he was working. Then he was fired, and he found another job as a...

  8. The Funeral Ceremony
    (pp. 39-42)

    Abou’l Metwalli stood in the doorway of the mosque while the midday sun poured down on him, blistering his white face. It made his hair, snow-white like a rabbit’s, glow with the heat, and his bald eyelids, which he tightened against the sunlight, grow redder still. For a while he stood dodging the rays of the sun, unable to see inside except when he craned his neck to push his head into the shade within. He searched the mosque with his bleary eyes until he found the man he was looking for, sitting at the foot of a column fighting...

  9. All on a Summer’s Night
    (pp. 43-58)

    Evening prayers were over. The hay was cold and piled high, and the night was dark and silvery. There was a grave and the clouds drifted over it fluttering in the air like the soft white handkerchiefs of lovers. Nearby lay our town crouching like a hedgehog, with its thorns, and sorrows, and trees, and we were there on the hay, talking, not like the grown-ups ruminating on their troubles, but mostly about ourselves. A dark force was just beginning to devastate our bodies, working a change in us which grew daily more evident and which we sensed with mixed...

  10. The Caller in the Night
    (pp. 59-70)

    It was Hagg Sa‘ad’s funeral ceremony. The time was just after the evening prayers when most people begin to arrive. A modest tent had been erected to receive the guests. It was lit by gas lamps that gave a pale, anemic light. They shone brightly just the same, through the blackness that enveloped our village, guiding the crowds of fellahin who came to bring their condolences. They were not used to lights by night so that they were momentarily blinded the moment they stepped inside and it was some time before they could recognize any of the people sitting there....

  11. The Dregs of the City
    (pp. 71-108)

    It is almost impossible for a person to lose his wrist-watch, because usually if one takes it off one keeps it in a place that is safe and if one has it on, the strap, or whatever contraption keeps it in place, is so firm that even a skilled pickpocket can do nothing with it. That’s why it must be a strange feeling for a man to turn his wrist in order to know the time and find his watch missing. ‘Must have left it somewhere,’ he says to himself and soon remembers where, because there aren’t many places where...

  12. Did You Have to Turn on the Light, Li-Li?
    (pp. 109-122)

    It was a joke at the start. Perhaps it was a joke in the end too. Actually it was not a joke in the real sense, but an incident, rather, which happened to involve those fabricators of jokes who were past masters of the art. It was not the fact that all those people who normally go to bed at dawn should rise at that hour in order to pray, which was the joke, or the fact that for the first time in the annals of the quarter of al-Batiniyya—that den of opium, Seconal, and hashish—the people answered...

  13. Death from Old Age
    (pp. 123-134)

    It was on just such a morning that Amm Muhammad died. What annoyed me was that people took his death as a matter of course, no reason for anyone to grieve or mourn or even to sigh in sorrow.

    That day I had started work as usual signing birth certificates which made regular citizens, recognized by the state, out of new-born infants. As a matter of fact my job reminded me of Sayyedna Radwan, guardian of the hereafter. For just as no one could leave or enter that abode without his sanction, no one could enter or depart from this...

  14. The Shame
    (pp. 135-154)

    I believe they still refer to love as The Shame over there. They probably still hesitate to talk about it openly, making only covert allusions, even though you can see it in the hazy look in their eyes, and when the girls blush and shyly look down.

    Like any other, the farm was not a big one. The few houses were built with their backs to the outside, the doors opening onto an inner courtyard where they celebrated their weddings and hung their calves when a sick one was slaughtered to be sold by theoke* or in lots. Events...

  15. His Mother
    (pp. 155-162)

    He found it on a winter’s night. The third tree before the subway. One of the weeping willow trees on the bridge over the Nile at the end of Qasr al-Aini Street.

    It wasn’t the first time he’d run away. He’d tried old railway carriages left to rust on disused track, and had to put up with being woken by the watchmen on their rounds and given a good hiding, until he fled from the railway and tried sleeping under lorries in Darrasa, in crannies in the wall at Fumm al-Khalig, in crannies and rubbish dumps, cattle sheds at the...

  16. An Egyptian Mona Lisa
    (pp. 163-176)

    This isn’t my first attempt; it may even be the third or fourth. Every time I think of writing it down, I get the feeling the language I’m using is much too crude, too stilted and hollow to put what I want to say into words. The language we use to speak and write was, I feel, created to depict imposing phenomena and great sensations, things like rocks, for instance; and even if we reduce the scale a little, I still sense it’s meant to depict things like sand and pebbles—whereas what I want to portray is something soft,...

  17. The Chair Carrier
    (pp. 177-182)

    You can believe it or not, but excuse me for saying that your opinion is of no concern at all to me. It’s enough for me that I saw him, met him, talked to him and observed the chair with my own eyes. Thus I considered that I had been witness to a miracle. But even more miraculous—indeed more disastrous—was that neither the man, the chair, nor the incident caused a single passerby in Opera Square, in Gumhouriyya Street, or in Cairo—or maybe in the whole wide world—to come to a stop at that moment.


  18. Rings of Burnished Brass A story in four squares
    (pp. 183-202)

    Her back had become a mass of squares, searing, red-hot, little ones inside big ones, full of pain. She should be gentle and think clearly, be tender. But she had never wanted it to be like this, didn’t want it now; she must cry out and push him away with all harshness.

    ‘What are you doing? Stop it. Stop it.’

    An unexpected development, and she assumed he would react wildly and terrorize her into submission. But, lying half on his side with his leg bent up and his hand hovering, uncertain what to do next, he was silent. His eyes...

  19. The Shaykh Shaykha
    (pp. 203-214)

    Vast and numerous are God’s countries, and each village has its fill of everything, the old and the young, boys and girls, people, families, Muslims and Copts—a vast realm regulated by some laws and made sleepless by others. However, there are exceptions, as in our village which was distinguished from God’s other countries by the presence in it of this living creature that cannot be classified as one of its inhabitants or people or even, for that matter, as one of its animals. It could not be considered the missing link either—this nameless, self-existent being whom they sometimes...

  20. It’s Not Fair
    (pp. 215-218)

    We had a friend called Abd al-Magid, whose very name was synonymous with hashish. One of the few real connoisseurs of the stuff, his experience of it was both vast and various. While we always found him permanently high, we could also be sure that his pocket invariably housed yet further reserves.

    Many were the days when Abd al-Magid became for us an endless topic of conversation. He was a man whose every word was a joke, his every retort a play on words, and at the mere mention of his name each of us was able to recount tens...

  21. House of Flesh
    (pp. 219-226)

    The ring is beside the lamp. Silence reigns and ears are blinded. In the silence the finger slides along and slips on the ring. In silence, too, the lamp is put out. Darkness is all around. In the darkness eyes too are blinded.

    The widow and her three daughters. The house is a room. The beginning is silence.

    The widow is tall, fair-skinned, slender, thirty-five years of age. Her daughters too are tall and full of life. They never take off their flowing clothes which, whether they be in or out of mourning, are black. The youngest is sixteen, the...

  22. Farahat’s Republic
    (pp. 227-244)

    No sooner had I made my way inside with the guard than I experienced an immediate feeling of depression. Though not the first time I had entered the police station, it was the first time I’d seen it at night. I felt, as I stepped across the threshold, that I was making my way into some underground trench utterly unconnected with the present or, indeed, the immediate past. The walls were covered half-way up with a blackness that resembled paint, while the other half was enveloped in a general gloom; white patches scattered here and there merely served to emphasize...

  23. The Greatest Sin of All
    (pp. 245-256)

    Don’t let the title scare you. The story itself is enough to make you die laughing. But Muhammad Husayn never laughed as he told it, nor did he see anything in it to raise even a smile. Quite the contrary. His voice would shake so much that he almost started crying. Sometimes, if there were any knowledgeable or enlightened people among his audience, he used to ask them imploringly whether what he had done and was still doing was a dreadful sin; could he be sent to hell for it?

    The fact was that Muhammad used to be rather surprised...

  24. from City of Love and Ashes
    (pp. 257-268)

    The tram terminal in Shubra al-Balad is more than just the beginning of a tramline. It is a pivot of constant interplay between Cairo and its suburbs, between the city and the many factories scattered around it. You see village folk here coming to the capital, awestruck by the city, breathless at the drone of the great bustle and the new world. You see sullen workers in the bustle too, resentful of the city but unable to escape it.

    And—on this particular January day—you see Hamza standing as usual waiting for the tram to leave the long tail...

  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 269-270)