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The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets

The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets

Khairy Shalaby
Translated by Michael Cooperson
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Time-Travels of the Man Who Sold Pickles and Sweets
    Book Description:

    Ibn Shalaby, like many Egyptians, is looking for a job. Yet, unlike most of his fellow citizens, he is prone to sudden dislocations in time. Armed with his trusty briefcase and his Islamic-calendar wristwatch, he bounces uncontrollably through the Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk periods, with occasional return visits to the 1990s. Along the way, he meets celebrities such as Jawhar, the founder of Cairo. He also encounters other time travelers, including the historian Maqrizi. After his cassette recorder fails to impress a Fatimid caliph, he finds himself trapped in the 1300s. He joins the barbarians, cannibals, and prisoners of war who have taken over the monumental Storehouse of Banners and set up their own state in defiance of the Mamluk order. Forced to play the role of double agent, Ibn Shalaby is caught up in the struggle between the rebels and the ruling dynasty.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-059-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. CHAPTER 1 The Caliph’s Invitation
    (pp. 1-9)

    The Fatimid caliph Mu‘izz had sent me a personal invitation to break the Ramadan fast at his table—or his dining carpet, as the invitation put it. The occasion was the first celebration of the holy month of Ramadan in Cairo, or more exactly the first Ramadan to be celebrated in a city called Cairo. Before Mu‘izz, no such place had existed. The capital of Egypt had been a town called Fustat, with various extensions built by successive invaders to break with the memory of old regimes and avoid rubbing shoulders with the lower orders. Before long, settlements with names...

  4. CHAPTER 2 Too Late for Everything except the Demolition
    (pp. 10-20)

    I looked at my watch and realized that my dinner with Mu‘izz was one thousand and thirty-eight years away: ten and a half centuries, more or less. “No problem,” I thought. “I’ll take a stroll around al-Husayn and have some tea at Fishawi’s.” I wasn’t thinking of the modern café by that name, which is nothing to write home about. To find a seat in the old version, in all its glory, all I have to do is squat against the wall. Buildings, you see, are more than buildings: they’re made of layer upon age-old layer of indelible images. I,...

  5. CHAPTER 3 Dying of Hunger at the Golden Gate
    (pp. 21-30)

    I had imagined that the palace consisted of one palace but it turned out to consist of several, and so I found myself in a giant maze. The friends who called it “the luminous palace complex of Mu‘izz” had not been exaggerating. I passed a slouching Ayyubid soldier who gave a deferential bow when he saw me coming and called out, “This way, sir!”

    I nearly turned on him to ask who had told him to call me “sir,” but in the end simply went the way he was pointing. Ahead of me was a gate still visible only from...

  6. CHAPTER 4 History on the Auction Block
    (pp. 31-41)

    So Saladin was waiting for me in the Golden Hall. How that happened, I wasn’t sure. But there was nothing wrong with having him wait for me in a hall, or even in a coffeehouse. He wasn’t an uptight sort of guy, and he wouldn’t mind standing around on a street corner for a few minutes.

    “Listen, kid,” I said to the deputy. “Tell Sal I’m on my way. And hey—tell him to have a cup of tea or coffee, my treat. Make sure he doesn’t pay for it himself!”

    With an obedient bow of the head, the deputy...

  7. CHAPTER 5 Emigrating to Work in Distant Ages
    (pp. 42-51)

    Waving the end of his sword at me like a man swatting a fly, the Persian guardsman gestured for me to stop. I stared back at him defiantly. He gave his head a quizzical wiggle. I heaved my Samsonite briefcase into his range of vision. That briefcase, as far as I’m concerned, is worth its weight in gold. If I wave it at taxi drivers, they always stop. If I snap it open and shut, salesmen and petty brokers treat me with respect. But the Persian guardsman, far from deferring to my briefcase, regarded it with contemptuous disdain. Surprised that...

  8. CHAPTER 6 Not a Banner Year: Detained in the Storehouse of Banners
    (pp. 52-62)

    Surrounded by guards and threatened from all sides, I wondered how a few simple words, spoken by a man who afterward flitted away unfazed, could get me in so much trouble. To be honest, I was feeling faint. On the basis of things I had read and the testimonies of people imprisoned under Nasser, the mere sound of the word “prison” was enough to give me goose bumps. If I knew a way to avoid using the letters P, R, I, S, O, and N, except in some other order or with lots of other letters in between, I would...

  9. CHAPTER 7 Locking Out the Doorkeepers
    (pp. 63-73)

    I remained sitting alone in the Storehouse of Banners awaiting any news of my petition, which, as I learned, had finally been honored with the signature of the Lesser Pen preparatory to being honored by the signature of the Greater Pen. What with one incident following hard on another, the place was beginning to wear on my nerves. Here no head was so high that the sword couldn’t reach it. Even if you were tall, so long as you kept your head down, the sword would take no notice of you. But hold that head of yours too high and...

  10. CHAPTER 8 When Prison Becomes Home
    (pp. 74-84)

    I never imagined being unlucky enough to have my fate hang on the crankiness of that complicated little device. I should have mastered it and learned all its ins and outs before trying to use it as way to make it to the top. The Third World (may you be spared its fate!) imagines that importing industrial products is the civilized—or civilizing—thing to do. But we fail to grasp that even if you learn how something works, and even when you own the raw materials needed to manufacture the thing in the first place, all you are is...

  11. CHAPTER 9 The Imprisoned Cannibals Found a Powerful State
    (pp. 85-95)

    As a genuine Son of Shalaby, I’ve earned the equivalent of several degrees from the school of life in figuring out who is going to come out ahead in any given situation. I admit I’m an opportunist. But God knows that the only thing I’m after is peace of mind, unlike some of those other Sons of Shalaby who keep a lookout for new leaders in the hopes of turning a profit. Those are the ones you see “building bridges of friendship” with people they don’t like and never will. In such cases, though, both the parties are very skillfully...

  12. CHAPTER 10 Oppression Does Wonders for Oppression
    (pp. 96-105)

    We spent many a night joking about what happened to the Polo Master and repeating what the Sultan had said to him—“Why don’tyoujust move away fromthem?”—in tones of voice ranging from the gloating and pitying to the smirking and nasty. Whenever a boy from the storehouse came across an aristocrat who looked like an emir walking in the street, he would make faces, stick his tongue out, and say, “Why don’tyoujust move away fromthem?” The fellow who looked like an emir—or like the Polo Master himself—would rouse himself and shout,...

  13. CHAPTER 11 A Sultan Undone by the Sultanate
    (pp. 106-115)

    The storehouse convened the largest meeting it had ever held. It went on all day and all night, receiving a stream of storehousers returning from missions inside the city or further afield. Some had cut short business trips; others had heard the news in a village somewhere and ridden back posthaste, as if the storehouse had become our homeland and needed us to rally round her in her hour of need. Each newcomer, discovering to his surprise that the matter hardly demanded the serious face he had put on for the occasion, soon relaxed, and began laughing, joking, and staying...

  14. CHAPTER 12 No Way around Impalement, Even for the Innocent
    (pp. 116-125)

    When Emir Khazaal told me that he had a way of knowing what was happening the very instant that it happened, I was embarrassed. Coming as I did from the age of telephones, radios, and satellites, I had always thought that ours was the most advanced of all periods when it came to espionage, eavesdropping, communications, and the like, but here was Khazaal outdoing us without using technology. Even though I had witnessed an historical event, there were many things I had failed to see and write down. As a result, I failed to grasp the significance of many other...

  15. CHAPTER 13 The Dregs of Madness
    (pp. 126-136)

    Like an expert rider, I gave the horse a kick, and it flew across the square as if it owned the place. I admit I had never ridden a horse before, or even stroked one: the closest I had come was admiring how they went through their paces to the sound of a reed pipe. But now that I was mounted like a knight I became a knight—or maybe it was just that the horse did such a good job of keeping me balanced that I was free to think about escaping from Qawsun, who was reportedly hot on...

  16. CHAPTER 14 Tougher than Camels
    (pp. 137-146)

    I followed Emir Khazaal through the streets of Cairo, gold spilling out of our pockets. The people of the lower orders cared so little for it that they would call out whenever they saw us drop any of it. If one of us bent down to pick up a bracelet, a ring, or a necklace, ten more pieces would spill out; but the children and the commoners would help us gather them up, some even bringing us items that had rolled out of sight. But then we spotted soldiers and militiamen hauling away people caught selling gold. Glaring ferociously, Khazaal...

  17. CHAPTER 15 A Pedigree More Servile than the Sultan’s
    (pp. 147-156)

    Perhaps because I was too dazed to do anything else, perhaps because the place itself had made such an impression on me, I continued my walk through the Saliba quarter. There, where the four streets meet, was a flurry of motion and activity like nothing I had seen in my life. For a relatively small place, the intersection feels frighteningly big: how, you wonder, does it accommodate such a rush of activity? Soon enough, though, you realize that the motion never stops for a moment, and you let yourself enjoy the ebb and flow as the four great streams meet...

  18. CHAPTER 16 The Joys of the Rabble and the Mercy of the Emirs
    (pp. 157-167)

    I was as charmed by Sultan Ahmad’s high spirits as he was with my bizarre antics. The spark of lunacy that animated me had joined with the one that animated him, and a flame had leapt up to search for fuel. The Sultan never tired of fun and games, and I never tired of ranting and raving and clowning around. The more clowning I did, the more everyone called me a genius, and the more they came to regard me with profound admiration.

    One day the Sultan, with one of the young men from Karak sitting next to him and...

  19. CHAPTER 17 A River to Water Shriveled Hearts
    (pp. 168-177)

    I was more disgusted than I had ever been in my life. The image of the rabid dogs tearing at the corpse of Abdel Mu’min, governor of Qus, had stuck in my mind’s eye and refused to budge. What surprised me the most were the dogs. I had always thought that ours were kind and long-suffering. They take a liking to newcomers: they’ll protect a visitor and watch over him at night even when the only thanks they get is a blow of the shoe to the snout. But now it turned out that underneath it all they were seething...

  20. CHAPTER 18 Swim in the Sea of Love … and Drink from the Wells of Greed
    (pp. 178-187)

    I had thought that the munitions store that we were standing in front of was filled with ammunition, but when the caretaker came and unlocked it I could see that it was full of gold and silver.

    “What a fine set of munitions!” I said.

    “Is that everything my father collected during his reign?” asked the merry Sultan, in a transport of delight.

    Said the caretaker, consoling him with tongue in cheek, “Your father, God rest his soul, was a generous man who couldn’t resist good works. That’s why he left only the little you see here: six hundred thousand...

  21. CHAPTER 19 Crying When It’s Time to Laugh: A Genuine Egyptian Talent
    (pp. 188-198)

    There’s no doubt about it: Egyptians weep easily. When saying goodbye, especially, they’ll cry you a river, even when the person leaving is a debauched louse like the merry Sultan Ahmad ibn Qalawun. What I had really wanted to say to him by way of a farewell was, “Good riddance, and may God never bring you this way again, or debase the Land of Egypt with anyone like you!” Instead of saying that, though, I embraced him; and even worse, I cried. Was I really sad to see him go? Or was it the instinct for flattery, so deeply ingrained...

  22. CHAPTER 20 Night at the Citadel … and the Citadel by Night
    (pp. 199-209)

    Time sticks to the edges of human memory like honey, or germs, or glue, or an infection. There are times when memory cannot easily be disentangled from the stickiness, and times when it searches for the stickiness but cannot find it. Here I am walking beside Emir Khazaal, commander of the prison at the Storehouse of Banners, and the de facto head of state. As we make our way through the sidestreets and alleys, he sees the storehouse and I see the Mosque of Husayn. He’s reclaiming his territory and I’m reclaiming mine. If the storehouse is Khazaal’s province, taking...

  23. CHAPTER 21 A Low-Fidelity Abul Fida
    (pp. 210-219)

    Nothing in the medical books could explain to the Sultan’s mother why he had a nosebleed. Of course, the doctors continued to visit Sultan Salih, or Abul Fida, and spent good long hours with him without divulging anything about his condition to his subjects. But his mother had her own opinions and she was unlikely to give them up without a struggle. In her view, there was no point in examining him to find out what was wrong with him. Instead, the answer lay in books of spells and hexes. Sorcerers and magicians, it turned out, came in different kinds:...

  24. CHAPTER 22 Black Slave Women and Blue Eyes
    (pp. 220-229)

    After the messenger had left, the Sultan Salih leaned over to me and said, “Don’t believe what you hear. They deliver these reports to me because they think they’ll make me feel better.”

    I asked him if he thought his brother Ahmad was invincible. He answered that Ahmad was not so much powerful as wealthy, having plundered the treasury and carried the spoils off to Karak. He added that the task now was to wear him down until his reserves were depleted and he was forced to surrender. In that case, he might receive a sultanic amnesty.

    “What’s a sultanic...

  25. CHAPTER 23 War Declared against the Storehouse of Banners
    (pp. 230-239)

    I noticed that the Polo Master, Emir, Pilgrim, and Viceroy of Egypt, was giving me looks that verged on the hostile. If not for his residual respect for the Sultan, he would doubtless have been more forthright in expressing his contempt for my meager person. Once he had kissed the Sultan’s hand and sat down, he reined the hostility in a little, even though he was clearly still asking himself where he had seen me before. I was just as clearly hoping that he wouldn’t remember that it was at the Storehouse of Banners. I could tell that he was...

  26. CHAPTER 24 A Morning Draped in the Robe of God
    (pp. 240-248)

    It was a day to be remembered. People were fighting one another with a savagery that was impossible to explain. If you had been standing with me and looking down from the roof, you would not have been able to tell which side was which. Except for the soldiers in their uniforms, everyone was dressed in more or less the same way. The storehousers had adopted Egyptian clothes, while many Egyptians—first the wealthy, then the semi-wealthy, and then the hoping-to-be-wealthy—had taken to imitating the clothes that the storehousers had brought with them when they entered the country. The...

  27. Translator’s Afterword
    (pp. 249-254)

    One of the earliest works of modern fiction to appear in Egypt is a time-travel story. In 1898, Muhammad Muwaylihi published the first episode of a comic tale calledA Period of Time(translated by Roger Allen, 1992). The hero is a military officer of the 1860s brought back to life some twenty years later. At first unaware of what has happened to him, he wanders through what was then modern Cairo, running afoul of donkey drivers, policemen, judges, and his own heirs. His predicament generates a good deal of displacement humor, as when, for example, he first sees a...

  28. Glossary
    (pp. 255-260)
  29. Date Concordances
    (pp. 261-262)