From the start of that sweltering month of August, the adults-only swimming pool at the Ma’adi club had transformed into the theater for a new, niggling, and cruel confrontation. With their own pool undergoing renovations, the boys on the club’s youth swim team now went there to practice every early afternoon.
As soon as the adults, mostly of retirement age, heard the swell of youthful voices, the shouting and laughter, and even before their hitherto peaceful and hushed world was overrun, they started to exit the pool in succession, like soldiers of an army defeated even before it has waged battle.
All that then remained of the water was a still, flat, and silent surface, as if in wait. The young invaders, after putting on their swimsuits in the changing room, would take a running start and dive in like swordfish, ripping this shimmering blue dress down the middle and adorning it with white foam.
Then the pool, in motion again, alive, churned and furrowed in every direction by flesh, some as white and delicate as halibut, would start to resemble a miniature sea. Better: the original, primordial sea, when early, trembling life first began to twitch and take form, so fragile then but already fated for a splendor and lushness such that over time, geological eras, it would spread across the entire globe.
To the adults who returned to dry land, relinquishing the aquatic element to the young bodies who slipped into the water, moving with magnificent ease, this mismatched confrontation didn’t appear to be merely the clash of two ages in life, but almost of two stages of evolution.
Captain Ni’mat, the audacious (or reckless) amphibian, hadn’t regained shore, and found himself trapped in this sea from the dawn of time. Unable to swim amid the supple and wriggling bodies penning him in on all sides, he turned onto his back and quite simply tried to keep his own afloat, his stocky limbs obliged to make imperceptible, pseudopodic movements. The harsh glare of the August light, which to him seemed to emanate from the very bodies among which he was trapped, was blinding. He closed his eyes and let himself drift like floating algae.
Suddenly, he heard the nickname everyone called him by—“Captain Ni’mat!”—though he had been dismissed from the army years ago. His longtime friends, former companions in arms, were summoning him, and he could already hear the unvarying joke that would greet him once he emerged from the water: “You done slobbering over that school of wriggling sardines, you old seal?”
He had no desire to join his friends at their reserved table, beneath the pergola where bougainvillea was blooming in pink and white clusters.
When he attempted to flip onto his stomach, his hand brushed against a young swimmer’s thigh. The crural skin was so shockingly soft that he felt like he’d received an electric jolt. In the same instant, the alternating, powerful kicking of two feet nearly in his face sent up violent jets of water and foam. The young swimmer was already far off, splitting the water like an arrow. His vocabulary, like that of his friends, undoubtedly didn’t include the civilized “Pardon” that Captain Ni’mat and the men of his generation instinctively uttered when their bodies bumped, or merely grazed, that of another swimmer.
The captain finally made up his mind to leave the water. He swam, with difficulty, toward one of two metal ladders, the one closest to the pergola, internally cursing the club management that had the misguided idea of allowing their pool to be invaded by young barbarians. Before this intrusion, he had felt perfectly fine in his blubbery skin, dividing his afternoons, like his comrades, between quick dips in the water and an endless stream of joke-filled chatter, first in the warmth of the sauna, then beneath the pergola, in the cool and soothing shade of the bougainvillea.
He emerged from the pool, the ladder’s three or four rungs creaking and moaning beneath his weight, and stretched out on a lounger to dry off. He tried, in vain, to prevent fragments of his friends’ discussion—if one can call the tireless regurgitation of the same comments and jokes a discussion—from seeping into his ears and successfully reaching his brain. Nonetheless, the name of a country, Yemen, breached the barrier, dragging in its wake thundering and wince-inducing bursts of laughter. The liwa, General Midhat, was no doubt telling, for the thousandth time, the story of the Egyptian MiG pilot who released a 450-pound bomb that flattened a mangy donkey, turning it into ground meat, as the Imam’s Yemeni warriors chuckled away, safe in their caves, smoothing their beards and chewing on khat. On occasion the infantry had been able to capture one of these strange herbivorous warriors, a Kalashnikov over one shoulder and waist belted by grenades in the center of which shone precious stones inlaid in the sheath of a khanjar. The bastard’s only response to the rough interrogation to which he would then be subjected was to merely point at his cheek, monstrously swollen by khat chewing, signifying by this gesture that he had a terrible abscess in his mouth that prevented him from speaking.
Suddenly, as if the ectoplasm of one of those warrior–khat chewers had materialized following liwa Midhat’s tired anecdote, Captain Ni’mat felt a sharp bite on his cheek, which seemed to him to swell instantaneously. A wasp, a hymenopteran abundant in the outdoor complex where the pool had been dug, had burrowed into his skin and left its stinger behind.
Captain Ni’mat insulted and cursed the hymenopteran and its progeny to the fourth generation, the fly that arrived immediately after to take its place, and the crow that then landed, announcing the news to those that preceded it with a victorious and sinister caw. Good God, where were the wood pigeons?! The birds that long ago enchanted Cairo’s rich blue sky, moving with such grace, had now practically deserted it. In what secret place could beauty still be found within this noisy, dirty metropolis whose inhabitants, though life was becoming increasingly difficult, still proudly and lovingly called it Umm al Dunya, “the mother of the universe”?
Captain Ni’mat cast an irate glance at his companions when they hailed him yet again. He truly had no desire to join them but knew that by the most powerful of tropisms, quite simply habit, he would eventually respond to their summons. They were past the inglorious episode of the Yemen expedition, which had nonetheless ended with the defeat of the Imam and the establishment of Egypt’s sister republic, thanks to the military coup d’état of 1962. They had blithely skipped over the tragedy of June 1967, though liwa Behjat had tossed out a few well-chosen insults to the memory of the pharaoh, under whom they had served and endured a great loss. The men had now reached the most thrilling moment of their historical saga, the glorious, immortal victory of 1973 to which they referred, depending on the calendar used, as the October victory or the Ramadan victory, rendering it doubly immortal in a way.
Captain Ni’mat himself had always had a more measured and objective view of this glorious event. Taking into account the political evolution that followed, as well as, on the military side, the reverse crossing of the Suez Canal by Israeli troops that launched a rear attack on Egypt’s Third Army, which found itself surrounded and remained so until the signing of the ceasefire, he felt that this immortal victory was in fact merely a modest victory, if not to say a partial one. But he never dared to express this opinion, as he hadn’t participated in this war, having been expelled from the army a few months after the scathing defeat of 1967. The mass reorganization of the air force in the wake of that defeat weeded out not only incompetent officers but also those who had returned from the Yemen campaign, like him, with socialist or even Marxist leanings much more pronounced than those of the sole party in power at the time.
Both embarrassed by his nonparticipation in a war through which his former companions in arms, nearly all retired generals now, had erased the shame of 1967, and in no way wanting to become a pariah in their eyes, Captain Ni’mat had kept his thoughts to himself during all these years gone by.
After scratching his cheek for a while, he finally extracted with his thumb and index finger the hornet’s stinger embedded in his skin. Achwak al hayat!—thorns of life—he gloomily thought, and in the same instant felt annoyance with this language, classical Arabic, whose emphatic set expressions came to mind and mouth without even being sought for, as if it had a mind of its own and was thinking on one’s behalf. Thankfully, it (life) also has its roses. For Captain Ni’mat abruptly realized—this came to him like a revelation—that the beauty he had been pondering a few moments earlier, wondering in what secret spot it could now be found, remembering the pigeons whose graceful aerial movements had once dotted and enchanted Cairo’s sky, was there before his eyes. Undeniable, radiant, freely given, a miraculous gift in sight and close at hand.
After an intense practice, the boys had assumed a cross position, floating on their backs like aquatic flowers on water that was now calm, almost reverential. The first glow of dusk had spread across the sky, and the muezzin’s call to the first nightly prayer would soon ring out from the minaret of the nearby mosque, a short walk from the pool.
Stay, stay in the water and float, Captain Ni’mat wanted to shout to this adolescence in bloom. Stay in this raw element that suits you so well. Keep away from our shores of defeat, ugliness, and lies. But Captain Ni’mat knew that his silent and desperate entreaty was pointless.
Like him, like his companions, these youths haloed in beauty, these swordfish with slender bodies, these torpedo fish charged with thunder and electricity, would sooner or later tread on dry ground. Grow heavy. Their elastic feline gait would transform into the penguin’s comic waddle or the seal’s labored drag. The final piercing, wistful notes of the muezzin’s call to the first nightly prayer were fading when Captain Ni’mat finally decided to rise and join his companions preparing to leave the pool. As he walked toward them, he couldn’t stop himself from turning around to contemplate once again, with the same amazement, the young swimmers who had exited the water and were running, laughing, to the changing room.
To his companions’ dirty jokes, he merely responded with one of those agreed-upon phrases that Arabic, still a sacralized language, brings mechanically to one’s lips: “Satan be cursed!”
But in his mind, Captain Ni’mat was asking himself this question, not knowing whether its author was a debauched libertine or a dazzled Sufi: “O Lord, you created beauty for us in the form of a fitna and you ordered us to worship only you. You are beautiful and you love beauty; how then could your creatures remain indifferent and not succumb to it?”
In classical Arabic, the word fitna means both seduction and disorder, civil war—of the kind that can tear apart a person as easily as a city.
Regardless oF the author of that reflection, when the beauty that had revealed itself to Captain Ni’mat in the pool, at dusk, reappeared to him at night, in a dream, it was indisputably the work of Satan. Whom Captain Ni’mat reflexively cursed three times, upon awakening from this dream unable to determine whether it had been a reverie or a nightmare, or a bit of both at the same time.
The afternoon’s young swimmers, easily slicing through the water once practice was over, to then float on its surface like aquatic roses or pond lilies, had appeared to him again in his sleep, but they had undergone a troubling metamorphosis.
Swim trunks clinging to their buttocks, as were the caps on their heads, giving them an ovoid shape, both articles the same bright blue as the horn-rimmed goggles with foggy lenses that masked their eyes, the swimmers resembled celestial creatures fallen from an unknown heaven. But were they merciful creatures or exterminating angels? They all looked alike, seeming clones of the same teenage boy. A teenage boy with a particular androgynous beauty, cold and chilling. Despite their fogged-up goggles, their collective gaze was clearly aimed at Captain Ni’mat, the only bather at the pool, beneath the pergola where he had taken refuge. The sinister caw of a crow slowly whirling above his head intensified the feeling of impotent solitude and oppressive anxiety gripping him. Abruptly, the clones with ovoid heads and impassive faces extended their right arms in one synchronized movement, pointing at him with accusatory index fingers. In the same instant, the sinister crow, after a last spin carried out at dizzying speed and a final, deafening caw, soared into the air and disappeared. But the strangeness persisted, beating its wings silently above the pergola, above the pool. In terror, Captain Ni’mat realized that his feet were refusing to obey him. He was frozen like a statue.