Dearly Beloved Brethren!

Haseeb al Kayyali

The few people praying in the village mosque that Friday knew what Ibrahim el Shaar had to expect when the imam, Sheikh Sherif el Akrai, began. Ibrahim himself knew better than anyone else what this Friday's sermon would be about. Informers had told the Imam that they had seen Ibrahim come out of the house of Om Moazziz … The imam - a shrivelled old man of seventy or so, seemingly kind, with a radiant face, obvious benevolence, a slightly humped back and a drowsy absent look - did not believe in sermons which tended to generalize. He was imam in the mosque of a village; and had known all of the villagers and the parents of a great many of them as well, ever since they had been born.


He took it as his duty, therefore, to limit his sermons to their own affairs, both spiritual and mundane. Those who wanted deeper theology could either check the wireless programmes or make their way to Damascus where the devil had laid traps for them at every step.


This Friday, the Sheikh was sitting crosslegged in the pulpit, listening to Darweesh el Batous - the one-eyed, fifty-year-old muezzin with a yellow scarf - summon the faithful to prayer with the piercing voice of a rooster.
The pulpit was low, built of rotting, worm-ridden wood and white¬washed on the outer surface with lime. The stairs leading to the preacher's seat were covered with a tattered carpet.


A small window, left of the pulpit, brought light into the aisles. Dangling between the doorway and the outer court was a rough curtain behind which the womenfolk prayed. No one bothered to draw it properly for two reasons: first, the ladies were only hags; secondly, the praying men within the mosque always had their backs toward the doorway and only the imam, when he addressed them, could see it.


When the muezzin had finished his task, the Sheikh stood up. “Praised be God," he started. "Praised be the Almighty Who has guided us to the true faith, and without whose guidance we would--"


For a while, he was silent. Then he resumed: "Every week I have to repeat this formula. Isn't it time that you learnt it yourselves? Blindness take you! I shall not recite it to the end, so there. I'll move on to my subject directly. Praised be Allah and praised be Allah again. Praised be Allah Who has guided us to the true faith and without Whose guidance we would have gone astray. Praised be Allah Who has sanctioned procreation, forbidden manslaughter, provided you with wives of your own flesh that you might cling to them, and Who has diffused amity and compassion among you. Now, brethren, I am an old man. For fifty years I have been preaching to you in this mosque and instructing you in virtuous behaviour, but you do not respond at all, as though I were beating water or kneading the air.


Dearly beloved brethren, your personal conduct displeases me. That's the pith of the matter. Let us take for example your brother, Ibrahim el Shaar. Where is Ibrahim el Shaar, brethren? He hasn't come to prayers today. Why not ? You ask him. He's afraid of me, brethren. Afraid that I should tell history in public and draw a moral out of it. The reason, you know better than I do. EI Shaar is now definitely exposed and beyond redemption --- God protect us ! They saw you yesterday, Ibrahim, coming out of Om Moazzez's house. Now, I have told you a thousand times that going to that woman's house is a mortal sin. If this world were an honest world, Ibrahim would be laid out this moment before me to receive a scourging at my hands -- eighty strokes at the very least. But, alas, it's the current fashion for the young men of today not to marry.


Excerpt from: Dearly Beloved Brethren, by Haseeb el Kayyali. Arabic Short Stories, 1945-1965. Edited by Mahmoud Manzalaoui. The American University in Cairo Press, 1985. pp 212-214.