The Mosque in The Narrow Lane

Naguib Mahfouz

It was time for the afternoon address and, as usual, only one out¬sider was present. Ever since the arrival of Sheikh Abdu Rabbuh as Imam of the Mosque, only Am Hassanein, the vendor of sugar-cane juice, had come to hear him at that time of day. Out of respect for the idea of a sermon and deference to the Imam, the muezzin and the mosque servant made a habit of coming too. One might have expected Sheikh Abdu Rabbuh to be vexed by this, but with time, the Sheikh had resigned himself. Perhaps, too, he had expected a worse plight when he was first appointed to this mosque on the outskirts of the red light district. He had resented the transfer and had tried to have it rescinded, or changed to an appointment elsewhere, but, in the end, very much against his wish, he had been obliged to accept the post, and submit, as a concomitant, to the derision of his rivals, and the banter of his friends.


And who would come to the sermon? The mosque stood at the crossroads of two lanes: one was an alley noted for the debauchery that occurred there, and the other housed procurers, pimps, and narcotics dealers. It seemed that the only pious man in the whole quarter, or even the only normally decent man, was Am Hassanein, the fruit-juice man. For a long time, the Sheikh had shuddered every time he chanced to look up the alleys, as if he feared the contact with lewdness and crime would contaminate his soul if he were to breathe too deeply. In spite of all this he delivered his sermons with a regularity which was paired by Am Hassanein's regularity in attendance. He once said to the juice vendor: “You'll soon become an Imam yourself, and people will be quoting you as an example and an authority.” The old man smiled timidly, “Oh! I have still so much to learn. . “


The homily that evening was on purity of conscience, considered as the basis of sincerity and integrity in a man's dealings with himself and with others, and with the act of contrition as a commendable practice for starting the day. Am Hassanein listened intently as usual. But he rarely asked questions, except for an occasional enquiry about the meaning of a verse in the Koran, or the practice of the ordinances.


From the southern window of the mosque, looking in the direction of prayer, one had a full view of the lane where the brothels were situated. It was a long and narrow lane, crooked in parts, with doors of-dilapidated houses and cafes on both sides. It had a strangely stir¬ring effect on the senses. At this time of day the district seemed to wake up and stretch as if after a long sleep, and to prepare for the evening. People spattered the ground with water from pails, doors were opened furtively in answer to knockings which were in fact pre-arranged signals; chairs were set in order in cafes; women appeared at the windows, smartening themselves up between snatches of conversation; brazen laughter echoed in the air; incense burned in hallways. A woman could be heard crying, with the voice of the madame urging her to pull herself together, in order that they might not lose more money: it was enough that her pimp had lost his life in a brawl. Another woman laughed hysterically because she was unable to forget her friend who had been killed as she sat next to her. A gruff voice was heard to say indignantly:


“Even a European! Who would have expected it! How could a European have ditched Fardos! Fleeced her of a hundred pounds and then disappeared.”


Voices rehearsed an obscene song, which was to be performed later. At the end of the lane a fight was taking place; it began with a simple exchange of words and ended with chairs being thrown. Libliba slipped out and sat in the doorway of the nearest house. A street lamp had already been lit. One could feel the lane coming to life.
One day, Sheikh Abdu Rabbuh was summoned by telephone to lilt: office of the Inspector General in charge of Religious Affairs. He was informed that there was to be a general meeting of all imams. Though this was not very unusual, particularly in the circumstances which preceded the summons, the Sheikh wondered anxiously what lay behind it. The Inspector General was a formidable figure who derived his importance from a close family connexion with a certain high official whose name was anathema to everyone. He appointed and dismissed ministers at will and abused the institutions which were venerated by the common people. In his presence, the imams were helpless and would no doubt incur his anger for the slightest thing. The Sheikh murmured a brief prayer of invocation, and prepared him¬self for the meeting as best he could. He put on a black and almost new kaftan, wound his turban round his head, and set off, trusting in God.


He found the corridor in front of the Inspector's room as crowded as if (to use his own expression) it had been the Day of Resurrection. The imams chatted together and asked each other what it was all about. Finally the large door opened and they were allowed to enter the spacious office, filling it to overflowing. The Inspector received them in a dignified and formal manner and listened to the flood of prepared panegyric with a constrained air, trying to suppress an enigmatic smile. When the recitation of complaints ended there was a moment of heavy silence. The mood of expectancy grew more intense: he shifted his glance from face to face. At last, he replied: he responded tersely to their greetings and expressed his confidence that they would live up to the good opinion he had of them. Then, pointing to the photograph above his head, he said:


“It is because of the duties we owe him and the Royal family that we are holding this meeting.”


Many of those present felt uneasy, but they did not lose their composure. The Inspector General went on:


“The firm bond that unites you to him is something that can hardly be expressed in words. It is a mutual loyalty, rooted firmly in our history. “


The listeners' faces radiated approval, in order to conceal their inner distress, and the official continued:


“ . . and now, in the face of this storm which is sweeping the country, he is calling upon your loyalty. . “
The inward agitation increased.


“…to enlighten the people. You must expose all impostors and agitators in order that the rightful ruler may be firmly established in power. “


He continued relentlessly, elaborating upon this theme, then, scrutinizing the faces before him, asked if there were any questions or comments. There was a silence, until one imam, bolder than the rest, pointed out that the inspector had indeed admirably expressed their own inner feelings. If it had not been for their fear of acting without instructions they would already have hastened, of their own accord, to carry out the duties which they were now being called upon to perform. As soon as the inspector began to speak, Sheikh Abdu Rabbuh realized to his relief that they had not been brought here to give an account of their own actions, or to have their attitudes investigated, but rather that the authorities were appealing to them for help. Perhaps even some genuine move to raise their salaries and pensions might result. But his feeling of uneasiness soon returned, just as a wave that beats upon a clear sandy shore inevitably falls back seawards in a thin line of foam. He realized with perfect clarity what he would undoubtedly be forced to say in the Friday sermon things which went against his conscience and were hated by the people. He felt certain that many of the others shared his feelings and were passing through the same crisis ¬-- but what could they do? He went back to the mosque brooding over this new anxiety.


Shaldam, the pimp, a well-known figure in the district, was at that moment holding forth to a gathering of his assistants in the Welcome Bar which stood only a few steps away from the mosque. He seemed 10 be in a towering rage which augmented with every glass of red wine.


“Nabawiyya - the crazy fool - is in love” he roared, “with that blasted little twerp Hassan. I'm sure of it!”


“Perhaps she just thinks of him as a client, no more than a client…” said one of his cronies, trying to pacify him.


Shaldam struck the table with an iron fist which scattered the lupin seeds and salted peanuts that were being offered as refreshment.


“No!” he said savagely, “he lays her for free. I'm sure of it: as sure as I am that my dagger never misses. ….”

Excerpt from: The Mosque in the Narrow Lane, by Neguib Mahfouz. Arabic Short Stories, 1945-1965. Edited by Mahmoud Manzalaoui. The American University in Cairo Press, 1985. pp118-121.