If you want to understand Egypt, you have to read this novel.
Tawfiq al-Hakim wrote Return of the Spirit in 1927 when he was studying in Paris, and the moment it was published in Cairo in 1933 it took its place as a classic of Arabic literature. The author was more than just a talented novelist or playwright; he was one of the pioneers (such as Taha Hussein and Muhammad Husayn Haykal) who studied in Europe and then returned to Egypt and took it upon themselves to develop Arabic literature into something that could hold its own on the world literary stage. Tawfiq al-Hakim was born in Alexandria in 1898 and lived until he was eighty-nine, during which time he never stopped producing literary works and engaging in literary disputes over his oeuvre, defending the values of freedom and democracy to the very end. In his youth he suffered from the clash between his headstrong artistic tendencies and the stable professional life his aristocratic family wanted him to live.
His father was a judge and one of the great Egyptian landowners. His mother was a Turkish lady, proud of her origins, who considered herself a cut above Egyptians and who never allowed the little Tawfiq to play with the local peasant boys. When he was old enough, he was sent by his father to Cairo, where he lived with his uncles and went to the Mohammed Ali Secondary School. This distance from the pressures of his immediate family gave him a golden opportunity to submerge himself in the artistic life of Cairo, and when the revolution of 1919 broke out, al-Hakim, along with his uncles, took part in it with the result that they were all arrested and thrown into prison for a few months. He was accepted at the College of Law, but his obsession with the arts did not diminish and he would skip lectures to attend musical and theatrical performances wherever they were taking place. A profession in the arts was considered beyond the pale at the time by refined members of society, and this led him to write his first works under a pseudonym. After al-Hakim received his degree from Cairo University, his father sent him to Paris to study for a doctorate in law at the Sorbonne. However, the spirit of the arts took hold of him in Paris and he neglected his law studies, throwing himself into the cultural life of the city and devoting his time to theater-going and studying the latest literary trends. It was three years until his father discovered that he had abandoned his studies and brought him back to Cairo, where he joined the judiciary. His work as an attorney to the public prosecutor provided him with rich human experience, which he drew upon for his brilliant book Diary of a Country Prosecutor. This was followed by a stream of novels and plays that made him, justifiably, such a great name in Arabic literature that the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, upon being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988, stated: "If Tawfiq al Hakim were alive, he would have won it!"
Al-Hakim's works for the stage played a role in establishing the "New Arabic Theater," and he created the "theater of the intellect," a term applied to theater as a literary form that incorporates the protagonists, plot, and dialogue into its dramatic elements. However, his stage works are not particularly performance-friendly, as they speak more to the educated literary reader than to the ordinary theater-goer. In this regard, al-Hakim himself stated: "Today I am attempting to establish the theater of the mind. I turn the actors into free-flying ideas clad in symbolism. That is why a gulf has opened up between me and the theatrical stage. I have not been able to find a conduit to make these works reach the people other than through the printing press."
At the same time, the works of al-Hakim generally incorporate many theatrical devices. He, like the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky before him, proved that it is the artistic content that defines the shape of a work and not vice versa, and that the creative energy borne by the literary text is more important than any academic strictures, because life precedes theory, and art is a living work whose creation comes before any hypothetical categorization of its supposed genre.
Although Return of the Spirit brought al-Hakim literary glory, it caused him no end of trouble. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the second president of Egypt, was greatly impressed by the novel when he was young and considered it an inspiration for the revolution of July 23, 1952. We have much evidence pointing to the fact that Nasser was not a regular reader and that he preferred watching films (particularly American) to reading novels, and when he took power in Egypt, he ordered a projector and screen for his residence and used to watch at least one film a day. Moreover, in 1966 Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer (the deputy supreme commander) took a strong dislike to Naguib Mahfouz's novel Chitchat on the Nile due to its criticism of the Nasserite regime. Abdel Nasser had not read the book himself, but he asked his minister of culture, Tharwat Okasha, to read it and then accepted his opinion and authorized its publication.
Why did Nasser particularly like Return of the Spirit? I believe it was because of an opinion uttered by one of the protagonists (a French archaeologist), who stated that the Egyptian people were a storehouse of enormous cultural energy built up over long centuries and that they were just waiting for a leader to adore. At that point they would as one fall under the leadership of a strong man who would bring about their cultural renaissance. This idealized relationship between the people and their leader was the benchmark for Nasser during his years in power, and in practice he silenced all opposing voices and relied upon massive popular support to cement his rule over Egypt.
After reading Return of the Spirit, Nasser developed a great fondness for Tawfiq al-Hakim, awarding him the country's greatest honor and dedicating to him his own book, The Philosophy of the Revolution. For his part, Tawfiq al-Hakim liked Nasser on a personal level, but he never let himself become too close to him; he was perhaps the only Egyptian writer who offered his excuses when Nasser invited him to dinner. As al-Hakim wrote: "Any ruler wants loyal, not honest, opinions from his intellectuals. He wants to hear words of support, not opposition, but it is truth and freedom that constitute the essential message of an intellectual who might make mistakes, mislead or lose consciousness, but who will never consciously betray his message. I always worry that too close friendship or affection for someone, or even hatred or resentment, can stop one being able to see things as they really are." The nature of Tawfiq al-Hakim's relationship with Nasser was paradoxical. He had an incontrovertible fondness for him and would never have questioned Nasser's devotion, but at the same time al Hakim resented his heavy-handed methods of rule and his ruthlessness toward any opposition. He expressed criticism of the Nasserite regime in two plays: The Confused Sultan, in which the sultan cannot decide whether to wield the sword or the law, but ends up choosing the law; and Anxiety Bank, in which al-Hakim expresses the nervousness afflicting large segments of society as a consequence of oppressive military rule. When Nasser died in 1970, al-Hakim was greatly saddened and mourned him, but the writer's conscience soon came back to the fore and he published The Return of Consciousness in 1972. In this work he directs stinging and objective criticism at the dictatorship of Abdel Nasser, stating that the great leader had plundered the people's consciousness and that they had lost the ability to make decisions for themselves.
"[Abdel Nasser] somehow managed to cast a spell over all of us without our knowing it. Perhaps it was his so-called special magic, or perhaps it was the dream he had us living in with all those hopes and promises . . . not to mention that romantic image of the achievements of the Revolution which he had brought about for us—an image reinforced by a constant diet of films and songs in the state media. We thought we were living in a great industrialised nation, a leader of the developing world in agricultural development and production and the strongest fighting force in the Middle East. The face of the adored leader used to fill our television screens. He would peer down to us from temporary pavilions and conference centres. He used to tell us these tales for hours on end, going on about how we used to be and what we have now become—and no one could get ever a word in, correct a fact he stated or make a comment! All we could do was accept it as the truth then applaud until our hands were raw."
The book elicited a ferocious attack on al-Hakim by some close supporters of Abdel Nasser. However, the writer, who was by then over seventy, was in the habit not only of salving his conscience regardless of the consequences but also, despite his age, of making statements that aroused the ire of both the political and the religious authorities. In this vein, al-Hakim himself collected signatures from intellectuals to add support to a statement he issued announcing his solidarity with Egyptian university students demonstrating against the president, Anwar el-Sadat, and demanding democracy. This particularly irritated Sadat, who then described al-Hakim as "that old windbag." Shortly before his death, al-Hakim wrote a series of pieces for Al-Ahram, Egypt's largest newspaper, under the title "A Question from and to God," in which he imagined that he was conversing with God. This incensed the sheikhs and clergy, who launched vicious attacks on him, accusing him of insulting God. This had no effect on al-Hakim and he went on writing. He died in 1987. The question remains as to why Return of the Spirit gained such significance.
The Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli stated, "I only know two types of novels—live or dead ones. My job is always to publish the live ones." Return of the Spirit is a live novel in the sense that it depicts the life of a middle-class Egyptian family in 1918, and not only do we follow the protagonists almost obsessively throughout the novel as they shout and scream but we also feel their every breath and whisper. In addition, as with all great novelists, al-Hakim is not judgmental. The novel is not populated by the standard good and evil characters of superficial melodrama; rather, al-Hakim presents his protagonists as people of flesh and blood who all have evil and virtue within them, who all experience moments of weakness that push them into evil or whose better sides see them defending human values.
Al-Hakim's expressive power turned the novel into a historical documentation of Egyptian society a hundred years ago. Since 1882, when Egypt fell under British occupation, Egyptians had never stopped fighting for independence, but resistance to the occupation did not all fall under one banner. Some people held that Egypt was an Ottoman principality and consequently their resistance was that of Muslims and not of Egyptians. They wanted to see the British leave so that Egypt could return to the fold of the Ottoman caliphate. On the other hand were Egyptian nationalists who were fighting not to replace the British with the Ottomans, but for the establishment of an independent democratic state for all its citizens regardless of religion. The 1919 revolution aimed to resolve the conflict in favor of a secular state, and for the first time demonstrators held up banners reading "Egypt for the Egyptians" and "May the Crescent live with the Cross."
After the revolution's victory, Egypt drafted the first constitution in her history in 1923, and notwithstanding the British occupation and attempts by the palace to seize power, from the 1919 revolution on, Egypt lived through a highly liberal period in all aspects of her culture—until the military coup of 1952. Since that time, Egypt has remained trapped between two fascist powers: the military fascism represented by army rule, and the religious fascism represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, who consider Islam not merely a religion but an ideal for a state, and they are fighting for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate.
This political Islam gained much strength with the rise in oil prices in the 1970s, with millions of dollars from governments and various groups in the Persian Gulf states being spent to spread the Wahhabi version of Islam all around the world. In addition, millions of Egyptians went off to work in the gulf and then returned imbued with the Wahhabi outlook, which was so alien to the culture of Egypt. The extreme and aggressive Wahhabi form of Islam is the ideological root of terrorism; the Egyptian society described in the novel would perhaps be astonished by the new generations of Egyptians, as they now live in a completely different society.
In medicine, we can understand a disease only after we compare healthy body tissue with tissue that has been infected by the disease, and this novel offers an eloquent description of Egyptian society when it was healthy, before it became afflicted with the distortions brought about by military dictatorship and religious extremism. In the novel we read how Egyptian society was liberal and culturally diverse in the then-prevailing spirit of tolerance and coexistence. Al-Hakim does not focus on the religion of his protagonists, and we see that religion in society at that time was a completely personal issue and never in the foreground. When it is time for prayer, the only individual in the family who goes off to pray is Mabruk the servant. We see how just how cosmopolitan Cairo was a hundred years ago, with places of entertainment everywhere and foreign dancers performing and mingling with the clients. That was how Egypt respected diversity, privacy, and the right of individual choice. There were bars and nightclubs along with mosques, churches, and synagogues, and each and every Egyptian could decide where to go, with society accepting whatever choice he might make. Over the centuries, this sophisticated notion of personal behavior has set Egypt apart from some other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where strict moral behavior is imposed on the population by the vice police. In the novel we read about a young middle-class man and woman who pass their talents on to each other, with him teaching her to sing and her teaching him to play the piano. Sixty years later we find the Wahhabis promoting the idea that singing, music, and acting are activities forbidden by Islam, and this attitude has struck a chord with many Egyptians. The religious tolerance we see in the novel no longer exists in Egypt. In 1918 there was no confessional violence of any sort, and Egyptians lived together in harmony and respect whether they were Muslim, Coptic, Jewish, or even atheist. In the novel a dancer from a Jewish Egyptian family has to deal with a strange incident at her son's wedding reception, but the writing is such that we do not feel any derision or lack of respect for the Jewish religion.
Dear reader, you now have in your hands one of the greatest works of twentieth-century Arabic literature, and I hope you enjoy reading it.
ALAA AL ASWANY
Summary and List of Characters
A NOVEL IN TWO VOLUMES OF EIGHTEEN AND TWENTY FIVE CHAPTERS, RESPECTIVELY
A sensitive Egyptian lad matures through the early years of the twentieth century as romantic heartbreak and patriotic revolt against British colonial rule help him find his calling as an author who celebrates his solidarity with his extended family and with all levels of Egyptian society.
Muhsin, an upper middle-class, provincial Egyptian boy who decides to become a writer
Muhsin's three uncles:
Salim, a vain and earthy police captain
Hanafi, the sleepy head of the blended family, a math teacher
Abduh, an irascible engineering student
Zanuba, Muhsin's homely and illiterate spinster aunt, who serves as housekeeper for her male relatives in Cairo but still hopes to marry
Saniya, the beautiful girl next door with whom all the young men fall in love
Hamid Bey, Muhsin's henpecked father
Muhsin's mother, who is proud of her Ottoman/Turkish ancestry and dismissive of Egyptian farmers
Mabruk, the household servant and a family friend from their village
Mr. Black, a British irrigation inspector
M. Fouquet, a French archaeologist
Mustafa, the young man who steals Saniya's heart from Muhsin and his roommates
Abbas, Muhsin's school pal
Maestra Labiba Shakhla, a female entertainer who teaches Muhsin to sing and allows him to perform at least once with her troupe
Cairo in 19181919, especially the area of Al-Sayyida Zaynab, which is named for a beloved granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad, with some scenes in rural Egypt in and around Damanhur
When time passes over into eternity
We shall see you again.
Because you are going there
Where all will be one.
—Egyptian funeral lament, cited in Dimitri Mérejkovsky,
Les Mystères de l'Orient
They all caught flu at the same time. The moment the doctor laid eyes on them, he was stunned, because they were all crowded into one room, where five beds with flimsy mattresses were lined up next to each other. The single armoire, reminiscent of cabinets used by public scribes, had lost one of its two doors and held clothes of every color and size, including some police uniforms with brass buttons. An old musical instrument with bellows—an accordion—was hanging from the wall.
"Is this a barracks for a military base?"
The doctor was certain he had entered a house. He still remembered the street and the address. When he finally reached the fifth bed, he couldn't keep from smiling. This wasn't a bed; it was a wooden dining table that had been converted into a bunk for one of them.
The doctor stood for a moment gazing at his patients lying in a row. At last he took a step forward and said, "No, this isn't a house; it's a hospital!"
He examined them, one after the other. When he had finished and was ready to depart, he looked back in amazement at them—crammed together into that room. Why did they put up with this crowding when there was room elsewhere in the apartment—the sitting room at least? When he asked, a voice replied from the depths of a bed, "We're happy like this!"
This declaration was uttered simply and sincerely, like a profound truth. A person pondering it would sense an inner joy at their communal life. It might even have been possible to read on their sallow faces the glow of a secret happiness at falling sick together—succumbing to one regimen, taking the same medicine, eating the same food, and suffering the same fortune and destiny.
The doctor's visit concluded, and he prepared to depart. He reached the threshold but stood there thoughtfully. He turned to the invalids in their beds and said, "You must be from the country!"
The doctor left without awaiting a reply. His imagination had sketched a picture of subsistence farmers, and he told himself: Only a peasant could live like this, not anyone else. No matter how spacious his house, the fellah will sleep with his wife, children, calf, and donkey colt in a single room!
The lunch hour having ended, the family members went off on their separate ways, even Mabruk, the servant. He finished helping Miss Zanuba clear the table and wash the dishes and then he too departed to sit with the fruit seller next to the Bab al-Mayda quarter. Miss Zanuba remained at home, alone, far from any thing that might disturb the serenity of her solitude. She went to her small room and sat down gravely on her cabbage-colored pallet. She looked for a long time at the cards she had lined up in front of her on the faded red kilim carpet.
Time passed. The call to the afternoon prayer rang out. Zanuba was still sunk in her dreams. All she saw was the blond boy beside the dark maiden; both were overcome by happiness. One of them would travel and . . . and . . . and everything else from the world of mystery and symbols.
The door to the room opened suddenly, and Muhsin appeared with his books, ruler, and compass under his arm. He shouted at her in his merry, boyish voice, "Haven't the folks come home yet?"
She did not move, nor did she answer right away. She continued sunk in her reverie. At last, without looking at him, she said, "You're back from school?"
"We got out a long time ago, but I was at the tailor's!" He adjusted his clothes with great care and sat down beside Zanuba on the edge of the mattress. He was silent for a bit; then he fidgeted and looked at her. He hesitated as if he wanted to say something but felt embarrassed.
Zanuba seemed to remember something suddenly. Without raising her head from the cards she said, "I imagine you're hungry, Muhsin. Go get a cucumber to munch on. That should hold you over. It'll be a long time till supper."
She looked up to show him a basket she was hiding from Mabruk behind the door. The moment she peered at Muhsin, though, she shouted in astonishment, "My God! God's will be done! You're wearing a new suit?"
The boy bowed his head and did not reply. Zanuba continued in her amazement: "Fantastic, Sister! A person seeing you would say you're a different person. So your family sent you money? Isn't that fantastic!"
Muhsin asked her with some embarrassment and hesitation, "Fantastic? Why?"
Zanuba did not stop gazing at his new clothing with an astonished and admiring eye. "Because it's not like you. You've never been willing to wear a new suit except for the Feast of the Sacrifice, like your uncles. It's amazing! Today, like this, you've turned into a handsome swell! By the Prophet, anyone seeing you would say you're the sultan's son. May the Prophet's name protect you! You're a sight for sore eyes! It might as well be Thursday! Thursday!"
Muhsin blushed a little at this lavish tribute. The praise, though, instead of filling his heart with satisfaction and joy, created a strange pang in his heart. He immediately changed the topic: "What's for supper tonight?"
Zanuba replied lackadaisically after returning to her cards, "Same as lunch."
Muhsin raised his voice a little: "Goose leg, again?"
She brought her head up abruptly and, giving him a reproachful look, asked, "What's wrong with goose leg? Even you, Muhsin, who I say is smart? Okay, by the Pure Lady, tomorrow they'll see what this ingratitude brings. Is our Lord going to bless someone who sticks up his nose at a bite to eat? Don't be like those uncles of yours—they're unbearable. God preserve us. Don't be like them."
The boy replied gently, "But Auntie, this goose leg we've seen in front of us for three days—at every meal. Uncle Abduh swore on the Holy Qur'an today at noon . . ."
He did not finish, because Zanuba waved her arm furiously and shouted, "Abduh! Who is His Lordship Mr. Abduh? Is he the respected head of the household or is that the eldest? Shame on Mr. Abduh! Shame! Since when, fellow, has this house had a head other than the eldest, who is rightfully and justly the senior: your uncle Hanafi, may God protect him. He works, pays the bills, and cares for us. He never complains or breathes a word. May God never deprive us of him! Then there's that boy Abduh. All he does on the face of the earth is to shoot his mouth, yell, and attack."
"He'll be making good money tomorrow, aunt. At the end of this year he's going to get his diploma and become an engineer."
Zanuba did not reply. Her expression was still sullen. She had gone back to the cards—arranging, sorting, and lining them up. After a moment, though, she raised her head suddenly and asked, "Does he think I'm going to be frightened by his pointy fez? That pipsqueak kid . . . God's name; just because he's nervous and impatient . . . No, by the Mighty Lady, I'm not afraid of anyone."
Muhsin smiled sarcastically and asked, "Could you say that to his face?"
She turned toward him fiercely and asked, "What are you saying?"
Muhsin did not want to quarrel with her, especially not today, and seemed to regret what he had said. So he laughed, or pretended to laugh, to make her think he was kidding and did not expect to be taken seriously. Then he said earnestly, "Do you want the truth, auntie? Uncle Abduh has a good heart and is a fine person like all the others."
Zanuba did not reply. She was silent for a moment and then leaned over the cards again, busy and preoccupied with them. Before long she was immersed in her previous musings and thoughts. Muhsin began to watch her, following the movement of her hands as she picked up and set down the cards. He observed the expression of her face as if eager to discover her secret. His eyes shone with an innocent, childish skepticism.
Finally he approached her familiarly and sat beside her. He asked with a mischievous smile, "For whom are you reading the cards? For a bridegroom?"
As soon as she heard these words her eyelids, which were heavily daubed with kohl, began to tremble. She raised her hand nervously to rearrange her scarf—which did not need it—over her henna-tinted hair. Then, her eyes downcast, she replied with embarrassment, "No, by the Prophet. That's not what I was thinking about."
Muhsin kept up his veiled sarcasm. "Then about what? Am I a stranger you should hide things from? You know, auntie, by God Almighty, no one has chased away bridegrooms except Uncle Hanafi. The mistake is entirely Hanafi's—he's the one who's run off the suitors."
"No, by the Prophet, that's not what I'm thinking about."
She kept her eyes modestly downcast as though she were a girl of twenty. Muhsin was silent for a moment while he stealthily began to study the lined and misshapen face of this old maid. He seemed to be wondering whether this modesty of hers was an affectation or genuine. Then, as his boyish sarcasm was quickly overtaken by a kind of melancholy, he bowed his head.
Zanuba grew up in the country, where she was neglected and left uneducated. She served her father's wife and raised chickens for her. When her brothers Hanafi and Abduh came to Cairo to study, she came with them, together with Mabruk ibn al-Khawli—her classmate from the village Qur'an school, who had not prospered there. She was to look after them and to manage the household. Her long stay in the capital had had no real effect on her; she remained just as she had been. The life of the commercial center and metropolis had intruded on her only superficially, its influence limited to her clothing and speech. In these she mimicked the standards of her Cairo girlfriends and modern neighbors without understanding what she was imitating. Muhsin said he once heard her greet some female visitors before noon with "Bonsoir, ladies." Zanuba, like many other homely women, was aware of everything except her homeliness. She was quite amazed when she saw one of her acquaintances and neighbors become engaged and marry. Although she was lovely, thrifty, the lady of her house, perfect in every way, she still had no offers. She consoled herself by ascribing that to: "Luck, bad luck! May you never experience it! Nothing but that!" This she repeated to herself and others.
Even so, matchmakers had come to her more than once. One of them stopped her pitch as soon as she saw Zanuba, stood up, and, tucking her wrap around her, hastened to leave. Zanuba was sure the matchmaker was delighted and was going immediately to inform the groom. She scurried along beside her to the door of their apartment, whispering, "So, say nice things about me to him."
The matchmaker's smirk was hidden by her veil. She replied maliciously and sarcastically, "Well, sister, no one deserves praise but you!" and departed, never to return. One day, however, there occurred a historic event in the life of Zanuba. On a day that hardly seems to have been part of her life, a rare, never to be repeated opportunity was offered her, but, alas, Mr. Hanafi, through his stupidity, idiocy, and naivete, forfeited that unique opportunity. One afternoon, as luck would have it, good fortune—apparently grumpy at being slandered and unfairly censured—sent Zanuba a suitor who was an educated gentleman, a perfectly acceptable person, to ask for her hand directly, without recourse to a matchmaker or mother. He was apparently a good-hearted gentleman with upright intentions, or else a pious person who placed blind and unlimited trust in God.
This man came and met with Hanafi Effendi, a math teacher at the Khalil Agha school, since he was head of the household and its ranking member by age and position. He discussed the matter with him, saying that there was no need to delegate someone from his side to see the bride and that he would be satisfied with asking whether she was ugly. So long as she wasn't ugly or misshapen, he wouldn't demand anything more.
He asked the alleged "president" of the household his opinion of her with a polite, reserved look. The honorary head of the household, as they termed him, raised his head to the other man and gazed at him with nearsighted, inflamed, and diseased eyes. He turned toward him his misshapen, dust-colored face, which sun and sores had scorched and turned the color of the mud bricks used to build village houses, and put his hand to his fez, which he pushed back, revealing an ugly, scarred forehead. Then he said to the suitor warmly and vehemently, "No way! Never! Have no fear! Not bad at all! Rest assured! A piece of cake! This woman is as sound as a gold guinea—twenty-four karat! Look, sir. Have you observed me closely? The bride is my spitting image, a chip from the same block, because she's my full sister, born immediately after me."
The gentleman suitor was surprised and temporarily flustered. When he calmed down a little he began to look stealthily at Hanafi's ugly face, trying to hide his distress, disgust, and distaste. Finally, he muttered in a kind of whisper to himself, "Impossible . . . no way!"
Hanafi heard him and quickly tried to reassure him, "Impossible how? It's a sure thing, a fact!"
"Just don't trouble yourself at all, sir, about that aspect. You, sir, have nothing to worry about! She resembles me perfectly, my guarantee. Nothing for you to worry about."
The gentleman had scarcely succeeded in getting out of Hanafi's house; nothing was ever heard of him again.
Muhsin repeated his words in a flattering and cajoling way. "It's true. It was all Uncle Hanafi's fault."
Zanuba lowered her head and did not reply. She had to restrain herself from sighing. Muhsin was silent for a moment. Then he suddenly sat up as though remembering something. A smile, which he attempted to conceal, came to his lips. He tried to look earnest and said at once, "Auntie! Have you heard? Mustafa Bey downstairs is sick."
Zanuba raised her head. This woman who was almost forty blushed slightly, although she pretended to be calm. Trying to make her voice sound normal, she asked, "Sick? Who told you?" Muhsin, noticing the effect of this news while pretending not to, said, "This morning I ran into his servant on the stairs. He was carrying a bottle of Epsom salts."
She fixed her eyes on him as though wanting to interrogate him and pump him for more information but gained control of herself right away. Then she lowered her eyes in embarrassment. She was silent for a long time. Muhsin began to survey her stealthily, with a merry, childish smile on his lips.
This excerpt ends on page 11 of the Penguin Paperback edition.