Sometime in the late 1890s, a struggling writer named ‘Isa took a walk in the City of the Dead. He hoped the surroundings would force him to contemplate death, so that he might find some inspiration for his book. Suddenly, not far from him, a tomb cracked open, and out of it appeared Ahmad Pasha al-Manikali, the Minister of War from the reign of Muhammad Ali. The large, imposing pasha, naked underneath his burial shroud, demanded the writer’s overcoat and tarboosh, and the odd pair set out on a madcap journey through Cairo — from its new, landscaped developments to its most labyrinthine government bureaucracies. Dead for fifty years, the pasha cannot help but observe how Cairo has changed — in some ways for the better, in most for the worse — as Muhammad al-Muwaylihi imagined in his epic What ‘Isa ibn Hisham Told Us. Serialized in a Cairo newspaper at the turn of the twentieth century, the mordant classic has been recently published in two volumes by the Library of Arabic Literature, in Roger Allen’s masterful translation, and is excerpted below in brief vignettes. Sentenced to death in the wake of the failed uprisings of 1882, the journalist and activist al-Muwaylihi was forced into exile for several years in Italy, Paris, Istanbul and London, before he was able to return to Cairo. He orbited a rare universe of revolutionaries and poets, Egyptian aristocrats and British imperialists—and their dialogues often made their way into his fictions. In the 1920s, the undead Pasha’s commentary was adapted as a school textbook by Egypt’s Ministry of Education, with some of its more controversial or grumpy passages left out.
The Pasha and 'Isa find themselves in the new, centrally planned Ismailiyah neighborhood. Catching sight of the mansions and villas, the resurrected minister is entranced by the orderly layout of the streets and the many newly planted trees.
Pasha: “All praise be to Almighty God, Glorious and Powerful! This district used to be in ruins; there were no houses or mansions in it. The only plant life was the barren acacia tree; the only flowers the tragacanth and sayal thorn; the only birds owls, crows, falcons and eagles. Of wild beasts there would have been foxes, wolves, hyenas, jackals, and lizards. The only humans would have been plundering brigands, murderers, or lurking cutthroats. What wonders the Egyptians have accomplished!”
The Pasha has barely been undead for an hour when he gets into a scuffle with an impertinent donkeyman. He is arrested for assault and taken the police station.
'Isa: “We duly accompanied the Policeman until we reached the Register of Convictions and Substantiation of Identity. There the Pasha endured enough identity procedures to give anyone heart failure and turn his hair white. They stripped him of his clothes, examined him limb by limb, measured his face and body, stared into his eyes, and did all kinds of things to him.”
The Pasha is shocked when he is sentenced to one and a half years in prison and a five-piaster fine. To try to overturn the conviction, the pair must visit the Court of Appeals and the Committee of Surveillance in the Ministry of Justice. Trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare, the curmudgeonly pasha proclaims:
“Lofty mountains must inevitably crumble when the whitefooted mountain goats are brought down. Graves must be split asunder and the trumpet be blown when all ideas of dignity have vanished and all values have been debased. The words of the Almighty have come true with regard to Egypt: And We have made its highest parts into its lowest parts.”
The Pasha is eventually acquitted on charges of assault, but he has accrued enormous legal fees and realizes he has no cash to pay the bill. Since he was dead, all his wealth had been passed down to his descendants, and had swiftly been squandered away. As a last resort, the Pasha and 'Isa embark on a quest to reclaim the profits from old endowments that may still be in his name.
The pair find themselves at a newly built villa in the middle of a garden.
“It was bedecked with different kinds of flowers which looked like sapphires and other jewels. In the center was the mansion itself which looked like a white pearl or the full moon among the stars in the sky:
As though it were a neck, and its garden around it
a beautifully arranged necklace.
What can we say about a garden so decorously woven by the earth’s hand for the day of its festive decoration: a place garlanded in a cloak through which to relish its own radiant beauty?
It is clothed in a garment made by downpour and dew;
needlework, though not real, and striped cloth, though not such.
In its wafting breezes, girls could dispense with the scent of musk…”
The Pasha is astonished to learn that the owner of the house is utterly bankrupt. They watch as the servants turn away a pharmacist, a wine seller, a butcher, a tailor, a shoemaker, a jeweler, one after another, all coming to collect their debts at the front door.
“We observed the scene in amazement. Contrasting the beauty of the place with the misfortunes of its inhabitants, we felt we were being roasted and turned on the embers of our own worries.”
The Pasha and 'Isa end up in front of a brand-new hotel.
“The Pasha turned toward that great hotel, a veritable al-Khawarnak and al-Sadir, and noticed the electric lights gleaming brightly like rising suns, so much so that darkest night shone in white raiment and its surface seemed like ebony embossed with silver. The street lamps resembled tree branches glowing with light… Each pillar seemed like a ray of dawn piercing the cavity of darkness—and what a piercing it was! In the pitch darkness the lights were like stars scattered throughout the dome of the firmament. Beneath these lights the Pasha could see rows of men mingling freely with women.”
“Has some house opened its rooms so that anyone can see what’s inside?” the Pasha asks in amazement. “Or is it perhaps a festival night for a group of demons who are socializing with human beings like tame animals? They’ve forsaken the earth’s interior for its surface, its belly for its lap.”
“Yes,” Isa replies, “these people are devils in human form. They traverse land and sea, cut through hard and rugged earth, and fly in the heavens. They can walk on water, penetrate through mountains, and pulverize mountain peaks, turning hills into lowlands, leveling mounds, making deserts into seas, and changing seas into steam. They make people in the East listen to sounds made by people in the West, and vice versa. They can bring down the remotest stars for you to see, magnify the tiniest spider into a mountain, freeze the air, melt stones, start gales….“
"You’re describing Solomon’s jinn living in this era!” the Pasha remarks.
“They’re European officials,” Isa replies.
The Pasha and ‘Isa pass through Opera Square, and the undead minister is horrified to see the statue of Ibrahim Pasha in a place of such ill-repute.
“He stared at it for a moment and then stood to attention out of respect. ‘Hail to Ibrahim!’ he said, quivering and shaking all over. He gave a bitter, sorrowful sigh and almost burst into tears. ‘Why so sad?’ I asked him. ‘Are you nostalgic for times past with all their happy and bitter moments…?’
‘How can I not shed tears of sorrow?’ the Pasha responded, ‘and express my profound grief when I see before me this hero of Egypt… who waded through the floods of tumultuous war and swept them clean:
In every pore of his body where a hair grew,
there was a lion stretching out its claws towards the prey.”
To attempt to locate the deeds to his endowments, the Pasha and 'Isa pay a visit to the Record Office of the Sharia Courts.
“The darkness was so intense that it reminded the Pasha of the grave which he had only just left, and so he turned back and decided to wait for us in the daylight outside…. I could not see where I was going and stopped where I was. The Assistant grabbed me by the hand. I had no idea where I was going in this terrifying and dangerous place. I kept feeling something under my feet that crunched and sagged like chaff trodden into the soil.”
'Isa trips over something and falls onto a pile of moth-eaten scrolls. Something cries out. It’s the record clerk, dutifully at work among the heaps of title deeds. 'Isa pulls himself together and recites a verse to himself:
“A gloom in which everything is alike
and people’s sex is unknown until they shout.”
The Assistant informs the writer that the Record Clerks are accustomed to working without any light; like bats, they can see in complete darkness.
'Isa: “This is the way things were between the Pasha and me. Every time I showed him something with which he had not been familiar in his own lifetime and had never encountered before, he would object and turn away, showing me as he did so things that I had not previously noticed and making me aware of the evil underpinnings that lurk beneath the surface cover of habit and are shrouded by the veil of familiarity and acceptance.… Eventually our routine involved an invitation to a wedding. Accepting the offer we hastened to the location after sunset and discovered two policemen guarding the door. They kept shouting and shoving people away to stop them getting inside. The Pasha pulled me aside.”
Pasha: “Wait a minute, my friend! Are you sure you haven’t gone the wrong way….? Unless that is, you plan to go the police station with me again, and through the entire court system….”
When 'Isa explains that policemen are hired at important weddings to keep people out, the Pasha is appalled. He exclaims that in his day, weddings were for everyone to attend. “Poor and indigent people were never excluded. People would spread out tablecloths for them; they would eat and drink and then watch the amazing games that were put on for the occasion: horse races, displays of horsemanship, wrestling, and sword drills…”
'Isa to Himself: “Good heavens, I told myself, now we’re finding things to grumble about even at weddings.”
At the wedding, they chat with a guest called “Suave Friend,” and observe some government officials mingling in their natural habitat.
Suave Friend: “May God bolster you! Today our government officials have such a low opinion of themselves and are so scared to reveal their sentiments in public that they make every effort to cover it all up with boasts and displays of pride. They fabricate phony illusions of conceit and arrogance and go to enormous lengths to enhance their dignity in the way they walk and make their image that much more daunting in the way they sit. Some of them even take lessons in front of a mirror on bodily movements that they like and spend some time perfecting them.”
Soon it is time for dinner and the Pasha is horrified by the chaos, the crush, and the crowds.
“This was no conquest such as al-Mu’tasim at the Battle of Amorium, or Muhammad the Conquerer at Constantinople,” 'Isa narrates. “People crowded around like the chaste receiving gifts and devout going to prayer; they were standing close to the tables like sufferers from drought who have just found lush pasture. The Pasha was on the point of going back.”
Pasha: “Good grief, what an insult! Have things with the wedding host now reached the point that he makes people go into the scullery to eat, and on the run at that?”
A wedding guest chimes in:
Friend: “It’s not the scullery…. People can choose the things that suit their fancy and satisfy their tastes. They call it a ‘buffet.’”