I met the Imam of the village and Khamees the Rat at about the same time. I don’t exactly remember now – it happened more than six years ago – but I think I met the Imam first.

But this is not quite accurate. I didn’t really ‘meet’ the Imam: I inflicted myself upon him. Perhaps that explains what happened.

Still, there was nothing else I could have done. As the man who led the daily prayers in the mosque, he was a leading figure in the village, and since I, a foreigner, had come to live there, he may well for all I knew have been offended had I neglected to pay him a call. Besides, I wanted to meet him; I was intrigued by what I’d heard about him.

People didn’t often talk about the Imam in the village, but when they did, they usually spoke of him somewhat dismissively, but also a little wistfully, as they might of some old, half-forgotten thing, like the annual flooding of the Nile. Listening to my friends speak of him, I had an inkling, long before I actually met him, that he already belonged, in a way, to the village’s past. I thought I knew this for certain when I heard that apart from being an imam he was also, by profession, a barber and a healer. People said he knew a great deal about herbs and poultices and the old kind of medicine. This interested me. This was Tradition: I knew that in rural Egypt imams and other religious figures are often by custom associated with those two professions.

The trouble was that these accomplishments bought the Imam very little credit in the village. The villagers didn’t any longer want an Imam who was also a barber and a healer. The older people wanted someone who had studied at al-Azhar and could quote from Jamal ad-Din Afghani and Mohammad Abduh as fluently as he could from the Hadith, and the younger men wanted a fierce, black-bearded orator, someone whose voice would thunder from the mimbar and reveal to them their destiny. No one had time for old-fashioned imams who made themselves ridiculous by boiling herbs and cutting hair.

Yet Ustad Ahmed, who taught in the village’s secondary school and was as well-read a man as I have ever met, often said – and this was not something he said of many people – that the old Imam read a lot. A lot of what? Politics, theology, even popular science . . . that kind of thing.

This made me all the more determined to meet him, and one evening, a few months after I first came to the village, I found my way to his house. He lived in the centre of the village, on the edge of the dusty open square which had the mosque in its middle. This was the oldest part of the village: a maze of low mud huts huddled together like confectionery on a tray, each hut crowned with a billowing, tousled head of straw.

When I knocked on the door the Imam opened it himself. He was a big man, with very bright brown eyes, set deep in a wrinkled, weather-beaten face. Like the room behind him, he was distinctly untidy: his blue jallabeyya was mud-stained and unwashed and his turban had been knotted anyhow around his head. But his beard, short and white and neatly trimmed, was everything a barber’s beard should be. Age had been harsh on his face, but there was a certain energy in the way he arched his shoulders, in the clarity of his eyes and in the way he fidgeted constantly, was never still: it was plain that he was a vigorous, restive kind of person.

‘Welcome,’ he said, courteous but unsmiling, and stood aside and waved me in. It was a long dark room, with sloping walls and a very low ceiling. There was a bed in it and a couple of mats but little else, apart from a few, scattered books: everything bore that dull patina of grime which speaks of years of neglect. Later, I learned that the Imam had divorced his first wife and his second had left him, so that now he lived quite alone and had his meals with his son’s family who lived across the square.

‘Welcome,’ he said again, formally.

‘Welcome to you,’ I said, giving him the formal response, and then we began on the long, reassuring litany of Arabic phrases of greeting.

‘How are you?’

‘How are you?’

‘You have brought blessings?’

‘May God bless you.’

‘Welcome.’

‘Welcome to you.’

‘You have brought light.’

‘The light is yours.’

‘How are you?’

‘How are you?’

He was very polite, very proper. In a moment he produced a kerosene stove and began to brew tea. But even in the performance of that little ritual there was something about him that was guarded, watchful.

‘You’re the doktor al-Hindi,’ he said to me at last, ‘aren’t you? The Indian doctor?’

I nodded, for that was the name the village had given me. Then I told him that I wanted to talk to him about the methods of his system of medicine.

He looked very surprised and for a while he was silent. Then he put his right hand to his heart and began again on the ritual of greetings and responses, but in a markedly different way this time; one that I had learned to recognise as a means of changing the subject.

‘Welcome.’

‘Welcome to you.’

‘You have brought light.’

‘The light is yours.’

And so on.

At the end of it I repeated what I had said.

‘Why do you want to hear about my herbs?’ he retorted. ‘Why don’t you go back to your country and find out about your own?’

‘I will,’ I said. ‘Soon. But right now . . .’

‘No, no,’ he said restlessly. ‘Forget about all that; I’m trying to forget about it myself.’

And then I knew that he would never talk to me about his craft, not just because he had taken a dislike to me for some reason of his own, but because his medicines were as discredited in his own eyes as they were in his clients’; because he knew as well as anybody else that the people who came to him now did so only because of old habits; because he bitterly regretted his inherited association with these relics of the past.

‘Instead,’ he said, ‘let me tell you about what I have been learning over the last few years. Then you can go back to your country and tell them all about it.’

He jumped up, his eyes shining, reached under his bed and brought out a glistening new biscuit tin.

‘Here!’ he said, opening it. ‘Look!’

Inside the box was a hypodermic syringe and a couple of glass phials. This is what he had been learning, he told me: the art of mixing and giving injections. And there was a huge market for it too, in the village: everybody wanted injections, for coughs, colds, fevers, whatever. There was a good living in it. He wanted to demonstrate his skill to me right there, on my arm, and when I protested that I wasn’t ill, that I didn’t need an injection just then, he was offended. ‘All right,’ he said curtly, standing up. ‘I have to go to the mosque right now. Perhaps we can talk about this some other day.’

That was the end of my interview. I walked with him to the mosque and there, with an air of calculated finality, he took my hand in his, gave it a perfunctory shake and vanished up the stairs.


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