Five Stories from Cairo
Tale related by an Egyptian sheikh in Cairo (he said this had happened to him personally): he had, he swore, a particularly favored black cat, which was his companion and which always slept beside his bed, at the foot of his mosquito-curtain. One midnight he was wakened by a knocking at the door of his house; his cat rose and went to the window, pushed open the hanging shutter and called through it: "Who is there?"
A voice called up: "I am such-and-such, the jinn: open the door, open the door."
"The lock," said the sheikh's cat, "has had the name of God pronounced over it."
"Then throw me down," the voice demanded, "two cakes of bread."
"The bread-basket," answered the cat at the window, "has had the name pronounced upon it."
"Then at the very least, give me a drink of water!"
But the cat said, "The water-jar too has been blessed."
"What will you do then," said the voice very loudly, coming close to the window so that the cat reared back and hissed, "because I will soon die of hunger and thirst--"
"Go across the street," said the cat, "go to the door of our neighbor's house, and wait for me." The noise outside ceased, and the cat leaped down from the window-ledge and ran out of the bedchamber; then the sheikh himself went to the window and looked out, and saw his cat stroll across the street, hook his paw through the latch of the neighbor's door, and open it. After that the cat sauntered home, yawning, and returned to its usual place beside the sheikh's bed.
So the next morning (because he now knew that the cat was supernatural) the sheikh divided his
morning cake of bread in half and gave half to the cat. Then he picked up the cat and whispered
in its ear: "O great and powerful lord, you know I am a poor man: bring me, if you love me, a
little gold--" upon which words, the cat vanished immediately, and he never set eyes on it again.
It was the belief in Cairo during the nineteenth century that certain saints were appointed to perform specific offices upon earth, and others were set to guarding the districts of the city. The last are called As-hab ed-Darak, meaning Watchmen. Thus, there was a certain devout tradesman in Cairo who wished very much to become a saint, so he went to a local holy man who was rumored to already be a saint and begged his help. The holy man said he could arrange an interview with one of the Kutb--the pillars of the faith upon earth, the axis of the faith. No one knows whether the Kutb are one man, or two men, or four men; they have the supervision of all the saints alive on earth, and are more powerful than kings--though they look like ordinary men. Elias, who drank of the fountain of immortality, was the first Kutb and the founder of the order. They are often seen yet almost never recognized, and they travel over the earth, mildly reproving the impious and hypocritical. Though they are unknown in the world, their favorite stations are well known; yet at these places they are seldom visible. The most famous such station is atop the roof of the Kaabeh in Mecca; one of the Kutb is almost always seated there, and though he is never seen by any pilgrim, every midnight he rises and cries twice in a mighty voice: "O Thou most merciful of those who show mercy!" at which all the mueddins of the temple take up the cry and repeat it over the rooftops of the holy city.
So, if the devout tradesman was determined to become a saint (said the holy man) he must go at dawn next morning to the mosque of El-Mu-eiyad.
Now, there was this oddity concerning the mosque. At right angles to it, was the old city gate of Bab Zuweyleh, which used to be the southernmost gate of Cairo but which now lay in the very heart of the modern city. Its great wooden doors are never shut. Behind the leaf on the eastern side of the gate, concealed in the arch of the ancient city wall, is a small niche. This niche is the best-known station of the Kutb in Cairo, and he spends a great deal of time in it; people passing by recite prayers in his name, and the Bab Zuweyleh is often called the Bab Mutawellee, the Gate of the Kutb.
He who wished to become a saint, must prostrate himself before the first person he should see emerging from the great doors of the mosque. The tradesman did this, rising very early to be at the mosque before dawn. The first person to come through the doors was an old venerable man in mean rags, and the devout tradesman fell down before him and kissed his hand, begging to be enrolled among the Watchmen of Cairo. The old man looked searchingly at him, shook his head several time, seemed to hesitate . . . but at last he nodded, and said, "Take charge of the whole street named the Darb el-Ahmar, and the district immediately around it."
With these words, the tradesman found himself to be a saint. His eyes were opened, and he perceived himself to be acquainted with things concealed from ordinary mortals. For a saint knows what is secret, what is not discoverable by the senses; he is given by God (the one who alone knows every secret) to understand whatever hidden thing He sees fit to impart.
So the newly-made saint went away immediately and began to walk through the Darb el-Ahmar district. This was composed of a street leading south-east from the Bab Zuweyleh, part of the great thoroughfare which extended to Cairo's citadel; also all the adjacent shops and houses. When he had been a mere tradesman, this had been a street he often walked down, never bothering to speak to anyone or look into the shops. Now he wandered through it, seeing it with new eyes. He muttered to himself, looked at invisible things in midair, and was in general as aimless as a lunatic--with whom the wellees or saints of Egypt are often confused.
Seeing a man in a shop with a large earthenware jar full of boiled beans in front of him, from which he was about to serve several hungry customers, the saint halted. Then he took up a stone and flung it--breaking the jar and throwing most of its contents to the ground. The shopkeeper leaped up, seized hold of a palm-stick that was lying near to hand, and gave the saint a severe beating, cursing him with every blow . . . as what man would not? It was only natural. As for the saint, he endured without a single cry or complaint, meekly walking away as soon as he was allowed to. The bean-seller hurled a last few insults after him, and began to try to gather his beans from the ground and salvage at least a few. One large shard of the broken jar still remained in its place; the bean-seller looked into it, and recoiled with a cry. There was a venomous serpent coiled up in it, stone dead--killed by the stone which shattered the jar.
In horror he called on everyone to see, saying, "There is no strength or power but in God! God forgive me, that man was a wellee, and he prevented me selling what would have poisoned my customers." All day long, he looked at everyone who passed his shop, hoping to recognize the saint and beg his forgiveness; but the saint was lying groaning in his house, too bruised to walk.
On the following day, though, he rose and went out, though his limbs were still swollen and sore. He limped through his district, and broke a huge jar of milk at a shop not far from that of the bean-seller. The man who owned the jar took up a handy stick and dealt with the saint just as the bean-seller had done; but while he was beating the poor saint, some people ran up and caught hold of his arm, and told him what had happened the previous day. "Look in the bottom of the jar first!" they said, and when he looked, he found a dead dog lying putrefied in the remaining milk.
On the third day, the saint (all bandaged, and leaning heavily on a staff) hobbled painfully along the length of the Darb el-Ahmar, and saw a servant carrying a supper-tray on his head. On the tray, covered with a napkin, were many dishes of meat, vegetables and fruit, for a party going to dine out in the country. The saint thrust his staff between the servant's legs. The servant toppled headlong. The trays and its dishes went into the gutter. With a mouth full of curses, the servant began to give the saint a thrashing--every bit as harsh as he himself would get, once his master found out what had happened. There were many people nearby, who all ran up to cheer the servant on--until one of them saw a dog grab a piece of chicken from under the overturned tray, bite down on it, and instantly drop dead.
This bystander at once caught the servant's hand, and stopped him from beating the saint. They all recognized him for what he was, and every apology was offered to him, along with the most humble prayers and solicitations; blessings were heaped upon his head, and the servant himself carried him home tenderly upon his back. The saint reeled up the steps of his house, fell prone upon his bed and pronounced the words: "O God! O Kutb! Pardon my rash wishes--I am not strong enough for sainthood--be merciful, and release me from this office!"
That very instant, his supernatural perceptions were withdrawn. He knew himself to be no more
than any other believer; and returned to his previous life, more contented than before.
A Turk with a reputation for evil and obstinate thinking was in charge of the town of Tanta in the Delta of Egypt. One night he made a surprise visit to the government granary and found two peasants sleeping on the grain sacks. He woke them and questioned them sternly, asking what their business was. One said that he had just brought 130 ardebbs of corn from a hamlet in that district; the other, that he had brought 60 ardebbs from public land belonging to the town. The Turkish governor flew into a passion: "You rascal! This good man, here, brings me 130 ardebbs from the lands of a tiny village--but you bring less than half that from the lands of this thriving town."
"This man," said the peasant honestly, "brings corn but once a week, but as for me, I am bringing it every day--"
"No excuses!" the governor shouted, and stormed out of the granary. Pointing to a nearby tree, he ordered the servants of the granary to bind the second peasant and hang him then and there. The order was obeyed, and he returned satisfied to his comfortable bed.
Next morning he inspected the granary again, and found a peasant bringing in a large quantity of corn. He inquired as to the man's name, and what quantity he had brought; and was answered by the hangman of the night before, who said simply, "Sir, this is the peasant I hanged by your orders last night, and he has brought 160 ardebbs."
"What!" exclaimed the governor, flabbergasted. "Has the wretch risen from the dead?"
The hangman answered, "No, sir, I hanged him so that his toes touched the ground, and when you were gone, I untied the rope. You only ordered me to hang him, not to kill him."
Then the Turk went away muttering to himself: "Aha! Hanging and killing are two different
things: the Arabic language is perfidious--next time, I will say 'kill'."
A fellah who had been appointed governor of a district in the Delta went the rounds of the local villages, collecting taxes. He assessed a poor peasant the tax sum of sixty riyals (that is, about thirty shillings) but the man protested; all he owned in the world was a single cow, which was the sole source of his family's sustenance. Instead of doing the customary thing when a peasant declares he cannot pay his taxes--that is, to give him a severe course with the bastinado--the governor sent one of his men to seize the cow in question, and desired the local fellahin to buy it. The fellahin said they had not sufficient money, so the governor called up the village butcher, ordered him to slaughter the cow then and there, and had him cut it into sixty pieces. Sixty fellahin were ordered to assemble; each one was compelled to pay one riyal, and buy with it one piece of meat. The butcher asked for his pay, and was given the head of the cow.
The owner of the cow, weeping and complaining, went straight to the governor's superior. This was Mohammed Bey, master of the whole Delta. "O great lord," said the peasant, "I never had anything but one milch cow, and my whole family lived on her milk; and she ploughed for me, and threshed my corn, and her wellbeing was the whole of my wealth. The governor has taken her, killed her, cut her into sixty pieces, and sold them to my neighbors, one riyal a piece--thus he obtained but sixty riyals for her, and she was worth a hundred and twenty riyals at the very least. I and my wife and children must now become beggars. Have mercy on me and give me justice: I implore it by your harem."
Mohammed Bey summoned the governor. "Where," he asked him, "is this fellah's cow?"
"I killed it," said the governor. "And sold it."
"For how much?"
"Why did you kill it and sell it?"
"He owed sixty riyals for land. So I took it and sold it, and it fetched that amount."
"Where is the butcher that slaughtered it?" asked Mohammed Bey.
"In his shop," said the governor, and he had the butcher summoned.
"Where are the fellahin who purchased it?" asked Mohammed Bey.
"In their fields," said the governor, and his soldiers ran and brought the fellahin.
Mohammed Bey asked the butcher: "Why did you slaughter your neighbor's cow?"
"I had no choice," said the butcher, "the governor ordered me to, and I could not oppose him. If I had refused, he would have beaten me and burned down my house. So I killed the cow, and he gave me its head in payment."
Then Mohammed Bey asked the fellahin, "You who bought the cow, tell me. Was its value sixty riyals?"
"O our master," they answered, "her value was twice that at least."
Then Mohammed Bey sent for the Cadi (or judge) of the district, set the case before him, and asked him to rule upon it. The Cadi said, "This governor is a tyrant and an oppressor."
Mohammed Bey ordered his own soldiers to take the governor into custody, to strip him and bind him in chains. To the butcher he said, "Butcher, do you not fear God? You killed the cow unjustly." The butcher protested that he had no choice; he had to obey the governor's command. "Then," said Mohammed Bey, "if I command you to do something, no matter what, you must do it?" The butcher nodded. "Slaughter the governor," Mohammed Bey ordered, "here and now, and cut him into sixty pieces."
Then and there, the soldiers threw the governor to the ground; the butcher cut his throat, in the regular orthodox way of killing animals for food, and sliced the carcass into sixty while all the onlookers murmured with horror. The butcher himself was dead white. When his work was done, he had to stand by and watch as his sixty fellahin neighbors were called up, one by one, and each one made to pay two riyals for a piece of the governor's flesh; the money was given to the fellah who had originally owned the cow. "Now," Mohammed Bey asked the judge, "what reward does the butcher deserve, for doing this tyrant's work?"
"The same reward he received before," the judge answered after some thought.
"Then give him the governor's head!" Mohammed Bey commanded, and the butcher went away
with his ghastly wages--thanking God, all the way home, that he had escaped sharing the
The Iman at a Turkish mosque preached a sermon on conjugal love. "All those," he said, "who
perform their duty at the beginning of the night, do as meritorious an act as if they sacrificed a
sheep. Those who, in the middle of the night, pay a second tribute, do as much in the eyes of
God, as if they sacrificed a camel; but those who at sunrise pay a third homage to felicity, deserve
as much praise as if they released a slave." One of the congregation went home and repeated this
to his wife. The wife, very anxious for her husband's salvation, said to him that very evening,
"My lord, we must sacrifice a sheep." Her husband duly offered up the equivalent of a sheep; but
at midnight, he was awakened by his wife's pious voice. "Come, my heart, let us sacrifice a
camel." This sacrifice he also made, and fell deeply asleep afterward, exhausted by his devotions.
But the day had scarcely begun to dawn, when his fervent wife spoke: "My dear, it is time to
release a slave." He turned toward her and cried in anguish, "Ah! I conjure you, release me--it
is I who am the slave."
Lane, Edward William, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1860)
Sonnini, C. S., Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt (1800)
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Last Updated December 16, 2000 by Sylvia