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The devil is in the detail

By Ramadan A. Kader

“Something must have happened and prevented the sheikh from completing the prostration. At that point, real astonishment prevailed as a lot of possibilities moved through the bent heads that could not dare to rise.

Possibilities, similar and conflicting, moved back and forth. Has he fallen ill, dropped dead or passed out? Did some devil tempt him to take a piece of hash before the prayer and it now heavily weighs on him?”

In his short story “Did You Have to Turn on the Light, Li-Li”, the mastery of Egyptian writer Youssef Idris (1927-1991) peaks. In the story, part of his famed collection “A House of Flesh” that was published in 1971, Idris tells an imaginary tale about a crowd in a Cairo quarter, once notorious for drug trafficking, who went to the local mosque to perform the two-prostration dawn prayer.

Many of them had not gone to mosque for long years. Shortly before the end of the second prostration, the young imam – for a hitherto-unknown reason – fails to complete the prayer. As a result, the perplexed worshippers keep their heads bowed in the ground, fearing that any interruption on their part would invalidate the prayer.

On the surface, the incident sounds hilarious. Idris, noted for breaking taboos in his literary output, presents the incident in an engaging and fast-paced fashion.

“Ten low rows filled the small mosque. The people prostrated in piety, although in discomfort. Most of them did not pray for long, a matter that made their joints and muscles too stiff to cope with the postures of the prayer. They repeated ‘praise be to God’ three times, but when they did not hear the imam saying ‘God is the Greatest’ as a sign that the bowing on the ground is over, many of them suspected that they had miscalculated. They started again. But, the awaited declaration “God is the Greatest” did
not come.”

Soon after giving an insight into the befuddled worshippers’ surmises about the cause of their predicament, Idris switches from the third-person commentary to direct narration by the lead character, Sheikh Abdul Aal. Soon the reader becomes aware that the collective quandary is related to a raging conflict inside Abdul Aal, a devoted cleric appointed as an imam at a state-run mosque.

The writer adroitly whips up interest in the narration by occasionally quoting the protagonist asking: “Did you have to turn on the light, Li-Li?”

Li-Li is a gorgeous local woman, who puts the 25-year-old theologian to a tough test. The half-Egyptian-half-British woman’s initial attempt to seduce the imam fizzles out.

The conflict inside Sheikh Abdul Aal soon starts when the sweet-voiced man ascends the mosque minaret to call to the dawn prayer.

He happens to see the woman inside a lit room across the narrow street clad in a nightie while reclining in her bed. A gaze inside the room arouses the chaste cleric’s desire and makes him realise his vulnerability. In a succinct monologue, the preacher grapples with his sudden fall to temptation.

“For the first time in my life, I suddenly see so much of a woman’s body. I came to find myself in the middle stairway escaping, descending and gasping for breath. From sheer terror, I turned to extreme rage. I’m in a trap. I’m the one who came to expel the devil from here, have ambitions dwindled to avoid the devil, his dens and disguises? I find myself this dawn quite in the trap. I’m the one who wanted to vanquish it, is now running away for fear he would defeat me?”

The preacher, who originally came to the quarter to lead the obstinate flock to God’s path, increasingly feels vulnerable. He vows to overcome the devil’s temptation and implore God to support him:

“Oh God. I know I have loved You as pure as the serene water alone. As though You have created me only. I know that I should have been put to a test. I know if I succeeded, I would know that at last I’m worth accepting. I’ll make it a hard test. I won’t escape. I’ll double temptation. I’ll have gazes again. I’ll commit the lesser guilt so that my triumph over the bigger guilt will be paramount. I did gaze. It is Lil-Li in her flesh. It is the devil incarnate. Her temptation is complete.”

Overwhelmed by temptation-laden gazes, the young sheikh turns to his voice in his existential battle. He makes an evocative, desperate plea to God to save him:

“Oh God, does it please You that we fall? Does it please You that we sin? Does it please You that the devil overpowers us and prevails? Help me, my Lord. I’m in a pit. Who will save me except You?”

The cleric’s plea awakens the quarter’s dwellers from their sleep and motivates them to flock to the mosque, feeling they are close to God than ever before. The protagonist believes victory over the devil is in sight. He leads the congregation in the prayer. His putative triumph paradoxically proves false, though.

In the course of the prayer, the vision of Lil-Li haunts him. And he succumbs. He leaves the worshippers prostrating on the ground and slips away unnoticed from the mosque. He heads to the temptress, who ironically rebuffs him.

The story is among a few in the Arabic literature in which the devil emerges victorious.After reading the 18-page story, the answer to its title is “Yes”. By turning on the light of her room, the seductress has made the clergyman see himself in its true colours and
tested his faith.

Nicknamed Anton Chekov of the Arabic short story, Idris is skillful in unlocking the human psyche and frailties. His narrative as well as his personae are hewn from real life and its paradoxes, making them palpable and deserve sympathy.