With the Fourth Pyramid

"Fatima Salem Al-Hajji"

In the afternoon, I accompanied the writer Yousuf Al-Qaeed, who had set up a meeting with the late novelist Gamal El-Ghetany. From his houseboat, Naguib Mahfouz was gazing across his beloved Nile. Eager to reach his place, my pace quickened. Mr. Gamal approached him to introduce me: “This is the Libyan critic I told you about, Fatima Al-Hajji.” Filled with joy, I extended my trembling hand to shake his, to which he reciprocated a thin hand, worn by time. He studied me with adamant, sunken eyes and spoke with a voice that saturated me with glee: “Welcome, Fatima. You're as beautiful as the women of the trilogy.” I had dreamed of just visiting the Al-Fishawi coffee shop, where he often sat to devise his novels, and now I was face to face with him; what a generous fate!

Time unclasped itself from space, and with the setting of the last of the sun rays, I was able to collect myself and ask him a question: “How are you feeling in this moment, as these boats cross the river?” Mr. Gamal asked me to elaborate and then reiterated my question in his own words. Mr. Naguib instructed the waiter carrying the tray to serve me my tea first. How humble of you, O master of the novel! Geniuses can be so generous. 

He didn't answer my question. Instead, he turned to talk to the writer Yousuf Al-Qaeed, who took a seat beside him. A crowd of fictional characters emerged, as though joining our gathering late into the night. 

Staring at his back, I wondered how this body had withered so, leaving such a distant expression in his sunken pupils. How would I receive an answer from the fourth pyramid, Naguib Mahfouz, whose name crowned the year’s literary conference, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of him being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature? And there I was, attending this established forum on behalf of Libya. He turned around and asked me about my research into the concept of time. I stuttered as I tried to put together the most eloquent response I could muster. He turned his gaze to the drifting boats around us and said: “Time conceals the face of death; it is a false mask, like the boats that take us places we don't wish to go.” Just like that, I got an answer to my earlier question–one that radically departed from the direct responses I was accustomed to. 

Finally, I worked up the courage to ask him to take a picture with me. He didn't turn me down, but he requested that we don't use flash. With light surrounding him from every angle, he didn’t need any more.

 

Because I’ve never been in pursuit of fame, I didn’t publish the photo at the time, but it has always been one of my favorites, especially that it narrowly escaped theft. The photograph was sleeping peacefully on my phone, which I had left at home when my house was robbed. The incident took place while I was heading to Tunis to rescue my unconscious husband, who suffered a severe stroke in April 2011. A little while after, I searched for some documents saved in my email, and I ended up finding the photograph. I thanked God and sent it to my daughter for safekeeping. But unfortunately, I noticed that it had lost its pre-theft glow. And everytime I move it from one device to another in my years abroad, it loses more and more of its luster. It has now been reduced to electronic debris, barely carrying the memory of moments loaded with imperishable meaning. 

Every time I look at the photograph now, I remember how Mahfouz had described time as that false mask that conceals the reality of death. The days are boats carrying us where we don’t want to go, he told me. It’s true: the photograph now tells the story of the demise of our identity and memory. All we want to do now is cling onto the remains–and perhaps, to leave something deathless behind.

An academic and novelist, she is a faculty member at the University of Tripoli. She has published several critical works including “The Concept of Time in Libyan Novels,” 1999, and “The Narrative Discourse,” 2007, as well as two novels “The Cry of the Basement Floor,” 2015, and “The Departure of Aris,” 2022.

Fatima Salem Al-Hajji
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