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Another Evening at the Club

By:
Alifa Rifaat
Document type:
Novel/Fiction

    Another Evening at the Club

    Commentary

    In order to circumvent her husband’s objections, Alifa Rifaat (1930–1996) published her first short stories with the journal Al-Risala under a pseudonym in 1955. By the early 1970s, she was publishing under her own name, and over the course of two decades produced the collections Who’ll Be the Man? and Distant View of a Minaret, along with the novel Pharaoh’s Jewel. Her stories are noted for exploring the lives of women in her native Egypt. Although she speaks openly about sexuality and gender rights, her fiction is still considered to be housed within a traditional religious point of view; in other words, her protagonists often seek peace, kindness, and harmony between the genders, rather than open rebellion against Muslim values. In the story below, the main character navigates the intricacies of her relationship with her husband when a violent situation challenges their affluent existence.

    In a state of tension, she awaited the return of her husband. At a loss to predict what would happen between them, she moved herself back and forth in the rocking chair on the wide wooden verandah that ran along the bank and occupied part of the river itself, its supports being fixed in the river bed, while around it grew grasses and reeds. As though to banish her apprehension, she passed her fingers across her hair. The spectres of the eucalyptus trees ranged along the garden fence rocked before her gaze, with white egrets slumbering on their high branches like huge white flowers among the thin leaves.

    The crescent moon rose from behind the eastern mountains and the peaks of the gently stirring waves glistened in its feeble rays, intermingled with threads of light leaking from the houses of Manfalout scattered along the opposite bank. The coloured bulbs fixed to the trees in the garden of the club at the far end of the town stood out against the surrounding darkness. Somewhere over there her husband now sat, most likely engrossed in a game of chess.

    It was only a few years ago that she had first laid eyes on him at her father’s house, meeting his gaze that weighed up her beauty and priced it before offering the dowry. She had noted his eyes ranging over her as she presented him with the coffee in the Japanese cups that were kept safely locked away in the cupboard for important guests. Her mother had herself laid them out on the silver-plated tray with its elaborately embroidered spread. When the two men had taken their coffee, her father had looked up at her with a smile and had told her to sit down, and she had seated herself on the sofa facing them, drawing the end of her dress over her knees and looking through lowered lids at the man who might choose her as his wife. She had been glad to see that he was tall, well-built and clean-shaven except for a thin greying moustache. In particular she noticed the well-cut coat of English tweed and the silk shirt with gold links. She had felt herself blushing as she saw him returning her gaze. Then the man turned to her father and took out a gold case and offered him a cigarette.

    “You really shouldn’t, my dear sir,” said her father, patting his chest with his left hand and extracting a cigarette with trembling fingers. Before he could bring out his box of matches Abboud Bey had produced his lighter.

    “No, after you, my dear sir,” said her father in embarrassment. Mingled with her sense of excitement at this man who gave out such an air of worldly self-confidence was a guilty shame at her father’s inadequacy.

    After lighting her father’s cigarette Abboud Bey sat back, crossing his legs, and took out a cigarette for himself. He tapped it against the case before putting it in the corner of his mouth and lighting it, then blew out circles of smoke that followed each other across the room.

    “It’s a great honour for us, my son,” said her father, smiling first at Abboud Bey, then at his daughter, at which Abboud Bey looked across at her and asked:

    “And the beautiful little girl’s still at secondary school?”

    She lowered her head modestly and her father had answered:

    “As from today she’ll be staying at home in readiness for your happy life together, Allah permitting,” and at a glance from her father she had hurried off to join her mother in the kitchen.

    “You’re a lucky girl,” her mother had told her. “He’s a real find. Any girl would be happy to have him. He’s an Inspector of Irrigation though he’s not yet forty. He earns a big salary and gets a fully furnished government house wherever he’s posted, which will save us the expense of setting up a house—and I don’t have to tell you what our situation is—and that’s besides the house he owns in Alexandria where you’ll be spending your holidays.”

    Samia had wondered to herself how such a splendid suitor had found his way to her door. Who had told him that Mr Mahmoud Barakat, a mere clerk at the Court of Appeal, had a beautiful daughter of good reputation?

    The days were then taken up with going the rounds of Cairo’s shops and choosing clothes for the new grand life she would be living. This was made possible by her father borrowing on the security of his government pension. Abboud Bey, on his part, never visited her without bringing a present. For her birthday, just before they were married, he bought her an emerald ring that came in a plush box bearing the name of a well-known jeweller in Kasr el-Nil Street. On her wedding night, as he put a diamond bracelet round her wrist, he had reminded her that she was marrying someone with a brilliant career in front of him and that one of the most important things in life was the opinion of others, particularly one’s equals and seniors. Though she was still only a young girl she must try to act with suitable dignity.

    “Tell people you’re from the well-known Barakat family and that your father was a judge,” and he went up to her and gently patted her cheeks in a fatherly, reassuring gesture that he was often to repeat during their times together.

    Then, yesterday evening, she had returned from the club somewhat light-headed from the bottle of beer she had been required to drink on the occasion of someone’s birthday. Her husband, noting the state she was in, hurriedly took her back home. She had undressed and put on her nightgown, leaving her jewellery on the dressing-table, and was fast asleep seconds after getting into bed. The following morning, fully recovered, she slept late, then rang the bell as usual and had breakfast brought to her. It was only as she was putting her jewellery away in the wooden and mother-of-pearl box that she realized her emerald ring was missing.

    Could it have dropped from her finger at the club? In the car on the way back? No, she distinctly remembered it last thing at night, remembered the usual difficulty she had in getting it off her finger. She stripped the bed of its sheets, turned over the mattress, looked inside the pillow cases, crawled on hands and knees under the bed. The tray of breakfast lying on the small bedside table caught her eye and she remembered the young servant coming in that morning with it, remembered the noise of the tray being put down, the curtains being drawn, the tray then being lifted up again and placed on the bedside table. No one but the servant had entered the room. Should she call her and question her?

    Eventually, having taken two aspirins, she decided to do nothing and await the return of her husband from work.

    Directly he arrived she told him what had happened and he took her by the arm and seated her down beside him:

    “Let’s just calm down and go over what happened.”

    She repeated, this time with further details, the whole story.

    “And you’ve looked for it?”

    “Everywhere. Every possible and impossible place in the bedroom and the bathroom. You see, I remember distinctly taking it off last night.”

    He grimaced at the thought of last night, then said:

    “Anybody been in the room since Gazia when she brought in the breakfast?”

    “Not a soul. I’ve even told Gazia not to do the room today.”

    “And you’ve not mentioned anything to her?”

    “I thought I’d better leave it to you.”

    “Fine, go and tell her I want to speak to her. There’s no point in your saying anything but I think it would be as well if you were present when I talk to her.”

    Five minutes later Gazia, the young servant girl they had recently employed, entered behind her mistress. Samia took herself to a far corner of the room while Gazia stood in front of Abboud Bey, her hands folded across her chest, her eyes lowered.

    “Yes, sir?”

    “Where’s the ring?”

    “What ring are you talking about, sir?”

    “Now don’t make out you don’t know. The one with the green stone. It would be better for you if you hand it over and then nothing more need be said.”

    “May Allah blind me if I’ve set eyes on it.”

    He stood up and gave her a sudden slap on the face. The girl reeled back, put one hand to her cheek, then lowered it again to her chest and made no answer to any of Abboud’s questions. Finally he said to her:

    “You’ve got just fifteen seconds to say where you’ve hidden the ring or else, I swear to you, you’re not going to have a good time of it.”

    As he lifted up his arm to look at his watch the girl flinched slightly but continued in her silence. When he went to the telephone Samia raised her head and saw that the girl’s cheeks were wet with tears. Abboud Bey got through to the Superintendent of Police and told him briefly what had occurred.

    “Of course I haven’t got any actual proof but seeing that no one else entered the room, it’s obvious she’s pinched it. Anyway I’ll leave the matter in your capable hands—I know your people have their ways and means.”

    He gave a short laugh, then listened for a while and said: “I’m really most grateful to you.”

    He put down the receiver and turned round to Samia:

    “That’s it, my dear. There’s nothing more to worry about. The Superintendent has promised me we’ll get it back. The patrol car’s on the way.”

    The following day, in the late afternoon, she’d been sitting in front of her dressing-table rearranging her jewellery in its box when an earring slipped from her grasp and fell to the floor. As she bent to pick it up she saw the emerald ring stuck between the leg of the table and the wall. Since that moment she had sat in a state of panic awaiting her husband’s return from the club. She even felt tempted to walk down to the water’s edge and throw it into the river so as to be rid of the unpleasantness that lay ahead.

    At the sound of the screech of tyres rounding the house to the garage, she slipped the ring on to her finger. As he entered she stood up and raised her hand to show him the ring. Quickly, trying to choose her words but knowing that she was expressing herself clumsily, she explained what an extraordinary thing it was that it should have lodged itself between the dressing table and the wall, what an extraordinary coincidence she should have dropped the earring and so seen it, how she’d thought of ringing him at the club to tell him the good news but.…

    She stopped in mid-sentence when she saw his frown and added weakly: “I’m sorry. I can’t think how it could have happened. What do we do now?”

    He shrugged his shoulders as though in surprise.

    “Are you asking me, my dear lady? Nothing of course.”

    “But they’ve been beating up the girl—you yourself said they’d not let her be till she confessed.”

    Unhurriedly, he sat himself down as though to consider this new aspect of the matter. Taking out his case, he tapped a cigarette against it in his accustomed manner, then moistened his lips, put the cigarette in place and lit it. The smoke rings hovered in the still air as he looked at his watch and said:

    “In any case she’s not got all that long before they let her go. They can’t keep her for more than forty-eight hours without getting any evidence or a confession. It won’t kill her to put up with things for a while longer. By now the whole town knows the servant stole the ring—or would you like me to tell everyone:

    “‘Look, folks, the fact is that the wife got a bit tiddly on a couple of sips of beer and the ring took off on its own and hid itself behind the dressing-table. What do you think?”

    “I know the situation’s a bit awkward.”

    “Awkward? It’s downright ludicrous. Listen, there’s nothing to be done but to give it to me and the next time I go down to Cairo I’ll sell it and get something else in its place. We’d be the laughing-stock of the town.”

    He stretched out his hand and she found herself taking off the ring and placing it in the outstretched palm. She was careful that their eyes should not meet. For a moment she was on the point of protesting and in fact uttered a few words:

    “I’d just like to say we could.…”

    Putting the ring away in his pocket, he bent over her and with both hands gently patted her on the cheeks. It was a gesture she had long become used to, a gesture that promised her continued security, that told her that this man who was her husband and the father of her child had also taken the place of her father who, as though assured that he had found her a suitable substitute, had followed up her marriage with his own funeral. The gesture told her more eloquently than any words that he was the man, she the woman, he the one who carried the responsibilities, made the decisions, she the one whose role it was to be beautiful, happy, carefree. Now, though, for the first time in their life together the gesture came like a slap in the face.

    Directly he removed his hands her whole body was seized with an uncontrollable trembling. Frightened he would notice, she rose to her feet and walked with deliberate steps towards the large window. She leaned her forehead against the comforting cold surface and closed her eyes tightly for several seconds. When she opened them she noticed that the café lights strung between the trees on the opposite shore had been turned on and that there were men seated under them and a waiter moving among the tables. The dark shape of a boat momentarily blocked out the café scene; in the light from the hurricane lamp hanging from its bow she saw it cutting through several of those floating islands of Nile waterlilies that, rootless, are swept along with the current.

    Suddenly she became aware of his presence alongside her.

    “Why don’t you go and change quickly while I take the car out? It’s hot and it would be nice to have supper at the club.”

    “As you like. Why not?”

    By the time she had turned round from the window she was smiling.

    Rifaat, Alifa. “Another Evening at the Club” In Arabic Short Stories, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies. Berkeley: University of California Press: 1994.

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