Before the shadow of the old camphor tree lengthened, before the call to prayer at noon, they stretched out on the ground beside the field when the crop was ripe – a day or two before harvest. The peas had escaped the blight which dries up leaves and drains away the green colour, leaving them like straw. ‘Abd al-Maujud was happy as he looked at his two sons, Jabir the elder, and ‘Abd al-‘Al, the younger, and then at the stems of the plants: what remained to be done was not much. The tea hummed in the pot, the only sound in the silence which ruled the day.
The sound of a car, a black car, which slowed down and came to a stop on the road, which was raised a little above the fields. Three men got out, their features indistinct; they looked about them as if searching for something. They stretched out their arms as they descended the slope, their leader ignoring the wet mud. ‘Abd al-Maujud said to himself: “May God bless us!” He thought they were either intelligence agents come to spy on someone or travellers who had lost their way. Their leader was a young man about the same age as ‘Abd al-‘Al, a tall man, apparently from Cairo.
“Peace be upon you!” “And on you, peace and God’s mercy and blessing!” He shook hands, his heart full of welcome. The rough hands gave no sign of fear. Laughing, the young man said: “Perhaps we can sit down!”
‘Abd al-Maujud said: “Welcome, be so kind, Sir. Will you have some tea?”
The young man said: “Yes, indeed, father,” and asked their names. Then he asked: “Are you the owners of the land?” ‘Abd al-Maujud replied that they were tenants, that the crop was theirs, and that just the crops over there near the water-wheel measured four feddans1. One of the other men said that he couldn’t tell maize from wheat. Would they forgive him but was the crop vegetables? ‘Abd al-Maujud told him that all the land in this district was sown with vegetables because it was near Cairo. Tomatoes, onions, potatoes, aubergines, and near the mountain, fruit. Here there were only peas.
Yes, (the gentleman sipped the tea from the one metal cup with enjoyment) this is just what he wanted; this meeting, without formality, without an appointment, it was just what he was hoping for; perhaps, God willing, both sides would benefit. ‘Abd al-Maujud replied that it was good that only good would come of it, if God allowed. Then he asked his younger son ‘Abd al-‘Al to pick some peas for the gentlemen. The first gentleman laughed. It seemed that ‘Abd al-Maujud knew just what he had come for: he was, he said, employed by one of the new hotels in Egypt, a vast hotel which would open its doors in seven days’ time: it would provide food for more than a thousand every day. Though the directors were Western gentlemen, they knew the market and its ways and the tricks of the contractors: they would say: “Why these evasions and detours? We have the farmer; we have the funds; the transport is ready; we have the men in the hotel to lift and carry.”
‘Abd al-Maujud shook his head: “Well, what they have done is fine; it’s properly thought out and perfectly organized . . .” At this point they were joined by young ‘Abd al-‘Al who, bending down, laid the peas in front of the gentlemen, who were so good as to try them. Jabir said: “This is a first-class crop: the pods are full. The traders wouldn’t offer these in the market; they would keep them for customers who understood food and its art. But everything has its price.” This observation was not lost on the gentleman, who said that the hotel was not so much interested in price as in quality. It was, after all, an international hotel.
‘Abd al-Maujud was silent. He looked at the other two. One was holding a square black case with a long leather handle. The second seemed to be a partner. He thought he would not expand on the practical details: it was more polite of him to take care of his unexpected guests. He wondered whether the two gentlemen also worked for the hotel. The owner of the black case said that he was a friend of the first gentleman and understood nothing of the hotel business. The other was the driver of the car . . . yes, he worked for the hotel. They were very welcome. Here Jabir broached the subject of selling and buying and enquired as to the sort of quantities the hotel would need. The gentleman replied that the whole crop would be purchased, not only this year but every season – the vegetables, of course. Frowning, ‘Abd al-Maujud said that the land in this district grew nothing but vegetables. All Cairo got its food from here and from the land in the other direction. The land was near the Nile and near the desert. He pointed eastwards where there was no habitation beyond the village: if a camel escaped into the desert, it would be lost and no one would go after it.
The gentleman nodded his head; the driver approved the taste of the peas and asked young ‘Abd al-‘Al to pick some for the boss, who said this was impossible, but ‘Abd al-Maujud, hand on heart, said: “A present is not given back.” It was only a little thing which the gentleman could take for his children. The gentleman enquired as to the price per kilo. ‘Abd al-Maujud said that they were sold by the sack; the price of a sack was five or six pounds. The gentleman asked: “So how much per kilo?” Young ‘Abd al-‘Al looked at his father who said that a sack held about sixty or seventy kilos. The gentleman whistled; he looked at his companion. He seemed to realize something that had been hidden from him. He said that the price in the market was 30 piastres; the excellent variety they were eating now could not go for less than 40 piastres, if it could be found at all. The man with the black case said that he didn’t go to the market and knew nothing about prices: “Madame buys everything herself.”
‘Abd al-Maujud said that the crops were all around them; that he could find out for himself, and that if there were any other peas like these, then that would be another matter. The gentleman brought the discussion to an end by standing up. The driver stopped and the gentleman in the black case stopped, saying that he would beat about the bush no longer; the price here was very reasonable, the crop excellent, more important still, he felt very well disposed towards Mr . . . , Mr . . . . ‘Abd al-Maujud; the hotel had found what it was looking for.
Jabir, the older boy, presented a bag of about three kilos to the driver. Young ‘Abd al-‘Al asked very earnestly for the address of the hotel in Cairo. The gentleman gestured reassuringly, saying that he would come to them himself after a few days; he would bring special bags for the crop. They would be able to conclude the deal; he would pay cash: there would be no need for them to go to Cairo for payment. They would find it difficult to get into the hotel: in the first place, it was remote, and then there was a constant guard around it. All they had to do was to sign the invoices and receipts.
‘Abd al-Maujud asked, in an approving tone: “And how would the money reach us?” The gentleman waved his hand. ‘Abd al-Maujud said: “Well, as you please . . .” They would leave it to him and hope that good-will can take care of it all, and make the best arrangement, but wasn’t it proper that they should stay for lunch? They made excuses, they thanked him, they wished him well. ‘Abd al-‘Al approached the gentleman: wouldn’t it be possible to know what day and time to expect them?” The gentleman said that it was not possible to be precise now, but it would be within three days. ‘Abd al-Maujud tried to climb the bank after them, but the gentleman insisted he should stay where he was.
The wheels ground against the earth; the sound gradually died away till silence reigned again. It had all seemed so sudden that ‘Abd al-Maujud asked himself whether he was dreaming or awake. Young ‘Abd al-‘Al broke the silence of noon, full of the aroma of crops. He was worried: whatever the business might be, he didn’t trust those gentlemen. His father said: “There’s no problem at all.” He trusted them completely; the gentleman was the soul of honesty and propriety. Didn’t he want to have a rest from weariness and disappointment, from loading the crop into sacks, from running to and fro to find someone to share in the hire of a lorry, from going to market on nights when the cold cut into their extremities to sell their crop perhaps all at once, or perhaps when the business was slack, having to go back night after night? Then the waiting for the boss: they couldn’t speak directly to him, could only see him at a distance, coming and going in his car, his head wrapped in a white silk kaffiyeh, with his men in front and behind him, one of whom would bring them the bill and the money, and take his share, just as before him, the man standing in front of the scales would do, and the man who directed them to where they should leave their crop – everyone taking or not taking something. Then they would have to find their way home from Cairo.
Young ‘Abd al-‘Al said that he knew all that, but he still didn’t trust the gentleman. Why hadn’t he told him the address of the hotel. He would only believe it when he saw lorries coming and money in their hands. Jabir said that he looked like an intelligence officer – intelligence officers usually pretended to be friendly. ‘Abd al-Maujud shouted: “What could intelligence people do here?” Jabir said: “Perhaps they’re searching for arms or investigating some track or other.” ‘Abd al-Maujud struck the ground with his hand: “Sons, the gentleman asked nothing for himself; he just drank tea with us and enjoyed it.” They were silent.
The smell of burnt straw rose in the air. The noon was heavy, not a branch or leaf stirred. The cobs of maize were fully ripe although there were still a few days of the month of Amshir2 left. At night, ‘Abd al-Maujud said again that he was going to take a rest from the market, its tyranny and wretchedness which had little by little eaten up his life; he was not going to borrow from hither and thither to transport his crops, was not going to scrape together advances from here and there. He didn’t want more money just rest and escape from pain. Next day, before the sun’s shadow reached the camphor tree, he raised his head, asking: “Wasn’t this the time that the gentleman came?” He did not wait for an answer. He rose, summoning up his courage, his right shoulder a little higher than the other so there was a slight limp in his walk as he climbed the bank. He looked along the empty road, disconcerted. Perhaps they had lost their way. One place in this district looked much like another, and these gentlemen were from Cairo.
The following day he used a palm branch as a stick because he had stood for a long time the day before and his joints were giving him trouble. The time was past when he would raise his hoe and bring it down on the earth from sunrise to sunset. On the seventh day, before sunrise, he became even more disconcerted: had he set too high a price? Had he shown greed? ‘Abd al-‘Al told him that he had not been greedy, in fact, had been generous. Perhaps the gentleman had gone to another field; perhaps they had been just amusing themselves during a long journey. He had noticed a smile on the face of the driver.
But ‘Abd al-Maujud paid no attention. After dawn he walked through the fresh dew to the traffic lights. He had instructed the policeman to direct the black car to his fields; perhaps the gentleman was tired of waiting and asking. In the middle of the night he woke up joyfully and described how a strange gentleman he had never seen before had come to him and asked: “Are you ‘Abd al-Maujud?” he had replied: “Yes, Lord.” The gentleman had said that the hotel was late in opening because of a lack of customers, but the agreement still held. The hotel would be late no longer.
‘Abd al-‘Al was almost weeping with despair as he pointed to the peas drying up and the ruin of the crop. When what was behind them and in front of them was gone, the Syrian grapes or the Yemeni figs would then not be within reach. When the transport van came and the driver from Cairo was hurrying to load the crop, he approached the man and enquired about a black car with three young men in it. The driver laughed, he just laughed.
‘Abd al-Maujud got up in the middle of the night. Perhaps the gentleman from the hotel had come: they would take the crop at the last minute. He did not take his sons with him: for the first time, he did not go with them. Perhaps the gentleman had come and asked for him. He questioned the people of the village, asking them, in the name of the Prophet, to direct a young man dressed in a black shirt who would come in a black car with a companion carrying a black case, a square case, definitely square; he asked them to describe to the gentleman the road to his fields, to describe the old camphor tree, the oldest tree in the whole district. The gentleman was from Cairo and didn’t know the district. He went about the small shops asking about a black car. He stood in front of men, he accosted women, he chased small children whom he suspected of knowing that the gentleman had come and of concealing it from him. He shouted at every car which flew past on the road that he didn’t care about the night or the dangers of the road (There’s no blood money when you’re knocked down by a car”); that he would threaten big Jabir and young ‘Abd al-‘Al with his stick; did he want them to lose the chance of a lifetime? The gentleman had said that he would come which means he would come; who knows, perhaps he came in the night. But who would meet him and settle the agreement?
“Al-Mahsool” [“The Crop”] is translated by Mohammed Shaheen from its publication in a special short stories edition of Kitaab al-‘Arabi, No 24, Kuwait, 1989
1 one feddan 4,200 sq. metres or 1.038 acres
2 Amshir is the sixth month in the 13-month Coptic calendar (8 February to 10 March)
See Banipal No 13, Spring 2002, for a feature on Gamal el-Ghitani and his work which includes an interview conducted by Nabil Sharaf el-Din, excerpt from the novel To the Presidential Floor, a short story Mystery Woman, and a short essay on his allegorical novel Al-Zayni Barakat, whose new English edition, Zayni Barakat, is just published by AUC Press, Cairo.