Excerpts from the novel Ya'coub by Mohamed Afifi

Dina Ezzat , Friday 22 Oct 2021

The following is an excerpt from the first novel by historian and author Mohamed Afifi - Ya'coub.

Ya coub

The student got overwhelmed with the story of Ya'coub; he felt he was haunted by this story, from Cairo to Paris. Even at the moments of intimacy that he shared with his partner, Amina, Ya'coub would always somehow come up in a conversation.

The student decided to draw the line with this Ya'coub account. He did his reasearch in order to get a full professorship. Unfortunately, he would later realise that investing in research would not necessarily bring about due academic credit, given the growing levels of nepotism in academic circles.

In any case, time was coming around for him to go back to Egypt. The grandchildren of Ya'coub did not welcome a meeting with him. They said they are always moving between Egypt and France. This was clearly an excuse to decline the request for a meeting. It might be for the best after all, he thought. He really needed to focus on what was ahead.

Returning to Egypt, however, was not going to happen without some schisms. He had already got very close with Amina; they knew each other well and they learned to accept one another. He got used to her cooking, which was less than ordinary and certainly not anywhere near his mother’s. He fell in love with her endless chatter, although he had always been someone who valued silence dearly. He even came around to accommodate her snoring as she fell into deep sleep.  She adored every single detail of his.

But time has its ways. His time in Paris was coming to an end. He had to get back to Egypt. She, however, was honest with herself about what she could and could not do – as time proved her right.

She said that she came from Lebanon, a country torn by a civil war. The years of this war, she said, had taken a harsh toll on her. She said that the Middle East – as she would call it while he would call it the Arab world – is a region where hiccups are always coming around the corner; it is a region without hope in the near future. She said she did not want to have a family and children in a region that would probably be lagging behind as the world gets into a new century. She was about to get her Ph.D and she was planning to move to North America. After all, she said, the 21st century is going to be the American Century.

He had to choose. He recalled the Christian prayer: lead us not into temptation. He went through tough days. And at the end he made his decision. He chose to go back to Cairo. There, he has his family, his university and his dreams. 

A few decades down the road, as he is aging and as the Arab World – or the Middle East as Amina used to call it – is going through practical hell and as he is facing defeated dreams and many disappointments, he would still be unable to tell himself whether or not he made the right choice back then. However, he would tell himself that the one thing that we learn from history is that there is never anything that is perfectly right or perfectly wrong; people go through the journey of life upon the choices they make, one way or the other.

Anyway, upon his return to Cairo he was faced with failed dreams. The beginning was at the university. He found that the levels of academic research were sharply declining and that a university was not being much different from a high school – as he would even call it so, occasionally. 

Sometimes, however, pleasant surprises are in store. He received a call from his professor, Andre Raymond, who had resigned from his teaching job at university to be fully dedicated to his research. Raymond told him that he got his hands on a missing volume of the chronicles of the French Expedition in Egypt, which would add significantly to the parts that are already there. Raymond told him that he is working on a piece of research on this part and that he wishes to have it done simultaneously in French and Arabic.

He recalled this volume. It was the one where the French Expedition put included all the names of the elite who had cooperated with the Expedition under the claim of shared decision-making. Only a claim, he thought, because in reality what the Expedition wanted was to get this elite to be held responsible before the public for the policies of the occupation. The Expedition did not want to get any blame for anything; it wanted all the blame to go the Egyptian elite – such an old trick that occupation powers always resort to.

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