YUSUF IDRIS lb. 1927]
The Chair Carrier
TRANSLATED BY DENYS JOHNSON-DAVIES
One of the most respected contemporary writers in the Arab world,
Yusuf Idris (b. 1927) was born and raised by elderly relatives in a smallEgyptian village. Before studying medicine, as did Anton Chekhov, one
of the European writers he most admired, Idris studied English and
acted as a translator for the British army. While studying at Cairo Uni-versity in the 1940s, he involved himself in radical politics and becamea student activist. When his first collection of short stories, influencedby the work of Russian social realist Maxim Gorky, was published in1954, Idris was in jail. By the 1970s he became interested in the psy-chological roots of social problems and why and how, as in "The ChairCarrier," a person willingly submits to servitude. Soon after he decidedto put medicine aside and write full-time.After working in Cairo as a journalist, Idris accepted the position ofdirector of the drama division of the Organization of Theatre Arts and
Music, a state agency. As a playwright and critic, Idris has been a
major force in the growth of the Egyptian theater, just as he has been
in the growth of fiction in Egypt and across the Arabic-speaking world,where, until the twentieth century, in secular literature, poetry reignedsupreme.
You can believe it or not, but excuse me for saying that your opinion is of
no concern at all to me. It’s enough for me that I saw him, met him,
talked to him, and observed the chair with my own eyes. Thus I consid-
ered that I had been witness to a miracle. But even more miraculous--indeed more disastrous--was that neither the man, the chair, nor theincident caused a single passer-by in Opera Square, in Gumhouriyya
Street., or in Cairo--or maybe in the whole wide world--to come to a
stop at that moment.
It was a vast chair. Looking at it you’d think it had come from someother world, or that it had been constructed for some festival, such acolossal chair, as though it were an institution all on its own, its seat
"The Chair Carrier." From
Arabic Short Stories,
translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.
Cops~-ight © 1994 by the Regents of the Unlvet~ity o[ California. Reprinted by permis-sion of University o[ California Press,
~DRtS/The Chair CmTier
immense and softly covered with leopard skin and silken cushions. Once
you’d seen it your great dream was to sit in it, be it just the once, just fora moment. A moving chair, it moved forward with stately gait as though
it were in some religious procession. You’d think it was moving of its
own accord. In awe and amazement you almost prostrated yourself
before it in worship and offered up sacrifices to it.
Eventually, however, I made out, between the four massive legs that
ended in glistening gilded hooves, a fifth leg. It was skinny and lookedstrange amidst all that bulk and splendour; it was, though, no leg but athin, gaunt human being upon whose body the sweat had formed run-nels and rivulets and had caused woods and groves of hair to sprout.
Believe me, by all that’s holy, I’m neither lying nor exaggerating, simplyrelating, be it ever so inadequately, what I saw. How was it that such athin, frail man was carrying a chair like this one, a chair that weighed atleast a ton, and maybe several? That was the proposition that was pre-
sented to one’s mind -- it was like some conjuring trick. But you had only
to look longer and more closely to find that there was no deception, that
the man really was carrying the chair all on his own and moving along
What was even more extraordinary and more weird, something that
was truly alarming, was that none of the passers-by in Opera Square, in
Gumhouriyya Street, or maybe in the whole of Cairo, was at all aston-
ished or treated the matter as if it was anything untoward, but rather assomething quite normal and unremarkable, as if the chair were as lightas a butterfly and was being carried m’ound by a young lad. I looked at
the people and at the chair and at the man, thinking that I would spot
the raising of an eyebrow, or lips sucked back in alarm, or hear a cry ofamazement, but there was absolutely no reaction.
I began to feel that the whole thing was too ghastly to contemplate
any longer. At this very moment the man with his burden was no more
than a step or two away from me and I was able to see his good-natured
face, despite its many wrinkles. Even so it was impossible to determinehis age. I then saw something more about him: he was naked except for
a stout waistl~and from which hung, in front and behind, a covering
made of sailcloth. Yet you would surely have to come to a stop, con-
scious that your mind had, like an empty room, begun to set off echoestelling you that, dressed as he was, he was a stranger not only to Cairo
but to our whole era. You had the sensation of having seen his like in
books about history or archaeology. And so I was surprised by the smfle
he gave, the kind of meek smile a beggar gives, and by a voice that
mouthed words:"May God have mercy on your parents, my son. You wouldn’t have
seen Uncle Ptah Ra’?"