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The Chair Carrier

The Chair Carrier

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A story by Yusuf Idris translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
A story by Yusuf Idris translated by Denys Johnson-Davies

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Published by: Maryanne Stroud Gabbani on Jun 07, 2013
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~DRtS/The Chair CmTier

YUSUF IDRIS lb. 1927]

The Chair Carrier

One of the most respected contemporary writers in the Arab world, Yusuf Idris (b. 1927) was born and raised by elderly relatives in a small Egyptian 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 University in the 1940s, he involved himself in radical politics and became a student activist. When his first collection of short stories, influenced by the work of Russian social realist Maxim Gorky, was published in 1954, Idris was in jail. By the 1970s he became interested in the psychological roots of social problems and why and how, as in "The Chair Carrier," a person willingly submits to servitude. Soon after he decided to put medicine aside and write full-time. After working in Cairo as a journalist, Idris accepted the position of director 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 reigned supreme.

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 considered that I had been witness to a miracle. But even more miraculous-indeed more disastrous--was that neither the man, the chair, nor the incident 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 some other world, or that it had been constructed for some festival, such a colossal 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 permission of University o[ California Press,

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 for a 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 looked strange amidst all that bulk and splendour; it was, though, no leg but a thin, gaunt human being upon whose body the sweat had formed runnels 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, simply relating, be it ever so inadequately, what I saw. How was it that such a thin, frail man was carrying a chair like this one, a chair that weighed at least a ton, and maybe several? That was the proposition that was presented 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 with it. 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 astonished or treated the matter as if it was anything untoward, but rather as something quite normal and unremarkable, as if the chair were as light as 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 of amazement, 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 determine his 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, conscious that your mind had, like an empty room, begun to set off echoes telling 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’?"


I1)RtS/The Chair Carrier Was he speaking hieroglyphics pronounced as Arabic, or Arabic pronounced as hieroglyphics? Could the man be an ancient Egyptian? I rounded on him: "Listen here--don’t start telling me you’re an ancient Egyptian?" "And are there ancient and modern? I’m simply an Egyptian." "And what’s this chair?" "It’s what I’m carrying. Why do you think I’m going around looking for Uncle Ptah Ra’? It’s so that he may order me to put it down just as he ordered me to carry it. I’m done in." "You’ve been carrying it for tong?" "For a very long time, you can’t imagine." "A year?" "What do you mean by a year, my son? Tell anyone who asks--a year and then a few thousand." "Thousand what?" "Years." "From the time of the Pyramids, for example?" "From before that. From the time of the Nile." "What do you mean: from the time of the Nile?" "From the time when the Nile wasn’t called the Nile, and they moved the capital from the mountain to the river bank, Uncle Ptah brought me along and said ’Porter, take it up.’ I took it up and ever since I’ve been wandering all over the place looking for him to tell me to put it down, but from that day to this I’ve not found him." All ability or inclination to feel astonishment had completely ended for me. Anyone capable of can3,ing a chair of such dimensions and weight for a single moment could equally have been carrying it for thousands of years. There was no occasion for surprise or protest; all that was required was a question: "And suppose you don’t find Uncle Ptah Ra’, are you going to go on carrying it around?" "What else shall I do? I’m carrying it and it’s been deposited in trust with me. I was ordered to carry it, so how can I put it down without being ordered to?" Perhaps it was anger that made me say: "Put it down. Aren’t you fed up, m~n? Aren’t you tired? Throw it away, break it up, burn it. Chairs are made to carry people, not for people to carry them." "I can’t. Do you think I’m carrying it for fun? I’m carrying it because that’s the way I earn my living." "So what? Seeing that it’s wearing you out and breaking your back, you should throw it down--you should have done so ages ago." "That’s how you look at things because you’re safely out of it; you’re 32

II)Rls/The Chair Carrier

not carrying it, so you don’t care. I’m carrying it and it’s been deposited in trust with me, so I’m responsible for it." "Until when, for God’s sake?" "Till the order comes from Ptah Ra’." "He couldn’t be more dead." "Then from his successor, his deputy, from one of his descendants, from anyone with a token of authorization from him." "All right then, I’m ordering you right now to put it down." "Your order will be obeyed--and thank you for your kindness--but are you related to him?" "Unfortunately not." "Do you have a token of authorization from him?" "No, I don’t." "Then allow me to be on my way." He had begun to move off, but I shouted out to him to stop, for I had noticed something that looked like an announcement or sign fixed to the front oF the chair. In actual fact it was a piece of gazelle-hide with ancient writing on it, looking as though it was from the earliest copies of the Revealed Books. It was with difficulty that I read: O chair carrier, You have carried enough And the time has come for you to be carried in a chair. This great chair, The llke of which has not been made, Is for you alone. Carry it And take it to your home. Put it in the place of honour And seat yourself upon it your whole life tong. And when you die It shall belong to your sons. "This, Mr Chair Carrier, is the order of Ptah Ra’, an order that is precise and was issued at the same moment in which he ordered you to carry the chair. It is sealed with his signature and cartouche." All this I told him with great joy, a joy that exploded as from someone who had been almost stilled. Ever since I had seen the chair and known the.story I had felt as thongh it were I who was carrying it and had done so for thousands of years; it was as though it were my back that was being broken, and as though the joy that now came to me were my own joy at being released at long last. 33

1Dl~Is/The Chair Carrier The man listened to me with head lowered, without a tremor of emotion: just waited with head lowered for me to finish, and no sooner had I done so than he raised his head. I had been expecting a joy similar to my own, even an expression of delight, but I found no reaction. "The order’s written right there above your head--written ages ago." "But I don’t know how to read." "But I’ve just read it out to you." "I’ll believe it only if there’s a token of authorization. Have you such a token?" When I made no reply he muttered angrily as he turned away: "All I get from you people is obstruction. Man, it’s a heavy load and the day’s scarcely long enough for making just the one round." I stood watching him. The chair had started to move at its slow, steady pace, making one think that it moved by itself. Once again the man had become its thin fifth leg, capable on its own of setting it in motion. I stood watching him as he moved away, panting and groaning and with the sweat pouring off him. I stood there at a loss, asking myself whether I shouldn’t catch him up and kill him and thus give vent to my exasperation. Should I rush forward and topple the chair forcibly from his shoulders and make him take a rest? Or should I content myself with the sensation of enraged irritation I had for him? Or should I calm down and feel sorry for him? Or should I blame myself for not knowing what the token of authorization was? [t994]


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