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Tahrir Square is back to normal. It is morning, and trucks, cars and taxis zoom around the traffic circle, none slowing for pedestrians. Young men pedal cranky bicycles past crumbling buildings, right hands gripping handlebars, left hands balancing wide wooden trays of precious flatbread. The subway rumbles. A bus careens wildly around a tiny girl riding side-saddle astride a donkey, the donkey piled 15 feet high with used tyres, the girl furiously beating the slow-moving animal with a stick.
Nearby in the Garden District, two black, armoured personnel carriers with rifle-slits in place of windows come to a stop at the back entrance of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia as two identical vehicles leave. A boy of twelve skips down the walk from an apartment building, crosses the street, pulls himself up by the rifle-slits on one of the carriers, sticks out his tongue at the soldiers inside and greets them with the refrain from his favourite cartoon show: “Yabba-dabba-do!” The soldiers, most of them little older than children themselves, laugh and chant back, “Da-da-da-da… da-da-da-da… dadadadadadadooo!”
The boy’s name is Ahmed and he is a happy boy. He is happy with his maddrassa, the school he walks to every day. He is happy with his mother, who makes sure he always has a clean pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a bottle of Dasani laid out every morning. He is happy with his father, who is never too tired to play soccer in the street after coming home from his shop on the broad boulevard where he canes chairs all day, every day. Ahmed is happy with his bowab—his doorman, security guard and confidant—who sits in one of those caned chairs in front of their apartment building at Eight Selamik Street doling out wise advice between spurts of brown liquid deposited into the dust of their courtyard. And he is happy with his Imam, Sheikh El Al, and his mosque, Imbab y Paca (Go in Peace). He is not happy, however, with the older boys at the mosque who pressure him to bang his forehead on his prayer rug as they do, prostrating themselves and raising red and swollen zebibahs, red raisins, midway between their eyebrows and their hairlines.
“I do not need to create a raisin on my face to show my devotion to Allah,” Ahmed tells his parents as they sit for dinner with his older sister Busalyn, who always disagrees with everything Ahmed does or says. “I do many good deeds every day to show my devotion, I pray five times every day, and I pray at the mosque four times each week, three times on Holy Friday. That means many more good deeds, even more than anyone needs.”
“You are a foolish boy, Ahmed,” Busalyn sneers. “One can never earn enough good deeds. They are not like points in a soccer game. They demonstrate your devotion, yes, but so do zebibahs. If you weren’t such a child you’d understand. The Brotherhood is urging young men all over Cairo to create raisins of devotion on their foreheads to celebrate the January 25th Revolution.”
The next morning, before he crosses the street to josh the young soldiers and begin his walk to school, Ahmed stops to consult with his bowab about his zebibah problem.
“The older boys are mocking me, calling me an infidel, urging me to bang my face on my prayer rug.”
“Do you fear a red raisin will mark you as a devoted one?”
“I am a devoted one. I follow the instructions of my Imam. I study the Quran. I wear my white galibaya and go to the mosque for prayers. But I’m unconvinced about the raisin because it is like a tattoo, which is forever forbidden.”
“By your Imam?”
“No, by my father.”
“Then perhaps you should try a temporary tattoo as sold by Mr. El-alam in his store. They are shaped much like a zebibah. See if you like it. See how people respond to you.”
“You mean the transfers, right? Bowab, you are most wise and I thank you.”
Ahmed takes a one-block detour on his way to school and stops in at Mr. El-alam’s shop, where you can buy anything you need—a roll of toilet paper, a live chicken, a can of Pringles, or a package of Wangle’s Washoff Tattoos. Ahmed leaves the store. He pauses in the street and with a drop of water from his Dasani, moistens a tattoo of a dove of peace and presses it to his forehead. The tattoo dries quickly. He peels off the paper, decides he doesn’t like it, and attempts to wash it off with water from his Dasani bottle.
As he makes his way to school, Ahmed looks in the dirty window of the bakery and sees that the tattoo of the dove of peace is still on his forehead. He scrubs again, looks again in the dirty window. The tattoo becomes redder and redder. He covers his head with his hand, returns home running and tells his mother he is not feeling well enough to go to school. In the bathroom, he attempts many times to wash off the tattoo with soap and warm water. It grows even redder and swells, the dove of peace still clearly visible.
In the early evening, Ahmed and his father walk together to the mosque, wearing their identical white robes and black caps. Ahmed tries to cover his forehead, but his father pulls away his hand and admonishes him to be proud. As they approach the heavy front doors of the mosque, men greet his father and remark that the boy is developing a fine zebibah. Some realise the zebibah shows the distinct likeness of a dove, a dove of peace, and a buzz of astonishment begins to flow up and down the narrow street. By the time Ahmed and his father enter the mosque, grown men are falling away from them and the words “dove of peace” are murmured into a life of their own. Maybe this is a sign the military is ready to fulfil the promises of the revolution and the reality of poverty is about to be lifted. Perhaps this boy will lead them.
During prayers, Ahmed is careful to tap his forehead on his rug ever so lightly, trapped now in his charade. When he rises from his prayers, he is confronted by a towering Sheikh El Al. The Imam is a thoughtful and gentle man who sometimes plays soccer with the boys in the street after evening prayers. He is revered as a good leader who cares deeply for the poor. He is humble, yet he guards his status carefully.
“So Ahmed, you are trying to take my place as Imam?”
“No, Excellency, I am much too young and insignificant to dream of such a thing. Have I displeased you in some way?”
“You have mocked the devoted young men of this mosque and you have mocked me by coming to prayers with a false symbol of hope on your forehead. A dove of peace zebibah, indeed. Who assisted you in creating this false piety that has so many members of this venerated mosque abuzz with expectation?”
“No one, Excellency. It is a transfer, a washable tattoo I purchased on the advice of my bowab, who thought it would help me decide whether I wished to create a real raisin on my forehead. When I tried to rub it off, it swelled and became redder and began to resemble a true mark of devotion.”
“With the dove of peace thrown in for a little extra attention?”
“I wish no attention. I am a good boy. I do many good deeds to show my devotion, I pray five times every day, and I pray at the mosque four nights each week, three times on the Holy Day.”
The Imam is not placated.
“All Muslims do hassandra, as witness to our piety and devotion. But no one is required to count or to report, and no one knows how many are enough. And who is the bowab who gave you this advice?”
“His name is Abdallah, Imam, and he has served me and my family and our building for many years, keeping us safe and never asking more than a small portion of bread and meat every day and a packet of chewing matter each week.”
“Ah, yes. Abdallah, the Nubian, the one who organises the other bowabs into creating their own mosques in the alleys on Holy Fridays.”
“He means no offence, Excellency. When I ask him why he does not join us, he says he is too poor and unworthy. But I have found him kind, very wise and helpful in many things.”
“Well, he surely has not been wise or helpful in advising you to feign a zebibah and create such a false impression on the people of our community. My instruction to you is to return to this most worldly and ambitious bowab and ask him to counsel you on how to rectify what you have done.”
By the time Ahmed reaches Eight Selamik Street, Abdallah, his bowab, has retired to the privacy of his shack beside the building, so the boy waits until he goes to school the next morning to talk with him.
“The Imam is most displeased with me over the red raisin I created on your wise advice. He says it has aroused false hope among the people of our mosque. He has instructed me to consult with you about how to correct our error.”
The bowab strokes his chin, spits a stream of brown juice into the dust, and lifts his eyes to the south, in the direction of Nubia.
“We bowabs are very poor, perhaps the poorest of the poor, and therefore we must be very pious and devoted—in Egypt, the poorer one is, the more pious one must be. I must do as the Imam requests, for to defy him would not be wise.”
“What must we do?”
“My suggestion is that when you go to prayers this evening, tell the Imam you will pledge to do 20,000 good deeds in atonement.”
“But how can I, a single boy, perform 20,000 good deeds? That’s surely more than I’ll be able to do in all of my life?”
“I will ask your family and the other families in our building to increase their good deeds for the next two weeks and donate them to you. Then I will organise the other bowabs at our alley mosques on Holy Friday and they will make the same request of the families they serve.”
Ahmed suspects his bowab, like the Imam, is stretching the admonitions of the Quran in suggesting that good deeds can be transferred from one person to another, but he is anxious to end the matter and so makes the pledge to Sheikh El Al after prayers that evening. The Imam accepts the pledge, knowing that when the boy fails, people will realise that he and his bowab have done nothing very special and they will both be gently discredited.
By Holy Friday, the work of the network of bowabs begins to reveal itself—there are 10,000 mosques in Cairo, but there are easily 20,000 bowabs and they communicate swiftly among themselves and with the families they serve. Because praying at the mosque instead of at home is accepted as a multiple good deed, many more people than usual show up at the Imbab y Paca mosque, pleasing the Imam because it means many more will hear his sermon, but distressing him because he knows all of the new worshipers have also come expecting to be fed. He has no inkling as to what is causing the upsurge in attendance, but he welcomes the additions to his audience. He orders the pious brothers who live at the mosque to unlock his own freezer and prepare meals large enough to feed everyone. Because the parishioners are so well-fed, the Imam’s sermon is well-received and many wait in line to tell Sheikh El Al that they will most assuredly return several times during the coming week and then again on Holy Friday.
The Imam realises his own food lockers will not provide enough meat and bread for more people, so he prints and distributes an emergency copy of the Imbab y Paca newsletter, asking the important men of Garden City, the pashas, to double their donations of food and money. They begin to do so immediately, and increase their own visits to the mosque so they can appear to be leading, rather than following the surge. Before the next week is out, almost every man and many women and children living in Garden City are attending prayers at the mosque on a daily basis—all except the bowabs, of course, who pray in their alleys so they can remain close by the homes and buildings they protect.
Soon, word of the organising for good deeds done by the bowabs spreads beyond the mosque. Residents of Garden City begin calling the city government of Cairo, asking for good deeds in the form of increased garbage pickup; refuse begins disappearing from the streets. Employees in the Embassies tell their bosses of the rising number of good deeds, and the bosses, fearing political backlash if they do not participate, allow leftover food from their cafeterias to be shared with the disabled and the elderly. A delegation of despised diplomats from the Saudi Embassy brings leftover desserts from a lavish party to the Egyptian soldiers standing behind the lead shields; they sing together late into the night. The next morning, the Saudi Ambassador himself brings coffee and cooling fruit juices to the men and apologises for the evil deeds done by his country.
Soon, millions of people are flooding into mosques all across the city, including thousands of starving squatters from the tombs in the City of the Dead. The Imams welcome them and ask for more help from the pashas.
The campaign by the bowabs of Garden City ignites a full-fledged civic drive, now officially sponsored by the Cairo Chamber of Commerce and renamed “A Good Deed Today, Paradise Tomorrow.” Operators of carpet schools in the countryside close down, sell their assets and use the money to build madrassas for the thousands of children they have been using as cheap labour. The Military Council shortens the timetable for free elections, reverses the privatisation of factories and grants workers the right to strike. Twelve unarmed members of the Israeli military emerge from a “Peace and Prosperity” walk across the desert carrying dates and figs and boxes of dove of peace tattoos for the children of Cairo.
When interviewed by the news media, Ahmed wisely denies ambitions to become Mayor of Cairo, or even a pasha. When asked where he got the idea for “Good Deeds Today”, Ahmed confesses he had taken it verbatim from the wise counsel of the Imam of the Imbab y Paca (Go in Peace) mosque, Sheikh El Al. The Sheikh is propelled into the race for the presidency of Egypt. Although he fails to win, he is able to convince the Muslim Brotherhood’s successful candidate to implement equal treatment for Christians and even for the Jews and French who have been living for many years in virtual secrecy. The new president embraces a coalition with leaders from the Labour Council as well as the Military Council and renounces Sharia as the supreme law of Egypt. The Brotherhood, anxious to be on the edge of change, declares that the young women of Cairo will no longer be required to cover their heads and faces in public with their hijabs. The Military Council responds by re-instating parliament and agreeing to a new constitution with more power for the president. Abdallah the Nubian and the other bowabs in Cairo and the rural areas are appointed official Ministers of Good Deeds and granted stipends of 40 American dollars a week. Ahmed becomes known at his madrassa and at his mosque as the “Dove of Peace” and wears purple garments given to him by the rock star Prince.
Many years later, the Good Deeds movement reaches the shores of the United States of America, causing a non-violent uprising that elects the first female president in U.S. history. The new president issues executive orders establishing a single-payer health care system, legalising same-sex marriages nationwide, and granting workers the right to join and form unions with no interference from their employer. She then calls home all remaining American troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Japan, Germany, South Korea and Bahrain. The U.S. Congress votes to increase taxes on the wealthy as well as on corporations, in order to save the country’s struggling social security and education systems.
After finishing university, Ahmed is named Egypt’s Ambassador to the U.S. The 750 highly respected American and world officials and their wives who attend his first formal reception all leave with black silk T-shirts, produced in Egyptian textile plants by adult artisans making 100 American dollars a day. On the front of the shirts, just above the curve of one’s breast on the left hand side, a grey-white dove of peace is emblazoned on a purple field, and just below it, in the brightest and hopeful orange of a sunrise, are inscribed the words: “Behold, the Raisin.”
Ray Abernathy is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. whose short stories have been published by the South Dakota Review, FictionNow, the Dead Mule and won honorable mention awards from Glimmer Train and the Potomac Review. He is the author of two novels: Stepping on the Cracks and Pete and Max Take a Walk on the Upper West Side—both of which are dutifully trolling for agents and/or publishers.