Whenever he looked back on the episode, Imtaz couldn’t help reliving all the ghastliness of that moment when, clasping his co-star in a fiery embrace, he had realized his error. He had stood there, stunned and filled with absurd terror as he heard the audience shouting out sarcastic remarks, while his partner—the actress he was supposed to have taken in his arms—emitted the shrieks of a woman dishonored before collapsing, unconscious, in an armchair. Then the curtain came down, the catcalls and the laughter grew fainter, and Imtaz tried to understand how the catastrophe could have occurred. Over the course of some hundred performances, he had played this scene, in which he entered a living room where his fiancée and her brother were waiting for him, by using as reference points the spots where the other actors usually stood on the stage. Despite his extreme near-sightedness, he was able to distinguish the characters he had to deal with well enough not to make any critical mistakes. At first he thought his partners had exchanged places during the scene that preceded his entrance, and that his blunder had arisen from this switch. But such was not the case. Nothing of the kind had occurred; it was almost as if he had deliberately chosen to head in the wrong direction. This realization led him to seek a psychological explanation for his behavior. Was it some unconscious drive that had sent him rushing toward his fiancée’s brother? It seemed like the eruption of some long-repressed act—he despised the actress who played opposite him—she was a stupid, vulgar woman of about forty with sagging flesh who had, for a small forturne, been promoted to the ranks of celebrity by a wealthy merchant. Imtaz had a very hard time hiding his disgust whenever he acted with her. Each time he had to take her in his arms, she would latch on to him, hungrily seeking his mouth like a vampire thirsting for blood. It was therefore highly plausible that he had attempted to escape her adipose hugs and kisses by moving unconsciously toward her partner, a shy young man who represented absolutely no threat to him. This explanation restored Imtaz’s confidence in his eye sight as well as in his sense of direction.
He was not, however, alone in studying the enigma of his strange behavior. The members of the audience who had been witness to his unfortunate embrace did not remain passive; they were quick to peddle all sorts of conflicting rumors regarding his morals and his origins. Some of them considered him a very reasonable man and praised him to the skies: these were the capital’s confirmed homosexuals. They wrote him a long letter congratulating him for having finally made such a spectacular choice. The scandal died down rather quickly, but doubt lingered in people’s minds. Imtaz’s career as an actor was seriously compromised. Humiliated by this tragic mishap, he was forced to withdraw from the public eye: he no longer felt up to appearing on stage opposite actors who were becoming more and more invisible to him. One more gaffe like that, and he would be stoned to death. He would be cornered into revealing a secret no one knew, not even his closest friends.
His myopia, growing worse each year, was the bane of his acting career because Imtaz, not wanting to disappoint all those women who admired his tremendous good looks, refused to wear glasses. Wearing glasses on stage seemed unbefitting given the virile, womanizing roles that ordinarily fell to him. He did not even wear them in town, and so people took him to be haughty and distant, an attitude completely foreign to his nature. And indeed, his shortsightedness gave his gaze the impenetrable and secretive air that lay at the very heart of his legend. All his power over crowds—and especially over women—he owed to the perpetual dim surroundings in which he moved: human beings, with their indistinct outlines, seemed to have absolutely no influence over his fate. His indifference to the attentions of his enthusiastic public, to feminine smiles and glances—for the simple reason that he could not see them—made him appear to be a charismatic, disdainful idol convinced of his own flawlessness. Imtaz knew that his fame depended entirely on this imposture and he could not bring himself to destroy the myth he embodied by revealing his infirmity to the world. He was willing to do anything save spoil his beautiful face by donning a pair of ridiculous glasses. Rather than going around wearing such barbaric accoutrements—which would have explained the true meaning of his misstep on stage—he had preferred to disappear from view, and had chosen his home town as his place of refuge. He owned a modest apartment there; it had belonged to his parents, both of whom were now dead, and he had always held on to it because it was tied to memories of his childhood. He would wait there until the scandal was completely forgotten.
When he arrived back in the small city, he let it be understood by his old acquaintances that he had come to rest from the sheer exhaustion of the artist’s life; people were happy to see him, and they did not ask for details, even though vague rumors of the scandal had reached the ears of the better informed. But Imtaz’s alleged convalescence had already lasted three years and he no longer mentioned anything about returning to the capital.
He continued to act his part in the theater of the small city—a theater of vast proportions where no stage effects existed to rein in the bountiful spring of life, and where no curtain fell to bring the performance to an end. This play had roots everywhere; it proliferated in the city’s every nook and cranny. Imtaz now found himself continually inspired; he was at once actor and audience in an infinity of intrigues that no playwright could have dreamed up. Each day a new role was offered to him in the flood of grotesque passions and spectacular trivialities to which his fellow citizens devoted themselves with proud tenacity. The absence of ovations and curtain calls was offset by a singular pleasure, that of enthralling real people and experiencing their love or their hatred with a living, vulnerable heart. He felt ennobled, and more triumphant than he had ever felt on stage.
The large mirror in its gilded frame that hung on his wall reflected nothing to Imtaz but a hazy face with blurry features, like the face of a drowned man floating in turbid waters. He stepped back slowly and all that remained was a pale patch of color, barely a faint glimmer in the misty distance. Among all the old family furniture that filled the apartment, this mirror represented for him an ever-present and persistent lure. Long ago, when his eyesight was still keen, he had often delighted in admiring the pure lines of this bronze mask and had entertained himself by changing its expressions at whim. What had become of this visage, and what transformations had it undergone over the years? He would never know. He was reduced to this dismal fate: being the only person unable to admire his own face. With an acute sense of frustration, he turned away from this vertiginous abyss that could only restore a tiny, unrecognizable portion of his own splendor to him.
The lure of the mirror was still menacing him when he heard the doorbell ring. He hesitated for a moment, then went to open the door.
“Peace be upon you!” cried Teymour.
Imtaz recognized the visitor by his voice and was re lieved to welcome him without needing to lean forward to decipher his features. He rarely had such good fortune.
“What a wonderful surprise!” he said. “Please forgive me for receiving you in these clothes.”
Teymour glanced at the loose silk dressing gown with its floral pattern in which Imtaz was cloaked, then bowed respectfully.
“Don’t worry, you’re impeccably dressed. It’s you who must forgive me. But I needed to speak with someone. Something terrible is happening to me.”
Imtaz took him calmly by the arm and led him into the reception room where the famous mirror had pride of place. When they were seated, Teymour pulled a newspaper from his pocket, unfolded it, and brandished it beneath the former actor’s unfocused eyes.
“What?” asked Imtaz. “Another war?”
“No,” replied Teymour. “Just another man who has disappeared in our city. But I knew this one.”
Imtaz grabbed the paper, looked at it closely and pretended to be interested in the picture of a man dressed like a rich villager with a huge mustache, the tips of which curled up so high that they threatened at any moment to poke out his eyes. The picture had a black frame around it, as if the man were dead.
“How do you know him?”
“I met him at The Awakening, the day I went into town for the first time—I remember him because of his mustache. He really amazed me: he told me he was planning on living it up before going back home. He seemed like a rich man from a neighboring village quite smug about his wealth. When it came time to pay the waiter, he took out a wallet stuffed with bills and laid it ostentatiously on the table.”
“Is that all you know about him? He didn’t say anything else to you?”
“He said something completely ridiculous; he said that he envied me for living in this city.”
“And where was he from?”
“From a village about forty kilometers from here. It says so in the paper. He was supposed to go home that same night, but he was never seen again.”
“So. He was out for a good time,” said Imtaz. “Well, at least the man was an optimist. Too bad he’s been assassinated.”
“According to Medhat, the police seem to believe these are political assassinations.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me. The police chief sees conspiracies against the government everywhere. It’s his private nightmare. And we shouldn’t complain about it.”
“But he’s watching us!” Teymour exclaimed.
“If he’s looking for crimes, he won’t find any, because we’re not assassinating anyone. And while he’s following this false scent, he’s not paying attention to anything else. This business makes people terribly afraid; they shut themselves in as soon as night falls. And so do the police. Which works out perfectly for us for organizing our pleasures.”
“I admit I’m somewhat curious about these mysterious disappearances,” said Teymour thoughtfully.
“You’re becoming quite interested in our little city,” remarked Imtaz. “I’m very happy about that. I was afraid you’d need a long period of adjustment, full of suffering and bitterness.”
He rose, took a few slow steps around the room, moving away from the mirror and back again as if attracted by a magnet. He couldn’t stay seated in conversation for long. His experience on stage forced him to strike various poses, and to shade each of his lines of dialogue differently.
“And what’s going on with you?” he continued. “Weren’t you supposed to start at the factory soon?”
“I’ve decided not to work for the time being,” replied Teymour.
A few days earlier, Teymour had resolved not to accept the chemical engineering position he was being offered. The fear that he would be found out as a fraud had played no role in his decision; his forged diploma still seemed as valid as any other to him. He was motivated by a more disturbing feeling urging him to stay away from any steady occupation just as strange events were transpiring in the city—a vague but insidious feeling that chained him to the town’s fate while demanding his complete freedom of movement and mind. He felt the need to pay as close attention as possible to the slightest vibrations that might occur around him. Ever since he had taken up again with the friends from his youth, things did not seem as simple as they had the day he arrived; appearances were beginning to crumble, little by little revealing to his astounded eyes flashes of an underground life somehow tied to his hopes for happiness. Old Teymour had no trouble accepting his son’s strange ideas and did not attempt to comprehend why he refused to take up a high-level position, thereby losing all the advantages of his long years of study. In fact, his father liked things better this way, for at heart he despised all mercenary aspirations. The diploma, despite being tiny and austere, was sufficient to satisfy his paternal vanity. He jealously guarded it in a wardrobe in his bedroom, but never failed to exhibit it to his relatives and other visitors as if it were a museum piece that had cost a fortune.
Imtaz suddenly stood still, slid his hands into the pock ets of his dressing gown, shot a glance at the mirror, then said:
“May I ask why?”
“I didn’t study anything while I was abroad,” Teymour stated. “My diploma is a fake that I bought right before I came home. I had to, for my father’s sake.”
“I see,” said Imtaz. “I don’t think you need to worry about that. We live in a world where everything is false.”
“I know. And it wasn’t my scruples that stopped me. A few days ago I was still willing to accept the job at the refinery. You can imagine that the prospect of living in this city after six years abroad seemed worse than death to me: what more could I have done for myself—better to be swallowed up by the daily grind and forget my misery—but now I have a feeling that I must remain totally avail able. It’s as if I’m waiting for something. But what it is I’m waiting for, I cannot explain.”
Teymour fell silent and looked at Imtaz as if he held the key to all the mysteries that flourished in the city. But Imtaz was incapable of perceiving the question in Teymour’s gaze; his myopia made him impervious to this kind of quiet desperation.