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Don't count your chickens...By Fayza Hassan
Hagg Hassan is a pious, stately gentleman who uncannily resembles the proud effendis of days gone by. He does not wear a tarboosh, of course, but I have always felt that he must long for one, aware that it would add a final touch to his extremely dignified appearance. For many years, he has been helping my sister to manage the family's land, a chore she took over soon after our father's death. Hagg Hassan acts as a sort of public relations person, bridging the gap between absentee landowner and the peasants on the land. Although my sister has yet to be convinced of his genuine diplomatic abilities and usually feels that he complicates matters with his claims of expertise in rural psychology, rather than clearing them up, she has come to rely on him in difficult situations.
With the new land law, Hagg Hassan was kept busy and his importance increased severalfold as landowners and labourers entered protracted negotiations to fix the land rent. Blowing up his own role to unprecedented dimensions and making each party believe that he was on their side, he eventually managed to help work out a compromise which seemed to satisfy both my sister and the peasants. This acknowledged success encouraged Hagg Hassan to suggest that my sister no longer needed to trouble herself with frequent trips to the village. He could handle her affairs on his own and was grateful to be of assistance.
Hagg Hassan's honesty is legendary. He prides himself on his indifference to any form of personal gain. He has always been ticklish on matters of remuneration, adamantly refusing anything that remotely resembled payment for services rendered. My sister worried that, on his own, the old man would exhaust himself without receiving a just reward. Nevertheless, on several occasions she had to give in to his obstinacy and stay home while he attended to the business at hand. She insisted, however, that he use her car and driver for his trips, which he finally accepted with reluctance.
On one occasion last month, Hagg Hassan was detained in the village and the driver, knowing that he was expected to return before nightfall, finally decided to leave him to find his own way back to the city. As a matter of fact, my sister, who had an urgent appointment, had been waiting impatiently for her car. She hurriedly released the driver and drove at once to her meeting. On the way, she heard disturbing noises coming from the rear of the vehicle, which she attributed to some mechanical failure, making a note to point them out to the driver.
The following morning, the driver mentioned something about having to pass by Hagg Hassan. "We will," said my sister, "as soon as I have finished my errands." Hearing the clanging noise again, she enquired as to its cause. "It's the chickens," he said laconically. "I am surprised they are still clucking." Thinking that he was referring to some car parts, my sister asked him to have them fixed at once. The driver said nothing for a while. The noise grew louder. "Shouldn't we attend to the repairs right now?" asked my sister, rather alarmed. "There is nothing wrong with the car, it's the chickens," came the rather cryptic answer.
It took my sister some time to sort out the real nature of the noise. Apparently, Hagg Hassan had been receiving and accepting gifts in kind from the peasants, as is customary. From his regular trips, he brought home a basketfull of fresh eggs, a leg of lamb, bread, fresh vegetables or a fowl. This time, a pair of chickens had been placed in the trunk of the car, which Hagg Hassan, having been left behind, had asked the driver to deliver to his house as soon as he arrived in Cairo. Running late, the driver had omitted to fulfil this obligation. My sister was horrified. "You mean that we are driving around with the poor birds, which have neither eaten nor drank since yesterday?" she asked in bewilderment. "Let's go at once to Hagg Hassan's house and deliver the chickens." Although she felt that her presence might embarrass the old man, my sister decided that now was not the time to take exaggerated sensitivities into account. Ending the chickens' ordeal was paramount.
Hagg Hassan lived in the vicinity of Al-Hussein. At this time of day, the narrow alley was crowded to capacity with street vendors, children coming back from school and housewives returning from the market. Honking persistently, the driver steered the car -- and his charges -- deftly to Hagg Hassan's front door. No sooner had he stopped than my sister leapt out and opened the boot meaning to give the creatures a whiff of badly needed air. "They looked less ruffled than I was," she later recounted pensively. "They blinked a couple of times and, with a mighty squawk, they purposefully tumbled out of the boot and disappeared into the crowd, causing a minor commotion in their wake. There was no way I was going to try to catch them." Understandably, Hagg Hassan never mentioned the chickens. My sister thought of making clucking noises when next she saw him, but felt it would have been insensitive.