An extract from Monsieur - Or the Prince of Darkness by Lawrence Durrell. Part of The Avignon Quintet.
In those days there were no real suburbs - the desert began almost at the gates of Alexandria and with it of course the damp enervating heat which soaked and bathed one, until one could feel the sweat trickling through one’s clothes into one’s very saddle. Our breathing was laboured. There were small villages giving (so many were the mirages) the illusion of being fictions; their reflections rose in the air or settled into the ground. Purely fictitious lakes with minarets surrounded them, turning them into violet islands. Finally one got to disbelieving one’s own eyesight, and in waiting for the truth to emerge - the sordid truth, for the villages were all decayed and fly-blown, and now in the noonday sun for the most part deserted.
In one the Arab guide beckoned us to follow him, with a sort of cheeky grin, as if to promise us an agreeable diversion. There was a naked old man chained to a block of wood set deep in the ground. He seemed dead, but the Arab turned him over with his foot as one turns a strange beatle over. No, he was alive, but mad. He mopped and mowed, smiled and salaamed and mumbled. He was as thin as an insect, but was brimming over with an insane gaiety - the blissful amnesia that all excessive suffering brings.
We heard his story. He had been chained here as a punishment for some crime by the local pasha. But time passed, the nature of his crime was forgotten by the village, even the old pasha himself died, and the criminal went slowly mad with the heat and the thirst. But his madness took the form of a tremendous and exalted happiness. He submitted to everything happily. He was in a state of perfect bliss, whatever happened. Perhaps it was due to this that he survived, for the villagers brought him food and water, first out of sympathy and lastly because they felt that he was really a saint. The truth broke upon them.
Now he was cherished and fed, and people came to visit him as if he were an oracle. He had indeed become a saint, and would when he died give the village a yearly festival. Only they had no authority to free him, that would take a great deal of effort and documentation, and there was hardly anyone in the village capable of examining the legal situation or undertaking the necessary paperwork. Meanwhile he was euphoric. He kissed Piers’ toe and went on muttering. The sandheap in which he lay was full of ants, and there seemed no shade for the poor man. But packets of food lay about, and having had a hearty laugh at his compatriot’s plight the Arab guide suddenly turned pious, made him a deep obeisance and then went to fill a pitcher of sweet water for him.
One felt helpless and thoroughly disgusted. Normally one bought out one’s horror and embarrassment when face to face with such a spectacle (a beggar covered in sores, say) but in this case what good was money, what good our etiolated town-sympathy? It was hard to know how to curb one’s fury, too, against the guide for having thought up this pleasing little spectacle for us. Suddenly Egypt hit us all like a hammer.