Burdens

By MOHAMMAD RABIE

Translated by MOHAMED EL-SAWI HASSAN

It was the first of February 1957, and in the entrance of Prince Abdul Munem’s palace, a young officer stood facing the prince. With the usual sternness, the officer told the prince that he must leave the palace immediately.¹ Without saying a word, the prince went back inside and came out carrying a suitcase. He smiled at the officer and walked toward the southern wall of the palace.

At first the officer was astounded by this, as there was only one entrance to the palace and it was located in the northern wall. His amazement only grew as he watched the prince open the door of a room built against the southern wall and step inside it. Thinking he must have been duped and that his assignment had not been successfully completed, the officer went into the room and yelled furiously at the prince, threatening to use force to get him out of the palace. But the prince claimed that because the room was not part of the palace and he did not actually own it, he was still allowed to stay and live in it. He told the officer that his father had given the little room away a long time ago. He also informed him that Sheikh Abu Annoor was buried inside. He pointed to a structure in the middle of the room covered with a thin rug. “Don’t you see the tomb?” he asked. He then whirled his forefinger around in the air, pointing around the room, and asked the officer: “Would you really nationalize a shrine?”

That day, the officer dug up the map of the palace among the documents in the file that had been given to him, and scrutinized it repeatedly while writing his report. He stated in his report that the prince had left the palace, and that his mission had been carried out as it should have been; he did not refer to the shrine incident at all. This was out of neither negligence nor collusion with the enemy. He attached the map of the palace to his report, reassuring himself that it was accurate in every respect and feeling sure that his assignment had been thoroughly completed.

The map showed the palace and its walls, along with a small section that was cut off by the southern wall. According to the map, that area did not belong to the palace, but seemed to be a part of the street. In fine print was written: The Shrine of Sheikh Abu Annoor.

I still remember the first time I had the courage to disobey my mother’s orders. She had said: “Never drink sugarcane juice from a street vendor—it’s dirty, and you will definitely get sick if you drink it.”

I obeyed this order for a long time, convinced that I would get sick if I drank the sugarcane juice. I don’t know what made me try my first cup, especially considering the chilly weather that day. Earlier, I had picked a jasmine flower from a branch dangling over the sidewalk and seen a woman standing at the window of the little shrine across the street, gripping the vertical bars with both hands. Like Sheikh Abu Annoor’s followers usually did, the woman was whispering her supplication to him—the intimate whisper of lovers. Was the woman showing passionate love or just making a request at the sheikh’s shrine? The woman drew nearer to the window until her body was pushed right up against it. I knew she was crying, even though I couldn’t actually see her tears. When the woman was done with her supplication and had admitted her infatuation, she turned toward me, without knowing that I had been watching her. Our eyes met. Although the look we exchanged lasted only a moment, it was etched in my memory forever. The woman stood in front of the window, her eyes full of tears, a branch of the shrine’s tree extending in front of her.

The tree trunk grew straight up out of the earth for just a little way before it veered off at a right angle and grew horizontally for a section. It then slanted up again to branch out above the shrine and the entire street.

Embarrassed by our eyes meeting, I found myself moving away a few meters and stopping at the sugarcane juice shop. I ordered a cup and sipped at it much more slowly than people usually did, letting the jasmine scent fill my nose as the sight of the infatuated woman continued to hover before my eyes.

From that day on, I walked along Sheikh Abu Annoor Street countless times over the course of many years, so I would often see the sheikh’s shrine and tree, and drinkin the sugarcane juice and the scent of the jasmine.

Sabriya walked across the palace garden, bearing the prince’s food tray as if she were hovering just above the ground. In his new abode inside the shrine, the prince sat down to read and play his music. Every morning he would open the shrine’s door onto the palace garden and sit inside watching the goings-on through the trees, keeping an eye on the palace workers—none of whom could see him watching them. He was still hoping that one day he would be able to return to the palace again.

When Sabriya glided into the room on the first day, the prince thought: She will soon be sitting in my arms. She thought: I will kiss him. It seemed inevitable in any case; any words rationalizing what was about to happen would have been ridiculous. What rendered the prince completely defenseless were those delicate fingers that held his cup and handed it to him. He thought: If I squeezed her fingers, they would splinter into pieces; I must put my hands around them. Then the prince was totally defenseless. When Sabriya ambled back to the palace, swinging her arms, she went knowing that a new ethnicity would be created from her Sudanese and Somali roots.

The recklessness of the moment outweighed any future sense of guilt they might have had—they felt as though their entire lives were enshrined in this single day.

It was my daily journey: I used to walk down Abu Annoor Street from one end to the other, then through some other streets until I reached my house. I am not sure why, but the details of walking down those other streets completely escape me, while I vividly remember every detail of Abu Annoor Street. Even now, as I write these words, I still remember everything.

I will never forget the first scene I witnessed as a child on Abu Annoor Street—or was it my first vision? For another vision would come later that day. In the middle of the jostling crowd of students pushing their way out of the school door, I heard the news that one of our classmates had just been hit by a metro train. We all rushed to see the body, forming a tight circle around it. I have never been able to make sense of what happened. The boy’s body parts had been severed and heaped in a neat little pile; I imagined that someone must have collected them into this pile. Then one of the bystanders started covering up the body with newspaper. I stood and stared at the covered heap of flesh for a while, then began to walk home.

It was there, farther down Abu Annoor Street, that I saw the bundle of white cloth on top of the horizontal section of the branch in front of the shrine. The cloth swaddled what I thought was an infant. When I came closer, I saw a child’s face, as white and glowing as the cloth it was wrapped in. It was asleep in the fetal position, as if not yet born. The whole scene was even stranger than the pile of body parts I had just witnessed. I thought to myself: How could anybody leave their child unprotected like this? Despite the obvious bizarreness of this scene, there was also a certain intimacy to it. I did not know what the word “intimacy” even meant at the time, but the sensation of it was distinct.

The tree branch was the opposite of a cradle; it was a grave.

The prince awoke one day with some minor stomach pain, which became much more severe by nightfall. The next day, he realized that he had not urinated for two or three days.

The prince returned from the hospital in a very bad state; they had removed part of his body in a painful operation. As he came around from the anesthesia, he was delirious, thinking about what he had left in Sabriya’s body.

For days on end the prince did nothing but sit in the shrine room wearing the same striped djellaba. He would sometimes get up and walk a little in the garden, only to return quickly with his body completely exhausted. He spent most of his time lost in thought, pondering his surroundings. He ate and drank less and less until eventually he abandoned food and drink altogether.

His body collapsed, and he had a fever for two days, after which he was barely able to stand up. Then one morning the palace staff realized he had completely disappeared.

His clothes, records, and books were all where they should have been, so some of the staff thought that he was just taking a walk around the palace or in the street behind it. They waited until night fell, but he never showed up. These were the coldest days of February.

The next morning, one of the guards noticed a small crowd gathering behind the palace. In front of the shrine window, the prince’s body was hanging from one of the branches of the tree. The branches had hidden the corpse for an entire day, until a passerby happened to discoverhim. The wind made his striped djellaba alternately billow in the wind and cling to his skinny, stiff body, exposing its contours.

A long time passed before people removed the hanging body from the tree. They placed it on the horizontal section of the tree trunk for a moment. Then they took it inside the palace to prepare it for burial.

What great days they were, my school days. Others took care of me, and my shoulders were free from any burdens. I was like Yousif, the main character in the Kit Kat movie: I could fly while my feet hardly touched the ground.

My father once told me: “Have fun before you are overcome by burdens.” By that time, I was old enough to be fully aware of his heavy loads, and his advice made me feel guilty—how could I have fun while he was staggering under such burdens? I was not ready to handle a fraction of what he was going through, while he was always anxious not to involve any of us in his struggles. I know he had been beset by many worries as a youth, when he suddenly found himself the sole breadwinner of a house in which he was used to being cared for. I wish he had shared his suffering with me, firstly to prepare me for what I would face in my future, and secondly to lighten his incessant load a little. But he did not. My father knew that I was not up to bearing any burdens.

There was, however, no escape. By the time I was thirty, my own burdens were really weighing me down. I was no longer flying over the ground with my feet when I walked, but instead dragging them along. My footprints carved ruts in every street I walked; even Abu Annoor Street, which was so special to me, was not without its share. I wish my life had come to an end without those footprints and without those burdens.

But what’s done is done.

The news spread like wildfire: Prince Abdul Munem and Sabriya had shared a bed, and he had committed suicide out of an intense guilt. She was now carrying his child and didn’t know what to do.

So swiftly and decisively did the news get around that, after two full days of gossip, it all seemed like an organized act of revenge against Sabriya perpetrated by an envious neighbor, a mean co-worker, or perhaps another man who had desired her before and been rejected. One of these characters spread the unusual story and told it to everybody: to all the palace staff, to all the doormen of all the buildings near the palace, to all the neighbors, to all the passersby, and to all the street vendors. It was an act of malicious joy, not just the telling of a story. Whenever Sabriya was asked about what happened, she remained silent.

The silence of agreement is a seismically shocking silence. They said:“She fell into temptation. She can’t tell a lie. She would commit fornication, but not lie.”

Panic engulfed the palace and the street at first, but everybody was relieved when Sabriya held her tongue. At least no one coerced Sabriya into speaking; words can hurt more than actions. She did what she did, and her silence was her agreement. Everybody waited for what would happen next. In nine months everybody would see the results—no more than nine.

Some said: “She will definitely run away.” Others said: “She will stay.” Some silly youngsters began to make fun of the situation. They said: “The prince fell in love with the maid! She will give birth either to a young prince—a king that will rule the country again—or a maid.”

After all these storms subsided and people became busy again with other things, a few said: “Let’s keep an eye on her belly—perhaps we misjudged her.” But then they remembered her silence and went silent themselves.

In a nearby hospital, my father was bedridden; a deep stillness had crept into his body, and everybody was certain that it would all be over in a short while and that there was no chance of recovery. I ran away from this stillness, left the hospital and walked around until I reached the beginning of Abu Annoor Street. The dawn call for prayer was filling the air, accompanied by light summer breezes, when I caught sight of the baby again. This was the second time I’d seen the infant—many years after my first encounter. Unlike the first time, the baby was now sitting up on the horizontal branch; his pale skin was clearly visible in the dark, and he was wrapped in his white swaddling. And this time I could see that he was moving, hitting at the air with his arms as if trying to escape something, or waving for his father to come and pick him up, or pushing away something that was chasing him. In the window of the shrine, a few candles were fighting the breeze to stay alight. I walked on, obsessed by the infant’s movements. The jasmine fragrance slowly enveloped me when I passed the sugarcane juice shop. It was closed, but the damp air, saturated with the juice’s scent, was unmistakable as it condensed on my face. As usual, I surrendered to it, then continued my escape.

One year after the suicide, people suddenly remembered that Sabriya was still among them. She had not given birth, but nor had she left to get an abortion. Over the previous months they had noticed her belly swelling, and so they knew she was definitely pregnant, but then they saw a whole year pass by while her bump remained the same. Everybody was confused. Sabriya was having difficulty moving around, and her bump was obvious even underneath her loose clothes. All signs pointed clearly to a pregnancy, but there was no birth.

In her small room, the neighborhood women didn’t flinch in expressing their innermost thoughts: “We will check your belly—there is no way around it.” Amna said: “We have no idea what’s going on, and we’re sick of all the nonsense being spoken outside. We have to put an end to all this.”

Sabriya slowly started to lift her djellaba, exposing her belly, and after hesitating a little she took the djellaba right off. Everybody saw the truth clearly and indisputably—it was anything but a pregnancy: it was a huge abdominal swelling, from her hips right up to her breasts. Amna said: “This is not a pregnancy; this is a swelling.”

The women said: “Sabriya is sick. Her stomach is swollen, and we don’t know why.” There was no truth to the rumors about the prince and the reason for his suicide. The conclusion was decisive this time. People had been restless all year, in turmoil from the intense mixture of feelings going on inside them. The verdict of innocence was reassuring for everyone.

The testimony of the three women put an end to the whole thing. Amna said: “We will silence anyone who speaks ill of Sabriya.” Everybody remembered Sabriya’s silence, and kept silent.

In the first stages of his illness, my father used to ask Allah to relieve him of his pain. Then he realized that relief from pain would come only with complete, everlasting stillness. After that, his speech tended to become metaphorical. One day, incomplete despair, he called me to him and said: “Lift these wooden planks off me.” I was confused and didn’t know what he meant; he was in bed, as usual, and I told him it was not the weight of wood on him but of sickness. He motioned with his eyes toward his comforter: “Lift this piece of wood off me.” In an attempt to ease his pain, I removed it. He followed it with his eyes, which he then relaxed for a bit to see if there was a difference in pressure on his body. When he didn’t feel any difference, he submissively closed his eyes.

He didn’t speak much after that. I asked him: “Do you want me to play an Abdul Wahab song for you?” He mumbled: “No.” My sister asked: “A cup of tea?” He peevishly answered: “I don’t like it anymore.” After some time, I asked: “A song by Shadia?” He didn’t reply, just shook his head.

I pretended I was patient and strong, but I was actually trying to escape at every opportunity. I saw that his worldly burdens had dissipated, only to be replaced by an imaginary weight. It made me sad to realize that there is no escape from worries, even in the final stillness and silence. Our silence complemented his. The most brilliant comment came from his lifetime friend when he visited and saw him motionlessand silent. He said: “What a loss.”

Thirty years passed. Or was it forty? People died every year. The security guards were gone, and so were the doorkeepers, the street vendors, the mailmen, and the electricity bill collectors. The women neighbors were also gone, along with the palace workers and the palace garden. Only Sabriya and Amna were left.

Amna now lived with her son in an old house in Abbasiya. She was bedridden and unable to move, but her mind was still active. On her last day, she started to call for Sabriya. She pointed at her son and asked him to get Sabriya right away, this minute, without any delay. She said, “This is my last wish,” and started calling for her again. Sabriya hurriedly came, not knowing what was happening except that Amna was dying and her son was anxious to fulfill her last wish at any cost.

Sabriya sat by Amna’s bed. Amna stared at her for a moment and then asked her a long series of questions: How was she doing? What happened? Where did she go? How did she live? She asked her about who left and who never returned, about those who passed away. The questions dragged on until all her doubts had almost cleared. But at a certain point the questions stopped. She said: “I’m dying—it’s time, Sabriya.”

That night, Sabriya stood in front of the shrine window for the first time in years. She clung to the window’s bars in shame, weeping and apologizing for what happened in the presence of Sheikh Abu Annoor. The next day, she admitted herself to a nearby hospital; she walked up to the doctor’s office, lay down, and, without saying anything else to him, said: “Give me relief.”

I also remember the day I died. The ambulance rushed me from my home to a hospital that I didn’t know. Main street was heavily congested, so the driver decided to take a shortcut through Abu Annoor Street. Inside the ambulance, I lay on the stretcher. Through the window, I caught a glimpse of the baby for the third time. He had now grown up a little and was learning how to walk with tottering steps. A tall man dressed in a striped djellaba was happily holding the baby’s hand and encouraging him to slowly walk. The man was bending his knees a little, inclining his head, and leaning down toward the baby, while trying to imitate his shaky baby steps in his own walk. The baby kicked at the air with an endearing recklessness. His free arm bobbed up and down, moving arbitrarily and impulsively. He was about to stumble and fall, and I would have definitely laughed if, after all this playfulness, I saw him fall.

Any sense of danger departed from me at that moment: I didn’t know I would be dead in a few minutes. In spite of my long illness, my death was a surprise. Well, now I will assume a good reason for the baby’s naïve elation, one that will certainly satisfy me. Perhaps the baby knew that I would be dead soon and decided to put on this playful show to distract me from what was about to happen. He wanted to say that the future was going to be better. There is also a logical reason that could perhaps, for all I know, explain it: that the baby wanted to show how proud he was of the man in the djellaba accompanying him, and perhaps get his attention.

In front of the window, the shrine tree stood like another Sufi keeping Sheikh Abu Annoor company. The branch bent down, readying itself to receive what was in Sabriya’s hands. She put the swaddling that carried her fetus on the tree branch. The surgeon had a light touch, and he was gentle and kind; he had removed the fetus almost without harming Sabriya at all. The surgeon had explained what she had known for years: The fertilized egg didn’t make it to the uterus. It continued to grow into a small fetus that died in its first few months. When she came around from the anesthetic the doctor showed Sabriya the calcified body. He wanted to console her for what he thought was sadness. He said: “Had he lived, things simply would have been different.”

Gently touching the window bars, Sabriya took a last look at her fetus in his wooden grave.

 

 


[1] After the 1952 Revolution in Egypt, the government nationalized some private assets, including those of the pre-1952 royal family. In 1957, the prince in this story was not holding any official positions (or titles). The officer was assigned to strip him of his property as part of this movement.

 

Mohammad Rabie is the author of the novels Amber Planet, Year of the Dragon, and Otared. Amber Planet won first prize in the Emerging Writers category of the Sawiris Cultural Award Competition. He also participated in the International Prize for Arabic Fiction writers’ workshop. 

Mohamed El-Sawi Hassan is a senior lecturer in Arabic at Amherst College and director of the Five College Arabic Language Program. He is a contributing editor for the journal Metamorphoses. His most recent translations include articles for Wasla magazine and a co-translation of African Folklore: An Encyclopedia.

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[Read more Arabic fiction in Issue 15.]

Burdens

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