The ride on the train from Kosti, known as “the steamer,” marked the start of the summer vacation. As soon as it began, I felt a mixture of sadness and joy—joy that I would be traveling on the westbound train again, and sadness at leaving my hometown, which rang with daytime noises and the singing of the fishermen on the river. I sobbed when I thought I would never return to the town’s embrace. Had my young heart already surmised that my departure would take me to a faraway country, much farther than my child’s mind could grasp? With my grandmother as my traveling companion, I started to discover the story of my family, the countryside, and the towns where her sisters and the rest of the family lived.
The zaar concluded on the tenth day. With a small retinue, Sara went down to the Nile.
On this, the last day, she had to wash every inch of her body in the river’s sacred waters, and then the celebrations could begin. She stepped quickly, her body weightless now all the years of waiting and false promises were set aside. Face shining, renewed, it was as though three decades of dread had swirled up and away with the incense smoke and the dust raised by the devil’s music. Purged of its frustrations, her mind could usher in thoughts of hope, and it seemed to her now, as she stepped out of the house and back into the world outside, that divine care had granted her its protection; was shielding her from time, against oblivion.
That’s what my mother calls from where she sits on her low stool, which seems to long for the earth of my father’s grave, when she sees me kick an onion between two of the legs supporting the large earthen water jar. My vegeta-ball bounces off one leg and lands in the smoke pit, crying hot tears from the wound she sustained when she struck the sharp leg.
The smoke pit is under my grandmother’s wooden bed, so I bend down to retrieve my vegeta-ball, but when I see that the ground under her bed is wet with water dripping from the jug, I immediately forget what I was looking for. I love mud, and so donkeys, sheep, lions, elephants, and chickens emerge from the mud thanks to my fingertips, and then I take my new flock to graze in the courtyard, where they all eat grass, and even the lion’s stomach is fine with it. The two pebbles I use for his sad and happy eyes are like lovely girls’ eyes in my country. The elephant is smaller than the goat; it wasn’t born, doesn’t reproduce, and won’t die, just like the goat, and like me, I think, and the matches make for straight tusks. My mother is looking at me with a lot of love, not because I’m little and without a father, but because I’m ugly and skinny and poor, and my mother thinks this trinity will crucify me on sturdy beams before the age of thirty. But she doesn’t notice that the lion I’ve made is like an officer in plainclothes, that its mouth looks as meek as the beak of a bird, as if Christ has come down into my fingertips, then out through my hands. “Don’t worry about him,ˮ my grandmother tells my mother. “He’s been watching water drip from the jug for four hours, perfectly happy.”
He spotted her slender body, whipped by the hot air, on the verge of being flattened by the wheels of the racing cars. Without hesitation, hedecided to save her. He glanced around, then rushed to launchhimself deftly into the air, while behind him fluttered the hems of his tattered rags and the rope he had cinched around his waist in place of a belt to hold the threadbare rags against his thin, feeble body. For an instant everything was still; for a moment his mind went numb.Then bodies leaned, necks elongated, eyes widened, breaths quickened, and a panicked cry of warning escaped: “Hey, watch out!”
The entire scene instantly transformed into a boisterous one-man show, a masterful performance. He just managed to reach out and grab the edge of the empty cardboard box before roughly colliding with the asphalt. He looked around for an instant, then lightly stood, clutching the box, astonishing bystanders andcausing drivers to gasp and swerve to avoid running him over.
Amid the chaos, shouting, laughter, and exclamations of “Thank God!,” some people were awestruck by how terribly wrong things could have gone in that astounding moment. Meanwhile, mouths began to quickly—and freely—recount what had just occurred, adding some details, analysis, and a few imaginative embellishments to the life of the former high school teacher, who had ended up the skinniest and dustiest man with the most protruding ribs, absentmindedly wanderingthe open-air museum of Omdurman’s city streets.
Every Friday morning, all the residents in the simmering neighborhood of Wilat in this drab African city waited for the General to appear, to officially open the narrow street that passed between their houses. They had paid for the street’s construction themselves. And they could have used the road without any fuss, but neighborhood authorities had informed them, six months earlier, that His Eminence would be arriving to open the street himself. These authorities, and several other authorities, had ordered the residents to line up in the early morning on the first Friday of the month, but the General did not arrive, and so they repeated this scene on Fridays for months, in hopes of greeting him. Then an order was issued that forbade residents from driving their cars on the new street before it was officially opened. The residents kept lining up as usual for this tiresome wait, whispering and murmuring, but the opening did not happen. Many cursed the day on which the idea arose to build this now-postponed street, and after a long wait, they eventually dispersed in time for prayers, without having been cheered by the sight of His Eminence cutting the ribbon. That act was expected to last only seconds, at which point the neglected street would become well-known, and the media would add the street to a list of the government’s accomplishments. Really, any local official could do the job.
Your father died. We buried him yesterday in the new cemetery by the cliff. The priest spoke about him in Amharic and the imam spoke in Arabic and then we all prayed, each in our own language and religion. And in the evening Debrezeyt thronged with your father’s gypsy friends. They sang and danced until morning broke over them.
How can I console you when you’re so far away? But nor do I wish you to come home. Everything has changed. Debrezeyt is not as you left it. So much has happened, and in no time at all. The town exploded, became so crowded you cannot breathe, and we are no longer able to walk here in safety.
On every corner there’s a tourist grinning like an idiot and taking photographs of our lives, like our lives are something remarkable. The town’s lost the soul we loved.
In the not-so-early morning, the beach enjoyed a calm troubled only by the swishing of the waves and the murmur of the sea against a rocky spit that extended into the water. At the foot of the white bakery, the waves broke in a monotonous sequence. The Nile Valley café, next to the bakery, shared in the morning calm—Abdul Farraj was snoozing lazily, and the waiter was having a temporary rest from his labors. Everything was calm. The sun crept slowly up the sky and poured light onto the surface of the sea and the roofs of the wooden houses, while a kite squawked on the minaret of the Askala mosque. On the western side of the horizon, the mountains lay in their blue calm, and between the sea and the mountains lay the city.
It was early in the night, and the village was shrouded in darkness. The uneasy calm heightened the darkness, and he could hear the throbbing of the water pumps all the more clearly as they drew up the Nile water in concert with the moon, which kept out of sight on the grounds that the weather was poor. In this gloomy weather, which presaged an imminent storm, Humayda was battling the laws of nature all on his own.
He shook the reins and raised his whip to bring it down on his donkey’s back whenever he felt it wasn’t pulling the cart hard enough. The poor donkey looked as if it was pondering how it could ever pull the damned cart and where it would have to pull it to. Being away from home so long, beyond its usual working hours, also made the donkey somewhat confused. It began to twist and turn on itself. Its back leg held its body firm, like a stake stuck in the ground, while the donkey raised one front leg, anticipating digging it into the path to move forward.
The oldest boys in the neighborhood—“bullies,” as our Egyptian neighbors would say—chased that boy… chased me.
I’d long been obsessed with watching Egyptian TV shows and films, sneaking into the cinema to see them because in our house it was forbidden… “forbidden, boy, to go there.ˮ According to my mother, grandmother, and the other women in the neighborhood, screens are the devil’s handiwork: they corrupt good boys and girls. Of course, they’re poor women, without an ounce of luck.
Not many of us knew Sharif. He had been gone from the village for more than thirty years, and the few times his name came up, the person in question would glance around and lower their voice almost to a whisper. Men’s heads would cluster together in brief and hasty conference. And should his father, Sheikh Abdennabi Wadd Saleh, appear at the head of the alley and walk their way, or his mother, Hagga Amina Bint Suleiman, approach the store, they would fall silent or change the conversation.