They came at four o’clock in the morning and I was too sleepy to get out of the way in time. They trampled on the big trash bin and planted their heavy boots on the mass of bodies. My hand was crushed under someone’s boot, along with Emad’s arm. I gasped silently. Then someone started lifting my leg, which was stuck under Youssef’s stomach, and then my body too. I clung on to Youssef’s clothes, but the hand lifting me was much too strong for me. I suddenly found my head swinging through the air. I stiffened my neck to try to control it, but it was no use. I couldn’t make out where the voice giving orders was coming from but it was definitely from above.
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.
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.
We woke up at five o’clock in the morning and ran to the Hophop bus that was waiting at the school gate. It was colored and beautiful and had the words Scania speaks and the Volvo hurts written on it. The children stood in line in an orderly fashion as they boarded the bus. Teacher was carrying a stick made from a pomegranate branch given to him by the son of a local official, who is lazy but who always comes first in class. Sheikh Khadir, the driver, was washing the bus, and as they boarded, the children splashed the children behind them with water.
“Wait here. We’ll get in touch with you later. Don’t go beyond the confines of the village.”
The village seemed to have been abandoned, although there were still goats roaming here and there. I didn’t know how long I would have to wait. To pass the time I wandered in and out of the abandoned houses. I felt tired, but I wasn’t sure whether sleeping had a place in my new life. I went up on the roof of one of the houses and looked out over the neighborhood. The smoke of battle was rising from the nearby towns, and two military helicopters were skimming along the horizon. Fields of cotton surrounded the village on all sides. I had never before had a chance to see cotton flowers. Or maybe I’d seen them in documentaries and other films; I don’t exactly remember. I had spent my life working in a bakery, then as a taxi driver, and finally as a prison guard. When the revolution broke out, I joined the resistance. I fought to my last breath. The cotton flowers looked like snowflakes, but they would have had to be artificial or else the fierce rays of the sun would have melted them all.