“That little freak would pierce my ears with his voice.”
Translated by Iman Mersal and Tarek Sherif
The Little Freak
It’s 3 a.m. In exactly one hour and fifteen minutes, Soheir will wake up. The mu’ezzin will make the call to prayer first.
I hope it’s not that kid, the grandson of Hagg Shukry, the owner of the building across the street and, of course, the mosque on its ground floor. He had been—may he rest in peace—everything: guardian of the mosque, leader of ceremonies, caller to prayer, giver of sermons. If he wasn’t parading in front of one of the shops in the area, he would be in the mosque for sure. For no reason at all—God forgive him—he didn’t like me, and I, in turn, couldn’t stand him. When he would see me, he would steal sideways glances at me. And it seems his spite was directed at me in particular. He placed two giant loudspeakers in his balcony across from mine and aimed them directly at my apartment.
I now long for the days when he was around. Despite the fact that his voice was hoarse and hateful, and despite the fact that he was consumptive and always coughing, the call to prayer would only take him a few seconds, half of it lost in his coughing. And the sermon, read from a sheet of paper, would only last a few minutes. Then he would lead the prayer.
Once, in the middle of some phrase or verse, he was on the minbar, and people were sitting below, swallowing the sermon like bitter, expired medicine. I was at home passing my time doing nothing when his voice rose suddenly, “Get out of here you son of a bitch!” Then he went back and finished what he was saying as if nothing had happened. My guess: There must have been some boys hanging out near the mosque door.
After Hagg Shukry died, the microphone was inherited by various throats. Anyone who wanted to could try out their voice by calling to one of the required prayers.
The voices took their turns on my ears: the sharp, high-pitched ones; the slow, rough ones; the strong, overpowering ones that would shake the apartment with me in it. But all would try to embellish and prolong the recital in their own way.
But none of that could compare to Hagg Shukry’s grandson. That little freak would pierce my ears with his voice, a hateful mix of weasel and cockroach. (The child calls to prayer, and I fear his voice and take it as a bad omen.)
I love kids…
(No, not all kids…
Only those that don’t call to prayer.)
Soheir will wake up, and she won’t find me next to her. And she’ll know why she was able to sleep so deeply tonight.
In the last few months, I’ve been snoring loud enough to wake people sleeping in the neighboring street. I fidget throughout the night. My right hand that lies next to her (or rather, that stays up all night next to her like some evil toy) is in perpetual motion like a pendulum. It’s always hitting the mattress. That fine mattress with the springs. That fine mattress that amplifies the smallest sounds and makes them ring and ring and ring.
We Tortured the Wallets
I hear the call to prayer now, the dawn call to prayer, without any spite. The mu’ezzin’s voice was unusually fine and quiet.
Soheir woke up a few minutes ago. It’s now ten minutes to four. I had thought the dawn prayer was at a quarter past four. She woke up at her usual time, a minute before the call to prayer.
I went into the bedroom to get my vest, then out to the balcony to smoke. It wasn’t cold. I finished the cigarette, went back in, and took off my vest.
She was staring at me on her way to the bathroom for her ablutions. She waved at me from a distance; I turned to her (I had told her before she had gone to bed that I might write something).
I hadn’t written anything in three years. Did she believe me this time? But I hadn’t told her before that I was going to write. So why would I be lying now?
Our life will be better tomorrow, and in the coming days.
She doesn’t expect anything from me at all, she doesn’t imagine that I’m going to slay this giant, and she doesn’t know my status as a poet.
What’s poetry to her? (It’s work for the miserable.)
She goes off to school and is dedicated to her work. For the past week, she’s been working at home on her annual exhibition, and she would ask my opinion about her crafts (beautiful, of course). I wouldn’t talk much. She was sharp enough to understand.
Sometimes, I would be forced to give a definite opinion when she would ask me: this color or that one? These fringes or those copper coins along the edges?
I’m not an idiot: I would favor one choice or the other without hesitation. Soheir’s confidence in my opinion knows no bounds.
We worked together for a while. She was making necklaces out of precious stones and silver. She would charm everyone. Alaa Khaled would, and still does, exhibit her work in his gallery. He would come every once in a while with an itemized invoice and a respectable wad of cash, and say: “Make more necklaces.”
In the past, before the necklaces and the earrings, she would make leather bags. We went together many times to Taht al-Rab to get the leather.
We would get the entire animal (skin only, and tanned of course). There’s a half-tanned cow sleeping on the parquet floor in our living room. An entire cow, with its chestnut fur and severed limbs.
There were several types of leather. Al-hor: goat leather, to make wallets and change purses. Al-kuwari: cow leather, to make larger bags. And finally, camel leather, to make belts.
We made wallets for our friends out of goat leather. We didn’t sell any of them. I remember that she would draw the design, cut the leather, punch holes along the edges (I would sometimes do this part), then she’d come to an unused circular piece of leather and cut it into a thin, continuous thread that she would use to sew the edges.
But I would be waiting anxiously for the last step, after the wallet would be completely finished, and I would see her perplexed: What should we draw on it?
She didn’t use a paintbrush, of course, rather that electric pen with the burning metal tip that would leave a deep, brown mark on the leather.
We tortured the wallets.
I would say to her gleefully, “Let me take care of this last little step.” And I would pass the pen over the leather producing quick, cartoonish drawings that my friends really loved: Hakam, Iman, Yamani…and me, of course.
But I threw mine out after two days and bought a practical leather wallet for my money, cards, and little important papers.
(I was surprised to find that both Hakam and Mohammad Mersal still had their wallets over ten years later. Both pulled theirs out of their back pockets and showed me. They had become relics, burnt brown in color, and my precious drawings were gone, or nearly so.)
Who Will Receive Condolences?
I just woke up—I didn’t actually sleep in the first place—and went back to my room. I had measured my blood pressure before going. It was 150/100. It’s not really that high, but in my case it’s considered sky-high. My blood pressure over the last few months has usually been 100/70. This is what terrifies me, the fear that the implant in my arm will stop working and I’ll enter the same black vortex.
I’m sitting in my place on the sofa. I can extend my gaze in a straight line, so that it crosses, first of all, the door of my room, then the width of the main hall, then an empty, door-sized space in the wall that pours into the hallway, then finally the bathroom wall on the opposite end, where there’s a light switch. The bathroom door across from it, the kitchen door to the right, and on the left, the bedroom door.
I got up intending to go to bed. I turned off the light and wandered into the hall. The apartment is immersed in complete darkness. I took a slow step, then a slower one, then my head started to spin and spin. I nearly fell on my face. “Pay attention. You’re going to die,” I said. Then I sat in my place, sprawled on the floor.
I had, in the past, been knocked on my back, dizzy and intoxicated after a hash joint and lowered blood pressure. But this time, I felt a real terror. No, I won’t die now. I’ll fight off death with everything I have.
After a short while, I crawled along the floor until I reached the wall across from me, leaned on it, and stood up. I turned on the hallway light, then quickly turned it off after determining my path to bed. Two steps, and I was in my usual spot next to Soheir.
A feeling of impending death struck me once again, a foreboding that has possessed me since the night began. I’ve been trying to escape it the whole time, but I seem to have failed.
Suddenly, the list I prepared a little while ago flashed into my mind, and with it, the names of the candidates to receive condolences at my funeral.
I tried to move my hand, then my thigh. I couldn’t. There was a cold numbness crawling through my extremities and heading towards the inside.
“Is this how it is?” I said. Then I saw Nadia, my comrade in dialysis, always sleeping in the neighboring bed. She was swimming in the room’s sky, with a pale face and a pure smile, and signaling to me to follow her as she headed towards the door.
“So Nadia’s dead,” I said.
Suddenly, I remembered that I hadn’t written Soheir’s name with the rest of the names on the list (dear God!). Her name should have come before them all.
(Nadia, you go now.) “Soheir…Soheir…Soheir.”
She fidgeted a bit, then grumbled as she turned her head.
“Sorry, Soheir, I woke you up. But could you get me my green notebook from the other room?”
“…are you going to turn on the lights?” (The question stunned me.)
“No, dear. Don’t worry about it. You go back to sleep. Good night.”
And here I am, writing in my usual place on the sofa. I’ve spent my entire life on this sofa…this sofa and others.
Green and Alone
The lead in my 0.7 pencil just ran out. I looked all over and couldn’t find the box of refills. But I found one of Soheir’s wooden pencils. Its tip is rough, it writes faintly, and it doesn’t cooperate.
It’s 5:30 a.m. Soheir is still asleep. She’ll wake up at seven. She’ll pray again before heading to the school.
I’m supposed to go to a mechanic to get the car fixed. I saw it a moment ago from the balcony (it’s parked in the rubble next door); green as usual, and alone. To spite thieves, I took the cassette player with me before coming up. No one in the street has had their rear windshield broken and their cassette player stolen more than me.
At least, that was the case before coming to my senses and buying a Walkman. But even then, I got lazy one night and left it in the glove compartment with my health insurance files and other papers, and a copy of one of my poetry collections.
It was stolen, and with it the sunglasses that I used to hide in an opening under the steering wheel.
I laughed as I mourned the loss. I had bought it for ten pounds from a kid in the street, and when Soheir saw it she laughed, saying, “It’s only worth five.”
My Mother Loves Me
Whenever I visit my mother in Alexandria, or in the village, she never forgets to ask me about two things. The first, “Will you not just appease me and let me see you praying? Son, your father needs someone to pray for him in his grave. And when I die, who’s going to pray for me, Osama.” She reminds me of the hadith, “A pious boy to pray for him…,” and then leaves.
My father let go of the issue a few years before his death, even though he was an Azhari sheikh, an imam, and a preacher, a religious teacher. Everyone around me gave up as well: my brother, my uncle Abd el-Sattar, and before all of them, my grandfather.
(Except for my mother.)
“Son, do you want to suffer in this world and the next? You’ve suffered so much in your life. Do you want to go to hell, too? What about the suffering of the grave, my son?”
“I pray, Mom…just not regularly. And God knows that. He’s close to me and sees everything.”
“Tell me, Osama. Do you believe in God and in Islam? Do you believe in heaven and hell? Tell me, son.”
“What are you talking about, Mom? Oh my God, of course I believe. And deeply, what’s more.”
(She never believed me.)
I surprised her on Friday on one of my trips to the village. I got up, performed ablution in front of her without saying a word, and then said to my brother Alaa, “Let’s go. Are you not going to Friday prayer?”
I went, I prayed, I said hello to everyone. I felt an old happiness. I recited the fatiha. And the tashahhud, too (even though I couldn’t really remember it). And I raised my index finger several times while reciting the tashahhud, like we used to do.
When I got home from the mosque, she was happy (but she didn’t buy it). At the call to the afternoon prayer, Alaa went and I stayed. She didn’t even look at me. And then I returned to Cairo.
When she came to visit me this time, she talked to me about the second thing,
“Aren’t you going to give up smoking, Osama? Haven’t you promised me so many times?”
“I had quit, mom, I swear. I just started again two days ago. I only smoke three or four a day, so I’ve still pretty much quit.”
I was sitting on the couch as usual, leaning my back on the cushions. She was sitting on the same couch facing me.
(The couch is in the shape of an “L.”)
Suddenly, she threw herself down at my feet, and kissed them. (My mother kissed my feet.)
I was terrified.
“My son, my darling. Won’t you just start praying and reassure me before I die?” Of course, she meant “before you die.”
She’s mortified by the thought of my dying before her. She’s expecting it and preparing for it, but she doesn’t want me to go to hell.
I rushed to get up. But I sat down again right away. I was ill, suffering from anemia, and I couldn’t move without dizziness and a racing heart that I would hear echoing in my head and coming out of my ears like drumbeats.
But I finally got up, went and performed ablution, came back, spread the prayer mat out right in front of her, and started praying. She looked at me with tears in her eyes. I couldn’t bow, nor sit on my feet between prostrations. I was happy because she was satisfied. I saw her satisfied. I remained seated for the rest of my prayer.
My mother is not severe.
My mother loves me.
All artwork is courtesy of Eman Osama.