No place on Earth witnesses more of our memories than the house where we grew up, that turns into a second body, carapace, or caravan we live in and pull around all our life. It shows as a recurring theme in our dreams and a fixed ingredient in our personal tastes, views and thoughts, haunting us as we HAUNT it. We perpetually exist in all the places we have visited, as scientists believe, by the trail of energy patterns we leave with every movement we have taken, eternally saved as if by infinite ubiquitous cameras. The very space we occupy now has witnessed endless activities of previous humans and other life forms, navigating which is a key to the time-travel some scientists wish for. Until then, however, we revisit the past by our brain power, that can create old, new, or alternative realities.
* * *
As I stepped into the cobwebbed room of the old house, I couldn't keep my mind from evoking memories I had fought long to suppress.
My hand trembled as it touched the dusty mahogany desk, where my father used to sit working, surrounded by files he had brought from work. Opening one of the drawers with difficulty, I found an envelope containing black-and-white pictures of him on different occasions with family, friends, and others I don't know; his wedding picture with my mother, another of me and my siblings, a third with grandparents ... Many of the pictures were warped by humidity, and the mutilated faces bore a ghastly expression!
A smaller envelope had a collection of biblical verses on scraps of paper he always kept wherever he went, that I occasionally heard him read or quietly chant from. His old prayer book had a faint smell of incense and balm, and the plastic-covered colored images of his favorite patron saints inside were strangely immaculate and time-resistant. The book was signed on the back by the priest of our countryside's church, with a dedication to my father I could barely read, plying him with abundant blessings and wishing him happiness thereafter.
Another drawer had an ink bottle with the ink quite solid inside, carbon paper and blank sheets that immediately disintegrated when I touched them, a rusted hole punch that doesn't work, business cards of mostly dead people or defunct companies, etc. His leather wallet and thick dark glasses were there too. In my early years, I used to see him every morning reading the newspaper in the balcony with his coffee next to him; the combination of coffee smell, morning mist and my father's aftershave could only be interpreted by my mind then as a new day beginning. His large eyes behind the convex lenses meant all the mysteries of adults' world I was yet to enter.
Something in his wallet stopped me. It was a 4x6-cm picture of me at the age of five, in a formal outfit with a solemn look on my face, taken before my first year in school. Gazing into the bright orbs of the child who would be the future me, I was searching for something I don't know, for my temps perdu, like a paleontologist who had found a fossil shedding light on a lost geological age. I had traveled thousands of miles, however, only to trace the origins of my self.
The fossil's "eyes" seemed to be moving, looking at me with a wondering gaze at the scars time has left on me, unable to grasp why we part, age or die! We were two strangers from two different eras having an unheralded time-travel meeting. Here lies my son I never gave birth to, yet the one I came from too. Minutes past while still holding him in my clammy veined hands, recalling how I had spent those days innocently taking life at face value. He'd been there all these years in the wallet, snugly nestling against my father's chest. Thanks father for keeping me with you!
I buried them both back into the drawer.
As I left the room and walked to another, the echo of my footsteps in the doorway evoked my mother's voice in my college years, calling me from the kitchen while holding a tray with one hand, her cane with the other: "Dinner is set! Give yourself some rest, son." I put the book down, wash my hands, then sit together with her for dinner while chatting or watching TV. She would ask if I liked the food. I was her only company after my father died and siblings got married. The dining table was still there; but no food, and no one but me.
The humidity gave the furniture a strong smell from the past. The years have changed me but nothing here has changed: those lifeless objects do not age. I took out a rag to wipe the dust off a chair where I sat down, thoroughly exhausted after a whole day travel. For twenty years rambling in foreign lands, I had chosen distance from family, friends and those I shared most life with, until they were all gone.
I walked on to my room and opened a window to let some light in for the first time in years. The sun came in to meet the gloomy pieces of furniture as if to cheer them up. Here I used to lie in bed gazing at the sky, watching the giant traveling clouds that, I thought then, were God's eyes on me. It was only sky.
There was noise coming from the other end of the house. I went there, uncertain if the unintelligible voices I heard were of "the dead" living in my memory, or the living at present. It was the latter; the noise was outside. I was severely jolted back to reality.
Looking down on the street at the pedestrians, I saw schoolchildren coming back from school, some with their parents or friends, others alone; they were singing, laughing, chasing each other... An old man was yelling at them to watch out for the recklessly fast cars and to stop their bloody fight, thinking it was real. They ignored him, continuing their imaginary battles with invisible weapons, screaming as if in death agony, while others celebrated victory. The ladies were coming back from their workplaces too, chatting tirelessly to each other. Some stop and bargain with the sprawling peddlers everywhere, those who wait in ambush all day outside government buildings, targeting female employees at rush hours and hoping to sell them vegetables, fruits, and other assortment of goods, before they travel back to their families in rural provinces out of town.
The prolonged, life-long -- or so it seemed -- bargain finally ended, with the peddler sheepishly surrendering. It was the latter's drawled, monotonous cry hawking his cheap commodity that reached my ears first, awaking me to the reality of the present, and interrupting my memories. Those creatures are still doing the same jobs, their ancestors had been doing for centuries.... Perhaps, time is not so precious a commodity, after all.
A CHILD'S WORLD
I traveled further into the past, revisiting my early childhood years, hoping to learn more about myself during that primitive formative phase. What an eccentric child I was, to zoom in and cast more light on!
I hadn't turned five yet, when I ran to my mother one day crying and begging her just for five piasters to buy a package of cookies, stuffed with the delicious dates I loved. When my tears didn't work, I changed my tactics: I reminded her of all the times I had helped her, cooking, dusting, dishwashing, and doing whatever assignment she gave me; how I had served her for long childhood years; that I was always there for her whenever she asked for my help (which she would often later regret). In short, I recited my book of good deeds, that may go back to the early months of my life. She gave me a frosty look and went on to the kitchen. I was insulted. I never threw in the towel; I followed her.
"Hey you! Do you have any mercy? Are you different from all mothers, those whose love for their children is un-con-di-tion-al, doing their best to make them happy? Did you ever stop to think how life would be if I got hit by a car, or even a bike? Will your life be the same? etc." I went on and on, till I finally rested my case: "GIVE ME THE GODDAMN MONEY, TO BUY THE GODDAMN COOKIES!"
Now I could see her getting dizzy, fatigued, and about to surrender—for nothing other than being bored with me. I was gone, with the loot.
At the candy store, I took my time examining the windows. I changed my mind about the cookies; I'll buy chewing-gum!
I was strutting down the street with the chewing gum in my mouth, savoring the banana flavor that sent me straight to seventh heaven. I met Maggid—on earth—, my 4-year-old little friend. He was buying bread for his mama, waiting for his turn in the long bakery line, when I suggested to forget about the bread and follow me to the next alley, where I'd show him something he would really thank me for!
He hesitated, stammering something about his mom and a possible punishment. But I grabbed him by the hand ... and he was following me, like the meekest lamb in Jesus' parables.
A week earlier, I had visited the location we were heading for, which was nothing but an old garage where tens of pick-ups and minibuses were parked. I had a passion for all cars, old, new; big, small, black, white, and from all colors and brands. For me they were more than metal boxes moving on wheels; they were full of life (like the one in the Love Bug film). I also had an obsession with the bumper stickers on them (that I stole sometimes).
Maggid held my hand nervously, knowing there was a black dog sitting up the alley who received new-comers with a bark before allowing them into his territory. The creature was half asleep, with some bones next to him, probably leftovers from a big meal he'd just had. We could see feathers everywhere and some chicken legs. So we were sure they were not human bones.
We had to pass quietly by the dog to enter the alley. He (obviously a male) was an ordinary street dog and not of any aggressive breed, yet to us at such vulnerable age, with limited knowledge and small bodies we had, all dogs could turn into merciless blood-thirsty monsters. The malodorous dead bird and garbage all around it made me sick. Maggid was sicker, and more frightened. Seeing his panic, I told him to take a deep breath and cross himself with the cross sign (and if possible cross the dog too). As a good Christian, he shiveringly stammered: "In the name of the Father ..." putting his fingers into his eyes, as he couldn't find his forehead. He stumbled and fell over the dog's tail. I had to run and not look back, in spite of the loud screaming and barking behind me.
The garage adventure thus prematurely ended. I had to find another one with a different partner, since Maggid was a wimp.
* * *
After a week, a friend of mine, living across the street, asked me to join him on a trip exploring the Main Street in the neighborhood. Mamdooh was a poor dark-skinned boy who was yet well-versed in street life, away from parental fetters. My curiosity was aroused; also if I had refused, I would have suffered a severe peer pressure from other children.
I had been waiting for half an hour, after our appointed time, when he finally showed up. We were both dressed in our striped pajamas, and our wet neatly combed hair had the aroma of soap from the showers our mamas had given us.
We proceeded not knowing what destiny was hiding from us!
On the way, he was telling me about a large lumberyard we should visit at the end of the street, that was full of wood planks yet guarded by a big ugly man children dreaded much and derogatively called the watchdog. (There were stories of him attacking the young boys and squeezing their testicles until they bled!)
At those days it was a fad among children to make up what looked like present-day scooters, with the handlebar and base made of wood, and wheels of small metal balls. There were thousands of big planks in that roofless storehouse. Needless to say how tempting that was for children deprived of toys that their parents did not afford or care to buy. The adventure was inevitable. We had to face the monster to get the planks!
When we arrived, we saw "him" sitting with two others talking and sipping tea loudly. How come those adults were not afraid of him like we were!
(The courage of adults had always perplexed me: I always wondered how my mother would go upstairs in the darkness of the night to feed the birds locked up in the roof; or how my father would come home very late, having to go through the horrific staircase with all the mysterious creatures hiding beneath, ready to devour whoever disturbed them; or how my sister would stay up late at night studying her lessons, not caring about the wailing wind slamming the open window, let alone the dark hands perpetually outstretched behind it!)
He was almost grunting, not talking, as common among local men to show off machismo. The two others had left for a while, where he sat gazing at nothing with a foolish smile, occasionally fidgeting about and rubbing his back against the wall, like bears do.
* * *
It seemed that nature had suddenly called him, and he responded fast, faster than we thought! He stood where he was sitting and straddled his legs, facing the log near where we were hiding, and started to tinkle. We were scared! He flooded the entire place with his smelly piddle and kept watering the log till several canals started to sneak underneath, reaching our slippers. My friend and I were both disgusted. We wanted to free our feet from that evil puddle, but we stayed still. On the other bank, the giant was moaning with pleasure, like in a trance, and nothing in the world could interrupt his urinary delights. He took no pity on the poor log, relentlessly drowning it like one drowning a helpless kitten. We prayed that his bladder run out of urine before we all perish. But Heaven turned a deaf ear to our child request. Perhaps the folks up there were busy receiving more urgent calls.
He sighed finally with relief and sat back in his chair.
When his friends returned and joined him, they kept talking for what seemed like an eternity, while smoking cigarettes they had rolled. Their eyes grew red and dewy, and their coughing and laughing became uncontrollably loud. They were exchanging dirty jokes, making obscene remarks about their looks, genitals and wives, each slapping his partner to make his point understood. Apparently they were high, unconscious of what they were doing.
I told Mamdouh, "This is our chance! Let's get the planks and leave this place as soon as possible." There was a pile of boards to the left of the first man, about three meters high. We had to get a few of these to have our mission accomplished.
We knew we had no option but to take the ones on top; any attempt to be picky meant the pile would collapse, and we'd be in big trouble. I gave all the instructions to Mamdouh, whispering and signing, hoping he would follow my plan.
The smell of tobacco, pot and urine was filling our nostrils, and the earth was becoming slippery beneath our feet. Everything was urging us to hurry up: our tickling noses that could divulge our secret if we sneezed, our feet that could slip at any moment, and coughing that, needless to say, would be fatal.
It was getting dark when the fat man stood up and lighted a kerosene lamp he put on the ground. The other two leaned back in their bench and seemed to doze off, while their partner stayed still in his chair. His face had no expression to tell whether he was tired, sleepy, or not. Time was running so we took our first step: we stepped out of the puddle.
I moved closer to check the wood with my hands, seeing the different varieties of trees it was cut off, each serving a different purpose for my future projects. It was dangerous to pull any vertically arranged boards, or even the already-cut diversely-shaped strips; so I chose the horizontally arranged ones.
However, what I did next was engraved in my mind forever, when I later learned the expression "domino effect" in the most tragic way. Not only all the flanks fell, like animals queuing for their death, but they hit the lamp and spilled the kerosene in it. The man woke up by the noise, but the fire was spreading fast and getting out of control. He cussed, screamed for help, and began weeping like a woman, no longer the macho of minutes before.
Half an hour later, we were still running as far as possible from the scene, to the other end of neighborhood. I faintly heard the ominous sirens of fire engines, wailing like bereaved mothers, making me feel extremely guilty, that I wanted to die.
I never returned to that site again to know what happened after we left. I even don't know whether those fire engines were actually to extinguish the fire we had caused or another one. I only know what we have done might have caused a tragedy in the entire neighborhood, if no one, or luck, was there to correct our fatal mistake. Until today only my friend and I know, live, and perhaps will die with the secret. I felt I lost my childhood forever that day. I believe child innocence is a myth, as children are only disarmed adults who become evil once they have arms. They can be demons in progress.
As I grew older, I tried to make sense of the world and cope with adolescence's painful changes. Church fills the space family and state can't fill, yet not without a price. Its attempt to define holiness, idealism, or any absolute we aspire but cannot grasp, is only wishfully, mystically, incoherently done. This later increases the gap between wishes and facts when such mysteries are gradually demystified, and disappointment greater.
Every uplifting experience I had in life then I thought to be religious, although it simply belonged to the larger realm of Nature and infinite universe we are a pale dot of. As I later found, many people with different beliefs throughout Earth and across the ages claimed nature, ethics, and simple human emotions to themselves only. So charity, fasting, celibacy, meditation ... incense, organ, domes, and Sunday mornings are only for churches, looking upward or lifting our arms is for praying, birds chirp to praise the Lord, mountains point to heaven ... and any deep "earthly" pleasure is heavenly.
The Desert Dwellers
I had known Father Abraham long before he became a monk, as our Sunday school teacher and spiritual guide. We had always felt he would leave us someday and choose a different path, yet when this happened, it was a sad shock to many of us who were emotionally attached to him. With him, we had visited desert monasteries, old town churches, museums, parks, resorts, etc. praying, studying, playing, and socially bonding.
He changed much after he left us, however, almost becoming another person. This in part has made our separation easier. Whenever I visited him, to relive or recall the old times, I was disappointed. He acted strangely, as a strict ascetic or a saint in progress, as he always wanted to be, like those in old hagiography books he read, with mostly dubious sources and scientific impossibilities. He relinquished, even demonized many simple pleasures we used to share. Nevertheless, I still owe him the love he offered us when we were still young, that many of us lacked at home. After all, he is not as selfish, greedy or materialistic as many in the buzzing world are.
My monastery travels had started as a child with family or friends in large tourist groups. Then I traveled with few friends using public transportation and hitchhiking. Then I traveled alone, as I did in most subsequent travels. However, my favorite monastery and monk community was the one Father Abra-ham chose too, founded in the 4th century and lying within a mountain range by the sea, an area geographically diverse in color, heights and formations: a green spot in a vast yellow emptiness, peacefully nestling against the heart of the wild beyond the ken of most men.
It was simultaneously exciting, peaceful and solacing to my troubled soul, that I wanted to be a monk and live there forever. I would start my day very early, usually sleep-deprived, with the 3 A.M. mass, breakfast around 8 A.M., work with the monks until afternoon, lunch, free meditation in the desert until sunset, the sunset prayer at church, dinner ... then sleep.
Sometimes at night, I would lie on the ground alone or chatting with a friend, gazing at the star-loaded sky in pervasive silence, except for the wandering wind, rustling trees and faint sound of a faraway nocturnal creature. Or I would enter the historic church, sit in a dim corner, under the flickering light of an oil lamp the monks had left to give life to the night and company to the sleepless. The breeze was playfully lifting the fringes of drawn curtains and swaying the tapering candlewicks, while spreading a sweet fragrance from the flowerbeds outside.
I saw through the golden rays the icons of men who lived centuries ago. I almost heard the echo of hymns sung throughout the ages resounding across the walls. The air I inhaled was mixed with incense and intoxicating balms, carrying a unique aroma arousing nostalgic thoughts and visions of sites I'd never been to before, to cheer a lonely overburdened heart.
It was a cold night; I folded my arms around my knees, pressing them tightly to my chest to seek warmth. Fetally hunched there by a column, all nature sounds were coming to me mixed with the speechless men in the icons, giving them life and making them speak in a language I couldn't understand. As I peaked through the skylight in the wooden ages-old ceiling onto the azure sky, I found the stars entwined together in an eternal embrace. Many a star had seen mortals come and go, each having their share of life then leaving for someone new, born to die again. I knew I would be gone too, so I was bidding the star goodbye, wishing well to those who would succeed me.
* * *
I was awakened from my thoughts by the sound of footsteps approaching, and a faint voice of someone weeping, muttering something I couldn't hear, then a long silence followed. It might have been my own fantasy, triggered by the strangeness of the place. Yet the moaning returned, clearer this time: someone was sobbing by the relics in the mausoleum, where visitors come during the day to seek the blessings of a holy man lying in his resting place.
I was afraid and decided to leave. The moment I stood up and began probing my way to the door, I bumped into a dark figure and almost fell, when suddenly a human hand was extended to me for help. There was before me standing a statuesque figure with a face like those in the icons, in dingy worn-out clothes covering him from head to toe. I could smell a mixture of soil, plant and incense accompanying that unearthly figure.
The strong arms didn't match the white beard and hunchback he had. His tearful eyes looking out at me from their hollow sockets betrayed a noble sadness. I asked him, "With whom were you speaking, and why were you crying?"
He was looking to the ground silently, as if searching for an answer, then he raised his eyes, looking straightforwardly at something he alone could see. When he started to talk, I could hear a husky voice but without seeing whence it came; I was following instead his hoary mustache, rising and falling:
He had retired from the world and company of people decades ago, leaving behind whomever he loved and whatever he owned, to live and die here, in the bosom of Nature. When he was crying minutes ago, it wasn't pain or sorrow, or something he had done or someone he missed, that he was crying for. It was his heart, sometimes overwhelmed with emotions and love not seeking a reason, for life and nature and people, that made him cry—tears of joy and gratitude. Never before did he tell a soul about his love, for what is the use of words when we don't know what we crave for? Many a meaning becomes more obscure, when we put it in the prison of name or useless phrases. In silence he learnt the secrets of life, and didn't seek to share them with others; for he believed each of us must know the truth alone: Wisdom is to be loved, not forced; and its fruits taste better in solitude.
... As dawn was breaking, the hermit was still talking, and me listening. Hours went by, and the sun filled the place with light and warmth. It lit up every corner and gently touched two faces, lighting two hearts.
Clerics from a city, village, or isolated remote area are substantially different. While living with desert monks for two weeks every summer, during my turbulent adolescence, was peaceful and enlightening, meeting Father Mikhail was a confusing, exciting, mystic experience.
The life of clergymen had always perplexed me. When I was a young deacon, we shared good and bad times together. I saw how they were lifetime "prisoners of the cloak" who yet needed to enjoy life. Being young in age gave me the liberty to see much, but say little; so my brain kept capturing images it was later to analyze when I grew up. As I look back after all these years, the feeling I have most for those people is sympathy. Missing the pleasures of life, while seeing the years slipping away through one's fingers, is scary to realize when life is behind us. Our early decisions, right or wrong, will backfire on us and the people around us.
* * *
After finishing the service, Father Mikhail approached me in the vestry, with his cassock's unique aroma of incense and sweat, asking me to meet him in front of the church. That day, when I went to his house, I was surprised to hear a local song coming from the stereo; what's more, was Father Mikhail swaying to the tune! The blood rushed to my head and I was up on my feet: I could never understand that man-of-the-cloth! I went to the balcony to get some air. I was watching those neatly arranged flowerpots everywhere. It felt peaceful. I waited.
His rambling about the parish's problems seemed endless; with flies buzzing around, I felt like I was melting away on that sultry summer day. He was sitting in a rocking chair facing me. The faster he talked, the faster he rocked. In my stupor, I saw him break the chair and fall to the floor, as I rushed to help him. At another glance, I saw the big child going fast and losing control then flying out to rest in my lap. The rocking and buzzing continued; I couldn't get out of my trance. I felt groggy after I finished my drink. The eternal swaying went on ...
I was part of the drama now, with my whole body heaving in agitation. Suddenly, Father was no more in sight, his chair was empty. Yet, the smell of incense was so intense, closer to me than myself, all over my face. I could even taste it: it was salty, but savory. On the wall, I saw myself in the mirror: my eyes swam in their sockets, they grew bigger. The years ran so fast. Lines and furrows covered my boyish face; I didn't recognize it! It's not mine. God! it's Father Mikhail, in my chair!
My rocking and swaying became faster, my body was out of control, the burden was getting heavier now and I fought uselessly to cast it off. My panting was racing the ticking of the clock:
"God, send me relief! Father, pray for me!" I was crying.
He was saying, "Come to my Heaven, thou shalt cry no more."
My breathing was mixed with my tears: "God, can I see you? Can I hold you? Take me home!"
Hours later, I was walking home alone down an empty street, deathly fatigued and fully depleted, barely conscious of the world. With half-open eyes I looked at the sky: the sun had set, and the earth was clad in eternal darkness. ... Little by little, the City's lights were taking place of the day's. I rubbed my eyes, as I began to wake up from my stupor and regain my senses. I was looking at the glass window of a toyshop. I could not help smiling, at myself.
People across cultures obsess over matters outsiders find trivial, yet to insiders they can give great pleasure or misery. In conservative societies, women suffer differently before, after and, worse, without getting married. Where freedom is limited, this only legitimate choice becomes pivotal to everything in life, although life is larger than marriage, which is only an optional part of it. Thus the knot-tying moment comes to expose the most contradictions and absurdities (surpassed only by funerals sometimes) where wishes, facts and myths all converge.
People seem devout while performing the rituals, then act like savages afterwards, showing vague mercurial spirituality followed by flagrant deep-rooted carnality. Single women dance like prostitutes to impress prospective husbands, as the latter, rather than share a duet, will pose or move pretentiously, or even femininely since that's all they know. With strong rhythm, indecent lyrics, and bodies writhing as if in agony, they seem to escape some invisible shackles. Elsewhere, their parents are binging, prattling, and doing the intelligence match-making work; while the bride and groom, whom all this is for, are stressed, depleted, overacting, and apprehensive about possible late night surprises (virginity/virility check, sex malpractice/accident, etc.) by what they most desired and feared: their own bodies.
* * *
The car horns and people's voices are still freshly echoing in my ears, like it was minutes ago! The bride and groom have just arrived in a motorcade of family's and friends' cars. When they stepped out of their neatly-decorated Mercedes, women made the traditional trilling cries of joy, as if in a competition (they sounded like some American Indians whooping around two captured victims). Three young men jokingly mimicked the ladies' cry; although uncommon for men, their voice reached the highest pitch like professional sopranos'. However, later that night, it was the deafening speakers I remembered most. I needed a whole week to recover from a temporary hearing loss.
The ceremony started as usual at church, where I had come late as I do to most weddings. I never estimate well the time needed to choose an outfit suitable for a wedding: formal enough for the ceremony, or casual for the mess that follows. (Here I must add a word on weddings in general: Weddings are complex; you meet people you are close to and others you've never heard of, that you have to constantly shift between formal and informal in the way you talk, smile and shake hands. It's a religious ceremony, a fashion show, a binge; a mayhem of mixed emotions, intense, deep and shallow; a time to separate and to unite ... and a drama played by those who've been rehearsing for months, and those who are just extras, like me.)
The newly-built church was awesome. Located near the Cairo airport in the upper-class Heliopolis district, it took us an hour to get there. The design and murals were made by an Italian artist, with the assistance of some Egyptian painters. Although it was relatively small, you would get the feeling you were in an old cathedral from Renaissance Europe. Those of us with cameras were taking shots of the church, as well as of the bride and groom. The murals elegantly represented the story of Creation and Salvation. One of them was of Abra-ham about to slay Isaac. I decided to take a picture of that one, although I found it too graphic to be in a place where people come to seek comfort to their souls—not by watching a Biblical murder scene!
As the rituals went on, I had to get out of my artistic trance. The repeated sitting, standing and crossing ourselves sent me back to reality. I was in the second row, on the left, beside the bride's family and friends—the groom's were on the right. I was overhearing some of the audience's comments: She's pretty, who did her makeup?—Where did she get that dress from?—He's cute, but taller than his parents - how strange! ... and the likes of such trivia.
I was surprised to find a bishop and ten priests coming to participate in the service. From my experience with previous weddings, only one priest is enough to perform the rituals. On the clergymen's part, I believe they were there out of social compliment, but on the couple's families' part, I'm certain they invite them merely to show off.
A priest was now standing between the bride and groom reading something aloud. He was rather chanting, advising them to love and care for each other for better or worse, etc. There were no parts for them to say, like in the western church—and there was no kissing. I remember him saying to the bride, "Be obedient to your husband, as Sarah obeyed Abra-ham calling him My Lord!"—not many feminists will agree!
When he finished, he helped them wear two golden crowns. He gave the groom a golden cloak to wear and the bride a smaller cape, so that both looked like a king and queen (with the queen to his right, like the book of Song of Songs says). The cape part is a new custom I never saw in old weddings, which I believe to be less for sanctity or equality than "decency" (to counterbalance revealing dresses). Then the priest would anoint them by crossing both wrests and forehead "gently" (I suppose to avoid body contact or staining their clothes).
The word ekleel, which is used among Copts alternatively with "wedding," actually means "crown" in Classical Arabic, named after this part of the ceremony. (Copts also give the engagement ceremony another name, Gabanyout, from the Coptic language word Je Peniout meaning "Our Father," as the Lord's Prayer starts. In engagements, the rituals are simpler and shorter, and, unlike weddings, they can be done at home, where the audience only say the Lord's Prayer at the end.)
The king and queen now walked down the altar accompanied by the priest. They knelt down as the priest chanted another prayer both in Coptic and Arabic, with his hands on their heads to finally declare them a husband and wife. This part means that the man is receiving his wife from God, at the altar. Women should be flattered by this, since they must be all heaven-sent!
Finally, the deacons in the choir sang a happy hymn in Coptic for the newlyweds, with the traditional cymbals and triangles. The wedded couple walked to the church door where they received their guests' congratulations. Usually, if you are a friend or relative, you can kiss the couple twice on both cheeks; if not, shaking hands with a smiled "Congratulations!" is enough. Many people like to kiss either way.
After the church, we were invited to the wedding reception at a five-star hotel. There was nothing much Egyptian—or Christian—about that, other than the Arabic songs the DJ played and the belly dance everyone knows.
My passion for streets has started at an early age, thanks to the relative freedom I had to play with other children in our neighborhood. However, it never went beyond that until I reached adulthood, where I could discover more of the world, on foot and otherwise.
* * *
In the neighborhood we later moved to, I had the luxury of closely studying the unique behavior of a species of humans, whom I happened to share my daily life with. It's my country's dignitaries, who think themselves superior to others, and make others think the same of them. Although my country is poor to a degree you must be poor to know, it's mostly run by the likes of my wealthy neighbors, who are constantly separated from the majority of poor citizens by barricades of fences, guards, servants, and trees where only birds are allowed to visit without permission. Their habitat is a restricted zone, a country within a country, a foreign land you need a passport to enter, not from embassies or consulates but by mediators and cronies, or any means you like, ethical and otherwise. Oh, and the passport fees are the tips you pay to the guards, or bribes you pay those they guard. It shouldn't be costly to buy the loyalty of a servant who only serves one Master.
One day I decided to take my study one level up: I wanted to get personal. I needed to hear their side of the story, before rushing to hasty conclusions and submitting hurried results of an incomplete experiment. Perhaps they were still humans after all who had something to tell, and their inside was not as frigid as their outside. I believed they needed to love and be loved, just like anyone. I am really optimistic about the human race.
It was a Monday morning after finishing my breakfast, when I was wandering the main street in town, that starts in my upscale district and ends in a God-knows-what slum on the outskirts. That day, I couldn't stay home alone; it was unbearably dull, as I was craving for company and dying for conversation with any human, whomsoever. Aimlessly I went out and kept walking, examining people's faces and waiting for a chance. And suddenly a strange, compulsive desire overpowered me to—chat. Whether what I did next was an act of insanity I should always regret, I don't know. But I knew it revealed to me that "dark side" in them I was always curious about. I started to stop passers-by, one by one, and ask a philosophical question I had constantly carried with me, just like Cynics of old did:
"Excuse me sir, can you love your brother as you love yourself?" Full of hope and energy, I believed that, whoever gives the answer I will make friends with.
First I saw the little ones, children going to schools, whose young brains were fresh and malleable, closer to truth than many of their elders. Looking into those hope-promising orbs, I easily knew how to engage them: I related stories of wondrous trips I took long ago; too wondrous indeed to be true; and shared with each one an anecdote or a joke, especially made for him/her. So they flocked around me like birds around crumbs, wondering, tirelessly asking questions, and whenever I noticed the sparkle of wonder begin to fade, I quickly lit it up anew.
To the tone of my voice they responded, with a sigh or a laugh, like a chorus to a maestro. But before I could reach the happy ending, and tell the moral of what I had started, they turned away from me, hurried by time and fear of missing their morning class. I saw them scurrying away with their friends, and vanishing from the horizon, leaving me alone.
I did not lose spirits or give up hope; so I kept walking still, till I approached a group of men, formally dressed and seemingly in a hurry, with whom all I needed was to share verbal intimacy of whatever subject they chose (because I knew, all roads will eventually lead to the fundamental question I have). Yet, without a warning, they began to curse me, calling me insane, although we had never met before to judge me so, to know who I was or where I came from. They judged my book by its cover; and for a reason unknown to me, I angered them!
Swallowing my pride as I was used to, I left before they could turn aggressive and violent, where I might end up in jail or hospital. I saw women with faces no one could see, adroitly sheltered and protected, marching in pairs or ones, in the shade, afraid of the sunlight lest it hurt their eyes or burn their skin. When they saw me walking towards them, they panicked and scurried like frightened cats, whose tails had just been trodden by some reckless foot.
Relinquishing all hope, I realized how alone I was, doomed to pass my days, and years in permanent solitude. I gave up at last, when I saw everyone go their way ... to oblivion and emptiness, vanishing into a black hole, into nothingness where they all belonged.
My experiment thus ended, and my hope prematurely died. I couldn't take the pain, not of my failure, but of theirs. I wanted to loudly say: "I'm so ashamed of you!"
But, why be sad when I still had myself, the Earth, the whole universe, mother Nature to console me, and my imagination too. I accepted my fate and continued my solitary trip, passing my ordinary day like the ones before, that I might not live to finish, yet I had to cherish and live every second of, with or without a friend. I left all the human race behind me and went my way, silent, alone and cold like a lifeless stone no one cared for, to pick up or kick: a stone to which all words, jokes and insults were alike. But still I knew, deep inside me a heart was yet beating.
* * *
Back in my room, and cocoon, I re-create my street adventure, and create new ones, much more exciting, where as always, imagination is bigger than reality. I revisit the unfriendly streets, giving life to words, sheets and characters. Even without words to write or people to read, I can still dream and play, open-eyed.
Everyone became a lifeless doll to me, as I was to them. Like my childhood toys, some I hugged and kissed, talking, playing and sleeping with; and some I left on the shelf, for dust and humidity till I forgot them, like those who bought them. As for my new human-toys: some I treated with respect more than others, even those only evolved, more than a stone and less than a living cell. I never disrespect or mistreat a person; I only want to play (I never destroyed a toy I had grown bored of; I just move on).
So I threw my bait to those least aware of my presence, and theirs (blind, insensitive, primitive organisms). I was there hiding all the while, curiously watching them trying to escape my net ... Hours went by as I grew excruciatingly bored, hating to see others in death throes, trying to go back to the sea, where they came from. I didn't enjoy their pain or joy. I didn't care, to please or hurt anyone. I stood up and left, looking elsewhere for a new prey, to make my day complete. Finally, I found one: it was graciously plump and full, of zest that is, permanently exciting, because I knew well how difficult it was to excite one such as me. We had a short thrill. (Oh, foolish me! I was still nourishing hope. I wanted to be a whole, not a part, with someone. I felt incomplete alone, although I was one!)
* * *
I put down the pen, tore out the paper, and slammed the door open, in one impatient move. I went out and left behind all the lame words and crying images to die in peace alone (those who were to me, ungrateful me, my sole company in my painful solitude). I went out to mingle, with people in nature, under the blue sky, with its traveling clouds, gawking stars and jealous moon; I wanted to celebrate life with the living, before my life was no more. I looked through the neon lights and began to wonder: "How am I to spend the night, and all nights to come?"
Unlike the coldness in my room, the streets were exuding light and heat, teeming with all life forms: people of every color and race, like migratory birds, fatigued and confused but adamantly on a high speed, invisibly drawn by the hand of fate. Like me they seemed to suffer, for leaving their homes, memories and loved ones behind to start a new life elsewhere, as I had done years before. I walked by them, they walked by me, smiling, scowling, accidentally touching me then apologizing, or scurrying. I felt their warm breaths against my face, I felt the pain in their chests; I heard the moans and unintelligible words they muttered, that couldn't stay still in their heads. We walked and walked on the endless street, till my feet were aching and eyes itching, blurred by the light I was not used to. Everything was more than I was used to or could take. I felt I was going to fall!
I only slowed down, for I was the last one left when everyone left, surrounded by buildings in deep sleep. But the streets were sleepless; their foggy lampposts were passing me in elegant succession, welcoming me instead and inviting me to stay. Their high and shiny heads, nodding down in constant agreement with whomever on whatever, looked down and seemed to pity me, knowing I was homeless like them. They fed me with hope to live on and resume my journey, giving my soul a short thrill to remember, at the time of pain to come. They stretched their countless arms to carry me: together we traveled and rent the horizon, flying faraway by wings of dream and hope.
I wished for a pair of wings to soar with high by the moon, till I was a dot lost therein, and could see from above the Earth and my loved ones. Yet accepting who I was, I went on foot instead, to dark narrow unpaved lanes and alleys. I saw stores closed, whose owners, I thought, had been then asleep in comfortable beds with their special ones. Nice warm beds, and so the flesh in them, while I was here, rambling with no home or bed: a mangy dog scavenging in the cold.
* * *
The dawn had broken and behind the clouds a lazy sun was shyly sneaking, and so with its arrival all the bustling life returned. Time was passing, as I kept walking, the sun walking with me, on deserted streets yet happy to receive the morning sunshine, that equally shone on the poor and the rich.
We left the center of town with its large but stifling squares, and arrived here among the so-called miserables, the children of poverty to whom I felt somehow I belonged. I spied on open windows, whose owners kept so, unafraid of intruders or nosy onlookers. I could share every detail of life with those behind the curtains, smelling their food and hearing their chats, laughs and flirting; I listened to the bird-like chirping between mothers and their young, and other sounds in a mosaic picture of poverty, anarchy ... and liberty. Those people seemed happier than the ones I had left hours before. I couldn't but admire them, for they were inventive: with very little they create so much to enjoy, unlike the rich whose pleasures were common and predictable.
Here I found a strange excitement to relish; no more boredom with the life I had left earlier in my cold room, in the other part of town. My soul was happy as was my body, both in rapture to walk shoulder to shoulder with those primitives, warmed up among shacks and shanties, where poor dark faces occasionally peeked out and greeted you with a smile, without interrupting whatever they were doing. They simultaneously worked, shouted and laughed; alternately singing, arguing, or even fighting, without losing their adamant sense of pleasure, and joie-de-vivre. They insisted to shout and be heard, even when no one listened. I listened.
I never liked the poor or wanted to be one of. I never thought "want," that economists cursed, could be a blessing. I knew, like everyone, money is a must. I heard of hermits' willful poverty and ascetics' simple living; yet here I am today, watching and sharing the very pleasures of fellow humans to whom I will always be grateful. Now I learned that life is a gift, not a race, and all we need is "to live in peace and have fun"; nothing more we are here for. I learned that children will always be children; for in every one's heart a child always lives, from birth until they breathe their last.
Here I met men and women laughing and playing, not caring much what's right or wrong, a vice or virtue, for many virtues they already possessed. When they saw someone fall, they quickly gathered to help him/her stand up again, to share life and walk with them. Some barely wore clothes, indifferent to on-lookers and the mind-fetters others like me carried. They were as simple as Adam and Eve and early humans were. Hadn't the First Man fallen, wouldn't all of his children have now been happy?
Your correspondent in the Town of Hopefuls reports to you all he saw, of which to keep and discard whatever you like. Here is the daily life of creatures you may find otherwise uncouth and repulsive. But look closely to the picture! Look, dear lords and benevolent masters: here is the heart of society, struggling to keep beating.
* * *
Some of those I encountered lived in very poor houses, shanties, tents, or no home at all, on the street, like stray animals. The latter were the most curious to me, and I have to admit it was risky of me to venture into their world without proper physical preparation or even knowledge about their life, which I later learned the hard way.
A Homeless Guest!
It was almost midnight when I saw a tall lanky figure looming at the end of the street, preceded by taller shadows it was treading on as it moved. There was nobody in the long deserted street, except for me and that indistinct gangly figure. I couldn't but slow down my steps when it approached: there was no way for our paths not to cross.
Now, the moment has come! My heartbeat went faster, as I was feeling for my pocket, imagining a hundred scenarios of what could happen (I had no weapon, and I was not sufficiently trained in martial arts — even my voice wouldn't be heard by a soul here). I was cursing the moment I had chosen to walk in such part of town, wishing I had taken a different direction. Too late.
To my astonishment, I heard a husky but friendly "Hello!"
I was frozen, yet out of fear I nodded nervously.
"Excuse me, son, wasn't there a kiosk owned by an old lady a few yards away from here?" he was pointing to the other end of the street, near the rubble of an old building.
Son? As I looked up, I could distinguish an old bony face of a middle-aged man. I used to visit this place sometimes, but always in daylight. I knew what he was asking about.
I said, "I think you're talking about Om Zaki's kiosk; I'm afraid she doesn't live here any more."
The cheerful friendly look on his face was immediately replaced with a severe convulsive struggle to keep his composure, suppressing a tear or scream. I felt pity for him. I didn't want to let him go without cheering him up ... but my attempt proved futile!
When we arrived at my house, the long trek took its toll on him: he was too fatigued to think of his melancholy. My mother was surprised at the newcomer; except for the venerable old gentleman's countenance, he was nothing but a homeless vagabond seeking food, and fell short of gaining her sympathy. However, my intention wasn't to host the old timer for long.
At midnight, while I was reading, a sound of weeping was coming from the guestroom—faint, but discernible in the silence of the night. Walking toward the room, I stopped at the doorway by the door that was left ajar. He was hunched on his bed. "Hope I'm not intruding, may I come in?" I said. There was no answer, so I took that for Yes.
He told me about his early years; his descent from a wealthy family and his father who had run up huge debts before he went bankrupt. While still in college, he had to leave the house and find a job along with his study. Despite all the hardships he endured, he could still find life worth-living. Twenty years ago, his health started to deteriorate due to a family disease, that made him lose his mother and one of his sisters. Now he's living on medicine, and hoping, as long as he affords buying it, that Death can wait a year or two!
The disease left him almost penniless, and his last hope now was to find Mrs. Oliver, a close friend to his late mother, whom the latter had helped many times. I promised to help him find her, and offered to give him some cash. That brought tears to his eyes.
I left him for a few seconds and went to my room. I had some money I kept in the nightstand next to my bed. I tiptoed all the way to the headboard, so I didn't disturb my mother who was sound asleep then.
But, she woke up suddenly, screaming: "WATCH OUT!" I felt a heavy object on the back of my head ... And that's all I could remember!
* * *
It was morning; a few orange sunrays sneaked into my room, but my eyes didn't want to open. Instead, through lids like lizards', I was enjoying the fanciful creatures and ghosts my eyes were seeing. The bloody orange became darker and a black figure was standing in front of my bed. I heard a loud slam and someone was running. I immediately opened my eyes to find that it was the wind that shut the window and inspired the whole scene. Though it was a dream, I learned never to be deceived by appearances ... There my day had begun!