The Works of Khaled Mattawa, Part 4
TO HIS FATHER: A BIOGRAPHY
Beyond (and sometimes even within)
people's memories was undated time,
historical darkness. Out of that
darkness (extending to place as well
as time) we had all come.
- V. S. Naipaul
You had no life, except for your father,
talked about him as though he were
a saint. If you had any doubts about
his virtues, the three thousand mourners
who attended his funeral assured you
you should have none, and that was enough.
Still, I learned when you were twelve
your mother died giving birth to Omar.
What you remember about her follows
the same line, a loving woman, wise,
virtuous, strong. You retell the only story
I know about her: Sulaiman's eyes
were swollen "like rotten plums"
and the family could not afford
a modern doctor. Instead, she followed
the advice of a feghi, heating a nail
until it became red. Grandfather told her
he could not do the piercing. So she took it
upon herself to burn the boy's temples
with the nail, his hands and legs pinned
in place by his father's strong arms.
You do not mention the cries, the fear
you must have felt, only that she was right:
Sulaiman recovered his sight in days.
I believe this, and will believe more
if only you would tell it. But you never will
and I am forced to tell your story
as I believe it happened. Omar was born
in an Italian hospital in Damanhoor
where the nuns offered to take him.
Grandfather refused and walked to
nearby villages looking for a wet nurse
shouting "God's people, we need a mother
for a yateem." He was led to a widow,
poor, young, and willing to share her milk.
She renamed the boy Mahroos,
"the protected one," treated him as though
he were her own. Only days later Grandfather
started looking for a woman to raise
you and Sulaiman, to cook his meals,
and to bear more sons. You must have been hurt
by this, or confused at best, as the widow
he married you have yet to love. Still
you continue to be dutiful to her,
accompanying her to Mecca to attain
the pilgrimage when no one else would,
not Grandfather, nor her two sons. That year
of your's mother's death, Grandfather opened
a store with meager savings and you manned it
while he guarded the Pasha's fields.
You had learned enough arithmetic by then,
your handwriting clear, and could recite
the whole of Juza A'ma by heart.
In that store, white washed every summer, swept
every afternoon, you sold tea by the ounce,
sugar by the cup, cheap cotton cloth
for the peasants' jalabias, sandals, postcards
of the Prophet's Mosque, old newspapers,
and pens. You went after the deadbeats
kindly at first because you were young
and the son of a foreigner, a Maghribi, but later
used your fists on them, and sometimes a whip
or a stick, stopping credit altogether
after they tried to burn the place with you
asleep inside. Sometimes they cheated you,
grabbing what you gave them and running. So
you demanded they hand money first.
You did not mind once they started calling you
L'Ahmarani because of your temper,
your red hair and freckled face, as long as
you got your guineas and mileems.
Behind that counter you watched people ride
past you on donkeys, camels, or ox-driven
carts, women carrying babies on their backs,
the baskets on their heads filled with smuggled
rationed goods, butchers selling
the meat of sick cows and sheep to agents
of Alexandria's fancy hotels, drunks
stumbling out of Jani's, the old Greek's bar
across the street. You became a man there
growing taller than your father, old
enough to be required to wear a cap,
to shave every Friday before the Juma'a
prayer, and to put on a new jalabia
for the Sidi Jabir feast. Some village
mothers sent their daughters to buy
needle and thread so you may get
to look at them. One confronted you, said
jokingly, for you, her daughter's dowry
will be low. You blushed and waited until
Grandfather decided with your step-mother's
consent. He sent you to the house of a girl
you once considered marrying because
of her long black braids. That day you clipped
you moustache, rubbed your hands and face
with sandalwood oil, put on your best cap
and a new scarf. The cart you hired carried
the family's best ram, sacks of sugar, rice
and flour, a box of oranges, and two jugs
of molasses--the dowry and a gold necklace
with matching earrings were still to come.
Riding to her house, you did not talk to
the driver who tried to get you to chat.
You felt a little better when he offered
a cigarette and said it's right to be afraid.
Her mother, a distant cousin, opened the door,
thanked you, and invited you in, but
you refused to enter as was proper,
telling her your father will pay a visit
that afternoon. A month later you married
and on the wedding night you held
the girl's face and were thankful
for her kind eyes. You felt blessed
years later when she bore you children
even though many died, twenty two pregnancies,
three times giving birth to twins, seven
miscarriages, but six are with you. What else
can I say about your life and hers,
about the eight of us huddled near a fire
roasting peanuts, drinking tea you made,
and the times you peeled blood oranges
handing out slice after slice, smiling,
utterly happy? Even when I was a child I knew
those were your best moments, but what
I did not know burned like an ember in my fist.
I write this as you lie on a surgery table.
Earlier I'd snuck into your room, watched
you sleep. They had shaved your body, dressed you
in hospital frock. This cannot be the end,
I thought, to see you naked, your skin bluish
like a drowned man found at a beach.
You weren't startled when you saw me hovering
over you like a ghost. You talked about nothing
worth remembering as if you were sure
to live this day, or didn't give a damn,
as if to say the past didn't matter
so why should the future. I held you
then let you go to face your fate alone.
Your future I already know. Your past
I'll keep rewriting until it's true.
The epigraph is from V. S. Naipaul's Finding the Center, Andre Deutsch Ltd., London, 1984, p. 59.
ATTAMidnight, and she holds the radio
to her chest, a red Philips, chrome lined
like the dashboard of her father's car,
the Comet he crashed into a garbage dump.
It's been eight years since that happened,
since she was taken out of school, only ten
but already a woman in her grandfather's eyes.
That night her father left the house quietly,
and never said if he was blinded
by anger or just drowsy, only that
while attempting a curve near Ghiminis,
the car, like a steel bird, "simply flew."
Cooking she learned quickly and better
than any of her aunts, her tajeen, a favorite,
the potatoes browned, never burned,
her couscous flavored with orange blossom,
cinnamon, and cloves. She even learned
to make aseeda, the way her grandfather
like it, with melted butter and honey
from Labyar. On Fridays she bathed
her brothers, sisters, and cousins,
combing their hair, the boys' parted
like the singer Abdulhalim; the girls'
oiled and braided, assuring them
they will be beautiful brides soon.
The dehydrated babies she rushed
to the hospital, wrapping them in blankets
as their mothers wailed. Soon
she learned the nurse's secret:
a pinch of slat and a spoon of sugar
in a liter of water. How quickly they revived!
playing, then crying for milk she wished
she could give them. Nights, she sewed
pajamas and caftans, hemmed school uniforms,
trousers and skirts. All this, all this
I tell you, she learned before she turned fifteen.
Now she is tired, her fingers damp
and smelling of bleach. She is waiting
for the Cairo station to broadcast a concert
by the singer she loves best. A young man,
handsome and dark, the way she wishes
her future husband would look. Under the covers
she feels her body, running her fingers
on her thighs, her chest, her cheeks.
The music starts now, an oud solo echoing
an ancient sadness, the violins squeaking,
the qanoon's ding ding, then Cairo's nightingale,
her precious bulbul, begins to sing.
I WAS BURIED IN JANZOORis what I keep telling them, but they hook me
up to monitors, point to screens and show
flashes of my pulse. They draw blood from my arms,
smear my face with warm dabs. I say, listen:
June, two years after the war, a hundred
and four degrees in late afternoon, they prayed
for me without kneeling, arms lifted to the sky,
chanted "God is great." A plain cedar coffin,
unvarnished, used, the shroud made of Egyptian gauze.
Six cousins settled me on cool dirt,
and a man, the son of a slave, the one
who washed my body placing a rag on my waist,
the one who who did not want to insult the dead,
he heaped the world over me, pressing dirt
with small feminine feet. I'd like to say that
my wives mourned my death for years, that my children
did not fight over my inheritance--forty hectares,
two houses, seven cows, a mule. I'd like to say
that when my name is mentioned in the village
teahouse, no one spits on the sidewalk, no one
curses the day of my birth. I'd like to say
that a grandson is named after me, my picture
on his desk as he eyes foreign words. He thinks of me
rarely, but always as an example of the decency
and apathy that made us prey to strangers from abroad,
that I'm remembered by a woman from Milan, who as a girl,
pressed me to her in her father's tobacco shed.
We stared at each other knowing no words
for the misery that bound us, the nuances
of skin that tore us apart. I'd like to say
I feared or betrayed no one, that I taught
my children all they deserved to know,
that I did not desire the neighbors'
daughters and sons. I'd like to say that you
made me happy, that I would love to return.
I looked at the sky on holy nights and saw
no palm fronds flaming copper gold, no pit for me
to shake Satan's hand. I visited a thousand weddings,
gave rice and pearls; I fed beggars from my table
and helped the blind find their way home;
I sacrificed she-goats and roosters
for local saints; I built a mosque. Stupid
were most of my thoughts, listless most my days.
I loved nothing more than my mother's coffee,
I loved a spoon of her lentil soup more than
I loved the truth. I'm still buried in Janzoor.
ISMA'ILIA ECLIPSEI no longer have to choose between
the Tuareg chief who never rose from bed
until an alim interpreted his dreams
and the villagers who stuffed their pillows
with secrets to forget what they had dreamt.
For days I have been returning to a winter
sunset south of Wichita, the sun hung
there as though glued to the freezing clouds,
its light, blaze red, filling the car.
My friend became restless, twisting
in his seat, said it was like the night
he awoke to his room on fire. I wanted
to know how and when, but he said nothing,
hands pressed against his face to shield him
from the light. By the time we reached
the Rockies, the fire was a dream he had
so often it is now part of his past.
Last Friday I was the first to rise.
I drove to buy the paper, Cairo's streets
unusually empty. I felt happy out
so early, grateful the heavy traffic
that drove me to the edge of madness
was nowhere to be seen. On a whim
I took the Isma'ilia highway to an oasis
recommended by friends. The road ran
through Tenth of Ramadan City,
appliance factories and high-tech farms.
For months I had not seen the horizon
and there it was splitting the desert
as though it were the Nile's twin.
Two hours of driving--switching between
Syrian, Egyptian, and Israeli broadcasts
then settling for the BBC, two hours
of no oasis, only military barracks,
grotesque sculptures of silver missiles
and grinning soldiers waving flags
and Kalashnikovs. The sand was luminous
as though the earth were itself another sun.
Then unexpectedly greenery burst,
eucalyptus and palm trees lining the road.
Along the Gulf of Suez, now a tourist strip,
I drove past hundreds of new villas--
Persian Gulf money, fundamentalism
and German sedans. Then came the shoddy
resorts of "Miami," "La Dolce Vita,"
and "Beau Site," crooked cinder block
cabins, humidity and stifling heat.
Rich and half-poor vacationing on tarred
beaches, swimming among slick rainbows
of ship engine fuel. It was then
that I found myself beside the Suez Canal.
As a child, I dreamt of the War of Attrition,
of martyred soldiers floating on the Bitter Lakes.
I was nine when the October war broke;
I sat by the radio keeping count of enemy
fighters shot over Sinai, mesmerized
by marching songs, absorbing words
soaked in faith and blood. My heroes
were the Algerian soldiers stationed
in Benghazi waiting to be sent to war.
One afternoon a jet fighter flew
what seemed like yards about our heads.
Windows rattled and burst;
doors shuttered and cracked.
The screeching drowned my senses
and I knew others must have felt
the horror I did. Yet later when we recalled
the war, we only talked about our uncle
who joined the Algerians' to avenge
his wife whom the Israelis killed
in a civilian plane eight months before,
and the disillusionment that followed--
the Algerians never went to the front,
but milled about the souq , buying toys
for their children, and for their wives
silk and satin, teflon pans and pots.
We voiced our bitterness singing
parodies of the songs that promised us dignity,
an Arab heaven on our parched earth.
And we never mentioned the plane,
that monstrous scream sent to pierce
the thin curtains of our pride.
As I was driving along the Canal
and as the awe I had harbored for this place
began to melt like a block of ice
tossed in a boiling pot, my memories
pressed for a resolution I could not create.
The road narrowed--shoulders under repair,
field hands pouring cement sacks,
buckets of sand, faithful drivers
like chased prey speeding to catch
the Friday preacher's last chants--,
and I failed to see the canal's end.
Then Isma'ilia, scorched by sun, opened
with colonial houses drenched in shade.
I was told that in one of those mansions
Queen Victoria stayed when she attended
the opening ceremonies of the Canal,
and from her balcony saw the first ship--
rifles and tobacco bound for Madras--drift
to the Red Sea, in ear shot from Verdi
rehearsing Aida's premiere. But only the detail
about the ship's cargo was right.
Verdi, ill on arrival, did not rehearse.
Victoria never made it here,
the palace the Khadives built for her
occupied by a minor European queen.
I stopped at a whitewashed cafe
near the port, hundreds of crates
floating past. From tables beside me
I heard Swahili, French, and Japanese,
the menu offering dishes "according to
international taste." The atmosphere,
tinged with local color, belied the plans
of multinationals and tourism chiefs.
What to make of this place now?
The past masked as daydream emerging
to prove its infinity and the significance
of its mundane details like the book
of matches I still keep from that diner
near Wichita, burger and fries
with my friend. And the present offering
confusion and melancholy as souvenirs.
I watched the sun fall in the black water,
peach color sky, and recalled what my friend said
after leaving jail, eight years for a sigh
reported to the secret police. He fought
his pain by sleeping, diligently recording
his dreams, and now that he is out,
he misses that freedom, that expanse.
He gave his advice as another choice to add
to the villagers' and the Tuareg chief's knowing
how they have been of little help.
I sat longer, hands clutching the table's
edge, ignoring the almost hypnotic breeze,
refusing to surrender to the chatterof businessmen planning the future
in many tongues, refusing to grieve.
--for Ferial Ghazoul and Fouad Moughrabi