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A strange feeling came over me when I was walking down the mobile bridge connecting the airplane to Moscow International Airport. It was about five in the morning, as I remember, and the steward on the airplane had announced more than once that the temperature was nearly thirty below zero. Even though I was totally unaccustomed to hearing a number like this, I was still fixated on the metal walls of the movable corridor!
It was not an ordinary jet bridge; it was a long, serpentine gullet. They had positioned it there specifically to keep us from freezing in the cold as we walked from the plane to that enigmatic city. I was tense and apprehensive about something and wanted to run to the airport or back to the plane. It was important to me to pass through the corridor as quickly as possible.
Various incidents occurred after that, and I adjusted to the place till it almost suited me. I sacrificed the most beautiful years of my youth to it and was more than satisfied.
I learned a lot in that city and explored it from south to north. I mastered obscure aspects of its language and its recondite secrets. I became a faithful friend of the gloomy white pelicans on the banks of the Volga. I recited the most beautiful poems while smoking Kosmos cigarettes at the foot of Pushkin’s statue and never missed a chance for intimacy with women, whether old or young.
Only in Moscow do old women complement the young ones. There is no way to come to terms with the temperamental snow and ice or the coquetry of the ibis, unless the maxims of old ladies and the whispers of young ones line your memory and your consciousness and mix with everything you have stored up previously!
I came to Moscow to learn. Occasionally, I wonder why, despite my innate passion for words and my intense infatuation with poetry, I spent two years in Moscow before meeting Borisa Alexandrovna.
She was in her forties, but her smile concealed the effects of time to an astonishing degree. I met her by chance. She was in charge of the student hostel where I lived on Galouchkina Street. I was a quarrelsome student who had liberated Room 216, on the second floor, even though it was reserved for European guests of the Institute. Borisa Alexandrovna came to my room, burning with anger, and ordered me to quit the room immediately. After collecting my things together, I invited her to a cup of the Lebanese coffee one of my female classmates had given me. Someone like Borisa Alexandrovna could not resist the aroma of fine coffee, because she was a person who made do every morning with the horrible taste of Russian coffee. By her third sip, Alexandrovna had totally forgotten her errand, and the last traces of anger were disappearing from the blue of her eyes. Meanwhile, she was scrutinizing with astonishment the walls of my room, against which I had lined up dozens of pictures of different sizes, colors, forms, and subjects.
They were actually strange pictures and included the face of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, pictures of Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Bob Marley, the director Alan Parker, Habib Bourguiba, the actor Klaus Kinski, Eugene Ionesco, Lermontov, my late father, and others.
On the other side were stacked lots of books in Russian, Arabic and French and another pile with Arabic newspapers and magazines. Letters were strewn about, and papers were scattered here and there.
She asked me about each picture. When I answered her too tersely, she repeated the same question with a strange insistence.
Perhaps the coffee played a part, perhaps I was demoralized because my girlfriend Masha was late, perhaps Borisa Alexandrovna had completely stripped away her professional veils – in any case the important point was that I found myself conversing with her with an eloquence that did not come naturally to me. I spoke to her about the pharaoh’s curse, about Kafka’s dog, and about Picasso’s eccentricities.
I told her about my father, may God be compassionate to him, and explained that he had died responding to a call he heard from the depths of the sea.
I spoke to her with a fluency I had never experienced before. I was making most of the stories up, but oddly enough felt I was speaking the absolute truth. Even now, it seems to me that my father did die in response to a call he heard from the ocean depths and that Kafka’s dog was named Yosha and that it was black and stood on its front legs like a performer.
By the time Borisa Alexandrovna left my room, I felt I had taken her by storm with my world. From that day forward, I grew accustomed to ignoring the tardiness of my girlfriend Masha and started paying attention to the stories of Borisa Alexandrovna.
She had a delicate soul, and words were the key to her world and her heart.
She would tell me about Alexander Pushkin and have trouble holding her tears back. When she recited stanzas from his verse novel Eugene Onegin, her face became flushed and she sounded breathless. All these displays seemed eccentric and alien for the type of poetry lover I had been till that time.
I had studied Pushkin till I was bored with him. I knew enough about him to cover ten pages on the examination that was scheduled for the end of the academic year.
Like many of the students in my class, I knew that Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was born in Moscow and raised to love liberty, that for this reason he took an interest in secret societies and joined organizations that opposed the reactionary Czarist regime, that he began by composing poetry and wrote it from a very early age, that he was suffered banishment and clashed with the Czar, that he wrote Ruslan and Lyudmila, The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, and The Captive of the Caucasus, and another book about the Caucasus in which he described the special features that God had granted this region of the world; and that he wrote Eugene Onegin in which he portrayed the nature of feudal society and is thus considered the founder of critical realism in Russian literature. In addition to this, I had memorized six stanzas of his poetry, even though we were expected to memorize only two for the oral examination of the course on ancient and medieval literature and the pioneering writers of Russia’s intellectual revolution.
I knew all that and more about Alexander Pushkin, who died as the result of a duel with a French officer, but why did Borisa Alexandrovna’s face become so flushed when she recited his poems?
Once, I noticed a tear slip from the corner of Borisa Alexandrovna’s eye when she was reciting a stanza from the poem ‘Russia’, which I had memorized. The verse reads: “I love to hear the sound of mosquitoes . . . the noise of the boys’ frolics on the heights when they make a commotion . . . to attract the girls . . .”
Then I seemed to wake from an extremely long slumber.
I imagined I was once again inside that long gullet that connects a plane to the Moscow International Airport. Borisa Alexandrovna’s tear was a line that pulled me in the other direction – away from the plane.
That was the first time I felt I was actually in Moscow, after having lived there for more than two years. I was like a fledgling bird; I felt myself free to explore this city I had not previously adjusted to.
It has been a long time since I left Moscow and returned to my homeland. All the same, I could no longer tolerate the jests of my former friends . . . or the cock crowing in the morning! I couldn’t stand my mother’s effusive affection or leafing through the evening newspapers. So I left my homeland a second time and took with me to the land of Brecht, Hegel, Nietzsche and Goethe only the poetry collections Songs of Life by Abu al-Qassim al-Shabi and Alwah by Moncef Ouhaibi, the play Bayariq Allah by Bashir al-Qahwaji, Haddatha Abu Houraira Qal (Abu Houraira Narrated That) by Mahmoud Messadi, an Arabic version of the Bible, and a copy of the Holy Qur’an, which was signed by my father, may God be Compassionate to him.
A long time passed after that, and I began to work tirelessly to raise the rent for my secluded room, which in Munich suited me as a dwelling. But still, whenever I was alone, I would remember what Borisa Alexandrovna had said when she bade me farewell at Moscow International Airport: “If sorrows shake you, then seek shelter with Pushkin, and when you read him, remember that he was calling the rose by all its names and apologizing to the water for the delayed arrival of the wild pelicans.”
My God! Borisa Alexandrovna, that great woman, who continues to correspond with me – despite all the changes that have swept over Moscow – to tell me that Moscow has become more beautiful than when I left and that the only thing that concerns her somewhat is the delayed arrival of the wild pelicans this year.
From the author’s collection Arwah Ha’ima ( Wandering Spirits), published by the Supreme of Council of Culture, Cairo 2013
Translated by William M Hutchins
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