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Continued from Banipal 39 . . .
My Father’s White Shawl
A short story
Translated by Leri Price
I had reached high school with another ‘A’. There was a girl who lived in the building where my father worked, who was my age and in my grade at school. Her father was rich, and the agricultural lands he owned brought him huge yields every harvest. He would send my father some kilos of potatoes and rice, and sometimes some mangoes and prickly pears. Her mother was a sweet lady, and at the start of every summer and winter she sent my father the many clothes that her daughter had worn for a little while and then grown tired of. Throughout primary school my mother would dress me in these clothes; she didn’t understand the difference between men’s and women’s clothing. When I started at high school, I flatly refused to wear them. I endured my father’s violence and my mother’s scolding until I could ask them to buy me some clothes from El-Wekala, the second-hand shop. But the girl was beautiful and came fairly often to my place by the glass cabinet. She would ask me for a biscuit, or some chewing gum, or a bottle of sparkling water, which she would drink on the spot, and she would look at the school books I was reading. It was she who gave me to understand that we were in the same class. She used to ask after me if I was absent. My father would look at us aghast, like someone seeing a lion saunter through the city’s streets. Then, it so happened that she called me from her balcony and asked for some bottles of sparkling water. I took them up quickly. She gave me the money for them plus a tip. She was my age. She was in my class. I refused the tip. She looked at me in astonishment, then at my hand, outstretched, still holding the cash. When she didn’t reach out to take it, I dropped it on the ground. The sound of the door slamming after her almost deafened me.
I felt as if I had created a problem, and I couldn’t sleep. The next day I waited for her to look down on me from her balcony but she didn’t appear. An hour or more passed and I began to feel anxious, and annoyed. All of a sudden I saw her coming from the end of the street, heading for our building. I followed her into the lift and pressed the button for her. I said: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” She turned her back on me and when the lift arrived at her floor she pushed open the wooden outer door and shut the iron grille with a violent clang. I took the lift back down and slipped in next to my father. He was lying on his back with the smell of alcohol wafting from his open mouth. After a few minutes, the voice of her father could be heard calling to my father from his balcony. “Mahmoud! Hey you, bloody Mahmoud!”
My father woke quickly and craned his neck in his direction, saying, while not quite wide awake: “Yes, Mr Assam.” The reproachful words in reply were incisive and categorical: “Make sure your son doesn’t ride in the lift with my daughter again.”
My father quickly went upstairs to him, and returned with a very different expression on his face from the one he had left with. I was trembling, the girl was beside her father on their balcony, and my father raised his hand and delivered my cheek some resounding slaps. I collapsed, crying, on the bench. In the middle of the day my father closed the shop and, by his own hand, took me home. He didn’t say a word to my mother, just threw me towards her. and went out. I tried to sleep before he came back but tears choked me, and my mother failed to extract a single syllable from me. My father pulled the curtain across while I was pretending to sleep. He drank a cup of tea and helped himself to some stuffed vegetables. My mother asked him what had happened. He belched and replied quietly: “People are bastards. They think we are monkeys. ‘No son of yours should ride in the lift with my daughter.’ Fine! I swear to God, this son of mine will outclass her, and he won’t even want to employ her when he grows up.” I fell asleep, as happy at my father’s words as if they deserved to come true.
The first days in the dorms and stairwells of the Medical Faculty were the happiest. My father called me ‘Doctor’, and most days my mother provided me with a patient from among her acquaintance. She would sit quietly watching me as I placed a hand on their forehead, or prescribed some general medication. I was only at the beginning of my medical studies but I couldn’t make her understand this; according to her, my entrance into the Medical Faculty meant I was a doctor. My father wouldn’t leave my allowance with my mother, or stuff it under my pillow as he used to do. He preferred me to pass by the little shop on the edge of the quarter to give me the money himself. From behind me I could hear him whisper to whoever was beside him: “My son, the doctor.” I was extremely annoyed because the person next to him rarely changed, but he never got bored of whispering: “My son, the doctor.” There was a bus stop near his shop, so I had no excuse to ask him to leave money in the house as I wouldn’t be passing by the shop. My father had aged a little and had begun to drink openly in the shop, which was recorded in his name and for which he had a contract. The shop may have been small and worth nothing, and in a poor area, but his contract of ownership was the most important thing he possessed. He often used to wake me up at night and make me read it out to him time after time, until even my mother convinced him that so much handling would make the ink run and the contract would lose its validity. My father whipped it out of my hands in terror; the following day he wrapped it in plastic and placed it at the bottom of his dresser. A blissful year passed on the steps of the Faculty of Science during my preparatory medical training, and another wonderful half year in the Medical Faculty. By chance, Sahar saw me one day as I was sitting on the staircase at the back of one of the departments, writing out my lecture notes in clear handwriting so I could review them more easily in the future. I didn’t raise my head from my battered notebook until her laugh, sharp and provocative, reached me over those she was exchanging with her classmates. I raised my head a little and saw her. I knew her at once. I stood up, letting my notebook fall to the ground as I had done in the past when I was taken aback by her asking me for iced drinks. Her classmates watched me; I was confused and afraid. Blood rushed to my face arousing strange, physical responses to feelings I had never experienced before: shame, disgrace, fury, fear. She carried on laughing for a long time, then ignored me completely and walked off, followed by her companions.
It turned out my father wasn’t to stay at his shop for more than another two months. The Greek owner had decided to settle in Greece and so liquidated all his properties in Egypt: Sahar’s father bought the building. My father was late in hearing about the sale, which had taken place behind his back. He asked the Greek owner to draw up a contract for him; the owner was a bit put out by this but managed to excuse himself. Once the sale went through, the first thing Mr Assam did was to ask my father: “Did he draw you up a contract or not?” My father realised that Assam had an agenda of his own, so he sold the glass cabinet, the drinks fridge and the merchandise and bought a small shop in the poor quarter, all before Assam officially took over. My father never went back, and neither did I. My life at the faculty became a kind of hell. I started running into Sahar everywhere. However much I avoided and evaded her, she popped up in front of me like a jack-in-the-box, and always in some place I couldn’t back out of or escape from. She was always in the midst of her chattering classmates, her eyes turned towards me, her smile large enough to swallow a city. I was driven to walk towards her; if I changed direction I became the object of derision for her classmates, so I walked towards my death, my unseeing eyes fixed straight ahead. Their speech suddenly seemed to turn into a thousand microphones, amplified in my ears, but I wasn’t aware of a single word. My heart throbbed in my ears like someone scared to death. As I was a few steps away from them, I rushed up towards anything that would hide me. I seriously considered leaving the Faculty and working with my father in his shop. How could I know what she would say, how she would mock me? Then I noticed my classmates, apart from a few, start to avoid me. No girls wanted to know me. My close friends numbered only a handful. One of the lecturers gave me some valuable books and notes and when I asked him why, he replied with a smile: “You’re an excellent student.” They excused me from the college fees which I couldn’t refuse , although my father could have paid. I knew that some of the students were poorer than me and from a lower social class, but they didn’t have a microphone like Sahar to expose them to the students. Damn it, I couldn’t bear the teachers, or the students, or anyone who looked on me with pity. I became cantakerous, and the students distanced themselves from me. In anatomy classes I wasn’t dissecting a cockroach, or a frog, or a human body; in my mind I was dissecting Sahar. I passed Anatomy with an ‘A’.
I had one year remaining to realise my dream. I didn’t participate in any of the student activities, not even the student elections. I was totally absorbed, and I didn’t give a damn about Sahar any longer. Sometimes I stood boldly before her, and to withstand her looks of mockery and contempt my skin had become as thick as a crocodile’s. Time was short.
One day, some students from one of the societies were engaged in an activity – to which they had invited members of a Sufi sect – which seemed to consist of them linking hands in a circle in the college courtyard. The students were crowding round. Sahar wasn’t far away, and she was wearing black, which looked harsh and gloomy on her; she was receiving some students who had come to offer her their condolences on the death of her father. Suddenly, I found myself breaking into the circle of dancers, and loudly reciting the Qur’an. I was aware of some dancers trying to stop me, but in the end they let me be. I began to whirl around with them, violently, madly, dancing with almost joy and ecstasy. All the students had started to watch me, even the ones also chanting; I was spinning and whirling and I saw her, standing under a group of withered trees with hollow trunks and without leaves, without branches, until I sank to the ground in an utter faint.
My father became a source of irritation in my life. I left him in his room, and rented a place in an outlying area near the hospital where I was working. I opened a local clinic at the front of my flat and began working there as well. During the time I spent on a placement in the countryside, I grew out of touch with what was happening to my father; he quickly descended into alcohol addiction. He left the shop to the worker who ran it and devoted himself to drinking. The dust of the streets of the quarter, its pavements, even its asphalted roads: when he had been drinking my father irrigated them all with his blood, even with the flesh from his wounds, until he lost consciousness. All our neighbours, whether old or young, propped him up or carried him bodily to our home. My mother refused an offer to live with me unless my father came with her; I didn’t ask again. When a delegation from my father’s neighbourhood came to me, they implored me to intercede with this man wallowing in his mire of booze, so I booked him into a clinic specifically for alcoholics. After five months he was cured; he stayed at home, for months punctually performing five prayers a day, but then he returned to total immersion in his addiction. I entered him into the clinic more than once, as well as other, different clinics, until my fellow doctors advised me to give up on the whole situation as hopeless. My visits decreased as I wasn’t prepared to wait for him to be carried home on someone’s shoulders, his gallabiya stained with mud and with blood all over his head, his mouth open, collecting the streams of snot running from his nose. I wasn’t prepared to be stopped by someone asking after my father’s health who had seen him passed out in the street the previous day. Even the man who passed me a packet of cigarettes or from whom I bought some pastries – after carefully wrapping up whatever I had ordered, and after I had given him a generous tip which he thanked me profusely for – asked: “And how’s your father today, sir?” I hated going out and seeing people, and I hated my mother, who stuck by him and remained with him until he died.
I had decided to get married without my father being present, claiming that he was dead, or had travelled to the Gulf, but my mother took me to task and finally spat in my face. I didn’t wipe her spit away, but I felt totally nonplussed. Whoever had heard her cursing him every day after the men laid him in his bed; and again when, immediately after waking, he would be drinking from the bottle of brandy he used to keep in the fridge, which now stood in the same spot as the box I used to sleep on; and yet again when she smashed the bottle and poured its contents down the toilet, they would think she couldn’t bear him. I decided to put my father in a clinic, by force, a month before the wedding. The strange thing was, this time he completely gave himself over to me, and so the night before the wedding I relented and discharged him. I paid for the barber, who shaved him, and I gave my mother a new gallabiya to wear along with the abaya she had carefully chosen. The wedding passed off beautifully and I was absorbed by my bride, by the wedding procession, by the company, by the guests, and when I glanced furtively in their direction my mother appeared happy and my father’s eyes twinkled. I took my wife through the tables and sat her down with them. My father gazed me in wonder; the hotel the wedding was held in was very luxurious and had cost me a fortune, with the the tables catering for different types of guests. On some of them were selections of splendid wines and spirits. My father smiled, his eyes straying to one of those tables, and he asked me: “And what are they drinking, Doctor?”
My mother tapped his leg and said shyly: “Let’s mind our own business.”
I returned to the fray. I kept looking over at my father who was making an effort to appear happy. He clapped his hands for the dancer and the drummer; he rose with difficulty every time one of my wife’s relatives greeted him. I left the crowd. I approached the Master of Ceremonies and pointed out my father’s table to him. After a few moments the table was graced with a bottle of the finest brand of spirits and many delicious hors d’oeuvres. My father was happy and took a drink, but my mother was a little annoyed. The following morning my father died. My mother kept the news from me until I returned from the honeymoon.