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Translated by Sally Gomaa
We all headed to Helmy’s house covered in sweat and dust. We could not stop talking about our epic soccer game, which we had just brilliantly lost. We were walking slowly the way we usually did to let Helmy to keep up. He never ever asked us to wait for him but there was something about him that compelled us to slow down. It was not just out of respect for his feelings, we were moved by a mysterious, unnamable force. Even when we ran to catch the school bus, he was always ahead of us. We admired the way he limped forward with his body tilted at a sharp angle and jumped onto the bus, holding on to the door. More often than not, one of us would fall off and be seriously hurt, but not him. Perhaps this was one of Abu Regileh’s miracles. “Abu Regileh” was the nickname we later gave him: the Miraculous Helmy or the Miraculous Helmy Abu Regileh.
We were a group of five from pre to middle school. And in the last two years, we were joined by Mahmoud el-Minyawi. He was a year older despite his small size. He had missed one school year due to the war raging along the Suez Canal. His family had had to emigrate from the city of Suez. As a “refugee” he was treated with contempt by his peers in both elementary and middle school. At that time, all the refugees who had had to relocate from the Canal to other parts of Egypt were stigmatized. For many years, they were viewed as outsiders through no fault of their own.
Helmy was our favorite. We loved descending on his house in small groups. His mother warmly welcomed us as if we were her own children. She always led us straight to his room even if he was asleep. He liked the ruckus we made to wake him up and he was immediately out of bed, limping with his curious gait. His mom was from the countryside and she kept her beautiful original accent despite living in Cairo for many years. She understood that we were always hungry. So the moment we sat down, she walked in with her famous tray full of her distinctive delicious food. She made the best fried eggs with butter and she had the best feteer, stuffed with cheese and honey. Those treats, which we rarely enjoyed at our own homes, were always abundantly available at Helmy’s. We used to wolf down her food as she watched us with a kindly smile. The feast usually ended with her excellent mint tea.
* * *
The strong bond that united the six of us was envied by many. Hardly a day went by without seeing each other after school. This was at the beginning of the 1970s. We had no way of communicating other than going to each other’s house. Mahmoud el-Minyawi was the easiest to reach because he lived on the ground floor. All we had to do was tap lightly on his window to let him know we were waiting outside ready for our next adventure.
I lived on the second floor. At hearing a distinctive whistle followed by my name stretched in an exaggerated way, “Taaaaarek,Taaaaarek,” I would stick my head out or wave my hand. In no time, I was downstairs. Fateen was the toughest to reach. We had to be as sly as foxes, carefully approaching his house and using his alias, “Pilot”, to draw his attention. A red towel on the clothes-lines was our sign to stay away. If we persisted in calling him, his mom would come out. She would yell loudly at us and accuse us of ruining her youngest son’s future by being good for nothing losers.
As for Paulus, he was always available because he rarely stayed in the house. He usually sat outside on a round stone that looked like the one used to make falafel – a cylindrical stone, which was placed firmly at the corner of the house to protect it from passing traffic. This was where we always found him and where we held our meetings. Sometimes his invalid father came out to ask us to keep our voices down. Paulus’s informal way of addressing his father always sounded peculiar to us. “Take it easy, Boss” or “Chill out,” he would tell him.
* * *
Helmy was our best friend, the one with the kindest heart, the first to pay a sick friend a visit and to stick around until he felt better. Perhaps others’ sickness moved him because of his gentle nature; perhaps he sympathized deeply because of his own handicap. I sensed the profound sadness he tried to hide, even from himself. He allowed no one to see his tears. Instead, he always came up with the funniest jokes and the wittiest remarks. His humor was treasured by all of us while his sarcasm was feared by people outside our group. He unleashed his sharp tongue against anyone who dared to offend one of us. He would invent a name that could stick to the offender for the rest of his school days and perhaps even for the rest of his life. He had his own unique vocabulary, along with his unique walk.
For Helmy’s birthday, instead of a gift, we decided to give him cash. We convinced him to use it to see a well-known orthopedist. The orthopedist recommended another specialist who recommended another specialist and so on until he was advised to see a therapist. Each one of those consultations cost him a lot of money.
We saw Helmy walking out of the therapist’s office with the usual sarcastic smile on his face. The therapist himself followed looking extremely angry. I was the only one who noticed the sadness in Helmy’s eyes. This was why he avoided making eye contact with me. We were all there when the therapist told him clearly that his condition would never improve unless he admitted that he had a “condition” in the first place. Helmy told us later that the therapist saw his “problem” as a psychological one, which required intensive therapy going back to his early childhood. He joked that it would be cheaper and more effective to seek the help of a sheikh . A few prayers and religious chants would chase out the demons that seemed to have possessed him, he joked. Joking was his way to express his gratitude for what he considered a unique experience and a thoughtful birthday gift. From that day on, our way of handling any problem was to invoke Helmy’s precious impression of the therapist’s words: “After only ten sessions of intensive therapy, you will feel as good as new, son.”
* * *
Once I went to see Nasser at his house. Since he was not home, his mom invited me to have some tea while I waited. I always dreaded one-on-one sessions with my friends’ moms. Their brilliant interrogation methods always succeeded in unveiling secrets we had vowed never to share with our parents regardless of their pressure.
It was winter and the weather was unpredictable. As I neared Nasser’s house, it started to rain heavily. I ran to take shelter at his house. As it would have been a long journey back home, I accepted his mom’s invitation to have tea. But I prepared myself for her imminent attack with as much cunning as I could ever muster.
We sat in the living room on a colorful rug-covered couch. I tried to anticipate her questions and to prepare my own useless answers. I made up stories with fake names and characters in my head to distract her, on the one hand, and to waste time, on the other. I wanted to avoid being trapped into revealing one of her first-born’s secrets. She always added the word “first-born” before his name as if it was a title like Dr or as if “first-born” was a unique blessing bestowed upon him by God.
Umm Nasser was a force to be reckoned with. She had already tricked two of us into admitting some of the follies committed by her “first-born”. With unparalleled skill, she once extracted classified information from Fateen. The calmer she appeared, the more he babbled on until, before he even knew it, the fool had said too much. For a while afterwards, he and Nasser were not in good terms. From that day on, the six of us vowed to never ever share our secrets with anyone beyond our group.
* * *
Around that time, Nasser was suffering from bilharzia, which he was late in discovering, or, rather, which he was ashamed to admit. We were taking a leak once when I noticed the bright red color of his urine against the sand. First, he told me he had drunk lots of hibiscus tea at our Sudanese friend Abboud’s house. But later he admitted that, in addition to a burning sensation, he had been seeing blood in his urine for a while. He was afraid to tell his family because he thought he had caught a sexually transmitted infection from rubbing against Mabsoutah’s body while she was wearing nothing but a pair of panties. She had lifted her skirt up for him when she delivered milk to his house in place of her father. Nasser thought that counted as having sex. I understood then why he had had so many questions about pregnancy and marriage for Khalil, our sex expert.
Mabsoutah was only two years older than us but she had the body of a fully developed woman. She loved to flirt and to have boys rub against her and she took every opportunity to make obscene sexual jokes. We were fourteen years old, the age of sexual misinformation – all of which came from Khalil. Because he was a couple of years older than us he was our reference for everything to do with sex. He told us men ejaculated during sex and so did women. He said kissing caused pregnancy, which explained why some babies were born after only seven months. They were babies born from kissing whereas one needed to have sex several times to make a complete baby – each time made one part: one time for the head, another for the arms or the legs, and so on. He also told us that if a man was not on top during sex, he could get pregnant. We believed those myths and passed them on when it was our turn.
* * *
Nasser was treated for bilharzia by Dr Boutros el-Isnawi, who had volunteered to treat all the children of our neighborhood for free. Believing that he only treated school children, many parents sent their children to school not only for education, but also for the free medical treatment, which constituted a more pressing need. Thanks to Dr Boutros, not a single child had bilharzia. However, soon after Nasser was cured, he was bitten by a rabid dog and had to receive twenty-one injections at the local medical unit.
I went with him for his first appointment. He was trembling both before and after the injection. Within fifteen minutes of taking it, he started to vomit until nothing was left in his stomach. The same thing happened with the second injection. So, when it was time for the third one, we decided to spare him the torture and skip the appointment. We had to disappear for two or three hours. When he went home, Nasser had to act as if he had had the injection by showing the same side effects. We did this a total of four times. Each time, all four or five of us went with him.
However, his mom soon sensed that he was not acting the same way he did after the first two real injections. Among other things for example, she noticed that his appetite was no longer affected. Initially, she was delighted, but the remarkable speed of his recovery raised her doubts. At first, she played along but, like any mother in her place, she conspired to unravel the mystery.
She planned a meeting with Fateen on his own. Before he arrived, she prepared his favorite dessert, something called bsissa. As Fateen waited for Nasser, he could not help but smell the delicious freshly made bsissa. When a huge plate of bsissa appeared before him, the battle was already lost. Even before he swallowed his first bite, she started the inquisition.
“By the way, Fateen, since when did Nasser stop going to the medical unit?”
The bsissa stuck in Fateen’s throat. To ease the pressure on him, she added with phony concern: “The poor thing told me how horrible the injections were and how he just couldn’t keep taking them.”
Her face maintained an exaggerated look of sympathy as she fixed her gaze on poor Fateen. When she said, “Eat up, my son,” he thought she was saying, “Speak up, my son.”
“Has Nasser really told you that,” he said faintly.
“Yes, he did, after he made me promise not to tell his father. When exactly did he stop taking his injections?”
By this point, she made no effort to ease the pressure. And, like a complete fool, Fateen blurted out: “The third time, Tant.”
We used to call Umm Nasser “Interpol”. Not only did Nasser approve of this name, I’m almost sure he was the one who invented it. It was how he referred to her sometimes. Recently, Umm Nasser said that she was concerned that we were skipping school. We had no idea how she had found out. But we were in fact skipping school about once every week. We used to leave after morning break to go to “the hill”, as we called it, which was an open space about two kilometres from school. We went there to play soccer with a rudimentary ball made by our ingenious friend Mahmoud. He used to fill an old silk stocking with foam rubber, then wind it really tightly with rope until it was as perfectly round and smooth as a large navel orange. He would finally dip it in a special kind of liquid glue and leave it to dry for a few days. Thus, we were able to practise our favorite sport.
But we liked to play soccer on an open space behind Nasser’s house more than on the “hill”. The tough ground there was better than the sand that covered the hill. This change of place might have been the reason Umm Nasser’s intelligence sources had identified us.
* * *
Umm Nasser did not offer me tea as I expected. Instead, she had made lentil soup with bone stock. Its overpowering smell alone was enough to bring the hardest criminal to his knees. When she placed a bowl of hot soup in front of me, I knew I was in trouble. As a pre-emptive strike, I said: “I just ate, Tant.” However, what I said made no sense on account of my bulging eyes and slobbering mouth.
“But this is just a snack, sweetheart. Please have some soup, darling.”
The smell of the fried onions on top of the soup conspired with the cold weather to destroy what was left of my resistance. I fell on the bowl, anticipating the first blow to hit at any moment. I knew that the lentil soup manoeuvre was the first move in the process of extracting information from me to be forever filed in her beautiful mind. By eating the soup, I was already co-opted into her plan. She brought me some sun-baked bread to complement the soup and continued with her kind words.
“Eat up, love. Take your time.” This was followed by the usual formalities: “How’s your mum? How’s your dad? How’s your sister, Hayat, and your aunt, Rouda?”
So far, so good, I thought. But things were moving fast. Where was Nasser, the fool? What was taking him so long?
To gain time, I asked: “Where’s Nasser?” I hoped for a long answer.
“Oh, he and his brother went to Uncle Sanad’s store to pick up a few things.”
What the hell! Uncle Sanad’s store was so far away! It was further away than our school and he didn’t open till 3:00 pm. Despite these thoughts, I kept a stupid smile on my face.
Not before long, her next question crawled into the conversation like a snake: “How’s school, love? Is it true your classmates are skipping school, as Mr Aref has told me?”
The way she kept calling me “love” signalled an impending disaster. May God help me! As for “classmates”, I had no idea who exactly she was referring to.
“Well, some people do, but not everyone.” That was the beginning of the end for me. I had spoken too fast and my answer was dumb. Sure enough, she followed by asking what “not everyone” meant.
I said, playing stupid: “Some boys skip school, but most of us don’t.”
“Come on, you’ve never done it?”
“Done what, Tant?”
“You’ve never, ever tried to skip school, you little devil? Not even once?”
I knew I was in no man’s land. The soup had given me temporary strength, but it was all gone under the impact of the last blow. I remembered what happened with Fateen. That poor bunny. Here I was, trapped like a mouse.
“Never, Tant! Besides, where would we go? It’s not like we could go to a cinema or a stadium.”
“Not even if you were encouraged by what’s his face, the kid who’s driving his poor mother crazy, Helmy?”
“Helmy Abu Regileh? How would he be able to join us with his handicap?” I said with mock surprise. Then, in an attempt to turn round the conversation, I came up with my own question. “Is it true, Tant, that you gave birth to Nasser the same day Helmy was born?”
Umm Nasser laughed and the bracelets around her wrist made a little noise, like a soft song that transported her back to the past. Her story now appeared more important to her than anything I could have said. I sighed in relief. The ball was finally in my court. She started to tell the story as if it happened yesterday. I barely listened to her because all my attention was focused on the doorway through which I hoped someone would emerge and save me from my predicament. She said it was true that Nasser and Helmy were born on the same night. Umm Helmy had pneumonia at the beginning of her pregnancy. As her condition worsened, her doctor advised her to terminate the pregnancy. But her husband had just died and she wanted to keep the baby despite the risk.
“She gave birth to Helmy,” Umm Nasser said, “a beautiful boy with a stunning face, the spitting image of his father. But too bad . . . no one is perfect.”
Right at that moment, I heard a noise outside the door. My only wish was granted! There they were, Nasser and his brother walking in with many shopping bags. Nasser was happy to see me and gave me a hug, as usual. I thanked his mum for her hospitality and for her fabulous soup. In fact, everything she cooked was more than fabulous.
“Thanks, buddy. I just came from a ‘private study group’,” I told him.
His face showed fear because a ‘private study group’ in our vocabulary meant an interrogation by one of our parents. “Did you pass the quiz,” he asked.
His mom thought we were discussing school and she prepared to leave the room with the empty soup bowl. “Would you like some more?” she asked me on her way out.
* * *
My visit to Nasser’s house was part of an elaborate scheme. We had planned an important soccer match with another local team in the open space behind his house. The plan was to tell our parents we were going to study at Nasser’s house while Nasser would tell his mom he was going to study at Mahmoud’s. I had tucked two random delapidated books under my arm, as I always did, to give the impression I was going to study.
We were now late for the game. The other team had already arrived, along with a small group of their fans. Our team members were worried because we were late for such an important game.
Helmy was there. He attended every game, standing at the edge of the makeshift pitch. Only I noticed his sadness. Perhaps because of our deep friendship, I saw behind the constant smile on his face. I could tell from the way he eyed the ball intensely that he wanted to join in. But since no one offered, he always said he was there to support us. There were times when I saw him jumping behind the goal, which was marked by a couple of stones, as if he were the goalkeeper. I marvelled at his grace and his skill, catching the imaginary ball, but I admired him most for his ability to make something sublime out of his handicap.
At the time, I could not understand my feelings towards him. I did not possess an adequate vocabulary to capture such complex feelings. I did not even know what “sublime” meant. The only word I knew was love. I loved him in a way I did not need to intellectualize by thinking about why he was so strong, why he was so divine, or why we all loved him so much.
Fateen did not show up that day. Mahmoud laughed so hard as he told me that when they went to pick him up, his mother appeared from behind the clotheslines yelling that “The pilot has taken off! Go find another loser so you can waste his time!” As he walked away feeling embarrassed, he noticed Fateen’s head sticking out of a side window like a prisoner. Fateen’s mum controlled the entire family. Not even his father was spared her sharp tongue. We dreaded her enough to stay out of her way or to change our route altogether to avoid running into her. The name we gave her, which Fateen knew, was “Dracula”.
We could not start the game without our goalkeeper. So Nasser offered to do the job. “We can’t afford to lose our best defense,” I said.
For a while, I stood facing the crowds and the fans. Then, all of a sudden, I yelled at the captain of the opposite team as he was beginning to walk away: “We’re ready to play, Captain.”
Everyone watched in amazement as I walked towards Helmy. He was leaning on his good foot, waiting for the game to start. “You’re going to be our goalkeeper today, Helmy,” I told him. “Do a good job.”
I spoke with authority. But my friends looked both annoyed and embarrassed. Sensing their unease, Helmy took a few steps back. I placed my hand firmly on his shoulder as I looked firmly into his eyes. He simply put his arms around me.
Mahmoud was the only one who came over to join us. “We’ll win. This is our own pitch,” he said as he tapped Helmy’s shoulder.
Watching me and Mahmoud, our friends appeared baffled. The game started. We scored the first goal and for a short while we dominated the game. But we lost momentum once two goals were scored by the opposing team, one after the other. This was the result of Helmy being stressed. Our team was visibly shaken. The score now was 6/2.
During the short interval, we met in the middle of the pitch. I gave Helmy a telling-off and asked him to pay more attention to the ball. I told him he was an excellent goalkeeper but he needed to focus. I was yelling at him as if he did not have multiple sclerosis. Mahmoud reminded me to be careful not to hurt Helmy’s feelings. But I told him pointing at Helmy: “Our goalkeeper is twenty times better than his opponent.”
“It’s OK,” Paulus intervened. “You know he has a bad foot.”
“But his good foot makes up for it,” I yelled back.
This was awkward for everyone to hear except for Helmy. His face glowed and he put on his unique beautiful smile. I knew that my words moved him and my mood switched from anger to joy. This was the real Helmy, the one who laughed in the face of tragedy, who had no time for self-pity, who put others’ feelings before his.
In the second half of the game, he faced the ball like a lion. The crowds were stunned by his performance. “Helmy, Helmy, Helmy,” they cheered. Their cheers inspired us and drew more people over to watch Helmy’s amazing performance.
We wanted to win for Helmy’s sake. From a distance, he looked so different to me, and, for a moment, I thought that there was nothing wrong with him and that his handicap was a guise he put on to deceive us.
* * *
We lost the game 7/3 that day. As soon as it was over, we ran towards Helmy. We hoisted him up in the air and hugged and kissed him as if we had won. We shouted his name over and over: “Helmy, Helmy, Helmy.”
“Now, do you understand, silly, that you are the best goalkeeper we could ever have,” I teased him.
I would never forget the gratitude in his eyes as I hugged him, and kissed him on his forehead. I looked away to wipe away the tears caused by so much dust in the air.
* * *
We all headed to Helmy’s house covered in sweat and dust. We could not stop talking about our epic soccer game, which we had just brilliantly lost. We were walking slowly the way we usually did to allow Helmy to keep up. But this time he was several steps ahead of us, leaning confidently on his good leg.
Vienna, 2 January 2012
* Helmy’s nickname Abu Regileh is after the famous Egyptian football player, Mahmoud Abu Regileh.
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