It’s water dried up and no goodness came from it,
And the land become ugly and deserted
We went looking for the land of the west,
I am on my howdah in my camel in hiding,
We came to Egypt, since then we became yours,
And there is no more coming and going
How is it that moving from one place to another has become stained with shame? I remember when I was younger, most of the tales we used to hear in our village in Egypt were about courageous families moving from one place to another, fleeing something or the other, pursuing knowledge or trade, travelling after love or after desire and so many more. The most beautiful of which Al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah, which narrate the tale of the journey of a Bedouin tribe, Bani Hilal from Najd in Arabia to Tunisia and Algeria through Egypt. I would listen to it on the music of the traditional Rababa and be glued to the storyteller. I would be mesmerized by the tales of courage and heroism of Abu Zaid al-Hilaliy, El Zinaty Chalipha.
My father would so passionately tell us the story about how his great great grandfather immigrated from upper Egypt to the Delta where his family is settled now. My grandmother would proudly tell us how the sacred route of the Holy Family passed through El-Zagazig and Belbis in the Delta and Egypt, and tell me stories and stories of their trip, of how blessed everywhere they stepped upon became and how everything turned gold. Tales and tales of courage, migration and movement as if we humans owned the world, no borders stopping us. When has migration become such stigma? When has it become so frowned upon? When has it stopped being so courageous and soulful?
I love Wael El Kafoury … said my father when he came to visit me. Forty years and I have no idea he loves music. Our train was ten minutes late and now he has time to speak his heart out. He sat sipping his coffee and watching passers-by. He loves to wear hats, loves Celine Dion and Wael El Kafoury. If I had known, I would have consulted him with the music that we danced to in my wedding. I would have asked him what he wanted to hear while we ate our dinner in silence, before I left. I would have brought him hats and music instead of all the suit ties that have piled up in his wardrobe. He was always hiding between his papers and his books, and me in my dreams that I forgot to ask him what he likes to hear and read.
Sometimes we even forgot that we were in the same house because of our travelling. The train was never late in my life. We never had the opportunity to sit and chat aimlessly. We only discussed the future, education certificates and our next stop. And now the train comes, to widen the distances between us again. How many more ten minutes do I need to fix what was wiped away by our silent farewells. I need another ten minutes to tell you happy birthday Dad. I also love Wael El Kafoury and I like to wear hats. And if we ever meet again in this life, we will hear together the music that you love and wear our hats while we drink coffee on the trains’ platforms… and at that time we will not be amongst its passengers.
My sense of time is different in Berlin. Dawn and twilight share the same silence. I can only distinguish between them by the dim morning light on the horizon or the fall ofdarkness. My sense of time back home, in Cairo, depended on me connecting with the sounds of the alley which I lived in. I used to wake up to the sound of curlew. I knew that the morning has come from its singing and from the morning call to prayer. The women who used to sell the newspapers came everyday at six o’clock exactly, calling “Ahram, Akhbar, Gomherya”.,She would call us by name if we had our window shutters closed. She knew exactly the name of everyone who used to read her newspapers and which newspaper they liked. Soon after, the bread seller passes. He would walk through the alley with the bread spread on a woven basket on his shoulder and call, “Aiwaa El Aish”. I could smell the fresh baked from my room. We used to it hot before my mother even prepared breakfast. “Bequia Bequia” the arrival of the Robabikia man, meant that the time was now 9 o’clock. He used to buy any old stuff that we didn’t need and save us more the unnecessary clutter in our homes.
The doorbell rings at exactly 10 o’clock . Mohammed the grocery man. He used to wear the same slippers through all seasons and would pull his cart himself. He had no money at the time to buy a donkey. So my mom liked him. She used to say, Mohamed is a gard working fellow and God will reward him. Indeed, after God rewarded him, he opened a store at the end of our street, but still came especially for my mother to see her needs. He was then promoted from a hard working fellow to a magnanimous one . After midday prayer, the ice cream man used to pass by in a cheerful cart, and it was enough for him to call once to make the children of the alley run to it. He always had hi radio on, which always had Umm Kulthum playing. He liked to have a good time, that man and sold ice cream with the flavor of the “Um Kalthoum”. In the afternoon, the licorice seller would pass by and call out using sajat (zills). He was a big old man with a long white beard always dressed in a white galabeyya and used to ride a bike with three wheels. He used to look like Santa Claus if the Alley with his bike and copper jug.
At the end of the day, and without looking at the sky, I know that the sunset has come from the whistling of the pigeon owners to their pigeons. They whistled and waved their flags on the roofs of the buildings to call their pigeons back. The night has come. We hear the children of the neighbors whistle for their parents after a long day of play in the alley. Every house had its own whistle. We had once a young handsone neighbor’s son whose eyes were like the blue of the sky. His whistle was one of the most beautiful in the alley. When his soul returned to its creator after a deadly car accident, the alley’s children stopped their whistling for a long time to mourn his death. The sounds of the alley were intertwined, reassuring us, that we are not alone and that there are people who share our daily lives. The presence of others and hearing their voices gives a different sense to time …
I have always thought recreational spaces were just a space for people to hang out, for chidren to play a little and more green is always good for the environment. As I watch my children growing up, I have come to realise that they do not only offer health and environmental benefits, so to speak, but they also build character and self confidence. The first time my son could climb a tree, the first my daughter could swing herself alone, and the first bicycle ride alone, how all these small achievements changed in their characters struck me. How they have become more self confident afterwards and how they were encouraged to make small life decisions like crossing the roads alone wisely or choosing to chat to another child on the playground who shares their playtime interests. Public spaces are becoming extinct in Egypt even child friendly alleys between buildings which were safe for the neighborhood kids to play with each other and share a match or two, are no longer there. Cars have taken over. A few months ago, the revolutionary urban square of Tahrir was transformed into a prestigious beautification project. A pharaonic obelisk has been installed in the middle of the square and is to be surrounded by four pharoanic statues transferred especially from Luxor. Needless to say that around twelve governmental and consultancy entities have taken part in this beautification project. Not one consultancy considered a little space for the future generations to play or cycle in. The pharaohs must be impressed. It makes me wonder how does this affect the education and the mindset of the younger generations growing up. How does growing up between walls in closed apartments in dense cities affect the way they interact with their communities in the future? How does this dictatorship of youngsters recreational spaces affect lifetime decisions such as freedom and dignity?
The willow tree is not only Native to North African countries, but turns out it exists in Europe and is called the weeping willow tree in English. It is actually native to Pakistan. Anyway their English name is quite sad! They have a beautiful name in Egypt ‘Om-el-Sho’or’ which translates into something like ‘The one with long hair’. Another name for it is ‘Safsaf’. Maybe they are different families. They remind me of the route we used to take to our village in Sharqia along the Ismailia Canal. A lot of those trees used to grow in abundance along that canal, which was constructed in 1863 to supply drinking and irrigation water from the Nile to the villages. I was told there was a King who planted a lot of those willow trees because his army used to make gun powder from its’ barks. He would trim its branches to kill his enemies. But the trees are as old as the Palm trees and as old as the Pharaonic civilisation. They Pharaohs kings and Queens considered this tree sacred and used to make crowns from their leaves.
The route we took to my father’s village was the Ismailia-Zaqaziq road which extends along the Ismailia water canal. Heading north, the willow trees were planted on the right side all along the Ismailia-Zaqaziq road. On the left side of the same road were small villages, most of which still have their pharaonic names such as Bahtit and Amrit. Women and their kids from those villages used to cross this two way road to reach the canal on the other side. The woman would wash their aluminium pots and clothes in the canal under the shade of the willow trees. They would then hang their colourful clothes on their branches to dry. The pottery makers from those villages as well would make use of the space around the trees and arrange their pottery under the tree trunks for the road travellers to see and maybe buy from. I always felt they were in harmony with the urbanscape at that time. They completed the natural scene. Recently, a lot of the trees have been dug out. Farmers tell me that its’ barks can be converted to coal, much needed nowadays. Others say the roots have grown so big that they destroyed the asphalt. Such a pity because these trees don’t need a lot of effort to survive. They just grow along the water canals and witnessed a lot of stories to tell.