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Two Stories by Radwa Ashour

[Radwa Ashour at her office at Ain Shams. Photo by Lobna Ismail] [Radwa Ashour at her office at Ain Shams. Photo by Lobna Ismail]

Two Stories by Radwa Ashour

The Man Sitting in the Park is Waiting

At first I didn’t notice him. I was busy playing with the little one: he would throw the ball, I’d raise my head to follow it as it flew up high, then I’d run with my arms open to meet it as it fell. The little one was jumping and running, babbling and laughing endlessly, and like him I was running and laughing, though my movements were heavier, my cries fewer.

The sun’s disc burned orange in a clear sky, casting its rays through the intertwined branches of the many trees that filled the place. Then I saw him.

An old man sitting on a wooden bench nearby, his white, marble face almost disappearing behind large black glasses. He was thin, wearing dark clothing, and leaning both his hands on a thick, rough cane full of knots, as though it were a branch just cut from its mother, a tree.

I raised the ball in my right hand and threw it with great force. It flew up high and disappeared for a moment in the blue of the sky, like a soaring bird, utterly escaping the laws of the earth. Then the ball appeared again and fell far from the little one. “How can I catch it when you throw it so far?!” he said. He continued his scolding, but I wasn’t listening. I was thinking about the man sitting on the bench nearby, wondering how I hadn’t noticed him before. He was very close; all I had to do was turn to see him.

He was sitting, motionless, his face frozen as though sculpted from stone, staring into nothingness as though he had lost his hearing or his sight. “Mama, you need to concentrate on your playing. Right now you have no focus!” the little one said in protest. “When you play, you must not think about anything else!” he added, wagging his index finger like a grade-school teacher. “What were you thinking about?”

I almost drew his attention to the strange man. Then I changed my mind and threw the ball, but it didn’t go very high. “It seems like you’re tired,” the little one said. “It seems like I’m tired.”

He took the ball from me and started running around with it, throwing it up high and hurrying to catch it. I sat on another wooden bench facing the man, who was in the same position, silent, his mouth sealed shut and framed by wrinkles, one veiny hand perched over the other atop the thick cane. Where had this man come from? And how? And what had brought him here? Was he waiting? He must be waiting. And who was he waiting for?

A sudden shiver seized me. Yes, he is waiting. What should I do? I asked myself this question in terror, fear whipping through me like a furious wind that blows suddenly as the sky clouds over and turns grey, casting its black shadow over the earth. “We’ll go back to the house,” now, immediately, as fast as possible. We’ll run back home, lock the door with the key and the latch and the bolt, lock the windows and draw the heavy curtains over them, go into the bed and cover ourselves in a heavy blanket from head to toe, until we can’t see anything and nothing can reach us. “We’ll go back home.”

I felt my heartbeats rising and speeding up. I worried about calling the little one: I turned around to look for him among the trees. I noticed their thick trunks and their roots gripping the earth, splitting it open in order to grow up above and splitting it yet again to grow deep below, branches waving, interweaving, spreading. I saw the trunks rising into thick branches, heavy with the green of the leaves, then I saw the little one carrying his ball, running and throwing it hard, the ball flying as though it might reach the orange disc behind the leafy branches, and he spreading out his arms as wide as he could to catch it, craning his neck toward the sun, whose rays fell on him in columns until it seemed he were part of them.

The little one came toward me hugging his ball, his face, hair, and shirt all drenched with sweat.

“Aren’t you tired?”

“No. Will you play with me?

“Yes!”

I cast a quick glance at the man sitting on the bench nearby. Then I turned my head, took the ball, and threw it with determination. I saw it fly, and once again it seemed to me capable of escaping the laws of the earth.

 

He Wants to Be Reassured

The door opened slowly, and ʿAbd al-Qadir’s face appeared, asking for permission to enter. Dr. Qasim gestured with his head, and ʿAbd al-Qadir came in, followed by someone I didn’t know. ʿAbd al-Qadir is the policeman who guards the small gate to the college. You can see him throughout the day sitting on his wicker chair, his tunic fastened with a leather strap that cuts diagonally across his chest and wraps around his right shoulder, arriving finally at a thick waistband with a metal handle. His clothing—whether white cotton in the summer months or black wool in winter—was old and worn, out of step with the power, strength, and fear one normally associates with policemen. Not to mention the fact that his small, kind eyes, cheerful features, and thick white moustache gave him a gentle-hearted air.

“This gentleman’s daughter is a new student in the department here,” ʿAbd al-Qadir explained. “He asked me to bring him to one of the professors.” He then addressed the man, who was turning around as if to leave the room: “Don’t worry, they’re going to help you.” Then ʿAbd al-Qadir waved and went.

The guest extended a large hand to Dr. Qasim, who was sitting behind his desk.

“I am Fahmi ʿAbd al-Sattar,” he said, “father of a martyr, and my granddaughter Nadia Ahmad Fahmi ʿAbd al-Sattar is a student with you all. Do you know her?”

Dr. Qasim asked the man to sit and wait while he cleared away some of the papers in front of him.

The man sat down near me. I was also waiting for Dr. Qasim to clear the papers in front of him, so that he could give me his comments on a chapter of my master’s thesis he had read.

Old age was evident on the man, despite his large body. His face was round and dark—the distinctive brown skin of the Upper Egyptians. He was wearing an old suit and carried a thick cane in his hand.

Dr. Qasim raised his head.

“Yes, what can I do for you?”

The man repeated what he had said before:

“I am Fahmi ʿAbd al-Sattar, father of a martyr, and my granddaughter Nadia Ahmad Fahmi ʿAbd al-Sattar is a student with you all.”

“What year is she?”

“First year.”

“I don’t teach the first-year students, but I am the head of the department. What’s the problem?”

The man smiled bashfully.

“No, there’s no problem, thank God, I just want to be reassured—is the girl coming to class? Is she a good student? Is she well-behaved? I just want to be reassured.

"Dr. Qasim smiled. “You’ll be reassured at the end of the year when the exam results are in!” he said in a tone that only those who knew him well might recognize as derisive.

But the man only repeated, without smiling this time: “But I want to be reassured now. It’s true that I raised her well and didn’t cut corners… Did I tell you she’s the daughter of a martyr? When Nadia’s father was martyred, her mother was pregnant with her. My granddaughter, Nadia Ahmad Fahmi ʿAbd al-Sattar, a student in your department, sir, was born in November 1967, and her mother—God rest her soul—never remarried, even though she was only seventeen. Did I tell you she’s now working in the UAE?”

Dr. Qasim started flipping through the papers in front of him. He had lost attention to the man’s words and was no longer listening.

“I’m from Upper Egypt, and I said: ‘Nadia, education is illumination, but morals must come before education, and modesty is a virtue. Go ahead and talk to your classmates, there’s nothing wrong with that, but… within limits. Don’t raise your eyes to any of them, for looks are seditious temptation, my daughter. Be…’”

“And what would you like from me exactly?” Dr. Qasim interrupted.

“I told you, good Doctor, I only want one thing, and that’s to be reassured.”

“What?”

The doctor said this harshly and impatiently, and I worried that the meeting might end with him throwing the man out of his office. I was still thinking that this might happen when three students knocked on the office door and came in with flyers that they wanted the professor to look over. He read them and then laughed, directing his words at me:

“Listen to this, Camelia—this attractive announcement is for a trip to Port Said:

The free city opens its ocean to you

Port Said: an ocean of commodities

Come with us to swim and buy!

Dr. Qasim went on laughing, looking at the announcement as he passed it back to the three students, one of whom asked me if I was going to on the trip. I said I hadn’t decided yet.

No sooner had the students left than the man resumed speaking, and it seemed for a moment that Dr. Qasim, having recovered from his laughter, had completely forgotten that the man was sitting in the room.

“So, for example,” the man continued, “if you, sir, gave me the department’s lecture schedule and the names of the attendees, I could…”

“The schedule is posted in the hall. The times of all the lectures and their attendees are on it.”

I volunteered to guide the man to the schedule. He followed me, and I took him where he wanted to go. I let him write down the information about his granddaughter while I stood chatting with some of the fourth-year students.

When he finished copying down the schedule, he came to me and stood a few paces away, waiting for me to finish talking. I noticed him and asked if he wanted anything.

“The schedule says that the first-year students don’t have any lectures on Wednesdays, but Nadia comes to university on Wednesdays.”

“What department is Nadia in?”

“In your department?”

“I know she’s in our department, but I’m asking if she is in first-year A, first-year B, first year-C, first-year D, or E, or F? The first-year students are divided into six groups. Which one is Nadia in?”

“I don’t know.”

“How did you write down the schedule, then? There are six different schedules for first-year students.”

The man hesitated, then leaned toward me and said in a low voice: “Forgive me, daughter, I’m over seventy and didn’t notice. Anyway, it’s no matter. I’ll write down all six schedules then ask Nadia which group she’s in.”

He continued in the same whispering tone:

“I’m seventy-seven, and my wife, Nadia’s grandmother, is seventy, and Nadia’s father was martyred before she was born, and her mother went abroad to provide her with a better life. It’s a big responsibility, my girl, and I don’t want to fall short.”

I was about to say a few words of comfort to the man before taking my leave of him when I saw a tall, dark girl approaching us with an open and somewhat surprised smile. “Hello Grandpa, what are you doing here?”

Nadia had a kind face not lacking in childishness—a look enhanced by the simplicity of her clothes and her long, black hair tied in a ponytail with a thin, blue ribbon.

“Nadia, what department are you in?” the grandfather asked.

“First-year C, Grandpa. Why?”

“I came to copy down your course schedule, so that I’d know when you have class and be reassured, but then I discovered that the first-year students are divided into many groups.”

A sudden seriousness came over the girl’s face, gradually transforming into a frown. Tears gleamed in her eyes as she said in protest:

“But Grandpa…”

“But what?” he interrupted. “I want to know everything, to protect you and shield you as I should.”

The girl bit her lower lip. “Excuse me, Grandpa, I have class,” she declared suddenly.

She took a few steps away from us, then turned back.

“While you’re here, Grandpa, there’s a trip to Port Said and I want to go,” she said.

“To Port Said?”

“Yes.”

“No, Nadia, there’s no call for going on trips, no call for it at all.”

“But Grandpa, I want to go, so I’m going!”

She left us. The grandfather leaned toward me.

“Are you going to go on this trip?” he asked in the same low voice.

“I don’t know. But don’t worry, even if I don’t go, my girlfriends are going, and they’re graduate students. Some professors will probably go as well.”

“Well, as long as she’s in your hands, I should be reassured. Yes, I should be reassured. Anyway, it’s a trip to Port Said—a chance for Nadia to get to know her country and…”

The man was now speaking in whispers, as if addressing himself.

“Yes, she’ll get to know her country and see something of the land for which her father fought and in whose name he was martyred.”

I left the man and went back to Dr. Qasim’s office to hear his comments on my thesis.

When I left the college two hours later, the man was sitting on a wicker chair next to ʿAbd al-Qadir. The two of them were chit-chatting.

“I thought I’d wait until Nadia finished her classes so that we could go home together,” he explained. “We live far away, and the road is long.”

I left the college thinking about the trip to Port Said. I made up my mind to go. I told myself it was a chance to relax, and also to buy some hair-straightening shampoo and nylons.   

[Translated from the Arabic by Emily Drumsta. From Ra’ayt al-Nakhl: Qisas (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-Misriyya al-ammali-l-kitab, 1990)]

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