The engine block of my Fiat 128 is uncovered. My friend Ishmael is in the front, by the other side of the hood. My hands gloved in black liquid play with the tar inside the basin, and Ishmael reflects the white half-moon in his gloomy fascination with consumed kilometers.
I like to feel the tepid heat of motor oil on my hands. It reminds me of my father… it covers the wrinkles of the skin, makes me feel as if I could slide into any country, into any reality. I’m only twenty-five years old but I’m able to read the lines of a palm. It will be the dry sandy air of Cairo that spreads its cloak over everything: cars, houses, trees, satellite dishes, and sticks to the windows like glue. Men aren’t immune to it. There’s a coating of it above my soul that prevents me from seeing the profound. Sometimes I tell myself: perhaps it’s better this way.
“And now what do you want to do with that thingamajig?” asks Ishmael laughing heartily. A half-moon, accomplice to my confidence, responds to him through the sound of silence.
“This is a piston you dimwit!” I joke naturally, because even he has some vague smattering of mechanic in him. “Can you see the engine block?” His look thickens, the apprentice who wants to devour the knowledge of the master. I pull the uppermost part of the piston towards the part still inside the engine block, thus commencing my sermon. “You see, they’re almost exactly the same. The one I have in my hand here is slightly smaller, but the most important part of it all are those two straps in the middle.”
“And so?” Man, you’ve got a long way to go! I hadn’t realized, and I didn’t want to realize that not everyone has the same ability to understand new things. With all the years and all the experience, now I’ve accepted it.
“And so what?” Can’t you see that they’re almost completely worn out?”
“And with this one?”
“Good heavens! What a buffoon you are! What’s the matter with the car?”
“It uses up too much oil, runs badly, and loses power.”
“Exactly! The straps are preventing the oil from entering the combustion chamber, so it burns up; remember the blue-white smoke we saw coming out from the exhaust pipe. Besides, if these straps are worn out the engine will lose power because when the spark plugs fire and cause the combustion of gas, the up thrust won’t go all the way to the head of the piston but will lose potential at the sides of the cylinder.” I wait. Ishmael’s eyebrows become one hairy wave stretching from one temple to the other. He doesn’t seem convinced. With time he’ll become more familiar with it all. “Shall we continue?”
“Where did you learn all this stuff Yussef?”
It wasn’t much more difficult than it is now. Once I arrived in London it didn’t take much time to improve my English. The mechanic of some brains is better lubricated than others. When I enrolled in the Department of Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering at Stratford University many professors were surprised at the quickness with which I understood things, and that I was able to apply all the skills I had learned. I wanted to tell them how many people like me there are in Cairo, young people obliged to ride the tram lines of that city: I have stepped down from that tram but I still feel that well-known road coursing through my veins.
Only my dear Imam ever understood the true potential I was capable of. Yeah, he had already intuitively sensed it in Paris.
“Where did you study it?” He rolls his eyes around in their sockets.
“Nowhere Ishmael.” I see my black eyes lose themselves in the basin of oil. For an instant they veil over and become the same color as the desert. At the clicks of the socket wrench my face becomes a shadow swaying within another shadow.
“Do you want to tell me where you learned all these things or not?” he insists. I lift my head and look straight into his eyes, laden with a hate that’s not my own, unwanted. “From someone who is no more,” I chew from within my teeth. Whatever is between my molars isn’t intended directly for him, but he’s the victim of it in some way or another.
We go to a shamble shack on the outermost outskirts of Heliopolis to get the parts we need. We fix the car almost without speaking. Only the necessary straights. My state of mind is like a beaten dong I’m unable to soothe, and it feels as if it’s about to explode any second, sacrifice Ishmael at the altar. I feel a guilty but I don’t give up. He follows me like a puppy without questions or objections.
I turn the key and start the car. The engine seems to run smooth, like a piano sonata by Mozart; and impeccable sound a tutto punto, and I struggle to say: “Let’s go.” I became calm and Ishmael smiled a little as well.
On that occasion I understood what it means to be a despotic leader, but above all I was showing the first symptoms of volubility. I like Ishmael and I still like him. He’s one of the few people who have remained dear to me when all the others have disappeared like shadows at dusk. Another thing I didn’t know: classical music! And to say that I was even content to have found the word I thought most suitable: massa a punto.
One aspect of western cities that revolts me is the complete indifference to foreigners. Actually, to some foreigners. I have often wondered if it is some sort of racism. Surely it is.
Silence. The fresh air of an autumn evening. My father is here beside me in a marble posture as a little breeze of sand and heat carried by the desert wheezes in a whirlwind through the street. He has his hands by his side, showing his strong muscular arms nonchalantly, his Herculean chest, his short chestnut hair, the line of his part. The fierce gaze he settles on the roofs of Cairo. His square face is soldier-like with the brown eyes of a Savanna lion.
I can see a little bit over the handrail of the balcony. I’m not afraid at all. I feel protected and happy. My eyes sparkle and shine.
He draws his hand away from his side and caresses my hair. I feel honored. He holds me tightly to his side. I shut my eyelids as if in a dream; my neck grows warm as it brushes against his. I open my eyes and my pupils swallow the lights from the houses of Cairo. The dream is a reality.
“But why do you want to go? It’s craziness! Our country is Egypt now, we have our house here.” I had never seen my mother in such a state. Behind the veil that hid her many locks of hair. I remember very little of my childhood: skin of honey soft as silk. She dried her legs off with a lock of very thin black threads, wet, falling, winding downwards from the nape of her neck to her back.
A proud woman, like her husband. Seductive, like a young girl from the thousand secrets of the harem but able to penetrate you with the hardness of her glare. Many men, friends and collogues of my father had assayed her subtle tongue. It was a time of war: 1967, Kippur. It was a time in which even women participated in politics. The time of Nasser and Sadat.
A woman wrapped up in her ‘abaya kneeling to pray and to empty her salty sea, to pray for a man destined to die. It was 1980. War was slowly breaking out in Lebanon. My eyes are still resting on the basin of oil.
At times I wonder how my father might have been. How he would have been bent to the planks of the years. Perhaps he would have remained a proud man with a high chin and the behavior of an English gentleman. Who could explain it? Perhaps he could have become a meek sort of person who would have cuddled his little grandchildren with the magnanimous look of one who knows much about life. Who knows? Perhaps he would have felt lonely and abandoned, there in the kitchen with his wife sipping loudly at her umpteenth soup, drinking mint tea. I prefer to imagine him in a wooden chair, maybe jute, on the balcony, intent on observing the landscape which is different every night, with the company of my mother, remembering the old times as if they were the best part of the present; I arrive with my wife and children who rush in running as soon as the door opens, chasing after the white haired old man.
I have returned a few times to the house of my childhood. Both of my parents have gone away to their reunion with the prophet. Now there’s another family living there. The cordiality and hospitality of the Arab people know no limits. I explained to them why I had come, as if from nowhere. Luckily they understood, and I didn’t have to mention that I knew Ishmael. They left me alone on the balcony, closing the door to the room.
I have my hands by my sides. My eyes move slowly. The magic has vanished. The panorama is the same but my eyes are someone else’s. There is only the shadow reflected in the child I have in my hand. The buildings have been crowned with metal disks. The hubbub of the horns honking in the crowded streets reaches all the way down here, and all the single story houses follow the disorder of the times… everything is more colorless, maybe because the desert dust has come into the depths of the houses’ facades.
I slip my hand out of my pocket. The watch says nine. A plane for London awaits me at midnight. I walk through the same corridor that was once so familiar. The new family says goodbye solemnly, and they speak to the images of my nightmares.
The first time I had sex was with a foreigner. Despite how much I fantasized about women, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. I have always believed women to be more beneficial then men. Mothers explain inch by inch what one needs to do, how one should behave, revealing all the tricks and traps of life. Fathers on the other hand give everything out in a reduced sort of way: throw yourself in the fight and grow some muscles! The only risk is that might be torn to pieces, or you might get lost. I was never torn to pieces, but I don’t know where I am anymore. My head grows elongated in a drop of the bygones of motor oil.
“Be strong Yussef. You can do it.” He’s enthusiastic. “The pedal on the left, what is it?”
“The clutch” I answer without hesitating.
“Good boy, good boy. And that one in the middle?”
“The brake, and the other one is the accelerator,” I speed up, anticipating his next question; I await his approval, sure that he’ll be proud of me.
“You’ve got a good head on your shoulders son. I hope you know how to use it very well.”
He was content even though an opaque veil stretched over his eyes, as if to transport him into another time; perhaps the iris was running after the hypothetical life of his son. In that moment I felt very let down, but later on I would understand the meaning of that stare. The instant passed.
“And this is for?” he continued the lesson, just to see if I had grasped all the concepts.
“It’s the first shifter, and it’s what puts the car into gear.” I swallow. My eyes emanate joy as if they were venerating some god. “This is the first gear,” I say as I slip slowly off the clutch, “and second” as I draw the shifter straight back, perpendicular to the first. I pull it with all my force towards myself in order to avoid putting it into the fourth gear, thinking that it was always done this way. In the future there will be some natural gesture that won’t require all of this attention: an extension of my right arm. I feel my heavy arms. In the same deep concentration I take the car through all four gears, the smile of an honor student on my face. I wipe my forehead with my forearm.
“Well done son. Now let’s see if you know how to drive. Don’t think it will be so easy.”
I can’t believe it. Eureka! My father actually allows me to drive the car. I feel honored at such a responsibility. I have a cold fantastic feeling. He drives the car into the street and I sit down in the driver’s seat. Ishmael sits in the middle of the backseat.
I turn the key. The motor starts up. In the rearview mirror I see my own pupil shrinking way as if its about to disappear. My father nods. I push the clutch, pose my hand on the gear shifter that now seems the size of a football, and pull it towards me. I stare at the road ahead. I swallow the knot in my throat. I put the car into first and I hear a low hum as if there are a thousand wasps under the hood.
“Push the clutch down a little bit further,” my father calmly tells me. I follow his instructions and the car enters into first gear. I feel every muscle in my left leg come to life. I’m not sure how much time passes but it feels like an eternity. With the engine off it’s an entirely different situation. For a fraction of a second I’m able to look into the review mirror. Ishmael has a mixed look of apprehension and terror painted on his face, one of the few memories of my childhood that I’ll remember forever.
I feel the calm voice of my father. “Lift off the clutch slowly and give it a little gas. Don’t be afraid, if you’re aware of what you’re doing nothing will go wrong. Everything will go as smoothly as oil.” The car stammers and hiccups on the street.
“Oh help me God” hiccups Ishmael.
“Shut up” my father asserts. Afterwards there is only the sound of the motor. “Now push down the clutch and go into second. Then let go and give it some more gas.” Both of us fix the street with our eyes, but I’m not able to see him clearly and I feel the concentration pulsing in my temples. I follow everything he’s told me. The car trips up a little but doesn’t stall. My heart is in my throat. My arms are hard and heavy as if made of marble. My forehead is beaded with sweat. I feel a single drop sliding down towards my ear. As the car proceeds, another advances toward us.
“You see that parking lot on the right Youssef?”
“Ye-Yeah” I try to answer.
“Weave in among them and put on the brakes very slowly until you’ve stopped the car. Be sure not to run into any of the other parked cars. Remember to push down on the clutch when you stop so the motor won’t stall.” His voice always maintains that relaxed tone that gives me a sort of security. I’m still not sure how much further I have to go. I think I see Ishmael with his eyes goggling towards the car that’s advancing towards us. The 128 stops, the front wheels squealing over the sandy asphalt. The motor hiccups and stalls out. My spine relaxes. I turn my sweaty and exhausted face towards my father.
“Very well done, son. I’m proud of you,” he tells me, serious and bold. I feel my flesh tingle. “Now go home. Your mother is waiting for you.” I don’t say anything. I open the door and escape down the alleyway towards our house. It seems as though I’ve driven for kilometers and kilometers. I can’t feel the soil under my feet. The Muezzin begins to sing the late evening prayer. A shiver runs through my bones. That simple song has a charm that reaches out to some indescribable place in my soul.
A sudden patter. Then a continuous downpour of water. With my eyelids still closed, I’m convinced it’s a dream. I turn my back to the window and ignore it from under the warmth of the covers. I’m deceived. Something else has been moving under my sheets for days, perhaps for weeks. I resist the incessant hammering that breaks the silence. I jerk myself up and open the shutters. A rain of fine pins and needles patters on the roofs of Cairo. I should be used to it by now, but I remain incredulous to every rainstorm. The city seems to change its skin, to assume a lewd and distant aspect. My eyes are heavy and tired. Irritated and distracted, I return to bed hoping to meet Morpheus again.
The minutes pass with the illusion of rest. I can’t do it. My mind is awake, the struggle is lost. I drag myself wearily to the kitchen. I feel my bloodshot eyes. I open the shutters and venture to the balcony. A thick fog has replaced the clouds. It was only a passing storm. The sour smell of the damp slips into my nostrils. I think it’s impossible to wash away the smell of mixed sand and smog from this city. It’s not a very pleasant smell but I like it anyway. I carefully prepare coffee and the milk. I take some honey and yogurt and spread it over a piece of rye bread. My stomach growls at the sight of food. I make sure that the coffee is ready. I’d like to have breakfast on the balcony today.
The roofs are still covered with a thin layer of water. In some stretches there are blotches of dry, on the peaks, and the walls and ledges of buildings display their old gutters. To my eyes they seem as if they have always been this way, and I wonder if these walls were ever new.
A sound from the kitchen calls my attention back. The downpour of the rain cracks that moment of quiet. The fire lights up. A hand slides over my bare chest and a cheek presses against my back, listens to me breathe.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she asks through clenched teeth.
“What? What did you say? I didn’t hear you?” Marie clenches her fingers into a fist wrinkling up the tablecloth and making the only surviving mug topple. The coffee spills all over the table.
“Why are you doing this to me? Why do you make decisions without talking to me? You can’t say: You think that that if…?” and she shakes my arm free from her shoulders forcefully. Her feet push against the floor as if to knead it, her deep red eyes spitting fire and sadness.
“But… I thought…” my voice trembles, all confidence shattered. “I thought you wanted the same thing, that you loved me…” I continued with very little conviction.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want it,” the rift grows bigger and now she wants to fight, want to sew up the rent, hoping that this time the same circumstances don’t prevail yet again. I’m sure she loves me and that she’s ready to strike me. There’s something more important behind it all: her being a woman and not the object of someone. Is it the difference in culture? Who knows if the faces of some white complexioned young men aren’t passing before her mind’s eye. No. It’s not the difference in culture.
“But I’m asking you now,” I say, trying to sew up the rent.
“What in the world! Don’t you dare try to make fun of me.” Her glare is like a razor. She pushes back a rebellious lock of hair from her face. We both know she’s right. ‘You know how difficult it can be there? There won’t be anyone able to help you, and you’ll be treated like mule, with no respect, and they won’t accept any excuse for not respecting your commitments. How do you expect to get a visa anyway?
“Whoa, wait a minute. I have always maintained all my commitments since my father passed away. And as for the visa, I can get a tourist visa and then change my status once I find work. The only thing I have to say is that I’m going to visit you. There won’t be any problems.”
“But I don’t know if I can do it. My father’s in the middle of all. He would already kill me if he knew about us.”
“Exactly the point!” I sneer, backing up some small number of centimeters. ‘What do you mean?”
“That he’ll put sticks in our wheels. I already told you it’s better if I come to live with you here.”
I feel a sarcastic smile cutting across my face. Perhaps now I understand. It’s all a great accusation.
“Just say it loud and clear: that for you I was only a good fuck. I hope you had fun, and that I was good in bed,” I say as I move away from her even more. I can’t believe that it’s actually happening. I want to go back in time, as if nothing had ever happened. On the contrary though, I feel like I’m returning again into the same old horror, and even though I know it and suffer it I’m not able to stop myself.
My face becomes teary, and my lower lip begins to tremble jammed between my teeth. She runs to the bedroom, slams the door behind her, opens the closet and dressers and tears out all the little things she’s accumulated.
I calmly take hold of the surviving mug. I sip the coffee that’s still left. It’s cold, and tastes bitter, and strangely salty.