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      The Land That Shines At The Bottom Of The River
 
 

by Ahmed Rabea El-Aswani

 Translated into English By Amani Amin

 

In the clean white gown they had just dressed me, I followed the professor, supporting myself on the arm of the fat impatient nurse or alternatively pressing my weight against the moist corridor wall. The urine bag attached to my thigh swayed and seeped yellow streaks down my leg giving out the pungent smell of medicine and before long, moistening the gown.

In silence, I suffered. I bit my lip and exhaled a moan, which, in my throat, froze into a croak. I sweated. My legs were scarcely able to carry my weight. The names of things and features faded from my exhausted memory. Upon entering the hall, the professor stopped. He waved to the group awaiting our arrival. I too, came to a stop gasping for breath. Despite the diminished significance of faces, shapes, words and colors and the haziness in my eyes, I saw her.

It may have been someone who looked like her, but I realized she was the last offering the world held in store for me before my departure. Like a Greek goddess she stood tall and upright among the women and men in white, the mother emerald in a royal crown. The white silken cloth carefully styled to wrap her ebony body highlighted her hidden beauty and added a uniqueness to her unabashed femininity. Like the others, she turned to me, but with a slight twist of her neck she gave me a Mona Lisa smile.

Her coarse hair was carefully combed into fine uniformly spaced pharaonic braids. As she embraced me with her primeval eyes, I realized that even if it were she, she would have to make a considerable effort to recompose the fragments of my features of years gone by.

Over there south of the cataracts, our white domed homes were spacious as were the hearts of their inhabitants. From the foot of the mountain, they extended all the way to the river. Bright colorful earthenware and white flags whose tips were dipped in henna hung over their doorways. Mud dolls spread their arms in adulation towards the palms, the Nile and God the creator. Crocodile hides and small stuffed foxes occupied the ledges. Charms wrapped in goatskin were placed along their side as a protection from the evil eye and to chase away the wicked spirits that dwell on mountaintops and in the riverbed.

A creature of unknown sex and age, I followed the professor with some difficulty, up a step to the slightly elevated platform. The doses of chemicals had taken away every hair on my skin and turned me into one of those inhabitants of far away planets we imagine in our movies. My age, posture, height and composure had all gone with the flesh and the fat, with the atrophied muscles and the bent back, under the gnawing of the insatiable cells, which after years of scavenging, still remained hungry.

On the squares of white soft sand in front of the houses, we play and dance and sing as the distant horizon swallows the sun's blazing disk. The same sand carried by groups of girls from the valley's belly, on the tops of their heads, to be lain in golden carpets stretching from the houses to the edge of the Nile, in anticipation of the festivities and weddings of summer. Intimidated by neither scorpions nor the crocodiles yawning nearby, not even by the howling of wolves across valleys and corridors of ancient temples, we continue our merry-making, even as the moon bids us goodbye and retires, and our mothers slumber on the mud mastabas totally devoid of any signs of femininity during their men's long absences in the North.

Among the girls, Fatim always stands out. She never hesitates to storm into our house. If she finds me asleep she wakes me, if I am lying down she pulls me to my feet and if I am just standing she pushes me outside.

As in previous times, the nurse pointed in disgust to the bed specially prepared on top of the platform behind the professor. I took my time as I lay my body. My eyes were fixed on the unlit lamp that hung from the ceiling. In an attempt at encouragement, the professor jokingly knocked on my skull. He then turned to the group of doctors and, as in previous times, I heard him say my name and announce that I am a male of about thirty years of age. If it were she, I expected she would jump out of her seat and rush towards me, but she didn't.

On the squares of white sand, barefoot in our short white shirts and long pants, we the boys choose our brides. The girls select the places for the homes and with our palms we erect little walls of sand.

In our dialect we sing and we dance. We touch and hug in innocence until the last wedding of a boy and a girl is over. When we have our fill of weddings we take our song to the Nile. We implore him that his waters may recede so our mothers can harvest his shoulders and we can eat good food from our labor and the cattle can gain strength and the sheep and foul grow fat, and so we can pick up the fruit of palm trees, and those who are away can commend our industriousness and strength in their letters and boast of us when they meet at night in the cafes of Cairo and Alexandria. We also implore the Nile not to inundate in winter and flood the houses and erode the walls and rot the grain in the mud granaries, and beg him to return to us those who are far away.

As we dance, we eat dried dates, popcorn, lupine and peanuts. When thirsty, we drink turbid water from the clay pots outside the doorways. We tease dogs and old people but if one of us suddenly cries out, we know for sure that he has been stung by scorpion, so in panic we jump on top of mastabas and high rocks and the mothers rush to get their oil lanterns and the village mobilizes all its medical potential to save the afflicted child.

The rubber pipe whose tip lies in the ureter snakes between my thighs. The cold air pumped by the air-conditioning numbed my frail body. I fidgeted and managed to clutch the woolen covers and pull them over me. Between the professor's legs, I could see her, sitting in the first row taking notes, sometimes listening attentively. However, my name, which had just been mentioned, had not aroused in her the slightest interest.

On the squares of white sand, it was always Fatim I selected as my bride. None of the friends ever dared to challenge the rules of the game. She stands by my side and incites me with her looks in full knowledge that this is our unavoidable fate. I hold her hennaed palm and we pick a spot to together build our matrimonial house of sand. I can hear our two mothers whispering at a distance and suddenly they burst into shrieks of African laughter. This is the entrance and here is where we will receive our guests. For sleeping there is more than one room; this one for summer, that one for winter, the third for the sons and the fourth for the daughters. Over there is the pen for the foul and another for the sheep. We don't forget the stable for the cows and at the far end of the house from the south side we place the oven, the store for dry sticks, the granary, the pigeon tower and the storage space for hay and fodder.

Unheard by the others, Fatim whispers that she will knit me numerous takeyas and make me colored belts, hand fans and prayer rugs made of palm branches to sit on cross legged and read the Koran and pray to God in the proper way, so that baraka prevails and the children grow up to be devout and God fearing.

Having concluded some time ago that the matter was no longer a secret to me, the professor allowed himself to explain the extent of my suffering and elaborated on the areas of destruction left behind by the gnawing of the insatiable cells. He said a lot. He pointed out locations, named organs and added that the heart could no longer tolerate the damned doses.

On the squares of white sand, boredom falls upon us. Tired of repetition but not exhausted, we lie on our sides and bellies and pile under our heads pillows of sand in which we dig our hands to avoid the stings of mosquitoes. Our whispers whimper down. As night progresses and the mosquitoes quiet down, we spread our arms and legs across the sand. The cool breeze flirts with our warm bodies and in silent communion we listen to the heart breaking ballads that reach us, faint and fragmented, from the surface of passing feluccas and fishing boats. Some of us make mental images, before succumbing to sleep, of their fathers' and elder brothers' homecoming laden with gifts, soft accents and endless stories of the distant country to the north.

On the lit screen, the professor explained the different stages of the disease. The organs of my body passed interlinked, mysterious and totally alien to me. As usual, in order to highlight his efforts, the man did not forget to mention that I had come to him at a critical stage after the disease had spread and taken control and after the killer cells had already devoured to their heart's desire.

The first blow had come suddenly, a knife stuck violently into the side of my neck, as I read one of my poems at a gathering unattended by a single one of my people. Then the blows came again and at closer intervals, under the armpits and where the thighs meet the belly. I used to blame it on my constant hunger and poor living quarters, on staying up until the early hours of morning, on my feeble financial resources. I bore the pain and took refuge in cheap painkillers until I was struck in the innings of my guts. I cried out aloud as I sat with friends at the cafe. I cried like I had never cried before, then I lost consciousness. When I came to, I found him to my side, frowning. Tens of times, he had previously torn up my files and slapped me. He had locked me up in cramped rooms with killers and drug addicts.

�You're lucky.� he said.

�Even in my illness, you mock me.� I said, and the sick people around me listened.

�We where about to take you somewhere else.� he said. I smiled, and in turn, he gave a yellow smile and asked shrewdly:

�Do you know where?�

�The Natron valley Sir, where else? Many of my friends have preceded me there.�

�Wrong. You suffer from insanity. How could we possibly take you there?�

My hair stood on edge as I realized what he meant.

�Just because I tried to help my people." I responded meekly.

The man stood up and shouted at the doctor who was there:

�Give him all the paper and pencils he needs.� Then he looked at me and added in earnest:

�Write all the poems you want, you don't have much time.�

When I asked the doctor what the man meant, he said he had been joking and would say nothing else. The two men exchanged angry looks.

At dawn, we allow our sheep and cattle to roam and mingle on the lush meadows at the river's edge. We make mud dolls and horses and catch small fish, always avoiding eels, as an eel once swallowed our great grandfather, besides, female eels menstruate. Sometimes, we swim carefully in shallow areas. Fatim throws her colored shawl on the green grasses, lays a loaf of corn bread and some lettuce stalks on it, then takes an oath to weave me a winter gown, a shawl and a barda out of white goat's wool, and to bear us tens of boys, so we can send them to the north, one after the other as they grow up, to return to us laden with valuables, status and a broad knowledge of the world.

In turn, I promise that our house, which I will build with my own hands, will be so high and spacious that it will be the talk of villages. Even camel riders and palm tree climbers will not be able to see its interior. Its numerous doorways will face the Nile, and it will extend all the way to where the sun rises from its resting place behind Ramses the Great.

The young doctors start asking questions and the professor explains, and the smell of urine attracts the flies to the bed sheets. I am unable to shoo them away. The waves of pain chase away the retreating painkillers. I feel them gathering in my guts and intensifying. I can barely make out the lamp hanging from the ceiling. The nausea overtakes me but I resist and curl myself.

On feasts and religious occasions, on our way back from visiting the graves, after distributing alms to shepherds and drifters from the valleys, we used to visit our friend Ramses the Great. At his enormous feet where there is always shade, we would rest. The elderly women would chew tobacco while those in need would perform their ablutions behind the rocks. Some of the women and girls would creep inside the temple to sift the dust for small scarabs and colored beads, believing in their potency in engendering pregnancy and increasing the flow of milk in women's breasts. My mother clears a small area of sand with her palm. Just enough to throw her seven shells consecutively, the seven shells that almost never leave her pocket. She then starts distributing prophesies to the women and girls that gather around her. Invariably, I accuse her in her ear of trickery and the inability to see the future and she laughs and pulls the lobe of my ear. Her small silver ring hurts me.

Last night, with no introduction, the fat nurse asked me to say my name. I gave all three names. She then asked me if I knew the date and I answered without hesitation, knowing what she was trying to establish. She asked about the foods I had had, so I listed what I had eaten by name and quantity. I was surprised when late in the night the fool asked the resident doctor about the significance of my incorrect answers. The doctor gave her one blaming look and walked away, cursing stupidity. When I dosed off a little, I dreamt of my mother in her white shawl. She was standing on the shoulder of Ramses the Great and was ready to take off on a beam of radiant light which she held in her right hand, trying to grasp me with her left, but I avoided her hand and moved away from her.

At first, my mother and the other women of our village had insisted that the news that drifted to us little by little from the north aboard the passing boats, was no more than exaggerated rumors. We had stopped playing on the white squares of sand, apprehension loomed over our heads, confusion surrounded us and the demons held us in their grips. The dam about to be constructed, even if the stories were true, would be nothing like the barrage that was built decades ago, they stressed. Only an act of god could inundate all the houses and make the waters rise above the minarets. With the confidence of past experience, they advised us to go back to our playing and dancing and not to stop holding our make believe weddings.

But when everything had been confirmed, my mother and the other women announced decisively that dying here was to them a thousand times better than to be transported in the barges like sheep, to places we knew nothing about. To narrow houses built in a hurry in the land of Saiid, far from the river, were the heart would contract, and which would repel the children as soon as they grew up. To lands newly reclaimed from the ravines and mountains lacking the Nile's rejuvenating silt, with no palm trees or grasses that grow as the waters recede. The cattle would die and children go hungry, and as long as we lived, we would curse our bad luck and lay the blame on the new soil, in reality innocent of this grave injustice.

Fatim asked me if their house in the new place would still be next to ours. I said that even if the houses were next to each other, even if they moved the houses themselves and reconstructed them together as they would the temples, the land would be different, the mountains and even the sky would not be the same. My mother said to my father, who had come back from the north with the other fathers to take us to the new country, that all the loved ones were here in their graves close to us, their spirits hover around us at night and we visit them on fresh mornings, distribute alms and feed passing travelers, be they human or those gin who are believers and live in the river. We shade their graves with giant *** and camphor trees, she said, and repair them if the Nile touches them in its winter swell.

I overheard Fatim tell the girls that we would plant palm trees, lemon and mangos and ride in cars and trains and be near our fathers who love to travel and migrate. That they had built us schools and hospices and tar roads and our houses there would be lit by electricity like the houses of the north.

She seemed to have absorbed the advice of those who moved from one village to another to calm fears and promise a bright future in which our children would eat and their children would have their fill. I shouted in her face asking how long it takes for palm trees to bear fruit and for lemon trees to blossom. Since then, nighttime merry making lacked taste and meaning. Dancing and singing became a bad joke deserving blame and curse. Apart, we sit in front of the houses, which little by little are losing their decoration, listen to our fathers' stories about the new country and to the howling of wolves and yawning of crocodiles. We ask when the time will come for our departure to the unknown.

A few days before our departure, my mother got dressed in black and refrained from all talk, food and drink. She sat on her own by the doorway, her sobbing incessant by night or day, and when she did stop crying, she would look into empty space, her complexion pale and her features hard like a flint statue. I called her name but she did not respond. In tears, I sat by her side. She held me and took a deep breath. Over her head, the sheikhs read from the Koran, incense was lit, my father spread raw ambergris over her head and fixed a pharaonic scarab of green agate in her hair. When I asked him what was wrong with her, he said: son, your mother is a firmly rooted tree, today being uprooted.

As the crying and moaning grew louder and circles of sad chanting formed on the river's bank on the hour of departure, they looked for my mother in all the barges among the sheep and cattle. They called her name over loudspeakers and still could find no trace of her. My father together with a few men stayed behind and with us on board, the barges left screaming whistles of farewell to our dear homes. Not bearing to look at the riverbank, I dug my head into the bosom of Fatim's mother and broke down in tears. I caught a glimpse of Fatim close to us, sitting in silence with a dancing gleam in her eyes, which she did not try to hide.

In the houses whose wooden roofs, doors and windows had been removed, my father and his party only found dogs and cats, some stray sheep and a few pigeons resting on the walls. On the fifth day of their search, they found her dead, at the feet of Ramses the Great. She was upright on her knees, unscathed by wolf or vulture, with her eyes wide open like the living, looking ahead towards the Nile. In her closed fist, she held her seven shells. My father washed her in the Nile's opulent water, in his white robe and headscarf, he shrouded her and, by the loved ones, she was put to rest.

In the narrow room in the narrow house in the new country, my father said in her eulogy that she was a blessed shield, a safe harbor in which ships take refuge in the face of raging winds and God's fury. Fatim's mother called her an opulent palm tree and an acre of fecundity. When my turn came, I said that out of all women, she had kept her promise; her grave was the last in the old country and her funeral was the first in the new.

In the narrow room in the narrow house in the new country, as my father and I were preparing our departure for the north, I told him I did not wish to dress in the traditional white kaftan and red belt, nor to stand like him at the sides of tables, but that I wanted to go to school to become a teacher if God so wished. As for her, Fatim boldly announced that her objective was the study of medicine and when I told her that all the doctors around us where white, she scratched me in the face and went to my father in tears to complain. The next day I caught her in a corner of the room that housed the oven spreading ashes on her face.

The professor turned to me and asked if I would, as in previous times, lend my body to the fingers of the interns. I nodded my agreement anticipating a closer look at the dark woman's features, and held tightly to the edge of lucidity to avoid slipping into the depths of delirium.

The gentleman for whom my father had worked for over quarter of a century was drunk at the dining table one night and no sooner had my father placed the soup in front of him, than he threw the bowl in my father's face, and laughed in ecstasy. After that my father, with large parts of his face having lost their skin and turned white, had the choice of either skinning his remaining black skin or finding some way of growing back the original. His disfigured face was not appealing and incompatible with attending the tables of important gentlemen. Instead, he chose to go back south penniless, to the new houses.

At the train station, he advised me to save a little in order to have a doctor check me up before the disease got out of hand, which I promised to do. Back home, from what I heard, he sold newspapers and magazines at the train station and bribed school children with candy, the pictures of movie and football stars and reading my poetry to them, so they would bear his disfigured face long enough for him to tell about his son who was a known poet and a teacher who spread knowledge in the villages, and repeat the details of the letters he had sent with regularity to high offices to take interest in his only son's treatment.

Then, his stories to the school children became limited to the unanswered letters he had sent to doctor Fatim appealing to her to take into her own hands the treatment of her childhood companion. When someone told him she had married and traveled to the countries of the Gulf, he stopped his chatting and even refrained from selling newspapers, contenting himself with hanging around the train station in the daytime to carry the bags of those who arrived from the north, and at night spending his meager earnings on cheap liquor. He slept under parked taxis and in the city's dark corners muttering about the lifestyles of pashas and important people and the types of dishes he could cook, cursing the revolving times. When things got worse, he started pulling at arriving peoples' clothes instead of carrying their bags, asking them about me and about Fatim, and if they denied having met us they would become the object of his wrath and cursing.

I woke up one day to find him standing over my broken body, sobbing profusely and trying to hide his disfigured face with the tip of his head-shawl.

�Poetry has been my ruin. Yours, Father, was the seduction of the north.� I said, joining him in his weeping.

�Do not unfairly blame poetry and lands, my son,� he said and I could barely make out his words.

He sat by my side, silent and distraught, until visiting hours were over, then he bent over me and said:

�I forgot to tell you, the palm trees have borne fruit and the lemon trees blossomed in the new country.�

�I knew from the beginning that Fatim's predictions would ultimately come true, it was just my illusions, Father.�

�No. It was fear of melting in the land of Saiid.�

�Maybe.�

At the edge of the bed, the dark woman stood in her uniformly spaced pharaonic braids, her round face beautiful as a full moon. My body contracted and a shiver rocked me as I meekly asked her name. Karima, she said. I asked if she knew Fatim who resembled her so much. In turn she asked:

�And who is Fatma?�

As sadness squeezed me to a pulp, I said:

�She is a girl who, among other things, excelled in drawing conclusions, and entrusted the running of her affairs to reason. She sits in my heart since childhood and refuses to leave.�

In spite of me, my vision drifted south. The squares of white soft sand, the noisy merrymaking of children and the laughter of women who exercise patience to mythic proportions came to occupy most of my mind. In my short white shirt and long pants, I found myself surrounded by my companions as, as usual, they prodded me to sing, clapping and shouting to me to start the evening off. An evening of burdens shed and patience subdued. With initial difficulty that quickly dissipated, my voice rose in song. I would gladly give up whatever living was still in store for me to be able to stand on my own two feet and surrender my body to the relentless rhythm. Beside me, the voice of the beautiful doctor rose accompanying my song in our Nubian dialect. When she had come closer and held my hand, it was not difficult to see the great surprise in her eyes. When we had both come to a stop at the end of the song, in a quivering voice she announced to her colleagues that we both came from the land of Nubia in Kom Ombo.

�No. From the land that shines at the bottom of the river.� I shouted.

The crowd around me took a step back, and she was silent for a moment before waving her hand and turning around.

�Where is he now?� I asked the fat nurse as I walked beside her like a child encumbered by the lesion of recent circumcision.

�Who, the professor?�

�No. The tricky one, whose coming I have so feared.� I said, as I started to make out the shoulder of Ramses the Great.

The woman looked at me with the tenderness of mothers and did not reply.

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