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Ezzat Amin Iskandar

 
 

by Dr. Alaa El-Aswani

Translated from the Arabic by Hala Kamal


Ezzat Amin Iskandar. My classmate in first prep. with his short stout body, big head, soft black hair, spectacles, meek smile to the point of pleading and his tormented look; a mixture of evasiveness, suspicion and fright, or alternatively profound thought, submission and guilt.

Ezzat Amin Iskandar. With his single crutch and artificial leg. A piece of rubber was attached to the bottom of his crutch, preventing noise and sliding. He covered his artificial leg with the school trousers, dressing it in a sock and shoe to appear normal.

Every morning, Ezzat hobbles into class, leaning on his crutch, dragging his artificial leg and vacillating step by step on his way to the last bench. There, in the corner next to the window he sits, dropping his crutch to the floor, while no one pays any more attention to him. He entirely engages himself in the lesson, carefully taking note of the teacher's every word. He listens, frowns thoughtfully then raises his hand inquiring (as though by immersing himself in the lesson he slips into the crowd, hides amongst us, and for a few hours becomes just a good pupil among other pupils, unhampered by neither crutch nor lameness).

When the bell rings for recess, all the pupils cheer in joy. They drop their work, push and shove towards the classroom door and head down to the courtyard. Only Ezzat Iskandar, receives the recess bell in the manner of old and expected news. He shuts his notebook, pushes it gently aside, and picks up the sandwich and magazine from his schoolbag. He spends recess sitting in his place, reading and eating. Only when a pupil looks at him in curiosity or pity does Ezzat feign a big smile, pretending to enjoy his book, as though it were the joy of reading -- by itself -- that prevented him from getting down to the courtyard."

I brought my bicycle to school for the first time on a Thursday afternoon. The courtyard was almost empty except for a few kids playing soccer on the other side. I started riding my bike across the courtyard, circled around the trees, and imagined myself in a bicycle-race.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the International Bicycle Race!" I shouted. I could see with my mind's eye the spectators, flags and my competitors. I could hear my fans cheering and whistling. As always, I touched the finish line and won first place, and received congratulations, kisses and bunches of roses.

I kept playing for a while until I suddenly felt I was being watched. Turning around, I saw Ezzat Iskandar sitting on the lab steps. He had been watching me from the beginning, and when our eyes met he smiled and waved, so I headed towards him. As he got up: he leaned with his hand on the railing, hugged his crutch and then raised his body slowly to his feet, descended the steps one by one, and when he reached me he started examining the bicycle. He held the handlebar and rang the bell several times, then he leaned down and touched the front-wheel wires with his fingers, and mumbled:

“Nice bike.”

“It's a Rally 24… a race bike … it's got three speeds,” I retorted full of pride:

He looked again at the bike as if testing my words, the he asked:

“Can you ride it with your arms in the air?”

I nodded, and darted off. I was an expert biker, and I showed it off. I pedaled full speed until I could feel the bike shaking under me. Then, I raised my hands carefully above the handlebar till my arms were parallel to my shoulders. I remained this way for a while, then I turned around on my way back to him.. He had proceeded a few steps towards the middle of the courtyard.. I stopped in front of him and getting off the bike I said:

“Did you see that?”

He did not reply, but stared at the bike as though considering a profound issue. All of a sudden he hit the ground with his crutch and stepped forward touching the bike, and then took hold of the handlebar and leaned towards me whispering: "let me have a ride please".

When I hesitated, he nagged, "please … please."

I didn't understand what was going on and I just stood there staring at him. He seemed like someone overcome by a whim, incapable of stopping or going back, and finding me silent he started shaking the handlebar forcefully, shouting furiously this time: "I said let me have a ride!" And he jumped up trying to ride the bike, so we both lost balance and almost fell to the ground.

I don't remember what crossed my mind then, but I just followed him. I found myself helping him to get on the bike. He leaned on my shoulder as well as on the crutch, and after several attempts, managed to lift his body and send his normal leg across the bike, positioning himself on the seat. His plan was to stretch his artificial leg to the front away from the pedal, while moving the other pedal with the power of his healthy leg.

It was difficult but eventually Ezzat settled down on the bike and cautiously, I started pushing. When the bike began to move, he started pedaling. I let him go without warning, so he lost his balance, and tottered, but he held on, straightened up and gradually, gained control of the bike. He made a tremendous effort to pedal with one leg while maintaining his balance. Several moments went by as the bike moved slowly forward. Ezzat passed the big tree then the canteen, and I found myself applauding and shouting:

“Bravo Ezzat.”

He pedaled on until he almost reached the end of the courtyard. This was where he was supposed to turn around and I started was worrying. But he managed it cautiously yet masterfully. On his way back in the opposite direction he seemed self-confident and in full control of the bike. He increased his speed and then increased it again. His hair blew in the air.

The bike sped between the trees, and Ezzat’s figure started vanishing and re-appearing behind the entangled branches and leaves. He had done it. I saw him on the bike -darting like an arrow- stretching his back behind, raising his head and letting out a long loud shout that echoed all over the courtyard. An extended crackling sound like a scream that had been locked up in his chest for a long time, and only now managed to escape.

"Loook aat meee…” He shouted.

When I ran up to him, the bike was lying overturned on the ground. The front wheel was still spinning and buzzing, and I saw the artificial leg detached from his body, thrown away in its sock and shoe, its dusky color and dark hollowness, as though it had been really severed from his body, or even as if it were a separate creature with its own independent internal life. Ezzat was lying face down, with his hand on his amputated leg, which had started to bleed, creating a stain expanding on his torn trousers. I called his name. He raised his head slowly. His forehead was bleeding and lip sliced. His face seemed unfamiliar without his spectacles. He looked at me for a moment as though collecting his thoughts, and then asked in a faint voice with a fading smile:

“Did you see me riding the bike?”

**********************

Alaa el-Aswani

Born in Cairo on 26 May 1957, Aswani has published two short story collections His first novel Imarat Yaqubian published in February 2002 stirred waves in Egypt and is on its third edition in less than one year.

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