Seeking Time, in Space (Scene two)

The Bust of Imam Mohammad Abdu 1

On my first day at the Imam Muhammad Abdu Coeducational Elementary School, I saw the bust of Imam Mohammad Abdu at the entrance to the school courtyard, on the wide and winding steps that led to the headmaster’s office. The Imam was wearing a turban, and his face was friendly and smiling—it was hard for me to believe that such a warm face belonged to someone involved in my education. In those days, I thought that he was the school’s owner. I used to examine the face of every person who entered the school in the hope of seeing him, yet he never came to us, and his face continued to inspect me on my arrival to school every day for the next six years, without my knowing the slightest thing about him.

I spent the sweetest days of my life at that school. Even the small troubles of that time would later become a wellspring of beautiful memories. At that school I became the owner of a small sack for my books, and then later of a proper schoolbag; I also had a few pencils, and later a fountain pen, as well as several textbooks and notebooks, each of which had a sticker with my name on it. I always wore the school uniform with the official necktie and badge, and later I became a reader for the school’s morning bulletin and a drummer for the school’s “morning march”—we pupils always headed to the classrooms in an orderly, soldier-like march, in step with the beating of the drums. I later also became the class alfa — or “leader” — , a term which denotes the pupil at the head of the class. Whoever is chosen by the teacher to be the “leader” acts as the teacher’s substitute and is in charge of the other pupils whenever she is absent or late or has to leave the class. Yet my fondest memories are not of the hard work for which we often garnered excessive praise, nor of my many small possessions, but rather of my fortuitously learning how to tell stories in the school’s large courtyard. Our teacher had a son who was about four years old, a stubborn, troublesome and ill-tempered child who would never settle down. She always had to bring him to school with her, and she would have me look after him and stroll through the courtyard with him so that she could focus on her teaching—I would do this whenever I had a free period or if one of the teachers was absent, and also whenever I had sports class or gardening class. (In gardening class, all we ever did was gather leaves from the courtyard. We never so much as learned the difference between meloukhia2 and clover, or between a rose and an onion.) This unruly child always wore me out as I walked around with him. He would pelt the classroom windows and the other children with pebbles and stones, and had a habit of climbing onto anything he could find. The time passed very slowly at first, and I had no idea how I—being myself such a young child at the time—could possibly be rid of this annoying burden.

I resorted to a bit of trickery one day, and it proved effective: I began making up stories to tell him. For example, I told him about how a lizard once scurried up this palm tree in front of him. A goat saw this and wanted to climb up the palm as well—and it did so. Yet the goat was too scared to climb back down, whereupon a pigeon flew to it and said that it would lend the goat its wings on the condition that the goat give it some of its fur in order to make a warm nest for its chicks, and so on and so forth. In time, the child began to grow fond of me and give in to the sway of the stories, and whenever he saw me he would let go of his mother’s hand and ask me to finish the previous day’s tale. I would vary it a bit, and turn the lizard into a gecko and the goat into a sheep and the pigeon into a dove. I thus learned how to produce convincing stories by being both artful and imaginative.
If it chanced that I was called upon to take care of the boy during Arabic class, then this was always much more preferable to me than staying in class in order to explain the lesson to the other pupils or to help them with their exercises. This was in spite of the fact that I initially felt great pride at being asked by the teacher—that teacher whom all the pupils were afraid of—to help my classmates. Yet this noble task quickly lost its nobility, and the pride I felt disappeared with it: In dismay, I watched the other pupils running around and playing, eating and shouting at each other and having fun while I was stuck at the front of the class trying hopelessly to teach them the lesson.
All the same, this onerous chore of teaching was still better than shelling peas or picking meloukhia for the teachers to cook at home.


1 Imam Muhammad Abdu was a pioneering innovator of the intellectual revival movement in Egypt and the Arab East in the 19th century enlightenment. He was also one of the Islamic enlightened intellectuals who rejected conventionalism, believed in openness to other cultures and the innovation of thoughts and social, political and religious reform.” [] [translator’s note]

2 This is the Arabic word for the corchorus plant (also known as Jew’s Mallow), as well as for a traditional Egyptian stew made from its dark green leaves. [translator’s note]

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