Seeking Time, in Space (Scene Three)

A Train Ride

The best hours of elementary school were whenever we had a free period or two at the end of the school day, often because a teacher was absent for one reason or another. The school attendant Amm Ibrahim would come to tell us in his strong voice: “The teacher isn’t here today… You’re free!” We always screamed “Let’s go! Let’s go!” and then jumped like apes from on top of the benches and thronged through the classroom door as if anyone who were just a moment late would be imprisoned in the school, or as if Amm Ibrahim could go back on his word at any moment.
This last hour was one of my rare chances to explore new and distant places, like Columbus. Sometimes one of my schoolmates would come with me to Al-Qalaj or Al-Marg or Izbat An-Nakhl, or sometimes I would start off in the direction of Ain Shams to the west.3 These places were all thresholds onto the Nile delta, and for me they represented nothing less than a wondrous, unknown world. I was fascinated by the strange animals I saw there (especially the young ones), and I used to gaze at the unfamiliar trees and eat as many fresh fruits and vegetables as I wanted. And of course, there were all those delicious things that my friends’ mothers would offer me, such as fatir mishaltit and qishda 4 and homemade bread; and finally there was both the soft and sun-baked varieties of bread, as well as all those other delicious foods, some of which we often bought from the grocer while others we received only very rarely.

One day I decided to carry out a somewhat risky plan on my own: There was a freight train that passed near our house on a slope as it made its way towards Suez. The train slowed down considerably on the slope, so I knew it would be possible to jump onto it and then get off a few minutes later near our house, or at worst a short distance away from it—and in those few minutes, I could discover a whole new world. I had to wait a long time before I could put this plan into action, for I needed enough free time to carry out the illicit expedition without any of my teachers or my family (or their acquaintances) finding out about it.

Then, one day, everything fell into place: The train passed by on schedule and slowed down just like it always did; I ran alongside it and easily jumped into the last car. I sat there whistling in joy and triumph, with my feet dangling out the train that was slowly dragging itself along and clattering marvelously. It let off a loud whistle while I happily counted the ties between the rails beneath me. The train crossed a surprisingly large distance (considering how slow it was going), and let out another whistle and began to pick up speed as I sat there humming to myself. I suddenly realized that the railroad ties were going by much more quickly now, and soon we were moving so fast that I could no longer make out the individual ties. The train let out another (much longer) whistle as it moved forward, and now its clattering took on a sharper pitch. I tottered in the last car, holding tightly onto my bag. I looked out to the left and found that I had passed the last of the houses that I recognized and was now a good distance from home. The train was passing the bedouin huts on the hills, and I knew the desert would begin beyond them. The thought of the train taking me all the way to Suez terrified me, so I resolved to take immediate action. I threw my bag out the train, and a moment later it was a mere point in the distance. There was nothing left to do but hurl myself at the pebbles and the sand…
I stood up in pain; I was covered in dust and had scraped both my knees and one of my elbows. Yet I smiled in satisfaction at the tail of the train that was getting smaller every moment, and walked back to my bag to find that my fountain pen had broken and stained both the bag itself and the notebooks inside it. I returned home later than usual that day. My mother saw the scrapes on my elbow and knees, but before she could utter a word I said: “We had sports class today!” She believed me, and told me to go clean myself up and get ready for lunch.

I entered the house delighted that this adventure had ended up well, an adventure in which I had seen (on my walk back home) many wonders: the bedouin houses built of clay and palm fronds, as well as a great number of goats, sheep, camels, donkeys and dogs. There were also all those new scents and smells that I would never forget, and the many strange and unfamiliar faces that I gazed at as I walked—so different from the well-known faces that I always saw on my usual stroll home from school.

The thought crossed my mind that I would have perhaps seen even greater wonders if I had gone all the way to Suez and then returned on foot—at the time, I did not realise how far Suez really was from Ain Shams. Yet this adventure was a great one to tell my schoolmates about, and perhaps I would someday repeat the experience to a place a bit farther away.

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