Seeking Time, in Space (Scene four)

Guava, Mango and Mulberry Trees



Break! There’s nothing better than having a free period! And the best scenario is when the very last class of the day is cancelled, allowing all of us to leave school early. For me, this usually meant a free hour to explore new places. I loved going into the western section of Ain Shams with my neighbourhood friends—I lived in the eastern part of Ain Shams, which is closer to the city centre and which I’d grown bored of by then. The western section, however, bore a much stronger resemblance to the countryside: Many of its houses were built of clay, and there were more fields and vegetation there. On other days, I would head north towards Izbat An-Nakhl or Al-Marg.

One day when we got out of school early I went off with my friend Mohammad, whose father was a poet (at the time I did not know what being a poet meant, or where exactly the poets all worked). We went to a small villa near the school which had a little garden with a few trees. Guava fruits hung like shining yellow lamps amidst the dark green leaves, and their enchanting smell entered our nostrils. We put down our schoolbags just outside the fence of the villa, knowing that the owner of the house was an old woman who didn’t come out very much. We climbed onto the iron gate, then onto the fence, and from there to the tree. We devoured all the guavas our stomachs could hold and also picked a few to eat on the road, and perhaps also to serve as proof of our courageous raid to our schoolmates.

Moments before we were about to climb down, we saw the old woman who owned the villa open the door. We held our breath. She came out of the house calmly, without once lifting her head to the tree, then opened the gate, picked up our two bags, walked back inside the house and closed the door behind her. My stomach was suddenly thrown into disorder, and the taste of guava suddenly grew bitter. We no longer had a heroic story to tell our friends, but rather one of failure and impending doom.

Mohammad and I climbed down the same way we’d come up. We stood nervously outside the gate a while, not knowing what to do. It seemed as if fate had struck us down: We were caught red-handed stealing fruit, and could not go home without our bags. Finally, the woman opened the gate and told us to come inside. We hesitated, but there was nothing for it. The good woman gently reproached us, then said that she was familiar with our school, and even knew my father Eltayeb and Mohammad’s father Mukhaymar. In our anxiety, we really thought that she would tell them what we had been up to. We promised to never steal again, and in turn she promised to say nothing to either the school principal or our parents. She gave us our two bags, but before we could make our escape out the gate she told us to stop, and then went inside the villa. She returned with a few guava seeds for each of us, and gave us a warm smile that I’ll never forget.

*****

It was as if an angelic—or perhaps satanic—force in the trees drove us to the guavas. I was quite overwhelmed whenever I looked at trees like those, for they always tempted me to stretch out my hand and pluck a fruit, then smell it, and finally eat and enjoy it, and only after all of this might I perhaps consider whether I should have first asked the owner’s permission.

There was a large mango garden not too far from our home, just across the railroad tracks that divide the district of Izbat An-Nakhl from Ain Shams. The secret fruit of this garden lured us children in from all over; we swarmed towards it like wasps, and once there we’d throw small bricks at the unripe mangoes. To justify these sorties, we claimed that we were learning our lessons in that garden. And so it was that we embarked upon that new study method called “memorizing while walking.” It was a silly method and I didn’t think much of it, yet we found that some of the older schoolchildren did in fact study this way; and though they seemed to resemble oxen tied to waterwheels, still we followed their lead, repeating the words of the schoolbooks out loud in order to memorize them. It was a strange method, and I only adopted it to get close to the mangoes—and certainly not for the sake of my studies. The owner of the garden later became aware of this trickery that greatly reduced the yield by ruining so many of his mangoes. The strange thing is that we used to eat those tart fruits with great satisfaction, without giving any thought to the damage we inflicted on their poor owner, whose garden we were wrecking with our mischievous, childish stupidity. We even used to laud ourselves for our courage and heroism in that garden!

*****

The mulberry trees that grew near the Farouq village were safe from neither our hands nor our stomachs. Those trees have all vanished now, without leaving the slightest trace behind—tall towers were built in their place, and quickly filled up with large masses of residents. Yet back then, we used to attack those trees in ravaging swarms. We climbed up them with the dexterity of apes, then, much like the silkworm that devours the mulberry leaves, we devoured the mulberries themselves. We stayed up there a long time, hidden among the branches, and did not come down until indigestion overcame us. If our presence was discovered, we would make a hasty escape. Yet we always came back to carry out our delightful raids in that great forest of mulberry trees.

*****

Several years later we conducted a similar raid on some of the farms in the district of Izbat An-Nakhl. It was the first time I had ever seen tomato bushes, and until then I had thought that tomatoes grew on trees like mangoes or oranges. May God have mercy on the gardening teacher who used to herd us into the school courtyard to clean it up and gather leaves, and who never once taught us something useful about gardening, such as the difference between cultivating potatoes and strawberries.

That day, as I went with my brother Khaled and our friend Mahir to Izbat An-Nakhl, it seemed as if we were unknowingly following in the footsteps of those ancient European explorers who sought out gold. Our eyes were dazzled by the alluring glow of the tomatoes (and I suddenly understood why the vegetable sellers always called out that their tomatoes were “jewels” and “sweeter than pomegranates”). We went down into the field at the quiet time around noon on a hot summer day, and began devouring the plentiful tomatoes in delight. No more than a few moments had gone by when we heard yelling: “Catch them! Stop them! Cut them off!” Several farmers were heading in our direction. I was a fast runner, and I took off and did not stop until I was near the eastern border of Ain Shams, my safe haven. I sat panting in the shade, by the wall of a clinic. In my mind, I could see the farmers with Khaled and Mahir: They had surely been caught, and were now undergoing their torture and interrogation, and soon the farmers would come to our home and there’d be a huge scandal. Or perhaps the farmers had beaten them severely or even killed them—and what was there to stop them, for were we any better than common thieves? These thoughts accosted me as I waited for Mahir and Khaled, unable to pry my eyes from the direction of the crime. I could not go home, and I stayed there a long time, squatting like a tired old man or a fugitive without shelter. I suddenly realized that I was still holding a stolen tomato in my hands—it was warm and its distinctive smell climbed to my nose, causing hints of former pleasures to mix with my premonitions of doom. Yet I could not eat it, and it was as if the tomato in my hand had suddenly gone bad. I remembered how my family had taught me to behave well and avoid disgrace, how my school teachers had shown us wrong from right, and I thought about the warnings of the religious men and their distinction between halal and haram5. Yet I could not toss away the tomato either, for I had also learned that throwing away God’s bounty is also haram. I finally set it down beside the wall and asked the Lord for forgiveness for my evil deeds. I stood up with tears in my eyes, still thinking about the disappearance of Mahir and my brother. The pain in my stomach was intense, as was my desire to return home, and the way back seemed much longer than usual.

When I got home, I walked in expecting a question about my absent brother, and then a detailed interrogation that would force me to confess. Yet my brother met me with a smiling face as if nothing had happened. He must have come home some other way, perhaps taking the bus that ran that route.

He told me that those farmers were kind and even generous to them. They didn’t do anything to the two of them after they caught them, but rather asked where they were from and said that if they wanted some tomatoes they only had to ask the owner, and he would certainly give them all they wanted. The farmers then proclaimed, “Our Lord’s bounty is great!”, and finally gave them even more tomatoes to take with them.



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