A mystery love story, of a young schoolboy trapped in his imaginations!
- The Village:
I was born either on the First of August or the First of October it depends on my official certificate and family stories. This doubt carried on to the rest of my life. My village Meet Swaid was small with one street, one river, one bridge, one mosque, and one school. The village resting on the bank of the Egyptian Nile delta. The narrow streets, the mud and windless houses connected like an old stalled cargo train. People’s lifestyles hadn’t changed that much since the time of the pharaohs, and local demographers couldn’t find any dramatic census changes for a long time, around a 1,000 with a slim margin of error. Villagers lived the simple life of a farming community, and their interest in the outside world went only as far as the edge of their corn fields. At dawn, men left with their animals for work and came back at dusk, while their wives stayed home, busy preparing meals and raising kids to work on the farm as soon as they mastered their first steps. Women seemed to consult with the same fashion designer, where their costumes were traditionally made. People went to the same mosque, celebrated the same holidays, and for generations, villagers kept the gene pool very much confined to a singular gene pool!
Life for people was a simple one, rhyming with nature, everyone knowing everyone else. The village had one street, one barber shop, one grocery store, one school, one cemetery, and one mosque and everyone ate one kind of cheese; always feta, and always white. Egyptians look at cheese as a live food, and they don’t as a rule throw their cheese away; when it gets old they just give it another name and eat, from Qareesh, Barameely, Creamy, and when it gets rotten they call it, “Mesh” (Yacky Cheese).
. Life was simple and innocent, my family ran the elementary school, my dad was the principal, and most of the teachers were local or family members; all students were from the village. So they came to school with their pajamas and some came to school barefoot, that was fascinating to me, I was envious of their freestyle mood. At the school, I was a privilege student, as the principal’s son, where two or three students crammed on one desk I had one of my own. I got lots of attention from teachers and access to sports equipment. So after school, I decided what game to play and with whom I would play.
2. The City School
After graduating from the village school, I had to go to a School in Dekernac, a city nearby, to attend my middle school. Ali Mubarak school was near the train station in an old building that used once as a storage place for the city’s high school next to it. Every morning I took the train from the village to the city to get to my school. The train would travel through small villages and farmlands on the three miles stretch. The slow train would go by each town picking up other students, going to the city’s school. The daily train ride was full of tension that often ends in a fight among student’s rivalries and gangs. The city has two middle schools segregated by a river and gender, Ali Mubarak, all-boys, and the other Al Nasser school was all girls. Crowded classroom, two or three students on each desk, fight over who would sit on the isle side. All boys’ school means, the conversation, the games, the jokes, and the stories never got old. Teachers’ abuses were routine, the English teacher, Mr. Kotarelia stands up, his creative abuses extended from hand beating, kicking, wiping, slapping and just asking you to stand for no apparent reason or explanations. His abuses left marks on our bodies and still deep scars on our memories! The morning lining up was dreadful, standing in the frosty morning enduring the principal threats while reciting the national anthem and giving our allegiance to the country, “belady belady” oh my country oh my country you are my love and my heart. Which I always thought about my village as bleady. In classrooms, teachers were poetic in their verbal and physical abuses; each had his own beating style. teachers came to the classroom with their own sticks, even gave them nicknames, the destroyer, the pharaoh, the Mayor, and the skinny web which was the worst, the pain would stay with you way beyond the school day.
3. The Lunch Break
At the lunch break, students congregated by frontage, sticking their hands through a crack in the door trying to buy their lunches from street vendors that we couldn’t even see. The students shouting their order either falafel or ful (fava beans) sandwich, and if we got the wrong sandwich, that was no time to complain!
This was all confusing for a young boy who just came from the village’s elementary school that his dad ran for years; my privilege vanished overnight! Now experienced daily abuse from bullies, teachers, a stranger lost in the big city. The principal’s son is now mistreated by psychosis teachers and ignored by other students. I set on my desk every day for hours in the classroom, daydreaming looking forward to the next soccer match on TV at the end of the week. The 60s were the years of political upheavals, lots of protests and demonstrations. Arab nationalism was spreading like fire allover the Arab world, inspired by the charismatic leader Gamal Abdelnasser. Military coups to get red of another military coup. We would leave the school chanting political slogans, anti-imperialism, or protesting Israeli bombing somewhere. Shortly we would break away from the rally, walked to the all-girls school, watching from afar, checking the classroom windows; that was the closest we ever got to the all-girls school.
4. The Big News:
… the big news was announced on the morning lineup of the last day of the week.
_ “The school will be closed for a week, the old building needed repair and renovation.
_ “Starting next week, you will all be going to “al Nasser School on the night shift, from 1 pm to 5 pm!! The students cheered as if our national soccer team had just scored in the African cup! The jubilations, trepidations, the al Nasser school was all-girls, we were going to a school that was an un-penetrable castle that we could only look at it from outside imagining what it is like inside, now we were about to break the taboo and the mystery.
Our school would start at 1 pm; an hour after the end of girl’s morning shift, the firm instructions came down on us…
_ “You should come no earlier than 1230pm and later than 1 pm”, we were told, giving the girls time to leave with no altercations or contacts! The news consumed most of the conversation on the train ride back to the village.
5. The All Girls School
On the first day of the new school, students came and waited outside the gated school. Most of the girls were gone by then; we all missed it. The students entered the school, gathering up at the school playground, not knowing what to do—the excitement of going to a new place where a few hundred girls were there. The screaming, the loud public speaker, the student jostling, the dust, and the confusion won the day. The school principal finally had a hold of the situation! The instructions were cleared…
_” we are here guests in this school; we must respect the place, keep it clean, and never flirt or talk to girls students from the first shift. “
Students looked at each other, and their eyes said it all; the principal is out of his mind!!
6. The School Desk
The school desks were all standard, made of soiled wood, with a drawer for books and notebooks, a hole in the desk’s corner for the ink cup. They bolted the Desks in the ground for indestructibility they endured all the abuses and students’ anger release. I entered the classroom I spotted a desk that the eager students ignored; the desk was old broken, full of scratches, ink spelled on surface, but had a warm character, it was a calling of some sorts. The voice of the teacher interrupted my thoughts shouting …
_” attention, boys.”
We all stood up to give the respect greeting back!
_” set down, all” the teacher seemed content!
Teacher after teacher all day enter the classroom shouting, warning and threatening, I didn’t even know what subject, Arabic, History, or even English, all I know they were all loud! We spent our time looking at our desks, searching for any sign left by the girl sitting on this desk that morning. We had unlimited immigration, worked so hard trying to draw a picture of the mystery girl, her secrets, her face, her hands her warm body, looking for her unfounded notes, or any sign left any had a hidden message. on the desk. The desk was silent; we had to imagine them all. At lunch breaks, students exchanged their made up stories and earned bragging rights …!
-“she left her name,” one mussed
_” she drew me a heart…
_ “she drew me her eyes,
_ “she left me a blade of hair..
_ “I smelled her perfume .. Chanel 555,.
Any scrabble turned to a love letter, random scratches turned to a heart shape, reading any piece of paper on the floor or under the desk. Staring at my desk for clues, for a sign to give or to share. Desks don’t talk but, they share secrets. After a few failed attempts to leave messages and no response, asking for her name, drawing a smiley face, heart, eyes, no replies!
7. The Last Day
Thursday was the last day of the week, the last day of staying at the all-girl school; time is running out. I got to the classroom set on my desk as I usually do, looked at the desk trying to find any signs, none were there. I opened the drawer, inside a sheet of paper under it a photo of a girl, a black-and-white photo, the ones we used for student ID, she had refined face, small nose, a short hair with a Mona Lisa smile, I turned the picture on the back there was the letter, ‘ع’, over a heart, lots of girls names start with a “ع”, what could it be, عيشه, عفاف, عاءشة, عزيزه
8. The quest for the girl with the Mona Lisa Smile
I quietly grabbed the picture and hid it away. I told nobody, and no one asked, the picture never left my pocket, hoping one day I would meet the girl with Mona Lisa smile! At the end of the week, we all went back to our all-boys school. Early every morning, I would get off the train, would walk by the all-girls school carious, searching, and looking at the flood of girls getting into the all-girl school big gate, frozen trying to imagine which girl that left her picture on the desk! Girls were all wearing the same blue uniform, … it was hard to see or forget the Girl With the Mona Lisa Smile!!
“As I was walking up the stairs,
I met a girl who was not there,
She was not there again today,
Oh, how I wish she’d go away. “