After the service was over at al-Hamd Mosque, I headed out into the street. I couldn’t bring myself to recall the subject the sermon had touched on. It had not only been long and repetitive, but also atrociously rendered to boot. However, it had at least allowed me time to psych myself up for my upcoming appointment.
I crossed the paved road that ran parallel to the Mahmoudiyah Canal and arrived at the beginning of Mercy Street. In 500 meters, I would have to overcome what had kept me away from him for 35 years. He used to glare daggers at me, to the point where I began dreading the very idea of stumbling across him. It was only natural that all these years later I cringed at the thought of seeing him again, especially after estimating the amount of rage that must have welled up inside him over time. I walked gingerly, minding the gap between the train and the platform. After all, time does not pass in vain, even when it does not leave a footprint that forces us to dredge up the past.
To my right stood the walls of the company that had polished the neighborhood’s image by producing the famous ceramic toilets and tiles that every house on the block had been refurbished with at some point or another since the establishment first opened its doors—back when significant events were still captured in black and white. While lumbering along, I tripped on some of the pallets leaned up against the company’s walls. Suddenly, I recalled how my pals and I used to climb those walls—which I remembered as being shorter—on our way back home from the Koranic school al-Sheikh al-Saeed for the sake of stealing oranges and mangos from the trees on the other side. To lift ourselves over the walls, we either scaled the pipelines attached to them or the palm trees growing right next to them. However, some of us restricted ourselves to hurling bricks at the crowns of the trees in hopes that the ripe fruit would simply fall to the ground next to us. Hamdi the Crippled would stay behind to keep a beady eye on the road. Whenever he saw Police Officer Saad show up, he would give us a heads-up by blowing on his high-pitched whistle. The memory brought the high-pitched timbre of that whistle back to my ears. In fact, I was almost knocked down by a turbo tuk-tuk that was being furiously driven by a boy who most likely was still under the age of ten.
Mercy Street was less than twenty meters wide. A path branched off the main road to my left. On the corner was a white two-story building, which contained a large patio with dozens of poles to tie up cattle. The building was once a veterinary clinic. One of the sundry dreams I had had in the past was to catch sight of what went on in there, but like the rest of them, it had never come true. Back then, I watched the farmers gain access to the building with their donkeys and cattle, as well as the ladies with their chickens. I saw the doctor come and go—and his daughter. Oh, I will never be able to forget his daughter! I remember her wearing a blue dress, her brown and wavy hair falling on her shoulders. She was about my age. In the afternoons, I would watch her take off with her dad and disappear inside a car that drove off shortly afterward.
I once injured myself playing soccer right at that spot. I kicked the ball with my right foot. It bounced against the wall and the paint chipped off. I hurt my foot so badly that one of my toenails fell off a few weeks later. I couldn’t play soccer for over a month.
The clinic was now closed down. Its white facade had turned grayish. The fields that used to stretch on both sides and behind of where I stood at the moment were no longer there. They had been replaced by residential neighborhoods. Working-class people either rented or owned an apartment in the area. The newly put up buildings had businesses on the ground floors: shops selling ceramics, garages, clothing stores, pharmacies, stores selling furniture from Damietta, and grocery stores selling all types of snacks and trail mixes. There was also a medium-sized infirmary in front of a junkyard.
Past the tile company, the street narrowed to a lane lined with residential houses on both sides. On the ground floors there were shops selling kitchen utensils and construction materials, an optician’s shop, a cybercafé . . . Again, the greenery was long gone. The once never-ending meadows had been confined to a limited space.
At the end of the street, there was a small shop that sold sugar cane juice. Then the street split in half. Both of the resultant streets equally led to recently urbanized areas. The places around which I had built my happy childhood recollections lay buried under their foundations.
In front of the shop selling sugar cane juice was a busy minibus station. To its left was the big coffee shop that had opened recently. Its sound system was blaring out Arabic pop songs. The tables were full of board games, dominoes, and decks of cards. I turned right past the coffee shop, approaching the place where I was supposed to meet my father. Every time we had met in the past, I had felt a lump in my throat. But not this time. This time, I just felt empty. I looked at the bench where I usually found him seated, but it was empty. Gripped by a sudden fear, I turned around. There was not another soul, not another body. The street was empty. The past had soaked up the present and had left a blank backdrop behind.
Written by Munir Otaiba.