Dahab was headed to the city after which she was named. Her father was the one who had chosen that name for her. He had loved that city and had spent most of his time there when she was still a child, while she had spent hers anxiously awaiting his return, which he would never announce in advance and could therefore always be about to happen. In exchange for her infinite patience, he used to bring her a gift whenever he decided to show up again: a necklace made of sea shells, a stone with her face carved on it, a colorfully-embroidered Bedouin dress … His departures were as unpredictable as his arrivals, and one day, he disappeared and never came back.
Dahab: the enigmatic city that had stolen her father and whose name she bore. Her father had picked it to be the place where he could be all by himself, where he didn’t want to be found, which is why she and her mother had never gone there to look for him and why she held it to be the most remote place on earth.
Then, years later, her friends from college assured her upon their return from a trip to Sharm El Sheikh, which is just a stone’s throw away from Dahab, that the city was really small and not all that inviting. Until then, she had never let anything but heighten the overriding impression of the city that her father’s stories had left her with. He was usually loath to discuss his sanctuary with her though, regardless of how obstinately she insisted on answers to what it was that made it so very precious to him. After he disappeared, each time someone asked her how it came that her father was no longer in the picture, she would come up with some sad story about how he had drowned in the sea or starved to death after getting lost in the mountains. The fate that befell the main character of the story changed with every new version of it she presented when the occasion arose. The character’s depiction, however, always remained the same. As far as she was concerned, he was a nut-job who thought very highly of himself but was no more than a complete waste of space.
Once, he had admitted to her that she was not his only daughter. Apparently, he had married a Bedouin woman from Dahab and had had several other children with her. Dahab had been angry at him and hadn’t wanted to believe him, but after he left for good, she started to fear that he might have been speaking the truth. As it turned out, she was not at all as special to him as he had made her believe she was with all the gifts he had showered on her over the years. On the upside, when she came to this realization, she stopped feeling obliged to place him in a good light whenever she referred to him.
She had spent hours poring over the features of the face carved on the stone her father had given her as a child and wondered whether they were actually hers or belonged to one of her mysterious half-siblings.
She was a mean portrait painter who every so often liked to capture on canvas her father’s likeness, which she thought would remain etched in her mind until doomsday. But she was wrong, and one such time when she sat down to feature him in one of her artworks, her pencil at the ready, she suddenly found out that she couldn’t recall his face any longer. It was the same mug she had painted umpteen times, and as one might expect, it threw her off balance to see that it had been erased from her memory. At the beginning, she thought it would stop there, but before long, she realized that she was losing her ability to recognize all faces. Fortunately, it only took a couple of very awkward encounters with some of her friends and acquaintances from college for her to latch on to what was happening to her.
Her mother got mad at her when she finally plucked up the courage to tell her about her condition. She assumed it was her daughter’s way of trying to become the center of attention and bewailed the fact that her daughter had turned out to be like her father, incapable of resigning herself to being just as ordinary as every other Tom, Dick and Harry.
When Dahab persisted in ‘feigning’ this inability to recognize the face in front of her every time mother and daughter ran into someone they knew, her mother decided to take her to the doctor. He told them that the disorder Dahab was suffering from was not of a physical nature, which meant that all he could prescribe were memory-training exercises. He advised her to try and link the new faces with the places where she saw them for the first time.
Dahab figured the only way to recall her father’s visage was to travel to Dahab, where she might find it carved on a stone lying on the ground of some forsaken mountain or sketched on a canvas, swimming bold as brass on the surface of the already colorful rainforests of the sea. Who knew whether it would wind up being a school of fish that brought her to him, wending its way across the deep blue, or the act of sitting on the saddle of a camel during a long expedition across the desert where her other family pitched camp?
At home, she packed some clothes and set out on her journey with the intention of not returning home until she knew what her father’s face looked like.
Written by Reem Mahmud Mohamed Sherif Hassan.