Roughly thirty years ago, on an otherwise seemingly ordinary afternoon, he looked different. His narrow chest, gruff voice, and steely eyes struck me that day as belonging to someone else, someone one would have expected to find at the Mansoura Corniche of the ’80s. Even as the schoolboy I was back then, I was able to tell he had quite suddenly become barely recognizable. I felt a sense of distance from him. As I sauntered alongside my father, I suddenly felt that he was no longer the man he used to be. From time to time, we stopped walking and our eyes drifted over to the opposite shore.
A foreign-sounding voice cut through the silence. “That is the al-Banna mosque.”
I looked to the place where his eyes were lingering. The mosque’s dome shimmered in the fading sunlight. It glowed green and majestic, standing in stark contrast to the darkness that had already descended over Talkha, the neighborhood where it was located. His voice was soft, much softer than what I knew it to be. But that was not all. It was also the tone he had adopted, which, oddly enough, conveyed sorrow and joy simultaneously. My father started speaking about the mosque and about the Nile, which according to him had carried so much water back in the day that it had actually flowed over the promenade we were standing in at the moment. I loved listening to him. One could read in the tone of his voice that he missed his early life. It was not that unusual to see him talk to himself. However, it was the first time that he had taken me for a walk and opened up to me. That made me feel special. To honor his faith in me, I took it upon myself to become the guardian of his memoir. Therefore, I listened carefully to every word he said.
Right after returning home, the first thing I did was write his deliverance down in a small notebook that had the logo of the Ministry of Education stamped on it. It was one of the notebooks in which my father used Arabic to scribble down his ideas while at work. I decided to consecrate that notebook to recording the history of Mansoura. If we’re being honest, the chronicles of the city didn’t appeal to me per se. Yet, I figured that the project of documenting them would offer me a wonderful excuse to ask my father to continue spending time with me. That way, I reckoned, I would be able to find out more about his past.
However, my fiendish plan foundered on reality’s need to impose its unpredictability. As it turned out, that day had been the last time my father would unburden himself to me—the first and last time we went out on a walk together. I don’t know what happened to the small notebook stamped with the logo of the Ministry of Education. As far as I can remember, I had only been able to dash off one or two pages, tops. All I know for certain is that I am alone now as I amble along Mansoura Corniche. Time has taken a flippant attitude toward the fact that I will never be able to move past the last afternoon I got to have him by my side. As my gaze slides along the opposite shore of the river and meets the dome of the al-Banna mosque, I realize I am no longer a schoolboy. My father may be buried with the rest of the family, but I got to see a side of him that will stay with me for as long as I live.
Written by Mamdouh Rizk.