On the crest of the old Mokattam Hills, behind which rise the Dawiqa Hills, hid our houses, many of which were sheltered behind a massive rock.
We lived in a district called Al-Mu’adaseh, where everyone’s garbage and litter is thrown. To be more specific, we lived on the farms of Manshiet Nasser.
Like the church bells that summoned us to attend the holy prayer, daybreak propelled us into action. For hours the twines of morning light flogged the burning skin on our bodies with their exhortation. We lugged the day’s weariness along into the night, where the sleep we had hoped to find kept us meandering around, because it turned out to be as barren as the wasteland in which we had lain down to rest. We crouched down, almost deflating, like the hiss of a murky patch of light amid the darkness, and from the peak of our mountains, we leaned out to a sleeping world. We swooped on it like thieves of the night hunting for flotsam and jetsam. We descended the tortuous slope whose ground we had finished leveling just by traversing it over the years. In a row, we climbed down on our carriages equipped with wooden boxes. The donkey we had bought wound up covered with ulcers caused by the friction of the wood on its fur. It towed us with a melodic gait, as if it would only agree to move forward if it was pleased with the rhythm of its marching pace—a beat that stifled our clamor, that forced us to keep only our ears open, until the voice of muteness rose inside us and we were washed over by exhaustion. On the mountain’s heart we drew black arteries of coagulated blood, which stamped the face of time.
We were once those boys who served Luqman, the wealthy, wise gentleman the old legends describe. Truth be told, we never got to see him. However, we imagined he looked like our teacher, Shafiq.
The day I told Luqman’s story to Waleem, he mocked me. He refused to believe someone could ever become that rich. He laughed and hit me on the head. But the damn Wannous heard us and, aware of the threat stories pose, he skewered us with his piercing gaze. His head tilted to one side and a sly grin spread across his face. Our whispering fled from his ears like the big rats that ran around us and caroused amid the huge dumping ground. The only chance we got to ride our wild dreams was when he sank into a heavy sleep while reclined on a stick. His filthy brown jilbab was sweeping the ground, and all around him, pigs just like him disposed of everything in their path, including the tail of his jilbab.
He used to hold me tight. Our respective sweat would merge into one and he’d say with a hoarse and drowsy voice, “One day, I am gonna inherit this lucky bastard’s eyes even though he doesn’t belong to our religion.” He’d then look at me with a viscous smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He was unable to hide his malice. He would dissolve into fits of laughter that reverberated in everyone’s hearts.
Every day he gathered us by the Nile, salivating with a dry maw to collect the salary we had earned by slogging away. His greed and stinginess made some of us fantasize about dethroning him. If each one of us dreamers had turned into a new Luqman, the supply of Luqmans would have lasted for generations.
The years elapsed slowly, regardless of the fun and games we jammed into them. We didn’t miss out on any occasion to rejoice. At night, we flocked to tell horror stories. Around the oil lamp, the innocent spirits of the younger ones came to light. Our laughter, soaked in tears, reddened our faces with the flare of our sparkle. The pipes in our chests crackled with our inner fires.
Since I was the only teacher among them, Friale once asked the following as if she was aiming a poisoned arrow at me.
“These children possess pure hearts. Will the decay we are surrounded by end up one day tainting them as well?”
Nabila shrieked with her free and unshrinking laughter while surprise garbed our countenance. What had been kept a secret was now unabashedly exposed before our very eyes. We borrowed the stupid-looking expression from her face as we were shaken up by the Ghoul’s revenge! The rock of the Mokattam Hills detonated, blowing up households and their residents. The explosion echoed all over the world.
At the time, I was in my last year of university, studying journalism. It was as if I had hurt the mountain’s pride, which therefore had decided to exact retribution for my betrayal. They furnished me with a camera in a cruel attempt to get me to report the story or die trying. The setting revealed by its flashes washed out my initial enthusiasm. I drew a long breath before carefully choosing the best way to put what had happened into words for the TV program.
They haven’t forgotten about me and I’ve been unable to forget about them either. Their faces crop up every morning from behind the high peaks where their houses lie, floating in the sky.
Friale is there to help, Nabila laughs, and both Waleem and Wannous are just some outlaws, reflecting the times they had the misfortune to witness.
I no longer know how their days howl. I try to fool myself with an alternative, less painful truth, turning a deaf ear to their actual misery. I maunder on, completely lost. In the meantime, our Luqman, unlike the legendary one, refuses to wave his privileges. Defiant, he scorns me and takes a leak on my face.
Written by Mokhtar Amin.