I have always wanted to be called a hero at least once in my life. My city is a den of criminal activity. One time, I saw a bunch of kids beat up a smaller boy just because he had briefly interrupted their match as he passed by them. On a different occasion, I saw some grown-ups picking a fight. A potbellied dude tried to break up the altercation. Unfortunately, things got heated real quick and one of the men ended up with his head bashed into the pavement. The culprit immediately disappeared into the throng that had clustered around the brawl and yelled, “What an outrage! What a disgrace!”
However, even as the blood started staining the pavement, the crowd’s general hue and cry veered toward a new subject; people began singing the praises of the potbellied man who had stepped in to try and salvage the situation. “You are our hero!” they shouted in unison.
Once, at the souk, one of the merchants grabbed me by the arm. He had decided that the last blouse he had left for sale was meant for me since, apparently, it would fit me like a glove. He penned me up inside the shop, leaving me no choice but to try it on. Then he smeared his look of approval over my entire physique. The first evening I wore the blouse, it completely fell apart, and my father forbade me from ever returning to the souk on my own. From that moment on, I had to ask one of my brothers to escort me.
On another occasion I went to the bakery to buy bread and saw upon arrival that the whole neighborhood was gathered inside the shop. Everyone was jostling one another to reach the opening from which the bread was being dispatched. Just as I saw the baker punch a boy in the face, I sensed the time had come for me to muster up my true grit. It was the moment of truth and I was on my mettle.
I joined the line, which, according to an optimistic estimate, was budging at an average speed of two people per hour. No wonder the bakery ran out of goods. I returned beaten and empty-handed, which earned me a scolding and severe punishment at home. However, worse than having to face all the disciplinary action was having to endure the humiliation of seeing the neighbor’s son get the grand title of “Proper Man Who Will in Good Time Be Able to Provide for His Family” conferred on him. He had been able to accomplish the mission of fetching bread despite being two years younger than me. Consequently, my growling stomach taught me the real meaning of the word “heroism.”
Looking back at how the events had unfolded, I can remember trying to cut in line myself. However, my efforts amounted to nothing for I was hit by a heat wave, which came spiced with the smell of the sweat being secreted by the bodies around me and the smell of the smoke from the cigarettes the crowd was constantly sucking on, and which ultimately made it difficult for me to breathe. One of the so-called heroes that day had contrived to secure himself a bag of bread by cutting in the long line and pushing his way to the front against the stream of people all striving for the same goal. He almost knocked me out with one of his killer arms.
Triumphant, he held the bag of bread—the proof of his victory—clutched with both hands. Meanwhile, I wiped a tear off my cheek. I’d shed it mainly because of the heat but also a bit because of the feeling of helplessness his conceited mien had conjured up in me.
Days later, I caught a host on a TV program just beginning to explain the real meaning of “heroism.” She branded a man who had stood up for the rights of children a hero; his photo hung from the studio’s wall. Then she read a report on the national industry, which led her partner to show a photo of some other supposed hero, apparently even better identifiable as such than the previous one. Finally, at the very end of the program, a big table was displayed with a dancing logo in one corner that revealed the true nature of the hero par excellence. It showed a man having supper.
Written by Mahmoud Alhsan.