A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Photos courtesy of Anwar Sabri
How vexed I seem to be by feelings. Exactly a decade after my first graduation these feelings came to me, and now, ten years after my second graduation, they come to me again, but this time quite differently. And why this number, exactly? Because its easier to reset to zero after ten? Easiest to begin a new journey once zero has rung up on the metre?
I was in the Faculty of Arts canteen. It had changed. There didn’t used to be a front lawn for the students, and it was smaller than it seems now. As small as I was then, perhaps: small and intimate and warm. There’s a mirror there, which used to take a lot of the other girls’ time up and hardly any of mine. I remember exactly where my friends and I would sit: sometimes this table, sometimes that, but mostly we were at this one, right here. And that little hatch there, which used to face us, from which Ahmed used to peer in. It had no curtains and whenever the crowds of students cleared from in front us, there was Ahmed picking us out with his glances. And me, I think, in particular, because whenever I raised my eyes towards the hatch he;d be looking my way. An admiring look, I assumed, which I would pretend not to notice every time my gaze happened to catch those sad eyes of his, those eyes that you felt were always on the verge of tears. Those eyes. I never thought about them. Never even mentioned them to my friends. And now, ten years on from that first graduation, I am remembering him and his sad glances. I miss them, and I miss him, the way I miss the little hatch and everything, with the very sadness I pretended not to notice in Ahmed’s eyes. The eyes which I always felt were on the verge of tears.
What was he doing now, I wondered? He must be changed. Like the hatch. Now, it was on the west wall, not the north. And in place of Ahmed, Amm Salih, and the space was wider, so much changed, in fact, I felt that the square of flooring which once bore my table might never have been there at all, or that I mightn’t.
A decade on, returning to the canteen, I had a crushing sense of not belonging, but the busy rhythm of the girls here brought me out of it a little: their clothes and makeup and their urgent concerns, their mobile phones which never left their hands; lips and cheeks so vivid, even beneath the burqas, where before it was rare to find a single student wearing makeup.
Photos courtesy of Anwar Sabri
The laughter, the enthusiasm, the projects, the research, even the exams: it was all so wonderful. I listened in as a girl discussed her wedding with her friends: the eight bridesmaids who must all wear the same expensive silk in the same cut and colour, must apply the same makeup, wear their hair the same, and all of it must be coordinated with the colour scheme of the bridal bower, which must resemble the throne room of an ancient queen. And her entrance must be something special: she would appear between four swagged and golden pillars, and her wedding procession would have all the dialects of the Arabic represented, from Egyptian to Syrian, from the Gulf to Yemen, and then she would materialize, like a queen, on a raised litter draped in red cloth and ringed with pink pillars. She told them about the clouds of dry-ice into which she’d disappear until she reached the aisle down which she must parade, then how she’d open the beautiful, coloured box and produce a pair of gorgeous doves and set them free to fly round the hall. Hours waiting for the groom to appear she would spend capturing the night of her life on her phone, and then there were the seven coloured umbrellas, which would be the stars of the wedding procession photographs. And would she be content with just the one, white dress? She would not: there was another breathtaking creation to be worn first, in which she’d drift about like a princess from the golden age, and only when she’d been snapped sufficiently in that, would she consent to be seen in the white.
Ten years on, the mirrorless canteen cold and bleak, Amm Salih behind a curtain at his little hatch and me, pretending to be absorbed in chewing the Kraft cheese sandwich, my excuse for being here at all. I ordered a cup of tea, then another, and luxuriated in my eavesdropping. The bride-to-be, who was about to go off to take an exam, had started reading out loud a poem in English. Swept up in the moment I said to her, You should learn enjoy yourself. Half-playfully, half-irritably she cried, I don’t enjoy anything here. I don’t like reading, but I must. Don’t assume that marriage is paradise, I said. She laughed. It’s a wedding I’m after, not marriage.
I couldn’t tell why she was so angry at everything, exactly. Though the hand in which she had transcribed the poem was beautiful, and her recitation was wonderful, it was something else that she was after, though I couldn’t say what. Between the elegant bodies and elegant clothes, the bright handbags and the delicious concerns, my eyes were searching for myself, trying to see me through the crowds, and now, I am here, also searching for this thing, some thing that wasn’t there. Ten years on, I was bewitched by everything these girls have. I wanted a magic watch to whisk me back to that time, to that age, to those worries and those hopes, to the anger and the busy rhythm. But it was as though I was a stranger to it all. I looked on bewildered. Wasn’t this the very time of life I once loathed? If only I could make her understand what it meant to live in the moment. Her mind was taken up with other matters. I could hear her frustration, as she laughed everything around her to scorn, and all the time the net of my estrangement drew closer. I felt like easy prey to the talons of the ticking seconds. A last glance at the canteen’s hatch, and I withdrew. If only I were going back to the time from which they were withdrawing in order to search for some thing.
Photos courtesy of Anwar Sabri
This is what happened ten years on from my first graduation. Now let me tell you about my second graduation. Ten years had passed since that visit to the canteen. It was around that time, that last visit, that I graduated. Or, say, passed out of the world. My soul split away. It was something beyond description, something I can’t explain: a sensation more intense than all the torments which meet you in this world. I had died and gone to another world altogether, with its own strict rituals and laws, which permit us to visit you only in your sleep and, sometimes, for us to attend you in spirit at times of crisis, though you are unaware of our presence. I shan’t tell you about the world of the dead. Even if I wanted to, we cannot. It is the only thing you cannot know of, not until you experience it for yourselves. A few days after my own death, I remember I visited a man I’d loved more than anybody or anything else. I was still heartbroken at leaving him and I wanted to know how he would receive me when I came. I was beautiful and silent. I wished to set a gentle kiss on his brow, and as I approached he shied and fled from my grasp. He wanted to wake. I take refuge with God from Satan, he said. I felt a vast sadness and I never requested to meet or make contact with anybody ever again, except on the occasion of my most recent visit, which is the reason I am writing to you now.
Ten years on from that second graduation, I was visited by the feeling that the country was in trouble, and I decided to pay it a visit. Once again, I chose the faculty canteen, the one place in your world I am drawn to more than any other. But this time the faces were still and silent, their murmurs dazed and disbelieving: people who would give up everything for the sake of what they’d lost. The news was of war and destruction, bombs and missiles, explosions and blood, of grief and mourning, wakes and funerals, of severed limbs, of darkness everywhere, of biting cold, a single blanket to cover four bodies, of souls struck with terror and searching for somewhere to keep their lives safe, to hide their lives from the bombs’ searching eyes, of people dropping to the ground from grief, of oppression riddling them like an abscess, and no medicine, no electricity, no water, no bread. And everywhere waste and devastation. Nothing left. Nothing at all. And I don’t want to come back here, where there is no justice and no law, where everyone is searching for some thing.