Stories from Afar & Up Close

Filtering by Category: English

The People I've Met (1)

There was this family I met in Cairo. Mother and father and daughter, from Iraq. The daughter was in her early teens, if I remember correctly. She was in a wheelchair, could barely control the movement of her arms and legs, could utter sounds but no coherent sentences or even words. She was a delight, and so were her parents. Their love for her was so beautiful, it made me stop whatever I was doing to observe them. They cheered her on in the most loving way possible, every time she managed to master something new, a new word, a new sound, a new movement.
I asked if she was born this way. Her mother told me they had waited and hoped for and wanted a child for 12 years before she finally became pregnant. Their baby was born healthy and grew up to be this smart, cheerful girl, until one day when she was about four years old – a day when the Americans bombed their city. A huge blast close to their house blew out the windows, and the girl fell from her bed where she was sleeping. She wasn’t hurt, or so it seemed, but the next day she stopped talking, stopped moving, stopped reacting. It took two years before she slowly started moving, uncontrollably, and making sounds. “We’re still thankful every day that God has given her to us,” her mother said, “and we’re thankful for every day we get to spend with her.” There wasn’t a hint of anger in her voice.



I'm having a cup of tea at an 'ahwa (coffeeshop) in Ismailiya. As expected, all other customers are Egyptian men.

The guy of the koshk next door starts cleaning the street, voicing his opinions on life and all it entails in no uncertain terms, entertaining all of us in the process. Until the 'ahwa owner comes out.

"Shut up, will you? The lady speaks Arabic!"

The koshk guy looks at me and asks in Arabic "Is that true?"
I nod.
"Do you speak Arabic?"
I nod.
"And you understand all the swear words I just used?"
I nod again. The 'ahwa bursts out in collective laughter.
"Alright," he says, "I better start swearing in Italian then!"



Act I – At the clothing store
I’m trying on a fancy dress to wear to a wedding. The zipper (as always) is in the back, but the 16-year old salesgirl is there to help. It gets stuck, so a colleague of the same age comes over to help. Eventually there are three girls pulling and squeezing until it’s closed. After an approving look in the mirror, I try to open it on my own.

“No, no, just leave it, I’ll open it!”
“But I have to be able to open it myself, otherwise how am I going to put it on and take it off?”
“Just ask someone to close it for you.”
“I can’t, I… eh, live alone.”
“You… what? No, just ask anyone in the house to close it for you.”
“There is no one in my house. My flatmate travelled so I am alone.”
“There’s no one to close your dress.”
“No one.”
“No one?”
“No one.”

Salesgirl number one whispers to number two “there is no one in her house to close the zipper.” Salesgirl number two whispers to number three “she’s all alone, there’s no one to close the zipper.”

I turn around to find all three of them staring at me with a mix of pity and disbelief. No one in the house to close your dress, have you ever heard of that? I tell them I’ll ask the neighbor to do it. With a sigh of relief they sell me the dress.


Act II – In the women’s car of the metro
Rush hour on the metro, I’m standing in the women’s car where everyone is pressed up against each other. Only the short lady next to me keeps backing away, forcing space between our bodies that isn’t really available on such a packed train. Every few seconds I catch her looking at me, puzzled.
Suddenly she starts laughing.

“I thought you were a guy! Oh goodness, I really thought you were a man. It’s the hair, you know! You should go to another hairdresser, this one really did a bad job. I was convinced you were a man! There’s one in Mohandisseen, he’s really good, he’ll know how to fix it. Yeah, he’ll fix it. Haha! I can’t believe it, I was sure you are a guy!”


Act III – At the Sudanese restaurant
With a friend, hungry.

“Hi, we’d like one bamiya and two salata aswads please.”
“I’m sorry, there is no salata aswad at the moment.”
“You’re out completely or it’s currently being made?”
“It will take a long time to be ready.”
“How long?”
“About 30 minutes.”
“That’s ok, we’ll wait. We’ll have the bamiya now and the salata aswad later.”

“I’m not sure he remembers that we wanted salata aswad. Let’s check.”
“Hi, it’s been about an hour, do you think it will take much longer for the salata aswad to be ready?”
“Well… I wasn’t telling you anything wrong before… but it will be another 20 minutes or so.”
“Ok, no problem, we’ll wait”

“It’s been 30 minutes again. I’m going to the kitchen to ask.”
“Hi, we’re still waiting for our salata aswad… do you think it will be done soon?”
“Well… you know… it’s a bit different… just a bit.”
“Just a little bit longer, then?”
“A little bit, a little bit.”

“It’s been almost two hours since the first try… shall we ask once more?”

“I’m sorry, there is no salata aswad. But we have spinach, if you’d like?“

The Mediterranean is burning

I saw a movie – a documentary, actually.
It was called Fire at Sea.

(Which is just the name of a song.)

A little boy on the island of Lampedusa was feeling anxious.
He had a lazy eye and he threw up when the sea underneath his father’s fishing boat got too rough.
Less than 10 years old, but he didn’t have the manly qualities he felt he should have.
Though his slingshot never missed, he needed to stand on the pontoon during rough weather to train his legs.
And learn how to row.
“Everyone on Lampedusa knows how to fish.”

Meanwhile, we heard the dj playing melancholic love songs from mothers and wives for sons and husbands at sea.
Or stuck on land, when the storm whipped up the waves so high that no one would go into the water.
They were in the kitchen preparing the food.

In between were the calls for help from the ships arriving from Libya.
As if they were normal features of daily life.
They are. They have become a regular part of life.
Eighty, one hundred and fifty, two hundred and forty people on a ship.
Divided in layers according to price, with no air at the bottom and only some on in the middle.
The ship just floats, no petrol no steering wheel no direction no possibility.
Out at sea.

I saw the coast guard get to a ship in time.
Wobbly legs going from the wooden vessel into the rubber speedboat onto the big ship.
Emergency blankets.
Picture taking.
“There’s one with chicken pox, he’s coming on board last!”
A friendly pat on the back, almost unnoticed.

I can tell the Eritreans from the West Africans from the Syrians and I wonder why I am looking at them this way.

I saw the coast guard get to a ship too late.
Dehydrated bodies are pulled out first, handed over by arms and legs still strong enough.
They fall into the rubber boat as if life has left them already.
Only breath is left of them.
Maybe a heartbeat.
I can’t tell.
The others climb out by themselves until the boat is empty.
It’s just a metal hull now, surrounded by waves, until the camera moves inside.


We don’t see whole people, only parts.
No faces.
Stacked together in death like they were in the dream that got them in this ship.
They died like this.

Maybe we should see their faces to know who we did this to.

Maybe it is a last act of dignity to not expose them in their last suffering.

Once on the ship the men sit still and the women cry openly.

Once on the island, the men play football and the women watch.
The machine continues -

The little boy with the slingshot has a patch on his eye and trouble breathing.
The doctor listens to his lungs and heart and says he will be fine.
I’m not sure the little boy believes him.

There is a Fire at Sea.
The Mediterranean is burning.