“Probably on his way down,” I said.
“Where’s your mother?”
“It’s Wednesday. She goes to Keep Fit.” It always amazed me how Baba deliberately forgot my mother’s schedule, how his eyes behind his glasses looked cautious and vague when he spoke of her. He had married above himself, to better himself. His life story was of how he moved from a humble background to become manager of the President’s office via marriage into an old wealthy family. I didn’t like him to tell it, it confused me. I was too much like my mother.
‘spoilt,” he now mumbled into his tea, “the three of you are spoilt.”
“I’ll tell Mama you said this about her!”
He made a face. ‘she’s too soft on your brother. It’s not good for him. When I was his age, I was working day and night; I had aspirations “”
“Oh no,” I thought, “not that again.” My feelings must have shown on my face because he said, “Of course you don’t want to listen to me “”
“Oh Baba, I’m sorry.” I hugged him and kissed his cheek. “Lovely perfume.”
He smiled, “Paco Rabanne.”
I laughed. He cared about his clothes and looks more than any father I knew.
“Well, time to be off,” he said and the ritual of his departure began. The houseboy appeared from the kitchen and carried his briefcase to the car. Musa, the driver, leapt out of nowhere and opened the car door for him.
I watched them drive off and there was only the Toyota Corolla left in the driveway. It used to be Mama’s car but last month it became mine and Omar’s. Mama had a new car now and Omar stopped using his motorcycle.
I looked at the garden and the road beyond. There were no bicycles on the road. I had an admirer who kept riding his bicycle past the front of our house. Sometimes he came past three or four times a day. He had hopeful eyes and I despised him. But, like now, when the road was empty, I felt disappointed.
“Omar!” I called from downstairs. We were going to be late for our lecture. At the beginning of the term, our very first in the university, we used to go well ahead of the time. Six weeks into the term, we discovered that the sophisticated thing was to appear at the last minute. All the lecturers turned up ten minutes past the hour, and swept grandly into halls full of expectant students.
I could not hear any sound from above so I ran upstairs. No, the bathroom was empty. I opened Omar’s bedroom and the room was, as I had expected, an oven. Yet there he was fast asleep, sprawled snoring. He had kicked the covers off and was drenched in sweat and listlessness.
“That’s it. I’m going to drive, I have nothing to do with you.”
He stirred a little. “What?”
I sounded angry but I was also afraid. Afraid of his sleepiness that did not stem from any illness; afraid of his lethargy that I could not talk to anyone about.
“Where are the keys?”
“Where are the car keys?” I yanked open his cupboard.
“No, in the pocket of my jeans ” behind the door.”
I pulled out the keys; coins fell to the floor, a box of Benson & Hedges.
‘see what will happen when Baba hears about this.”
“Put the air conditioner back on.”
His use of my nickname softened me a little. The empathy of twins gripped me and for a moment I was the one who was hot and unbearably sleepy. I switched on the air conditioner and marched out of the room.
I rolled up the window of the car so that dust wouldn’t come in and the hot wind wouldn’t mess up my hair. I wished I could feel like an emancipated young student, driving her own car with confidence. Was I not an emancipated young woman driving her own car to university? In Khartoum only a minority of women drove cars and in university less than thirty per cent of students were girls – that should make me feel good about myself. But I preferred it when Omar was with me, when Omar was driving. I missed him.
I drove slowly and was careful to indicate and careful not to knock down anyone on a bicycle. At the Gamhouriya Street traffic light a little girl knocked on my window, begging with tilted head and unfocused eyes. Because I was alone I gave her a note. If Omar had been with me, I would have given her a coin – he hated beggars. She clutched the five pounds with slow disbelief and ran back to the pavement. When the light changed to green, I drove on. From the rear-view mirror, I could see her engulfed by other children and a few desperate adults. Dust and the start of a fight.
My hands were sweaty when I knocked on the door of lecture room 101. I was fifteen minutes late. I could hear Dr Basheer inside delivering another chapter on Accounting, my least favourite subject, but my father wanted Omar to study Business and, after years in a girls’ school, I wanted to be with Omar. I knocked again louder and gathered courage to turn the knob. It was locked. So Dr Basheer had been true to his announcement that no latecomers would be allowed in his lectures. I turned and walked to the cafeteria.
My favourite cafeteria was at the back of the university. It overlooked the Blue Nile but the water couldn’t be seen because of the dense trees. The morning shade and the smell of the mango trees began to soothe me. I sat at a table and pretended to read my notes. They meant nothing and filled me with emptiness. I could foresee the hours I would have to spend memorizing what I couldn’t understand. When I looked up I noticed that Anwar Al-Sir was sitting at the next table. He was in his last year and known for the straight As he got. Today he was alone with his cigarette and glass of tea. In a campus where most were scruffy, he always wore clean shirts, was clean-shaven and his hair was cut short even though longer hairstyles were in fashion. Omar had his hair just like Michael Jackson on the album cover of Off the Wall.
Anwar Al-Sir was a member of the Democratic Front, the students’ branch of the Communist Party. He probably hated me because I had heard him speaking in a nadwa with wit and scorn of the bourgeoisie. Landowning families, capitalists, the aristocracy; they were to blame, he said, for the mess our country was in. I talked to Omar about this but Omar said I was being too personal. Omar did not have time for the likes of Anwar; he had his own set of friends. They lent each other videos of Top of The Pops and they all intended to go to Britain one day. Omar believed we had been better off under the British and it was a shame that they left. I made sure that he didn’t write these ideas in any of his History or Economics essays. He would surely fail because all the books and lecturers said that colonialism was the cause of our underdevelopment.
It would have been childish to move from where I was sitting. But I felt uncomfortable sitting facing Anwar. He smiled at me and this took me aback. He kept looking at me. I felt that my blouse was too tight and my face too hot. I must have exhaled because he said, “It’s hot, isn’t it? And you’re used to air conditioners.” There was a teasing in his voice.
I laughed. When I spoke, my voice sounded strange to my ears, as if it were not me. “But I prefer the heat to the cold.”
“Why?” He threw the butt of his cigarette on the ground and, with his feet, covered it with sand. His movements were gentle.
“It’s more natural, isn’t it?” There were two tables between us and I wondered which one of us would make the first move, which one of us would get up and move over to the other table.
“It depends,” he said. ‘someone in Russia might regard the cold as natural.”
“We’re not Russians.”
He laughed in a nice way and fell silent. His silence disappointed me and I thought of different ways to revive the conversation again. I scrambled different sentences in my head, fast, “I heard you have a brother studying in Moscow”, “The air conditioner in my car broke down”, “You know, Dr Basheer wouldn’t let me in”. I discarded them all as foolish and unbecoming. The silence grew until I could hear my heart above the sound of the birds. I got up and left the cafeteria without a glance towards him or a goodbye. It was nearly ten o’clock and time for Macroeconomics. The lecturer passed the attendance sheet. I wrote my name, then changed pens, made my handwriting more upright and wrote Omar’s name.
I walked out of the Macro lecture room to find him waiting for me.
“Give me the car keys.”
“Here. Don’t forget we have History at twelve. Show your face, please.”
He frowned and hurried off. I worried about him. It was there, nagging at me. When I was young my mother said, “Look after Omar, you’re the girl, you’re the quiet, sensible one. Look after Omar.” And year in, year out, I covered for Omar. I sensed his weakness and looked out for Omar.
I took my wallet, notebook and pencil case out of my straw bag and left it on the shelf near the library door. Two girls from my class were leaving the library and we smiled at each other. I was not sure of their names. They both wore white tobes and one of them was very cute with deep dimples and sparkling eyes. They were provincial girls and I was a girl from the capital and that was the reason we were not friends. With them I felt, for the first time in my life, self-conscious of my clothes; my too short skirts and too tight blouses. Many girls dressed like me, so I was not unusual. Yet these provincial girls made me feel awkward. I was conscious of their modest grace, of the tobes that covered their slimness – pure white cotton covering their arms and hair.
In the basement of the library the air coolers blew heavily and the fans overhead twirled. I put my things on the table and looked at the shelves. Something Russian, to come close to him, to have something to say to him. Marxist theory, dialectics. No, I wouldn’t understand anything. At last I took a fat book off the shelf and sat down to read from a collection of translated poems.
I understood the line “I’ve lived to bury my desires’. But I did not know from where this understanding came. I had a happy life. My father and mother loved me and were always generous. In the summer we went for holidays in Alexandria, Geneva and London. There was nothing that I didn’t have, couldn’t have. No dreams corroded in rust, no buried desires. And yet, sometimes, I would remember pain like a wound that had healed, sadness like a forgotten dream.
“I like Russian writers,” I said to Anwar next time, for there was a next time, a second chance that was not as accidental as the first. We walked together, past the post office and the university bookshop.
“Pushkin,” I said. He was not impressed with my reply.
“Look,” he said, “if I gave you some leaflets, would you help me pass them out?”
“I can’t. I promised my father I wouldn’t get involved in student politics.”
He shrugged and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Why am I not surprised?”
“What are your own political views?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t have any.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“Everyone seems to blame everyone else.”
“Well, someone has to take the blame for what’s happening.”
‘so that they can pay the price.”
I didn’t like him saying that. Pay the price.
“Your father is close to the President?”
“Yes. They’re friends too.”
“Have you met him?”
“Of course. He telephones my father at home and I answer the phone.”
“Just like that.” He smiled.
“Yes, it’s nothing. Once, years ago, when I was in primary school, he phoned and when I answered I said “hello’ in a very English way.” I held an imaginary receiver in my ear, mimicked myself saying, “Hello, 44959.” I liked the way Anwar was watching me, the amusement in his eyes. “Then,” I continued, “the President got angry and he said, ‘speak properly, girl! Speak to me in Arabic”.”
Anwar burst out laughing. I was pleased that I had made him laugh.
“I like talking to you,” he said, slowly.
“Why?” That was the way to hear nice things. Ask why.
Years later, when I looked back, trying to remember the signs of hidden tension, looking behind the serenity, I think of the fights that I took for granted. The smell of dust and sewers fought against the smell of jasmine and guava and neither side won. The Blue Nile poured from the Highlands of Ethiopia and the Sahara encroached but neither was able to conquer the other. Omar wanted to leave. All the time Omar wanted to leave and I, his twin, wanted to stay.
“Why Samir and not me?” he asked Baba as we ate lunch. We ate from china and silver. We wiped our mouths with napkins that were washed and ironed every day.
“Because Samir didn’t get good enough grades,” Mama said. She had just come back from the hairdresser and her hair curled over her shoulder. I could smell her hairspray and cigarettes. I wished I were as glamorous as her, open and generous, always saying the right things, laughing at the right time. One day I would be.
‘so, is it fair,” I said, in support of Omar, “that the one who gets the poor grades gets to go abroad and the one who gets the good grades stays here?” Samir was our cousin, the son of Uncle Saleh, Mama’s brother. Samir was now in Atlantic College in Wales doing the IB, which was like A levels.
“You too?” Baba glared at me.
“No, I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay here with you.” I smiled at Mama and she smiled back. We were too close for me to leave her and go study abroad.
“Najwa is very patriotic,” Omar said sarcastically.
“As you should be,” said Baba.
“Eat and argue later,” said Mama but they ignored her.
“I want to go to London. I hate studying here.” Omar meant it. I could tell from his voice that he meant it.
“It’s good for you,” Baba said. “Roughen you up a bit. All this private schooling you’ve had has spoilt you. In university you’re seeing how the other side lives. You’ll understand the reality of your country and the kind of work environment you’ll be facing one day. When I was your age “”
Omar groaned. I began to fear a scene. I swallowed, afraid of Baba shouting and Omar storming out of the house. I would have to spend the rest of the day phoning round searching for him.
I stood alone at the bottom of the garden. My admirer passed by on his bicycle. His clothes were awful and his haircut was terrible. It wasn’t flattering to be admired by someone like him. I felt the familiar anger rise in me. But it was fun to be angry with him. I frowned at him, knowing well that any response would only encourage him. He grinned hopefully and pedalled away. I actually knew nothing about him.
“Come with me, Najwa”, Mama said. She was wearing her plain blue tobe and her black high-heeled sandals. They made a tapping noise on the marble of the front terrace. She carried a plastic bag full of lollipops and sweets.
Musa, the driver, came round with the car, gravel churning in the stillness of the afternoon. He opened the car door for her and went to bring out from the house more plastic bags bulging with old clothes and two pails of homemade biscuits. I recognized Omar’s old Coca-Cola T-shirt and a pink dress that I’d stopped wearing because it was out of fashion.
“Where are you going?” I guessed from Mama’s subdued clothes that it wasn’t anywhere fun.
“Cheshire Home,” she said, getting into the back of car. She said “Cheshire Home” gaily as if it were a treat. Only Mama could do that.
I hesitated a little. The thin twisted limbs of the children disturbed me and I preferred it when she took me to the school for the deaf. There the children, though they could not speak properly, were always running about carefree, with sharp intelligent eyes taking in what they couldn’t hear.
But I got in the car next to her and, when Musa started the car, she opened her bag and gave me a spearmint gum.
“If you could see the orphanage your Aunt took me to yesterday!” she said. “I”n comparison Cheshire is Paradise. Dirty, dirty, you wouldn’t believe it.”
I wrinkled my nose in disgust. I was relieved they had gone in the morning when I was in university and so had not been able to drag me along.
“And they have nothing,” she went on. “But is this an excuse not to keep the children clean?”
She did not expect a reply from me. Musa was smiling and nodding in the driver’s seat as if she was talking to him. That’s how she was. That’s how she talked. There were times when she was animated and other times when she would be low and quiet. And it was strange that often at parties and weddings she would be sober, preoccupied, yet in crises she had the strength to rise to whatever the situation demanded. I knew, listening to her talk about the orphanage, that she was not going to let it rest. She would pull every string, harass my father and harass His Excellency himself until she got what she wanted.
Cheshire Home was cool and shady, in a nice part of town with bungalows and old green gardens. I envied my mother’s ease, how she swept in with her bag of sweets and her biscuits, with Musa walking behind her carrying the rest of the things. The nurse, Salma, welcomed her like an old friend. Salma was very tall and dark, with high cheekbones and white dazzling teeth. Her drab white uniform did not hide her lovely figure: she looked dignified, with crinkles of white in her hair. “Congratulations,” she said to me, “you got into university.” She had not seen me for a long time.
“You keep this place very clean.” Mama started to praise Salma.
“Oh, Cheshire was even better in the past.”
“I know. But it’s still good. I went to this orphanage yesterday and it was dirty, dirty, you won’t believe it.”
“Which one was that?”
The room was large with a blackboard to one side, a few child-sized desks and stools. Cots lined the wall and a few balls and toys were scattered here and there. They looked familiar – maybe Mama had brought some of them in an earlier visit. There were a few posters on the wall about the importance of immunization, and a frightening picture of a baby with smallpox. Salma brought Mama and I chairs but she sat on one of the children’s stools. The children clambered towards us in zimmers and some dragged themselves on the floor. One Southern boy was very fast, able to move around the room freely with his arms and one leg.
“One by one and I give you your lollipops,” said Mama. A faint attempt at forming a queue was abandoned in a confused flurry of outstretched hands. Mama gave them a lollipop each.
“John!” Salma called to the Southern boy. ‘stop this roaming around and come and get a lollipop.”
He casually heaved himself towards us, grinning, his eyes bright.
“What colour would you like?” Mama asked him.
‘red.” His eyes darted here and there, like he was scanning everything or like he was thinking of something else.
“Here. A red one for you,” Mama said. “The last red one, all the rest are yellow.”
He took the lollipop and started to unwrap it. “Is this your car outside?” he asked.
“Yes,” Mama replied.
“What’s it to you!” Salma scolded him.
He ignored her and kept looking straight at Mama, “What kind of car is it?”
‘mercedes,” Mama smiled.
He nodded and sucked his lollipop. “I’m going to drive a big lorry.”
“Look at this silly boy,” Salma laughed, “How are you going to drive?”
“I will,” he said.
“With one leg?” Salma raised her eyebrows, sarcastic, amused.
Something changed in him, the look in his eyes. Salma went on, “You need two legs to drive a car.” He pivoted and dragged himself away.
“There are special cars in Europe,” I said, “for people without ” for disabled people.” It was the first time I had spoken since we arrived; my voice sounded stupid, everyone ignored me.
Suddenly John overturned a desk, dragged a stool round the room banging everything with it.
‘stop it, John, stop being rowdy!” Salma yelled.
He ignored her. He pushed the stool straight across the room. If it hadn’t collided with another stool, it would have hit Salma straight on.
“I’m going to call the the police.” Salma stood up. “They’ll come and beat you up.”
He must have believed her for he stopped and became very still. He leaned against the wall. His leg was sticking out at an awkward angle, his head against the wall, lollipop in his mouth. Suddenly still.
In the silence we heard her weeping. She might have been eleven or even twelve; she was very thin, with callipers on both legs and a pink dress that was too small for her. How would she get married, how would she work ” ? I must not ask these things, Mama always said, there is no point thinking these things, we just have to keep visiting.
“Why is she crying?” Mama asked Salma.
“I don’t know.”
“Come and have a lollipop.” Mama called out to the girl but the girl continued to cry.
“Get up now and come and have a lollipop,” Salma shouted at the girl.
“Leave her, Salma. In her own time.” When the girl didn’t move, Mama walked over to her and gave her sweets, patted her dishevelled hair. It didn’t make any difference. She remained whimpering, with the sweets on her lap, until the end of our visit. Only when we were getting up to go did I see her quieten and start to unwrap the lollipop. Hunched over, she squinted, mucus dribbling from her nose over her mouth. It was a struggle for her to unwrap the lollipop, aim it at her mouth. I had thought that her legs were the problem but there was something wrong with her hands too.
Copyright ” 2005 by Leila Aboulela. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.