Mama is dead. She died peacefully in her bed as I lay numb by her side. I felt nothing when the bastard came and robbed her soul away. Not even a faint cold or freezing whiff of air. I just rose up to go to the toilet. My bladder was about to explode, and I could hardly open my eyes. When I came back, she had a frightened look on her face, as though she had been quarrelling with death to let her be, let her stay with me.
“When I die, nothing will torment me as much as departing from you,” she often said and I often fell silent. Now, there’s nothing much to say or chatter about. My mama died, of an average breast cancer that took a stroll from her breasts to her lungs and parts of her brain. She died slowly over the course of five full years. I watched and could do nothing. I could only stare into her eyes and say, “No, you won’t die,” steadily and numbly like a broken dummy. Such lies often left a sour taste on my tongue. Sometimes it used to alter from sour to smoky like the taste of burnt tobacco with the unbearable scent of rust. That’s what my lies tasted like. Now, as I sit alone, I recall it all. How exactly I used to distract myself from the fact of her inevitable death. I recall the thoughts and silly fantasies I used to have. Surprisingly they weren’t sexual at all. And when at last she died; I didn’t cry. Didn’t even shed a tear during the washing of her body, and afterwards felt nothing. After the burial, I returned home with my uncle. We didn’t even exchange words of condolences. And yet, he had been generous enough to hire a 12-year-old boy and his blind grandpa, and have them crouch by her fresh tomb to recite phrases of Quran. Once we arrived home, we shared a cup of cold coffee. He sipped a few drops and left me the rest. I seized the moment and poured some brandy in it.
“Nadia!” he said.
“I have to go. Are you going to be okay alone?”
“Yes. I need to sleep.”
“Have some rest now and I’ll join you in the evening,” he said.
Only this and nothing more. I counted the words I’d uttered and began to feel overwhelmed thinking of what to say during the evening, when he came back, if he did come. I roamed the hallway like a wretched amateur actor, seeking desperately to memorize the right phrases. It felt both absurd and shameful; or rather shameful in an absurd way. The cigarettes were all gone! Even the ones I’d hidden away and never dared to smoke while she was there, lying feebly in her bed, struggling to take her breath. What a horny fate! And now he can laugh as much as he likes and preach lower entities about mercy all night long. Preach them till his tiny fellow erects or till the orchestra finishes playing for the crowd of the deaf. Either way…it was over.
Uncle was generous enough to let me study photography in Paris despite his huge disdain for the city. A year after my mama died, I was invited to work as a cinematographer in a French film. It was strange for me to go back to Paris during one of the crowded summer seasons, just a few months before Cannes starts. It was hard for me to find a room till I ran into Pierre, a young staff member who happened to work with me on the same film. Pierre was kind enough to let me spend my early nights in Paris with him until I found a vacant flat. During these days, I became familiar with Pierre who was quite fond of history. He used to tell me tales of dictatorships in Spain and Argentina and brag about how intellectual he was. One night, I got so bored of his tales and offered to tell him a different kind. For some reason, I recalled a tale from my childhood about a whale who drowned. Although Pierre was surprised, he sat down like a good boy, with eyes wide open and listened carefully.
“Once upon a time there was a pretty little blonde girl, and that pretty little blonde girl had a book of fairytales, each beginning with once upon a time and it wasn’t a printing fault or literary error. In this rare book of fairytales—in one particular tale, to be exact—the great blue whale drowns. He sinks to the bottom of the ocean, without any spears stabbed in his back or failure in his lungs. That concerns the whale. As for the girl, well it would be nearly fair to say she led a quiet life.
“Now, listen carefully, Pierre because I won’t repeat my options twice. Would you rather hear the story of the drowning whale or the blonde girl’s adventures which are shockingly sexually explicit? Think carefully because once I begin narrating, I won’t switch to the whale. What is that? You need a moment? Take one. But just till my final cigarette withers and the magical grey smoke fades away. Is that so? You chose the girl’s story? Fine then.”
I was born in Sarajevo. On the 21st of January, 1990, to be exact. What a strange place to be born, I often thought to myself. My mother, who was an Egyptian resident in France, volunteered at the Red Cross and worked as a full-time doctor in war zones. I never asked her why she chose to lead such a life, or what she was doing alone in France, away from her family in Cairo. Surprisingly, I didn’t ask her lots of questions when I had the chance to. Given the fact that my life has always been a fairy tale, Mother had to meet a prince charming. He wasn’t a fellow doctor as one may hastily suppose, but an artist, or so he claimed. A freelance painter, dawdling mindlessly in Paris. Even though Mama was quite a practical woman, she had a keen eye for art, for expressionism in particular, which was the niche of the inglorious artist Galal Osmanović. So, they met, fell in love and married the next summer in Nice. But old habits die hard, as they say; for Daddy had an uneasy eye for women, though he grew up in a radical Muslim society in his hometown Sarajevo. Over time, Mama struggled with Daddy’s dreadful habits which went from bad to worse. He had endless supplies of money, given the fact that he comes from a wealthy family and, as expected, he soon gave in to his repressed desires. Perhaps for that reason Mother accepted his older brother’s invitation for them to visit Sarajevo and settle in. Once more, it was a bizarre quirk of fate that led to my birth in such a romanticized spot of earth. The war broke out two years after I was born. There was no way in or out and lucky were those who were left alive. Mother blamed Father for their predicament. At that time, Cairo was a safe haven compared to Sarajevo where there was a Serbian sniper shooting civilians dead in each and every street. But my father couldn’t care less, not because he was a fearless man who fought for a cause, or because his strong faith gave him confidence but because he was never sober. He was constantly drinking and hiding underneath his older brother’s spacious cloak. When I speak about Uncle Mujo I feel at a loss for words. Uncle Mujo was a very strong man, a man of wealth, influence and reputation in Sarajevo. A sort of beloved Sheikh. He had many loyal followers who wouldn’t mind serving him like slaves. He didn’t drink, smoke or desire women and nearly never spoke without referencing a phrase or two from the Quran. He trusted no one and carried his 44-magnum revolver everywhere. Although he was not an actual sheikh, he found great pleasure in the company of sheikhs who happened to feed his feverish assumptions about crusades against Islam. When the war broke out, it was no surprise for him, for he had somehow visualized it before it had begun. And yet, Uncle Mujo had his weak points, like his unconditional love for his baby brother Galal who cynically opposed all the beliefs Sheikh Mujo adopted. No matter what baby Galal did, he was forgiven. “I’ll pray to God to guide him to the righteous path,” Uncle often told Mama, with a gentle pat on her shoulder. And pray he often did.
Written by Reham Emam
To be continued…