Merna and the Winding Ring Road
And Merna , of course, is me. I put her on paper and watch. Sometimes, I complicate things around her. Sometimes the existing complications suffice.
Enjoying the privilege of having a driver that day, Merna decided to relax and forget about the congested traffic. It was clear that the way back from downtown to her suburb was to be a very long one. She never conceived why cars had seemed to multiply unreasonably on the streets lately. Nothing that had to do with the semi absence or semi presence of the policemen, she thought. Every time she had to go downtown, she felt that the whole country was in a state of an internal immigration to…she could not figure out to where. But did she have to know? No one knew a thing for sure in Egypt those days. The whirlpool of ideas was clear in front of her now; threatening to devour her for the rest of her trip. She promised herself a treat, and a treat ought she to have.
She took the small, thin, bluish MP4 set– which gave her kids a big laugh at seeing it” Mum, that was long time ago!”– with the long-waited for surprise on it: famous American songs of the early eighties. She had them downloaded from the internet. She put on her big old—fashioned headphones; the ones that her son would refuse to look at for the size of them. Beside their comfortable curves outside the ears, and pillow-like surface, they ensured a maximized voice and a complete immersion in the world of the small MP4 because of their steady assured inflated position around the head. With the small painful ones inside the ear, you could never be sure when they would come out suddenly betraying you to a lunatic world outside; breaking your moment of perfect illusion.
With the first song, Merna’s ear fluttered ; she was thrown into the center of a whirlpool at once; “ Da Da, ooh/ Well my friends, time has come/ To raise the roof and have some fun/ Throw away the work to be done/let the music play on..play on play on…All Night Long” Oh! Lionel Richie. The first time she listened to it, with the whole world, was in LA 1984 in the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. The memory brought her a gush of warmth and joy. The fascinating breath-taking organization, the joyful songs, feelings of liberty in the air, the magic of propaganda and the beauty of words; she remembered it all with the captivating call of the rhythms of the song. That time was young and care-free, just like what she was. Her father was still alive, young and assured. Egypt had just celebrated the complete liberation of Sinai. Mubarak was a hero. Nothing was heard of his family yet. Hopeful Integrity was the word for the world of fourteen-year-old Merna.
Richie’s voice sounded like a shy seductive call, urging her to let go of all the cares and troubles. She felt Richie in her abdomen moving her thighs to waver in spite of her attempt not to attract the driver’s attention. She was anxious to engage in one dance with everybody on the road. She looked around. No hope! The road was extremely congested. All sorts of cars were around her, behind her, in front of her. She thought that if she dared to look up, she might be surprised to see cars above her! The eighty kilometer round-Cairo road ended in its very final exit as two-lane- road with all the various-sized trucks and vans and cars halting and waiting their turn to pass. That waiting was a three kilometer long and six lanes wide. The car was hardly moving at all. In fact, what it did was going and halting, going and halting. If she started to notice, she would end up with nausea.
Richie’s voice and the music both raised in a frank call for dancing all night long. The Rhythms were sweet and captivating and whenever you surrendered to them and your inner organs commenced to throb, the sharp horns would trumpet “ Tata ta-tata tata ta-tata” to shake you up to remind you that you had not indulged enough. More was still possible. Perhaps if she were in the Stadium that night, she would have taken her shoes off and danced barefoot on the grass of Los Angeles, the most Americanized part of America.
America, Oh,sweet America! It seemed a land of dreams to 14-year-old Merna who devoured every song and every movie and every article that were exported to her at a time when internet was a yet unknown idea and live broadcasting was saved to international football matches (The times of Barbaric living in her kids’ view!) She collected lyrics of songs and memorized them as a way of learning English. She had always had that fascination with the other; the different other. America was that other, alluring alien at that time and her way to decipher it was language. Being in America years later, she learned that language was never enough. Then, she came to look beyond America on the map. In fact, she left the earthly map altogether and used the map of the distant stars and planets. Now, she was lost in another inner map. But that was another story.
On the road, the cars waited like” a throbbing engine”. Well, they were in fact throbbing engines; no need for metaphors here. In front of her was a truck. The numbers showed it was from Upper Egypt. She read what was written on the back without noticing she did. She always loved to do so. Truck drivers usually wrote interesting sayings on the back of their Lorries. That one wrote a prayer “ Oum ELnour” or the Mother of Light, who was, of course, Holy Mary . By writing her name only, he probably invoked her to protect him in his long journey. A poster of Jesus was stuck on the truck. She knew her heart was painfully sinking.
Back in the first half of the eighties, such posters were not born yet. She had all sorts of Coptic friends. In fact, she extremely liked the stories that Father Boutros told her as she, a little child then, sat in his lap and listened. Father Boutros was her mom’s best friend’s husband and a regular guest to their house. Later in her life she was startled to see posters of this kind and of many other kinds representing all types of fanaticism covering the backs of cars. But posters were the last thing she had to worry about then. Corpses in the Coptic hospital and the military hospital were right in front of her inward eyes now. It did not make a great difference now to know the end of the Maspero investigations. Her heart refused to wait for “ who was wrong and who was plotting against who”. The bodies were what mattered. The whirlpool of the song, this was what she needed to focus on, even to entreat. Before it ended, she pressed the repeat button quickly in fear.
Passing by three wide white circles on the road that hardly appeared from under the lined cars, she recognized them to be drawn for Mubarak’s helicopter to land in on the day of opening a new extension for the ring road. Very fond of bridges the man was. But his bridges never took him anywhere. They led to his own “self” not to other people, nor to other places. It was such a pity he was blind to the people. “ My people humble people who expect nothing”. He could have made a greater country of Egypt and a greater president of himself to think in pragmatic way. But obviously he was blind altogether; even to himself. Merna chided herself for thinking of the word blind. She had many blind friends who usually led the way when she thought she had escorted them.
As if that road never ended.
Browsing the net on her mobile phone brought her one of her kids’ remarks “Mummy, when will you be really up-to-date and start using Iphone?”” DO I really need it?” “ Who doesn’t Mum!” How could she explain that that was not what she wanted to teach them? She wanted to implant compassion, sympathy and largeness of souls before having the Iphone or the I-pad or I-pod or God only knows the I-what.
Suddenly, the image of a bloody crushed face surprised her eyes on her mobile screen; Kaddafi’s. Watching the violent movie of his assassination, a turmoil of emotions rose calmly in Merna’s heart. It was as if she had known it all the way; waited for it. But when it finally took place was expectedly unbearable. She was puzzled as to how to feel and what moral stance she ought to take. The man was a lunatic tyrant. He was a ruthless killer who deserved it in every sense of the word. But to encourage revengeful savagery in that way was to open hell. She awkwardly thought of her western friends; how would they react to that savagery. That would certainly smear the beauty of the Arab Spring; the nations’ sole pride in ages. But then to think of the West in that romantic way was to be unfair to one’s self. The Western governments let Kaddafi “be” as long as he kept the oil going to their factories regardless of the people’s rights or development. A long bloody history of Imperial exploitation passed in front of her eyes like a rusty old train.
“Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!
Merna’s logic gave her temporary comfort. “Eye of the Tiger” was being played now: ( Risisng up, back on the street/ Did my time, took myc chances/Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet/just a man and his will to survive….It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight/Rising up to the challenge of our rival/And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night/ And he’s watching us all in the eye of the tiger.) The unease started again like a slow leakage from the kitchen tap. Violence could not justify violence in retaliation. That was the jungle life.
OOOOps! She missed the right moment to press the repeat button. Tina Turner‘s voice flew in her ears “Out of the Runs/Out from the wreckage/ can’t make the same mistake this time/ We are the children/ The last generation/ We are the ones left behind/ And I wonder when we are ever gonna change/living under the fear/ till nothing else remains/ we don’t need another hero”.