Sorting Shelves

by qisasukhra

A short story by Yasser Abdel Latif published by Akhbar Al Adab on the 22nd of January 2011 and which can be found here.

I dreamed that I went back to my old school.

Nothing new in that. Lots of people—at least those who got their education in schools—dream as adults that they’ve gone back to the schools they attended when young. Usually such dreams come upon people at times of stress: the recurring dream of undergoing some impossible examination by committee, or of being late for the exam, or of going to school naked to spend your dream school day either trying to fool others that you’re wearing clothes like them or in desperate attempts to cover your nakedness.

However, my school dream on this occasion was, in one aspect, realistic. In the dream I was an adult, my age as it is now. I was trying to convince the administration to accept me back, if only as an affiliate student, sitting in on classes as one can at university. It was my intention to revisit those days long-gone in order to make good some mistake that had happened in the past. In the dream the school year was about to start, just as it was in the real September 2008.

What was left unclear in the dream—or rather, what was at stake—was: Would I, having received the administration’s by-no-means-easily-won consent (which I did), would I be placed with my contemporaries or a new year-group made up of teens, an aging failure in their midst? The dream ended before an answer could be provided to this question, one I didn’t ask myself during the dream itself. Nevertheless, the fundamental premise here, for which sake I was returning, was that I was to re-enroll to correct some supposed blunder which had occurred in the past and which, it seemed, had tainted my life thereafter with something akin to a curse or brand or at the very least a species of misfortune it would have possible to avoid.

In that unknown quantity resided the dreamlike nature of the dream. The details that preceded this question were, every one, quite capable of taking place in the real world. It was eminently possible to go as an adult back to your old school and persuade the administration to accept your re-enrollment under whatever classification or category, and in permissive educational systems (and after you had paid the obligatory charges, of course) they might well accept. But to return as an adult in order to enroll in that former time, alongside your old school mates? Here, that incredible logic peculiar to dreams intervened to snip out a life of years gone by, to bind two mutually irreconcilable times, to set a multitude of impulses in motion to service a single, obscure desire in the heart of one ex-pupil, dreaming.

Like someone mixing cement with a little plaster, my psychiatrist Dr. Sulwan stirred the two Egyptian schools of Al Rakhawi and Okasha in with a touch of Freud, that her scientific discourse might be that much sturdier:

“The dream contains symbols that stand for incidents or problems that have occurred at different stages of your life but which might return in the dream contiguous to one another, in the form of these symbols, enabling you on some level—your conscious mind completely unaware—to crack that code and helping your psychological apparatus overcome these problems.”

For a long while she examined me from behind her spectacles, moving her pen like a cigarette between fingers and lips, and said: “Looked at like this, your dreams themselves are highly symbolic…”

She reminded me of an old dream I’d told her about. In it, I chanced across a cassette containing eight songs, four to a side, the songs closest to my heart over the course of my life. The cassette itself was of exceptionally high-quality, matt-black plastic with the hue and feel of ebony. Most of the songs, maybe all, existed in my office, but split between a plethora of tapes consigned to oblivion among shelves and dust, and happening on this cassette in the dream had the quality of recovering some worth now lost, or scattered, say. And had it been in that same dream or a subsequent one that I’d eventually lost the cassette and come awake even as I rummaged through the shelves in search of it? Awake, I was sure—still am perhaps—that once upon a time I’d actually held this ebony tape in my hands.

She said: “Do you remember? I was treating you for depression at the time and you had this feeling that your life was disintegrating, that you were losing your friends one by one, but you never lost anything except the tape in your dream and a few notes here and there out of your tiny salary on treatment sessions and Prozac.”

I went on talking. Dr. Sulwan was pacing back and forth across the room listening to me. I told her that I left the school in the dream and went to sit at a nearby café and ordered a cold bottle of no-longer-sold Sinalco—just like I did as a kid in the eighties—and began surveying the schoolkids kicking around the neighbourhood like someone examining his own past. And again, I asked her what it signified.

She said: “Returning to an old place is a central idea in your life and writing. Didn’t you once write a poem about teenagers who returned, predestined, to a place where they committed some violent folly? And that other poem, about a person who feels implicated in a crime that took place before he was born, so he visits the scene like an old participant. Within you there’s a sense of profound guilt over something unknown, a peculiar type of guilt unleavened by regret, as though at one and the same time you blame, and are complicit with, yourself.

Dr. Sulwan came back and sat at her desk, wrote something with a pen in her file and said that things didn’t seem too serious, that I must start, gradually, to wean myself from the anxiety medication, and set a date for the next appointment the following month.

From Dr. Sulwan’s clinic in Zamalek I walked back to my place of work at the Television and Radio Building on the Nile Corniche in Maspero. That evening, gentle autumn breezes came over the river from the north and as I paced along the 15th of May Bridge I thought of what the doctor had said about the way the mind cured itself through dreams and a line of verse came to me: And when love’s zephyr scorched me and fled,/ The winds of darkness were my cure. Abdel Wahhab singing The Immortal Nile. The whole way I repeated it over and over, at times belting out the words, at times just singing the tune or whistling. It seemed to me, walking over the bridge, humming this song, all about me the city’s lights and their reflections in the Immortal Nile, that at that instant some meaning was wrapping itself around my whole life or an obscure meshing taking place between an abstract conception of life’s grand meanings and my present motion, an ordinary citizen crossing the bridge by night on his way to work.

I had an all-nighter in the editing suite on the fourth floor, putting together an episode of Auteur Cinema, which I produced. I didn’t come off the bridge directly across from the Television Building but opted to slip into the neighbourhood of Boula Aboulella in order to buy a few fuul and taamiya sandwiches for myself and the editor who’d be staying up with me, then to enter the building through the rear entrance.

The episode we’d be editing tonight was on the American director Robert Zemeckis. The editor, an intellectual by the standards of his tribe, caught me off guard: Could Robert Zemeckis be considered an auteur?

In previous episodes we’d had the advantage of nearly a dozen names, all bona-fide auteurs: the Swedish High Priest, the Russian Prophet, through to the three Italian sorcerers, the Catalan Surrealist, the lords of the Nouvelle Vague in France, the American New Wave, until all avenues for obtaining film by directors whose fame dwindled the deeper they plunged into the poetics of their craft were exhausted.

Zemeckis was not an auteur exactly, I told him, but necessity was the mother of invention and Zemeckis, though quite clearly a commercial director, had himself written his most famous and successful film, Back To The Future, a flawless film by the criteria of commercial cinema… In the end I made him to understand that the programme must go on, so it might complete its run and so we might earn our daily crust. He had no intention of arguing, just to gently have his say on the subject, instead of working on the editing like a donkey carrying another man’s books… and of course, he was in the right.

First, we sat and ate our fuul and taamiya sandwiches, drank two cups of tea with two cigarettes—despite management’s stern warnings against eating, drinking and smoking inside the editing suites—and started work at around one in the morning. The work didn’t require great mental effort on my part since I’d prepared in advance. All I had to do was make sure the filmed material followed the order of the script I had drawn up. This involved laying down a recording of the presenter as she read out what I’d written for her, followed by a film clip. The same operation is repeated three or four times and we have a thirty-minute episode ready for broadcast. Nor does it require great skill on the part of the editor, no more than the proverbial cut and paste.

All the presenter’s introductions were recorded on one tape and all the clips from Zemeckis’ films on another so he all he had to do was combine the two on the master tape, the tape that would make its way, via a number of bureaucratic procedures, to the broadcast unit.

The two main films I dealt with in the episode were Back To The Future and Forest Gump. In the first of these, baby-faced Canadian actor Michael J Fox plays a teenager from the 1980s, troubled by his father’s feeble personality. Using a time machine invented by his friend the mad scientist, he is able to travel back to the 1950s when his father and mother were his age and in his very same year at school. Shameful chance encounters almost lead his mother to fall in love with him and she drifts away from the incompetent student who’s been distracting her: his future father. MJ forces their paths to cross: in the event of their relationship failing the very possibility of his own future existence is placed in jeopardy. In a family portrait from the 1980s that he carries with him his features fade away as in the 1950s his future father and mother part ways. In one scene, MJ is playing a guitar at a party in his parents’ school and, swept up in the moment, he forgets himself, speeding up until his playing resembles the as-yet-unknown rock music. One of the school’s black workers hears him and rushes off to call a relative, none other than the inventor of Rock ‘n’ Roll Chuck Berry, to tell him that he’s found the tune he’s been looking for. The visitor from the future inspires his new contemporaries with what is to be pioneering.

The same theme was explored by Zemeckis in his most successful film, Forest Gump, when he made the protagonist’s spastic walk the inspiration for Elvis Presley’s dancing. Zemeckis’ everyday heroes intervene unwittingly in the making of history. Thus, Forest Gump the table-tennis player, returning from a visit to China as part of the historic ping-pong diplomacy, meets John Lennon on a television show and unintentionally gifts him the words to Imagine.

I stated that Forest Gump was an American reworking of Voltaire’s Candide: the naive hero floating over the surface of history like the feather Zemeckis has drifting down at the film’s start. I stated that the United States of the twentieth century was the Germany and France of the eighteenth as conceived by Voltaire. Candide and Gump negotiate all the twists and turns of their times, join wars and love one woman from the start, only to find, by the end, their beloved girls broken by the vicissitudes of time. Years later Candide comes across his sweetheart Cunegonde in her Turkish exile, grown foully ugly, while at the end of the film, and after a parallel journey, Gump finds Jenny overseas, stricken with AIDS.

“But under cover of his story,” said Rami the editor, “Candide meant to drive home the philosophy voiced by Candide’s instructor at his uncle’s castle in Westphalia, which holds that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds, and that is something that doesn’t appear in the film at all.”

Yet again, Rami had dazzled me with his culture (which had no business being so self-evident) and I would find no better response than to repeat within his earshot that proverbial wisdom in perfect French: “Le meilleur des mondes possibles.”

We finished the edit around six in the morning and descended to the street half asleep, parting company at the building’s entrance. I took a taxi that drove down the Nile-side road for twenty minutes then deviated in towards my house in Maadi. I changed my clothes, drank a warm cup of milk and surrendered to a deep sleep. All of a sudden and with no preamble, I was back at Dr. Sulwan’s clinic, telling her about that incident long ago, the one I had forgotten.

She was sitting at her desk, listening, and I was saying that I had left the school at the end of that distant day, back in second year Secondary, riding my bike, my books tied to the back seat. Out in the street, the instant I reached the first turning, I found them standing there: Dalia’s brother Khaled, a student at the Military Academy, and his gigantic friend Maged Al Abrashi. They blocked the road and forced me to a halt. No sooner had I dismounted than Maged caught me with a violent punch to the face that sent my glasses flying and made my nose bleed, then pushed me with all his strength and I fell to the ground. Khaled kicked me in the side and said, “Didn’t I tell you to stay away from her?” My friends saw the scene as they come out of the school gate and came running, but Khaled and Maged had made their escape, fleeing on the back of a motorcycle. My friends picked me up off the floor and Hisham and Mohammed Torki took me home, Hisham—bless him—wheeling the bike the whole way.

At this point, Dr. Sulwan got up from her desk, walked around behind the chair where I sat and I felt her hand on my shoulder, a sympathetic touch, gentle pressure. “Come with me,” she said. I exited the examining room with her then she tucked my arm under hers and we walked down a long corridor with bolted doors on either side (I’d never realised her clinic was this big) until we reached a room at the far end, nothing less than an enormous editing suite. The editing array within was like the organ of a palatial cathedral in some medieval city: three impressive screens, Home-Theatre size, with gold and silver buttons on keyboards of black wood.

Dr. Sulwan sat me down on a chair and took something from her bag—a video cassette, plastic with the feel of ebony—and said, “We’ll get past this beating and the wounds it’s left in you,” then placed the cassette in the player and pressed a button. I appeared on one of the screens, wounded with torn clothes, walking between Hisham and Mohammed Torki. Then she pressed another button and the image froze. Then a third and the frames began to run backwards and, at some specific instant, the doctor cracked her knuckles and with a sudden movement shut the apparatus down. “We begin from here,” she said, then pressed the play and record buttons together.

I saw myself on the day of the beating, but in a moment prior, early on in the school day (after the second lesson, perhaps). I’d resolved to bunk off school. I tucked my books under my arm and headed for my bike parked up beside the wall. I secured the wooden crossbar with a chain and lock, planning to leave it overnight at school and pick it up tomorrow when it was time to go home, and went outside into life’s welcoming arms. I bought a pack of Cleopatra cigarettes for forty-five pence and decamped to the Tourist Moon café in the Al Thakanat neighbourhood close by the school. I ordered a coffee medium-sweet, took out my folder and decided to work on the novel I was then writing: A Hole in the Head.

The novel was about a character much like me. I set him down at the time of the ‘67 War, a recruit coming home after six years to find that his sweetheart—who closely resembled Dalia—had married. So he passes the time sitting at a café convinced that his head has a hole in it, which he can’t explain. I was thinking about what I would do with my hero next, he who had grown old without beginning his life, when I became aware of a man of around forty, sitting next to me and scrutinizing me.

I was flustered and shut my folder against his prying, only to find him smiling and telling me: “Don’t worry, you’ll be a writer for sure, but you will never see Dalia again.”

“Who are you?” I asked uncertainly, “And how do you know this?”

He said with his smile, “Have you forgotten the old lesson?”

“What lesson?” I said.

“Le meilleur des mondes possibles; the best of all possible worlds.”

“Who are you?” I said.

“Only here, in this virtual time, are you able to see me.”

He waved the bottle of Sinalco that he’d drunk in my face, saying, “Your health…” then the screen clouded and faded slowly to black.

I was aware of Dr. Sulwan’s body pressing against mine as the screen dimmed, then our contact turned to a heated embrace and I turned with her onto the sofa and…

I woke with a powerful erection. The clock on my mobile phone showed one in the afternoon. About six hours had passed since I’d returned home. The first thing I did was get Dr. Sulwan on the phone and say to her, “I want to arrange an urgent appointment. Great things have happened and I must tell you about them.” She told me that her clinic closed at eleven p.m. and she would expect me ten minutes after that in the office. I hung up in high delight and went to make morning coffee with milk, heart dancing with joy. In the kitchen a fine thread of grief stole in: Where, in fact, had my bike gone?