A short story by Hamdi Abu Golayyel originally from his collection أشياء مطوية بعناية فائقة (GEBO, 2000) [Things Folded With Great Care] reviewed here and included in a later compilation entitled طي الخيام (Merit, 2010) [The Folding Of The Tents], reviewed here.
I never meant to.
It was just one of those unimportant letters the Pension Fund sent her every year for two reasons: firstly, the legitimate desire to ensure she received her pension and secondly, to check that she was still alive.
In the forty days following my father’s death she studied to perfect the traits of mourning, begotten hysterical and ridiculous and then, with the forty days lapsed, becoming more measured, dignified and mournful making it seem possible, pleasurable, indeed fitting, that I exchange his name—Bedouin and accompanied by a certain difficulty in pronunciation—for the easy appellation “the late”, as appealing to affectionate remembrance as heaps of rubbish are to the maws of flies.
During the course of those forty distant days, days when I was too delicate to laugh at the sudden eminence that attached itself to the deceased father, the letters of the Pension Fund arrived one after the other, ominous and threatening: Any attempt to marry means the discontinuance of the pension.
Reading this sentence embarrassed me and I’d assuage her fears in words which stressed that the pension would continue, not one syllable of which she believed.
Once the letters had moved into a quarterly phase their severity decreased. Indeed, many years they were so generous as to offer my mother felicitations on the occasion of various high days and holidays, perhaps because they had given up hope of her marrying and were preparing the ground for a different and more decisive change.
It seems my mother got wind of the conspiracy because she began to ignore those letters which she felt sure were addressed to her. This she determined by tracing the letters of her name, the only name she knew: wetting her thumb and passing it very slowly, letter by letter, over the name written on the missive, and when the digit had completed its passage over the final character, she would know for certain whether it had been sent to her, or to myself. If hers she’d toss it carelessly down in some corner nearby and never look at it.
But she hadn’t the patience to sustain this neglect for long. All of a sudden she gathered up her letters and stacked them one top of another with great care, and as each new letter arrived from the Fund she would count them over and over again, over and over, would get it wrong and ask me,
“How old am I?”
This tallying, which she was forever getting wrong, coincided with a noticeable diminution of her material possessions and of the space in which she moved about within the house.
With each new letter she brought to the reckoning and laid out atop its sisters she would immediately dispense with one of her possessions, folding it up on top of the pile of letters, or close another of the rooms in our spacious house. It began with the least important rooms—the room for livestock, for the oven, for straw, for chickens—and trifling objects like teacups, plates, old clothes and blankets, but the verdicts of dispensability and folding away swiftly came to encompass things and rooms of greater weight. My mother shut up the sitting room, the hall and the front door to the house and without warning folded away—never to return—the traditional headscarf her brother had brought her from the Hejaz.
Once the disposable items had accumulated and my mother had set aside a room for them—which she named “Fortune’s Friend”—she turned her mind to a reckoning of her strategically important possessions, use of which was restricted to a single pan in the old aluminium style, all that remained of her dowry. She would cook her food in it over the stove, clean it thoroughly, fill it from the water pot and drink until quenched. From what remained came the tea, which was drunk directly from the pan. All this in the only one of our home’s twenty rooms still in use, in which she slept and ate and counted letters, washed and did as people do, suffered from the pains of rheumatism, longed for any company, live or dead, and readied herself to receive the visitors who never, ever came.
My mother, like others of her generation, was not recorded in the Egyptian registry of births. They had all been born at a time in which the Bedouin took for granted their non-membership of our nation, and successive governments—wickedly—concurred with them and set them apart on this basis.
I consoled myself with the scant number of her contemporaries still alive and on the death of one would ask her:
“Was the deceased your age?”
She would be confused and quaver, “Noooo…” and then, once she was happy that she had fully stressed the word would add: “Older.”
The passing of the last old man to address her by name without the prefix “Grandma” made a dependence on historical evidence to determine her age unavoidable. I questioned her about the revolution of 1919 and Saad Zaghloul, not because she cared about Egyptian revolutionary history, but because one of her cousins had been a leader of the revolution and because her uncles had gone to prison at the time and one had died there and more generally, because her kinfolk had assaulted and pillaged the police stations and destroyed the railway company’s phone lines, with eight of them slain by the bullets of the English.
When I said, “English” she showed surprise.
“I remember the revolution. There weren’t any English!”
“So why did they attack the police?”
“When the government and someone called Saad Zaghloul took Hamad al-Basil and put him in prison the Bedouin attacked the station and cut the train tracks.”
Without a doubt, these historiographical contributions were a blow to the cast-iron case with which I shamed the sons of peasants during quarrels, boasting of my Bedouin forebears in the belief that they had risen up to liberate the nation from the coloniser, unaware that eight of them had willingly offered up their lives just because one of their number had been locked up.
That you don’t feel them means they crush another
As long as life goes on they neither die nor age
Why my mother crooned this line—a Bedouin verse about the inevitability of disasters and misery—I do not know. Was it to lend emphasis to her historical revelations? Or was it that she, like me, had reckoned up the number of years separating the date of birth supposedly some time prior to 1919 and the year 1998? Perhaps, like me, she thought it better to declare a ten-year truce with all ages between sixty and seventy and was satisfied, like me, that she was exactly sixty.
I made a precise calculation and declared, “You were born on January 1st, 1948,” and all was comfortable and grand. Ten years, enough not merely to change the world, but wipe it out.
She smiled a smile accompanied by a confident shake of her head, which I took as a signal that I should put our newly estimated age into circulation. But realizing that the gap between ’48 and ’98 was only fifty years she was certain that my estimates had been excessively optimistic. The confident shake of the head was the only means she had to oppose Bedouin girls marrying peasants, the pains in her feet, my brother’s follies, her wrinkles, the letters of the Pension Fund.
I never meant to.
Just a regular letter I read unenthusiastically, failing to notice that the box marked Date of Birth was missing the phrase Unregistered until I was stuffing it into the envelope; that my incompetence at maths had betrayed me and the date obstinately remained: 1/1/1900.
She found me unable to stop myself tracing the lines on her face; my agitation when she fell into a deep sleep. I don’t know why she seemed so untroubled. She did not shake her head when I teasingly told her, “1/1/1900.” Perhaps she didn’t believe me, or perhaps she’d memorized the date’s digits by touch, exactly as she’d memorized the letters of her name.