‘Bilaadi’, S. Ali

Illustrations © 2012 Carmen.

 [ You are a crocodile, © 2012 Carmen ] You are called Hapi.

Well, no. Not really. Not anymore. The people who called you Hapi, who called your brothers Anubis and Osiris are gone. You’ve been called a thousand names since then: mazomba, Petsuchos, Neilos, marid, jinnee, El Naddaha. Strange names, mostly forgotten names. And those who didn’t know your names recognized you by the unexplained ripple across the water’s surface, by the sudden fury of the seasonal floods.

Either way, the names mean very little. You’ve swum the river since time eternal, it’s all you know. But, oh, how you know it. You’re intimates with the dark emerald forests, the deep cold lakes, and the rushing falls of the south. Every bend, every shallow swampy cataract is ingrained in your mind, and the sound of the wind whistling though papyrus is your anthem. You know the scorching sun, the brilliant white light reflecting off the water as the river carves through the northern deserts, cleaving the great sands like a jagged wound. You swim, you dive, you drift along in its sluggish, steady current like dead wood. For millennia, you laugh as you crest its banks, spilling over the land and raking it with rich, life-giving soil.

Your forms are as endless as the river itself. You trawl the pebbly bottom as a crocodile and charge the shore as a hippopotamus. You stand silently as a leggy crane and are caressed by the breeze as a reed. You are a fish. A frog.

With reptile eyes, bird eyes, no eyes, you observe the men building their great temples of stone, their pyramids of limestone, their dry cities. They fear you, they worship you. But it means nothing. You belong to the river. And the river is eternal. It cares for nothing but you.

Occasionally, you spot a group of laughing children and take the form of a playful boy. You teach them how to twist reeds into little ships that can be raced in the shallows, how to choose the best rocks for diving, and where the slimiest toads hide. Other times, you gently nudge them toward safer swimming holes, conscious of the eyes of a hungry crocodile or temperamental hippopotamus. You never do more. Death is not your domain; the river is.

The river changes, of course, as do the lands surrounding it. On your seasonal return to the north one year, you find the river blocked by a massive stone dam. You are swept along as it creeps through the tiny villages and buries the stone temples. Confused, you explore the depths of the new lake and wade through drowned fields, waiting for the floods to recede, but they never do. While examining the structure, you are sucked through a shaft and deposited on the other side. Despite frantic attempts, you are never able to cross back. Your river, your spirit is broken. The annual floods will never return.

Stunned by such incomprehensible loss, you flee to the silt-choked northern deltas. Your world reduced, you avoid the dam, drifting between sprawling cities, loud places where metal boats churn the water into brown foam and leak foul, sharp-smelling oils. Still, it is your place and so you swim.

Until one day, a day like any other, when you spot two children walking along your shores. You have taken the form of a crocodile, drifting along the cool streams from the distant bottom, and watch them from eyes barely above the waterline. Their animosity immediately marks them as siblings. The boy is kicking a melon, the rind jewel-bright on the dusty riverside path. His sister complains, gesturing angrily towards the bruised fruit.

The melon rolls a bit too far, bumping off the path and towards the river’s edge. Angry now, the little girl pushes her brother and sets off to retrieve it, balancing carefully on a wooden beam, the remains of an old fishing shack. You eye the crumbling wood, stretch your tail to test the rushing current. You know what will happen.

The beam collapses, and the girl tumbles into the brown water with a shriek. Her brother shouts, half-stumbling down the bank to the river’s edge, but she has already been swept too far for him to reach. He cries her name, he cries for help, his little voice desperate.

You see the girl surface, sputtering and splashing as she nears you. You twist, slithering in her direction, but something seems to push against you. A voice that is not a voice reminds you not to interfere. Death is not your domain.

But she has already seen you. Shocked, she freezes and slips back under the water. When she re-emerges, she is screaming for her mother and her bright black eyes are shut tight, as if she can’t bear to see her fate. The water suddenly smells of urine.

Your form, of course. The crocodile. And although you’ve swum these waters for years, an indifferent observer to whatever small tragedies took place, you realize you are responsible for this terror. You’ve hurt this innocent. And without thinking very much of it, you become a boy, scales and claws giving way to skin and fingers. You hook an arm around her and swim for the shore.

She is trembling in your arms when you reach the river’s edge, and her sobbing brother grabs her, clutching her close.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” He holds her at arm’s length, examining her face. “Are you okay?”

She is. You watch her take a shaky breath and open her bright eyes.

The air is thick with betrayal. You take a step back, meaning to slip silently into your home, but the water burns; a sensation you have never felt, but instantly recognize. And you realize you have been punished. You have been cast out for breaking the unwritten codes that govern your existence.

You are lost.

You will spend two weeks sitting in the dusty path, watching the muddy river swirl without you, before the boy comes back. He comes from a good, God-fearing family. Thinking you a street child, an orphan whose head isn’t quite right, they take mercy and you are placed with a sympathetic uncle, a mechanic who always needs quick hands. You sleep on a flattened cardboard box inside the garage.

The uncle is kind; his patience helped by the fact that you are a quick learner. He stops questioning when you stare at a pair of shoes without comprehension or drink gasoline in your ignorance of human ways. He says nothing when you return from your failed attempts to enter the river with tears in your eyes. The work is not difficult, and you are honest.

But he notices how you watch his niece, the girl whose rescue strands you from your world. She is beautiful, with eyes that remind you of the river at night and wild hair like a heron’s nest. You overhear her mother tell her to stay away from the strange dark boy: he’s not right in the head. But she manages to sneak away to the garage shortly after you’ve started working there. She pops up from behind a car hood as you fill the tires with air.

“I know what you are,” she announces.

You straighten up, interested. You don’t know what you are. You thought you were the river and can’t conceive of an identity separate from it.

“You’re a crocodile,” she declares with a triumphant smile. Her uncle shouts, and she dances away before you can respond.

And so you try to become a crocodile. But it’s impossible. Your other forms are lost and the river continues to deny you, the water burning your skin, the reeds whistling their condemnation.

The years pass, and you try to settle into this strange life, living amongst creatures whose ancestors once worshipped you. They call you Habib. The uncle teaches you everything he knows about these things called cars, a concept you’ll find fascinating for years. He opens them up, pressing your hands against the greasy metal innards and explaining how they work. He gets slower as you grow taller and older; his hands start to shake, and you take over more of the work.

The girl goes to university; a world you learn is closed to the type of person you’ve become. You watch her come and go, her bag laden with books, arm-in-arm with other giggling girls in long denim skirts and colorful headscarves. Her brother notices, speaks to you with sympathetic eyes.

“Forget it, Habib. Girls are impossible these days. They want husbands with furnished apartments, motorbikes, and connections. And a good job,” he complains, his voice bitter. He graduated last year and hasn’t been able to find a job. He says his girlfriend won’t wait much longer. You nod, adding furnished apartments and motorbikes to the ever-expanding list of things that are important in this dry world.

But the uncle grows more tired, and the girl is good at sums. She starts coming by the garage twice a week to go over the books. You only exchange simple greetings, but you can feel her eyes as you work. She’s the only one whoever suspected that you are something more than what you pretend. You keep your gaze down, but pause to listen to the sound of her sweet voice whenever she makes a phone call. She has grown more beautiful.

Cairo becomes tense, far more than you can remember since climbing from the river. There’s excitement in the air; anger, frustration, thrill. As the crowd grows in the streets, the garage is silent. No one is calling to inquire about prices or berate you for not fixing their brakes before the weekend.

The girl leaves her uncle’s tiny office, joining you at the front of the garage to watch the growing throngs. She smells of floral soap and Western shampoo. They aren’t river smells, but they tickle your nose nonetheless.

She speaks up, her voice hesitant. “They say it really might happen this time. That he’ll really leave.”

You only have the dimmest idea of who she’s speaking about; a face that blurs with the faces of other past tyrants who sailed the river—this land has always been full of them. But you nod, hoping to shield your ignorance.

Her brother runs up, his face flush with excitement. He tugs his sister’s hand, grins at you. “Come on, let’s go. They’re saying that there’s already a million people in Tahrir Square!”

She’s hesitant, you’re indifferent, but his infectious delight convinces her, and because she’s going, you decide to follow.

You immediately regret the decision. The streets are packed and chanting people press against you from all sides, hoisting signs and waving flags. The noise and the closeness are overwhelming and you shrink away, fighting the urge to flee. The girl looks awed by the crowd and smiles nervously. Her brother punches the air, shouting with the crowd.

Ash-sha’ab! Yureed! Isqaat an-nazim! The people! Want! The fall of the regime!”

As you start to cross the bridge, the crowd grows even denser and comes to a stop. You survey the mass of people, surprised by the diversity. A trio of women in identical abayas are singing. And elderly couple clasp hands. A young boy, his face painted with the colors of the flag, is handing out necklaces of braided jasmine. The girl’s brother goes to join a rambunctious group of dancing men, and she drifts towards the railing.

The girl looks over the side of the bridge, her bright eyes reflecting the light sparkling off the water. You cannot stand to look at the river, cannot abide by the pain it provokes in your heart. Instead, you settle your gaze on the slender hands grasping the metal railing. She has beautiful hands, lovely in their plainness. Hands that in other centuries would clean fish and wash clothes in the river.

The air is full of excitement and newness, and you suddenly wonder what it would be like to hold those hands. You rest one of yours next to hers, your fingers nearly meeting.

As if she knows what you’re thinking, she looks up, her dark eyes meeting yours. A shy smile.

In the distance, someone screams and an odd whistling sound breaks the heavy air. But you have spent countless centuries being a simple observer and you don’t look away from her gaze. Which is how you see the exact moment the light leaves her eyes when the tear gas canister strikes her skull.

She collapses in your arms as the metal canister rolls away, spewing white smoke that chokes your lungs and stings your eyes. Blood streams from her head, turning her white scarf crimson. Dumbly, you place your hand over the blood as if that will stop it, as if that will bring the light back to her eyes.

The bridge is in chaos, people fleeing the gas and threatening to crush you. Pushy hands are trying to help: offering soiled kerchiefs to stop the bleeding, forming a chain to protect you from the crowd, taking pictures with their mobiles. Someone shouts for a doctor while another declares her a martyr.

And then her brother is there, screaming her name as he did so many years ago. Numb, you let him take her and he clutches her close, sobbing into her shoulder. An older woman wails as the brother pleads for his sister to come back, begging God’s forgiveness for bringing her here.

But he wasn’t the one who brought her here.

Stricken by grief, you whirl away and it catches your eyes. Even clouded by white smoke, the river still sparkles. You glance at the girl, but it pulls harder, calling to you.

Your hands are slick with her blood, but grasp the railing well enough to climb over it. No one stops you; their attention is focused on the murdered girl or their own escape.

You stretch your arms, the dry air embracing you for the last time, and then fall into the dive: the same dive you’ve taught to centuries of children. You expect the water to burn, for it to deny you entrance yet again, and shatter your existence once and for all against its unyielding surface.

But instead it rushes to meet you, its cool wetness wrapping your limbs, soothing your mind. You submerge, sinking towards the muddy bottom. It smells of life-giving silt, of crumbled stone temples, of dusty feluccas and swimming boys. Of crocodile skins and fish entrails. Of blood.

The blood of an innocent whose death has allowed you to return.

You know its smell and its rich iron taste. It has been spilled into the river for centuries past and will continue to be spilled until this world is finished. But as you drift away from the bridge, your eyes are drawn not to your beautiful river, but to the dry lands lining its banks. You gaze at the drab concrete buildings with their green shutters, at the crowded wooden houseboats, and at stone minarets. You think of their inhabitants and the ancient land that embraces your river.

It is the land of Hwt-ka-ptah which was called Kemet. Mitzrayim and Aigyptos. Kimi and then Masr. Egypt. A thousand forgotten names and a thousand names still to come.

Your country. Your land. Bilaadi.

 [ The Blood of an Innocent, © 2012 Carmen ]

© 2012 S. Ali

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