The sky was cloudy and the air was stuffy when a young lady stopped at a street vendor selling all kinds of books, CDs, videos and cassettes.She picked up a video tape and rolled it around in her hands, it was a video of a ballet, and it was so dusty for being neglected by buyers who come prowling for their next fix of music or movies.
Her eyes studied every angle of the tape's cover, read every line, learnt every image, as if she was trying to view it by some super laser vision.
He was about to collect his products and go home, as the sky turned suddenly grey and the smell of rain hung in the air. Then he saw a girl crossing the street hurriedly, determined to reach her destination, Even though cars were passing by so fast that a cat sat on the side of the road watching the traffic lights, waiting for a signal to cross. He watched her with interest, and interest of an old man finding his youth in a younger generation. She seemed to come his way, she must be headed for the fancy building behind him, he thought, but when she stopped at his humble table and picked up the neglected swan lake video tape, he stopped breathing.
"Is this for sale?"She asked
"How much do you want for it?"
"It's for 120 L.E."
"Oh" She was disappointed.
" You see it's the original edition of the lovely Natalia Makarova."
"Yes, I know it's very hard to find."
"Do you like ballet?"
"Yes, very much."
"Well, how about i make you a deal, since you're the first customer to like ballet.How about you rent it? 5 L.E. ?"
She paused to think about it.
"OK."She handed him 5 L.E. and took the tape,but before she left she stopped, looked at this old shriveled man and asked" What makes you sure I'll return it?"
"I just know." He smiled, to reveal some missing teeth.
Next day the weather was fine and warm, so warm some people were in t-shirts, meaning a usual Egyptian day. The old vendor was in the same place he was the day before, sipping his morning coffee and arranging his products. He didn't even notice her when she approached the stand, until...
"Excuse me," She said.
He looked up and remembered the girl from yesterday, the one who liked ballet.
"So, didn't I tell you that you'll be back?" he gloated
"You were just lucky, that's all. I could have been a professional thief."
"But you weren't."
"Well, here's your tape back. Thanks" she handed him the tape.
"I just wonder why you like ballet."
"for the same reason you're selling this tape."
He didn't respond, he just reached for something in his rag bag, and emerged with a tape, as old as the one she just handed him, and then he gave it to her.
"It's Giselle.Have you ever seen it?" asked the Old tricky salesman, on the verge of closing a deal.
"No, i always meant to, but they don't perform it in the Opera anymore." she said eyeing the tape in his hand, excited about the prospect of watching one of the most sought after and adored ballets in the world.
"That's because it's hard and a bit long.Do you know the story?"
"I do, but why don't you tell me?"She smiled.
"In the first act, a young, innocent village maiden named Giselle is in love with a man she knows only as Loys. In reality, the man is Albrecht, a nobleman disguised as a peasant, and who is betrothed to Bathilde, daughter of the Duke. When Giselle discovers the deceit, she is inconsolable and goes mad, then dies of a broken heart. In the second act, her undying love for Albrecht saves him from the wicked magic of the wilis, vampiric ghosts of betrothed girls who have died before their wedding day. Though their leader, Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, forces Albrecht to dance again and again, Giselle intervenes long enough to spare his strength and allow him to survive until the dawn. At sunrise, wilis must return to their grave; Giselle must return as well but not before showing Albrecht that she forgives him for his treachery. The two pledge their love to each other and she descends back into her grave, but will forever be separated. Giselle is now a wili for the rest of her life."
He was silent for a while, as if he was albercht with his broken soul and lost love.
He cleared his throat, then said " I know you will like it."
"Yes, thank you." she got a 5 pound bill from her bag, and extended her hand to give it to him.
"No, it's a gift. You hold on to that."
"I can't possibly take this from you."
"Yes, you can. I've never met someone your age who liked ballet, at least not my daughters. You should take it, i know it by heart."
"Well, thank you. This is the best gift I've ever received, but you have to let me buy you some lunch later.OK?" she smiled, and her eyes twinkled.
"You want to have lunch with an old poor man like me?"
"We're friends, aren't we?"
"Friends know each other's names"
"Oh, I'm karima."she extended her hand.
"You can call me Samir."he shook her hand.
"OK, 3am Samir, I'll come by around 1 with lunch, I'll see you then."
then she left.
At 1 O'clock she returned, with some tuna sandwiches and they sat behind the table and ate in silence, until...
"So, Have you always been selling..." she asked, sensitive about her words.
he interrupted"Have i always been a bum?"he challenged her.
"No, I don't mean that." she was embarrassed.
"Well,I do . No,once I was a very successful lawyer with 4 kids, a beautiful wife and a great life."
"Life happened, that's all." he put his sandwich on the table, suddenly he didn't feel like eating.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you."
"No, you didn't." he strained to smile "In the past, I was a diligent student, i got the straight A's, i had loving parents and when I graduated from law school, i found a job quite easily in one of the most reputable companies in the world, not just Egypt. At the age of 25 I met the woman of my dreams, her name was Madina, and she was eloquent, beautiful and very smart. She was a pediatrician, I don't know what happened, you can call it love, but I knew we had to be together, I proposed after 5 months of knowing her, because I didn't want to scare her and after 2 years of engagement, according to her requests, we got married. Life seemed to go great, i had everything i wished for and i was very thankful. I prayed each day for this bliss to keep on going, but i was a fool to think it would. After 10 years of marriage and four kids, Madina looked every inch the young girl I fell for, and I was still the handsome man she was fond of. I don't mean that we didn't argue, we did, but we always made up. Anyway, it was a regular January the 15Th, when i got a telephone call telling me it was all over, my life has come to a full halt and no one even told me they were pulling the breaks. She slipped and fell on her head, that's how she died.The reason was so trivial, that i lost my mind. I fell into a pit of self-destruction. I started to drink, take pills and anything i could get my hands on. I lost my kids to Madina's parents first, then I was fired and disbarred. The only thing I didn't lose was my house, because I never pawned it for money, or sold it to get crack. It was too special even for my drugged mind to part with. Then one day I had no more money to buy drugs, so i locked myself at home and tried to commit suicide, but before i could take the knife, i heard a knock on the door. It was my youngest daughter,"Mariam", at the door, she was fifteen at the time and she looked like her mother. As soon as i opened the door and saw her, I started sobbing like a baby. For ten years, I never dealt with the death of her mother, and seeing her just brought it to the surface.She came in and went upstairs, completely disregarding me. She came down 10 minutes later with a handbag, and she led me outside where the rest of her siblings were in a car. They didn't speak a word, but i didn't care. To be surrounded by them again felt good, for the first time in 10 years i felt life again. We drove in silence to the outskirts of Cairo, to an institute for the treatment of drug addicts. They left me there and they all left, but one, My oldest son"kaser". I felt ashamed, he looked at me with reproaching eyes, I knew what he wanted to say without him uttering a word. I knew the disappointment, the shame, the sadness he felt. He was about to leave when i asked
He turned around to face me and his eyes twinkled with a tear "Because you always took care of us when we needed you, but no one was there for you when you tumbled down. She wouldn't be happy to see you like that, and neither would we." then he left.
His words shot through me like spears, or daggers through my heart. I then collapsed in the hallway and had to be carried to my room, after having a seizure.
I stayed there for 6 months, got cleaned up and I was ready to live simply. I didn't expect anything from life. I lived because I was breathing, but I wasn't depressed. I was amazed, as no body needed me, My kids were so independent, that they started to send me money to be able to live. I tried to get close to them and they let me. The youngest was the one who liked me the most, the rest were either angry or ashamed. Mariam wanted to hear stories of her mother all the time and I complied. I tried to be a good example, the first thing i applied for was a kiosk in the city and I got it after my son pulled some strings of course, he works with the district attorney you know. He comes everyday to close up with me and we go home together. Anyhow, i consider myself lucky. All my kids love me, they acknowledge my weakness and understand I'm just another human being. Life couldn't be better." He smiled a huge smile, that seemed to make the sun shine brighter, it was a smile of a content man with his past, present and future.
"And you don't regret it?" she asked
"If i lived the situation another time, i would behave differently, because it would be the right thing to do. I don't regret the experience because it made me aware that as a human being, I'm not that strong, and there are things that i can't handle or face alone. I think God pitied me the day i was rescued and sent my kids to save me. They're my little angels."
"I've never been that content." she blurted out, more of a pondering than a conversational sentence.
"Why is that? A young lady like yourself must look forward to a great future." he encourage her.
" A future? What future? In such a decaying country , what future do i expect?"she was becoming angry,frustrated and disgusted.
"It's not half bad, it could be worse. I mean at least we're safe, but don't hide behind the country, whatever discontent you're experiencing, it comes from you."
She was silent, it was the first time somebody ever challenged her or understood what she meant in this obvious way. She regrouped and then...
"I don't know who I am. My parents try to encourage me to become a person that I could perfect easily, but I still feel as if it isn't me. Everyday i try to get closer to understanding what i want, but i always fail. It's hard, even though for a lot of people i know, it comes naturally. I'm beginning to think that maybe I am destined to be an undefined person in a very troubled world. It all happened when my grandmother died, i mourned her, but it was never enough. I cried, but found no satisfaction even though I wasn't that close to her. I loved her, but we didn't have that special grandmother-granddaughter bond that my cousin had with her. The matter clung on to me for years.I prayed God would take me to her, and rid me out of my misery, but nothing was fulfilled. Then i grew up and even though i could make decisive decisions, as a person i was always confused, angry and depressed. It took a toll on my health and I became an old woman living in a young girl's body. My life now seems void of any happiness or fascination. I have suffered nothing, but still i can't seem to smile the way that you do. Then 4 months ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer, late stages even though I'm in my early twenties. I decided not to fight, why would i lie in bed like a dead chicken, hooked up to stupid machines when there was a world that I haven't seen. So, for the past months I've been travelling the world in search for an answer. Now, i have a reason to be sad, but i find myself more amazed than depressed, silent than enraged and passive rather than obstinate. "
They were silent for a moment, each of them looking into the tuna sandwich, not capable of uttering a word, until she took in a breath of air, and said
"It's OK, It doesn't bother me that I'm going to die, and I've been closer to God more than ever lately making sure i pray at the appointed times, fast as much as possible and do everything that would get me to heaven. I don't know why, but i never expected to grow old, or to have a life or a family. A part of me never clung to life because i knew it was going to end soon.Maybe some of us weren't meant to linger; I've always helped people more than i helped myself, and finding it to be more satisfying.The only thing that bothered me that I don't know myself."
"But haven't you ever wished to experience other things in life, having someone to depend on, to love even?"he was amazed by her strength, such a young girl had the ability to face something he never accepted, and not be frightened, but welcoming.
"No,i thought about it, but i never thought of it as a goal, I never was convinced that finding the one,as they say, to be that exciting. People never fascinated me, places did that for me. I would go anywhere where there was history and try to feel the old civilizations through their ruins, how they lived , died, and how they preserved their culture for other generations to inherit. I saw everything from our own ancient Egyptians to the Mayans, Babylonian and Chinese cultures.There midst the ruins, i felt most alive, and i didn't want to share it with anyone, the dead spoke to me and only me. They spoke to me of tales most magnificent, of a life we never had, of a regality we never saw and i found myself longing to join them in their glory."
They kept talking to each other, him telling her about his life, and her talking about her death, they both represented something the other was ignorant of, and so when one of them spoke, the other listened intently, trying to make sense of it all.
He pondered whether he'll have her courage and strength to face his own life ending.Even though he had Madina waiting for him, death felt cold and distant, he was afraid of not seeing his children anymore, not being able to hug Mariam, or talk to Kaser about his job, or tell them stories of their mother. He was afraid he wouldn't meet Madina after his death because of the way he wasted precious years of his life, he was afraid she would be angry with him for not taking better care of their offspring, but mostly he was afraid of dying alone. Just collapsing suddenly on his table when no one is looking, leaving the world swiftly without being noticed.
She listened to 3am Samir talking about his life and tale of surviving. She couldn't help but wonder if that was the way to live, to fall and stand up again, to become a living example of time and age,to find stories written on your face and the weight of life bending your back, to have people waiting for you in heaven, and some welcoming you on earth. She ravelled in the idea of being positive and to welcome the presence of people, was it that good?Yet, she would never know and that made her more relieved than sad.
They didn't feel the time slipping away, until a car stopped in front of the kiosk, and from it emerged the most handsome man Karima has ever seen. His face was very articulated, as if waiting to be sketched, any one could see that he felt his own presence through the way he walked, but it wasn't of arrogance, but more of pride. He approached the kiosk, and said
"Dad, are you ready to leave?"
"Oh, is it 5 o'clock already?i didn't feel the time." Samir responded
Kaser then cleared his throat, looking at karima while he did.
"Oh, where are my manners, Karima this is my son kaser. She is an enchanting young lady, who was kind enough to keep me company during lunch."
Kaser extended his hand "I'm very pleased to meet you."
Karima shook his hand "Same here."
Then there was a moment of silence.
"Well, I'd better go now. My parents are probably worried by now. Thanks again for the tape, and nice to meet you Kaser."she smiled and went away.
"So, dad, you're befriending young girls now, you could pick them your age you know." kaser mocked his dad.
"Oh, you and your foul thoughts." he hit Kaser lightly on his head," and why do you care?"
"I was just thinking maybe you should give someone younger a chance"kaser gleamed
"You?You don't deserve her."his father explained while putting away his stuff in the car's trunk.
"Believe me, you won't be able to keep up with her and i don't think she wants to get involved."
"You'd think my own father would be a little bit more confident of his own son."
"Well, do whatever you want, but don't say i didn't warn you."
Then they rode in the car and drove away.
A phone is ringing in a cozy but empty living room, then keys are heard in the door of the apartment, running footsteps and
"Hello?" Karima answered
"Karima El termosy?" said a pleasant female voice
"Yes, this is she."
"Please hold for Dr. Osman."the operator said.
"Hello?Karima?"a male voice bellowed over the line.
"Yes uncle, is something the matter?"She asked, his voice seemed urgent.
"I need you to come to the clinic today at 7 pm" he ordered rather than requested.
"Uncle Osman, i told you i don't want any treat..."
"Just come at 7 pm, i will be expecting you."he interrupted "trust me, alright?i have to go now.Goodbye." and he hung up.
Karima was left wondering what he was preparing, Dr.Osman was the family doctor and her father's best friend, when she refused treatment , he was as enraged as her father. Widowed with no children, he always considered Karima his own and she loved him more than any other uncle she had. She was certain that the meeting was going to be a new treatment he wants her to try, but she won't cave in. She has to fight, fight to the death. She laughed at the irony; she clung to death while others wanted her to survive.
It was 6 pm already, so she went to get ready.
The clinic was as crowded as ever;people coming from all over Egypt trying desperately to find a treatment for their illnesses, and comfort for their pain. Karima never liked going there; it was too gloomy, filled with agony and miserable zombies.
She refused to be a zombie, a living dead example of life's treachery and she chose to be waiting on the sidelines, waiting for her turn to leave life behind, crossing the river to the other side.
She walked through the door marked "personnel only" without feeling any guilt, she was used to visiting Dr. Osman and everybody knew who she is.
She found him midst 4 or 5 other doctors, discussing something very feverishly.He caught sight of her.
"Karima, here you are. Excuse me doctors." he said while walking towards her.
"Hey uncle, so why did you tell me to come?"
"Patience is a virtue."
"You know i don't like to be a lab rat."
"I want you to meet someone." and he lead her to his office.
There sat another doctor apparently, but he wasn't Egyptian, but rather Asian.
"This is Dr. Samuel Chang" Osman introduced him in English,"and this is Karima."
They shook hands
"A pleasure."Said Dr. Chang in a rather strange English accent.
"Thank you." then she looked at her uncle, but he said nothing.
"So Karima,"Dr Chang spoke,"I am here because i heard you do not like westren medicine and that you are refusing all treatment. Is that true?"
"You came all the way from China to meet with me?"she blurted out.
"Actually Tibet,but i was in Morroco, giving a lecture when Dr. Osman contacted me and i agreed to pass by Cairo to meet with him and you," he pause" You still didn't answer my question."
"Yes, I don't like western medicine and I'm not fighting the cancer, but why?"
"since you haven't taken any chemicals in your body, the cancer is probably still living normally, growing in a steady rate without being bothered. You see, in late stages the cancer tends to be imune to chemicals and it fights back by increasing its growth rate."
"Yes, but i know this.So,why am i here?"
"You see, 6 years ago, we infected a wild hare with progressed cancer and then we released it to the same position we caught it from, after planting a tracking device of course and we observed where it went for , we collected samples of what it ate and when it ate it. In summary, we were able to collect every single data about this hare's life. Then when it died, we retrieved its body and made an autopsy. To our surprise, it was cancer free. We spent the last year analysing what the hare ate and how until we found a certain plant that he ate most frequently the first year after his release. We realized that he was cancer free after one year because of eating this plant, so we collected samples of it and started to work on a medicine from it and we were successful. We tried the medicine on different animals, and they all were cancer free within 6 months to a year, provided a healthy diet and exercise system. "
He stopped talking, but she still didn't understand.
"I've been looking for a candidate that would travel with me back to the tibet, and try the medicine for a year, but we wanted someone who wasn't treated with chemicals or radiation. We posted on the internet and sent many hospitals , until Dr. Osman emailed me, telling me that you were the perfect candidate for the clinic try, but he wasn't sure you'd agree.So, i came personally to explain it to you. "
"Oh, but as i told Dr. Osman before, i'm not looking for a treatment, and i don't want to spend the last of my years on earth, hooked to machines." she said with some kind of hidden anger in her voice.
"The medicine had no side effects on animals, and we're pretty sure it won't have any on humans.In addition, what do you have to lose? " Dr. Chang pressed on.
The question hit her hard, what did she have to lose?she's travelled the world, seen everything there is to be seen and experienced everything there is to be experienced and she's been perparing herself for death in a few months;She had nothing to lose.
She didn't respond though, but kept staring in mid air, until Osman spoke,"Karima, you have a chance of fighting this thing and actually winning and you'll be in Tibet, you love it there. Please, dear, don't just lose hope like that. Your parents asked me to take care of you and to try to convince you with the clinic. I myself see it as a great opportunity and you know what when you succeed you will help so many people, who have no hope. You will give people an alternative."
On the spur of the moment, she decided to agree; impulsive decisions were one of her obvious traits and she used it well.
"Alright, i'll do it, but i want to go there alone without any member of my family."
Dr. Osman didn't understand why, but he was so thrilled she accepted that he agreed.
A year,1 month later,at a corner of a street in cairo, a young man was lost in his own thoughts, walking aimlessly around and around, when he bumped into something, which turned out to be a girl.
"Excuse me, i'm so sorry, i didn't see you." He appologized while helping her up.
"It's Ok"She started as she starightened out her clothes, then she lifted her head to look at him, "Kaser?"
"Yes, that's me, do I know you?"
"You probably don't remember me, i ate lunch once with your father in his kiosk."
"Karima?You look so different."
"Yes, well a lot happened in a year.How's 3am samir?"
"He's fine, he doesn't work anymore because of the harsh weather. You should come visit him, he'll be thrilled. He never forgot you, and always wonders how you've been. Why haven't you ever came around to visit him? "
"I was out of the country this last year, i just came back last month."she said.
They were silent then, they both spoke at once.
"Would you.." he said..."Well,if you.... " she said.
"Go ahead."she told him.
"Would you like to have a cup of coffee or something?"
"I don't drink coffee, but if there's green tea where we're going then i'm game."
"There's a cafe down the street that offers ..." but before he could continue his sentence, his phone rang.
"Excuse me,"he told her"Hello?...Mariam, what's wrong?... alright,I'm on my way."He seemed alarmed and out of focus.
"What's worng?"she asked,worried.
"It's dad, he had a stroke, he's in the hospital.I have..."
"I'll come with you."she interrupted.
They both rode his car and headed for the hospital.
A steady but faint beat of the heart monitor echoed across the room where Samir lied, surrounded by his childern, while the nurse checked his vitals.
Kaser and Karima were outside talking to the attending physician.
"Unfortuneatly, your father suffered a stroke, that was caused due to hemorrage in the brain. The stoke didn't occur today , it probably happened in the last 2 days. Did he suffer from a headache or a blurry vision?"
"Well, he told me he needed a new eye prescription and i made an appointment for tomorrow. I thought the headche was from his old glasses," Kaser answered, feeling guilty.
"Well,his brain swelled after the stroke, and since we weren't capable to treat the stoke, he fell into a coma. We're trying to control the swelling, but this is the brain's way of protecting itself and our intervention would be of little effect."
"Can't you operate?"Karima asked
"With this swelling, he'll bleed out. I'm so sorry, but i am afraid we can't do much.Maybe you should sit with him for a while,"he said as he patted Kaser's back and left.
"It's all my fault. I should've paid more attention to the symptoms, how could i be that stupid?" he lamanted, as he sat on a small hospital chair, his face buried in his hands.
Karima sat next to him, "It's really not your fault Kaser, you wouldn't have known. The stroke's symptoms are very elusive that some doctors can't recognize it.You really shouldn't blame yourself" she sat up and took his hand"Come on now, let's go inside and sit with him, he shouldn't be alone."he obeyed and together they entered the room Kaser dreaded the most.
They sat there for hours and hours, all silent and waiting for the moment of truth, when suddenly the heart monitor's beat increased in sound and Samir opened his eyes. Meanwhile, Kaser was sleeping after sending all of his siblings home, but Karima sat beside Samir, reading.
As soon as Karima noticed, she called out to kaser "Kaser, Kaser, he opened his eyes."
Kaser went to Samir's bed, clutched his hand and said,"Dad can you hear me?"... he then ran outside of the room, shouting "nurse, nurse", then returned.
Samir looked at Kaser, smiled then looked at Karima and said in a very heavy tongue "You're here."
She smiled "Yes, I am.Don't worry, you're not alone.I'm alright and you'll be too."
He looked at Kaser again"Take care of your brother and sisters,..."his breath clutched in his chest then he said "Madina." and the heart monitor beeped the most disturbing of sounds, marking the end of a person known as Samir, and sending his soul to a better place where life doesn't seem that hard.
The funeral was 3 days after he died, it was simple and warm. Family and friends attended, wearing colors,instead of black, as specified by Samir as his last request.
Karima helped Kaser and his siblings through the funeral and its arrangements, she offered them a helping hand, a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. Everyone loved her, she beamed of life and made their living easier.
After the funeral was over, she stayed to help them clean up and was about to leave, when Kaser said "How about a cup of green tea?"