[Novel] The Road to Shamawes ②

[1]

The air streams through the car window. I sat in the back seat. I was confused, not knowing where to look. The Nile is on the right with a long corniche as old as time; Cairo’s buildings on the left, with varying spaces in between as well as heights. There is a boat on the right, a hotel on the left, a swinging sail here and a tall minaret there. Songs dance on the waves and a church bell waiting for the Sunday mass. The clock strikes 11 a.m. in the car radio, and the March sun flirting the spring air. I lean my head to the back trying to run away from my confusion. The Nile was lonely, and the rows of buildings gave way to green spaces, I looked through the car back window. The sun was glaring as if it were a map on a palette showing me the way to Karim Abdelmageed’s villa.

I recall what Shaaban Salih, the newspaper’s cultural editor, told me as he arranged the appointment: Karim is a wonderful artist; however, his nature deteriorated a little due to travel to the Gulf and the attitude to art as a prohibition. But he has given up those reactionary attitudes. As he felt a deep longing for art he decided to return to Egypt. You’ll be the first to have a long interview about his retrospective exhibition at the Opera House next month. You’ll remind people of a great, creative artist”.

I smiled as the newspaper’s car driver was playing the cocktail videocassette and heard the popular singer Saad Elsaghir who represents a new vogue outdoing his predecessor Shaaban Abdel Rahim. His song was “I love you, donkey!” The market is now controlled by those who are more vulgar.
“We have arrived, sir!”

The driver’s voice awoke me as he drove left from the paved road between the Nile and three almost identical villas. As we headed for the one in the middle I looked at my watch. It took us a whole hour from the newspaper building to artist Karim Abdelmageed’s villa, or “Al-Bustan” (the “Orchard”), as written in simple Kufic script on a signboard on the gate.

[2]

“I’m a very simple person. All my life I’ve been among people because I consider myself their son, brother and father alike. I’ve drawn boats on the Nile, lovers on boats and joy on lovers’ faces. You may say I’m the painter of joy. But all that was before my travel.”

Artist Karim Abdel Mageed sighed. He was slim despite his sonorous voice. His tan was similar to countrymen’s suntan, but he probably got his tan during the years he spent in the Gulf. He stopped as if to remember a painful stage in his life:
“You may divide my life into stages. Carving out a career; immediately after graduation, i.e. about 25 years ago. We were fascinated by our professors and by discovering great artists in the West. We had the last chances to draw models seriously. We stood on a step of the ladder before it fell.”

He took a photo album from his wall-length library and gave it to me laughingly:
“You’ll find some memories of that bygone era here.”
He looked at the homemade cakes on my plate which I didn’t touch.
“Why don’t you eat? You’ll never find such cakes anywhere else. Come with me!”
He took me to the back balcony overlooking the back fields, not the one facing the road we came along.
“There, beyond these fields, there is a small village, or a mere farm, with a strange name, “Shamawes”, which may not be shown on the world’s map, but it is engraved in its people’s minds, simple countrymen who supply me with all my needs. I don’t need to go to town or buy from Cairo’s crowded shops. They are very kind people. What separates us is the land you see. I have two neighbours here: a woman on the right, and a man on the left. Their relationship is very strange, but there is no room for talking about them now.”

He told me that those three villas were for sale before he left Egypt, and he managed to buy his villa from his savings within the first two years of his travel. I noticed that he was almost unable to remember the name of the country where he lived many years, as if the name meant insanity.
“There… I taught art to students who didn’t like it. Of a whole batch of graduates only one male or female who grew up with their families abroad placed a high value on art. The rest only care for the diploma, to open engineering offices here and there. They recruit Egyptian or European engineers to do the job. Diplomas were only licences, and the job of some of the best artists and academics and I was just to grant licences!”

He remembered a story he said was bitterly interesting: “We spent an evening in the Dean’s home. He talked at length about his university and students. One of us was sharp-tongued. He was there only a few months ago, and before the end of the academic year he had resigned, saying to the man during that evening: In class I pretend to teach, and the students pretend to learn, and you pretend to have a university!”

The artist’s tone was normal, as if he were going into a monologue he repeated many a time.

“Every year I decide to be the last, but then I have my contract renewed. As a matter of fact they spared no effort to tempt us to stay. The phobia about return made me have my contract renewed year after year. When my wife died there I didn’t know what to do about looking after my only daughter, but soon afterwards I found the solution in a governess and foreign schools. But when it came to university we had to come back to Egypt, particularly as she wanted to study at the college her father graduated from.”

From my features the artist felt that his story had nothing to do with the reason why I came to see him.”

“I talked long, but thank God I’m still here though I had forgotten the country’s problems. I went abroad leaving my problems behind. Hundreds of thousands did the same thing, but the problems persisted here. I got married and begot a million problems. I don’t know… Is it my guilt or the guilt of those who didn’t travel?”
The phone rang; the artist’s face had an expression of surprise, but soon afterwards showed a sense of relief as he said to the caller:
“You’re late today, Emad! You missed meeting a wonderful young man. When will you be back? I’ll wait for you! By the way don’t forget to buy a copy of the “Umma”. One paper is enough. They all have the same sources, the same calamities, and the same fate.”

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