[Novel] The Road to Shamawes ⑤

Near Shamawes, and on the road to Tura, small groups of gypsies live in canvas and tin slums. Nothing shows they are alive except the lean animals grazing near them, some dogs which bark at night and a few she-goats’ bleatings. You see them in the village of Shamawes collecting garbage. They may be hired to do some quick jobs. Some of their women are good at dancing and wear artists’ clothes to dance in popular weddings in or out of the village. Three young men ride horses and make them dance and duel with cudgels to entertain guests.

The gyppies near Shamawes appear and disappear in certain seasons like wild birds, but a woman stays in her tent all year long and never leaves with them. That’s why they call her “the Shamawes woman”, because she clings to her land, and when her people come back they find her in her tent or in Shamawes.

However, in addition to the gypsies village and Shamawes, a third place was her favourite which she visits twice or three times monthly.

Like many women, the Shamawes woman was a fortune-teller, but she was the cleverest. She would hold a man’s hand and tell him how many women he would marry, how many children he would have, when his daughters would get married. She says that as if she were reading from a book or repeating the words of a prompter.

One day Saadiya told Viola about he Shamawes woman and Viola insisted to see her. Saadiya waited for the Shamawes woman to read the fortune of a woman forsaken by her husband. Saadiya met the Shamawes woman on her way back to the gypsies village and told her about Viola and how eager she was to see her.

The Shamawes woman said firmly:
“Your mistress is a lonely woman despite the crowd around her and busy nights. If she asks me to entertain her, I won’t. I’d rather tell her the bitter truth.”

When Saadiya told Viola that she became eager to see the gypsy fortune – teller and said to herself :
“She’ll probably read me a future I don’t know and then I remember a past that will never come back, and avoid a present I don’t like. I’ll run through a new film scene each time I see her after the lights have been switched off. I haven’t seen you for ages, Viola!”

In this way Saadiya was Viola’s window on the world of Shamawes, Nargis and the Shamawes woman. Once she goes to call Nargis, another time to fix a time to see the Shamawes woman.

In a new task, and a short while after Saadiya ent back home, Nargis was busy thinking what reason to give to spend the night out of the house, what to say to her father, mother and brother to convince them that she was safe. She had a find a good, new reason.

Nargis has been restless since Saadiya showed her neighbour Nargis the road to Viola’s villa. Viola was seeking for a young woman with a good command of English and French for a hundred pounds per night. All she had to do was translate the broken sentences uttered by drunk persons. She enters the villa trembling, knowing that the faces inside are not real in her world, but masks of people outside her world. She didn’t know that in the real world there are scenes similar to film ones, and that the distance between Shamawes and Viola’s villa, though apparently short, is like the distance between the sky and the earth, paradise and hell. But she didn’t know which is which.

Now she is getting dressed while her mind is getting ready for a new lie.

“A harmless white lie!”

She murmured as she was packing her bag. She managed to smuggle a shoe and a dress with Saadiya to wear when she reaches the villa, where she could put on some light cosmetics and a little perfume, as she can’t walk in front of her family and the village’s young men unless she wears long-sleeved clothes, headscarf and nurses’ shoe. Her university fellows will accept her like that, and many of the female ones come in droves from villages and fill trains with their nasty smell. However, at university she is elegant but with caution. Who knows? Her brother may come all of a sudden, as he did last year, and, thank god, she was decently dressed. But in Viola’s villa, whatever clothes she wears she is the most decently dressed, as if the other women leave clothes in the luxurious cars which carry them to the soirée.

Each time Viola invents a reason for Nargis brilliantly, and when she made the General phone the home of Nargis’ uncle because she has no phone in her own home, he became solemn as he talked to Mr Nabil Zinhum, social studies teacher at Martyr Abdullah Hamdi School:

“Mr Nabil Zeinhum! Gen. Wagih Essmuddin of State Security Investigation speaking, Relax, please. I’m calling in connection with Miss Nargis Kamal, my daughter Marwa’s university fellow, who felt unwell and was admitted to Alnuzha Hospital, and your daughter, God bless her, will stay overnight with her as my wife is dead. I took your phone number from Miss Nargis. You can ring her at any time at the hospital’s number, room 23.”

Saadiya will answer the phone and ask the caller to wait. She goes to call Nargis from the large hall. She closes the room door tightly to prevent the sound of music and noise. Nabil is reassured and himself tells his son-in-law:
“For further reassurance, I myself rang the hospital and the operator put me through to the room. Nargis is as dear to me as she is to you, Abu Adel. May God protect her. The General was deeply worried about his daughter.

Nargis’ mother endorses her brother’s words, but she was rather worried:
“May Allah make the consequences beneficial!”

“Donkeys? Nonsense! You go twice to the artist’s house, two days’ break, a camera, a car and a driver, and instead of dialogue you come back and talk about donkeys!”

Shaaban Salih, section head, spoke more angrily to Mustafa Sulaiman:

The young man tried to calm his boss as he was pulling a CD from his bag:
“By God, I’m not to blame, Mr Shaaban. Artist Karim talked about nothing but donkeys. The first time I saw him he said it was for acquaintance purposes. He talked about himself, his travel and return, his home, daughter and students and told me he wanted to see me again. When I went to see him he took me to the fields where he sat down and drew a hundred sketches of donkeys. It was extremely hot and the sun was burning, but he didn’t mind. I photographed him and the CD is with me and wrote about his forthcoming exhibition, which he says he prefers it to be one of donkeys, as the retrospective exhibition is traditional and dull!”

Mr Shaaban’s tone changed:
“I had reserved the page for the topic this week and published a note about it in the previous issue. I’m afraid Karim will be angry with me if I don’t publish it. He’s an old friend of mine. Try to change the introduction, Mustafa. Write about his old works in the archives before you come up with his new donkey!”

Mustafa was in a dilemma. If he changes the topic the artist will be angry, and if the publishes it, that will bring Shaaban’s wrath on him. If he makes a compromise he won’t be happy with the article at all. He wants to write about something new in a thematic unity. He’s actually convinced of the humanitarian nature of donkeys which the artist strongly defends.

The introduction to the topic echoed the artist’s words:
“They oppress donkeys, but there is a new scientific discovery which donkeys should boast of. The donkey is the only creature that succeeded in transcending all civilizations, the only creature whose nose or eye size and features never change from continent to continent or country to country. Donkeys in Istanbul are almost similar to those in Cyprus regardless of Greek-Turkish borders. Donkeys on the Tibet slopes are similar to the ones on the Atlas slopes or sleepy villages on the Nile. The reason which scientists discovered is the easy movement and power of endurance as easiest means of transport only matched by mules, which move from place to place and from continent to continent where they mix with donkeys and reproduce, and the new breeds have an identical DNA and the same characteristics in terms of eye colour, ear length and endurance. Look at these sketches in which eyes show a map of the world. Donkeys have been recognized in legends and literature, in novels, that is, as in the works of Cervantes and Jiménez in world literature and Tawfiq Elhakim in Arabic literature, among others. The donkey is the animal that has disproved Darwin’s theory!”

I kept looking at donkeys and writing as if they enjoyed the dialogue like me.
The artist continued:
“We have perhaps been told that the elephant is the best successor to the mammoth, or that pigeons and the other birds are the reproduction of dinosaurs, which all belong to the Jurassic family, but we haven’t been and probably will never be told that the origin of donkeys was other than donkeys. Animals – tame and wild alike – have suffered many dangers. Some are extinct and others are on the way, but the donkey, despite the negative qualities associated with it, is not expected to be extinct. As the end is what matters, and the end of donkeys which transcend civilizations is different from that of civilization makers like ourselves, I find it is my duty to restore respect to this animal, and I’m going to honour it in art as well, fifty paintings. The donkey’s life is all humanitarian. If they think it will be a shocking exhibition, let it be so. If they want it to be loving, nothing will be more loving!”

Mustafa had something on his mind:
“Well, I’ll publish the subject as it is and feature the artist’s old works prominently, with eual space on the page. My name will not appear. That’s very wise!”

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