The Muazzin called for the sunset prayer, declaring a completion of another day of fasting on February 3rd, in the month of Ramadan. My family gathered around the tablea to eat. My father was a farmer – 54 years old, but his face made him seem 20 years older than that. The sun had burned his skin. It had become like an over-roasted peanut. And smoking had taken a lot from his lungs, as if he were expelling some of his lung cells every time he coughed into his handkerchief.
My mother, full of activity and pretty, was a bee going around the flowers, extracting pollen to feed her five children – two boys and three girls, one of whom was married and on her own. I was the eldest.
Around the tablea, we were having our “break fast”, the words between us very rare. Each one of us watching the others’ words. I was on one side of the tablea and they on the other. Something had happened. We all know what it was. But we were afraid to face it. It was like a fetus: we know it’s coming, we even know that it’s a boy, we know what month its coming but we don’t know what it’s going to look like, what is the color of its eyes, what its crying is like.
I waited until we finished our meal. I don’t remember what it was. I hadn’t seen it. I had it, chewed it – but I was in another world, beside me a heavy burden of telling my family. I’d carried it with me the last three months, but now was time the time to tell them. Tonight.
I didn’t know from where I would start. I had always thought that I had had a kind heart, one influenced by feeling, especially toward my family. But I was surprised to find myself another person with another heart. It was as if I was an actor in a play – no relationship between his role in the play and his role in life. I looked around to my brother and sisters and I couldn’t meet my mom’s eye and in plain, unfaltering words I told them, “I’m leaving tonight and no one’s is going to come with me to see me off. I don’t want anyone from the town to know, even our relatives -only a small number of my family and some friends.”
I didn’t wait to hear their answer or reaction to the news which, like an anchor on t.v., I had just delivered, and I ran to my room.
My brother, ten years younger than I, didn’t know how to express his feelings. He was torn between many feelings. Suddenly, he felt he had become a man, responsible for a family, and a heavy weight had come on his shoulders all between the beginning and ending of a meal.
He was happy and sad. He wanted to listen to what I was saying and do what I wanted but at the same time, he didn’t want to do it. I asked him to go to tell four of my friends that I wanted to see them now for something urgent tonight. My youngest sister went to bring my married sister from her house. All of this happening minutes after having the break fast in Ramadan.
In my room I was preparing a small bag to carry on my shoulder, like someone traveling for a couple of days. I didn’t want to attract anyone’s attention. And to be light in my movement. Leaving and sneaking to America or a European country happened in complete secret, like a military invasion. The fewer people knew about it the better. We have to keep it secret in order to succeed. Because the interaction between the families and relatives in our town – this closeness – bred the fire of jealousy among us.
We reveled and rejoiced in each other’s failures. This is why when I went out in this way. It was as if I were declaring I was sacrificing myself for the nation, for the country. Because if you came back, failed, or hesitated, you couldn’t come back. It was a one way street. No return without success in the mission.
This land surrounded us with love and safekeeping, but when she threw us out she did it without mercy. This is why when we left, we left as secretly and silently as we could. As if sneaking out, we didn’t want her to know that we were leaving.
The minutes after I told my family that I was leaving passed very difficultly. I was in my room, giving them the impression that I was preparing my bag. No one came near the room. It was a very difficult period of time, one we hadn’t witnessed before. The only thing that broke this silence was the arrival of my four friends. I told them about my leaving tonight and that we were going to say goodbye from here in this room because I didn’t want any of my neighbors to know what I was doing. But my friends insisted on going to the airport with me and I failed to persuade them not to. I regretted telling them. You control the secret until the words come out of your lips. The moment those words come out their hands surround your neck and your destination is in other people’s hands. In the end, I asked them to meet me on the road leading out of the town.
I asked my brother to carry my bag and go alone, meeting me on the road out of the town too. One by one they left and now it was the moment of saying, “goodbye.”
My father was a simple farmer. He tried all of his life to take care of his children as he could. He didn’t make you feel his love. Even with his candid heart there were no words coming out of him expressing that. His facial expression showed that he was strong and tough. People feared him, not because of his strong body, but for his courage and honor, which some could understand as foolishness. His loud voice represented toughness. This was the first time I had seen his eyes tearing, as I was coming down the steps. Every step like a hammer hitting his heart. He hugged me tight. I was looking for that in this relationship all of these years, but he was like our land: you had to hoe it to produce the goodness out of it. I realized his kind heart and the flow of his compassion, those feelings he hid from us. He took himself out of my arms and disappeared into his room.
If kindness is concentrated in a person my mom is that person. With her kindness and sweetness I found her strong, solid. She hugged me but her eye didn’t shed a tear. She showered me with prayers and advice to be careful in my journey. I found her stronger than my father. I hugged my sisters. They had the feeling of happiness for something so long that didn’t happen in our family. Traveling and leaving the country, a part of our town’s life. We grew up with it. There was no street lacking a family with someone overseas.
In the 70’s and 80’s of the last century, the gulf countries had the big share but of immigrants but in the 90’s Italy and America got the big share through their borders. Neither my father nor my uncle went to the gulf as all the others did. We were children. We saw what the immigrants brought: electric machines and clothes for their children and families. We didn’t have those machines or clothes. I had wished to have a relative of mine living overseas; When you had a father or a brother or son working in a European country even more so in America, it was sign of class level. Working in America meant he was as the top level in my town.
So the wave of leaving for the west had been going on a few years and had begun to produce a lot of changes in my town. And now I was following the caravan. I was on my way to sneak into America through the border.
The name “America” was like a drum in our land. With the thousands of miles between us and America, still I was going.
My sisters were excited for me leaving. My departure now was long overdue by our town’s measure. I looked to our home’s walls, my mom’s face, my sisters’ expressions; we didn’t know if or when we would meet again. I left on this cold Ramadan night, sneaking out, trying to not be noticed, so that my town might not get upset and fight back.
I met my brother carrying my bag on the road out of the town. Saying goodbye to him gave me strength to face the unknown waiting for me because he would be here taking care of the family. At this time he would become a young man: strong body, kind to his parents. I insisted that we say goodbye on the road and that there was no need for him to come to the airport.
I wanted to take public transportation from Benha City to the newCairo airport, maybe thinking of saving the money for the unknown awaiting me, but then one of my friends hired a Suzuki taxi, famous in Benha. It looked like a small duck running in the streets of the City.
We caught it at the Nile bank, from where it would take us to the airport.
My friends were engaged in a conversation from which I was far removed, due to the worry and the thoughts in my head. What if I went to the airport and there were a problem in serving the army certificate, if it weren’t clear enough, or something with my passport? And the ticket to Ecuador itself – who traveled to Ecuador? Where was Ecuador on the map. The state bureaucracy always smashed us. It didn’t feel for the people as it felt for filling out the paperwork and following the rules. As if we’d been created to serve the system rather than the other way around.
I was thinking about my experience of taking a leave without pay from my work in Shobra City. I had written a request of just two lines on a long piece of paper. The director of the school signed and stamped it as did the manager, referring it to his superior in the region. I went to see this man at another school. He signed it without agreeing or disagreeing, just referring it to his superior. The regional education board signed and stamped and referred it to the provincial board. The first page was so full of signatures and stamps, we moved to the back of the paper. In the office of the provincial education board there were three offices and signatures and stamps until me and the request arrived to the Chairman of the board, whom I could only see one day of the week. When I entered, he looked at the request and he signed, “no,” we don’t have enough of your specialty. I went through this circle three times, same signature, same stamps and same result until a friend of mine told me, finish the request in Shobra when you come to the Province board in Benha, there is someone I know in the province. He could finish this request with some money. And it happened. The request was done in minutes with the power of the mysterious Egyptian pounds.
Even the contract that I brought proving I would work in Ecuador was fake. But the mysterious power of money made the bureaucracy move with the speed of light. I took one year unpaid relief at work and received the request at home. I didn’t even have to go to the offices of the provinces.