Like An Egyptian Movie | Ron Barkai
(English Translation by Sondra Silverston)
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When my first son was born, I was the happiest person in the world. How can I forget that night… pitch black on the last day of October, the winter hadn't started yet, but it was raining cats and dogs. As usual, I went to the bakery in the evening; I mixed the large lump of dough, sliced it into loaves of one kilo each and was about to put them into the oven when I saw my boss open his office window and signal me to leave everything and come inside right away. I did, and he shook my hand and said, "Congratulations! You have a boy, he weighs two kilos four hundred and everything's fine. They just called from the hospital."
I thought I'd go crazy with happiness. I left the office and started yelling, singing and dancing around the bakery. I grabbed handfuls of flour from each table I passed and threw it in the air. The large workroom was completely white, like Jerusalem on snowy days… My boss said, "Okay, that's enough work for today. Take your bike and go to see your son."
"You know that work is sacred to me," I replied, "and they won't let me into the hospital in the middle of the night anyway. We'll finish the baking and then I'll go."
I got to the hospital early in the morning, as wet from the rain as if I'd been washing floors. I ran to the maternity ward and saw my mother in the doorway holding the baby in her arms, pressed to her breast. I said to myself, if she's already started spoiling him now, nothing good will come of it. One thing I can't stand is spoiled children. That picture of my mother holding my son is engraved deeply in my memory, an omen. The lives of those two was so intertwined that even the boy's mother, who gave birth to him, could not come between them.
Twenty-seven years later, I went back to that same hospital and saw that same picture, only reversed. On the afternoon of that day, I went to the terminal ward where the old woman was dying. The cancer had already eaten away all the organs in her withered body. I opened the door and saw him sitting on the bed, both his arms around my shrunken mother, clutching her to his chest and swaying as if he were trying to rock her to sleep.
We looked at one another for a long while without saying a word. Nothing, not even hello. I left the room and went to Jaffa Street to catch a bus back to Tel Aviv.
The last few years, ever since I began living alone in an apartment in the housing projects, I've had a lot of time to think. I come back from work to an apartment that has no people, no house wares, no furniture, put a large pot on the stove and cook fasulia for myself, even though it's deadly for my ulcer. But it's the only hot food I know how to make, and besides, the white beans remind me of the food my mother used to make for us in Cairo and Jerusalem. Om Kolthum or Leila Murad sing on the Voice of Cairo, and I warm my hands on the aluminum pot that's already started boiling.
The questions bore into my head on their own, like sharp wooden screws twisting in raw flesh, piercing and penetrating to the brain. At such moments, when the sharp odor of the fasulia has already filled the kitchen, I ask myself over and over again, why does he, that son I wanted so much, make me so furious? How did those moments of such great joy, when they told me at the bakery that my first son had been born, turn into something else… something I can't really explain either. And then my head fills with sounds and images that have one thing in common: crying.
At first it was just the ordinary crying of babies when they're hungry or have gas whirling around in their bellies, or the sobbing of a little boy whose forehead is burning with fever. People will say that it's natural for babies to cry in those situations. But for me, it was completely unnatural to endure that endless crying after a whole night of exhausting work in front of the blazing oven. I'd close my eyes so tightly that I could feel them burn and fill with moisture. But still, that maddening crying of babies was stronger than the fatigue, conquered it and didn't let sleep take me to another place.
People think it's simple - if you work during the day, you sleep at night; if you work at night, you sleep during the day. I can tell them from my own experience, it's not simple at all, at least for the first few years. Every small beam of light that entered the bedroom was like an iron scalpel pushing under my eyelids to pry them open. Every slight noise in the bedroom or outside it smashed against my head like a hammer. And now, on top of everything, that child's crying has appeared in my life. It sleeps at night when I'm working in the bakery, and is as annoying as a dripping gutter pipe during the day just when I'm trying to get a few hours of rest.
I remember. I wake up in the late afternoon, rush to get ready to go to work, and then his mother comes into the bedroom, hands me the baby and says, "Come on, hold the baby for a while so he can feel you, your skin, your smell, so he'll know you're his father."
In my heart, I know she's right. I have to hold my son close to my body, to wrap my hands around that tiny little thing, after all, he's part of me. But I can't even bring myself to touch him. My nerves go crazy inside me like two electric wires touching each other and creating sparks. I lower my head and say quietly to her, "Take this crybaby away from me or I'll smash his face in!"
Yes, I remember, even when he was still an infant, I called him a crybaby. The years passed, the infant grew into a child and the little crybaby became a big one. A child who cried all the time, for no good reason. I decided that the crying was part of his character. Already then, I had a bad feeling; I looked at him, saw those eyes flooded with tears, and a Ladino expression came to my mind: crying eyes will bring only sighs.
His mother decided to make a picture album for me "so you can see the way the boy develops over the years." Every two, three months, she'd dress him up like an Austrian prince, comb the few light hairs on his head, and take him to be photographed in the studio across the street from Bikur Holim hospital. When the photos came, she sat for hours pasting them on the pages of the album at strange angles, adding dried anemones between them. People looking at the album would burst out laughing. After turning a few pages, they'd look up from the pictures and ask, always the same question, "What are you doing to your son, why is he crying in every picture?"
And the truth is that it was a strange thing, very hard to explain. During that period, I thought the boy had some defect, that something had happened to him during the birth. But today, with the distance of the years, I'm sure it was because of the sad songs my mother used to sing to him from the day he was born. Especially the song, "Crying Trees."
Those two, my son and his grandmother, were like milk in coffee. She'd come home dead tired from cleaning the bakery, but instead of going to her place to rest a little, she'd rush over to our apartment. You'd think she hadn't seen him in years. And he, as stubborn as a Jerusalem stone, didn't want anyone else to watch him, play with him or pick him up. He always ran away from the house to the corner of the courtyard where his grandmother lived, knocked on her door and yelled, "Nona, Nona!" And when he'd see that she wasn't home, he's sit down in the corner near the well and cry.
When he was three, that shameful habit cost him dearly. Diamanta, my mother's neighbor, was a laundress. She'd collect the dirty laundry of the families that lived in the wealthy Rehavia quarter and give them back bundles of clean, pressed laundry. Back then, they used coal irons. They'd fill the iron with burning coals until it became white hot, and then they'd press the sheets, towels, and clothes. After a day's work, she used to leave the iron on the rocks in the middle of the yard to cool off. On that day, right after she took the iron off the rock, he went looking for his grandmother. When he didn't find her, he started crying and sat down right on the rock that had just absorbed all the heat of the red iron. That time, I have to admit, he had a good reason not only to cry, but to scream so loudly that everyone in the neighboring courtyards heard him.
At night, when he was already in bed, my mother used to come to sing him some songs in Ladino, Duerma, Duerma, and lots of others. She had a nice voice, and I used to stand behind the door to listen to those songs she'd never sung to me. When my mother sang, he didn't cry, I could hear his voice asking for another song, and another. She could go through all the songs she knew and start over again. He'd hold her hand and wouldn't let her leave. Finally, the crybaby would calm down, but only after she promised to take him for a walk in balid elmishanot, an imaginary place she invented especially for him, a place that belonged to them alone.
I know my explanation doesn't sound logical. Who could believe that a song turned a child into a crybaby? But I believe it, because I know my mother, because I saw with my own eyes, more than once, what that old lady could do with her powers and with all the strange things that fellah Gamilla had taught her in Cairo.
That boy, when he was happy, had eyes flooded with tears, and when he was sad, streams of water flowed from them. I'd say something nice to him, put my hand on his head, he'd look at me with happy eyes and… cry. I got mad at him or his mother, cursed them in Arabic, he'd wet his shirt from so much crying. He cried without making a sound, as if he himself was ashamed of it. But it was that silent crying that aggravated me more than anything. I'd tell him, "If you're already crying, do it with your whole heart, so they can hear you up in the sky!"
All I wanted was for that boy to be strong, to get the better of his namby-pamby nature.
When he was seven, the doctors said he had to have his tonsils removed. That was the only way, they said, to put a stop to the throat infections and high fever he got every two weeks. I said to him, "If you're a man and you don't cry, I'll buy you a nice present when you get out of the hospital."
When they took him to the operating room, he really didn't cry. Only when it was all over and he woke up from the anesthesia and said to his mother, "Tell Papa I didn't cry!" did the tears start pouring from his eyes and never stop.
A few years later, when we were living in the housing projects, I heard talk about an educational movie that was playing at the Tamar, "The Bicycle Thieves", it was called. Personally, I don't like movies. Except for Egyptian movies, but I like them because of the songs, not because of the plot. For me, all the other movies are just a waste of time and money. Still, I told myself, never mind, make the effort, take your son to the movies once, the hell with the money, maybe something good for his education will come out of it. I put him on the handlebars of my bike and we rode to Tel Aviv.
We're sitting in a dark hall and I'm looking at him, he's at the movies for the first time. And what do I see? From the minute the movie starts, he's crying. Water doesn't stop running from his eyes and his nose, and he wipes it on the sleeve of the new shirt his mother made. I ask him in a whisper, so I won't annoy the people sitting next to us, "Why are you crying?"
And he, barely able to talk because of the crying, sniffs and says, "Because the movie's sad."
That was too much, I couldn't control myself and yelled, "Stupid idiot, life is one long sad movie, and anyone who cries is showing that he doesn't know how to act in that movie. So do yourself and me a favor and stop whining like a girl!"
Now he's crying twice as hard, because of the movie and because I'm mad at him. The people around us move in their seats and shush us. That makes me feel bad, because we didn't come all the way here to bother them. I grab him tightly by his shirt and we leave in the middle of the movie.
That's life, it happens a lot that you do something with good intentions, but it turns out all wrong, more of a loss than a gain, like they say. My son didn't learn a thing from the movie, "The Bicycle Thieves", but on that day, he developed a passion for the movies. In our neighborhood community center, they showed a movie for kids every Friday afternoon. Before I took him to the Tamar, it never entered his mind to waste the little bit of money we had on junk like Tarzan or cowboys and Indians. But on that rash day I spent in the Tamar movie house, a new nightmare began.
Friday, after a long night of baking challahs, I'm resting in bed all day. I need to get back my strength, to get rid of the tiredness of the whole exhausting week in front of the blazing ovens. And it's then, the time I need quiet, that I hear him and his brother plotting behind the door, they want money from me for the movie at the community center. He pushes the little one forward and says, "Go ask, go, he won't do anything to you!" Even though I can't see them, I know that the little one won't give in, he'll just look at him and smile without saying a word, that's the kind of kid he is! In the end, neither one comes into the bedroom. It goes on like that until their mother opens the door and says in Ladino so they won't understand, "Why don't you give them a few pennies so they can go to the movies and feel like other children."
"That's not the way to educate children," I tell her, "You spoil them like their teachers. What do you mean, they should feel like other children? They have to know that some people have and others don't, and that's a fact! I didn't get money for movies from my parents either, I had to work hard for everything, to struggle, and they're not better than me!"
She gets mad, puts her hands around their shoulders and says to me, "You are the cruelest person I ever met! A father who treats his children…"
Then I answer her with a clever saying, and after that, she has nothing else to say: "You can burn a crooked tree, but you can't make it straight! You have a choice, you can take your children and go to hell with them."
She looks at me with eyes red with hate, and that was the end of the argument. The woman doesn't say a word, stands in the doorway mute, her arms at her sides, her hands clenched into fists as if she's holding a gold coin in each one.
All those years, I felt like I'd fathered a snail, a slug, not a son. Still, there were days when I said to myself, it's not so bad, it'll pass, he'll grow up and get strong, be a man. That's what I thought until he turned thirteen. I'm looking at him from the side and see that he's a stocky boy, like a camel. His hands are strong and muscular, his chest is wide and well-developed, and he even has the first signs of a mustache. I say to myself, maybe his bar-mitzvah celebration will be a turning point. It's a chance to make a really big party, and then maybe he'll stop crying.
First, I sent him to the cantor. For three months, the cantor taught him to chant the weekly portion of the Torah and the Haftarah, to prepare him to be called up to read from the Torah, and most important of all, to help him learn to chant Kaddish. I asked the cantor, "How much do I owe you for making my son into a Jewish man?"
He didn't even want to hear about money, "We're friends," he told me, "and teaching my friends' sons is it's own reward!"
Second, I took a big loan from the bank and rented a hall across the street from the Eden movie house. So there'd be room for all the family and friends. I told my wife and she, at least in this case, agreed with me, I wouldn't give anybody an excuse to bad-mouth me by saying I won't spend money on my own son's bar-mitzvah!
A month before the bar-mitzvah, Hagai, his uncle, came to see us. He brought two typewritten pages with him. It was the drosh, the speech he wrote especially for my son to read to all the guests in the hall. It was a nice drosh that started with, "Even as this child has entered into the Covenant, so may he enter into the Law" and ended with "We will set Jerusalem above our highest joy." The boy read the two pages to himself and said to us, "No, I won't read it. It's too religious! It's my bar-mitzvah and I want to write my own speech, things I really feel and not just the same old things everyone repeats like parrots."
His uncle was insulted, looked at him sadly, as if he was someone who had a serious disease. I said to him, "What's wrong with you, did you lose your mind? Look, we're doing everything for you, spending so much money. Your uncle spent a week writing the drosh and typing it, and you spit in our faces? Uncle Hagai is an educated man, he finished the seventh grade, and he reads books. What's the matter, you don't trust him to write you something nice?"
"I'm in the eighth grade," the fresh kid says, "and I read books too, so there's no reason I can't write it myself!"
After about an hour's worth of arguing, he would write, he wouldn't write, I got fed up with the whole thing and told him, "You want to write the drosh? Go right ahead! But we won't have anything to do with it. You pay, you invite your friends, do what you want…"
The big night arrived. We brought a lot of food from the house, all of it we made ourselves: hummus, tahini, stuffed vegetables, kebabs. I hired a good orchestra and we decorated the tables with lots of flowers. What I didn't have at my wedding, I had at my son's bar-mitzvah. And then came the high point of the evening: he walked onto the stage to read the drosh that his uncle had worked on to fix and improve. He starts reciting by heart, says two sentences, and I see he's choking, he can't go on. "Another disaster added on to my disasters," as the Arabic saying goes, my son is crying like a girl in the middle of his bar-mitzvah, just like that, for no reason. The hall is silent as the grave. The guests are embarrassed, don't know what to do with themselves. I see people playing with their silverware, others are looking down, checking the tips of their shoes. I get up, take my jacket and go to the seashore. From that day on, I knew that my son was hopeless. Now all he needed was to start getting his period and he'd be a perfect girl…