“when I come back
we will go out together,
we will walk out together among
the ten thousand things,
each scratched too late with such knowledge, the wages
of dying is love.” — Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares
When I was in middle school, my father would come by my room every other weekend and ask if I had a new story. If I did, I’d hand him the notebook where I penciled my stories and he’d sit at our dining table and read, his eyebrows furrowed in concentration. He’d smile sometimes or stop to ask me to read a word of my Arabic handwriting.
One story entitled “Why?” was about a little girl who keeps asking her grandfather a series of why’s on their way to the mosque. Why are there buildings? Why do you have a white beard? Why doesn’t God talk to us anymore? Why do we all have to die?
The following week, when we had guests over, my Dad turned to me and, in a lower voice said, “Bring out your notebook.”
“I’d like you to read that story of yours, the one with the little girl and her grandpa.”
I squirmed in my seat. “I don’t feel like reading it,” I said.
“Well then, I’ll read it,” my father said, patting my back. “Just go get the notebook.”
And minutes later, mortified, I handed him my notebook. He gave my juvenile prose his best performance — he read gracefully, pausing at all the right places.
I can trace a faint, zig-zagging line from that story in the notebook to the words I’m writing now. That first reading was fifteen years ago, at our home in Muscat, Oman. We’d relocated from Alexandria, Egypt (our hometown) to Muscat when I was in 4th grade. At the time, my two brothers and sister were all pursuing their undergraduate degrees in Egypt. The first Muscat apartment I remember was the one bedroom my family rented two blocks away from a cemetery. It sat in the shadow of a copper-colored hill, shielded from the hot desert winds. Each grave was marked with a nameless and silent stone, reddish brown and no bigger than a closed fist, that perhaps only the deceased’s loved ones could recognize.
There were no walls and no gates, only the desert and the dead.
My Dad and I would pass by it on our drive home from school. Sometime in the summer of my ninth birthday, I remember sitting next to him in our silver Nissan looking out the window. It was early May; the air conditioning was busted and our front windows were down. A warm, dusty breeze brushed against my cheeks. Dad’s square frame glasses kept sliding down his plump nose and he pressed a thick finger against the bridge to push them back into place. As we drove up the hill, he spotted me staring. “Do you know what to say at a cemetery?”
“You say what the Prophet Mohammed said.” He pushed his glasses to his eyes again. “Peace be upon you, grave dwellers. You left first and we will be coming later.”
My eyes still fixed on the scattered stones, I muttered the prayer to myself. As we drove on, I thought of how there weren’t many dead in my family; only my father’s older brother, whose first name I shared, who’d died the year I was born.
When I went to sleep that night, I dreamt of the stones levitating towards the sky until they blocked the stars. I was overcome with an urge to see them land, for the dead to remain undisturbed. “Get down!” I yelled. “Get down and I’ll give you some names!”
We lived by that cemetery until I graduated high school. By that point, I had mostly lost interest in writing, aside from the poetry I scribbled with a green ink pen in the back of my high school math notebook. My father was sixty when I was done with high school and all my siblings were married; my eldest brother had settled his family in Oman, my second brother in Alexandria and my sister split her time between Cairo and Alexandria with her husband. As for my father, he retired from his job as a high school math teacher and we all moved back to Alexandria. I lived in the family home, studied computer engineering at the local university while my father attuned himself to the quiet life of an Egyptian retiree. He walked to the neighborhood mosque five times a day, made spiced falafel from scratch every Friday afternoon and spent Tuesday mornings with a home tutor who taught him the many rules of reciting the Qura’n.
As the years passed, the circle of things my parents did narrowed down; my mom beset by bouts of hypertension, joint pain and heart disease, my father maneuvering his type-2 diabetes. I helped around the house — I washed the dishes some days, took out the trash, ironed shirts and headscarves. Some nights in Ramadan I prepared the late night meal for all three of us for the following day’s long fast — boiling eggs, drizzling olive oil over the cooked fava beans, mixing viscous bowls of molasses and tahini.
Then, ten months after graduation, I was leaving. I got a job offer to work as a software engineer for Berkeley Labs in Northern California. I was set to travel and start there sometime in April 2014. My father’s eyes would shine with pride when my new job was brought up in family gatherings. He’d pat my back with a large hand.“The family’s American,” he’d call me.
I had wanted this job, the opportunity to start a life this early in America more than anything else I remember wanting. In the days right after I got my offer I spent hours looking up Wikipedia articles on California — its Hayward fault and its national parks, its drought and its Golden Gate Bridge that I remembered from the aerial shots on Full House. One day, as I sat glued to my laptop in the living room, my father turned to me.
“Soon, you’ll leave us,” he announced. He paused, seemingly perplexed by his own words. “Will you miss us when you go?”
“I’m sure you and Mom will come visit very soon,” I said, choosing not to address his question. “As soon as I’m settled in. And till then we can always Skype!”
My Dad laughed weakly. “Of course! Skype!”
He looked like he wanted to believe me but couldn’t quite bring himself to. Then he got up and walked to his bedroom and I sat there, absently scrolling through the Google Images results for “Yosemite.”
A month later, I had a visa interview scheduled for 8 a.m at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. My father drove me the three-hour trip the night before. Since my sister was staying in Alexandria at the time, we spent the night at her empty Cairo apartment, about an hour’s drive from the embassy.
As we prepared to leave the next morning, my Dad wanted to take back a large two-shelf bookcase he’d lent my sister. He used wet kitchen towels to wipe its mahogany shelves clean then wrapped a kleenex around his finger to get to the sharp corners. I kept checking my watch to see if we were running late. We carried the bookcase to the car. We dipped one half of it into the trunk but that was as far as it could fit, the rest of it bulged out.
“Let’s try the backseat,” Dad said, as we took it out and he slammed the trunk shut. I watched him for a second, my paperwork tucked under my arm. Then he squatted to carry one end of the bookcase and I stepped in to help. I could see it wouldn’t fit in the backseat either but I lifted up. My Dad started huffing as he pushed the bookcase down into the backseat, trying to get its top squeezed under the car’s roof.
I stepped back. He pressed his palms against the bookcase and pushed again.
“Dad,” I said. But he wasn’t listening. He pulled the passenger seat all the way forward to make room then stood with his back against the bookcase, pushing his full weight against it.
“Where will I sit then?” I asked.
He stared at me like I was speaking a foreign language. “In the backseat, next to it.” There were little droplets of sweat on his forehead now, glistening in the sunlight. “Could you go to the other side and pull it and I’ll push from here?”
“We’re running really late.”
My Dad stopped shoving for a second. “This is important,” he said.
“Why?” I said, hearing the irritation in my voice. “They sell bookcases in Alexandria. Can we just go?”
He stared at me, his back still firm against the bookcase. He wiped his forehead, took off his glasses and started cleaning them with the bottom of his sweater. He looked disappointed — in his car, in me, in this goddamned bookcase, but mostly in himself. I had never seen him like that before. He looked very old.
He turned and gave it one last sad shove before starting to wrestle what did fit of it out the car. He didn’t look me in the eye as we carried it back upstairs.
We ended up arriving early. Then, upon arriving, the embassy delayed my appointment by an hour. I was still angry at my Dad anyways. It was a good distraction from my interview nerves. We waited at a small cafe a block away and I drank my coffee in silence.
My Dad’s spirits were up though; driving in the empty morning streets did that for him. Since I wasn’t talking, he started fidgeting with his phone. He took a few photographs of his latte art and put one on the family’s WhatsApp group chat. I remained silent then took out a book and started reading. So he snapped a photo of me, reading, and put that there too. I only realized he’d taken my photo when I saw the notification on my phone. He captioned it, “If he’s giving me the silent treatment when he’s here, I don’t think our American will be calling much when he leaves!”
When I looked up at him, he chuckled slightly, shaking his head. “Made you look,” he said. I felt my shoulder muscles relax a little. I smiled.
“Nervous about the interview?” he asked.
“About this whole thing.”
“It’s what you want, right?”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I tried listening for some answer inside but I couldn’t hear any. I opened my eyes again. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s what I want.”
“Good,” he said, smiling. “Just don’t start reading when you’re across the same table from someone and you’ll do fine.”
At the embassy, I got stuck in ‘Administrative Processing,’ a bureaucratic black hole that meant my visa could take a few more months to be approved. My Dad didn’t suggest we go try again with the bookcase.
Three days later, while hanging out at a friend’s house, I got a call from my sister. “You need to come back home,” she said. “Dad is really sick.”
“He seemed perfectly fine when I left an hour ago,” I said.
I heard her breathing.
“He’s really sick, it’s a stomach bug of some sort,” she said. “Just come home.”
A few minutes later, I was hurrying back home. As I entered our building, the nighttime security guard looked solemnly at me and said, “It’s just life.” I was confused by what he meant and, in my hurry to reach the house, I only muttered a quiet “Thanks.”
When I got to the apartment, my older brother, a doctor, opened the door. My brother had always been elegant but that evening, the first two buttons on his shirt were flung open. The whites of his eyes were blood red. He walked me, without saying a word, through the hallway, to the doorway of my parents’ bedroom. I could see my father lying face-up on the bed, his eyes shut.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Why is he unconscious?”
“He’s not unconscious.”
For a brief moment I was confused. I started crying and my brother held my face to his shoulder as I heaved deep wails into it. I stepped away and walked into the bedroom, crawling onto the bed next to my father. The room’s air conditioner was turned on full blast and the space was unusually cold. My father’s eyes were closed, his face contorted into a frown. I put my lips to his cheek and kissed him then put an arm around his body, my ears pressed against his chest.
Then, jolting up, I moved my face away from his, expecting him to wake up and need a bit of personal space. I put my hand on top of his chest but my hand just stayed there.
I stepped out of the room and texted the friend I was visiting earlier that night. “My father just died.” A steady stream of people filled the house: relatives, family friends, my friends, friends of my siblings.
I called my best friend at the time, Ahmad. I remember the way he opened his arms and rushed towards me when I answered the door. We stepped into the kitchen and I sat on a stool and I cried until I lost my breath, his blue shirt turning a deep navy blue from my tears.
I went out to the crowded living room and found a place to sit. A friend of my brother’s leaned in and told me to “be strong for your mother and sister.” I hated him then, wished someone he loved would die right that moment as cosmic revenge. Then I would stare at him and throw that meaningless command back in his face: Be strong.
The following day, more relatives and friends arrived. A bearded imam came by and washed my father’s body and shrouded it in long sheets of cotton cloth suffused with musk and frankincense. My brothers, my male cousins and I carried my father on our shoulders; he was heavy, his weight pressing hard against the nape of my neck. We maneuvered him down the six floors from our apartment to the building’s entrance. In the hearse, I tried to touch his hand but the layers of cotton were too thick under my fingertips. He was laid deep in the sand, next to his brother.
After the burial, an old childhood friend of my father’s with thin grey hair and a shiny forehead stopped me and shook my hand. He had countless wrinkles around his shrunken eyes, square-frame glasses and little brown spots on the back of his hands. He turned his head in the direction of my Dad’s grave and his eyes went glassy. “We’re just dropping each other off,” he said.
I’m not sure what to call the period that followed the burial. I suppose the traditional word is ‘grief.’ The main ingredient of grief is a painful and mind-bendingly powerless emptiness — like undergoing heart surgery while paralyzed and conscious. There are other ingredients; self-hatred and a starry-eyed kind of madness. It would be a simpler world if we could rid ourselves of grief by simply crying long enough.
Some days no tears would come and I’d spend time cataloguing my memories, trying to make sense of the mundane or the seemingly symbolic. I thought again of that cemetery in Oman, of the quiet, unnamed stones. My Dad wasn’t buried there but still, I wanted it to be important, to shine with meaning. We experience our life and then, years later, we try and force some significance to it. “Here,” we demand of the past, “mean something!” But the past — with its harsh light, the sound of its voice, the whiff of its smell — is experienced once and then it dissolves into air, quicker than breath. It has neither narrative nor intention. It just was. What we end up keeping are fragments, shards like broken glass inside our brains.
Still other days, there weren’t even those shards. There was only the emptiness. Afternoons spent fantasizing about opening my skull, grabbing an icepick and messing around the folds of my brain until all the lights switched off inside. But I was scared to die and there was enough loss in that house already to last a lifetime. In any case, I chose to live. Then what was left was time, one day folding into the next.
In May 2014, a week before I traveled to California for my new job, a month and a half after my father died, I walked into the cemetery in Alexandria where he was buried for the first time after his burial. I took note of the gravestones. There were names here. Each grave was constructed out of a bed of white concrete, about three feet high, with a short column coming out one end. Inscribed in cursive Arabic script on a small sheet of marble embedded in the concrete, every name was suffixed with a short prayer: “May they be forgiven.”
My Dad’s gravestone was smaller than others in the cemetery; a short red-brick frame with a plaque of white marble embedded in the centre. I couldn’t take my eyes off that plaque: the engraving of his name, the layout of the words, it was all unremarkable, like every other plaque here. These gravestones weren’t designed as lasting monuments to the dead, they were reminders to the living. You left first and we will be coming later.
Dad’s plaque had black engraving that gleamed in the sunlight. The calligraphist, burdened perhaps by the sheer volume of the plaques he had to produce in a single day, had done a sloppy job engraving the Arabic letters and they jutted at awkward angles. The end product was overcrowded writing. Above my father’s name were carved a few verses from the Qura’n:
To the righteous it will be said: "Reassured soul,
Return to your Lord, well-pleased and pleasing to Him,
And enter among My righteous servants
And enter My Paradise."
I said the verses loud enough for me to hear them. At the time, I had been a lapsed Muslim for a few years but I still sensed the longing in the verses’ cadence, in their certainty of redemption. When I fixed my eyes on the words, they seemed to vibrate in the afternoon sun. I whispered a few of them to myself. “Return. Well-pleased. Paradise.”
I’d watched people talking to graves in movies and feeling quite good about themselves once they did. So I sat, cross-legged, next to the grave.
“Hi Dad,” I said. “Everything’s going well. I got my visa a couple of days ago, I’ll be traveling to California in a week.”
Then I paused, waiting for a response. A small cat with brown and white fur creeped by. It sniffed at the sand around the gravestone then walked on. I thought of how stupid I looked, sitting here, talking to bricks, waiting for them to talk back.
I stared at my uncle’s name on the grave next to my Dad’s. My Dad had named me after my uncle so my first name and my last name were up there. Even my birth year, my uncle’s death year, was up there. But none of these words really meant anything. I was looking at symbols I didn’t understand. I felt something in me wither.
My Dad was not here. The bricks didn’t have to tell me that. Dad’s body was here, useless and expired, with fingers that couldn’t touch and ears that couldn’t hear.
I tried to remember the way my Dad’s laugh sounded. I closed my eyes and tried but no matter how vividly I visualized the way his shoulders hunched when he laughed, I couldn’t hear the gently guttural sound of his laughter in my head. The memory receded even as my fingertips reached to touch it. It was like trying to catch light.
A week later, I got on a plane that took me halfway across the world, to Berkeley, California. On the screen in front of my seat, there was a display of how many miles it has been and how many were left. I munched on microwaved chicken and watched, in a sort of fascinated dread, as that counter counted away every mile I crossed.
Northern California felt like an obscenely happy place. My first two months, I stayed in a Berkeley sublet. The undergrad tenant had left a half-full purple basket of laundry in the closet and there were two handwritten birthday cards, one red and one yellow hung above his desk with double-stick tape. They were both signed, “Love.” Sunday mornings, I walked around the town and the UC Berkeley campus, took photos of street musicians in brightly colored shirts and put them on Facebook. I captioned them, “California!”
There were lush hills and parks full of flowers with shades of purple I didn’t even realize existed. Across the Bay, San Francisco pulsed with some promise of rebirth, a dream of conquering forces greater than its inhabitants. Even the streets felt like they were built in defiance of gravity itself.
Soon, I sunk into a routine. I wrote code in the mornings and the afternoons, grabbed Chinese takeout in the evenings and then came back and spent the nights in a sort of restless agitation. I had little appetite for new people or things. Mostly, I felt guilty.
Some nights it was as if I was stuck on the wrong end of the planet. I’d start dialing my mother’s number then catch sight of the time and realize it was still very early in Alexandria. I didn’t know what to do with myself those nights. So, years out of middle school, I started writing stories again.
The first story I wrote in America was called “A Prolonged Existence” about an old woman, who was killed by a thunderstrike, and was being interviewed for a profile by a journalist in Heaven. The story alternated between interview excerpts and narrative sections that followed the medical team examining her thunderstruck corpse on Earth. It was quite terrible.
But, shitty prose or not, I had words now; words that couldn’t disappear into air. I could pluck the shards out and thread them together into sentences, images, turns of phrase, the sights and the smells. For only a few hours, these broken pieces were outside me, alive and glinting.
So I kept on with it. Some of my stories were a couple of pages long, most ended mid-sentence or mid-paragraph. I wrote more or less the same story, told tens of different ways; all of them flawed, all of them mine. When I wasn’t working or writing, I read short stories; records of people who had looked at the world with clarity and empathy and care and then wrote sentences that electrified my nerve endings.
It was all very new to me, that world, that magic in language. It still is. The way I was first taught to write included a formula to end things. “Always start your last paragraph with ‘In conclusion,’ or ‘To summarize,’” I was told in middle school. “Indicate finality.” I realize now that the reason I was taught to write this way was to emphasize that it had all led somewhere. That I, the writer, had a point — an objective meaning that could be laid down on the page in the word-by-word sequence of written English, preferably in a single sentence.
But, to tell you the truth, I don’t think there is such an objective meaning here. Not right now anyways and even if there was, it seems quite impenetrable to me and it’s certainly not anything that I can verbalize or put on a page, one word after the next.
Yet stories are all we have. Narratives on narratives. I don’t have access to any other stories other than my own. But what can one do with a story like mine, I wonder? The more I revisit it, the less sense it seems to make. The truth is: I don’t know if I understand death or grief or myself better or worse than when I first saw my Dad lying on his bed that night, his eyelids shut, his skin cold, his chest unmoving. I don’t know if I ever will. Perhaps there are mental monsters that aren’t meant to be subdued but wrestled with, caged temporarily before escaping again, tamer and less violent than before; soothed by the feeling, however delusional, of being somewhat, finally, understood.
Hamdy Elgammal is a software engineer and writer based in Berkeley, CA. In his free time he takes writing classes and plays abysmal piano. His prose has been published or is forthcoming in Bourbon Penn, Easy Street, Jersey Devil Press and Cease, Cows. Find him on his website at: https://sites.google.com/site/hamdyelgammaldev/.