This short personal essay originally appeared in Akhbar al-Adab in 2018 and appears here with the author’s gracious permission.
By Mahmoud Atef
Translated by Rahma Bavelaar
Each morning, the little boy would come to my family’s home in the village, wriggling out from between his father, his big brother, and the pickup-truck driver. Because he spoke with a lisp, I liked to ask him to say his name. The not-yet-eight-year-old would answer: “Nasy Sayah Abu Gayeesha,” meaning Nasr Salah Abu Graysha (Muhammad Salah Abu Graysha was a famous soccer player with the Ismailia team). In those early years of the new millennium, I’d laugh tenderly and perhaps ruffle his hair.
During that period and for several years before, my family plied a summer trade in a farmer’s collective for the harvesting of jasmine flowers. Our village acquired some renown for cultivating this aromatic and quite lucrative plant. Every morning, from dawn till after sunrise, the farmers would pick the pungent jasmine blossoms off the bush, its green branches unfurling around the trunk like a Romani girl’s locks; the shrub itself hardly reached up to a grown boy’s shoulder. Every day, they would bring in their harvest. We’d weigh it, record the quantity, then place it in yellow crates, like those usually used to carry live poultry. Around the time the sun reached its zenith, we would distribute the whole load to a few of the factories that specialized in the extraction of the flower’s raw essence. The product was eventually exported to France and to other leading perfume manufacturers.
The father of the boy with the lisp was in charge of a small harvesting collective. Every day, he gathered what the farmers had reaped and delivered it to us to add to our pickings. The ride in the pickup truck was fun for a young child, even within the confines of the village; and all the more so when the naughty child refused to sit in his designated spot next to the driver and instead joined his big brother in the open cargo area, behind the crates of jasmine. The two boys delighted in watching the hustle and bustle of the village streets, or hurling insults at the rascals who tried to mount the moving truck and to grab its tailgate.
The boy’s family was the only one in the village that supported the Ismailia soccer team. Until this very day, I have no idea why. He told me with that children’s lisp of his: “Nasy Sayah Abu Giyeesha knows Muhammad Salah Abu Graysha. He knows where he plays and he likes and supports him.” The family’s surname was not actually Abu Graysha, so we laughed. We all laughed—his father, my uncles, his slightly older brother, the pick-up drivers and I—because of the lisp and the stolen name, while his brother busied himself with lifting the baskets of jasmine from in front of me or my brother and placing them on the large iron scale. The eldest boy’s name was Muhammad. He loved soccer, too—a maestro already—and was a full nine years younger than me. Had we gone along with the little lisper’s joke, his big brother would have been a twelve-year-old Muhammad Salah Abu Graysha.
My mom said: “Did you see the trash that girl wrote about your cousin Maggie?”
“What can you do,” I said, “that’s the life of the rich and famous…”
I urged her not to waste her time responding to the girl who had made fun of her niece’s outfit when she joined her husband on the field.
Mom recently created a Facebook account, and, like the average Egyptian mother (pardon the generalization) she deals with her page like a large private living room. The family’s womenfolk and a bevy of female colleagues are treated to well-wishes for the successes of sons and the marriages of daughters. They exchange funny video clips, religious video clips, and video clips accompanied by music—of the melodramatic kind, of course—that emphasize the importance of mothers. She also posts videos and images emblazoned with flowers that gently rain down from the sky, accompanied by invocations for the living and deceased. To these, she adds a prayer of her own: “God, protect my sons Mahmoud and Muhammad and make them a source of blessings for me.”
Mama went on: “Your cousin is actually really cute and humble in her fashion choices.”
I explained that some beauty standards have become dominant around the world, and that all of us have internalized them in one way or the other; sometimes consciously, but usually not.
“Add to that,” I continued, “that your niece and her husband are a new phenomenon on those famed European and international soccer fields. Some people here in Egypt, and women in particular, compare her to the European players’ wives that appeal to them and who they like to imitate. What matters, my dear, is that he loves her and she loves him.”
At this point, my mom’s eyes sparkled, as if she’d remembered something dear to her heart. She smiled and then abruptly launched into an anecdote about the love story of her niece’s eldest son, the young man who used to pick up the baskets of jasmine blossoms in front of me to place them on the large metal scale.
Mama never misses a chance to show off with this story; nor does she suffer from a lack of opportunities, what with the eldest boy having grown up to wag all the world’s tongues. How could she not repeat it to me once again after I’d opened the door so willingly?
And so mama tells me about the engagement party of Maggie’s twin sister. How Maggie’s husband stood close to her the entire time—in my maternal uncle’s home, may God have mercy on him—with his hand wrapped around her shoulder. And of the time he shamelessly grabbed her palm and kissed it in front of everyone, even though provincial bashfulness rejects such behavior. “Let them witness true love!” mama said.
Every time he appeared on TV, in an advertisement or soccer match; or even when he spotted his picture on the wall of my uncle’s home, my nephew Mazen would yell: “Muhammad Salaaaaah.” Little Mazen, not yet three, would run back and forth through the family home, kicking about his many soccer balls with his left foot and chanting: “Shoot, Salah! Goal, Salah!” Then, “Shoot, Hoda!”
“Not now, Mazen,” I’d tell him. “I’m going to read.” He’d then bounce up and down by my side, demanding we read together, then reaching out to twiddle with the pages.
When Mazen performed his shouting game in front of my aunt (Maggie’s mom), she’d say: “I must tell him about you.” She’d later return from her visit to Liverpool, carrying many gifts from Maggie and Muhammad, among them kids’ size jerseys of the entire Liverpool team. Even a pair of sports socks, tiny as a hand, had not been forgotten. My aunt said that Salah wanted to print Mazen’s name on the shirt, in place of his own, but there hadn’t been enough time.
And so the eldest son became a global icon. And God enlarged the chests of men with great affection for him. His father continues to direct the jasmine collective, while my family left the business many years ago. The young man no longer lifts crates of jasmine, and neither do I. Still, the smell of jasmine is never far from my mind, just as the smell of the ball never left the boy who became “Mo Salah.”
Mahmoud Atef is a published poet and essayist based in Cairo. His work has not yet been translated.
Rahma Bavelaar is an anthropologist and translator based between Cairo and Leiden.