By Belal Fadl
Translated by James Scanlan
The whole country was shaken by his sudden murder; they felt as if they’d lost one of their own children.
In no time at all he’d become an object of pride for every citizen, and proof to all the world that this was a people who would never lose their brilliance or their ability to perform miracles.
No one remembers, now, who came up with “Miracle Child” as a name. It was probably because the child deserved no other title, and no one else deserved a title like that.
His miracle, put simply, was that he’d developed the ability to speak early. Very early, indeed. Not to the extent that he’d spoken in his cradle, of course. If he’d done that then the whole thing would’ve taken on other dimensions and sparked unnecessary religious uproar in a country where the flames of sectarian unrest are never still.
Quite the opposite—preachers of both religions absolutely loved him. And they milked him for all his worth in the belief that, since he could speak and was only six months old, he was conclusive evidence for the power of God.
A power that people no longer invoked.
When he first appeared on the most popular talk show, saying the name of whatever the host held in front of him, “Banana, pen, book, tissue, shirt, cup of water,” many thought he was just some undersized infant with stunted growth. And that his family had hidden his true age, claiming that him saying the names of things was a miracle.
Then, in a true stroke of genius, the show’s producers displayed his birth certificate live on air in the company of a Civil Registry representative (who was a man known for his piety). They’d brought in the country’s most celebrated paediatrician, too, who examined the child and confirmed him to be barely a whisker older than six months.
But then the dad snapped and, still live on air, pulled a Qur’an from his pocket and swore on it, saying:
“Lord, if we’ve been lying, render the kid incapable of leaving the studio with us.”
“May God ward evil away from you sir,” the presenter said in reproach, “We believe you!”
The presenter then had to apologize to the viewers when the sheer number of incoming calls crashed the show’s phone lines.
And she became exasperated as she read out an email from a viewer who claimed the show was engaged in some kind of dirty visual trickery and that the child was nothing more than an expensive doll of the kind sold in Europe. He wasn’t even man enough to attach his name to the message.
Caught up in her zeal, the presenter was compelled to ask the child’s parents to strip him naked live on TV. Millions sat and waited for the child to perform the miracle of doing a poo; if only to silence the voices that, in their complete absence of hope, found it too much of a stretch to believe that the country may have actual miracles of nature.
It took a bit of time, but came true in the end, and the people got the reassurance they desired.
In a matter of days, the Miracle Child became a national obsession. His house turned into a shrine where women who were late in having children would go and seek blessings. The ill came too, after having already bothered doctors to nausea with their pains, and made the father promise to let the child place his hand on the site of their ailments.
People suddenly stopped mentioning his name and in their collective conscience it soon shifted from “Miracle Child” to “Kid Sheikh.” The name spread fast like a fire raging through government archives.
This name was also the reason for God shining blessings on the child’s parents. Gifts and donations came from the greedy, from the ambitious, and from the oppressed alike. And they came too from those who, out of pure unconditional love, sought nothing more than the most modest of blessings in return.
In just a few days the narrow alley that had witnessed the child’s birth transformed from a miserable, foul-smelling blot into the most famous neighborhood in the whole country, complete with a constant stream of fancy cars.
What’s more, the mythical child’s blessings extended to the area’s unemployed youth who set themselves up as paid guides for the elite, for the foreign correspondents, and for the satellite TV presenters. And then also for all the tourists who came a-flocking on account of the child’s story having achieved world-wide fame.
The Kid Sheikh was nine months old by the time the government eventually turned up at the alley, late as usual. They came in the form of the capital’s governor and members of the ruling party from the district, plus a band of executive and low-level leaders.
The child’s father, who had never seen a government official in his life (nor in the lives of any of his forebears), bent down and kissed the feet of the new arrivals and made them swear to God that they wouldn’t take his son away.
This was following a rumour that the government had decided to nationalize his son to increase state revenues.
The esteemed visitors’ guards tired themselves silly trying to persuade the father to get to his feet for the sake of the country’s image in front of the foreign cameras. Though the father only responded when the governor swore, on his honor, that he’d been sent by the country’s ruler to extend his congratulations and to escort his son to the ruler’s palace that very evening. For the ruler was to announce the payment of a special pension that the child would personally receive from His Highness at a lavish ceremony broadcast live across all channels.
The father, who had just about picked himself up, bent over once more, pitifully, to pet the governor’s feet. Because being ungrateful to the Man is just as bad as being ungrateful to the Creator.
After the noisy crowds had dispersed, the parents were left to prepare their child for the historic meeting set to take place in just a couple of hours. The father tried to grasp the situation and comprehend the sheer scale of good fortune he’d been granted, while the mother went about performing the daily ritual of ruqyah for her son. She implored God to protect him from the eyes of female neighbors and aunts, and from all the girls, good or bad, for whom prayer to the Prophet is not incessantly on their lips.
Just then, the ruler’s image appeared on the huge new TV that consumed half the sitting room. On an excited impulse the father held his son close to the screen so he’d get used to pronouncing His Excellency’s name.
But the father went rigid when the Kid Sheikh cried out all by himself: “Tyrant, corrupt, thief, backward!”
The father assumed something had afflicted his son and was interfering with the divine transmitter that God had planted in his brain and connected to his tongue. He tried turning the TV off and on again, only for his son to cry out again as soon as he saw the ruler: “Tyrant, corrupt, thief, backward!”
It wasn’t long before the child’s father was slapping the mother’s cheeks with all his might after having already drawn blood on his own at his rotten luck.
But it was a luck he could do nothing about and that would, in just a couple of hours, rob him of a piece of his heart, of his livelihood, and of his spring of happiness that he’d hoped would flow forever.
The next morning, the news ran excerpts from the ruler’s speech of the previous evening in which he’d proclaimed a nationwide grief for the sudden passing of the country’s God-given Miracle Child.
At the very same moment, the Kid Sheikh was sitting in a basin at the house of one of his relatives, hidden away in the deep south of the country, saying over and over in a voice so powerful it drowned out that of the ruler: “Tyrant, corrupt, thief, backward!”
Belal Fadl is an Egyptian journalist and screenwriter, born in Cairo in 1974. After graduating from the journalism department of the Media College of Cairo University, in 1995 he co-founded Al-Dustur newspaper, one of the most successful initiatives in journalism in Egypt in the 1990s. When it closed, he worked for several papers and TV channels. In 1999, he co-founded the Cairo newspaper issued by the Ministry of Culture and worked as a producer for the ART and MBC channels. He then worked as a screenwriter, writing scripts for a number of films and TV series, such as the series “People of Cairo” which won a prize for best Arab TV series, in 2010. He has published twenty books, including four short story collections and Um Mimi (2020), his first novel.
James Scanlan is an an Arabic-to-English translator from the UK based in Egypt.