THE
EGYPTIAN
( Essentially this story addresses issues of prejudice. And, while the following is autobiographical, I remind readers that I have taken every care not
to offend persons or institutions identified, and have related the
events as truly and accurately as I remember them, omitting some
facts that may be seen to offend or defame.)

Introduction: I have been curious as
long as I remember. Always seeking to understand how other people think and feel. After entering high school I began to explore ideas as well as facts. Part of my journey from child to adult, from observation to experience. My discoveries in this chapter continue to have a great influence and meaning in my life. While my parents
provide me with abundant resources as a means of learning and understanding the world in which I live, there are occasions when they push me a little too far…
Having evaded initial attempts to
shunt me off to boarding school in Ballarat for third form, we compromise on a Melbourne school for my last two years of formal education. Our arguments are protracted and passionate, concluding with a verbal brawl over Saturday lunch.

‘I understand that you love your home and your friends, dear…’ mum patronises.

I wait for it, the catch: words that wedge their way, like bracken, into the bedrock of my childhood.

‘…but, there’s more to the world than this.’ She indicates the kitchen.

There it is: the But. I pounce, thumping the table with the heel of my fist. ‘Than what? Than my home, where I belong? Where my friends
live? This,’ I also indicate the kitchen, ‘is where I want to be!’
‘But there are more opportunities for you.’

‘What’s wrong with Terang High? I’m doing well here. And just when I’ve settled in again, and feel like I’m getting somewhere in life, you decide to derail me; despatch me off to some poncy girls’ school!’ I ram my serviette into its ring. ‘Some people don’t need the best opportunities to make the most of their lives, mum!’

‘Perhaps, dear, but MLC will develop you in ways Terang cannot.’

This smacks of betrayal and ingratitude. ‘Like what for example?’

‘Well, you’ll get some refinement and that will boost your confidence.’ Mum puts down the plate she’s holding. ‘Listen dear; a few feminine graces won’t do you any harm. Anyway, there’s nothing for you here on the farm.’

I’m appalled. ‘What do you mean nothing? This is my home!’

‘Yes, for now. But not for the rest of your life.’

‘Why not?’ I swallow hard, staring through her to that somewhere in my future. I’ve never thought beyond the farm. I assume I’ll return here after school. ‘But this is where I want to be.’ My voice is thin and hurt stings my eyes.
Neither of us speak for a few minutes. Mum clears the table and I flick through a newspaper, snapping pages angrily. My mind rages, the ground falling away as I feel time tighten around my throat.

Mum leans on dad’s chair and sighs. ‘Jo, your brother doesn’t want to take over the farm. You know dad can’t manage by himself anymore.’

I glare at her.

‘You know that, dear.’

My eyes well with tears. ‘But what about me?’

‘I don’t think this is your future, do you?’ Her voice thickens with tenderness, rekindling my anger.

‘So you’ll sweep home out from under me as well? And for what? So I can be a lady with airs and graces? Then what? Airs and graces don’t
put food on the table, do they?’ There’s an unpleasant edge to my voice and I glare at her darkly. ‘It’s hardly probable, is it: me with airs and graces?’

‘Well, that’s for you to decide. Perhaps nursing is better for you. You’ve always been caring and attentive. But you need good school results for that, and Terang can’t do that for you.’

‘Ttaa!’ I spit disdainfully as she persists.

‘Terang can’t offer you elocution lessons, music, literature…’

‘Mum, what’s the use of elocution lessons…’ but she overrides me.

‘…nothing comparable to MLC. Listen, dear…’ She’s probing, reading my agitation, seeking leverage. ‘You could be part of their long
choral tradition. You love singing and music. The best in Australia teach at that school. You can even study towards law or to be a
diplomat. You know there are many women who’ve made a fine start in life from MLC. I was a student there.’

Yeah? And look where that got you! I sneer inwardly. ‘Huh! So, your fine friends are just the best available, are they? Are they really good enough for you, mum? Cultured enough, well-read?’

Mum sighs, her face flushing with exasperation. ‘If you’re going to talk like there’s nothing more to say, Jo. MLC offers opportunity and Terang doesn’t. And you’ll boost your chance of a place at university from a better school.’

I shake my head, still glaring at her. How the Christ would you know what I need, you snobby bitch! I know it’s pointless to argue, but I can’t resist one final jibe. ‘That’s right, mum. Walk all over me. Just like you do dad and Nick. You’ve planned my life out for me, haven’t you?’ I push away from the table. ‘Oh, yes. And you’ll appear to listen to what I have to say and how I feel, but you’ll go ahead and do what you bloody well like, anyway, won’t you?’ My mouth twists in a sneer of contempt and I rise to leave, before I say something I can’t take back,
dumping the crumpled TV guide on mum’s place at the table.

*****

My first day of high school begins in an abrasive mood. We’ve waited fifteen minutes for our new form teacher. He was introduced at school
assembly and the response was subdued, kids peering at him, curious, some offering derogatory remarks. But he intrigues me. With a name like Abdel Rahman he has to be an Arab, and arab means all things Egyptian to me. I roll the words over my tongue like a lozenge. Finally the door of our prefab room opens. We turn as one: the principal leading our teacher.

‘Class,’ Mr Hocking begins. ‘I would like to introduce you to your new form teacher and science teacher, Mr Abdel Rahman.’

The new arrival stands silently, neatly dressed, and very upright – almost standing to attention. He scans the class, and nods his greeting with a rueful smile.

‘Well.’ Mr Hocking turns to his new recruit. ‘I’ll leave you to it then.’

Mr Abdel Rahman nods again, smiling nervously as he watches the principal depart. Turning to the blackboard, he glances along the ledge for a stick of chalk, and then writes his name for us to see. His hair is curly and very short. Perhaps a military influence. And the suit looks foreign, with a crisp shirt white against tanned skin, although not quite as dark as that of the Indian couple who’ve taught here several years.
He turns to face us. ‘Good morning, class.’ His accent is strong but intelligible. ‘I do apologise for being late. There were some last minute things to attend to. This is my first day here, you know.’ He smiles again, inviting our welcome, but the silence is awkward. Reaching across the front row of desks, he lifts a chair effortlessly, placing it between himself and a table, and he removes his coat, arranging it thoughtfully over the back of the chair, and sits down. Opening the roll book he begins the first task of the year. As he reads through the list of names, he places a tick beside each as we reply in turn. As we speak, he looks up and studies our faces.

‘This guy can’t even speak English properly,’ mutters a boy from the back row. ‘So how’s he s’posed to teach us anything?’ Others giggle and there is a pause until we settle. The school bell saves him from further trouble. We’re dismissed, and troop out noisily to our first lesson. I have studied him through this ritual, and suspect he’s never taught before, at least not in Australia.

Mum has more information after school. She is the relief librarian, now, whilst the official one takes long-service leave, and picks up useful gossip from the staff room. ‘He’s from Egypt,’ she says. ‘Just graduated from university, with a degree in science, Entomology, I think.’ ‘What’s his first name?’ ‘Um.’

Mum thinks a moment. ‘Abdul-something. I can’t remember all of it.’

There’s a brief silence as I digest these facts.

Then mum continues: ‘Perhaps he doesn’t want to be involved in war between Arabs and Israelis.’

I’ve read about the Six Day War and know Egypt copped a hiding. And now I’m intrigued. I try to imagine the huge step he’s taken, leaving his family, his country and culture behind because of war. I’ve never met anyone like this before. While papers and the TV feature stories about refugee camps, revolutions and coups, Terang seems a long way from the face of the world.

One morning during class assembly a back row boy asks the Egyptian a rather impertinent question.

‘Sir, is your first name Abdel and your surname Rahman?’

He smiles, obviously not offended, turns and writes his full name on the board before explaining. ‘It’s not quite that simple’ and taps the board. ‘The first Abdel is my given name. The rest is my father’s name. It’s a tradition in Egypt for sons to carry their father’s name as part of
their own.’ There are difficult days for our teacher. He seems hesitant, unsure how to conduct classes let alone keep rowdy teenagers in  order. And his inability to follow the class curriculum leads to unmerciful treachery. We want to know about  Egypt, not science. After admitting he is an entomologist, he agrees to provide some lessons about insects. The familiar ground earns him respect and a reprieve, but he continues to struggles, clearly uncomfortable.

Finally, on a day when our class will no longer be silenced by his stern requests for order, I have had enough.

‘Shut up!’ I demand, standing abruptly at my desk. He looks on, astonished, and quite unsure what to do. I give my class mates a verbal lashing, castigating them for their lack of respect for someone trying to do their best.

‘But he can’t even teach,’ someone howls from the back.

‘He can teach if you’d shut up and give him a chance!’ I’m furious.

‘You’re sticking up for him cos you like him,’ a girl taunts. Others laugh and jeer.
They’re probably right, but I won’t be swayed. ‘Shut up!’ I snarl, again. My fury leaves the class stunned. ‘I’ve seen you pull this stunt before with other teachers, treating them this way!’ Eyes scuttle with guilty looks: we all remember wearing down our art teacher, forcing her to resign with ill health. ‘Well, it’s not going to happen again,’ I declare. ‘Not while I’m in the class. And I’m not going anywhere for the remainder of this year.’ As the proverbial pin drops, I feel my face paling, after the initial flush of words. I stand tense, shaking with fury, my right fist  clenched, and a finger emphasising phrases towards troublemakers. For the first time in my life, I address my peers without fear, my voice clear and challenging. I have no idea where this comes from.

I pause, scanning the room. ‘Now! We are going to sit quietly for the remainder of this lesson and finish our work, and in every other class with this teacher we will do the same. That is the way it will be for the remainder of the year.’ In the thick silence I resume my seat. No one moves or dares speak. Mr Abdel Rahman leans forward at his desk. He doesn’t lose a beat, continuing from where he left off, as if the incident never occurred. But there is a difference now. The class remains attentive and respectful until the very last lesson of the year: as much a relief to him as his advocate. But Form Four have their last word with me outside the class, aiming jibes and cruel innuendos squarely, and the brunt of teasing is directed toward the crush I have on the Egyptian.

They use my mother’s teaching idiosyncrasies to ridicule me further.

‘Come on now, boys and girls,’ they cackle, mimicking mum’s attention-seeking clap.

But I am beyond their derision, impervious after years of bullying at home; this goading is nothing. My mind is way ahead, buzzing with new ideas. First I want to know all about Egypt, but I’m too shy to ask my teacher, so dad is my best resource.

Dad lifts two volumes down from the shelves. While he suspects the source of mystical breezes that fan my questions, he treats my thirst for knowledge as genuine. He opens the first: it contains glossy photos, maps and diagrams, everything I could possibly want to know about Egypt. The other is called ‘The Living Faiths’. It describes all the major world religions.

‘It’s heavy going,’ he warns, tapping the cover. ‘But there’s a good index. Use the table of contents. It’ll give you an idea where to head
initially.’

‘Thanks, dad.’ I accept the book and skim its opening pages. The chapter titles are cryptic.

‘So, there’s a chapter on Islam?’ ‘Yes.’ He leans over, studies the page briefly, and prods a line. ‘There! But don’t assume he’s a Muslim.’ ‘What?’ I hadn’t expected this. ‘Why? Why not?’I stammer.

‘Well, there are many religions in Egypt. Your teacher might be Christian. And there are many kinds of Christianity, other faiths, too. He could even be Jewish.’

‘But his name, dad?’

‘Even so. There are Jewish families in this district. Can you pick them by their names?’

‘Probably not,’ I admit.

‘Well, I bet there are as many Abdel Rahmans in Egypt as there are Clarke’s around here. And not all the Clarkes
are catholic.’

‘Mmm. I see your point.’ While this is a revelation, it is Islam that piques my curiosity. I carry the books to my room and begin study. I stare back at a glossy photo of the mask of Tutankhamen. It is hard to connect this image to my science teacher. In fact, the book offers few clues at all. Perhaps I don’t have the right questions to find the answers. But I am tenacious, never surrendering a search for what I seek. I reach for the other volume and fan the pages. Black and white photographs divide the text. One depicts thousands of Muslims on pilgrimage in Mecca. This act of faith is foreign to my experience. I know Catholics have sacred places and I’ve heard of people going to Israel to follow the last days of Christ, but for me the most sacred thing I’ve ever done is witness the aurora.

I turn to the chapter on Islam, scan the first column, and settle to read. I return to the chapter after dinner, certain I’m drawing closer. The middle section describes practices of Islam, how to prepare for worship, what to do and say, transliterated and translated. I wonder if my teacher does this. Then I realise: How can he? Muslims pray five times a day and at least two of those must be during school hours. I read the text again, attempting to pronounce the Arabic words. It’s a struggle till I find the rhythm of it. After re-reading the translation, I sit back
to consider its meaning, how it rests with what I know and believe.

Allah. That’s just God in Arabic. There is only one God and Muhammad is his prophet. That is new, though. No prophets I know of from the Old Testament claim such role in such an emphatic way. Needing time to think this through, I head outside for a bike ride. I look skyward, from where many answers seem to fall, and questions arise. There are contradictions between what I’ve been taught, and my suspicions and
beliefs.

I speak the new words hesitantly, out loud: ‘Allah… God.’

I’ve always thought of God as a painter of the sky, of auroras and sunrises, not some bearded old being. But Allah, Lord of the Universe? The concept defies my imagination. While there are no bolts of lightning thundering in response to these heretical musings, I sense I’m treading on uneasy ground. The remainder of the chapter deals with philosophical details and history. The answers I seek remain veiled, not even the questions clear.

After school I ask dad if he has any other books or information about Islam. ‘No. I don’t think so.’ He pauses. ‘Other than a line or two
in philosophy books. That book I gave you is the best reference by far.’ Dad senses my dejection at this. He wants to help. He understands about seeking truth: the contents of his own library are evidence of his personal journey. We stand side by side, staring at the contents of the shelves.

‘Perhaps you’ll find something in the public library in town,’ he suggests.

‘Yeah. I was just thinking that. I’ll give it a go on Friday after school.’

As I rinse a glass at the sink, dad stands at the back door, deep in thought. ‘There is The Quran of course,’ he remembers.

‘What?’ Such an oversight. I brighten as he lowers his boot. Trembling with excitement, I shepherd him back to the sitting room, and watch as he retrieves a small book.

‘It’s supposed to be as good a translation as any,’ he says, handing it to me.

‘Thanks dad!’

‘I don’t know if it will make any sense to you, though. I read some of it.’ He grins at the memory. ‘Reminds me of the Old Testament. Lots
of begats and hellfire.’

I nod. ‘I’ll let you know.’ There’s a brief introduction, dry stuff, the wherewithal of the translation. I skip to the section about Islam and read hungrily, hoping for details. The translation follows, and I begin with the first surah. It is familiar, something I’ve read in other books, but this is easier to understand. The next surah is entitled ‘The Cow’, and goes on for pages. I’m hoping for a story, but find a jumble of rules about what is expected of a good Muslim, and what happens to the heedless. Unable to determine exact prayer times, I do one in the morning, then at sunset and one before bed. I don’t know what rakkats are, and have to guess at ablutions.

Within a few days I have memorised the first surah and add the invocation that appears at the beginning of each new chapter. With these, I create my devotions, concluding each with a reading from The Koran. From the very first day, I sense a connection with something far bigger than the sky. The name Allah rolls off my tongue easily in the context of prayer, and I repeat it during the day, as Allah’u-Akbar, like I’ve read that Muslims do.
I still attend church with dad. I’m not ready to divulge my secret, though I suspect he knows and understands. In addition to devotions, I begin studying Arabic from a library book. But most of all, I long to meet another Muslim, concluding long ago that my teacher does not share my faith. Recently he participated in an ecumenical Easter service with the whole school. Surely a Muslim would not feel comfortable with something like that? But then, I realise, maybe they do. After all, I had. As for the Egyptian, while I admit I’m infatuated, there are unspoken rules and social etiquette that make this taboo. Yet he dances with me at the school social, and occasionally we exchange a few words after class, though nothing personal. I begin to send him regular cheerio’s on a local radio station, including his name among those of my friends, as an excuse, and requesting songs with cryptic messages on letters are decorated with hundreds of finely penned flowers. I long for the connection but not intimacy; romance perhaps but, since Nick destroyed what lies beyond the fairy tale, I have no inclination accommodate dirty thoughts about someone I care for. Maintaining distance is absolute. Well, almost.

One day, while chatting to my best friend, Elizabeth, on the phone, I confess how I long to talk to him. ‘Not a romantic talk. I know I can’t do that. Just talk, you know. About him, his family, his culture.’ Elizabeth listens patiently. I can only imagine what she’s thinking. ‘I know where he lives, too,’ I remember. ‘The school bus drives passed there every day. I’ve even seen him step out of the gate, striding along High Street in his brown suit, and carrying that leather satchel.’

Elizabeth informs me that his accommodation is a boarding house for single men in town.

‘Why don’t you look up the number,’ she suggests. ‘I know who owns it.’

There’s a long pause.

‘So?’ she persists. ‘Phone him.’

I don’t reply. ‘Look,’ she reasons. ‘He might answer, and then you can talk.’

It sounds a sensible suggestion, but there’s a scary element, and I feel vulnerable.

‘So what happens if he tells me to bugger off?’

‘You don’t have to identify yourself at first. Just start a conversation if he answers. Say you recognise his accent, that you’re a kid from
school. You can have a chat then. You can explain who you are, later. And if it’s someone else, just say sorry, that you’ve got the wrong number.’

‘Mmm.’ It sounds easy enough. My heart thumps fearfully.

‘Will you do it?’ she prompts, knowing I’ll back off if given the chance. ‘It’s something you want to do, so do it while you can, before you think yourself out of it.’ She knows me well. I have the jitters already.

‘Okay,’ I agree. ‘And I’ll call you back when I’ve done it. Tell you what happened.’

‘Good!’ I can tell she’s smiling by the lightness in her voice. ‘And I’ll be waiting near the phone.’

Eventually I make the call. My whole body shakes as I wait while the operator connects me. I hear the phone ring and ring. I’m almost relieved when I realise there’ll be no answer. Five rings, six, seven.

‘Hello?’ It’s him! I know his voice. I freeze. Can’t speak. Haven’t a clue what to say. The few seconds seem minutes. ‘Hello?’ He waits. I can hear him there and I’m trying not to breathe. ‘Is there anyone there?’ he asks. I’m sure he sounds disappointed. I hang up, replacing the earpiece on the hook of wall phone, gasping. I rest my forehead against the wall. I’m all sweaty and shaking. I slide down onto the cool linoleum, trying to get a grip on myself.

Suddenly the phone rings. It’ll be Elizabeth. Thank God! I answer.

‘Hello?’

‘Is this Noorat seven?’ a woman asks. Panic grips me. It’s the operator from the exchange.

‘Um. Yes.’ Guilt grabs my stomach in its vice. ‘Did you just make a call to a Terang number?’

‘Ah, yes…sorry. It was the wrong number. I made a mistake.’

‘Oh,’ says the lady. ‘It’s just that a person at that number is wondering if they have been cut off by accident.’

‘Oh, no.’ I reply. ‘I just panicked when I realised I had the wrong number. Sorry.’

‘So what number did you want?’

Oh, god! ‘Um. That’s just it. I’m not sure. I’ll have to check with my friend again, first.’

‘All right.’ She sounds annoyed. ‘Thank you.’ And hangs up, leaving me feeling so wretched and embarrassed. I return the earpiece to the hook.

‘You idiot!’ I growl. The consequence has dawned on me. Now he can find out it was me. He’s got my number to prove it! I slide back down to the floor, stretching to catch my breath. But what if he knows it was me and wants to talk?

‘Oh, you idiot. You frigging idiot.’ I shake my head, lost at my own stupidity and gutlessness. How will I ever be able to look him in the face
again?
As agreed, I call Elizabeth and explain what happened. She offers bemused counsel that seems sensible and reassuring.

‘Don’t worry about it, Jo. He’s not the type to report you, or anything.’

No. He’ll just think I’m pathetic and an idiot!’

‘I don’t think so. If he recognised you, he may understand how difficult it is. I mean, he must know you like him. It’s painfully obvious to everyone else.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Seriously. He’s a gentleman. I don’t think you’ll get into trouble. And at least you know his phone number.’

‘Yeah.’ I admit that the thought gives me a glow of comfort. ‘And he has mine, too.’

‘So..? Maybe he’ll ring one day.’

‘Dream on. He knows my dragon of a mum, remember?’

‘Mmm. But, at least you did it. That took courage.’

The school year draws to an end too quickly. I know my results won’t be brilliant, but I have accumulated a wealth of experience. I join a couple of friends after choir practice to sing new arrangements of songs. We’re a confident act, improvising and harmonising Simon and Garfunkel songs. As choir members we will perform El Condor Pasa and Scarborough Fair for speech night, the final function of the school
year: my last. I ride into town for extra practice, carting my guitar on the handle bars. Throughout the year, my feelings for the Egyptian have deepened. During the last weeks I go to jewellery store, spending all my savings on a gift for him, and extra change for engraving. I return home to wrap its presentation box as I would a gift of frankincense and myrrh.

The pressure of assessments and final folios is over, and there is an exchange visit by members of a Melbourne high school that provides me with an opportunity to entertain. I perform solos by Dylan, Guthrie and the Bee Gees, using a microphone for the first time. The result is a heart-felt performance and my open-air audience claps and cheers their appreciation. I conclude with an old favourite, Words, secretly dedicated to my beloved teacher. After speeches and farewells, the crowd disperses.

I wait until the Egyptian is alone, walking back toward the staff room. I call to him. He turns, smiling, and waits for me to catch up. I
have a speech prepared but can’t remember a single part of it. I improvise. ‘I want to thank you, wish you well for next year.’
‘Thank you.’ He smiles, searching for something else to say.

I hand him the gift. ‘What is this?’

‘Part of my ‘thank you’,’ I reply, as my heart threatens to burst.

He takes hold of the bow I have tied with such care, and pulls it all undone in one easy twist of his hand. He lifts the lid. ‘Oh,’ and picks up the silver pen, seeing the inscription. Again, he is unsure what to say, much like dad, a man of few words.

Finally, ‘Thank you. Truly.’

‘Will you be back next year?’ I ask, only to prolong the moment.

‘No.’ He smiles shyly. ‘Nor you?’

‘No.’ My brightness drains. ‘No. I’m going to a Melbourne school.’ I shrug ‘You know my mum. It’s pointless to argue.’

He smiles again, indicating the gift in his hand. ‘Thank you for this. Really.’

The moment is over and he must go. I watch him stride along the path, up the stairs and into the building.

It’s a sad ride home that afternoon and my spirits remain dampened over the last few days. The Egyptian has given me so much – he has
no idea what I thank him for. I have surrendered my child’s heart, and feel saturated with emotion. And beyond the summer holidays
boarding school is looming. Mum will suffer no further delay. When my classmates re-convene, I may as well be in a foreign land, coping with all the cultures, crowds, standards and expectations far from home.

(With thanks, still, Elizabeth, for such true and lasting friendship.)

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