A Boy's Best Friend

Ihsan Abdel Quddous

My full name is Awad Ahmed Hassanein el Nahlawy, and I work as a copyist in the Ministry of Justice. I am fifty-two, though I look much older than that, for my face is full of wrinkles. My eyes are always a little bloodshot, and appear slightly bleary from behind my silver¬rimmed spectacles. Very likely, people think I am unhealthy because I am lean and inclined to slouch a little, but I am perfectly fit really, and have never complained of any ailments. I may have acquired this worn appearance from the long hours I spend bending over the bits and pieces of those watches I am always pulling apart. You see, I have a passion for repairing watches. It is my great hobby.


Watches have always had a strange fascination for me. Ever since I was a child and lived in my native village of Kafr Elewa, I was at¬tracted by watches, any kind of watch. I remember how I used to crouch in front of the omda's1 gate waiting for him to appear in the huge courtyard in front of his house, so that I could feast my eyes on the watch he wore in his breast pocket. I would hold my breath and stare, spellbound, at the heavy silver chain hanging across his chest, and shining against the cloth of his gallabiyya until he raised his hand and pulled out the bulbous watch that was attached to the end. My greatest joy then would have been to touch this fascinating object, to feel the magic of that enchanting treasure the eminent man carried against his heart. Once, when the irrigation superintendent came on a visit to the village, I patiently dogged his steps a whole day, drawn irresistibly by the handsome watch that shone on his wrist. I even ran after his carriage until I caught up with him where he stood on the embankment surrounded by a crowd of villagers. Slowly I crept up until I came close to him, then timidly stretched out a trembling hand and laid it on the gleaming surface. He wheeled round sharply, and thinking I was trying to steal his watch, brought his hand down and struck me full in the face. I can still fcel that blow, even now, and I remember how I was saved horn being turned over to the authorities only by the intervention of the villagers who knew me. But that did not cure me. I never could overcome my fascination for watches.


Later I went to live in Cairo. I had failed my primary certificate, so my father, through the recommendation of the omda, who had high connexions, got mc this job as copyist in the Ministry of Justice, at a monthly salary of exactly five pounds twenty three piastres. Out of that, I hoped to save enough to buy myself a watch, which was then my greatest ambition. Until I could do that, I contented myself with admiring them in shop windows where they were on display. For hours, I would stand gazing at them, studying their shapes and designs. I came to recognize their different makes and learned their names. I knew them all by heart, everyone of them: Movado, Rolex, Genie, Omega, Arcadia… there wasn't one I did not know. Now I may have a weak memory for names sometimes, and I may easily forget a man's name, but never that of a watch.


Finally, one day, I counted what I had saved over the year, and found it was enough to buy me a watch -- the first I ever owned, and I felt as if I owned the entire world -- it was as if I had got married to it, or as if I had been reborn. Looking at it every day, compact and neat, ticking away quietly through the day and into the night, it intrigued me, and I felt a strong compulsion to open it and probe its inner mysteries. Tentatively, at first, I began to pull it apart and examine every tiny component; then I would put it carefully together again as though I had been performing surgery on my sweetheart. I t drew me like a magnet. Every day, after I finished my work at the Ministry, I would hurry home in order to look into its intricate mechanism once more, and play with its little heart. Then with its tiny parts spread out before me, I would be so completely lost in them that nothing else mattered; I cared for nothing but those tiny little bits of metal which alone had any meaning for me. Screwing, and unscrewing, taking them apart delicately, and putting them together again delicately, time after time, I completely forgot myself, and others, and the whole world. And so began my passion for repairing watches. I only really started living when I sat down in the evenings and took them apart: this was my world. I had no friends or companions. I even forgot about getting married. Actually, I did get married just in time, when I was thirty-nine, and then only because my mother - who died two years later - insisted so much.


Nothing changed with my marriage except that I moved to a two¬ room flat on the outskirts of Giza. I continued to cultivate my hobby, completely submerged in its delights, leaving my wife (who was a girl from our village) to a world of her own, far removed from mine. All I cared for was repairing watches - my colleagues in the Ministry all gave me theirs when they were out of order; I was happy only with a gutted watch in my hands, its cold entrails scattered around me, fascinating as ever.


Actually, come to think of it, there were one or two other things I enjoyed as well. I had a second hobby and that was repairing shoes. I repaired my own, and occasionally did not mind doing those of my acquaintances too. I knew how to patch a hole, to make a half-sole and a full one. I still keep all the shoes I have ever bought since I came to live in Cairo, and they are still quite fit for wear. Cooking too, is something I am very fond of. I swear I can prepare a rice stew with sheep's trotters far better than the famous Rakeeb. But after I married I had to give that up a little, as I could feel it offended my wife, who considered it trespassing, although she never really complained.


Two years after I married, my son was born and I called him Abdel Fattah, after my father. I was very happy to have a son, but that did not mean I was going to change my habits, and I left the child entirely to his mother. Only his wailing came to me from time to time as I was at my watch-repairing or my cobbling, to remind me of his presence. When he grew a little older all I wanted from him was that he should not intrude into my private world, and that he should keep his little hands off my watches and the delicate instruments I used on them.


When Abdel Fattah was six years old, my wife died. Of course, I grieved over her, I grieved very deeply, but that, again, changed nothing except that I could once again indulge in cooking, and that, from now on, I would have to look after Abdel Fattah myself. But that was no trouble. He was a quiet amenable boy, rather frail, but quite healthy on the whole.


We got on quite well together, Abdel Fattah and I, although we did not talk much. I spent most of my time sitting in my room with my watches and my shoes, while he sat in his, minding his own business. Sometimes I would notice he was reading, or scrawling on the walls, or playing one of his odd games that I never could understand. Anyhow, like me, he rarely left his room, and, like me, he spent hours on end all alone. I never worried about him. I was happy enough with him, and assumed he was happy to be with me. It never occurred to me that he should want anything more. He was now eleven, and in Middle School.


One day, he came to my room, and sat quietly watching me as I tinkered with my instruments, the lens, through which I peered at my wonderful little ticking universe, tightly screwed to my right eye. “Dad,” he said suddenly. His voice seemed to come from far away.


I looked up and saw him through my lens, a big blurred shadow.


“Dad,” he repeated, “where can I find a friend?”


I heard the question distinctly, but I did not understand what he meant. I took the lens away from my eye and looked at him, puzzled.


“What did you say, Abduh?”


“I said I'd like to find a friend.” he repeated in a hesitant tone, with his face turned away from me.


I grew more puzzled. A friend? What did he want a friend for? In fact, why should anybody want a friend? After all, I wondered, what is a friend? I knew a lot of people: there was Hag Abduh the grocer and Master Eleish, the butcher from whom I bought my meat, there was Mr. Mohamed Nofal, who sold watches, and there were my colleagues at the Ministry - but could they be considered my friends? I knew nothing about them if it came to that, or about their worries. We never visited one another, or spent the time in a cafe together, and I never felt a need for them, except that which was imposed by every¬day requirements. Could they count as friends?


“Surely, you can find a lot of friends among the boys at school,” I said coldly to Abdel Fattah.


“I've got no friends there,” he answered sadly.


“You can make some.” I tried to smile this time.


“But how?” he asked quite bewildered. “How?”


I hesitated for a while. I did not know how people made friends, I had never wanted any, and had never tried to make them.


“Well,” I ventured, “if you begin by talking to them, you may get to be friends.”


“What shall I say?” he asked eagerly.


“Oh, anything... anything at all,” I put in, not very helpfully. “Suppose I say something silly, they'll only laugh at me.” “What makes you think you'd say anything silly?” I gave him a look of sympathy. “Just try. They might like what you say. Besides, if one of them doesn't like it, another one might.”


He seemed to ponder over that for a while, but said nothing. I thought I heard him sigh. Then he got up to go, dragging his feet. At the door, he paused and opened his mouth as if to say something, but changed his mind and went quietly out with his head hung down.


I screwed the lens back to my right eye, looked into the works of the watch I was examining, and tried to get on with my work. But 1 could not see what I had in front of me. There was only Abdel Fattah's downcast little face, sad and worried. I had always believed he was enjoying himself sitting on his own in his room playing those funny games I didn't understand, just as I was thoroughly happy in mine toying with my watches and my pairs of shoes. Yet here was the boy, obviously unhappy, tormented by something I could not fathom. I tried to dismiss the matter as a childish whim, but I could not dismiss Abdel Fattah's hurt expression from my mind. His bewildered look was always before me. Everywhere, I felt his eyes upon me, so that I could no longer settle down to repair a watch or a shoe. His problem was the only thing I could concentrate upon, and I found myself as unhappy as he was. Our relationship was slightly strained, and there was a distinct feeling of embarrassment between us, neither of us caring to look the other in the eye. When we spoke to each other, it was only briefly, and we were more cut off from each other than ever before. Now, as we continued with each keeping to himself, there was more to it than sheer habit.


Two weeks later, I plucked up enough courage to ask Abdel Fattah nervously, “Well, have you made a friend?”
“No,” he said curtly, with a cruelly reproachful look, and walked off into his room, his lips drawn into a sulky pout. I looked at him in despair as I felt the full weight of his disappointment fall on me. Now I realized the extent of my responsibility and of my failure. Because the boy had grown up beside me, quietly, unobtrusively, making no demands, I had never paid heed to any but to his material wants. Now, I saw myself as a father who had failed, inadequate, weak, worthless.


Growing daily more aware of this, more ashamed, I could hardly look my colleagues in the face. I imagined them all to be accusing me of having failed my son. I lost interest in everything, even in my watches, those watches that had stood between me and my son. Surely there must be a way to help Abdel Fattah, and I had to find it.

Excerpt from: A Boy’s Best Friend, by Ehsan Abdel Kuddus, Arabic Short Stories, 1945-1965, ed. Mahmoud Manzalaoui. The American University in Cairo, Press, 1985. pp 156-161.