The Train

Cover Banipal No. 9

A courtesy visit to the school principal; my father, my mother and I. The month of Ramadan allows for the classes to mix. My father, the school attendant, is known as 'Amm Jabir, but Abu Hilal is the name that he really takes pride in. It is my proficiency at school that has accorded me this important position in my father's heart and in the school principal's behaviour towards me.

My mind is distracted from greetings and small talk. There is a long, apprehensive and senseless wait for release from this boring session, with its verbal repetitions. At last the voice of permission transpires, allowing us to move to the principal's son Walid's room and we loose ourselves in that direction, our feet tapping out joy all along the floor of the house. Walid shows me his newest acquisitions. Patiently I endure his descriptions and demonstrations of these toys, and then he puts out his hand and brings a train out of the chest; the train for whose sake I ever came to this place. I lower my body to the ground, wind up the train and put it onto the circular track. Round and round it goes. I hear the noise it makes. I kneel on one knee, then on both elbows and both knees and then I lie as though I'm sleeping on my tummy. I forget the principal's son; I wind the train once more and, before it moves off, jump furtively on board. I am seeing it from the inside for the first time. I sit in a wide place next to the window. The train starts on its way, chugging away with that dear sound it makes, and a boundless smile emanates from my body. I look at the rails doubtfully. What if someone has put a pebble on the rails? The train lurches sharply. Clearly someone has put a pebble on the rails. I become more afraid; maybe the train will turn right over. I reassure myself; trains crush pebbles …


… The train does crush pebbles. It really does. It turns them to soft sand. Our little attempts are a flop. The positioning of the pebbles on the rail is carefully marked out, several metres separating each one from the next. We keep well back too, far enough so that the train cannot turn over onto us, and we wait and watch. The train is coming. It is hurrying. It pounds Magid's pebble and Boulos's pebble. My pebble is big. I wait. I expect the train to turn over. It pounds my pebble too, easily.

We resort to something new. It is impossible to overturn the train or derail it, so we invent weapons of a new kind; weapons that the train inadvertently provides for us. We put nails under the train. We wait for it to pass over them. Then we pick them up sharp and flattened. We then ram them into wooden sticks and make small swords out of them. Children's swords. We feel a sort of power and fight one another at the slightest excuse. We enjoy putting the weapon to the test. The sword's wood takes on a dark red colour. Then we compete to find bigger nails …


… A hulking great nail which fixes the tracks to the sleepers. I find it on my way home from school, and carry it back with me. It makes holes in my duffle bag and one rusty end sticks out. A week passes. I become the owner of four of these giant nails. I manage to clean some of the rust from them and I play with them all day. These nails are not to be placed on the train tracks, they are my favourite miniature characters. I name them all. Each one, male or female, is distinguished from the next by colour or thickness or height. My mother sees me playing with the nails.
"A policeman will come and take you to the station for stealing the railway's nails," she scolds.
"I haven't stolen them," I say.
And she says, "these are the nails belonging to the railway. And the railway's nails are the government's nails!" That night I don't sleep. Thoughts of the policeman who will drag me off to the police station haunt me. The next day I take the nails in an old sack. I return them to their place, the place where I found them. I try as hard as I can to remember exactly where each nail was. I look around so that nobody sees me and I put every nail back in its place. I look around once more. I don't see anyone …


I don't see anyone there. The giant train is long, so long. It stands, motionless in its place, blocking the road to school. There is no alternative but to cross it from underneath. A memory of the constant cautioning not to cross the train from underneath as a short cut to school, resounds in my ear. No one sees me. No one will tell my mother. I approach, and see the giant from close up. I look hard at it. I feel intimacy rather than fear for it. I bend down and look up at it from below. It is huge, but not frightening. I get a bit closer. I sit right underneath it, at ease, squatting on my heels. The wheels are very big. The iron shafts are very big. The chains are really huge. What a fantastic discovery! There's a sudden movement and a high whistle. The train shudders. I shudder with it. Successive alarming jerks, a momentary embrace and a violent haul. I fall over onto my bottom. The train moves on, slowly and I jump out from underneath, terrified. I am saved. It is frightening, but frightening only when it moves …


… The train moves slowly on the bends. Dak dak … dak dak … dak dak. This one is a long freight train. I count the carriages; forty two. The last carriage signals to me. I run along behind it and grab my way, dangling, onto it. It's a new device I've now discovered that I will enjoy every day; for the train passes near the house, and there I'll jump off and be the first one to get home from school.

Dak dak dak dak dak dak dak dak. The sides of the train are now invisible*. I cannot watch them as before. Terror hits me, … dak dak dak dak dak dak dak dak … challenges me. Where will I jump off ? Dakadakadak … Dakadakadak … In a flash I see the house pass and become smaller and smaller. I nerve myself to take the risk and jump. Dakadakadak … dakadakadak … I'm going to be the last one to get home now. I'll tell my mother what I did. I won't lie. Dakadakadakadaka-dakadakadakadakadakadakadak. I'm going to be really late. No I won't tell her this time. Dakadakadakadakadakadakadakadakadakadakadak … toooooot … toot … toot. I am going to lie, I am going to lie. My heart is beating outside my body. A shiver. An attempt to find courage and escape. My hand grips violently. I look the other way. I won't lie. I have to jump. I'll be jumping onto gravel. Krrrraashhhhhh. I land on my elbow and my knees. The skin flays. And I take my leave of the train with a broad smile. It slows its speed now at the bend in the distance. Tooot … toot … toot toot. I brush down my clothes and feel the burning of my grazed skin. I will try again some time … I'll jump down at the bend. I'll know the bend by the train's loud whistle …


… The train whistles loudly. It's the five thirty. Another follows it at six, a military train. I miss my breakfast. I'm in a hurry. My mother scolds me. She doesn't understand my early energy to get to school. My father's leaving before me allows me the freedom to discover the road and the trains at my leisure. My mother sees me off, thinking only that I am keener on going to school than my school mates. I can see her standing at the door until I disappear from her sight. I turn right, then right again, into the alleyway parallel with ours, and run. In a few moments I'll be behind our house, on the way to meet the military train.

This road is out of bounds for us younger ones. They tell us about djinn and sprites, and trains that have crushed children and grown-ups alike. Dub dub dub dub dub dub. The train is coming, full of soldiers. There is the colour of cumin in their clothes. I wave at them and they wave back at me with enjoyment. They call me different names, and I throw the names back at them. They laugh aloud and wave at me with their berets. Then I run behind the train.

It is winter time. The rails leave gaps between one another. I keep watch over them in summer when they narrow and now in winter as they widen. I stand, watching them, amazed. I don't understand what it's all about. I am afraid that the train with the soldiers might turn over. I force several pebbles into the openings so that it won't derail if it passes by tomorrow.


… Tomorrow comes and I am now twenty one years old. Exactly twenty one as I stand in this train station. I look around me. I am observing and memorising the place hard. Or should I say, I am bidding the place a hard farewell. The station's date palm, the water jar, the telegraph pole. The train arrives and I get on. No farewells. The train passes over deserts and mountains, among palm groves and fields, over rivers. For long days the train travels with me, and then I climb down in this far off place.

A voice: "All change, all change. This is the final station!"
So I stay there, achieving some of what I wanted to achieve. I carry some of my achievements in a suitcase, and the rest in my trousers. I go back to the station. The train arrives. The train that is going back to the station I left from. Twenty years have passed between my getting of and my getting on again. Slow, oh so slow, like the passing of the train.

The ticket inspector warns me to get ready. My station is coming up. I prepare myself to meet the station date palm and the water pot, and the telegraph poles. I stick my head right out of the window. The station arrives, and I see it's not my station after all. I ask. People assure me and hide their mouths behind their hands, "Yes this is the station you were asking for." People's clothes and their voices are utterly different. There is no date palm, no water pot, no telegraph pole. I do not belive it is the station I want. I stay on the train until the last stop. Another distant station.

A voice: "All change, all change. This is the final station!" …


At the last station, as I get out of the train, there is the muddled hubbub of loud voices. The train disappears suddenly. What is this? Who are these? Where am I? What is happening? My father is standing at the door calling me, more than once. I do not hear him. I hear only the sound of the train, but I hear it tumbling into a chest of toys. The principal's son is drowning it out with other, different sounds. The train and the sound of the train disappear, and I am left waiting for another courtesy visit to my school principal's house.

Published in Banipal, No. 9, Magazine of modern Arab literature, London 2000.

Translated by Rebecca Porteous from "Al-Gamal La Yaqif Khalfa Ishara Hamra"
"(A Camel Does Not Stop In Red)". Short stories, Al-Hadara Publishing House, Cairo 1993.