Friday, January 4, 2008

Faded Glory

Its been getting harder and harder to get up in the mornings. Every day his knees feel a little stiffer and the creaks in his back sound a little louder. Sometimes he imagines he can hear the brittle joints of his fingers screeching in protest every time he reaches out for the ibrig. The sound of the azaan calling for dawn prayers is already distant-sounding and disembodied, as his hearing fails gradually, following his almost completely lost eyesight. He gets up with difficulty, massaging what is left of his poor, poor back and hobbles towards the outdoor bathroom in the dark; it’s almost impossible to hold his water longer than a few hours at a time. Once upon a time the distance between his angareib and the bathroom was a joke, a skip, a 2-second cruise; now it was an actual walk, taking anything from 2 to 15 minutes at a time, depending on the temperature and humidity. Today was one of the bad days. Such is the indignity of old age; enough to make anyone wish for an early death. He finishes his business and steps out gingerly, succeeding once again escaping the almost inevitable slip-break-a-hip that is the plague of his age. His grandsons snore on around him, oblivious to the calls for prayer. He looks down at them in disgust as he makes his way back to his bed. Things were different when he was their age; everyone was up, showered and dressed before the azaan was called. Boys as young as 8 years old were put to work in the market; writing notes, adding sums, delivering packages, running errands. Others were sent off to the traditional Qur’an teaching sessions were the habit of beating boys until they bled was not frowned upon yet. No one slept in. These days the sun would be almost on the other side of the sky before they dragged their useless selves, yawning and stretching, out of bed and off to their various, equally useless destinations. Just the sight of their long legs lounging over the sides made his blood boil, and he was tempted more than ever to take a cane to their backsides. But alas, gone were the days when his fingers were nimble and his eye was quick and even the fastest boy could not outrun him to the door and escape his whipping. Its pension day. Every last Tuesday of the month he travels halfway across the city to the social insurance buildings, to stand in line with the rest of his kind, and others. The hours would vary; sometimes he would stand for 6 hours, sometimes less. Sometimes more. And at the end of it he would receive a handful of bank notes and a medical insurance card for the upcoming month, with which he was allowed to purchase medications for 25% of the original price on the first day of that month alone. He doesn't mind the hike to the bus stop and he doesn’t mind the long stand in the sun. He doesn’t enjoy them of course, but they aren’t the reason he hates pension day so much. It's people pushing him roughly aside in the scramble to get on, and no one getting up for him once on the bus. It's the ragged kids ripping his pockets to steal his non-existent thousands in cash and mobile phones he allegedly carried around with him in broad daylight. It's the youth rushing past him on the street as he breathlessly staggered from one bench to the next. It'sthe dirt on the streets and the sun in the sky and the homeless people lying in the doorways. But most of all it's the people who stand in line with him; people with bent backs and white hair, people with outdated clothes and old shoes. Old people. People like him. He manages to find a good seat on the bus on the way home; one at the back, away from the poking elbows of those standing up and hanging on to the doors and windows. And it’s a side seat too, so he wouldn’t have to get up every time someone behind him wants to pass through. He stretches his legs as far as he can, which isn’t that much, balancing his few plastic bags in his knees. Not a bad haul today, he’s managed to get a whole kilo of tomatoes this time; he usually can’t afford more than 5, small, half worm-eaten ones. The merchants seem to take special pleasure in cheating an old man out of his money. Looking out the window, he watches the monochromic scenery sailing by; everything is a shade of brown. Brown trees, brown road, brown people. Brown kiosks leaning on each other, selling brown cigarettes and newspapers for the few days left for them before some brown bulldozer rips them down. Brown cars coughing and wheezing down the highways, pulled over by brown-clad traffic officers to be fined of whatever change they have. Brown dogs lying lazily in the sun, waving brown flies away with their skinny tails and scratching brown ticks off their dirty hides. It makes him sick to watch what the country is coming to. Back in his days, the roads were so clean you could see your reflection looking up at you, and everyone was dressed to kill and dead on time. Back then, people had respect for themselves and for each other, old and young alike. Schooling was proper and only the crème of the crème made it into university. People earned their money honestly, built their homes from honesty, fed their families with honesty, and raised their children on honesty. He sighs, and the bus sighs with him, feeling his misery. God knows the times she and her 2-man crew have seen themselves. A long time later, his stop arrives and he gets off and heads slowly towards home, dangling his plastic bags, feeling their pathetic weight. A breeze sails towards him, whipping up the dust and throwing it in his eyes making them water. He stops in his tracks, blinking and sniffing, and waits it out. A minute later the air clears, and he opens his eyes and moves on. He feels dead tired and can’t wait to get home and lie down. He opens his mouth wide to yawn, but just then the dust rises around him again as another whiff of the wind kicks the ground around him, and he chokes, splutters, and an enormous sneeze comes out, racking his whole, crooked body and making him drop his bags. He sneezes again and again, and a couple of children playing at their doorstep point at him and laugh. Finally the attack is over, and he clutches at his knees trying to catch his breath. Red spots move in front of his eyes as they usually do when his heart is beating as hard is it is now, and he waits for them to go away. They don’t, instead they’re joined with smaller green ones and 4 long, yellow ones. His groceries roll around his feet, in and out of the spilled sesame seed oil and upset salt that was supposed to keep them for the next week. The children laugh harder, mocking his pathetic stance and bad luck, and suddenly the urge grips him to grab a rock and throw it in their ill-mannered faces. He reaches out for the closest stone and straightens up so fast his back screams like a poked fish, but the kids have already disappeared behind the door, their laughter filtering through the air like tiny pebbles on a window pane. He stands in place, the stone in his hand and the mess at his feet. People pass him by, embarrassed for him and mumbling between themselves how his family shouldn’t let him roam around unsupervised at such a senile age. He feels lost and ashamed and angry as hell, unable to bend over and gather his upset belongings and unable to simple walk on. Finally, an eternity later, a young neighbour walking home from work comes upon him and gathers him and his groceries up and off towards home. His nieces stand at the door, awaiting his arrival; namely the burden of his arrival. He despises their sympathizing looks and sorrowful nodes, their inclinations behind his back that his mind just isn’t what it used to be. Again he is seized by the urge to pick up a rock and throw it at them, but his first attempt has drained him of what little energy he had and its all he can do to make it to his bed and lay his aching body down.Oh, the indignity of old age.