Although many years ago I can still feel the intense heat, it was so violent it could’ve taken the skin off a worm. As I stepped out of the car the temperature immediately slapped me in the face forcing my body to tense up. At that moment I would’ve done anything for a cold can of fizzy Fanta……….
Mohammed took my hand before guiding me down a dusty road. A couple of skinny goats lay panting underneath a fig tree occasionally shaking their heads trying to rid themselves of flies. The shaded area was at a premium and the goats reluctantly shared it with an ugly camel. The camel had dark, goofy teeth and a ball full of saliva coming out the side of its mouth. The stinking animal made me think of my sick grandmother who was living in a nursing home. The rotting stench is still with me all these years later and I can still smell the camels body odour and bad breath. Back then it reminded me of a dead cow.
I was eight years old and living on a military base high up in the Jebal Akhdar mountains of Oman. The mountains were the highest in the whole of eastern Arabia. I used to spend hours staring at them, in awe of their majestic stillness. They felt wise, like an unknown ancestor. I don’t know why, but those mountains always made me feel safe and secure, as if they were protectors of my soul. Even now they feel magical, and if I close my eyes I can imagine them as mighty bass drums beating to the same rhythm as my heart.
Mohammed was one of my father’s soldiers, a proud, traditional man who held my father in high regard. He wanted to introduce me to his eldest son so that we could learn to play chess together.
‘Chess is an important game for the first-born son. My own father taught me many years ago. I would sit on his knee and listen to his wisdom, feeling safe, wrapped up in his love and understanding.’
The road down the mountain stretched out like a feline in the sun. Although we’d left the base early that morning, the heat was already beating down fiercely. Looking out of the window, squinting my eyes to try and keep the sun outh, I could see an array of cars and lorries that’d toppled over the protective barriers. They littered the rocky side far below and looked like little Matchbox toys. The site of the smashed-up cars made me feel as if my stomach was going to explode.
If my father had been in the car I wouldn’t have admitted to being scared. I always felt as if I had to act tough in front of him which was difficult because I was a sensitive boy. Whenever my dad shouted at me I’d cry. The salty tears would often trickle down my cheek. Sometimes I’d lick them off, but they’d never quench my thirst to please.
The road was desolate and lonely, it’s only company the odd camel and ancient Arab tribesmen, both old and withered, as if they’d seen a thousand storms. The decrepit Toyota Hi-Lux coughed and spluttered as it descended the mountain. I wasn’t sure if the vehicle would make it.
After a while we arrived at a dusty village. As I stepped out of the car I was blinded by the sun and the sand. A warm breeze had created a small sandstorm. My eyes were tight shut as Mohammed led me by the hand.
As I entered Mohammed’s house the aroma of tea, mint and incense immediately grabbed my attention. I glanced at a silver teapot that had smoke rising from the spout. I could imagine a genie appearing and granting me three wishes. I closed my eyes and made them.
I wish I didn’t cry so much
I wish my grandma gets better
I wish it wasn’t so hot
Mohammed’s son was of similar age but whereas I wore shorts and Nike trainers the Arab child wore an ankle length white dishdasha. He was dressed identical to his father but without the muzzar upon his head. His name was Mohammed like his father, I also shared the same name as my father.
I started to ponder this, it puzzled me like when I use to stare up at the stars. Nothing troubled me more, but nothing troubled me less.
Mohammed’s son and I shook hands and smiled at each other in a pure but awkward fashion. We had no common language, but we did share the burden of being the first-born male. Immediately we felt a vibe, an instant connection, an understanding of each other’s pain.
Mohammed’s mother appeared, walking through the room like an apparition who was serving sweet tea in delicate, thimble like glasses. It was the first time I’d ever seen a woman wearing a hijab, and to my young self, she was a curiosity with deep brown eyes like murky puddles of beauty. When I looked into them she answered with a calming smile. A delicate silver bangle lit up her wrist, like an expensive glow worm keeping a secret for all to see. After putting down the tea she looked at me and winked before disappearing.
Mohammed and I sat facing each other like two bear cubs about to be taught how to climb a tall tree. What was a seemingly insignificant event, now feels as if it were a vital lesson for the soul. We weren’t in battle, we were planning our lives. Each beautifully carved ivory piece contained a piece of our future.