Half a Day
By Naguib Mahfous1
I walked alongside my father, clutching his right hand. All my clothes were new: the black shoes, the green school uniform, and the red cap. They did not make me happy, however, as this was the day I was to be thrown into school for the first time.
My mother stood at the window watching our progress, and I turned towards her from time to time, hoping she would help. We walked along a street lined with gardens, and fields planted with crops, pears, and date palms2.
“Why school?” I asked my father. “What have I done?”
“I’m not punishing you,” he said, laughing. “School’s not a punishment. It’s a place that makes useful men out of boys. Don’t you want to be useful like your brothers?”
I was not convinced. I did not believe there was really any good to be had in tearing me away from my home and throwing me into the huge, highwalled building.
When we arrived at the gate we could see the courtyard, vast and full of boys and girls. “Go in by yourself,” said my father, “and join them. Put a smile on your face and be a good example to others.”
I hesitated and clung to his hand, but he gently pushed me from him. “Be a man,” he said. “Today you truly begin life. You will find me waiting for you when it’s time to leave.”
I took a few steps. Then the faces of the boys and girls came into view. I did not know a single one of them, and none of them knew me. I felt I was a stranger who had lost his way. But then some boys began to glance at me in curiosity, and one of them came over and asked, “Who brought you?”
“My father,” I whispered.
“My father’s dead,” he said simply.
I did not know what to say. The gate was now closed. Some of the children burst into tears. The bell rang. A lady came along, followed by a group of men. The men began sorting us into ranks. We were formed into an intricate3 pattern in the great courtyard surrounded by high buildings; from each floor we were overlooked by a long balcony roofed in wood.
“This is your new home,” said the woman. “There are mothers and fathers here, too. Everything that is enjoyable and beneficial is here. So dry your tears and face life joyfully.”
Well, it seemed that my misgivings4 had had no basis. From the first moments I made many friends and fell in love with many girls. I had never imagined school would have this rich variety of experiences.
We played all sorts of games. In the music room we sang our first songs. We also had our first introduction to language. We saw a globe of the Earth, which revolved and showed the various continents and countries. We started learning numbers, and we were told the story of the Creator of the universe. We ate delicious food, took a little nap, and woke up to go on with friendship and love, playing and learning.
Our path, however, was not totally sweet and unclouded. We had to be observant and patient. It was not all a matter of playing and fooling around5. Rivalries could bring about pain and hatred or give rise to fighting. And while the lady would sometimes smile, she would often yell and scold. Even more frequently she would resort to physical punishment.
In addition, the time for changing one’s mind was over and gone and there was no question of ever returning to the paradise of home. Nothing lay ahead of us but exertion6, struggle, and perseverance. Those who were able took advantage of the opportunities for success and happiness that presented themselves.
The bell rang, announcing the passing of the day and the end of work. The children rushed toward the gate, which was opened again. I said goodbye to friends and sweethearts and passed through the gate. I looked around but found no trace of my father, who had promised to be there. I stepped aside to wait. When I had waited for a long time in vain, I decided to return home on my own. I walked a few steps, then came to a startled halt. Good Lord! Where was the street lined with gardens? Where had it disappeared to? When did all these cars invade it? And when did all these people come to rest on its surface? How did these hills of rubbish find their way to cover its sides? And where were the fields that bordered it? High buildings had taken over, the street was full of children, and disturbing noises shook the air. Here and there stood conjurers showing off their tricks or making snakes appear and disappear from baskets. Then there was a band announcing the opening of a circus, with clowns and weight lifters walking in front.
Good God! I was in a daze. My head spun. I almost went crazy. How could all this have happened in half a day, between early morning and sunset? I would find the answer at home with my father. But where was my home? I hurried towards the crossroads, because I remembered that I had to cross the street to reach our house, but the stream of cars would not let up. Extremely irritated7, I wondered when I would be able to cross.
I stood there a long time, until the young boy employed at the ironing shop on the corner came up to me.
He stretched out his arm and said, “Grandpa, let me take you across.”
1. （1911—2006），埃及作家，1988年诺贝尔文学奖获得者，代表作《我们街区的孩子们》（Children of the Alley, 1959），被誉为“阿拉伯文学之父”。
2. date palm 海枣（树）。
3. intricate 错综复杂的。
4. misgiving 顾虑；担忧。
5. fool around 闲耍；虚度光阴。
6. exertion 努力；尽力。
7. irritated 生气的；恼怒的。