Room 304 Or How I Hid from My Dear Father for 35 Years is a memoir by writer and researcher Amr Ezzat, commissioned and available for purchase through 60 Pages. Excerpts from the Arabic version, which will soon be published as a book, can be found on Medina.
I listened to Fairuz sing the words of Kahlil Gibran: “Your children are not yours, your children are the children of life,” and marveled at the ridiculousness.
The melody was terrible and it felt as though she were yelling out a slogan in a political conference, but I had been fascinated with this Gibran verse during a phase of my childhood where I’d been secretly weary of the authority of fatherhood and deeply moved by the words’ dreamy, lyrical spirit. Nevertheless, the moment Fairuz reminded me of that verse I had already accomplished a lot of pondering in my room over the problematic notion of fatherhood. I had also just read some writings by Structuralist theorists, therefore I had become cynical towards the use of the term “the children of life” to signify some kind of liberation, as if there was a space called “life” that was entirely free of conditions and chains, and as if that life, amongst nature and people, wasn’t on its own filled with forces even more authoritarian and more demanding of compliance than fathers.
We are born to fathers, and their ownership of us, rather than abandoning us to nature, is what makes us human beings. Their possessiveness of us, rather than leaving us to other fathers, is what makes us their sons. In the end, as newly born creatures—and for years afterwards—we don’t really have a choice. It is fatherly care that claims and shapes us. Yet the astonishing emergence of a personal sense of existence and a separate will doesn’t really push us towards freedom, instead it drives us to submit to being formed by other fathers whom we find through fate or preference or desire or a mysterious calling. And so we find that our fate, preference, desire, or calling, has become too compelling to ignore, too powerful to allow us too much pride, as though we were small gods who just happened to find ourselves this way; beautiful and free, possessing a sacred will with a shining essence.
Maybe Gibran was calling on fathers to accept the fact that other fathers will sooner or later share the children whom they had always possessed. The word “life” here adds a beautifully poetic, deceiving touch when describing the other fathers. It is a figure of speech that suits the temptation of betraying the old fathers with the new.
Most of the time, my father didn’t have a private office of his own other than that of his job with the government, this is why I would often see him sitting at the dining table in his pyjamas or underwear, depending on the time of the year, a large wooden board with several layers of transparent paper in front of him, where his designs would gradually appear in heavy ink as he smoked and listened to the cassette.
I spent a lot of time observing him and his lines, and learned a lot at an early age about perspective, shadow and the different axes of bodies. When I was ten years old, during one of his fine moods and as he sat half-focused on drawing, he patiently told me about all the angles and shades in a Nazem al-Ghazali ballad: “A dark-skinned girl from the people of Jesus, who allowed her to kill a Muslim man who suffered with her and for her?”
I, too, was good at drawing, or I was brought up to be. My style retained the thick line that traveled back and forth, eluding the edges that geometric drawing makes sharp, clear, and without thickness; separating surfaces with no space for confusion. Later I would spend a considerable amount of time at the Faculty of Engineering trying to get rid of that habit of going back and forth along the same line, which often made people think that I was unsure or hesitant or that I was trying to redo the drawing. It was simply the style that my hand had learned, most probably from my father, yet I do not remember every trying to imitate his handwriting, even though what he scribbled on the drawings and in their margins was beautiful.
At school, one of my teachers noticed that my handwriting changed when my desk mate changed, and she smugly concluded that I was copying the handwriting of the boy who sat next to me. “Oh, Amr, you do not have your own style!” She said laughingly, pleased with her discovery.
I thought she was dumb. Of course it was clear that I was influenced by the handwriting of whoever sat next to me long enough, but my own handwriting always ended up different and comprised various impressions. I admit that I never reached a stage where I could say that I had beautiful handwriting, but it was special most of the time. It never seemed to me that I had a fixed handwriting I could call my own. The teacher’s observation was strange to me at the time, yet it’s true that I was influenced for a while by the sharp, cubic forms of Yasser’s handwriting, then by the small, fine shapes of Samar’s, then the negligent mystery in Omar’s, and the intersecting curves of someone else whose name I forget. I would write in different variations at different times then forget some while others would stay with me. I was not good at perfecting traditional Arabic fonts, and I didn’t like calligraphy class, but I was always free to play with my own handwriting and to be influenced by that of others. It is similar to what I do now when selecting fonts while writing on a computer, but I still have a problem with the banks because each time I go for a transaction I try to remember which game I used the day I opened the account and gave them my authorized signature.
My father would notice the change in my handwriting sometimes, and he would ask why I wrote in curves or cubes. He seemed to think it was amusing, yet he knew nothing of the sources that influenced my lines. What provoked him rather were changes in my behaviour that seemed unnatural, and because he was keen on getting to know the friends who visited me at home, he would engage in short, quick conversations with them, often made up of intrusive questions that he masked (or sometimes left unmasked) with his humor and social skills. Perhaps the drive behind those exchanges was a genuine combination of friendliness, a natural love of human interaction, and a protective instinct that triggered a desire to explore my friends and acquaintances. His thoughts about my friends became a new source of judgment about me, which surprised me and often made me feel bad: “This rebellious streak against teachers resembles that of Ahmed, this religious strictness resembles that of Mohamed, this extreme fascination with music and appearances resembles that of Omar.”
Those comments were reductive and superficial, and they were an insult to the way I managed my relationships with people, which I still think is smart, for no other reason than it actually carries traces of my simulation of his own social skill. It was, however, clearly different from the strength and stability of his character, for I believe that most of the time I did not have a clear and rigid perception of myself, which I have now come to appreciate.
And so from that strong, solid position of his he made his reductive judgments, which affected my view of his wisdom and insight. Most of the time I didn’t respond by defending myself or trying to prove that I was a leader and an influential person among my friends and acquaintances. In reality I was in a relaxed space between leadership and followership, between surrendering to the comfort of certain codes of behaviour that I had come to regard as my home in this world, and a quiet kind of experimentation that resembled short, enlightening visits or slow, lingering travels that take you farther than you thought you would go.
I led my friends into adventures on several occasions, and I followed them in others. I was also, to my brothers and young relatives, a pioneer of new, unfamiliar worlds. My father knew of some of that, but I think his wisdom was shaken because he was jealous of the impact of the new types of fatherhood I encountered beyond our home, away from him. As he tried to understand it and analyze its influences, and under the effect of jealousy, he discounted the perplexing factor that dwelled within me, my own agency. Or perhaps he considered that agency a foreign, mysterious element that grew within the child that he had brought into the world; pulling the child away from him and from the plans he had made for him.
To this day he still tries to explore my world, retaining his curiosity and his periodic question: “Who are your friends now? And your co-workers? Do I know them?”
These questions have become useless attempts to learn anything about the son who drifted away, slowly, and without him even noticing when or how he’d taken this path. That is because, the moment I sensed my father’s jealousy, I learned to keep certain friends from him, and to make him see and know only those whom I felt would not represent a problem, or those whom I wanted him to know that I knew. This was in fact my first maneuver to hide from my father and his jealousy, not only so I could move along peacefully with new influences in my life, but also because I was a decent son who loved his father, and because any tension in our relationship stripped me of my comfort in the world. It was easier for both of us this way, most of the time at least. It allowed him to view visible transformations in my personality with amusement, similar to the way he’d dealt with changes in my handwriting.
There is a hypothetical and unspecified point in time where I can say that I moved from compliance to disappearance, a disappearance that still seemed like compliance on the outside. The obedient child outwardly obeyed, but would later follow his whims in secret. If psychology determines the point where awareness begins as the moment of separation from nature and perceiving the self, a separation from compliance can be regarded as another turning point, carefully hidden in order to delay confrontations that could have destroyed the entire process or exposed it to the danger of violent disputes.
The beginning of Adam’s separation from the angels—who were absolutely obedient—as told in the Quran, was when God “taught Adam all the names;” when he taught him language, as an ability and as the beginning of an endless game where all conceptions of morals, ideas, and convention began. Man’s will had acquired a voice, or may language had created for Man a will more complex than sensual impulses. I can assume that it was here too that lies and conspiracies began, for how would they have taken place without language and symbolism?
I was told that I had acquired the skill of language at quite an early age, or this is how parents are, always ready to believe their children are miraculous in some way. I began to sense a conspiracy taking place, as I became aware of certain books and magazines being stored in inaccessible places, with fake explanations that this book or that magazine is not ours and must be returned to its owner. I did not comply, and instead made use of the long sleepless nights (especially the few hours between my mother going to bed and my father coming home from work), and I discovered myself.
Foreign design magazines with scantily dressed female models in pictures of bedrooms, bathrooms and swimming pools, and some novels and short story collections of short with titles involving improper insinuations for children, such as Yusuf Idris’s House of Flesh and—to my surprise—Ibn Sirin’s Dreams and Interpretations. Was it because I had displayed a curiosity towards my dreams that they felt was exaggerated? Or maybe it was because they were worried where Ibn Sirin’s interpretations would take me; some of them were pretty bizarre after all.
I read well, but I was still challenged by the conspiracy of language, those symbols I never understood while others did. And in the books my parents hid those symbols were more abundant, or at least this how it seemed to me.
I also noticed a group of neatly lined books about parenting: more than one volume from the Raising Children in Islam series, as well as some books about dealing with children from the perspective of psychologists and educational experts. Alright then, I had discovered the Grand Conspiracy.
It was never necessary for my father to take me to my room, close the door and talk in private, except in moments where he was planning to chide or punish me for a huge mistake. This time, however, there was no mistake at all.
My father seated me in front of him and stared at me for a while, perhaps reflecting on the strangeness of what he was about to do. “It’s been a long time since we spoke to each other,” he said. “I want us to become friends. I am here so that you can tell me about anything you find confusing or perplexing in your life. Nobody loves you or fears for you more than I do.”
It seemed very strange to me, as strange as that boy I had met on the first day of school who told me: “I love you, let’s be friends,” and hugged me. “Okay,” I had said, and we never became friends.
I suddenly remembered that what my father was trying to do was inscribed in those parenting books I had found, or may be his father had done the same with him. Or had he? I don’t really think so.
“Alright,” I replied with a smile.
He started prodding me to say anything. I racked my brain for what to say, what not to say. He surprised me with a question about “girls,” how I felt towards them, whether there was a specific girl on my mind, who my close female friends were. I told him what my mother had told me: “They are like your sisters.” Alright, then: “They are like my sisters.”
He asked who my favourite sister amongst them was, and I quickly answered with the name he expected, my colleague’s sister, with whom he’d seen me laughing in the street in front of the grocery shop below our building. At that time a friendship and familiarity had been growing between the two of us, speckled with the usual tension between a boy and a girl who were taking their first steps towards masculinity and femininity.
Yet I did not tell him about the older girl, the the neighbours’ relative, who was in college back then. She used to take me to the roof, where there was only one room with open windows in all directions. No buildings around were higher than ours, and she would tell my mother that she didn’t want to study alone and needed company; she would observe me as I did my homework next to her while she studied. I loved her company, too. I didn’t fully understand what she was doing when she put on her red nightgown and started to play with my body. I don’t remember a lot of details, but I remember it was enjoyable and exciting, especially the very first time it happened, when she held my shoulders, bit her lower lip and said: “Don’t tell anyone, this is our secret.”
What happened between us resembled those symbols that I had not yet understood, but it had a nice effect on me. I would return home with secrets about a beautiful girl who was ten years older than I was, and I never told anyone.
It was clear that it was “those things” that my father wanted me to share, but I had learned that adults kept such things secret and never spoke about them, and that this was the nature of things—or “those things” at least.
When my mother discovered the sketchbook I kept especially for drawings of Naima Akef, the iconic belly dancer, her feelings were a mixture of embarrassment, pleased surprise and playful anger, maybe because my drawings showed clear improvement, or because she discovered that her plan to change the TV channel every time a belly dancer came on wasn’t as infallible as she’d thought.
The sketchbook was filled with my attempts to draw Naima, and in the background were scenes from her films, a music band, a circus, the small room where Shoukry Sarhan played the piano as she danced to Horeya Hassan’s singing in the film I Love You, Hassan.
My father, meanwhile, praised my precision in portraying the female body. “You son of a dog,” he said, of course, laughing in pure masculine joy.
I was worried about their reaction, I was still angry and sour from the loss of another notebook where I’d drawn several portraits of Hala, my childhood friend who was two years younger than me. Her mother had asked my brother to bring her the notebook, and, thinking she wanted to admire my drawing skills, he had given it to her. She took it, of course, and I never saw it again. They also took Hala, my first childhood companion.
This happened after Hala and I tried to explore the differences between our bodies, imitating some love scenes from movies we’d seen. We did that in our balcony and in theirs, and a woman in the building across from ours saw us and told our parents. They were shocked, and decided that we were old enough for some boundaries.
Afterwards, Hala was no longer my friend. I had some tense talks with my father and mother where they told me that I should treat girls as though they were my sisters, that I should not copy what I see in films with them because it is improper and is only for adults, not to mention it is haram, and it is too early for me anyway, and the right time will come, when I grow up I will understand.
They were flustered and so was I. They were fumbling for a suitable reaction, one that was firm yet rational and understanding, while all I could think was that Hala and I should’ve done a better job hiding.
The older girl knew how to hide what was between us, an adult who knew the codes of the adult world; what should be revealed and what should be hidden. The same way my parents sometimes locked their bedroom door, or how my neighbour laughed with his wife and closed the window when they noticed that I could see them from my balcony or those books they hid on the highest shelves of our library. Hala was my friend and I lost her at the threshold to adulthood because we couldn’t hide certain things from people. The older girl, meanwhile, remained my friend, somehow, because a bit of what we had remained hidden. I hid some of my “worrying” friends from my parents, and my friends and I hid many things from other people.
When my father took me into my room and closed the door, deciding it was time for us to become friends and start hiding things from others, he didn’t know what I was hiding from him: that I had read—in the book that he hid from me—that fathers ought to befriend their children in order to know what they hid with their friends.
Friends are new fathers, fathers are old friends.
Translated from Arabic by Yasmine Zohdi and Nora Amin.