Kyle Pakka tells the story of a stunt motorcyclist who tours Egypt to perform at the saint’s day festivals.
|Image generated with OpenAI
1, 2, 3
All it takes is one orbit and I am riding the green line. Riding the wall as if by magic. I have kept my eye on the green line and have never fallen, not even when the occasional khuwaga takes a picture and the flash startles me, makes me see spots. Of course, I fell the first time. Everyone does.
I feel the hand of centrifugal force hold me against the wall, the hand that suspends me horizontally above the ground. My oldest son, Mustafah, says it is the hand of Allah that holds me there.
I am riding the green line, going in circles, as I have done for forty years. Sometimes, it feels like I am motionless and it is the arena, lined with faces eager to see me fall, that is spinning around, that I am upright and they who are horizontal, and it is the rotation of my wheels that spins this old wooden water tank around me.
I know Mustafah will not take over for me someday. He is angry all the time. Everywhere he looks he sees injustice. He dismisses my skill, he mocks my dedication. He does not see the table full of food set before him every day, he does not see a lifetime of work. He is not like all the other young men I see from my chair between shows. They are too concerned about looking at girls and how they look to girls to see what Mustafah, my son, sees. But someday soon, Mustafah says, they will see what he sees. When there are too many of them for the number of jobs, when the filth and the shit in the street rises above their heads, then they will be angry, and it will be too late. Sometimes, between shows, I see him and his friends, all of them in their scraggly beards, telling girls to cover their hair.
4, 5, 6
I let go of the handlebars and blow kisses to the crowd without looking at them. If I take my eyes off the green line, painted around the circumference of the tank, halfway up the wall between the ground and the rim of the tank, I will fall. If I look away from the green line to the faces of the people in the stands, packed in three rows ringing the top of the tank and below the sagging canvas cover, I will give them what they want – to see me fall. They want to see me tumble and spin, caught up in my motorcycle, caroming off the walls until the ground stops me. But I fool them. I keep my eye on the green line and I whirl around the inside of the old water tank, riding the wall, horizontal to the ground like a rock swung in a circle on a string.
A trick of beauty and power and magic, I think, for the crowd to see. But what they want is failure and death – a cartwheeling fall through space, a broken toy ricocheting around in a bowl, a wreck, perhaps with flames. This is why my youngest son Mohammad lights the big Bunsen burner on the table in the center of the arena’s floor – the promise of fire should I fall.
What they forget is that if I crash and catch fire, if my motorcycle should burn, they will burn. The wooden tank is old and dry as a mummy, the roof is canvas. I save them by not falling, by riding the green line.
I sit on my chair between shows, out on the low platform in front of the old water tank. My cousin, Ahmed, who calls himself my manager by taking money from my pocket, insists.
“The people, they want to see you,” he tells me.
I know why. They want to see a man who they think, they hope, will soon be dead. A man whose life is worth less than their own because he’s not clinging to the dirt of the farm or the rags of the city but is willing to make of his life a spectacle, a show, in a wooden water tank at a festival for a saint.
Ahmed drums up interest, shouting that I will defy death and escape gravity, that I will transform my humble Jawa motorcycle into a magical steed, a rocket ship to the stars. They won’t believe their eyes.
He calls me Abu Zayd, the old warrior, a young lion, a daredevil, but what I am is nearly sixty years old and fat, in a faded purple track suit missing most of its rhinestones, with my hair dyed black and curled. The costume and hair are the vision of Hala, my wife. They make me look like Omar Sharif she says. She is probably making mint tea right now, I think, in our tent in an alleyway behind the mosque of Ibn Tulun, telling her cousins again why we won’t return to live in the village with her family. The life of a farmer, a fellah, was not for me, and Hala, she tells her cousins she is the wife of a shooting star, a magician, a daredevil. The fellahin, all their lives, have their eyes only on the ground and their noses deep in the dirt.
I sit in my chair on the platform, on display between shows, and watch the young boys – always young boys – engulf the little ticket booth directly beneath me where my cousin Basem sells paper tickets for a pound. They race up the stairs on either side of me into the arena to stand three rows deep on the bleachers ringing the top of the tank, their heads nearly touching the tattered canvas roof.
When Basem has sold sixty pounds of tickets and the crowd is drumming their hands on the side of the tank and chanting yella, yella, let’s go, I get up from my chair and go through the little door cut into the tank. I stand alone in the bottom of the arena, like standing at the bottom of a well, next to the tall flame of the Bunsen burner and raise my arms to the faces of the crowd, hanging over the top of the tank, their eyes shining, their feet stomping on the wooden bleachers, their voices yelling for me to ride, to crash and die. I know it’s because their own lives are a wreck in slow motion, and no one is paying to watch them in their downward spiral into the grave. I will never make their hopes come true of seeing me crash, instead I give them the magic of escaping gravity’s pull, the dream of cheating death, and as Ahmed says, it keeps them coming back time after time, year after year, at every mawlid across the country because maybe next time will be my last time.
7, 8, 9
From the sleeve of my tracksuit, I pull out a small Egyptian flag and hold it above my head with both hands as the arena spins around me like a wooden cage. The blue exhaust fumes are filling the tank like a ghostly water vapor and I have the sensation of riding underwater. The motorbike is shrieking and the whole arena is shaking, its iron bones creaking as they bend and bow to contain the wooden bowl as it rocks and wobbles from my motorcycle rocketing around its circumference and the pounding of the crowd. Without looking, I know the three little glass chandeliers – also Hala’s idea – suspended from the center pole holding up the canvas roof are swaying and dancing on their chains, and at the bottom of the well, the flame waits for me.
The first time was at the mawlid of Sayyid al-Badawi in Tanta. I was fifteen and as dumb as a donkey. I traveled with my family and other families from our village and we all camped together in tents in an alleyway. My father and other men from our village were Sufis and they would gather in another tent for a zikr, standing all night and swaying like reeds in a wind to the sound of the drums and the squeal of mizmars. My mother brewed endless pots of tea with the other women of the village, sitting in their tents while the younger children played in the alley. As I was the oldest and a young man, I was allowed to wander on my own through the streets, completely given over to the mawlid and the people who had come from all over the Delta. The streets were choked with people and every little square was blazing with stalls selling garlicky beans and falafel, grilled corn and lamb shawarma, tinsel hats and garlands. From balconies, kids threw firecrackers down into the crowd and the smell of gunpowder mixed with the fumes from the incense burners and the smoke from the fires of chaff and animal dung cooking the garlic and onions and lamb, and a great muffled roar from the crowd filled the air, rising into the dark sky pierced by the twin minarets of the saint’s mosque with their strands of green lights like emerald cobwebs.
People come to the mawlid for blessings and miracles, and I found mine in Mohammed, riding the walls of his wooden arena on a Jawa motorcycle, suspended in the air as if by a spell, spinning around in the blue smoke like a jinni. My father was only too happy to let me go. I was lazy and hated the farm and he had four other sons to help, so I apprenticed myself to Mohammed. He was around fifty when I met him, and had been riding since he was twelve.
I learned how to build the arena and take it apart, how to load it on the truck and drive to the next mawlid, how to sell tickets. And then I learned how to take care of the motorcycle and then how to ride. I was impatient to ride in the tank, to ride the green line around the vertical wall, but later, I realized the importance of knowing every step, of knowing how the arena is put together and taken apart, how the engine is tuned and how to patch a tire, and every time I tightened a nut or strung lights or oiled the motorcycle chain, I was riding the green line.
Now, I am old and fat and Hala dyes my hair in the sink, singing an Oum Kalthoum song as she does, and we smile at each other in the mirror while my cousins Omar and Hani set up and tear down the tank and load it onto and off the truck, and my middle son, Tarek, oils the bike and I worry to trust them because their minds are on girls and football. Mustafah argues with me that what I do is haram, forbidden. It’s unholy. Yasmin, our youngest and only girl, would gladly ride if girls could ride and it’s the shining way she looks at me, and Hala dying my hair and singing to me, that keep me on the green line now.
10, 11, 12
I hold the flag in front of my face then let it go. The wind plasters the flag to my face and I cross my arms on my chest and ride blind, squeezing the Jawa between my knees. The crowd is howling, almost in anguish. They can’t believe this can be done. Now that I cannot see, I feel a kind of calm, an inner peace. There is no spinning sensation, only the thrum of the bike over the boards and centrifugal force pushing down on my shoulders that reminds me of Hala’s hands, rubbing my shoulders and neck when the mawlid is over. I think now that her love for me is the magic that enables me to defy gravity as I do.
While I fly through the blue waves of exhaust fumes, in the mingled roar of my bike and the crowd, I picture her, in the tent in the alley beneath the high mud walls of Ibn Tulum, surrounded by family and the sound of the drums and the flutes, making tea. I can smell the mint in the tea, and the frying onions and the clouds of apple honey tobacco billowing from the water pipes. I can see the spiral staircase that winds around the outside of the minaret, corkscrewing to the sky, and I imagine riding my motorcycle up the stairs and into the stars.
I don’t ask the saint of the mawlid for protection from harm. I don’t ask God. I put my faith in the combustion chamber, the chain and the tires, the nuts and the bolts, the old wooden boards and iron skeleton frame of the arena. In me. In the ragged stacks of dirty pound notes at the end of the night. I can tell by the smell of the money where the audience is from. Village money smells like damp earth, wood smoke and goat shit. City money smells like garbage, diesel fumes and fry oil.
Sitting in my chair on the platform between shows, I wait for my successor to emerge from the crowd, a young man who wants to raise his eyes from the dirt or the street and fly.
One night, during the mawlid in Luxor, a khuwaga approached me while I sat on my chair on the platform between shows. He was what Mustafah would call a hippie – long hair like a woman, and I could tell by his eyes he had been smoking hashish. He spoke to me in broken Arabic.
“You great! You very great! Egypt Eefell Khaneefell!”
“Hello,” I say in English.
“Tomorrow! Tomorrow I here!”
“Welcome in Egypt,” I say in English.
“Okay! You great! You very great! I here tomorrow!”
The next night, the khuwaga shows up, waving a page from a magazine. He points to a photograph of a man on a motorcycle, suspended in mid-air, flying over a long line of parked cars in a big arena full of people. He is wearing a helmet and a sparkling white tracksuit.
“You Egypt Eefell Khaneefell!” He points to me and then to the man in the photograph. The man and his motorcycle are flying. The khuwaga is anxious for me to say something.
“Welcome in Egypt,” I say in English. “Shukran.”
“Afwan!” he says. His Arabic is better than my English. He thrust the page into my hands.
“You great! Eefell Khaneefell!”
I kept the page for a few years and would pull it out sometimes and look at it. What was it like to fly through the air in a straight line? I could tell by the way he held his head that he was watching his own green line. Straight line or round and round in a wooden bowl, our goal was the same: to defy gravity and escape fate, and not to crash and burn.
13, 14, 15
I peel the flag off my face, stuff it up my left sleeve, and grip the handlebars again. I turn the handlebars slightly and the bike swoops down the wall and then up the other side, heading for the red line painted just below the top of the tank, just below the stomping feet of the crowd. I can see their toes through their sandals, I can see their faces looking down at me, their eyes wide. I am headed right for them and their faces switch from joy to terror that the magic might fail us all, and instead of being saved by my death, they will be killed when I cross the red line.
There is a part of me that longs to cross that line, to soar free of the water tank full of blue fumes, to rip through the canvas roof into the clear night sky and fly over the rooftops of the mud-brown buildings with their pigeon lofts and goats and heaps of rubbish and kids flying kites, over the glowing green dome of Sayyida Zaynab and the spiral minaret of Ibn Tulun, soaring higher, over the Citadel and out over the Muqattam Hills beyond to where the desert laps in yellow waves against the city.
But I never do. I think of Hala and Yasmin and the stack of dirty pound notes and food on the table and I swoop back down from the edge, spin around the bowl in one last low orbit and glide to the bottom of the tank and putter to a stop. Mohammad steadies the bike and I dismount, blowing more kisses to the crowd, who lean over the top of the tank and stretch out their hands, trying to grasp a bit of magic.
Mohammad turns off the Bunsen burner and the crowd rushes out as fast as it rushed in, gabbling like excited geese. It’s dinner time and I have an hour or so before I ride again. Mustafah has brought his sister from our tent and they are waiting for me on the platform outside. Yasmin wants an ice cream and to say hello to Fatima, the Red Sea Mermaid. Mustafah, unsmiling, leaves her with me and turns away, lost in the river of people pouring through Sayyidah Zaynab square.
Yasmin is wearing her favorite purple jumpsuit, just like mine, and her round open face is smiling. She is growing up a child of the mawlid, a girl who knows life only as a festival, full of music and joy, magicians and mystics. She reaches up for my hand, black and greasy from the bike, and I clasp it. Her hand is warm and soft as a lamb’s ear.
We stand on the platform for a few minutes, watching the mawlid. It is a vast living thing of color and noise. It is the Layla Kabir, the big night, and the crowd heaves and swells in the square, the enormous pounding heart of the mawlid, and the streams of people, like blood, flow into and out of the square from the radiating streets, from the back alleys and big avenues, from the corniche along the Nile, and it seems like all of Egypt is here tonight, even the president, smiling down from the big billboard next to the number 2000 in electric lights to welcome in the coming new age. When everything, they say, will be better.
We go down the few steps from the platform to the street, Yasmin leading the way, and join the crowds surging in the square. I lift Yasmin onto my shoulders to protect her from the crowd that presses all around us, but because I am big and fat and recognized by many, we are able to make our way across the square to the front of the mosque bathed in blazing displays of colored lights. Young boys are tossing firecrackers from the balconies of apartment houses on either side of the mosque and an imam’s hoarse voice crackles and blares from loudspeakers mounted on the façade. Through the open doors of the mosque, we can see the crowds of women all in black pressing against the tomb of the saint who this night of all nights will grant blessings.
Yasmin pulls on my left ear, telling me to go left to the ice cream. I move off through the crowd. It’s hard going. Snakes of young boys holding each other’s shoulders race through the crowd and the ground is thick with rubbish, scraps of cardboard, corn cobs, greasy skewers, plastic bottles, straw. We make it to the part of the square where the other shows are arranged in a ragged row. Omar the Clown, standing on his low stage, is juggling five tangerines and off to the side, Waleed the Snake Charmer, one foot resting on the top of his wicker cobra basket, is smoking a cigarette and drinking tea with Noor, the Lady With No Body. Yasmin was terrified of Noor at first, her disembodied head talking and laughing from inside a glass box, but now she waves shyly and Noor waves back, her bracelets and bangles making a silver music.
Fatima the Red Sea Mermaid is nowhere to be seen, but Yasmin lingers in front of her painted sign: a woman with long flowing black hair and the tail of a whale, riding the blue waves beneath a yellow sun. Hussain the Magician is in his tent in the middle of his act and we can hear the gasps and laughter of his audience. He isn’t a real magician. He doesn’t escape gravity or defy death – only yanks a hamster from a hat, pulls scarves from his mouth and makes a woman disappear. He does succeed in one great magic trick, one of the greatest magic tricks of all, the same trick the president knows: he pulls money from people who have very little of it.
We walk around the corner of the mosque, go down a street and then veer off into a dirt alleyway lined with the tents of families who have come to Cairo from the countryside for the mawlid. The dark canyon of the alleyway wanders along under the apartment buildings, the hanging laundry on the porches glowing from the televisions blaring inside apartments and the air is full of the smell of frying onions. Yasmin holds my hand and with her other hand, turns her cone so her tongue can plow a groove around the ball of ice cream.
One alleyway leads to another, all of them full of tents and families, the narrow lanes echoing with women’s voices and children’s play, until we come to the alleyway that runs along the towering outer wall of Ibn Tulun. On the corner, their backs against the wall, are brightly lit tents, their interior walls a riot of appliqué panels. The hypnotic throbbing of drums and the reedy whine of mizmars pour out from the tents where the men in their long galabeyas are standing and swaying in lines, their turbaned heads bobbing like cotton balls in a breeze, their bodies weaving and rocking like waves rolling on the sea. Yasmin lets go of my hand to laugh and clap her hands and sway her body like a cobra rising from Waleed’s basket. A few of her uncles and some of her cousins are in these tents, lost among the swaying bodies and the swirling music.
I see Mustafah on the other side of the alley, also on his way to our tent for dinner. He is scowling at the men in the tents, their faces ecstatic, lost in the music and their love for God.
A little further down the alley, dark as a cave with the flickering lights of little fires and gas burners, the unlighted spiral minaret of Ibn Tulun climbs darkly to the sky, marking the spot where Hala waits in our tent. The alley here is full of our cousins and other families from our village. I tell Hala, why should we return to the village when the village comes to us?
We wait for Mustafah to join us and then we all go into the tent together. Mohammad, Tarek and Basem have stayed behind, and part of my mind is with them, going over the bike and checking the bolts of the tank, always riding the green line. Ahmed is here tonight, sitting on the carpet on the tent floor with Omar and Hani and a handful of young cousins and Miriam, Hala’s mother, who holds out her arms for Yasmin to run into.
I sit next to Hala. She smiles, she is always smiling, and she fills a plate of lamb and rice for me. On the carpet before us are dishes of hummus and baba ganoush, tabouli and olives, hot bread and sweet tea.
And this, I know, is truly the greatest death-defying magic trick of all, that we sit down together as a family and eat the food the fellahin have conjured from the dirt.