Wakeel sulked, and did not talk to me for two days.
* * *
We had another cousin who was a few months younger than I. He never really got along with any of the others. Wakeel used to call him a jerk. All the other cousins, everyone, started to call him "Jerk" as well.
If he bought new clothes, he would walk in front of us to show them off and say something stupid. "We went to a shop in Shahr-e-Naw that opened a few weeks ago. They bring everything they sell from London and Paris. The owner told my parents that I have a good taste for clothes. I don't think you guys can afford a suit like this." When I asked how much he paid, he would triple the price.
Wakeel would ask, "Hey, Jerk, do your clothes do any magic for such a price?"
Jerk could never see a joke coming, and would ask something witless like, "What kind of magic?"
"Can they make you look less ugly?" Wakeel replied, his voice cracking into shrieking guffaws.
We'd all laugh, and Jerk would run toward his house and complain to his parents. We would run to the roof, or outside the courtyard, or hide in the garage inside my father's car to escape punishment.
Once when Jerk had on his good clothes and was showing off, Wakeel filled his mouth with water, and I punched him in his stomach. That forced Wakeel to spit it all on Jerk. Poor Jerk looked at us in disbelief and asked with outrage in his voice why we had done that.
Wakeel told him, "We are practicing to be tough. We punch each other unexpectedly, so we will be prepared if we get into a fight with someone. You should be tough, too." Then we punched him in his stomach, but avoided his face so we would not leave any bruises, because we knew that would get us spanked by his parents.
Jerk had one unexpected strength: he was always a reader. For his age, he had more information than he needed. He had a good mind for memorizing, too. That turned us even more against him.
* * *
Wakeel teased Jerk all the time when we were at home playing with our cousins. Outside, though, Wakeel would not let anybody bother him. Wakeel was like an older brother to all of us. When Jerk got into fights with the neighbor boys, which happened a lot, Wakeel defended him. When we were playing football in the park, Wakeel always made sure that Jerk and I were on his team, so he could protect us.
Our neighbors were like us, quiet and educated people. When there was a wedding or engagement party in one of their houses, everyone in the neighborhood was invited, along with their kids and servants.
Every week my grandfather talked for ten minutes in the mosque after Friday prayers about how to keep our neighborhood clean, or how to solve water and electricity problems, or how to take care of the public park and create more facilities where the kids could play together. He had never been elected to any position, but people listened to him.
When a family was having financial problems, one of its older men would quietly speak to Grandfather and ask for the community's help. Then, after Friday prayers, Grandfather would explain to the other men in the mosque that some money was needed without ever saying by whom. It was important to protect the dignity of the family in need.
One Friday after the others had left the mosque, I saw my grandfather giving the money he had collected to a neighbor whose wife had been sick for many months. The man kissed Grandfather's hands, and said, "You always live up to our expectations. May God grant you long life, health, and strength." When Grandfather noticed that I was watching him, he scowled at me, and I quickly turned away. This was something I was not meant to see.
* * *
Grandfather's house was his great pride, and the McIntosh apple trees were his great joy. He was in his late sixties when I was born, and soon after became a widower. By then he had retired from the bank, and busied himself in the courtyard, planting roses, geraniums, and hollyhocks or watering his McIntosh apple trees, always singing in a whispery voice under his teeth, or quietly reciting the ninety-nine names of God.
Copyright © 2013 by Qais Akbar Omar
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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