Bridges and Trees
By Ellen Larson
"No Nile, no Egypt...." So sang the fishermen as they
rowed up the misty river, setting their nets in the
gray hour before dawn, wrapped to the eyes in thread-
bare robes against the cold. "...No Egypt, no Nile."
Abdul Rahman Mohammed, sitting at the edge of the
water behind the policemen's barracks in a cramped
Cairo suburb, saw them every morning as he washed. He
was a long way from Aswan in Upper Egypt, where his
mother, his wife, his son, and infant daughter lived
in a mud-brick house, but the fishermen and the river
were the same. He cupped his hand, dipped it into the
water, and thought--Far away to the south, Nouzha is
reaching into the water, washing herself just as I am.
Maybe that little ripple was caused by the movement of
her hands. An ibis floated out of the sky, contracted
its graceful wings, and settled onto a half-submerged
and rusted wheel rim a little way from shore.
Later, neatly dressed in his black winter uniform,
with matching beret, gaiters, and boots, he joined his
comrades: slim young men sporting narrow mustaches;
naive young men straight off the farm; undistinguished
young men fulfilling their military obligation at the
lowest level of service. Together they clambered into
the back of an open truck (the cattle truck, they
called it as a joke) and bounced along the roads to
the spacious Cairo suburb of Maadi.
As it neared the first post, the truck slowed. Mahmoud
Abdul Moneim and Mohammed Ali Mohammed hopped off,
while Ahmed Ali Ibrahim and Ahmed Saied, whom they
were relieving, scrambled up. The young men laughed
and hooted as Ahmed Saied's rifle strap snagged on the
sagging tailgate and he was forced to jump off again.
The driver, Ahmed Behnassoui, grinned at them in the
rearview mirror and revved the engine. Ahmed Saied,
struggling to unhitch himself, had to run hard to keep
As they picked up speed, Abdul Rahman reached out in
the midst of his laughter and hauled Ahmed Saied into
the truck, making sure the young man didn't stab him-
self with his bayonet. Abdul Rahman was older than
the others--he had chosen the security of a second
tour, small though the pay was, rather than the un-
certainty of looking for work as a laborer in Cairo,
or the assured poverty of returning to his village--
and thus had the responsibility of providing moral guidance. His name, one of the hundred names of Allah, meant "servant of the merciful," and he never forgot
his duty to live up to it.
When the truck reached his post, Abdul Rahman hopped
down nimbly, holding his rifle high on his back. He
gave a gallant wave to Ahmed Behnassoui as the truck
jounced over the bridge and rumbled away. Samir, his
new partner, yawned and wandered a few paced up the
road. The young man placed his rifle butt on the
ground, folded his arms on top of the barrel, and
closed his eyes. He would not wake up until something
worth watching occurred at one of the grand villas
across the road. Abdul Rahman, stretching his limbs,
walked over to the bridge, placed a hand on its stone
parapet, and inspected its foundation. His post was an
old friend, and he liked to spend a few minutes each
morning remaking its acquaintance, although he didn't
expect to learn anything new.
There were policemen at all the major intersections in
Maadi, as well as at other importantlocations--rail-
road crossings, mosques, schools, and of course, bridges. Abdul Rahman's bridge carried Mostafa Kamil Road, the main market route, across the canal and into the Maadi souk. Abdul Rahman was proud to have a post of such importance, and prouder still because of the unusual beauty of the place.
The canal had run parallel to the Nile, two kilometers
inland, since the beginning of memory, carrying ir-
rigation water to the narrow strip of farmland on
the east bank of the River. It was eight meters wide,
two meters deep, straight as an arrow, and had steep
banks. Like most canals in Egypt, the water was motion-
less, unless a breeze rippled its surface, and reddish-
brown. Like most canals in Egypt, it was dotted with floating islands of water hyacinth, muchto the annoyance of the bargemen, who had to pole through it, and the farmers, whose irrigation ditches it clogged. But what made this particular stretch of canal special was its eucalyptus trees. Their smooth trunks stood like pillars on either bank, their sturdybranches holding up a leafy canopy that shaded the waterway--a silver-green colonnade running through modern residential Maadi as the mighty boulevards of stone had once run through the temples of the pharoahs. Although there were many trees and gardens in Maadi--the foreigners and rich people who lived there could afford the luxury--none were as beautiful as Abdul Rahman's eucalyptus. They had been set in the ground as saplings some six or ten years previously,and Abdul Rahman had it on good authority that the great Gamal Abdul Nasser himself had ordered their planting.
After admiring the trees in the morning light, and
checking for traffic on the canal, Abdul Rahman turned
his attention to the little area at the east end of
the bridge he considered his territory. Who knew what
mayhem the policemen on the night shift had created in
his absence? He liked to keep the ground swept clean,
but the others didn't care where they threw their bits
of paper, cigarette butts, and rubbish. He liked to
keep the tin drinking cup in a recess of the parapet,
but he often found it down by the canal on a jutting
rock, or even lying on its side on the muddy bank.
Abdul Rahman always shook his head at this; this new
batch of policemen seemed more careless than the last.
A horse clip-clopped over the bridge, its harness
bells jingling, pulling a flat-bed wagon piled high
with sweet potatoes. Fruit and vegetables--tomato,
okra, mango, and cucumber--from the outlying farms
were brought to the souk every morning along this
route. Abdul Rahman greeted the driver cheerfully and
folded his arms across his breast to watch the rig go
by. The dark red horse stepped eagerly, looking very
flashy in his green and red harness. The low sides of
the wagon were painted green and red and yellow. The
colors reminded Abdul Rahman of his childhood home,
far to the south: green for the lush fields of sugar
cane and berseem clover, red for the dark Nile mud,
and yellow for the sun and the sand.
After picking up the stray bits of trash, Abdul Rahman
rearranged the loose stones and pieces of broken mason-
ry to suit his fancy. The previous night had been
cold, and the policemen on duty had lit a fire for
warmth, moving some of the larger rocks to make a
little hearth. Abdul Rahman, however, liked to keep
the largest stone, which was shaped like a boat, at
the foot of his favorite eucalyptus tree, where it
made a comfortable seat. So, as on most winter morn-
ings, he had a little struggle shifting it back into place.
Not that he spent much time sitting down! For most of
each day, he remained on his feet, as ramrod straight
as the trees, standing close beside the bridge, greet-
ing such passersby as he knew, sometimes walking a few paces down the road to stretch his legs. But for a little while each day, usually after midday prayers,
Abdul Rahman liked to take his ease, and at such times
he liked to sit, and feel the bark of the eucalyptus
against his back. At such times he watched the reflec-
tion of the trees in the canal, and studied the goings-
on of the insects clinging to the long grasses bobbing
by the water's edge. He moved only to wave a slow hand at the passing canal boats at such times,content to watch the pilots wave back with equal tranquillity. It was at such times that he knew he would be signing up
for a third tour.
At midday, year in and year out, rattle-trap donkey
carts trundled by, operated by pairs or trios of
rag-tag children. At each villa along the road, one or
two of the children would leap off the cart and dis-
appear into yard or entranceway, returning with bags or cartons full of garbage, which they would pileonto the high-sided carts. Abdul Rahman did not greet these children cheerfully. He sniffed to show his disdain,
and shouted at them in a loud voice if they came too
near when he didn't want them--and in a louder voice
when he did. In the later instance, they would approach warily, take what bits of refuse he gave them with feigned terror, and scamper away. Abdul Rahman would sniff again. They were the zebeleen, the garbage
people, and socially inferior. They lived in the City
of Garbage, by the Hills of Mokkattem, and had no education, no religion, and no law. But they did a
good job collecting the garbage, year in and year
In the late spring, when the days grew hot, and then
sweltering, the policemen put on their white summer
uniforms, with matching white berets. Born and bred in
the furnace of Upper Egypt, they did not mind the
heat. Only when the holy month of Ramadan, during
which they took neither food nor water from dawn to
dusk, occurred in summer did some of them suffer. They
would sit swooning, their heads fallen forward on
their knees, sweat beading on their sallow faces. But
while others sagged, Abdul Rahman would stand at his
post as usual, alert and cheerful, greeting the gar-
deners and the tradesman as they passed by on their
bicycles or with their push-carts. He didn't try to do
too much, and kept in the shade of the eucalyptus
trees, but it was his pride to be upright and smiling
when his younger comrades were limp and fainting in
the scorching heat.
And it was his delight during Ramadan to say a prayer
and take the first sip of water after the canon was
fired at sunset. The food he carried with him for
iftar, the break-fast, was no different than what he
ate during the rest of the year--bread and white
cheese, with perhaps a pickle or two--but it always
tasted better during Ramadan. And there was a generous
lady who lived in the flat-topped villa across the way
who never failed to send out a plate of delicacies for
him and his partner during Ramadan: tangy apricots,
spicy rice cooked with raisins and sweetmeats,
molukhaya, and omali, which slipped down the throat so
easily at the end of a meal. Those were happy times,
which matured into happy memories to savor in the
As the memories collected over the years, Abdul Rahman
began to notice that some things were changing, and
not all for the better, he thought. When he had first
come to Maadi, the children had celebrated the holy
month by dancing along the roads after iftar in
groups, swinging their Ramadan lanterns and singing.
But as time passed, the streets became empty in the
evenings, as the children preferred to stay indoors
and watch quiz shows on television, while their
parents continued the feast till dawn, and then slept
the day away to shorten the fast.
Abdul Rahman frowned on all such shirking of duty. He
tried to make the long trip to Upper Egypt to see his
family at least once a year, to bring them the little
money he had saved, and to help with the harvest. He
fathered two more daughters, and Nouzha began to keep
chickens. But the cost of the train ticket went stead-
ily upward, and one year he did not go, entrusted the money to a friend making the trip south. After his
little son died, he went even less often.
At the end of his fifth tour, the captain called him
to his office and told him it was time to depart the
police force and return to his family. But Abdul
Rahman knew the money he was able to send them was the
most he could hope to make, given his lack of skills
and the fierce competition for even the most menial
jobs. Also, although he did not say so, he quailed at
the thought of leaving his life at the Mostafa Kamil
bridge. So he stalled the already endless process of
completing his paperwork, and shrugged when his
sergeant stared at him hard and said he had heard
Abdul Rahman was leaving. He clung to his routine,
determined to wait the situation out. After a few
months, the sergeant ceased his comments and took his
presence for granted. After a year, the Captain
stopped asking Abdul Rahman if he had gotten his
discharge papers stamped yet.
Time drifted by, one day, or month, or year much like
the last. But in one memorable year, on a day in late
summer, word filtered down to the policemen that the
government was going to fill in the canal. The fields
on the east bank of the Nile grew nothing but tall
apartment buildings now, and the people in them had no
use for brackish irrigation water. Pipes, filtration
units, and sewer systems were much better for them.
Modern technology was turning the desert, far from
Cairo, into farm land. Maintaining the canal--the
yearly dredging and the upkeep of the secondary
ditches--was too expensive for so few farms. Abdul
Rahman was sick at heart at the thought of the coming
destruction, and thought--This would not have hap-
pened in Gamal Abdul Nasser's day.
For many weeks, Abdul Rahman stood mutely at his post
and watched noisy, ugly trucks bring in sand from the
desert, and teams of barefoot, gray-garbed workers
--workers such as he might have been had he not
been a policeman--shoveling the sand into the empty
canal. In his waking dreams, he pictured the eucal-
yptus trees lying stricken on the ground, their
broken branches scattered on the road, and felt tears
streaming hot down his narrow face. His youthful
partner told him he cared more for the trees than he
did for the ladies, and laughed at him when he could
But when the canal was filled in, and the work crews
left, the double row of eucalyptus trees still stood.
Grass grew quickly in the shallow depression that had
been the canal, and bushes were planted that would
bear tiny red and yellow flowers in spring. The
following year, and every year thereafter, children
came to play on the shady lawn, and families picnicked
there on Sham El Nassim, the spring holiday named in
honor of Smelling the Breezes. Abdul Rahman's life,
after months of dust and noise, returned to normal.
But there were two differences. First, to get a drink
of water, he had to walk down a side road to the
public water urn (a red-clay vessel shaped like a
headless, narrow-waisted woman with a flat rock on
top to keep the animals out), and second, Abdul Rahman
kept his post by the bridge alone.
The filling in of the canal had been swift and
painful; other changes occurred so slowly and gently
that he didn't notice them until they were complete,
at which time he could only shrug and accept them. One
day he realized it had been a long time since he had
been able to make the trip to Aswan, and although
relatives brought him news of his family, they seemed
very far away, and he did not think of them so much
anymore. His mother had died, and their little farm
had been rented out. Eventually, Abdul Rahman took a
second wife, a young woman crippled from polio who was
the sister of Ahmed Behnassoui, the driver. For two
years they lived in a room hard by the policemen's
barracks, from which he still caught the cattle truck
each morning. But then the young woman died, and he
moved back to the barracks, and did not look for
When he had been young, Abdul Rahman had giggled and
whistled along with the others when a girl of ques-
tionable virtue walked by, although even then he
had felt guilty about it. "Taali, zibadi!" the bold
ones called, if a girl's skirt showed a bit of plump
white calf: "Come here, white yogurt," they called, or
worse. Then they would whistle and hoot as she has-
tened away. But eventually Abdul Rahman conquered
the demon within him, and stopped participating in
such games. One day he spoke harshly to a young
policeman he caught behaving so, shaming him into
silence. In his heart, he did not like to see a girl
immodestly dressed, or walking alone down the road,
but he knew it was none of a policeman's business.
He had to remind himself of this more often than usual
the autumn the Generous Lady's granddaughter came to
visit. She was very modern, and it was hard for Abdul
Rahman to keep the disapproval from his face when he
saw her going out with the boys from college, or sit-
ting on the chaise lounge in the yard wearing her
shorts. She was disgracing her grandmother, he thought. He said nothing, but spent much time shaking his head, his usually cheerful countenance fixed in an unhappy scowl.
That year during Ramadan, the granddaughter sometimes
brought Abdul Rahman his iftar plate. He always
thanked her humbly, but she was very ungracious, as if
the task she was forced to perform was beneath her. He
was surprised, therefore, when one evening she spoke
"I've always wondered something," she said coldly,
eyeing him condescendingly. "What do you do here?"
"I guard the bridge," said Abdul Rahman politely.
The girl looked at him with large, intelligent eyes.
Then she looked at the greensward between the trees,
and at the road that crossed it. It was set firmly on
the ground. "What bridge?" she asked.
Abdul Rahman shrugged, and for answer placed a hand on
the stone parapet that still bordered the road for
eight meters. The girl looked at the parapet, un-
impressed, and went back to the villa. Abdul Rahman
shook his head. Modern girls, with their skimpy
clothes and lack of respect, were a far cry from the
girls of his youth.
When each autumn turned to winter, he wondered if the
weather was not getting colder year by year. As he
grew older, it grew harder to keep warm in the cold
months, although he wore all the clothes he had under
his black wool uniform. The other policemen made fun
of him, calling him "clothes store," but what could he
do? Most things grew harder each year. Most things, in
fact, except fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
That grew ever easier. Keeping up with his youthful
colleagues did not.
The open cattle trucks were replaced by large blue
trucks with blue canvas tops, but the tradition of
saving the brakes for emergencies still held, and
Abdul Rahman's hop off the tailgate was not as spry as
it had once been. There was a new driver, too, who had
little sympathy for him, and sometimes played games
with him, much to the delight of his boyish comrades,
who thought it was a good joke that such an old man
kept amongst their ranks. Their laughter was not
pleasant, but Abdul Rahman endured it with good humor.
One day he tripped in a pothole while scrambling after
the truck and fell hard, breaking his arm. That was a
difficult winter, for the arm was slow to heal, and
never worked quite right again. But the captain spoke
harshly to the driver, and to the men who had been on
the truck, and Abdul Rahman had no further trouble
with them. Yet this saddened him, for he knew they
were separated by a barrier he could no longer cross.
But the basket man, his red and green woven wares
piled impossibly high upon his head, still liked to
pass the time of day. He never failed to assure Abdul
Rahman that his bridge was a fine location for peddling
--such a nice shady intersection. Likewise the knife-
sharpener, who trundled by on Tuesday afternoons
pushing his heavy hand-cart, always stopped to speak
with him--although he talked exclusively about the
growing stiffness of his legs, and what medicines he
was taking to bring about the return of his youthful
vigor. One day Abdul Rahman thought to mention that
the doctor had said there was something wrong with his
kidneys, but the knife-sharpener seemed quite wounded
at this invasion of his territory, so he did not bring
it up again. Besides the peddlers, Abdul Rahman always
enjoyed exchanging greeting with the street sweepers,
women of his own age dressed in black, who appreciated
his trees and his politeness. And the latest gener-
ation of zebeleen children still appeared every
day, shouting at each other as they scampered from
villa to villa. They tore past Abdul Rahman in their
efforts to keep up with the lopsided donkey cart,
while the lucky driver laughed and beat his little
gray donkeys--noses to the ground as they strained--
all the harder.
The Generous Lady across the way did not leave her
villa any more. She suffered from a mysterious com-
plaint that involved daily shots from a visiting
pharmacist, limited movement before noon, and a
preference for hushed whispers. But she did not forget
Abdul Rahman. At least once a week, even when it was
not Ramadan, she sent her servant, Nabila, to him,
laden with a sampler of tasty foods as well as advice
on how to avoid a cold that winter, or how he should
stay in the shade next summer. When the government put
the new sidewalks in, they broke the water urn on the
nearby side road and did not replace it, but from then
on Nabila brought Abdul Rahman water in a plastic
bottle every day, and he felt himself very well off
In the evenings, Abdul Rahman liked to hobble down to
the River behind the police barracks, where he would
sit on a rock, and enjoy the close of the day.
"No Nile, no Egypt...." So sang the feluccamen,
sitting curled at the bases of their tall masts, as
they carried the tourists up and down the river at
sunset. Their white sails swept out graceful arcs
across the deep blue sky, reminding him of the wings
of the ibis he had seen in his youth. "...No Egypt, no
Nile." On a clear night he could see the pyramids of
Giza behind the tall palm trees across the river:
unconquerable monuments to the past.
One morning in mid-winter, Abdul Rahman was slower
than usual in getting up. He was tired, because he had
been too cold to sleep, and he could not pass water.
He struggled to pull his boots on and get to the truck
before it left. "Don't go," said a colleague, concern
evident in his eyes, but Abdul Rahman would not con-
sider that. Helping hands lifted him onto the truck,
and when he arrived at his post, the driver came to a complete stop and stayed there until Abdul Rahman was safely on the ground.
He did not have the strength to stand, but it was
without regret that he lowered himself onto his
favorite rock, and leaned his back against the gnarled
eucalyptus. Mercifully, the air was still, and he was
not uncomfortable. He closed his eyes, and when he
opened them, it was midday, and warm. He closed his
eyes again and enjoyed the heat of the sun on his
face. He opened his eyes and watched a pack of school-
boys hurry by, carrying books and satchels. It was mid-afternoon. Time seemed to be passing rapidly.
He closed his eyes.
At the end of the day, the setting sun shot red and
yellow rays through the treetops and touched his face.
He opened his eyes and looked around. The rich light
enflamed the poinsettias that grew head-high along the
stone parapet, and they glowed as if from an inner
source, throbbing red and gold. He slid sideways off
the rock and slumped onto the ground, face downward.
He thought that he had come to his final resting
place, until strong hands pulled at his shoulders,
shifting him around so that he was half sitting,
supported by the rock and the tree roots.
"What's wrong, ya Hajj?" came an anxious voice. He
smiled at the words; he had always been a little sad
that he had never been on the Hajj, and the use of the
honorific--although still a little premature--pleased
him. He opened his eyes to see the Generous Lady's
granddaughter--now a married woman and a mother her-
self, he had heard--kneeling beside him.
"Nothing is wrong, lady," he said.
Her eyes were as intelligent as ever, and he saw she
understood what he meant. "Can I get you anything, ya
Hajj?" she asked.
He thought about it. His mouth was dry. "A glass of
water," he suggested.
"Nabila!" The granddaughter's voice was sharp with
He closed his eyes again, and opened them when he felt
the granddaughter's hand behind his head, and the
glass at his lips.
He took a sip. It tasted very sweet. He licked his
lips, refreshed. He looked up into the granddaughter's
face, and smiled faintly.
"Don't cry, lady. I am not worth your tears."
The granddaughter shook her head. "You are our life's
He heard no more.
The Generous Lady turned over in her bed when her
granddaughter told her what had happened, and as
Nabila rushed off to prepare herb tea, tears gathered
on her puffy pink and white face and wetted her
pillow. The basket man, when he heard the news the
next day, said, "By the grace of Allah the beneficent
and the merciful," and, out of respect, sat for a
while on the boat-shaped rock--until a passerby woke
him from his reverie demanding to buy a basket. The
zebeleen children stopped and stared in awkward
silence, and then, remembering the consequences that
awaited them if they lingered too long, raced away
after the donkey cart. Abdul Rahman's Captain shook
his head, and signed an order dated six years pre-
viously directing him to remove the non-existent
Mostafa Kamil bridge from the list of police posts.
The eucalyptus trees stand there still.
(Ellen Larson <email@example.com> is a freelance writer and editor currently living and working in Cairo, Egypt. She has published short fiction, essays and reviews in the USA, Egypt and on the Net. Her first short story appeared in Yankee Magazine in 1971. Her novels The Hatch and Brood of Time, Unfold the Evil and The Measure of the Universe are available through Savvy Press. "Bridges and Trees" is included in The Best of Gowanus: New Writing from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean(Gowanus Books).