This is a piece I imagined based on my encounter with the family in Serjilla that I mentioned in my last Postcard from the past. I’m not much good at writing fiction, but I really enjoy taking a kernel of reality and playing with it. That’s what I’ve done here. It was written a while back in the days when I was semi-prolific. Next week, I’m having a writing retreat at Potato Point with a writing friend, and I’m hoping concentrated time and the presence of a critiquer will inspire a few changes of style and a flurry of writing. I’m also posting it as I procrastinate over a background piece for my time at Pella in Jordan.
Mahomet peered around the ruined stone wall. There she was again, an old woman, a foreigner, on her own. She was shabbily dressed. She didn’t look like most of the tourists who visited his home. They usually came in crowds on a bus and they didn’t stay long. She came in a battered yellow taxi and she’d been here wandering around for ages, ever since he came up after dinner to look at the motor bike the archaeologists always left parked near where they were digging.
She looked poor – for a tourist – but in her hand was a golden camera. It gleamed in the cold Dead City sun, against the green grass, the blue sky and the stone of the ruins. She had taken many photos, of strange things sometimes. She seemed to be photographing blades of grass and single stones. She seemed to like taking photos through windows or doors.
Mahomet was good at watching. It was one of the things he really liked doing, when he could get away from his younger brothers and sisters and his mother who always seemed to want him to do something. Sometimes he watched ants and scorpions, but they belonged here. What he really liked doing was watching strangers and trying to figure them out. Why were they here? What was their life like at home? How did they get the money they always seemed to have lots of?
Sometimes he talked to them. He didn’t know much English or French or German, but he was proud that he knew more than they knew Arabic. Suddenly he decided he would talk to the old woman with the golden camera.
She was staring at one of the old roofless buildings. He said “Madam …” and she jumped and looked startled.
“Oh. Hello.” she said in a flat voice.
“You want me to show you places?” he asked.
It was his turn to look startled.
“For free. No money.”
He moved off towards one of the buildings he knew she would like. It had plenty of window and door holes and enough grass to keep her happy forever. They didn’t talk much. She held the golden camera and used it often, as they rambled away from the centre of the buildings. She was happy to follow him. Sometimes he asked questions about the camera.
“Why do you take so many photos?” “What do you do with them all?” and finally “Why is your camera golden?’
She looked surprised again.
“Golden? I suppose it is golden. It was just the one I bought, because it did the things I wanted to do. “
“How strange foreigners are,” he thought. “She has a golden camera and she didn’t even know it.”
As they approached the last building he planned to show her he heard the sound of voices. Oh no. He recognized them. His mother and Saleh and Ahmed and all of them. And there they were coming up the hill their heads first and then the rest of them. His mother called him
“Mahomet. What are you doing? Are you annoying the lady?”
Suddenly he saw his opportunity. Tourists like having photos taken with the locals. His family were locals and there was even a baby. Babies seemed to be especially attractive. He couldn’t figure out why. This might be his chance to hold the golden camera and even use it. He’d never used a camera, never even held one.
“Photo madam? You like photo with my family? I will take it.” He held his breath.
“I’d love a photo” said the old lady. She handed him the camera, putting the strap around his neck.
“You look through here,” she said. “And when you can see the picture you want to take, you press this button.”
He peered through the viewfinder. There was his family. The baby’s nappy was sagging and his mother was squinting in the sun. His sisters preened and looked important and his brother, he knew, was about to whinge: “I want a turn to. Give me a turn.” Behind them was the familiar landscape, strangely carved off and boxed by the little viewing hole.
He pressed the button, holding the golden camera steady. And then he pressed it again, and again and again till there were ten photos of his family locked up inside. What a pity he would never see them, and how much he wanted a camera of his own.
The lady took back the camera and told him to stand with his family and she took two more photos. Then she said something astonishing: “Do you want to see?” They all crowded round and he noticed a tiny screen. In the sun you could see nothing, but in the shade there they were, caught on this sunny day with a chill in the air.
The lady said thank you and went back to her yellow taxi. Mahomet no longer wanted to buy a motor bike more than anything else in the world. He wanted a golden camera to catch all the things he saw and keep them forever.