I'm not going to spend a shilling on your stupidity, she said.
It was noon and Prince needed to eat. He had been on the road for over two hours. He was always on the road, searching, seeking, yearning. He woke up every morning from the straw mat on his aunt's floor, folded it gracefully, tucked it stealthily under the bed on which his aunt lay snoring and ventured out into the world looking for that which only he knew. No breakfast, no 'Good morning, Auntie' -- nothing. He just walked out the door rubbing sleep off his eyes.
He had no idea what it is he was looking for, but he knew he would recognize it when he found it, and that he could never stop looking until he found it. Every night he lay on his straw mat making plans. Every morning he walked out the door and ventured off into a new direction, hoping, praying, that it would be the day that he would find what he was looking for. Every evening he came home exhausted, thirsty and hungry, with nothing nudging him on except the hope that tomorrow would be the day. His life was this endless cycle of searching and hoping and wandering and yearning, accentuated by hunger and thirst, disillusionment and despair.
"Where do you go to every morning?"
"To the world, Auntie," he said. "I'm looking for something."
He shrugged. "You wouldn't understand, Auntie."
She scowled. "There's nothing a stupid little boy like you knows that I wouldn't understand." She shifted her hundred-and-twelve-kilos physique on the chair and glared at Prince.
She was furious, he could tell. There was a vein that popped up above her left eye every time she was angry. Any wrong word from Prince and things would escalate quickly. He would end up with bruises and wounds, or worse, a limb injury like last time. It had kept him on the straw mat for five days, writhing in agony, eating nothing but a thin soup that Auntie brought with her every evening. She could not take him to the hospital. I'm not going to spend a shilling on your stupidity, she said. It had cost him five days on the road. Five days worth of searching. Five days in which he might have finally found it.
Peeking at the angry vein above his aunt's left eye, he attempted to explain as clearly as he could, in as simple terms as possible, what it is he went out looking for each day. When he was done, he mustered the courage to glance up at his aunt to assess her reaction. She stared down at him as though she was looking at a tiger on stilettos.
"What kind of nonsense is that?" she barked. "Get out of my face, you dumb little bastard." As he left the room he heard her murmur, almost to herself, "I can't wait till you are old enough to get out of my house."
No one would ever understand, he decided. He never tried to explain it to anyone again. He never talked about it again since then.
But the Old Man understood, and it was a welcome breath of fresh air for Prince. The Old Man looked at him with his intense intelligent eyes as he rambled on and on about what he expected when he finally found it and what it would mean for him to wake up from his straw mat with another purpose beside this interminable searching. The Old Man listened intently, smiling from time to time, not with condescension but with comprehension. He urged Prince to go on as he listened.
A new world opened up for Prince. He found that he could tell the Old Man everything. He opened up on his past, at least the part of it that he could remember. He recounted the death of his parents at age four. His father had found his mother in bed with another man. He had used his government-issued firearm on them before putting it to his temple and spattering his brains all over his police uniform. Prince told the Old Man about the weight of responsibilities that fell on his shoulders when he went to live with his grandmother soon afterwards. He admitted that it was almost a relief when the old woman passed away months later. Little had he known that his nightmare had just began. To all this the Old Man listened with empathy and understanding.
Prince was overawed by how contrasting the Old Man was to his aunt. Where she was grumpy, cold and aloof, he was warm, inviting and attentive. Where she was mean and condescending, he was generous and understanding. Whereas she inspired fear, despair and hopelessness, he inspired hope, confidence and optimism. This stark contrast had struck him from the first conversation with the Old Man.
Prince had taken a detour in his wanderings to find something to eat one afternoon. Some days the pangs of hunger got to him more than others. He managed to coax the dark-haired waitress at the Swahili dishes deli in downtown into letting him feast on the leftovers before she washed the plates. He had just sat on the ground, leaning on the huge water tank facing the kitchen door, ready to take his first bite of the food, when an old man appeared, carrying a set of dirty dishes for the waitress to clean. He handed the dishes to the scared waitress and walked towards Prince. Prince could have stood up and bolted, but he was so hungry that he actually believed he'd die if he didn't eat anything.
The Old Man stood before Prince and took off his glasses. "What are you doing here, young man?"
"I'm about to eat this food, sir." He kept his eyes on the plate on his lap.
"Why are you out here instead of in there?" He pointed at the deli.
"Because I don't have any money, sir. She was about to throw away this --"
He placed the plate on the ground and stood up. He could feel the meal slipping away from him, and death beckoning. "Please, sir, can I have at least one spoon of --"
"Go wash your hands under that tap."
Prince walked over to the tap and washed his hands, stalling in the hope that the Old Man might lose interest and leave him to his meal.
"Come into the deli and eat with me."
"But, sir, I don't have any --" The Old Man had already gone back into the deli.
He hoisted himself on the seat, feeling so self-conscious in his tattered clothes and bare feet. The fact that everyone stared at him as he walked in did not help to ease his discomfort. The Old Man sat across from him holding the menu in his hand. "Can you read?"
"What would you like to eat?"
He stared at his hands on his lap. "Anything."
The Old Man was amused, and Prince considered storming out of the deli. The Old Man then summoned one of the waitresses and ordered biriani for Prince and chai na mahamri for himself.
"What is your name?"
"Why are you not in school?"
"Because Auntie can't spend a shilling on my stupidity."
The Old Man chuckled. "What does that mean?"
"I don't know. It's what she said when I asked her to take me to school."
"What else does your auntie say?"
"She says that if there was fadalaiza for children she'd pour it all over me so that I can grow up and get out of her house."
The Old Man laughed. "She is really something, your aunt."
"Yeah, she's really big."
The waiter placed a tray of biriani before Prince and walked away to bring her boss's order. Sumptuous pilau filled most part of the tray with various side dishes on the edges including beef, a chicken wing and a banana. It was the most food Prince had ever seen in his life and he looked at the Old Man to confirm that it was all his. The Old Man simply nodded, but lifted his finger when Prince dug his spoon into the pilau. "You must first thank Allah for his generosity."
Prince stared into the Old Man's eyes without bothering to conceal his impatience. "Thank you, Mr Allah."
The Old Man looked into Prince's eyes without bothering to conceal his amusement. "No, Prince. I'm not Allah."
"Who is Allah? Where is he?" The aroma of the food was aggravating his impatience.
"Allah is God."
"Who is God? Did he cook this food?"
"Then what are we thanking him for?"
The Old Man realized that it would take time to pierce through the boy's ignorance, and he would need a full stomach. "Bow down your head for a moment, Prince." He said a prayer in Arabic, and at the end of it he could see how confused the boy was. But Prince was more hungry than confused. "Go ahead and eat."
The first thing Prince learned from the Old Man was about Allah. He was overwhelmed by the idea of being a creation of this Amazing Being who loved him eternally and always looked out for him. Allah, who created everything under the sun and sent the Holy Prophet, Muhammad, peace-be-upon-him, to teach us how to live according to His will. Prince wanted to know all the Prophet's teachings in this book the Old Man called the Qur'an, but the Old Man said that he could only teach him some, that he'd have to read it for himself someday. It was through the Qur'an, the Old Man told Prince, that Allah tells us that we should feed the hungry and help the needy. He also told Prince that he should thank Allah each day for what He had given him, and for all His mercies.
"But I don't know that language you thanked Him in."
"It doesn't matter, Prince. Allah understands every language in the world."
"Yes, especially Swahili."
With every new thing he learned, Prince found Allah endearing. He wanted to know everything about Him and the Old Man promised to teach him as much as he could. He was also invited to come around for a free meal anytime he was hungry.
Prince was always hungry so, naturally, he always ended up at the Old Man's deli. The Old Man always joined him for the meal regardless of how busy the place was. He became more of a parent than Prince's real parents had ever been, teaching him everything from table manners to Arabic phrases from the Qur'an. Eventually, Prince opened up about his search for it.
Every time Prince went by the deli, the Old Man would greet him with, "Have you found it yet, my boy?" Prince would shake his head and the Old Man would go into the kitchen and bring with him a glass of milk or fruit juice or water, and they would talk about everything and nothing as they waited for the food. At some point the Old Man offered to take Prince to school.
"Thanks. I'd really love that." Prince beamed. "But I have to find what I'm looking for first. I feel that that's where everything begins for me." The Old Man nodded his understanding.
It was noon and Prince needed to eat. The Old Man's deli was about a half hour walk from where hunger had rendezvoused him on his wander. The midday's sun was shining down on him with such a rage it could have been a vendetta. The pavement burned the soles of his feet. He wore green shorts, exponentially patched, and a pink shirt that had clearly started out red. He had turned down the Old Man's offer of a wardrobe upgrade. He had turned down offers for a pair of shoes. "I feel that I have to find what I'm looking for before I lose myself. Do you know what I mean?" The Old Man did not know what Prince meant but nodded anyway. He made Prince promise to always stay clean no matter what he wore. "Cleanliness is second to holiness."
The road was getting too hot for Prince's bare feet. He sat under the shade of a fig tree to catch a breath. He took this time to wipe dust off his clothes. They were the least tattered of his lot, and they were his favourite. He put them on that morning because he had a feeling that the day that lay before him would be like no other. He felt lucky. He let himself believe that it would be the day he finally found what he was looking for. But sitting underneath that fig tree, hiding from the scorching sun, he did not feel quite optimistic.
Prince had turned eight years old the week before. His birthday might have slipped him but it could never slip his aunt. "Five more years and you are out of my house, you stupid little bastard!" She had decided that she would take care of Prince till he was thirteen. The neighborhood was full of thirteen-year-olds working odd jobs to sustain themselves, she justified herself.
Looking at him sitting underneath that fig tree, you could not tell that Prince was merely an eight year old boy. He lacked the naïveté and innocence common in children that age. His dark eyes professed wisdom and experience beyond his eight years. He had known the Old Man for over two years, but had gained decades of knowledge. He had quickly shed off his ignorance in the first six months like a snake sheds off its skin. Each morning he had awoken from his straw mat on his aunt's floor and ventured into the world searching for something he did not know, but for which he could not stop looking. Each evening he had come back to his aunt's house disappointed, but a little more knowledgeable. The world is a great teacher, Prince, the Old Man would always tell him. You only need to learn where to look and how to listen.
The sun hid behind a cloud, and he stood up and got back on the road. A lot was going on in his mind. There were doubts, fear and insecurities. They had always been there, muted, but they seemed to awaken with a rage that echoed in his soul. What if I never find it? What if it doesn't exist? What if I came across it months ago and didn't recognize it? How will I live happily with this huge emptiness inside me? Where do I even start? What if I'm just a stupid little bastard like Auntie says? Does Allah really love me? Why can't He help me find it? Why can't He provide answers for the questions burning in my heart? He struggled with the whys and what ifs, but you could not tell by looking at his face. He had learned long ago not to show his feelings, his thoughts, to the world.
He took a seat in the deli -- the same seat he had taken each day over the years -- and waited for the Old Man. A waitress Prince had never seen before approached his table.
"Hello. May I take your order?"
He took a good look at her. She was young, not older than seventeen. Her head was covered in a white hijab that fell onto her shoulders, covering her upper arms and her bosom. Underneath it was a flowing black dress that kissed her hennaed ankles. She had huge dark eyes that somehow seemed to light up the room. Hennaed spindly hands projected from her thin wrists. Her olive skin glowed with something divine, ephemeral. Prince had never seen a creature so beautiful, so fragile, and yet whose aura radiated such power. He cleared his throat. "Hello. Where is Mr Abubakar?"
"Oh, Papa?" She shook her head. "He went out a while ago. He'll be back in an hour or so."
"Mr Abubakar is your father?"
She smiled demurely. "Yes, he is."
"Then you must be Habida." He stood up and extended his hand. "I've heard a lot about you. It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
She shook his hand. "And you must be Prince." He nodded. "I've heard a lot about you, too."
She excused herself, walked off into the kitchen and came back with two glasses of orange juice. She sat across from Prince. His mind was in overdrive trying to fish the perfect adjective from his limited vocabulary to describe the scent of her fragrance. I really need to go to school, he thought.
Habida was fifteen years old. She went to school in Tanzania. Her mother was a lecturer of philosophy at the University of Dar es Salaam. They had moved there three years ago but Mr Abubakar had remained behind. Still, he visited them at least once a week. It was only an hour's flight, after all. Habida spent all her school holidays with her father. The Old Man had told Prince all this. However, he had greatly misstated her beauty, perhaps out of modesty.
Habida and Prince fell into a comfortable animated conversation, as though they'd known each other all their lives. He found a lot of the Old Man in her gestures, her choice of words, her wit, and in her intelligence. She asked how his aunt was.
"I'm not sure. She's always loud and grumpy." They laughed.
He asked what school was like.
"It's amazing," she said, touching his arm lightly. "You meet a lot of different people and you learn a lot of new things every day."
"I learn a lot of new things each day, too. The world is a great teacher if you know where to look and how to listen."
She giggled. "I know. But in school you learn science and languages and history and chemistry and philosophy and a whole lot of other things."
It all sounded alien to him, but he had learned to conceal even his ignorance. "What do you do when you are not learning all those things?"
"You play games and laugh with friends, or sit and listen to some music or watch a film, or anything really."
That was the main difference between her school and Prince's. He never got to play any games. His only friends were the glaring sun and the apathetic world, and they weren't the kind of friends you could laugh with. Habida offered him his favourite dish. "Thanks, but no." He stood up. "I'll be back when Mr Abubakar returns. We always eat together." He said goodbye and walked out.
He wandered around mulling over Habida, the sound of her laughter, her fragrance, and all the things that had rolled out of her tongue. He recalled how he had felt when she placed her hand on his. He had never felt so loved, so cared for, so special. He wondered what it would feel like to have her as a sister. He imagined it would be the most blissful thing in the world. He imagined holding her hand as they walked to school, playing games and laughing. He imagined dancing with her as they listened to some music. He imagined the joy of living with someone who always looked at you, not with contempt and resentment, but with love and tenderness. The sun was hotter than ever, but he did not feel the pavement burning the soles of his feet as these thoughts ran through his mind.
There was an amusement park five blocks from Mr Abubakar's deli where Prince would sit for at least an hour each day and learn from the world. He had learned where to look, what to look for, and how to listen. He'd look at the young single mother bringing her son to the park and see the lines of worry on her brows and on the corners of her mouth. He'd see the puffiness beneath her eyes from hours of crying. He understood her struggles without having to know them. He empathized with her and wished he could walk over and console her, assure her that everything would turn out okay, that she might feel alone but Allah was with her. He'd see the grey-haired man walking by the park with his toes peeking out of his torn shoes. He'd see the misery of a hapless life in his eyes and on his weather-beaten clothes. He'd see his shoulders stooped from burdens that the world knew nothing about. He'd see the courage, the hope, that gave him the strength to face the world with a new vehemence each day. Then he'd look at the children playing and jumping and laughing, carefree, oblivious of the problems in the world. It always struck him as ironic that he learned the most from them. He learned to live in the moment. To laugh as often as he could and cry when he had to. He learned to always be the best he could, be it a Cop or a Robber, the Hider or the Seeker. He learned to love all equally regardless of who they were, how they looked, what they wore or how they spoke. He learned that there was time for everything. Time for Hide and Seek, time for Cops and Robbers, time to ride the carousel, time to fly kites, time to sing a song and time to scream at the top of your voice. The children taught him something new each day.
The park was uncharacteristically deserted. There was only a handful of kids playing by the swing set. Prince walked over to his usual bench, the vantage point, ready for his lesson of the day. He always found it unoccupied but this time there was a girl sitting on the edge of it. She was about his age and was holding a book in her hands. She donned a flowery flowing blue dress and pink sandals, her hair tied in a ponytail. Prince sat on the other edge of the bench and said hello. She simply nodded, barely taking her eyes of the book. Prince could smell her perfume. It was a sweet scent, but nothing compared to Habida's. Nothing ever would.
"What sura are you reading?"
"What?" she asked impatiently.
"Where did you get your Qur'an from?"
"What are you talking about?" She spoke English.
Prince realized he was out of his depth. He pointed at the book in her hands.
"Oh, this," she said in Swahili, "It's just a storybook. It's not the Qur'an."
Prince was dumbfounded. Up until then he had believed the only book in the world was the Holy Qur'an, which children were not allowed to read on their own. "What is a storybook?"
The girl closed the book and turned to face him. "It's a book that tells a story of real or imagined lives of real or imagined people or characters."
Prince had never heard of the term 'imagined' and so he memorized it silently. He would ask Mr Abubakar about it later. "What's that one about?"
"Ummm.." She bit her lip, trying to arrange her thoughts. "It's about an ugly duckling who grows into a beautiful swan."
"But that's not possible. An ugly duckling can only grow into an ugly swan."
"It's just a story. Anything can happen in stories."
"Can a stupid little bastard find what he is looking for?"
She stared into his eyes for a moment. A powerful gaze. "Yeah, but that can happen in real life, too, not just in stories."
"Where can he find it?"
"It depends on what he's looking for. What is he looking for?"
"He doesn't know. He just knows that he'll recognize it when he finds it."
"You sound like Santiago."
"Who is Santiago?"
"Santiago is a boy shepherd in this book my mum is reading."
"Yes. A novel."
"How many storybooks are there?"
The girl giggled. "Thousands and thousands, possibly millions."
"And they are all different from each other?"
"Yes, they all contain different stories."
He contemplated this for a moment. "Why do I sound like this boy Santiago?"
"He, too, spends his days going around the world looking for something."
"Looking for what?"
"I can't remember. My mum read me only small parts. She told me the rest of the story."
"Does he find it?"
"Where does he find it?"
She chuckled. "That's where the story gets interesting. He goes around the world, through the deserts and to the pyramids in Egypt, looking for something that's been in his village all along."
"How is that?"
She shrugged. "My mum says that it teaches us that sometimes we go around looking for something that's right in front of our eyes, that if we only took a moment and looked closely we'd never search for it again."
Prince stared at the children on the swing set, pondering this new knowledge. It spawned questions that cast shadows over all the tenets he had lived under all these years. What if, indeed, what he had been looking for all this time had been right in front of him? His eyes opened in a new kind of way. The girl had taught him something that Mr Abubakar and the world had failed to. Something to help him in his search.
"Why aren't you there swinging with the others?"
"It will ruin my dress." She giggled. "And I love reading."
"What is your name?"
"Brenda. What's yours?"
"Prince." He stretched out his hand for a handshake. "Nice to meet you, Brenda." Just like Mr Abubakar had taught him. "Where do you go to school?"
The walk back to the deli was quite a revelation for Prince. He was looking at things for the first time, not as a voyager on a detour, but as a man who understood that the journey could be just as fulfilling as the destination, if not more so. It was as though he was looking at the world for the first time. He noticed the beauty of the blossoming flowers in the city botanical garden. He noticed the decades of smiles and laughter on the countenance of the elderly fruit vendor at the corner of Fifth Avenue. He noticed the misery in the eyes of the elegantly-dressed man sitting in his fancy car at the filling station near the mall. He noticed the pride, the audacity, with which the fig tree stood by the road in the city, miles away from those of its kind. He noticed that the blind cripple who always sat outside the Cooperative Bank was neither blind nor as crippled as he appeared. He noticed the pain hidden beneath the smiles and underneath the make up on the beautiful women walking out of the mall. For the first time, he saw everything for what it really was.
Prince walked into Mr Abubakar's deli and stopped in his tracks. The Old Man was seated at his usual seat reading a newspaper. Habida stood behind him, leaning over his shoulder, pointing at something on the newspaper. She read it out loud and they both laughed. Their laughter reverberated in the room and into Prince's soul. He saw them for who they really were. The Old Man; loving, caring, warm, inviting, intelligent and wise, and his daughter; beautiful, charming and innocent, with just as equal intelligence, tenderness and warmth. He saw the sincerity and honesty in their eyes. He took a step forward and when the shuffling of his feet made them look up, he saw something else in their eyes. They cared deeply for him. They were welcoming him, ready to teach him more about love and life, ready to shower him with that unconditional love that every person deserves.
"Prince," said the Old Man. He looked into Prince's eyes for a long moment and, for the first time in over two years, he did not ask, Have you found it yet, my boy?