La Rentrée

zamalek lycee
Source: Otour Gressi

There is nothing more pathetic than an old man drowning in a maudlin sea of sentimentality and pointless regret, but… when I was little, I attended the Petit Lycée on the island of Zamalek in the middle of Cairo.

It did not have then, as you see in the pic above, a sign above the entrance with the “Al Horreya” name (ليسيه الحرية, in Arabic) that Nasser, the erstwhile socialist revolutionary, and failed military man, in his vicious hatred of everything he was not, such as the rentier Egyptian upper classes of that era, slapped on all the Lycées in Cairo.

Nor did it have an ugly metal sheet blocking the view of la cour, i.e., the courtyard, where I played tug-a-rope and Le Renard Passe Passe with my childhood school friends, a mixture of Egyptian jeunes garçons et filles, as well as foreign élèves from European countries, such as France, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia.

We all wore white tabliers, carried a cartable, and spoke Levantine French.  I remember we had a professor called Monsieur Oiseau, who became very angry when we made mocking cui cui bird noises whenever he turned his back to write on the blackboard.

lycee zamalek
Me at age 9, during my bespectaled Jerry Lewis phase

When the bird singing became too intensely cruel and persistent, poor Monsieur Oiseau would lose his temper, and if he became particularly enraged, would sometimes throw a piece of chalk at troublemaker ringleaders like me.  The chalk projectiles were easily dodged, however, so this rarely had any effect on the general situation.

At other times, when things would get extreme, Monsieur Oiseau would call the formidable Madame La Directrice for help, and of course we all became dead silent the moment she appeared at the classroom door, staring at us as sternly as possible, as we all tried to appear sweetly angelic — until of course she turned her back, and walked back to her office.

Mr. Oiseau, alas, did not last very long at that school, which I thought was a pity, given how pretty his daughter was, a classmate of mine who was a beautiful girl, or so I remember her now, with naturally blonde hair — extremely unusual in a country like Egypt.  I longed to touch it, if only for a second, but never dared.  She was from Paris, after all, or perhaps it was Avignon.

When the school year was over, we would always say to each other, à la rentrée!, but this was a pledge that was not always kept, for one reason, or another, for motives that were not always possible for us as children to understand.

Still, enough of us returned that I felt my young life had a sense of permanence and order about it; that there were predictable, almost nilotic stages one flowed through; and that after the exciting but super long vacances d’été were over, we would always come back to our little Lycée, until the time came for us to start going to the Grand Lycée by Tahrir Square in Bab-el-louk, older by a year, and increasingly self-confident and eager to take on a life full of promise that seemed predestined ahead of us.

But now, here I am:  an old man, without a real country to call mine any more, with more failures than I care to remember, and fewer successes than I care to admit: what is there to return to before I die?

How does one explain and come to terms with all that went wrong?

Where is it, exactly, that pointlessly surviving, embittered, tortured relics like me go when nothing more of our past is left but dusty memories and yellowing photographs?