The Childhood Castle

"Omar Abdel Dayem"

He sat on his balcony, accompanied by his evening cup of coffee, the historic Sebha Castle visible in the distance. As he took his first sip, his thoughts extended to his childhood, in which the castle–built in the Ottoman era on a mountain in the desert–had shaped many memorable scenes. 

Childhood was magical in the neighborhood where he was born and raised. Men built its houses with their bare hands. They were made out of mud mixed with soil and straw, and roofed by palm tree fronds. Only some of the rooms were fitted with wooden roofs. These houses were scattered, left without planning, a public water system, or electricity. The closest water source was located more than 200 m away from their house. He and his brothers did their homework in the glow of the kerosene-fueled lighthouse. 

As their house had no roof, he and his siblings would spend the summer nights tracing the movement of the stars and the falling meteors until they fell asleep, only to wake up to the crowing of roosters and the bleating of the lambs and sheep that inhabited every house in the neighborhood. Nature was still pristine, its air undisturbed by the fumes and car exhausts that have plundered roads and robbed them of peace. 

Images flashed through his mind, until he saw himself with two of his relatives, carrying a plate of lunch for his uncle, who worked as a guard in the castle. They climbed the narrow path up the mountain, which had been carved by the feet of climbers since the construction of this great edifice. 

 

From his house, the castle's windows appeared like a series of minuscule dots. But close up, he and his friends could not imagine there was a single building on the face of the earth as large as this one. 

When they climbed all the way up to their uncle, they were almost out of breath, their small hearts leaping from their chests like bunnies. He would ask after their parents and give them each a piece of candy (they called it "milk-candy," and it was their favorite). Finally, he asked them to be careful on their way back down. 

On the way back, they deliberately climbed down the black flint rocks covering the mountain, neglecting the path carved into the slope, which often resulted in the destruction of their cheap rubber soles. The stones' edges sometimes even bloodied their tender feet. 

Following a mischievous year, he started primary school, and the castle was witness to a new phase of his youth. 

The school that lies beneath the castle is composed of four classrooms, placed over two perpendicular wings. The administration was located in a small, separate building. His older brother told him that the school was a remnant of the French military, which controlled the castle and its surroundings in the period following World War II. 

The castle's history was always tied to the military. Throughout primary school, he and his classmates would spend their recess running towards the soldiers guarding the castle and the surrounding military camp, which was easily accessible from the school. The soldiers usually offered them a large plate of rice, around which the boys gathered, and dug in voraciously. 

 

This flood of memories was interrupted by his daughter's voice, telling him that the internet package had run out, and insisting that he top up the balance so she could send a very important email to her friend in Australia. 

By God! How has everything changed so much? Where have those simple mud houses gone? When has all this concrete and cement managed to crawl across the neighborhood? And why has this once-tender castle turned its back on him after all these years?

Born in Sabha, he is a former officer, university professor, and poet. He has published three poetry collections and a narrative book. One of his poetry collections has been translated into French, and his experience has been the subject of several academic studies and theses.

Omar Abdel Dayem
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