The Bachelor

"Al-Naji Al-Harbi"

Sometimes, it can be a beautiful experience to live as a bachelor, away from your family, friends and childhood memories. 

My first job as a middle school teacher introduced me to colleagues from various towns. Three of us rented a less-than-modest home together. I remember us giving the landlord 15 dinars, and paying for the electricity and water bills ourselves. I remember that the neighbors were hostile when we first moved in–but we were happy with our new positions at the mixed-gender school. 

Since we needed to build good relationships with the neighbors, we made sure to always be respectful. Our motto was, “Strangers should stay cordial.” We spoke in whispers and kept the radio down. We all pitched in to buy that radio, thanks to the collection pot we had set-up. It cost us 18 dinars. We were mindful not to disturb them, and avoided inviting guests from out of town, or anyone who would be considered strange or shady. 

I was enamored with playing the oud. Many fights erupted between my flatmates and I, because our walls were so thin–in fact, they were made of tin sheets–so they worried I would disturb the neighbors. One morning, I informed the school principal of my wish to practice my hobby, so he handed me the school keys and told me I could only practice from 4pm until sunset prayers, which felt very tight and constrictive. 

 

I wasn’t aware that as I walked back and forth between my tin house and the school, carrying my oud, an old man had been watching me. I had a habit of hiding the oud in a flour sack. My mother had washed two of them really well, kept one for storing clothes, and gave me the other. 

One day, I heard a faint knock on our door. It was a gentle knock, so I assumed the guest was a woman. I rushed to the door on my tiptoes, only to find the old man standing behind it. He smiled kindly and said, “I know that you carry an instrument every day, but where do you go with it?”

I told him about my frustration with the two-hour window the principal had given me, and then he said: “You don’t have to do that anymore. I’m a single man like you guys, and my roof is made of concrete. No one will hear you playing up there.” From that day onwards, we built a friendship with the old man. He was unbelievably generous with us. He was a great cook who made the best tea, and he was also a gifted storyteller who told stories in the style of Anwar Okasha.

A few months ago, the old man’s neighbor informed us that he passed away. We decided to travel to his hometown to pay our respects. When we reached the narrow street of his family home, I heard him hum, or so I imagined; the same way he once hummed along to the songs of Abdel Jalil al-Hatsh, which he loved listening to. 

We discovered that the whole area had been torn down, making way for a new concrete jungle, except for his home, which had stayed intact. Its gate looked like an entrance to a history museum. My uncle, the old man, was a true artist with an incredible taste in music. May he rest in peace.

Born in Msallata in the Green Mountain region, he is a journalist and short story writer. He obtained a master’s degree in history. He has published a short story collection titled “The Scent of Hunger” and currently serves as the editor-in-chief of the Salviom website.

Al-Naji Al-Harbi
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