By: Aadel M Al-Mahdy
In my way to Helsinki after my stay in Warsaw, an Egyptian saying crossed my mind ─ If one has a strong backbone, no one will dare spank him on his rear-end –; power of connections prevails most of the time. I have told Wael that I couldn’t obtain the Finnish visa and he asked me not to worry as he would talk to his well-connected Finnish girlfriend, Mary Haraanen and she would get it for me. Three days lapsed and the Finnish embassy in Warsaw called me for collecting my visa.
Here I am aboard the Finnish air-line, looking out the window. The land, stretching endlessly far below, looked like a sheet of Swiss Rockford cheese. “Good Heavens! How many lakes are down there?” I whispered to myself but seemingly my whisper was not low enough as the man sitting next to me said emphatically, “Hundreds of them. Wait until we land. You will be amazed”
The metallic hunk of the bird-like vessel slowed down. The religious protocol of fastening the seat-belts was announced, and the voice of the airplane’s captain cascaded softly announcing that we were flying, at the moment, over Finland, minuets away from Helsinki.
Defeated by the advent of darkness, the lingering sun rays were gasping their last breath. From afar the forests looked like planted toothpicks, but they were far from that as, though shrouded in darkness, the foliage began to gradually reveal itself; a vast expansion of thick, dark greenery, and like most European cities, illumination spread around in neat geometric patterns, pleasant to the eye. But, in my mind, they were devoid of romanticism. Cairo during the day is comparatively a total miss, but approached at night, it is a pitch black piece of velvet with thousands of diamonds of different radiance, calibers and sizes randomly thrown on the surface. I believe geometric cemeteries, though beautiful and easy on the human eye, can be monotonous. Monotony is sameness, and sameness bears boredom. Vulgar variety has its own unique beauty, too.
Finally, the lights of the airport ramp hit my eyes ushering in a unique experience.
At Helsinki airport, my friend Wael and his girlfriend, Mary, and professor Al-Harawi were waiting for me. I dropped my luggage and rushed for a hug, having not seen Wael for over ten years. Wael tried to stop me. “Not in public, Aadel! People around here don’t hug in public. They will think we’re gay” Wael whispered. I blushed but then said, “I don’t give a damn...back home friends embrace and kiss all the time. There is nothing wrong with tow friends hugging each other” Wael said, smiling,“So be it, my dear friend!” We then embraced. A young man cast a doubtful glance at us but Mary looked with a worm and understanding smile shining on her face, and Al-Harawi giggled.
Outside the airport, I asked Wael if we were going to call a taxi, he said Mary’s car was parked somewhere close by. In Mary’s car, Wael asked me how my stay in Warsaw was. “All is well that ends well” I answered him. “Ooops, was Shakespeare wrong?” Wael exclaimed, knowing my way of sarcasm. “Categorically speaking, no, but he was” I said, but Wael curiously asked, “What happened? “ I said, ”On my arrival, custom people were lenient regarding the gifts I had in my suitcase, but…” Wael then interrupted “But what?” I said, “On my departure, they wanted me to pay customs for the jacket I was wearing”Wael asked,“Did you buy it in Poland?” I quickly said, “It was Polish all right, but a friend of mine bought it for me last year and I didn’t wear it till then” Wael asked, “Then what happened?” I assured him that I tried to explain, but they won’t let go until I started babbling loudly about their lousy communistic attitude. Wael then asked in a very curious voice, “Were you arrested?” I said, “No, the lady’s face turned pale and to hush me up, she let me go” Wael quickly emphasized “She did you a favor” and then inquisitively added after a short pause, “Did you enjoy your stay?” I answered,“Absolutely, yes, though clouds of troubles were accumulating in the Polish horizon” Wael asked with increased curiosity, “What troubles?” “A big workers strike that started in Gdansk” I said. “May God be with them. Do you remember what happened to Belgrade decades ago?” Wael asked. “Yes, it was bloody. Who knows what the Russian stars do hold in store for the poles this time”...The care slowed down, and Mary interrupted us saying that we were already home. “And by the way, what are those things on the window sills” I quickly inquired. "Ha, ha, those little kegs, people around here like to chill their wine this way” Mary laughed. I exclaimed, “Oh, really, I can’t wait until I hold one in my hand. I will...” But Wael shouted "Oh, shame on me!"I asked him whay. He said, "I forgot to introduce Professor Al-Harawi and you to each other"
“Gentlemen! Here we are. Welcome to Otanimi!” Mary announced, stopping the car in front of a nice condominium. “So soon, I was enjoying the sight seeing!” I protested, but Mary promised to take me in a tour later and then added, “Come on, I am starving” I then asked, “Is it dinner, yet?” I asked, “Lunch, lunch, Aadel” Wael said. “Lunch, but it is so dark. It looks like dinner” I argued. “You never stop arguing. You never changed” Wael commented. “Do I have to change? I asked. “Well, unchanging is stagnant” Wael said, but I immediately answered, “No. It is stability" Al-Harawi then said, "Well, remember grass never grow on rolling stones” Wael nudged me on the shoulderand said, "There you go". I laughed loudly.
Al-Harrawi is a husky man in his early 60’s and wears a long but neatly trimmed beard. He is a civil Engineering professor at Helsinki University. He invited us to spend the week end in his log-cabin in the country where he retires for seclusion every now and then. “After my vacation in Poland, I really need to retire the city life for a day or two” I said resuming my talk with Al-Harrawi. “You will, Aadel, though, you won’t be in a total isolation if that is what you want” Al-Harrawi confirmed but Wael interrupted, “Isolation from the noisy city life, yes, but rain-deer, bears, and wolves will keep you company most of the time” I said, “I am not scared and I have to confess, I am a country boy. I do not really like the concrete jungle of the city, the smoke of cars’ exhaust and the noise”
The door bell ringing interrupted our conversation. I opened the door. It was the pizza boy. I paid him and shouted, “Dinner, I mean lunch is ready” ─ “You have paid for the pizza. Haven’t you? You’re my guest” Wael protested and nudged me in the shoulder. I answered, “How could you? I have not been your guest before, and still you paid for the flafil, remember!”
After lunch, Wael and I stretched on the sofas in the living room reminiscing in our native tongue about the old days. We laughed and laughed. Mary gave up on both of us and disappeared in the kitchen for a while after which she reappeared pushing a tea-cart. “Aadel, have you been to a sauna before?” Mary asked me while pouring the tea. “Yes, in Stockholm” I said. “Did you like it?” she asked again. “No, I do not like dry heat” I said and then added after a short pause, “I prefer the wet, steamy Turkish baths” Mary said, emphasizing,“Finnish sauna is different. Wait until you try it” I asked, “When will that happen?” “Al-Harrawi has a sauna beside his cabin” Mary said. I then winked and slowly said, “Guys, I heard you do have the sauna in the nude” Wael said with a curios smile was on his face,“That is right” I hurriedly said “That will be wet enough for me. I can’t complain”Wael cackled, “Damn you man! You have not changed a bit!” Mary interfered, “Guys, stop! You both are so argumentative” and then picked the TV remote control. I inquired, covering my head with my hands, “Are you going to hit me with the remote, Mary?” Mary laughed and then said, “No!” and then added, “There is a good movie I want to watch. So be quiet both of you. We are all going straight to bed after the movie. Tomorrow we will go to the museum, then the day after we will go to the country to spend a few days in Al-Harrawi’s log-cabin”
The highway ran for ever, lined on both sides by abundance of ever-green treas. The fresh smell of air, loaded with the trees’ essence, made me feel so hungry. I yelled at Wael, holding him by the shoulder to get his attention as he did not have his ear-bud on, “This weather makes me so hungry. I feel I can eat a camel” ─ “Help yourself, if you find one in this desert!” Wael said. Mary and Wael exchanged places driving, while the rest of the gang, Al-Harrawi, Amgad; a Lebanese student and I sat on the back seat. Al-Harrawi slept, but Amgad and I were in a singing mood, so we clapped our hands and sang ─
"He has risen. How beautiful the sun’s rays are. Let us fill up the jars with water! Let us milk the cows!" ─ After a while, Egyptian folkloric songs changed to Lebanese ones while our hands were feverishly clapping and our bodies jerking in a dabka-like manner. Awakened by our commotion, Al-Harrawi suddenly shouted, pointing to a vast body of water, “There it is. The biggest lake around here. Let us go and fill our eyes with its beauty”
Atop the steep rocky side of the lake, I gazed; eyes widely opened. The sky was cloudless and the water expansion was so far below at my feet. A feeling of awesomeness overwhelmed me. So calm and soft the water surface was and far away. An island stood like a castle in dreamland; trees covering its shore’s slopes. Colors of foliage transcended in an array of dark green to copper-brown. The cloudless canopy closed in behind the Island; natural embracement a renaissance painter would fail to render to canvas.
A nip in the air made me shiver. The shiver heightened my perception. I had a deep breath. “I heard, sun rises here late at night. Doesn’t he?” I said. “Yes, we are after all so close to the North Pole circle” Wael said. “I can’t imagine how the lake would look like when the Sun is risen?” I wondered. “I won’t let you miss this amazing natural phenomenal sight for all the treasures in the world” Wael promised. On our way back to the car, my mind visualized how the scenery would look like bathed in the sun rays.
I nimbly jumped into the car seeking for warmth; my soul still hovering over the lake. After we have driven for a couple of hours, Al-Harrawi said, “We are pretty close to our final stop” ─ we looked around to see a narrow terrain road penetrating the forest. Prevalent silence was only broken by the sound of the cars’ engine and trees mightily stood on both sides of the road like ever-awaken giants guarding the ancient mystical secrets of the North-man land. The road was hardly wide to let the car go. Wael had to come to a full stop to let a stag and his females cross the road. But In the middle of the road the stag stopped, turned his head towards us, and then its whole body turned towards us. It wiggled its nose and deeply inhaled and exhaled. It then defiantly fixed its gorgeous eyes on us and pushed its broad chest forward and readied its antlers for attack. “How majestic he is!” I said; my eyes widely opened, but Wael yelled at it, apologizing for the intrusion. The stag nimbly leaped and disappeared in the folds of the forest followed by its females.
Located deep in the forest, Al-Harrawi’s cabin looked like a Merlin’s cottage. Adjacently, a sauna stood not far from a partially frozen small lake. Wild ducks and geese were swimming about. Smokes, breathed out of the cabin’s chimney in serpentine clouds, made me wonder loudly if there was someone waiting for us. When Al-Harrawi saw me wondering and pointing to the smoke, he said, “Ah, the smoke, I have just asked a friend to prepare the cabin for our arrival and kindle some fire" Wael then intruded, "We won’t let you freeze to death, Aadel” I replied, “Ummm, you won’t, Wael. Would you?”
The cabin was warm and cozy, and basically equipped with all what a hermit would need. A couple of shelves on the wall carried a few books. A variety of fruits in a basket on a two-chair table shimmered in the oil-lamp light. I grabbed an apple, polished it on the my T-shirt's sleeve and had a bite, then shouted while browsing the other fruits, “Gold, diamonds, rubes…” understanding my punning, Al-Harrawi said, “Just do not forget the password, Kassim or you will be doomed” Wael who was sitting close to the fireplace looked at me and said, “Who is going to fix some food before the gang retires to bed?” Mary said, “Murgana, of course” showing her familiarity with the Arabian nights. “Who! Where is she?” Amgad wondered. “Do you see any other female around, silly?” said Mary and left the cabin. I followed her.
After strolling by the lake for a while, I asked Mary on our way back where a person would be able to answer his call of nature. She pointed to a little cubical close to the sauna and said, “There, and be careful. There’s a small wasp nest in the right corner. They won’t attack in such cold weather unless you bother them” I said, laughing, “Well, if you see me running out but-naked, then I must have bothered them, and for God sake, do not shy from offering your help”
Tired after driving for two days, we all retired to our beds. Al-Harrawi pulled a copy of the Qur’an from the shelf, sat on the rocking chair before the fire place and started reading. The chair swung in rhythm with the inherent music of the Qur’anic verses. His voice was so serene, so I pulled a chair and sat close to him. Mary’s eyes were transfixed on us, but the heat emanating from the fire place lulled us to sleep. My eyelids became heavier and finally I had to submit to the greatest Sultan of all times; Slumber.
In the morning, Al-Harrawi and Mary were the first to rise. Mary went out for a while, and in the meantime the professor prepared a nice breakfast for all of us. After breakfast, Wael, Amgad and Al-Harrawi went out for a walk. Marry and I preferred to stay. I was still sipping my morning coffee, when Mary looked at me with curiosity showing on her face. “What was the professor reading last night?” Mary asked. “Chapters from the Qur’an” I answered. “Oh, the Muslims’ bible” Mary said. I answered affirmatively. She then said, “You looked like you were hypnotized. I thought he had cast a spill on you” I explained, “The Qur’an is charming as it has its own inherent music, but I was not hypnotized” Mary then hesitantly asked, “I know Al-Harrawi is religious. Are you, too?” I said, “Actually, I am not a strict person...I am a free-thinker...I do not let my personal belief hinder or blur my thinking” Mary wondered, “Why, then, the…I mean, your body was…” I interrupted,“Swinging along with the professor’s” I then added after a very short pause, “I am a linguist who admires beauty and sound of the words wherever they are; in nature, in the Qur’an, the Bible, the Hindu Vida, or the hymns of Akhenaton” she exclaimed, “That is great!” I said, trying to curb her enthusiasm and pretending to sound serious, “Yes, but right now I want to admire your beauty in the nude” Mary’s mouth gaped, her eyes widened, her face blushed, and then gave me a confused look. “Got ya. Just kidding. It is my way of saying let us go to the sauna” I said, laughing. “Aaah, I thought you were serious” she cackled and nudged me on the shoulder. “Of course I am serious” I said. “What?” Mary screamed, her face this time giving a big frown. “Got you again. Serious about going to the sauna, of course” I said, bursting out in laughter. “Oh, I have already prepared it while you were asleep” Mary said. “Cool, thank you!” I said. Unfamiliar with the usage of the word in this particular syntax, Mary interjected, “Not cool. It is hot like hell, and by the way I’m sure my nakedness will fail to arouse any one” Wael who stood by the door said,“That’s true. Wait until we’re there and you will see for yourself” I shouted, “Oh! You are back” and turned my face towards Marry and added, “Mary, don’t you know, arousal is mostly mental?”
We all laughed and then nimbly left for joining the gang. We spent most of the day having hot times in the sauna and cold dips, crowding the ducks and geese and swans in the partially frozen lake.