At first Maurice was preoccupied with getting out of the city. He seemed to be using the difficulty of passing through the narrow streets as an excuse for not answering our incessant questions. Trying to justify not answering us, it seemed, he showed excessive agitation as he swerved to avoid hitting the fruit carts and liquorice juice vendors or the acrobatic delivery boys cycling through the traffic delivering orders of hummus or fava beans to their customers. That day Maurice kept quiet, didn’t gripe about all the chaos in the wheat market. Nor did he curse the porters who obstructed the road, heaving under their loads. He didn’t even lose his patience when a horse cart got stuck between the produce crates and blocked traffic. All of that, in his opinion, and as he so often preached to us about, was clear proof of the inability of Arabs to win wars, though he never indicated whether he was happy about their losing or pained by it. But that morning Maurice appeared unable to speak as he laboured with his short arms to turn the steering wheel around the successive sharp bends on our way up towards the American School. At any rate, we felt that, for the first time in the entire history of his driving us to our homes, Maurice was not in a hurry. Nor were we, as I recall.
We passed the last of the scattered buildings along both sides of Al-Arz Street and made a turn at the water storage tank. Now that we were on a flat road and the driving had become easier, the time had come for him to start telling us why he was taking us home on a Monday. But just as soon as the high mountains, still wrapped in a light morning fog, appeared, we heard his sobs. We suddenly realised that he was not going to talk, and so we stopped asking questions and began watching him in the rear-view mirror, usually his means for supervising us. His big green eyes were the colour of apples, the kind my grandfather wouldn’t let us pick, always telling us that they hadn’t ripened yet.
Maurice wept as if he were all by himself and not being watched by all our eyes, as if it were between him and himself alone. Our neighbour, Maurice. He hadn’t been blessed with children of his own. I used to see him after he dropped everyone off, sitting beside his wife on a wooden bench under a jujube tree, as if waiting for evening to fall, a small radio at their side blaring Mohammed Abd al-Wahhab songs. Maurice was the first person I ever saw cry with total abandon, never wiping his tears, letting them pour down his cheeks and drip onto the steering wheel. That kind of weeping only happened in romantic movies like the ones the older schoolchildren often skipped school to go and see at the Roxy Theatre. Maurice’s green eyes looked very big in the wide mirror. While he wept, we watched in total silence, discovering for the first time all the rumbling and hissing sounds that were usually muffled by our constant yelling as we rode in Maurice’s tottering bus.
The only thing that drew our attention away from Maurice was arriving at the steep mountain pass where the houses of the town, clumped together on top of the hill and still engulfed in the white fog rising from the river, came into view. After slowing a little before the final stretch, he drove us down with the brakes screeching until we could see the steel bridge and the crowd that had gathered around an army tank; a soldier wearing a helmet painted with camouflage colours peered out of the turret. There were only women and soldiers. I saw my aunt standing among them. She was wearing a red dress and her hair was dishevelled. Most of the women were dressed in black. I didn’t know why they had sent my aunt rather than someone else to pick me up. I assumed my mother and father were occupied with whatever was happening. I saw her from a distance, angrily shrugging her shoulders with her arms folded across her chest. There were around twenty women huddled together and a small band of soldiers scattered on and around the bridge. When we got off the bus, we heard one of the soldiers telling another, with their rifles strapped to their shoulders as they looked at the muddy water, how the snows had been late to thaw the year before and how the river had flooded, sweeping the stone bridge away, so a steel bridge had been built in its place. I tried to ask my aunt what was happening, but she shut me up. She put her hand on my mouth as if I had committed a crime. The women took off on foot, accompanying the schoolchildren to the town. It was a strange procession. My aunt took me by the hand and led me along. I remember I kept looking back, wondering what some of my schoolmates were going to do. They were still standing there waiting with the soldiers because no one had come to get them. No one had come for the two strangers. Perhaps their parents hadn’t expected their sudden arrival. I don’t know why I was worried about them, since, being strangers, they were not in any danger.