“You know those things that you look through,” he curled his hands and brought them to his eyes, as if holding a pair of binoculars, “and you click it, and it shows you pictures? You know, you press a button, and you can see a different one? It’s plastic?”
His questions met with a chorus of affirmatives, though no one volunteered a word. I knew what he referred to, but not its name. We’d had a red Disney one as kids with slides from Peter Pan, and a faded scene of Wendy looking out a window flickered in my mind before his voice drew me back to the present. (Later that evening, I Googled “toy that you look through and see pictures” to learn its name: a stereoscope.)
“Anyway, when I was a little boy, I used to go around the town with this – this thing, I don’t know how you call it – and I let people look at the pictures for money. You know, just, they would look at it, and they would give me a coin. You know, nothing. Not a lot.”
A single black and white photo remains of him as a little boy in his childhood home in Hail. He wears a striped blazer over a white thobe, and over his head is draped a white headdress, a ghutra, that falls neatly behind his shoulders, held in place by a black coil, a ʿigal. Next to him stands a smaller boy, his younger brother, who looks like he might be two years old. From under his brother’s grey thobe jut out two formal leather shoes, far too long for an infant. Someone had taken the trouble to dress both boys nicely for the photo, and both boys squint dutifully at the camera.
I pictured this little boy wandering the few jagged streets of Hail, paved only with dirt and lined with square mud brick homes. At the time, a castellated wall, made of the same mud brick as those houses, encircled the city. A thick square city gate stood at one end, and a tall cylindrical tower, at the other. The rolling hills and eroded rock outcroppings of the desert rose up in the distance, like so many camels’ backs.
“Anyway,” he continued. “I wanted to save money because I wanted to buy stamps. I loved stamps,” he said, lingering on the “o” of love to stress his feeling. “And finally, one day, I had enough to buy a small book with some stamps. I was so happy.” He smiled so widely at the memory that his whole face rose.
“And then when I was on my way home, these boys stopped me, and they pushed me down.” Even after all these decades, the cheeks on his aged face and stretched skin below his chin trembled with anger, and his voice crescendoed as he carried on, “And they grabbed the book, and they stepped on the thing that has the pictures in it, and they ran away with my stamps.”
I pictured a black stereoscope, crushed into several pieces, dusty slides half buried in a dirt road in the tiny town of Hail with their tiny photos crumpled by a stranger’s foot and torn by fragments of the plastic shell that once protected them. I pictured him, a boy, rolling onto his side to find the destroyed apparatus. Perhaps, his elbows bled from his backward fall. Perhaps, he cried. Perhaps, not.
He blinked several times with urgency, as if trying to shut his upset inside before it crossed the threshold of his eyes. “Anyway,” he took a deep breath and said, “I never saw the stamps after that, and I was too scared to tell anybody. But when I grew up, and I had enough money, I bought some old Middle Eastern stamps, and now,” his smile returned. “Now, I have a very nice collection.”
Perhaps of interest to no one but me, this story fills me with sadness and joy and pride at its protagonist, a complicated man whom I love and who I am slowly losing, so I wanted to share it.
Image: Early 20th Century Hijazi Stamps (Source)