Chris Till

Sixteen Going on Seventeen

Mohamed and his Mother

     “Which college would you choose, Mohamed?” his mother asked. “You must make a commitment soon.”

      Mohamed was 16 and sitting in his mother’s lap at the kitchen table of his family’s four-bedroom apartment. It was July 3, 1985 in Cairo, Egypt.

      “You know which one I’d choose,” replied Mohamed impatiently. “Al-Azhar. It’s the best Islamic university in the world.”

      “It is a fine university,” his mother said, stroking his short black hair. While Mohamed was small as a stick of gum and had a serious nature, his mother was full-figured and garrulous.

      “It’s the oldest Islamic university in the world,” Mohamed said. “So many of the best religious scholars have gone there. You know.”

      “Mohamed,” said his mother. “I am so proud to have a son concerned with such things. So many of your generation care only for sports, games, and chasing dirty girls.”

      As the traffic sounds of their old neighborhood near downtown Cairo drifted in through the open third-story window, Mohamed grunted and rested his head on his mother’s shoulder.

      “Sweet potatoes,” a street vendor called from the street below. “Get your fresh sweet potatoes.”

      “Sweetheart, I don’t think your father wants you to go to Al-Azhar,” his mother said.

      “You know he doesn’t want me to go there. He wants me to go to Cairo University and be an engineer, stay out of trouble, be a good little tax payer…”

      “Your father loves you, Mohamed, and there’s nothing wrong with a father wanting his son to be safe.”

      “Perhaps people these days are too concerned about their own personal safety and not concerned enough about doing what is right.”

      “You already sound like a religious scholar, Mohamed. Talk to your father. Appeal to his pride. Tell him that having a son at Al-Azhar would cause others to respect him even more…” She kept stroking his hair.
      “I’m not going to lie to him. “The Surah says ‘Truly Allah, the most glorified, the most high, guides not one who transgresses and lies.’

      “Of course, dear. But strategizing is not lying. Just don’t argue with your father, Mohamed. He’s a lawyer, arguing is what he does for a living. He’ll just get defensive and dig into his position even more.”

      “Dissimulation? Concealing the truth is still lying, Mother.”

      “In times of danger, son, it is appropriate. Now, dear, it’s time for me to make dinner. You must have homework to do.”

      Reluctantly, Mohamed rose from his mother’s lap.

      “Is Father coming home for dinner tonight?” Mohamed asked, as he walked out of the kitchen.

      “No, he’s working late.”

      Like each of his two older sisters, Mohamed had his own bedroom. Entering his bedroom, he locked the door and pulled the curtains shut, blocking the view of surrounding rooftops and utility lines. After double-checking that his door was locked, Mohamed moved some school books from the floor, peeled up a corner of carpet, and pulled out a magazine from beneath the carpet. It was an American magazine: Penthouse, February 1985.

      With a grim look on his face, he opened the magazine. Like other Egyptians of his class, he had studied English since boyhood.

      His only friend, Zummi, had told him that this issue of Penthouse explained America. The main article was a long interview with Henry Lee Lucas, the acclaimed American murderer. Slowly, although he had read it before, Mohamed reread this lurid tale of an American hero. Mr. Lucas bragged of murdering 360 people for no reason except to satisfy his own selfish sadism.

      Allah, protect us from such wickedness, prayed Mohamed. What a strange country America is, he thought. Over there, everything is opposite. Down is up and bad is good. Even murderers are celebrities. And celebrity is nothing but idol worship, forbidden by holy Koran.

       The temptation to look at the photographs of the unchaste American women in the magazine was strong. One photographic series within was entitled “Queen of the X-Rated Cinema.” The outrageous photographs documented the life of an 18-year old American prostitute and movie starlet named Christy Canyon.

      “I really like what I’m doing, and don’t know when I’ll move onto something else,” the magazine quoted her. “I’m having too much fun.”

      Her face vaguely reminded him of his mother and her photographs made a profound impression on his psyche. Never before had he seen such raw and exposed beauty. Never before had he seen a fully naked woman, let alone even a partially naked woman. In a most dramatic fashion, he was both drawn and repulsed.

      Is this the true heart of America? Murder and prostitution? While presenting a false face of reason to the world, a depraved heart beat within America, Mohamed thought. Talk about dissimulation! That’s what Zummi told him. Still, Zummi also told him that America was the land of opportunity.

  1. powerful. since you are an atheist, why are you drawn to writing about religions?

  2. There is so much going on in this short piece. It probably sounds like a cliche, but I gotta say this piece is ‘thought provoking.’ I thought it was hilarious that M was sounding like the one teenaged boy in the universe who would read Penthouse only for the articles. But it was more interesting that he actually looked at the pictures. Yeah, I can’t imagine what it might be like for other cultures to look at American Penthouse.

    • Hey thanks. Glad you found it. I’ve got the rest of it done; I’ve just never posted it. In that piece, I’m trying to imply something, I don’t think anyone has ever “gotten” what I was trying to imply. But, again, thanks for reading it; I’ll post the rest of it; it’s not that long.

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