It was spacious but darkened by the shutters on the windows. The fluorescent lamps were on round the table in the middle of the room, but the rest of the room remained dark. There were already some students gathered round the table, talking in low voices, gesturing at the corpse draped in white. Some looked quite pale, other’s smiled coldly. Salih, his friend, seemed to be standing apart from the others, alone, so Selim took his place beside him. The room felt cold.
Laid out on the table, under a white cloth, there was the dead body which they were supposed to study. Selim realized that it was this corpse which made the room feel cold. The realization made him tense. He felt quite sick. In order to relax himself, he tried to say something to Salih, but the words would not come out.
Salih noticed and asked him: ‘What’s the matter? Are you frightened’?
Selim managed to find his voice, and said weakly:
‘No, no, I was just thinking...’
‘I was thinking,’ Selim answered, indicating the other students, ‘that here we are standing round a corpse… And we are unmoved. It’s just something ordinary. We are quite indifferent toward it.’
‘You are right,’ said Salih. ‘We are being trained that way. Death never becomes an occasion for us to understand the reality of our situation. As a scholar once put it, “Death is enough to warn people”. But we seem not to understand the warning.’
Meanwhile, the teacher had come in and started his lesson: ‘Today you are going to examine various parts of the body. You’ve looked at pictures and diagrams in your Anatomy Atlases-now you will see the real thing, as it were, in the flesh. Most of you will never have seen a corpse before. Don’t be alarmed or put off as I remove the cloth. You have to get used to such things. You will have to face them in the future as part of your job. There is nothing to be frightened about-what we have here is after all only a dead body.’
Soon the teacher was ready with his gloves on his hands and his mask on his face. As he moved to the head of the corpse and took hold of the cloth to remove it, a deathlike suspense prevailed in the room. Expressions were frozen on the students’ faces and, in the stillness, even seemed as if no one dared to breathe. Selim was still struggling with his thoughts when the teacher slowly pulled back the cloth from the corpse. When he saw what he saw, something like an explosion or a volcano erupting happened in Selim’s head and heart. The tears welled in his eyes, threatening to spill over. He was utterly confused and trembling all over. He was about to faint but with a desperate effort managed to rush from the room, spluttering, ‘No, no, no…’.
His fellow-students, unaware of what was going on, looked on bemused. They heard his footsteps in the corridor. One of them broke the silence: ‘He was frightened, I suppose.’ Then the others had some comment or other to make, except Salih who stood motionless, not sure what he should do.
Selim rushed out of the faculty building into the gardens outside. He stopped to lean back against one of the trees. He remained still for a moment, his eyes closed and his head pressed against the trunk of the tree. His muddled thoughts and feelings cleared as he slipped away from the present moment into childhood memories. As always, when he recalled his early years, he remembered his mother’s tears and his father’s shouting which was the cause of her tears and his father, for no reason at all, hitting his mother in the face. He remembered the mealtimes after which they still felt hungry. He was very young then, in the early years of school. Before that, what he could remember was happy and peaceful. His mother was a good, pious woman, brought up by a good family. His father was a teacher: they were considered well off on his salary. His father did his best to meet the demands of his family and everybody liked him. He hardly ever went to a coffee house to spend time with his friends, nor was he ever seen to quarrel with his wife at home
Unfortunately those happy days did not last long. The society was corrupting, and for some reason anything uncorrupted was to be rejected. Moral values were being made fun of and knocked down; good was considered bad and bad good. One had to struggle hard in mind and spirit to hold on to values and character in such a degenerating society. Selim’s father could not resist the pressures. He became used to attending coffee houses and made new friends who introduced him to harmful habits. Then he started to come home late and drunk. Sometimes, after he came back, he would wake his wife and demand a meal. Poor woman, when she would say, ‘But what can I cook? There is nothing in the kitchen,’ he hit her in the face. Selim hid under his blanket, sobbing as he heard the shouting and weeping. Once, when he took hold of his father’s legs and begged him: ‘Don’t, don’t do it, father’, he got a beating too.
After Selim’s father was banned from teaching he became an alcoholic. During that time, his mother did some work sewing clothes at home and, when the need was desperate, she even went out to clean houses for money. His father took this money by force to spend on drink. When his wife tried to refuse to give him the money, he hit her until she gave in. Over and over again, she would plead: ‘Give up drinking. Can’t you see that it is ruining us all? Can’t you see how unhappy we all are? Please give up drinking, then our old happy life will return. I can work to support the family until you are all right.’
The poor woman’s health was deteriorating day by day, and the mistreatment by her husband grew unbearable. So, one day, they left the house to go shopping and never returned. They went to live instead in the house of the widow of Selim’s grandmother’s uncle.
Selim finished school and wanted to go on to high school but he knew that his mother could not afford it. His mother wanted to get him an apprenticeship of some kind. For the time being, during the school holidays, he studied the Qur’an in the neighbourhood mosque and quickly learnt the Arabic alphabet. That did not take long. After that, Selim became an apprentice to a hair-dresser.
That was just before the schools opened. Selim was aware of the hardships his family faced. Even so, he really did want to attend high school. He said nothing to his mother. He only cried about it alone, to himself in his bed. One day, the imam of the mosque came to the hairdresser’s to have his hair cut. He was keen to find out if his former pupil whom he had taught how to read the Qur’an would go on to high school. Selim said quietly, ‘I would like to, but...’ He couldn’t finish the sentence. But the imam guessed from the tears in Selim’s eyes what the situation might be.
The imam asked where Selim and his mother lived and paid them a visit. In a long talk, Selim’s mother explained their story to the imam, weeping as she did so. Before he left the imam said: ‘Don’t worry! With the help of God, I will do everything I can to help Selim to attend school. Believe me! The only thing I need is your prayers.’ The mother and son were hopeful and happy.
The imam told his friends the circumstances and they all agreed to help. Together, they managed to get a place for Selim in a good boarding school whose aim was to bring up students dedicated to the service of their religion and their homeland. It was at this school that Selim met and made friends with Salih. Not many years later Selim sat for the university entrance examination. When he opened the envelope with his results, he gave thanks to God and hurried to give his mother the good news: he had won a place in the school of medicine. When he reached home he found his mother on her death-bed, drawing her last breaths. He held her hand and said nothing. She opened her eyes and looked at him. They were eyes full of a mother’s suffering and a mother’s love. ‘Well,’ she asked, ‘What happened? What were your results?’
‘I’ve won a place in the school of medicine. I will become a doctor and treat you. Believe me, mum! You will be the happiest woman in the world.’
‘I thank God that I have lived to see this day,’ his mother said, and wept a little with contentment and relief. Then, she went on: ‘I am so glad that I have a son obedient to God. Finishing school is nothing by itself, my son. Remember that your father was an educated man but his ignorance brought us to those bad days which we all suffered. It is ages since we heard anything of him. Who knows where he is drinking now, even if he is still alive? I don’t think you will be like him. Study, my son, study much and become a professor. But never lose your faith. Without it, you are nothing. I’d rather you had not gone to school if you end up following your father’s example, destroying both yourself and the ones around you, instead of being helpful to them. With the knowledge you have, feel the greatness of God. That is my wish.’
She held Selim’s hand very tightly. He kissed her again and again, and said: ‘You are very ill, mum. Don’t tire yourself! I will call a doctor.’
In a voice that grew ever weaker, she said: ‘I dont need a doctor now. You can stand up to any difficulty. I have always tried not to do anything bad, as God has warned us. I don’t feel any pain now. I hope I have managed to bring up a son who will pray for me after my death. Please don’t forget what I have told you. May God be of great help to you, God...!’ At this point, her voice failed her. She relaxed as if falling into a sweet deep sleep and so passed away.
Re-living these sad moments, Selim, leaning against the tree in the grounds of the faculty of medicine, shook with emotion. Absorbed in himself, he had not noticed Salih who had followed him from the lecture room.
‘Hey what happened to you?’ Salih asked, shaking him gently by shoulder. ‘I would have believed that you were frightened if I did not know you well. We believe in God and we know that death is certain. Why then did you run away like that?’
Selim looked up at Salih and spoke slowly and carefully: ‘You are my closest friend. We stayed in the same boarding school, we both won scholarships to this university and right now we have been living in the same house for two years. I don’t think I care much what other people might think, but I do care what you think. I know I can trust you to keep secret what I’m going to tell you. Do you remember saying to me today-“We are going to work on an actual corpse, a dead man. I wonder if he had any children, poor man!” Do you remember saying that?’
‘Of course, I remember,’ said Salih. ‘Why? Did I say something wrong?’
‘No, Salih,’ answered Selim ‘You said nothing wrong, but do you know who he was?’
‘How could I possibly know that?’
‘Well,’ said Selim with a sigh, ‘I don’t know if it is enough to call him “poor man” but I do know very well who he was. He was my father.’