In this edition of the Past Lives of Habyzy III, our protagonist remembers Habzyz I - his grandfather and an army general - and the lessons he taught him.
In a past life I was a soft, innocent sponge, carried between two worlds, absorbing pieces of information that would be clues to the puzzle I would spend my life trying to put together. Despite my best efforts of keeping it together since 1983, I am still nowhere closer to seeing or understanding the bigger picture. Admittedly, I was one of those kids who could never see the buried squid fighting a whale in one of those magic eye portraits of the 90s. However, buried within a portion of my DNA was a sequence of amino acids that would never allow me admit failure. That would be showing weakness, which would be a direct violation of the indoctrinations of Habzyz I.
Habzyz I was a stubborn child, from the small town of Sindeon, who climbed – or more likely killed, possibly tortured – his way to the top of Egyptian military. He was one of Egypt's finest generals, but more importantly one of the very few constants that would remain part of my life in both Canada and Egypt. From the time I was just a young, soft, curly-haired little boy, General Habzyz took special interest in me, believing that I had potential, even though I was soft. He was determined to harden me and even though his techniques were unorthodox, they would ultimately prepare me for everything and anything I would face on my personal journey.
The first lesson came during my first trip to Egypt. I was at the point in my childhood development where I began learning how to create and store memories. I remember vividly being sat on a booster chair across from the stern looking general at the dining table, in front of a bowl of sliced lemons. I was then instructed to eat the complete the bowl of lemons, and that we wouldn't be leaving the table until I was able to eat lemons without shedding a tear or looking like a sour puss. I remember being confused and thought that maybe lemons were common to the Egyptian diet, which is why they could be purchased anywhere, at any time, including while one is sitting in Cairo traffic. The General would dismiss my misconception explaining the exercise as the first step to controlling my emotions. The purpose of the mission was to empower my mind to overcome the unpleasant signals triggered by the very acidic stimulus. I couldn't tell you exactly how many lemons it took, but eventually I was able to fight the tears, and accomplished the set mission of eating a whole lemon without single flinch or reaction.
My reward for passing my first lesson was a trip to the nearby corner movie store to rent a Tom & Jerry movie on VHS. Upon returning home, my excitement turned to absolute disappointment when I put in the VHS only to discover that the film wasn't animated. Upset, I returned to inform the General of the mistake, carrying a straight emotionless face and, even though I wanted to cry, I knew that tears meant more lemons.
The General proceeded to view the tape, and within seconds, his face morphed from annoyance to absolute fury. I remember him storming out of the apartment, and returning several hours later with multiple Tom & Jerry videos and bruised knuckles. The next day, we walked by the movie store and oddly enough it was closed. It remained that way for the rest of my trip, which didn't bother me as there were plenty of places to rent films. I realise now what my young mind didn't grasp at the time; through an ill-fated mix-up, the first VHS was a porno....while Tom & Jerry didn't make an appearance, there was an abundance of pussy. The General's fury confused me at the time, as he had taught me to conceal my emotions, but I came to the conclusion that there is a time and a place to show your anger. More often than not, that place is Egypt, where simply battling Cairo traffic is a daily test of one's emotional strength.
The next time I would encounter the General would be when I was living in Ottawa. He came bearing a special gift for me, one that would be an essential tool for the next lesson; a very large Nerf bazooka complete with scope and Styrofoam rockets. The General then asked me to bring forth my favourite stuffed animal. Uncertain about the purpose of the request I called together a Council of the Stuffed to decide who I would introduce to the general. After careful deliberation, I presented the General with the famous Marshmallow Man from the film Ghostbusters.
For the second lesson, the General set up an obstacle course that would end with me having to take out a target. I had to jump over cushions and hide behind couches, while the general whipped tennis balls at me. Once I reached the end, I had to line up the scope with the Marshmallow Man perfectly within the cross hairs, while being exposed to the bombardment of tennis balls. It took several failed attempts. I started questioning the accuracy of the toy bazooka as every shot veered left of the target. I argued that it wasn't built to be that accurate or that the scope was broken, to which the general replied “that no weapon is a 100% accurate, and that every weapon requires an element of adjustment.” The point of all this was to build on the first mind over matter class, expanding beyond lemons and into warfare, learning the valuable lesson of understanding the environment around me and how to adjust and adapt to accomplish the task at hand.
Unbeknownst to me, the General didn't not travel all the way to Canada to teach me how to use a toy bazooka. The real reason for his trip to Canada, was to take advantage of the public health care system in a last ditch effort to save his wife, my Nana. For as long as my memory serves, my grandmother had been battling with rheumatoid arthritis leaving her frail and in pain. She spent a couple of years lying in agony in a hospital bed in London, Ontario. Every couple of months, my father, Habzyz II, would pack us in the car and take the seven-hour trip to sit with the stoic General in a cramped hospital room. There is nothing worse for a child then spending their whole day in hospital trying not to disrespect the sick, and sympathising with my boredom the General decided that for his birthday we would go to a small local amusement park. It was a refreshing break from the depressing vacuum that was the hospital, and after spending a wonderful day together, we returned to the hospital for birthday cake.
Unfortunately, when we arrived to the hospital, we were baffled to find that my grandmother's room was empty. After talking to staff, my family found out that at some point there was a mishap with the medication, and that my grandmother was fighting to stay alive. Hours passed in the extremely tense waiting room. At the end of the day, the doctor emerged with emotionless look on his face, the very same look I remember wearing after the lemon lesson. The doctor begun by apologising, followed by announcing that my grandmother had died. Instantly my family was reduced to tears, that is of course with the exception of myself and the general, and at the behest of my grandfather we would never again celebrate his birthday.
The funeral was filled with jet-lagged relatives and tears but once again I remained strong, not shedding a single tear during the proceedings. Relatives approached me and gave me permission to cry, promising that no one would force me to eat lemons if I did but no matter how hard I tried I couldn't cry, because deep down inside I wasn't sad, I was happy. I wasn't entirely sure if it was the by-product of the General's lessons, or the teachings of Islam, but I explained to concerned relatives that I believed her passing was a blessing, as she lived in extreme pain. In my innocent youth, I assumed her passing meant that she was no longer living in pain, and was officially in the splendid heaven I was taught to believe in.
The General would remain in Canada, in the city where my grandmother was buried, for over a decade, until he was ultimately forced to return to Egypt. They say that a person's character is shaped by the fingerprints of people surrounding their lives. In the case of the General it was larger than a fingerprint, or even a sequence of DNA. The lessons continued throughout my life each one making me a stronger soldier. Eventually, as the years wore on the strong General would transform into a hilariously silly old Grandpa that would become my roommate. During this period, I would eventually witness the General shedding a tear. What would make the General cry? You will just have to wait for a future instalment of Habzyz III.