He’s got large eyes, a freckly nose and teeth that look as though someone put them in a bag and shook them up, before dropping them back into his mouth any old way, like someone sowing wheat. In the maize fields, crouching by the outlet of the canal, he lets the cool water he uses to irrigate the fields run through his hands. He’s not yet 14 but his body is made for hard work and his hands already look large and weathered like a man’s. He smiles crookedly, almost imperceptibly, and he rubs his great hands on his trousers, which already have a good layer of mud on them.
He doesn’t like people much; children are cruel when they meet someone who’s different. In that sense they’re the same as adults. They shout ‘Donkey!’ at him, and he ducks in a characteristic gesture, putting his head on one side at the same time as he raises the other. I can almost hear him hiss, ‘I’m not a donkey’. The maize field isn’t far from the path, where Mahmud’s hands have to pick up logs that are bigger, longer and probably heavier than him.
There’s a longing for childhood in the sidelong glance he casts from the loaded cart at the children who call him a donkey. If there’s any resentment in it, it’s not at the insult, but because of the theft: of days running barefoot through the maize field, of days carrying exercise books, of afternoons looking at the starry sky, stroking the donkey’s ears instead of loading baskets onto its back. The others, the friends, the ones who aren’t Mahmud, or who have had the good luck not be him yet, gather to play at marbles, to lasso the donkey, to pull its ears or chase each other as they dream of being football stars.
They lean on each other’s shoulders, whisper jokes or laugh as they try to keep away the shadow that Mahmud, all the Mahmuds in Egypt, casts over them. And while he watches them on this side of the lens, they gather to see themselves in the mirror as they are always, as they won’t be for long, before running off after some rabbit with a pocket watch.