This true story inspired the imaginative children’s book “Me, My Friend and the Monster” for sale now on Amazon, and here, on my website direct from the author.
Time: Winter 1969
Location: Damascus, Syria
Everything looked ordinary that winter morning in our Elementary School, and no one could tell at that time that a story anything but ordinary was about to be narrated.
Less than ten minutes into class, the school janitor knocked at the classroom door, opened it slowly, and told the teacher that he was needed in the director’s office. We understood later that one of the official inspectors, typically a mean person and therefore hated by both, teachers and students, made a surprise visit to our school and wanted to meet with the teaching board.
The protocol at that time for teachers, in case they should leave temporarily, was that they should not leave the classrooms without supervision. Instead, they should assign one of the students, usually the head of the class, to come forward, stand behind the teacher’s table and watch the rest of the students to keep them quite. The teachers of my classes in particular replaced that protocol with another one; they used to ask me to sit on their chairs and start narrating a story until they returned. Each party of that arrangement was a winner; the students enjoyed listening to the story and I enjoyed telling the story. The teachers also enjoyed taking the credit of keeping their class quite while they were away, which usually was not the case with other teachers where the class turned into a playground as soon as they left.
It all started from the early classes of Literary Writing where the teachers asked the students to write a short essay or story about a certain subject and not to exceed certain number of words or lines. That class was my favorite up to High School, so every time I had such homework to write a story or an essay, I returned home, forgot about the limitation of words and lines, and started to write and write and write. I still remember when one of the teachers sent a written note to my parents saying “I found out that the essay homework your son presented today didn’t match his age, so would you please stop writing his essays and let him do it by himself?” I still remember the smile on my parents’ faces when they read that note; my dad responded with a brief note to the teacher that explained, “No one helped him with the essay”. I never had that problem again after my dad’s note.
From early years, and before starting school, our old Nanny used to give us, me along with my two siblings, bedtime stories about Kings, Princes, Genies, monsters, magic lamps, flying rugs, land and sea adventures and more. At later years, my parents started buying us a lot of translated western comic books such as Superman and Batman.
Then they started buying us literary books, Arabic and translated foreign ones, which included stories, novels, legends, epics. The Arabian Nights was my favorite of them all. We also used to be taken to a lot of movie theaters, watching legendary heroes like Tarzan, Hercules, Samson and Gladiators. That unique mix of stories and heroes led me sometimes to bring Superman to rescue Aladdin from the Genie or Batman to save Ali Baba from the Forty Thieves. I remember one time one kid objected to that mix, saying that Superman and Aladdin shouldn’t meet in one story as they lived in different times, different worlds and spoke different languages. My response was “If you are that smart, why don’t you sit on my chair and be the narrator?” Everyone laughed and asked me to complete the story, including that kid.
But let’s get back to that winter day, when I was asked to give my classmates a story. I started my story as I always did, “Once upon a time in a far, far land,” The story that day was, as usual, a mix of those of the Arabian Nights, those of the comic books, but also of what I would add to them from my own imagination and instant thoughts to make each one of them one of a kind.
The hero was Al-Shater Hassan, or Hassan the Magnificent, who had a character similar to that of Aladdin. He also had a flying rug that he used in his journeys and adventures; I gave that magic rug the name ‘Aziza’ which meant ‘the dignified’ in Arabic and used for females. At one point of the story, Al-Shater Hassan was in a journey to save a kidnapped Princess Badre Al-Bodour, or The Full Moon Beauty. But while he was taking a break, he was trapped by a giant ghoul, taken to his cave, and prepared to be eaten at dinner. Aziza managed to escape and followed them to the cave, but was attacked by the cave guard; a huge black serpent with seven heads. Soon, Aziza found herself in danger when the serpent blew fire at her and she caught on fire. At that point, every single kid was frozen in his seat, able to hear his own heartbeats, and holding his breath waiting to know how Aziza would fight back to save her master. The whole class was so quite a person could drop a needle and hear its sound hitting the floor. Instead of hearing what happened to Aziza next, the kids heard the door open and the teacher entered the classroom saying “back to your desk Tarif, and you kids, story time is over, let’s resume our class.” The story was left as a cliffhanger to be continued.
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As soon as I graduated from college in the early eighties, I came to a conclusion that Syria, ruled by a dictatorship, lawless regime, was not a safe place to start a business and raise a family as you might lose everything you built overnight. I always looked at it as a country sitting on a top of an active volcano that was taking a nap and could wake up and explode at any moment. Unfortunately, thirty years later, in 2011, my vision was proven right. After coming to the United States, I started my life from scratch, and managed to accomplish the American dream.
In 1993, I found a job in a company that was doing business in the Middle East. The company assigned me to go to Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt to promote its products; ophthalmological diagnostic equipment and tools. While I was in Damascus, Syria, I had to submit an application for a house phone line, which usually used to take about 10 years to be installed, unless you were ready to pay a bribe for faster service. I really didn’t like to do that as the application was supposed to be submitted in a facility infested by bureaucracy and belonged to the Government which controlled that business. Before I left Syria during the Eighties, I visited hundreds of such Government facilities for different reasons, and when I entered that phone place that summer day, it didn’t surprised me a bit. Everything was as I left many years earlier; dirty floors, stinky odor, high temperature and humidity (no AC), hundreds of flies and mosquitoes buzzing around, and finally a long line of tens of oppressed applicants waiting to be served. I could go back home and come back on a different day, but I knew that it would be the same any day, all days.
There were five employees serving the applicants who were waiting in a single long line to hear the magic word: Next. It took me about an hour to move half way closer to those five employees where I could see their faces and they could see mine. I soon noticed that one of the employees was staring at me in a suspicious way. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but it still made me nervous.
Things got worse when that employee, after he was done with an applicant, left his desk and came straight towards me. He was in his mid thirties, his hair starting to change colors, and his face showing some wrinkles. The man stopped by me and took a closer look at my face, and while I was preparing myself for the worst, he put a big smile on his face and said “Oh my God, is that you Tarif?” By looking more carefully into the man’s face, I knew I met him somewhere but I couldn’t recall. He noticed how hesitant and unsure I was regarding his identity, so he quickly put an end to that situation by mentioning his name and adding “shame on you forgetting your best Elementary School friend.”
Soon after the man mentioned his name, I remembered him as one of my class mates about 25 years ago. He didn’t wait for me to react; instead, he took the lead by giving me the traditional Middle Eastern two parts welcome, some kisses at the cheek accompanied by a strong warm hug. Then he said “okay my friend, what brings you here today? Applying for a phone line, right?”
I replied joking; “of course, what else do you do here? You don’t sell Falafel wraps, do you?” My friend laughed and said “you are still the same Tarif I knew 25 years ago whose jokes are instant and natural, you really haven’t changed a bit. Yes we don’t sell Falafel, but I would like to offer you a drink; Tea, coffee or soda?” After he ordered the drink, he took my phone application and started looking at it to be sure it had all the required information. I really felt bad cutting the line and submitting my application before those who were ahead of me. I could see angry but oppressed faces among the people in the line. When I whispered about that in my friend’s ear, he said “you are right, we shouldn’t do that. Let’s go to my office where we can talk freely without angering others.” He asked one of his friends to take his place behind the desk and we walked into a small side office room and he closed the door and said “by the way, I’m the manager here so you don’t have to worry about anything.”
After we sat down, talked a little bit about what each one of us did after elementary school, he again looked into my papers and said “Okay, I have good news for you. Your application looks legitimate and covers all the requirements.” I said “great, then I can pay the fee and go home, after finishing the drink?” And that was when my friend laughed and said “I gave you the good news, but you didn’t ask me about the bad news”. I knew then that there was a kind of joke in his words, so I responded with a similar laugh and said “Okay, what is the bad news? The weather podcast didn’t mention anything about an earthquake today”. What my friend said after that, didn’t mention any earthquake, but definitely shook me awake. What he said left me speechless and was absolutely not expected; not even in my wildest dreams.
He smilingly said, “Here is the deal and it is so simple; you tell me what happened to Aziza, you get your phone. You don’t tell me, you don’t get the phone. You can start anytime and my ears are all yours”. I helplessly looked into his eyes trying to understand the joke or to remember what he was talking about. I even asked myself “And who by the heck is Aziza?”
He soon noticed that I had no clue what he was referring to, so he said “Don’t you remember that cold winter morning when our teacher had to leave the classroom and asked you to give us a story?” When he saw that I was still puzzled, he added “That day you started the story of Al Shater Hassan and his flying rug Aziza. And when Aziza was trying to save her master, she caught blaze which came from a seven headed fire blowing serpent”.
It was at this point I understood what he meant, but I didn’t remember that specific story he mentioned. I said, “Oh my Gosh, do you really still remember those stories? I narrated so many of them back then. I’d add to them all sorts of details from my imagination. I forgot all about that flying rug called Aziza…. Why didn’t you come back to me back then and ask about it?”
He said “I wanted to, but my family moved into another neighborhood and I had to change school. I didn’t have the chance to see you after that. But as a kid, I couldn’t forget the story and Aziza catching fire, and I always wanted to know the conclusion. It sounds silly and crazy, doesn’t it?” My friend then added with a smile “I later forgot about the whole thing, but it came flying back to me today when I saw you here.” That astounded me. What amazed me that day, and has stuck with me ever since, was how some stories would never leave the memory of a child, no matter how many years pass by.
I knew my friend was joking when he said, “No story, no phone”, but I decided to grant my friend his wish. As we finished our drinks, I said, “I now remember what happened to Aziza. Are you ready for the last episode of that never ending story?” He looked at me in a suspicious way, knowing that a joke was about to land, and said “Go ahead, Your Majesty the Story Teller”. I said, “Aziza did then what anyone would do when a fire starts; it called the Fire Station. The Fire fighters arrived in few minutes, putting the fire out, capturing the seven head serpent, took her to the city zoo and told her that playing with fire is dangerous.
They also saved Al Shater Hassan, arrested the Ghoul, took him to a correction facility where they taught him that eating people was not a nice habit and it might cause high cholesterol, so he ended up becoming a vegetarian”. When I stopped speaking my friend just sat there staring at me in silence for quite a few seconds. Then he cracked up laughing. “Tarif, you really deserve two phones for that story ending, not just the one on this order.”
Two hours after I entered that building with my phone application, I was on my way back home with the approval. But also with a one of a kind story about the magical power of narrative and the lasting deep memories it leaves in the human soul, especially when it comes to kids. Over the years, I narrated the story of the phone application incident to a lot of my friends. Twenty five years after that incident took place, and more than fifty years after I invented the story and told it to my classroom friends in that elementary school in Damascus, I decided to put it in writing. I wrote the above and submitted this story to the “Texas Authors’ 2019 Short Story Contest” with many other authors. Even though the story did not win, it made it to the final stage and here is one of the reviews it got from the judges.
SHORT STORY REVIEW
“Thoroughly engaging, entertaining story
with satisfying development of characters, plot and theme,
and a nice touch of humor.”
With the completion of two children’s books last year; “A Tale of Seven Phones” and “What’s Special About Judy?” and the assistance of my highly talented story developer, editor, publisher and fellow author, Kathleen J. Shields, we even made the above story into a fully-illustrated children’s book that has just been released this week!
Learn more about “Me, My Friend and The Monster” the true story, and take a look at some of the fabulous illustrations Aashay Utkarsh drew up for us. He surely is a creative person, just like anyone who allows their imagination to spark creativity. I always encourage reading to young children because it helps ignite their imagination. In fact, you can start the process right now and buy this book!