Blonde Grass


MOHAMMED HASSAN ALWAN

When I learnt of my father’s death, I played football until my feet were sore. I did not know of any other way to mourn his death, except to play football in the space of that square-shaped field whose walls were worn clean of paint at least ten times every summer and winter, ever since I rolled my uncontrollable ball onto it for the first time. It was the only way possible to trigger in my breast the gasps for air that befitted the terrible shock that had stunned my young brain. I would kick the ball against the wall, and it would bounce back and I would kick it again and again. It was not until I had kicked it hundreds of times that I realized the wall was not going to swallow the ball, it would always bounce off, and heaven was not going to annul what it had decreed. It would never reconsider.


I sat on the grass, whose edges the summer had begun to nibble away, and allowed my ears to be inundated with the heavy sound of the mid-afternoon call to prayer, thinking how my father’s hand would no longer lead me to the mosque again, and that from now on I would be going to God alone. I hugged the ball, tenderly rubbing my cheek against it and smelling the fragrance of its leather mixed with the paint of the wall, the wilting grass and my salty tears. The ball was the first to have witnessed the beginning of my long grieving, and it alone could understand my mourning. That I did not doubt one bit! Was it not the only thing that I can kick and hug at the same time without it being punctured by this strange behavior?

 

*   *   *   *

 

I was walking on the pavement, which was aligning my steps since I entered the main university avenue, my eyes riveted on the pavement’s square tiles, each one of which I stepped on to get to the lecture hall.  My mind was swirling in the whirlpool of ideas that usually preoccupy the mind of a student before a lecture. Suddenly, that polished white object came rolling into my field of vision, a splendid ball more expensive than the one I had dreamt of in my childhood, especially after my father passed away. When I stopped it with my foot, it turned out to be even more attractive not in motion. The six wide squares of the ball’s surface were like six wide eyes glancing at me from below; it caressed the sole of my foot as if it were an old friend.

I did not wait for the ball to flirt with me any further; I lifted it up quietly with one foot, and it bounced up to my hand. When I held it close to my chest, hugging it with both arms, I felt my heart beating fast as if I had just scored a goal. As I looked up, I saw the university women’s football team warming up on the open green space a group of blonde women kicking tens of bouncing balls with their white legs, the sunlight glancing off eleven golden ponytails.

 
I handed the ball to the girl who came to collect it; she thanked me and I returned the greeting with the best friendly expression my English could allow me to say.

 

*   *   *   *

 
My punctured football remained under my bed for a whole twenty years. The bed was replaced many times, but neither the ball that was under it nor the boy who was sleeping on it changed. I still remember when I bought the ball in such photographic detail that no time can alter. For my father, the ball was like an expected daughter about whom both of us had to make many promises to each other some of which I abided by, others I broke. He had promised to buy me the ball if I learnt the chapter in the Qur’an. I committed it to memory in a single day, and in return I promised not to lose the ball, break the hall light or the car window, or play ball in the street. He took me to the nearest shop after evening prayer. I saw his hand, on which the marks from the feeding tube were clearly visible, take a fat wad of notes from his pocket, from which he selected a black ten riyal note and a pink five-riyal one which he handed to the shopkeeper. Holding my Dad’s hand, I carried the rough ball under my arm, my face breaking into the biggest grin in the world.

 
I forgot that chapter of Qur’an, along with many other chapters. I broke almost all the electric lights in the hall and the left-side wing mirror of the car. I played long games in the street, especially during prayers on the nights of Ramadan, in which my interest had waned since my father passed away. My mind had been beguiled by that ball with which I used to comb the street and dribble past the boys’ thin legs, one after another, declaring through the eloquence of my feet that I was the best and they were no match for me the king of football with my colorfully laced shoes, which I had invented myself and which became a short-lived fashion in my district.


I broke all the promises I had made to my father, except one: I never lost that ball.

 

*   *   *   *


Sitting on a chair by the window at a lecture, I began to watch the team’s pre-match warm-ups through the thick glass. The female team members stood in two parallel lines kicking the ball in response to the coach’s whistles. I thought: there is a particular angle that the legs of a female player just cannot reach, which makes it seem as if there is some kind of natural obstacle between football and women. Is this the case, or is it just because I was not accustomed to seeing a woman play football until this morning? There is no doubt that their soft feet, molded by high heels, do not really master the language of football.


I bit my bottom lip when I saw the women players block the ball with their chests during the warm-up match. What does the breast have to say about that, I wonder!


I did not learn much from that lecture; even the lecturer’s repeated comments about my continual looking through the window did not dissuade me from glancing at the players. A longing for the ball had suddenly begun to surge up inside me, and I felt a slight tremor in my feet as though they were getting ready to receive the ball. The warm-up game that was taking place in front of me was changing into a small orchestra, as eleven blonde obelisk-like women sprang up from the grass, with the ball traveling between them like a white cloud. I touched my knees, but there was no response. I did not know why they were so calm.

 

*   *   *   *


I had never imagined that pain in the knee would be any less sharper than in other parts of the body. In my ignorance, I used to believe that a knee was nothing more than just a lifeless bony curve. When I hit my knee against the iron pole in high school, so acute was the pain that I thought I was in the throes of death, and I wept hard even though I had celebrated the growth of my moustache just a few months before. I did not pay much attention to all those eyes watching me on the high school’s large football pitch. I had dodged all the players and when I slammed into the pole in so huge a field, the whole world shrunk and turned into a violent storm that shattered the bones of my knee beyond recognition.

I underwent surgery twice, after which the doctor said that my knee would never regain its former state, for it seems my kneecap had been dislocated and full articulation lost. From the doctor’s words I understood that football was a thing of the past for me, but I did not grieve over it very much. So sharp was the pain that it made me hate football along with its deceptive enticement that had led me to collide with the pole and to burst out crying in front of two hundred students, and left me with a furrowed and deformed knee like a type of camel.


When I was able to walk again, my mother’s anguish died down, but she never stopped repeating the phrase “a blessing in disguise” in my presence.

*   *   *   *


On the morning of the following day, I was sitting on the edge of the turf, beguiled by the spring that had suffused the whole of Portland, and by the blonde obelisks and the grass which never dies. I asked the elderly coach for permission to take part in the short friendly matches played by both male and female students, and he agreed; so I put on my shirt, ignoring the five-year-old pains in my knee. I missed the ball several times, maybe because it was too slippery or because I was too heavy. I made a few unsuccessful attempts to dribble past the girls, the purpose of which was to send messages about my glorious past as a football player, but fifteen minutes into the game I was panting, and after another fifteen minutes had to sit down to draw breath and overcome my coughing. Looking down, I allowed my eyes to wander in the small space between my crossed knees and my arms. I felt so out of place. There is a big difference between the matches played in my district during the month of Ramadan with the Qur’an read every day and those the blonde women play on the turf of Portland with a soft football.


I resumed playing, chasing away the cloud of an unjustified sadness. I ran after the ball which some of the girls had been chasing, and when I got close to them, I glanced at them and slipped. For several meters I was traveling horizontally towards the ball. My eyes, which were looking downward, caught sight of many things. I saw the sun so close to the university church, a blonde ponytail arched in the air like a gold umbrella. I saw beads of sweat running down her throat, her breasts shaking, her feet glued to the ball kicking it high into the air, her colorful shoelaces, and, as she jumped past me, I caught a whiff of her blonde perspiration mixed with the pollen of the surrounding trees. The ball was already some distance away very near the goal; as for me, I was thrown off the pitch.


Portland, May 2007


NOTE: In 2005, the Portland Women’s Soccer Team won the women’s Soccer Championship in the United States. Two women players were selected to represent the first American team in the World Cup.


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