Here is the final story from We Still Have a Chance – bringing together voices from the UK and Egypt.
Higher up the mountain, at the summit, the tourists and their guides would have watched the sun rise over the Sinai and now they would be picking their way down the trail. In half an hour or so they would be here, at Mustafa’s little mountainside cafeteria or one of the others dotted along the track, wanting their breakfast. He stoked up the fire, put the big kettle on to boil, set out the honey and the Nutella and stacked the clean mugs ready to fill them with hot tea or coffee.
He pulled his woolly hat more tightly around his ears and stood warming his hands at the fire. Soon the heat of the day would build and become unbearable, but for now the air still held its night-time chill. He had been here since before dawn.
Mustafa closed his eyes and gave thanks. For his wife who had prayed with him as usual before he set off from the village and who had kissed him goodbye. For his daughter, Zahra, his little flower. For his humble home in the village at the foot of the mountain. For the bread he was about to bake on hot stones, the aish baladi, the stuff of life. For this mountain, this holy place and for God’s proximity. His gratitude flowed through him like sunlight through leaves.
But then, as always, negative thoughts started to intrude. He thought about how much he would like to be a tourist and travel the world, to see different countries, marvel at the sun rising in other places. He would like to fly in a plane and look down on all of this from on high. He would like to be above it, apart from it, not in it. But he was stuck, not going anywhere except up and down the mountain, day after day, with his back bent under the load he had to carry. He would like to put some money aside so that when Zahra grew up and got married, he could help provide her with a house, but there was barely enough to scrape by and little prospect of things getting better.
A man cannot live by bread alone.
They say the poor are close to nature, but it is mostly because they can’t afford the walls, the shoes, the hats, the sunscreen. They bear the brunt of the changing climate without protection. This dry parched land where nothing grew anymore, where there was no longer grass for pasture, was embedded in Mustafa’s skin, his laboured body, his cracked heels. He longed for something better for his daughter. He thirsted for it.
He opened his eyes and blinked to clear them, but a fuzziness remained. The air lacked its usual clarity, and the sky was purple, the colour of a bruise. He shook his head to dispel his useless fancies and went to fetch the dough that had been proving. He slammed it down on his floured board and knocked the air out of it with a punch. He worked his frustration out on it, kneading with his knuckles, flattening and bunching, stretching and slapping the springy mixture until it was the consistency he required.
By midday the sun was as hot as his dying fire, and he had run out of bread. It was time to pack up. He peered up the trail to see if there was anyone still hiking, any unlikely stragglers who might buy a drink.
The first raindrop cut into his cheek like a dagger. He jumped back, startled. He stared up and as he did so, dark clouds came rushing in, thickening and joining together, blanketing the sky. Rain. He could not believe it.
And then it was upon him, tumbling out of the heavy sky, pouring down in a deluge such as he could not recall. Within seconds he was drenched, his hair plastered to his head, his clothes clinging to his thin body, and he was running, shouting to the other men to join him. The path became a fast-flowing stream, his sandals slapped and slipped in the wet scree, but he didn’t fall. The other men who worked on the mountain, who were like his brothers, came running too, sure-footed but unprotected on their downward hurtle.
But when they arrived at the bottom, the road was already a surging river, a saltless sea and the village unreachable.
The fearful men climbed back up, high enough to be above the rising water, and took shelter in the nearest mountainside café. The man who worked it was old and kind. He gave them blankets and made them tea while they waited. They did not speak of their children and their wives but sat in silence, in an agony of not knowing, hardly able to meet each other’s eye.
It took two hours for the sky to finish emptying its load and a night and a day for the floods to subside sufficiently for them to return to their village.
Mustafa knelt on the thick layer of mud where his home used to be, and he wept. The other men did the same, scrabbling with their hands in the dirt, smearing it on their faces.
All the buildings were destroyed and there was no one left alive.
The bodies had already been washed clean by the downpour and buried in the landslide. They stood together and offered prayers for the forgiveness of the deceased and that they may find peace and happiness in the world to come and then they dispersed, each to his private grief.
Mustafa returned to Mount Sinai. He climbed to the very top and slept there with the wind as a blanket and the stars for company. The next day, he descended with a small spade he kept in the cafeteria, and he began to dig the ground, He dug all day and then returned up the mountain to sleep. Day after day, he did the same thing and the other men joined him, digging as if their lives depended on it, lifting, and turning the earth, witnessing the change. What had been dust was becoming soil. The men clubbed together to buy seeds.
One bright morning, Mustafa saw a flash of pink. He bent to see a small flower growing there. The land was now fertile and ready for sowing. He crouched down. ‘’I will build a house for you Zahra,’ he said out loud. He gathered some stones and placed them around the flower to protect it.
That day the planting began.