A cloud of dust blew along the canal bank where Sharif braked to a stop. And the hot Egyptian wind made his blue and white striped galabeya (shirt-like robe) whip around his legs as he climbed off the bicycle. He smiled at the big boy in the shirt and pants.
“Mutashakkir (Thank you) for letting me ride it, Karim! Your bicycle is beautiful!”
“You’re welcome,” replied the boy. “I must go now. My father wants me to take some medicine to one of his patients.”
Sharif watched his friend pedal off toward the village of mud-brick houses. He scuffed at the ground with his bare feet.
“Oh, I wish, I wish, I wish,” he recited to himself. “I wouldn’t even care if it fell out of the sky and hit me right on top of my head!”
“What’s going to hit you on your head?” asked a small voice behind him.
Startled, Sharif looked around. His little sister, Nadia, was standing there.
“Aeeb (For shame), Nadia! You scared me,” scolded Sharif.
“Ana aasefa (I’m sorry), my brother. But what’s going to fall on your head?” Nadia asked again, twisting one dark braid around her finger.
“Oh, that,” answered Sharif. “I was wishing for a bicycle, my sister. But Baba (Papa) says it would cost more pounds than he earns in a whole year! Someday though …”
“Sharif! Nadia!” a voice called.
“That’s Baba,” said Nadia. “I forgot that he sent me to get you.”
“Yalla beena (Come on, let’s go)!” shouted Sharif.
He pulled his galabeya up to his knees and off they ran toward home, Nadia’s braids flying in the air behind her.
Sharif’s father smiled when the children reached him. “Sharif, I have a big job for you,” he said. “Your Uncle Hamid is not feeling well this summer. Since your cousin Tarek cannot deliver the milk to all the customers by himself, I want you to help until your uncle is better. Of course you will have to ride Uncle Hamid’s old bicycle, with the milk cans on the sides.”
Sharif could hardly believe his ears. He would get to ride a bicycle every morning!
“Oh, Baba!” he answered. “I am sorry that Uncle Hamid is sick. But I will do a good job of helping Tarek. You’ll see!”
The next morning Sharif was up before the sun. He ate his beans, bread, and white cheese quickly, then ran next door to Cousin Tarek’s house. Together they went out to milk the water buffaloes. Then they attached two covered milk cans to each of the bicycles, Tarek’s shiny new one and Uncle Hamid’s old one.
The cans were so heavy it made hard work pedaling along the dirt road. Riding very slowly at first, Sharif delivered milk to the houses on one side of the road while Tarek took the other side. At each house Sharif carefully lifted a can off his bicycle and poured some creamy white milk into the pan that was brought out to him.
“Mutashakkir,” the customers said to Sharif and dropped the shiny piasters (coins) into his hand.
The scorching sun rose in the sky. Sharif was hot, and the splashing of the milk as he poured made him thirsty. He tried to ignore the cool sound and to become better at riding the bicycle. He learned to make change when his customers did not have the exact number of piasters.
Summer was almost over and Uncle Hamid was feeling better. Now Sharif had only one more day to ride the bicycle on the milk deliveries.
That night his uncle called to him from his front door. “Tarek tells me you have done a good job of helping him,” he said. “Since tomorrow is your last day delivering, how would you like to keep the bicycle for the rest of the day? You may bring it to me before it is time to take the milk the next morning.”
“Oh, Uncle!” cried Sharif excitedly. “That is just what I’d love to do! And I will take very good care of your bicycle!”
The next day Sharif worked faster than ever. He didn’t even think of being thirsty. All he could think of was having the bicycle to himself when he was through.
At last he and Tarek returned to the house and took off the empty milk cans. “Mas salama (See you later)!” he called to his uncle as he pedaled away down the road.
Sharif pumped as hard as he could, and the breeze cooled his face. It was like flying! He waved to the fellaheen (farmers) working in the fields. He weaved in and out the rows of tall palm trees.
At last he reached the main road that led after many miles to the great city of Cairo. The smooth pavement stretched invitingly before him. Up and onto the pavement he went, urging the bicycle to greater and greater speeds. He pedaled until his legs were only blurs, then leaned back and let the bicycle coast.
Cars and buses roared by, enveloping him in clouds of smoke. But he didn’t care. Faster and faster he sped, watching the pavement under him whiz by. A shout made him jerk his head up. “Haaseb (Look out)!”
Not more than thirty feet in front of him was a flock of sheep being herded across the road. It was too late to stop!
Sharif pulled the bicycle sharply to the right. There was a screech of rubber and clatter of metal as bike and boy careened off the road and into the ditch.
Sharif lay still for a moment. What happened? he wondered. Then he remembered. The sheep and grumbling sheepherder were already across the road and into the field on the other side.
Sharif looked at the bike, and a sick feeling crept into his stomach. The handlebars were twisted, and one wheel was bent out of shape.
He pulled himself and the bicycle upright, then began the long walk home, pushing the crippled bicycle. His thoughts whirled around inside his head. I’m not so big after all. I promised to take care of the bicycle, and look what I’ve done! he mourned.
By the time he reached home, the sun had already gone down. He was glad there was no one outside to see him. With his father’s tools he began to work on the bicycle. It was lucky he had helped his father fix the farm equipment so many times. He hammered and bent and twisted the metal back into shape. His body ached and his eyes kept trying to close. At last he stood back and looked at his work. Well, he said to himself, that is the best I can do.
Slowly he pushed the bicycle next door to his uncle’s house and left it beside his cousin’s shiny new one. Then he went home to a cold dinner, a scolding, and bed.
Most of the next day Sharif spent trying to think of how to tell his uncle about the accident. It’s such an old bicycle; it already had its share of dents and scratches, Sharif told himself. Should I even tell Uncle Hamid about it?
In the early afternoon his father came back from the village. “Uncle Hamid is coming to eat with us,” he announced. “He wants to talk to you, Sharif.”
Sharif felt his face turn red. Uncle Hamid knows about the accident! he decided.
As Sharif’s mother set an extra place at the table, Uncle Hamid appeared at the door. “Asallamu alikum (Greetings)!” he said.
“Ahlen wa salen (Welcome)!” they answered.
“Uncle, I must tell you—” Sharif began nervously, as his uncle sat down.
“One moment, boy,” interrupted Uncle Hamid. “Since I am the guest, it is my turn to speak first.” Uncle Hamid cleared his throat. “Your cousin Tarek has decided to study at the university in Cairo,” he began proudly.
“But what has this—” Sharif started to ask.
“Be patient, Sharif,” his uncle went on. “Since Tarek will be gone, I’ll need someone to help me milk the buffaloes and deliver the milk before school. I need a boy about your size who can ride a bicycle … and who can fix one!” he added, a twinkle in his eye.
“Oh, Uncle Hamid, I—” Sharif started to explain.
But his uncle interrupted him, “Since every spare piaster must be sent to Tarek, he has decided that you can ride his bicycle to deliver milk. If you do your job faithfully and well, at the end of the year the bicycle will become yours.”
“Oh, Uncle!” shouted Sharif, jumping up and hugging his uncle. “When do I start?”
“One thing is certain, my son,” laughed his father. “You will not start anything until we eat dinner!”
And with that, the whole family began to fill their plates.
“I’m glad, my brother,” whispered Nadia, leaning across the table.
“About what?” asked Sharif.
“I’m glad the bicycle didn’t hit you on top of your head!” she answered.
Sharif laughed. “It did, my sister!”
Then he grinned at his uncle. “But it won’t ever do it again!”