That someone was K., one of the AUB campus cleaning troops -I call them troops because the thought of how monumental the task of cleaning a university campus this large just baffles me.
So how to describe K.? The best way I can put it is to say that he reminded me of Abou Kamal from a while back. A bit younger, but the same expression, on a weary, yet friendly face that has seen so much, so many students, doctors, and professors passing by, most surely too proud to make eye contact, but a welcome few nodding in acknowledgment. The roughed up skin and the snow-white hair again spoke volumes on his behalf, like they did for Abou Kamal.
So as K. walked up to me, and after a friendly "Saba7o estez" ("Good morning sir") asked me it was OK for him to pick up a few spent paper cups left around my bench. "Of course" I replied, and with a few swift picker upper moves worthy of the seasoned veteran that he is, he had cleaned up the area. When he was done, he looked at me and went on a long tirade. He opened with: "oh yes, son, education will give you your life". And from there he went on to tell me his story. Here's what I can manage to translate for you.
I've seen K. around campus many many times, as -apparently- he's worked at AUB since years before I even graduated from high school. He comes from a poor family of 9 children (if I remember correctly), and he talked about how his father could barely afford their everyday expenses, let alone provide them with a proper education. K. was out of school at a very young age, and had gone away against his dad's will to try as he could to get decent jobs here and there. Cleaning, construction, he had done it all by the time he was 18. He had started out at a construction site near the Golf club at Ouzai.
After a quick biography, K. ended his speech with words that I will not ruin in translation. I was looking at him, and I was lost for words. What do you say to something like that? For a split second, I imagined myself saying how much it sucked to still be a student at my age, or how bad we medical students had it, but this was a brief moment of imagination. Very brief. How inappropriate! I don't remember what I ended up saying, but it was nothing too meaningful, as I blathered out some insipid philosophical statement about life and how there's always worse off people.
So there I was, thinking about how I (and we all do) had been taking everything for granted. All I ever did was whine about how hard it was to grow up, how bad it was that we had to study for our stupid exams, and it suddenly hit me that I had never really stopped to think about what a blessing it was to actually be learning. I mean I have always loved learning, and wouldn't have it any other way, but I had never thought about it under this light. The difference in perspectives between myself and poor K. at that moment struck me silly (I do NOT mean to say that I felt pity for K. or that I felt superior in any way so please don't misunderstand me).
This conversation reminded me immediately how quickly and deeply we get cocooned in our entourage, our environment, our everyday silly worries, whatever these may be, in such a way to somehow completely forget about the more unfortunate, the less fortunate, and about what real problems other people may be worrying about, and how disproportionate, if that's a right word to use, these two worlds are.
This has been a learning experience by itself. Talking to K. felt like a shot of wisdom and perspective on life from the least likely source, and I'm going to keep it, even if I know for a fact that next year (which starts in 2 weeks), I'm going to be whining about the difficulties of medical training, about how people drive like cattle in this country, or how I can't seem to find time to go out for drinks and dinner. But one thing's for certain, K. will be on my mind when I do and I'm sure the thought of it will slap some sense back into me.
This could not have happened at a more appropriate time, for reasons that I will not discuss, and this has made me think about the whole "it's a sign" or "it's meant to be" philosophy, which as I've commented on Posh's post (read it and you'll understand), I am completely against. Nothing has changed in that department, but it got me thinking.