By Saleh al Shaibany — The workshop had a mixed smell of rotting wood and fresh timber. The old carpenter was busy making intricate carvings on a door ordered by a government ministry. He is one of the last carpenters in the country from the old tradition who still makes handmade doors and windows. Since I was in his workshop purely to see a master craftsman at work, he allowed me to sit quietly in a corner and watch.
Minutes later, above the hammering and clatter of his work, I heard a scream. The man just stopped for a second, cocked his left ear sideways and continued with his work. Another scream filled the dusty air but this time either the old carpenter did not hear it or completely ignored it.
Those were not ordinary screams and I would learn later it was quite ordinary to the people of his household. Five minutes later, a young lumbering man in his early twenties walked heavily in the workshop. He did not even look at me and I was certain he did not even know I was there.
He sat cross-legged on the floor. His eyes wandered around from one tool to another while his fingers were twitching the helms of his dishdasha. I knew what he was. He was autistic.
From the opposite direction, another young man walked in. He hesitated, looked at me casually and then decided to do nothing but stand in the middle of the workshop. The carpenter stopped working and smiled at him. He said something gently to him which I could not understand and patted a hand on the mat he was sitting on. The young man giggled and sat next to him. He was autistic as well.
The old carpenter continued with his work but occasionally would pause for few seconds, look at each of them and smile.
When it was time to take a break, the man got up, picked a towel on a shelf and wiped his brow. He pulled a chair and sat opposite me. The two autistic young men quickly got up and came to sit on the floor, one each side of the chair. They are his sons, just one year different from each other. He has two older daughters that he already married off. He is constantly worried what would become of them after he has gone.
People with autism have a development disorder that prevents them from socialising or grasping what is happening around them. Over twenty years of raising them has never blunted the pain and emotional anguish in him.
Wasn’t it enough to have one disabled child? He has to have two and in quick succession, too, he explained to me.
He was too old and they were too strong for him to control when they throw a tantrum, a characteristic of some people with autism. How does he cope? He explained that he was no match for them physically but he was doing a better job mentally.
The man was 83, still very healthy for his age but probably owing to the fact that he has two disabled children that made him work all these years at a time he should have taken it easy.
Then he said something that stung my eyes with the saltiness of what may well have been traces of tears.
“The second reason why I am still alive and will keep on living is the fact that I cannot afford to die. Who would look after them?”
He made it sound like a joke but the way he was wringing his hands suggested otherwise. When I finally left his workshop that afternoon, I knew he was more than a master craftsman but a man who knew how to stretch his longevity to benefit those who needed him.