“A dream is not something that belongs to only one person.
A dream is something that unites and gives hope to all people.”
- Ferize at “A Midsummer Night’s Dream Concert”, Cape Town
“The day I cried and lost everything I had worked for. The day I felt utterly disgusted with the world and myself. The day my dreams came crashing down. That day I met you. That day you taught me what it means to live, to breathe, to smile.” Sister Reza paused and turned to look at me.
I almost choked on the piece of bread I had in my mouth. Coughing and eyes tearing, I looked up at sister Reza who was sitting beside me.
“What are you,” I stammered. She was sitting too close to me. I jumped up from the bench, turned around to point at her and cried: “How, how can you say such embarrassing stuff with a per-perfectly straight face!”
My heart was pounding, my pointed finger trembled in the air. The sun was setting, casting long shadows in the park, masking the red hot feeling that flushed my face. We had just finished handing out bread to the poor and homeless and were sharing the few pieces that were left. Undisturbed by my sudden movements several pigeons and sparrows were still picking at the ground for crumbs. Undisturbed by my reaction sister Reza smiled fondly.
“I have never told you how I became known as sister Reza, have I?” she said.
“Sister Reza, Savior of Old Town,” she whispered in a tiny voice, as if to herself. With a little shake of her head she stood up and gestured for me to follow her. “Come Lucia, it is time.”
She was walking in the direction of the Docks.
Yesterday, at the end of our final lesson, she told me we would celebrate my graduation at the place where we first met seven years ago. I did not remember meeting sister Reza at the Docks or how I became her pupil. Seven years ago I was only four. I had always thought I had discovered her myself in one of my exploration trips through Old Town. Much like how I had discovered the kind baking lady who gave me cookies or the always angry looking giant who would throw me high into the air, after which he would carry me around Old Town on his shoulder, laughing loudly.
The whole day I had been excited, eager to learn more about how I first met my most favourite person in Old Town: sister Reza, the patient teacher. I had not expected she would tell me that I was the person who taught her something. I did not remember teaching her anything at all. Let alone the life changing lesson she was talking about. I was only four, how could I have?
Still flushed and puzzled by her sudden revelation, I took a deep breath to calm my pounding heart and followed her.
During my years of study with sister Reza I had heard many stories about her. Some stories were more fantastic than others. But no matter who I asked about her, friend or foe, she was considered a living legend by all. It was said that before she came to Old Town the streets were filled with beggars and the unemployed by day and ruled by all sorts of dealers and addicts at night. But in seven years she had transformed Old Town, from an impoverished neighbourhood designated for demolition by the City Council, into a bustling center of creativity and productivity.
Rumors abound on how this transformation of Old Town came about. Some said she was backed by powerful people in high places. There was talk of vast amounts of old money and cross country influence she had at her disposal as supposed heir of some grand dynasty. Others maintained the transformation was the ultimate result of her love for the people, a brilliant mind and sound governance. And then there were the more sinister theories of Old Town as the testing grounds for human experiments on a gigantic scale in social psychology, development economics and genetic engineering.
Many times I had asked her how she stopped the City Council from demolishing Old Town for redevelopment. How did she attract craftsmen and architects, physicians and engineers, artists and scholars, botanists and chefs from all over the world to set up shop and settle in Old Town? With what capital had she turned derelict buildings with leaky roofs into attractive boutiques and warm homes with rooftop gardens? And what had happened to all the beggars, unemployed, dealers and addicts that once roamed the streets of Old Town?
In all the years I had spent with sister Reza, whenever I asked her a question she would always give me a detailed explanation. The only exceptions were questions pertaining to her past. To these questions she would always reply: “When it is time Lucia, I will tell you everything.”
I knew the time she talked about had finally come. The mystery of Old Town’s transformation was about to be revealed. But as I followed her to the Docks my hands grew clammy and my breath shallow. Despite the still warm rays of the setting sun an uncontrollable shiver took hold of my body.
What if the rumors were true? What if I am about to learn something I would rather not know?
My pace quickened. I wanted to reach out to her, stop her, and say to her she does not need to tell me anything. That we should keep everything the way it was. But as I opened my mouth to speak, I realized: the salty breeze, the cry of seagulls and the vast expanse of sunset sky. We had already arrived at the Docks.
I had not run, yet was short of breath. My shirt was drenched with sweat. Sister Reza turned around to face me, her hair a fiery red. Burning bright at her back was a scarlet ocean.
“This is where it all happened,” she said, her hands hovered in mid-air as if holding on to an invisible object. “The mayor of the City was standing behind me, along with several of the bigger investors in the Project. In front of me was a lectern with microphones. Gathered before the lectern was a large crowd of people. From all over the world they had come to hear about the city transformation plan I had developed. In my hands I was holding the speech I had prepared for them.”
She shifted her gaze from the invisible sheets of paper she held in her hands to me.
I did not know how to react or what to expect. It was too late to stop her from telling me anything. For the first time since I became her pupil she was talking about herself. Evaporated was my anxiety of learning something about her I would rather not know. Instead of fear a sudden wave of curiosity washed over me.
As if she sensed my sudden change of heart sister Reza smiled and lowered her hands.
“Delivering the speech was just a show, marketing, pure and simple. A matter of presenting the best things in the best way possible to the public. That is politics. How things would go was already decided during numerous meetings with many handshakes. No one had been able to argue with the cold hard facts my research had put together. Old Town was to be demolished and rebuild, bigger and better. That was the most efficient and profitable way to develop Old Town. That was Stage One of Project City of the Future.”
“But you did not deliver that speech,” I blurted out, unable to contain my curiosity any longer. “Old Town has not been demolished, it is still here!”
Sister Reza nodded. “I will come to that point later,” she said, “but first there are a few things you need to know about the origin of Project City of the Future.” She walked to the edge of the dock, sat down and patted on the empty space beside her.
I took the hint, ran over to where she was sitting and plopped down next to her.
Far off on the horizon, the Sun, now a giant orange disk, was slowly being swallowed up in a sea of red. High above, as if to compensate for the loss of light, was growing ever brighter the faint glimmer of a star strewn sky. Little did I know, as I silently swung my feet above this sunset sea, that what she was about to tell me would set me on the secret path of a breathtaking journey.
Sister Reza leaned back on her elbows and raised her head to the heavens above. Gazing into the darkening sky she continued her story.
“When there is hope, a dream you are longing for, then every day, in every thing you do, you will be happy, when it brings you a step closer to fulfilling your dream. But when there is no hope, no dream urging you on, then some day you will wonder: where are you going to, what have you been living for?”
“Since the days of Ancient Rome and before, countless people have thus journeyed from the country to the city, with the hope of realizing their precious dreams. Yet few have succeeded, many have failed, and even more have given up on their dreams, saying: dreams are for children or as an adult I have to be more realistic.”
“Truth is, few people seem to understand, it is not that their dream is too ambitious or because they lack the knowledge and skills to realize their dream. Knowledge can be learned, skills can be honed, but there is simply too much competition and too little cooperation in a city. With only a limited amount of dream jobs, dream houses and dream partners in a city, would people help each other in finding the job and house and partner most suitable for one another? Or will the people of a city compete with each other in obtaining their dream job, dream house and dream partner, even when it is at the expense of another person?”
“That is why in a city of many people with many dreams, many dreams are bound to fail. And where many dreams fail, many hearts will be broken.”
“For thousands of years the compassionless spirit of competition has ruled over the hearts and minds of man. Instead of working together towards a shared dream of a better future for all, history is drenched with the blood and tears of people competing with each other, fighting one another, and even killing any who might stand in the way of realizing one individual dream.”
“As a child, I too had a dream. Is it not possible, I wondered, to create a city of smiles? A city where hearts are not broken, but strengthened and healed. A city where hopes and dreams do come true, not only for a fortunate few, but for every one?”
“Raised in a loving family, I grew up in the best neighbourhood in the most prosperous city of the country. I was one of those fortunate few. Yet only half an hour from the comforts of our home, in which there is an abundance of any thing, there were children my age living on the streets who were lacking every thing.”
“How can this be? I asked myself. That in such a wealthy city there is so great a poverty? So I studied. Day and night, I studied. I studied every great city from Ancient Babylon to New York City. How do cities develop and why have so many cities of old fallen apart? What can a city do for its people and what can people do for their city? So I spent my childhood days in the City Library sitting on a chair, my feet dangling in the air, reading every book I could find that had something to do with cities and the people who lived in them.”
“At first I was determined. Then I became obsessed. And by the time my feet finally reached the floor of the chair I was sitting on I was convinced. It is possible to create a city that is more prosperous, innovative and resilient than cities of the past had ever been. With the city transformation plan I developed I had won multiple international awards. And not long after I had received my doctorate with the thesis “City of the Future”, the Secretary of Development and Innovation came by my office with an invitation.”
“There was going to be a World Economic Summit in Athens, he said. Each country was to send a delegation of experts to the Summit. This Summit however would be very different than all previous such gatherings of international leaders. Delegates should not expect one week of paid vacation and networking in a luxurious location with a bit of work on the side. For this Summit delegates had to pledge they would not leave Athens before they had fulfilled their duty of finding a way forward amidst the many challenges the world was facing. Insiders called it the Summit without End.”
“The stakes were simply too high. For too long there had been much talk but little progress made at international gatherings of any kind. Civil unrest, economic crises, terrorist attacks, gross inequality, armed conflict, food scarcity, catastrophic weather, dangerous developments of all kinds had been on the rise with no comprehensive solution in sight. The world was nearing a tipping point beyond which irreparable damage would be done to the Earth. Decisive action had to be taken. There was no room for further delay.”
“That was why, after a careful review of potential candidates, they selected me to head the team of experts that would be sent to the Summit in Athens. I was only twenty six at the time. Like a little lamb I was being sent to a den of weathered wolves. But that was part of the strategy, I was told by the Secretary.”
“I was young, which meant I was non-threatening and had not yet made enemies in the international community who would be prejudiced to whatever I had to say. My research on city development was already world-renowned, but I myself was a large unknown. This meant delegates would be more inclined to focus on what I said than on who I was and what hidden agenda I might be pursuing. Last, but most important, was my work on Project City of the Future. This project contained a vision for the future delegates of all participating countries could proudly present to their own people. No more bloodshed, economic prosperity, and eventually world peace; a happy and peaceful life, is that not what everyone wants?”
I nodded in silence, not wanting to disturb her flow of thoughts. The Sun had set. It was dark, but from the slight rise and tremble in her voice I could tell she was angry and sad. After taking a few deep breaths, she continued, each sentence more calm and compelling than the last.
“Throughout history, the powers that be in each individual country have lacked a shared dream for the future. This is one of the main reasons why there has not yet been world peace. Every country says to its own people: we want what is best for you. And every political leader has had their own vision of how to achieve this outcome. But when different parties all try to realize their own dream of how the world should be, the result had always been competition, conflict and ultimately warfare destroying many homes and human lives.”
“For better or worse, we all share the same planet. We all breathe the same air. We all live from the energy that flows from the Sun to our oceans, to our soil, to our vegetation, to our bodies. This is reality. It cannot be changed. What can be changed is how we choose to live with each other on this planet we all share. Like little children we can continue to compete with each other. Arguing over who has got the biggest plastic shovel. Fighting to build, expand and defend our own small sand castle in a cramped sandbox. Or like adults we can realize we are all part of one body, one Earth, and work together in enhancing this reality we live in by taking the utmost care of it.”
“Does it make any sense, I said to the delegates at that World Economic Summit in Athens, for our left foot to compete with our right foot over which gets to take the most steps? Is it productive for our left hand to fight with our right hand over which gets to take the most food? Does our mouth say to our ears, I have no need for you? Or do our eyes look down on our nose with contempt? Is it not so that all parts of our body work together so that the whole may prosper and realize what an individual part cannot?”
“Then why do we continue to compete and fight, at the expense of one another, over the abundant resources of our Earth? Why are we so vain to persist in saying, I have no need for you, or so arrogant as to look down on others with contempt? Can’t we see that this greed and pride in our hearts will only lead to our own destruction?”
“One Earth, one body. One city, one dream. That was what I asked the delegates at the Summit to think about. When the countries of our world all work together as one body. When the people of our cities are united in realizing one dream. When competition and conflict is replaced with reconciliation and cooperation. Then, and only then can we realize that dream of dreams we all hope for: a peaceful, just and prosperous world for all. This was the vision I presented to the delegates at the opening of the Summit. This was the dream I wanted to realize with Project City of the Future.”
No more was there any hint of anger or sadness in her voice, only determination. In the seven years she had been my teacher, this determination was what I respected most about her. No matter the circumstances we were in, whether she was being ridiculed by passersby or even insulted and spit on by the very people she set out to help, she always spoke and acted with calmness and thoughtfulness, as if it were an obligation she could not afford to let go. Only on rare occasions, and only to the attentive ear, would her lips let slip, very briefly, the slightest hint of raw emotion.
That determination, that what she was doing was right, was worthwhile, was necessary, that determination shone through in her every word and deed. Not always, but many more times than I could count, her determination to be kind in the face of hostility, contempt and even hatred, that determination of hers touched the hearts and lifted the spirits of scores and scores of people she had met. By bringing to mind, that it is a choice we all have, not to repay evil with evil, but to overcome evil with good.
All people wish to realize their hopes and dreams. By getting a good education, by getting a good job, by getting a good partner, by getting the things they want, many people try to realize their hopes and dreams. From what she had told me, sister Reza had an extraordinary education, she had a job with immense influence and prospects, and surely, with her gracefulness, in both manner and speech, she would not have had any hardship in attracting the best of partners.
Then why was she here in Old Town, sitting next to me in plain dress, eating what the poor eat, sleeping as the poor sleep? At this hour, shouldn’t she be returning to her comfortable home and her loving partner as any other successful person? With her capabilities, knowledge and experience, shouldn’t she be holding meetings with world leaders instead of talking to a twelve year old at the Docks? What had happened at that World Economic Summit in Athens, that Summit without End? Was she not in the process of realizing her hopes and dreams by creating a better world for all?
Then it struck me. Her words.
The day I cried and lost everything I had worked for. The day I felt utterly disgusted with the world and myself. The day my dreams came crashing down. That day I met you. That day you taught me what it meant to live, to breathe, to smile.
I turned my head to look at sister Reza. For a while already we were clothed with the hush and dark of night. My senses were sharpened. I could clearly see. She was smiling. Her arms were moving. Slowly, deliberately, as a conductor who directs an orchestra to put emphasis were emphasis is due and softness where softness is warranted. Her lips were moving, words forming, but I did not hear. Watching this silent symphony, I could only wonder.
What on Earth did I do?