The river spirit of the Cam

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By Akbar Ahmed
In the town of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking, there dwell strange spirits, and there are strange happenings, that science cannot fully explain.
On May 16, Zeenat and I arrived in Cambridge in a state of total exhaustion, having not slept for almost two days. Our flight to London had been delayed some four hours in Washington, DC due to thunderstorms. After a seemingly endless journey across the Atlantic and up from London, we settled in our hotel room, unpacked, and went to enjoy a walk along the river Cam, one of my favorite places in the whole world. As I savoured the beauty of the backs, the grandeur of the colleges, and the grace of the swans gliding by, I told Zeenat I would like to take a picture of her against this background. While she stood for the photograph on the gravel path alongside the river, the peaceful moment took a dramatic turn. Without warning, my iPhone slipped from my hands and fell vertically onto the gravel, about three feet from a sharp ledge descending into the river itself. Not content to remain in place where it fell, the phone then shot back up in the air about two feet and, as if pulled by a river spirit, turned at a 90-degree angle and flew over the ledge into the deep, dark waters of the Cam. The idea of the laws of gravity and the image of the apple falling on Newton’s head flashed before my eyes.
The Cam is not a very deep river as such – maybe four or five feet deep where we were standing – but it was late in the evening, the water was freezing, and the wind was chilled. The quiet, tranquil evening had taken on a foreboding note.
Zeenat, ever determined to solve a challenge at hand, commenced a battle to recover the phone in spite of the fact that the water was murky and the sun was fast setting. She struggled to peer in, even parting the waters with her hands, but to no avail. Rather than despair, Zeenat showed the stuff the Swati people are made of and refused to give up. She went looking for help nearby where punts and boats were on hire for visitors. This is when she came upon a young Englishman named Darren Matthews.
In this moment of distress, Zeenat asked Darren to help. Without hesitation, he dropped everything and came to our rescue. Darren first brought along a net and lying flat on his stomach moved it up and down in the spot where we thought the phone had fallen. Alas, this was unsuccessful. He then put his hand deep into the river with the same results. After about 30 minutes of ineffectual attempts to locate the phone, Darren took off his shirt and shoes and jumped into the river. The water came up to his upper chest. He then began to stomp his feet on the riverbed in the hope of making contact with the phone. At one point he thought he had found it, but felt the phone slip from under his feet and feared it had been taken further downstream by the current. Then, miraculously, he felt the phone once again. But this time, he was able to pull it out of the river and present it to Zeenat.
Then came another remarkable moment. Gratefully, Zeenat gave Darren $200 as a reward. Yet, Darren, a young man working on the boats was reluctant to take the money and insisted it was too much. He said he was doing what he did not for the money. I invited him to my Journey into Europe book launch at the Woolf Institute the next day, which is why we were in Cambridge.
When we went the next morning to again thank Darren and asked for him at the tourism office where he worked, his colleagues were excited, saying, “That’s the young boy who earned $200 last night.” He was not present but they all seemed to know him. It seemed Darren had become an overnight hero. Just as the flight of the cell phone defied the laws of gravity, the quiet courage, unassuming courtesy, and chivalry of the young man defied the general stereotype of a selfish and materialistic age. In any case, I wondered how many people would have stood chest high in a freezing river at dusk to assist complete strangers.
In the meantime, I was being traumatized by the idea of my entire secretariat being lost at one go at the start of a long, grueling, difficult, and complicated journey which would take me to several continents over three months. Who would win I wondered – the river spirit or the human spirit? Deep inside, I knew, at the end, somehow, all would be well. When Zeenat excitedly gave the phone to me, there was jubilation as the people who had been watching cheered. They could not believe what they saw next. The phone was working exactly as it was before being taken by the river. As a precaution, Zeenat opened the phone to dry out the inside and took it to the Apple Store the next day. But sure enough, Apple’s technicians confirmed the phone was in perfect working order. In the end, Zeenat’s determination and the chivalry of the young Englishman had defeated the river spirit of Cambridge. As for Apple, they should be rightly proud of their iPhone 7 and its ability to fully withstand being sunk at the bottom of the Cam for almost two hours. The final word must go to the prince of Denmark: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (Brookings Press, 2018)