PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
There was no moon, no stars. The light had been drained away, the sky left mute. I could distinguish neither colours nor shapes. Dunes and trees had been engulfed by the universe, sucked into its sidereal blackness. I scanned the shadows to left and right, chanting suras to ward off djinns.
I welcomed the obscurity, though: it was a gift from nature. It would make it harder for them to find me. The darkness would blind their eyes, the sand storms would scramble their senses and erase my trail. To escape them, all I had to do was keep walking. Not panic, or scream, or cry, just walk. The place I was aiming for was straight ahead. All the shepherds had said so.
I longed to stop, catch my breath, release my burden and stretch my arms, loosen my neck, massage out the aches in my body, push the night shadows aside to inhale the air and listen to the quiet sky. Instead I quickened my pace. I told myself I must never weaken, or fall, or forget myself, or forget what was burning inside me: the pain, the anger, the love. I repeated softly that I was myself, not someone else, that I wasn’t dreaming, that it was true: I’d cut the ties that bound me to my clan, I’d stolen the object of my tribe’s vanity, the repository of its myths, I’d set out in search of the dreams that kept me awake at night. I just had to keep moving, whatever it took, until I reached the lights in the distance, and then, finally, the tiny thing that was mine, my greatest dream, the thing they should never have taken from me.
I was oblivious to what the future held. I had no idea who I might meet, what paths I might take, I had no inkling of the places I might go to, might live in, what might be waiting there. I had nothing. No, that wasn’t true. It was improbable, perhaps impossible, but I couldn’t help feeling a glimmer of hope whenever I thought about Mbarka. But I tried not to think too much. Why call to a silent echo, a tomorrow that can never reply? Why reach out for helping hands when you don’t know who they belong to yet? Why ask endless what-ifs, conjure up possibilities that only create confusion? According to my entire tribe, I was crazy. Why try to think if you’re no longer in possession of your senses? All I had was a flesh that was once my flesh, a blood that was once my blood. Everything else was terrain I had to conquer, tools I had to master, to get to what was mine.
Despite being fragile and small, I, Rayhana, was afraid of nothing. I was ready to face the ogres of the night and the snakes in the sand, to dive, alone and head first, into the hubbub of the cities. I would not be intimidated by the scrolls of the past or the indecipherable pages of the future. No danger would deter me. I would search for a century if that was how long it took. I would fight for a thousand years, scream the name of my lost love for another thousand, across all the Saharas of all time.
I felt a spark of pleasure when I imagined the commotion at the camp. My mother would’ve let her stony death mask drop. She’d be flailing her arms, covering her head with sand. Memed might be crying, in that quiet way he was so good at. My friends would be staring at each other open-mouthed, speechless for once. The women would be touching the ground with their fingers to ward off evil. The slaves would be laughing under their breath, whispering ‘she’s run away from home!’ I could see them all: their incredulity, their confusion, the earth shifting beneath their feet, the clouds disappearing suddenly and forever from the sky, the hands on hearts, on heads, the fury consuming bodies, the eyes rolling upwards, the veins pulsing in temples, and the roars of horror escaping from strong, hairy chests when it finally sunk in: ‘she’s taken the drum!’
One evening a young man appeared, a stranger. We hadn’t seen him approach. He wore a black turban, a blue boubou and a white shirt, all spotlessly clean. A watch glinted on his wrist. He held a strange machine in his hand. He greeted us. One of the boys returned the greeting, then we all fell silent. The girls didn’t even dare look at him. We were intimidated by his clothes, the cigarette in his mouth, the thing in his hand, which made crackling noises, and to which he sometimes spoke, a single foreign word that meant nothing to us. We glanced at each other, uncertain, then began to get up. The boys prepared to confront him. He ignored them and spoke to us:
‘Where are you going, sisters? I’m not a djinn. I’m just a brother who’s come to say hello and compliment you on your lovely singing.’
His tone wasn’t rude, just a little sardonic.
One of the boys moved towards him, threatening.
‘What have you come here for, man?’
‘I just told you. To compliment these girls on their beautiful voices. Perhaps even to compose some verses better than the ones I’ve just heard.’
‘Where did you come from?’ asked another of the boys.
‘From down there! I didn’t drop from the sky!’ He pointed at the foreigners’ camp.
‘We don’t have anything to do with the people down there. The understanding is that you stay where you are and we stay where we are.’
‘I never agreed to that ‘understanding’. I’m not from here. I’m a stranger. Is this the way your tribe greets strangers? I’m a guest, and all I want is to stay for a while and listen to these girls. I think you’re forgetting yourselves.’
The boys didn’t answer. They looked at each other, taken off guard by the stranger’s rebuke. He was right that all guests should receive a courteous welcome. The arrival of the camp of foreigners had disturbed not just our habits, but our emotions as well. There was another awkward silence. Then we, the girls, sat back down and softly resumed our singing. After a moment, one of the boys ran to the nearest tent and came back with a teapot, cups and some wood charcoal. He dug a hole in the sand, started a fire and began to prepare tea for the guest. The boys were eager to uphold our traditions, but they were disturbed by the stranger’s presence: something wasn’t right. They eyed each other, still undecided. The stranger smoked serenely. When he spoke, his tone was calm, with just the tiniest hint of irritation.
‘I didn’t mean to invade your privacy, or spoil the atmosphere. I was drawn to your group. I’ve heard you laughing and singing every night, and I was bored down there, with all those men who don’t understand anything about anything. The voices of these girls reminded me of a world I knew as a child. I thought I’d lost it forever. I hesitated for a long time before coming. I’ll go away again if you like.’
Everyone protested. We asked him to stay.
‘I’m actually from a tribe related to yours,’ he added, ‘if you are, as I think you are, the Oulad Mahmoud. I’m from the Oulad Ethmane. My name is Yahya Ould Ahmed Ould Sidi Ould Ethmane.’
The boys immediately surrounded him.
‘Why didn’t you say so? This is your home! Our tribes have been allies for years. The blood debt doesn’t even exist between us! You should’ve introduced yourself!’
‘Didn’t really get a chance,’ he said, laughing.
They all burst out laughing too, and started to shake hands.
Delighted with this turn of events, we, the girls, forgot our jerrycan drum and bombarded the stranger with questions: what was the foreigners’ camp? What was the thing in his hand that crackled? What were they really doing down there? Was it true they didn’t drink water? Why didn’t they have wells? Was it true they were extracting things from the ground? Why didn’t they have any women or children?
He laughed and answered our questions simply, with humour. We learned that the device in his hand allowed him to stay in contact with people far away, that at the camp they had very big basins that could hold enough water to last a long time, that the company he worked for belonged to Nçaras, westerners who were looking for gold and precious metals.
We were disappointed to hear he worked for others: only slaves or low-caste people worked for others. How could a young man from a good family accept servitude?
‘Don’t mind them,’ said one of the boys, laughing. ‘They’re little Bedouins who know nothing of the world.’ He turned to us and explained that in town, people worked for companies, the government, even for other people. There was no dishonour in it.
Then Memed said ‘it’s true that in the town they know nothing about honour.’