Authors: Camilla Gibb
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fiction - General, #London (England), #Women, #British, #Political, #Hārer (Ethiopia)
call to prayer
wanted to disappear, to blend into the stench in the air, melt into the high white walls of the compounds that flanked us on each side, be an observer, not the observed. My life was now in the hands of a woman who was leading me left and right and right and left through tangled streets until I was sure we had come full circle.
It was early, but the city was already in second gear. We passed toothless old women and shrunken old men and expressionless Sufis clinging to the edges of their wool blankets, and neatly groomed men with short beards and knit skullcaps, and clusters of veiled teenaged girls with fits of the giggles, and snotty-nosed children who ran up and touched me, shouting “Farenji! Farenji!” and round, oily mothers standing in doorways with babies on their hips shouting at Gishta, who offered answers incomprehensible to me that made everyone except me laugh. I fingered the amulet the Great Abdal had given me, which I wore tied on a string around my neck. The small leather pouch contained a verse from the Qur’an to ward off the bad jinn, evil spirits.
There was some relief once Gishta and I passed over the main road and climbed down a hill on the other side. We came to a less congested part of town, a rundown neighborhood where the compound walls were crumbling and dust colored. Makeshift shacks made of tin siding and wood scraps had been erected between broken walls. The streets reeked of urine, and there were people missing limbs who could not even be bothered remarking at the sight of me.
We slipped through a narrow passage, where a runny-nosed girl sat alone on the ground eating dirt. “Bortucan!” Gishta snapped at the girl, hauling her up onto her feet. “Nouria!” she called, pulling back one of the rough pieces of corrugated tin that formed a fence at the end of the passage.
A dark woman emerged from a dark kitchen, a grease stain on her face, her dress sewn together clumsily with thick string. She stood at a defensive distance, wringing her hands. The little girl clung to the backs of her knees.
Gishta pointed at me; Nouria shook her head. Gishta shook her head; Nouria pointed at me. Gishta grabbed the woman’s hands and shook them and yelled, the rolls of fat around her middle trembling, the gold in her mouth flashing, until Nouria bowed her head and gave an exasperated sigh.
Gishta, I suddenly realized, looked at me as a source of income for this woman, her cousin, expecting me to pay rent, and pay well. I would soon discover that rumor of the farenji who had arrived in Harar in a Mercedes was spreading as quickly as a cloud of locusts tears through a field. Rumor that seemed to neglect the fact that Hussein had arrived this way as well. But he was an Arab, a man and a Sufi, whereas I was an enigma and a threat.
I surrendered to my new landlady a portion of the money the Great Abdal had given us for the journey. Nouria rolled the bills together and pushed the bundle down between her breasts. She did not look pleased.
Nouria’s compound was nothing like the sheikh’s with its whitewashed buildings arranged around a treed courtyard. This was little more than a few square yards of dirt containing a small mud-walled building with a grass roof. To the left of the doorway stood a single Wellington boot, home to a battered-looking plant. The kitchen, with walls of mud and metal scraps, narrow as a closet and blackened with soot, leaned over precariously in one corner. A cat licked the flies from an open wound, an emaciated goat bleated in a corner, and the air smelled of sour milk and the oil Nouria had obviously left burning on the kitchen fire. A balloon of gray smoke drifted out the kitchen door to greet us, and Nouria threw up her arms and cursed me before ducking into the haze.
Two boys whom I guessed to be Nouria’s sons, about seven and eight years old, had been staring at me through the parting in the fence, and now they pushed their other sister into the yard to get a closer look at me. She had the same wide eyes and nest of matted curls as the dirt-eater. All four of the children were dulled by a matte finish of dust and scabbed on elbows and knees.
“What’s your name?” I asked the girl in Arabic.
“Bah!” she shrieked, and disappeared back through the fence to cower in her brothers’ shadow. They pushed her through the fence again.
This time I pointed at her sister, who was ignoring me as she stabbed a mound of dirt with a stick. “Bortucane?” I asked.
“Bortucan,” the older girl corrected.
“And you?” I pointed.
“Rahile.” Hesitantly, she pointed at me.
“Lilly,” I replied.
This sent the boys behind the fence into hysterics, and they started banging their palms against the tin, which dragged their mother yelling from the kitchen. Her threats quieted them down, but they continued to stare through the fence. I closed my eyes and recited in silence, taking up a position I would occupy for much of the day. Learning Qur’an had taught me how to be engaged while perfectly still. It had also taught me patience, something I didn’t naturally possess.
When the sky burned orange and dusk descended, Nouria set down a bowl of red water and called the children to supper. Come, the boy named Anwar gestured, holding out a stale piece of bread. The sky darkened with each bite, and it was black by the time we retired to the windowless mud-walled building. Nouria and her four children crawled onto a single foam mattress that covered the dirt floor against one wall; I wrapped myself in a blanket she reluctantly tossed my way against the opposite.
I lay awake, alert to the hyenas whooping their strange way through the city streets, the children’s rib cages rattling as they coughed, the flying cockroaches batting their wings against the walls and the sound of what must have been rats foraging in the corners. I curled up in a ball, afraid I would lose my toes. But for all the discomfort, for all the distress at being dismissed by Sheikh Jami and separated from Hussein, I did feel some sense of relief. Hussein and I had come through hell. It was not just Morocco but all of North Africa that was on fire. Borders and whole populations were in flux as people, in the absence of a colonial enemy, turned weapons on each other and themselves. In these troubled lands we’d welcomed the appearance of occasional towns only to feel the tensions and suspicions of their people and rush back into the relentlessness and safety of more desert.
Our Tuareg guide hadn’t spoken Arabic or French or English, but we’d prayed together after performing our ablutions with desert dust, and slept side by side on the ground like mummies wrapped in sheets under night’s mist of sand. Islam unites us, where language and borders do not.
But then came the Sudan, where the Muslims of the north were imposing Islamic law throughout the land, killing the people in the south: Africans, animists, Christians. Three days into the Sudan, somewhere south of Khartoum, Hussein and I had left our camp to gather water from an oasis in the distance. Our guide had remained behind, burying bread dough in the sand, when we heard the explosion. The northern army had apparently marked the divide between north and south with land mines.
For the first time in my life, I was made aware of the angry possibilities of Islam.
That night, Hussein had reached, uncharacteristically, for my hand. “This is not the true meaning of jihad,” he spoke into the starless dark. “Jihad is the holy war we have within ourselves.
is the meaning below the surface. Our internal struggle for purity,” he said with emphasis, pressing his forefinger into his chest. “It is the war of ascendance over our basal instincts. It has absolutely nothing to do with others. The only thing we can have control over is ourselves.”
It was a relief to find myself in a peaceful place again, no matter how unwelcome. In this city of saints, encircled by a protective wall. In a country that was not fighting these postcolonial wars, because it, alone in Africa, had maintained its independence.
awoke my first morning in Harar to a sky crackling with a staggered chorus of muezzins. The
rippled in waves down my spine. I reached for the rusty water can so I could perform my ablutions before prayer, but Nouria grabbed the can from my hands.
“But how am I supposed to pray?” I snapped.
She shrugged, not understanding, so I pointed at my chest, I pointed to the minaret in the sky above us, I raised my hands as if to bow down in prayer.
She looked at me curiously and muttered: “Masha’Allah.”
“Yes! Allahu akbar!” I cried. “God is the greatest!”
She handed the rusty can back to me and nodded, as if to say:
All right, then. Prove it to me.
Later that morning, Gishta arrived carrying a sack of mangoes and bananas for her cousin. She was dressed elaborately in a voluminous red dress embroidered with gold silk across the chest and a clashing fuchsia veil. She was the embodiment of Harari wealth, complete with arms laden with the fruits of her husband’s lands.
Nouria, too, had made an effort: her dress was only a simple one of light blue cotton, but it was clean and well made.
As they were about to squeeze through the tin fence, I grabbed Gishta by the elbow. “Masjid?” I asked.
Gishta nodded and looked at me defiantly, as if to say:
Yes, the mosque. What of it?
I pointed at my chest and raised my palms as I had done with Nouria earlier that morning. Gishta turned to her cousin and chattered away for a good minute, pointing at me and then the sky and waving her hands about, ending her speech with what sounded like a question mark.
To me she said one word: “Fohdah.” She tugged at her veil.
“Yes, yes,” I said excitedly, raising a finger, asking them to wait a minute. I went into the dark room and pulled my one veil from my rucksack. Navy, plain, a little rough around the edges.
Gishta made a sucking noise and shook her head.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.
“Ginee?” she replied.
I frowned, not understanding.
She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together.
I had a bit of money left, though not much. I patted my pocket in reply, and Gishta nodded and strode out of the compound, which I took as an invitation to follow.
The three of us walked single file up the hill to the Faras Magala, the main market. It was barely recognizable as the square where Hussein and I had disembarked; by day it was a cacophonous junction where taxi drivers and qat sellers and merchants bartered at the tops of their lungs, fighting to be heard over the bells of the Medhane Alem, the turn-of-the-century church, ringing overhead.
We made our way through the market and down the street on the far side, a steep, rocky slope lined with men rattling away on ancient sewing machines. We stopped at one of the fabric shops partway down the hill where several bright veils were displayed on hooks on the inside of the door.
Gishta pointed at one, but I shook my head.
I pointed at another, but Gishta shook her head.
Nouria pulled an elegant but simple veil of swirling soft greens and blues off a hook, at which Gishta and I nodded our approval in unison. Nouria threw it loosely over my head and draped the end over my left shoulder, Harari-style. Gishta boldly dug into my pocket, acquainting herself with just how much money I had left, before handing over a couple of greasy bills to the amused merchant.
ussein came to visit me at Nouria’s compound after our visit to the mosque that day, possessed with a confidence I had not seen in all the years I had known him: an aura of calm, as if overnight he’d outgrown the insecurities of an extended adolescence and become a man. His adolescence had begun with steps backward leading to steps forward, which ultimately led to steps beyond. Our first walk outside the walls of the Great Abdal’s compound had been to the small shrine of a nameless saint nestled in a cluster of palms on the other side of Tamegroute. Hussein had had to bend in half to fit through the door. I followed him in, but even I could barely stand up. It was very dark, but I could make out an old man sitting cross-legged in the corner of the room. He was swaying back and forth as he recited Qur’an.
Hussein approached him midrecitation, took the man’s hand from his lap and kissed the back of it. He then untied the incense crystals he had bought from a blind Berber woman in the market from the knot in the corner of his wool cloak and laid them at the man’s feet. The man picked up the incense and threw it with dramatic flourish into a small clay pot of coals, engulfing us in a sweet, sticky cloud so thick and gray that I could see nothing anymore.
“Hussein?” I said tentatively. “Hussein?” I said a little louder when he failed to answer.
“What do you see, Lilly?” he asked.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Exactly.” He sighed. “The presence of God. Isn’t it beautiful?”
In the presence of God, nothing particularly extraordinary had happened, but perhaps that was the point. I had not sensed God in that moment, but I had seen Hussein’s awe and desire. That’s all I was: his witness. But to be seen in the dark is to be reborn.
He had been superstitious, connecting the path to wellness with my presence, keeping me by his side even though it conflicted with his aspirations as a Sufi. “Earthly love is a distraction,” he’d told me long ago when I’d tried to talk to him about my parents. “All our love should be for Allah. This is the Sufi way. It is good to be freed from earthly love. It is good for a Muslim. It is good for Allah. It is good for you. Do not worry. Allah will fill your heart. You mustn’t grieve. It is as Rumi said: ‘Anything you lose comes round in another form.’ ”
It was clear that Hussein was ready to dispense with earthly love and go blank to the world. He had pulled out the tent pegs nailing the corners of his woolen cloak to the ground and was moving in the slow way of all mystical seekers along the road to transcendence. He looked, as far as I could detect in the glazed, monotonous expression of a Sufi, content.
My needs, meanwhile, were as basic and worldly as they come: food and shelter, some way of earning my keep. I didn’t have the option of going blank.