Novel, Ego. Prose series, Polirom, 2012, 248 pages
André is ten and has come to spend his holiday with his father, a French diplomat in the Horn of Africa. The boy discovers a fairy-tale world: on one hand, the army fighting the Somali pirates, on the other, the ancient race of the Afars. He befriends an Afar girl, Hani, who is going to be put through a forbidden ritual, inherited from the Egyptian Pharaohs. While the children re-enact scenes from Star Wars and find their first love, around them reality takes a brutal turn: the Arab revolution is about to begin, the girl is taken to a forest where she will be subjected to the ritual genital excision, and André is sent back to France on a military plane.
At my age, he would go to school on foot, about fifteen kilometers away. There and back, every day. That’s where he learned to write all the names of Allah. I heard him say that East Africans will always win the running events at the Olympics, because they are trained since childhood to cover long distances. The forest of Daï was still living then. Sycamores, palm trees, dates, cedars, acacia, fig trees, shady and cool, rich like a green palace, countless birds chirping their songs as old as time, you could hear the leaves stirring, the swish of lizards, the steps of lions and jaguars, which Grandfather immediately recognized. He cocked his ears, listened, laid the little peace rug in his heart, pressed his back against the thick trunk of a palm tree and held tightly on to the stick carved by his father. There he waited for the danger to pass, his nostrils would tell him if the wild beast was hungry or if it still had on its muzzle the blood of its recent victim. When he was sure that the paw squashing the grass was slow and heavy, he went on his way unconcerned, plunged into the forest like into the sea, to a depth where you can see the blue and orange crayfish, the white baby sharks and thousands of coloured corals, and started to listen to the speech of the trees and animals.
When God created the world, He gave it only one language, all life had the same alphabet, but people were bad and divided, and they lost it with their wars and their fears. Even among the Afars, there are few who still know the meaning of the old signs. Grandfather learnt it again in the forest of Daï. “Hani, your body knows these signs, they are written in your flesh, in the beating of your heart, in the shape of your fingernails. Do you know why our women make tattoos on their hands, on their feet and even on the tip of their fingers? Little girls like you do, too, it’s so beautiful. Can you see? There is no broken line in your patterns. They all go up and down smoothly, in waves, in spirals, like snakes, they curl because they are the letters of an alphabet. Our language has locked into itself the tongue of the forest of Daï. You only need to uncover it.”
He didn’t tell me much, but I think that he learned all these secrets from a famous Dervish who once lived there in the forest. He must have been one of those who can sing like the birds, breathe like the grass, fly, whirl, become invisible, appear in more than one place at a time, heal wounds and ride on the back of frightening beasts. When I’m ten, I will go with Grandfather to the forest of Daï and I’ll make him tell me everything and show me the hollow of the flying Dervish. “Hani, nobody can go into the forest of Daï without a guide. It’s the same in life, you cannot get on without your parents, without your teacher, without calligraphy, without the Qur’an, without the prayer rug, without the family of your husband later, and so on, you understand?” Yes, and this is why I will look for the hollow of the Dervish, even if the forest isn’t now like it was in Grandfather’s time.
The trees have dried up and make a crackling sound in the sun: they look like wrecks thrown out by the sea onto the boulders of dry lava. I went through the forest when I showed some French archeologists the way to the village. I keep thinking what to call these lifeless trees, these branches with their bark hardened by the sun, like albino panthers turned to stone in full flight. How can you call forest these tangled dry things, these roots sticking out of the ground, like after an earthquake, or hanging in the air, as if they grew upwards - this is a special kind of parasite fig tree, Grandfather said - and stiff from the heat and age? Maybe they are the ghosts of the old trees with leaves and I should call it “the forest of ghosts” from the land of the Afars. But what if the Afars are dead too, and those I know are not real people, but the ghosts of nomadic warriors? And Grandfather? He can’t also be a ghost. Still, what kind of forest is this without a single green leaf and without any birdsong? Not a soul, as far as the eye can see. Maybe it should be “the Forest of Not-a-soul”. Or “Not-a-soul”, just that.
I am so happy that I found the true name of the forest of Daï, that at least for a moment I would be able to decipher, without anybody’s help, the alphabet which Grandfather was talking about, that the crazy Dervish showed him when he was a child on his way to school. His ghost haunts this Not-a-soul, always changing his shape: antelope, dromedary, stone, cloud, dry land. So many thoughts about the Dervish and his secret alphabet fill me that I almost forget the meeting I have been waiting for so much.
Two more streets before we get to the French people’s house. Grandfather has dressed up, he’s wearing a suit bought in Paris. My heart is a temple with many doors. I push hard to close the one that leads to the Dervish. But I can’t tear my gaze away from the white tents erected on the beach and the people gathered round them. They must be preparing for a funeral. On the side of the road, a woman is selling big injeras, thin and stretchy, with little lace-like holes in the dough. I have a sudden craving for sour, fermented cereals. When we arrive at the gate of the French house, my hands and feet suddenly start itching, for fear of not being ready to meet her. And yet I dreamed so much about it and made plans and drew her in secret at school and imagined how one day she would find her first tomato in the garden, small like a ladybird and the first spring onion, thanks to me, because every day I take the life giving water to the crumbly dry earth!
Perhaps she will hide or perhaps she will come to meet me. They have just opened the door, Grandfather and the French people greet each other, talk, the lady strokes me on the head, “ça va, Hani?”, “ça va”, I answer, I know what to say, I am learning French at school, they go on talking and how, I don’t know, but she is suddenly there, two steps from me. I stop. In my chest, where my heart is, a bird is struggling in a net. What big eyes, by Allah, blessed be His name!, what big eyes, round, deep, clear, I can see my plaits in them! and I try to find in my soul the little peace-rug, the way Grandfather taught me. She doesn’t move either. She senses that my gaze already embraces her, strokes her back and her fallow skin, goes down to the twitch of the thighs, feels the strength of her knees and slides down those legs of a desert princess. She is only a few days old. A nervous little fawn.
The fingers of my right hand start to tremble, showing that I haven’t yet mastered the thought of touching her. Something is upsetting the peace in me, maybe her almost invisible little horns, and she senses this. I try to stretch my hand out. With one jump, my darling gazelle puts between us the gravel in the garden, the grown-ups, who go on talking, the honeyed heat of the afternoon, my gaze, her gaze and the dust stirred up by the cars in the road, which comes over the gate into the garden. And the peace-rug from my defeated soul, which makes me want to cry. An Afar doesn’t give up so easily. I sniff hard till I can taste the saltiness in my throat, I blink over the tear which clouds my vision and stop it before it runs down my cheek and I start to race after her, suddenly, let’s see who’s fastest.
A white boy appears in front of me.
Translated by Ivan Helmer