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A dying man is offered a mythical vigil in this elegiac and highly poetic piece by Hawad, from the Tuareg section of our Global Anthology.
Wrapped in twilight’s toga, the naked man was faltering. His torn figure, a patched-up human frame, collapsed abruptly. The wind took hold of the cables at his neck. And the man was caught, pulled, thrown back, coughing and moaning. Worn out, he attempted again to lift himself upon his elbows and laboriously raised his shriveled body, spine arched against his chest, a tangle of teetering legs. A step forward, another back, and his feet abandoned him on the miry scree of a garbage dump.
Silt returned to the earth, the man was whimpering.
Suddenly, out of the rubbish and shroud-like wind, a hand shot out, wrinkled and cracked like the dregs of the eternal. The hand placed itself on the slumping man’s arm as he exhaled a whispered terror.
“No, don’t touch me, I am already dead and I am no Tuareg, no, I am no Tuareg.”
“O Akharab, your mama’s poor wretch! said a voice made fitful by the wind. My poor Akharab! I, on this earth, dye only peace and even know the camel milk you suckled, my Akharab. Do not scream, you are so bashed in that even a tanner like me doesn’t know which end to take to put you on his saddled shoulders. Do not stir, Akharab, for now I cannot remove the harness anchoring you to death. Allow me to take you to the refuge of the margins. There, kinfolk will keep watch over your suffering.”
And so fingers, worn by dyes and tannin, grabbed the dying man. Kuluk! Hausa scraped some trash with his feet and flung it in front to drive out the scavengers:
“Out, begone, it ain’t the barracks here, there’s nothing to eat.”
And, with the stately bearing of the bull who carries the universe, he wished that all the possible venoms, of scorpions, of horned vipers you find in saline soils, and even the colics of brackish waters from the wells of Balaka, should fall upon the States who flay the peoples of the Sahara and the Sahel, and upon their grey eminence, the tricolored chameleon.
He was gliding on the dust of narrow streets lined with clay constructs. Akharab, on his shoulders, was restless with suffering and fear. A stitched-up wall, at a man’s height, pitched itself in front of the ragman. With reinforcements of wood, clay and rope, it circled a wasteland studded with ruts and a whole little world, seated, standing or lying down: men, camels, donkeys braying above the bales of grass, faggots of wood and bundles of rope, coal, medicinal herbs and other supplies for survival, speeches, stories, poetry.
The ragman’s naked foot caressed the starched earth and, scrutinizing the screen of sand above veiling the stars, he grumbled:
“Akharab, don’t tire yourself, we’re almost there, this wall is for the kingdom of the margins itself. Do you remember? In the old days, this was the garden where caravan drivers and nomads would leave their mounts when they came to the market. But that was long ago; it’s now been transformed into a crossroads of utopias. Here come together poets and philosophers from all the ragpicking peoples of the earth.”
Proud and lordly, bringing back to his country an exile that no kingdom would want, the ragman stepped over a rope—the one and only gate stopping scorpions and cockroaches from visiting the assembly of the margins.
“Is there a soul capable of reason, or is the capital of margins not here anymore?”
Through the opacity of smoke and the darkness of embers, from all the dump’s vomited substances, Bornu, king of the charcoal makers, answered the leader of the dyers:
“No, you are not in error. You have climbed over the threshold of the margins of the Sahel and the Sahara. Here is the voice of Bornu welcoming you, dignified representatives of your peoples. Take the seat of honor—and you, Arné, mount of the king of Bornu, stop braying or you’ll end up luring wallops from the ears of the State.”
The dyer placed his load by the fire, on a sack of coal and a pillow of scrap metal. Then he straightened himself, with a hand on his hip and another on the mane of Arné, his donkey:
“Bornu, I’ve brought back another one the army wanted to exile towards death. But this time, it’s Akharab, the blacksmith who recycles scrap metals. I found him thrown on the hill which separates the nightmare from the beyond.”
Bornu, his hand shading the sun, bent over the body now barren of strength and reason.
“Akharab,” he bawled in concert with his donkey, as he raised the lifeless body towards the heavens. “Akharab, it is you now they crumpled like the tip of the tinder. Even in the time of the pharaonics of the English, Italians, French and other Great Turks, we never had an army which cadaverizes a man because of the dye of his skin. No longer is the Sahel the land of metamorphosis, or of the fusion of colors and voices.”
Bornu, in rage, did not know by which nail to scratch the present, or which tooth to tear apart the future, to probe the night of the past.
Again, he settled Akharab in the seat of honor.
The charcoal maker caressed the scars below his beard, thin ribbing facial marks of the Bornu princes.
“Tan-tan, call out Fouta, the Fulani shepherd who makes city herds graze, to warn Songhai-Quench-the-World, the water carrier, so that he too may scream the name of Tamajaght-Miracle-Potion-for-Rumpled-Souls, the margins’ Tuareg herbalist. And in turn she will summon Amanar, the caravan guide who traffics ideas, who sings of the edges of the wings of the Harmattan and the sirocco. And don’t forget to invite Ashamur, the Tuareg child who tarnishes the State. Invite him, he who sings-sings, and makes AKs stutter—a scorpion sting, he says, under the elephant’s sole. Call them all!”
The dyer climbed on a pile of grass. Hand shading the sun, he tightened in his belt the bottom of his sarouel and the folds of his boubou and, out loud, called out his world:
“Wood-wood, Charcoal, Rust, Rags, Remedy-remedy, Hay-hay, Water-water and all those from the margins, come!”
Then he stepped down from his mound. Bornu, kneeling, put his head in an empty barrel and yelled:
“O people of the margins, what the sky has hurled tonight on your shoulders will only be remedied in a vigil held by all the margins’ emissaries. Summon those who know how to disguise nightmares into dawns.”
Faces peeked out of the semi-darkness, come from the tiger-striped savannah and the desert, echoes of the valleys, steppes, dunes and mountains of their region. Throats and bosoms bawled out the funeral hymn. Figures strolled out and danced, beating the earth. Each had a hand on another’s shoulder. And the wailing whirl around Akharab’s body, a bloodstained buoy at the heart of the arena, plaited the rope of voices and mended the weft of the Sahel.
“Squirrel,” said Bornu to a child, “position the breath-tippler’s opening towards the wind, and you, representatives of the margins, I ask that your speech be devoid of a timbre these clay walls could reverberate. Our city is pierced by the bayonets of ears and the spears of eyes.”
“The Harmattan tonight hails from the Mediterranean,” answered Squirrel, who positioned the bottles’ opening towards the Ahaggar.
The icy wind slipped in yelling.
“At least they’ll be of some use, these wine bottles from the French commander who came specially to advise the soldiers of the Sahel!” said Bornu while taking a pinch of snuff.
But before placing it in his nostril, he raised a hand above the margins. Behind him, the Harmattan howled planes factories and other motorized monsters, carrying the rumors of the wind and the desert into the gaping mouths of demijohns and bottles.
“Yes, Bornu’s voice will be heard. Through veins and blood, strangled by tears, it will tell you: People of the margins, we are gathered to watch over Akharab’s bruised body, the work of ignoble butchers. Flesh and bone, they falsified his person and opened the hunt on all his fellows. Tomorrow, when they have finished breaking the backs of all those who speak the same language as he does, they’ll turn to other margins… Amanar used to say that the Sahel is the weave’s edge: pull a single thread and the rest will fray in the wind. But I, Bornu, say that what links the Sahel’s fibers to its barren stretches is what unites the zest of salt with bread. The day salt melts in the hands of tormentors is the day bread goes bland, and fields cry their nostalgia for the saline silt with which the desert courts them.”
Songhai squatted and, having placed the tip of his elbows on his knees, raised a fist in the air to ask for the strap of speech. Bornu motioned to him:
“It is Tamajaght’s turn first, since she is closest to Akharab. Speak, Tamajaght, dismantle the silence for us. We have but little time, every angle of the margins must speak its thoughts.”
Tamajaght turned the fold of her shawl down upon her shoulder. Neck and back erect she opened her hand to seize the thread of speech.
“Borders are fixed shadows. We, the extremities of the world’s weave, are leading the march, guiding roads by their manes to sew their folds. Bornu, name us for what we are: spurs of the universe’s movements. It is not solely in this twilight, rippling with terror, where the roof collapses and pillars shatter, that the nomadic people has become a boat bearing the misery of cities. Bornu, the hand that hobnailed the boots which crushed Akharab quivers in slimy Parisian undergrounds, and the poor lackeys wearing them tonight are just dancing in joy at the idea at getting arrears from their democratic salaries. They are amnesiac tirailleurs who, from their mother Sahel to the desert, from Algiers to Indochina, have mashed the natives. For us, what is strange isn’t their rage but that of our neighbors of yesteryear who, in this eclipse of horizons, applaud and encourage them to binge on raw nomads.”
“And now,” said Songhai, “you, people of the margins, do you really believe that it is drought and the grasshoppers of children and herds that peel the skinny backs of your fields, of your pastures, as proclaims what Amanar calls the fever of ‘ecological temptation’?”
On their knees or prostrate, hands on heads, those of the margins echoed Songhai in a single chorus, wailing and leaning forward and backward over Akharab.
“There is no burden on the back of this earth other than their flags and barbed wire, which afflicts it like the metal rope around Akharab’s neck. Yes, Akharab, how many times did they turn you into a chicken, plucked for a pack of vultures? O margins, know that by exiling Akharab, they wither the country’s conscience, loot our attics and rip out our seeds, to better keep hunting other Akharabs, which tomorrow will be none but us. You are us, Akharab, and we are you. Dance, dance with us for our wasted seeds. Will the dust of your cadaver mend the abyss they dig, with our own hands, between our shoulder blades?”
The wind growled, pouring the contents of its throat into the bottles.
“I am no Tuareg,” repeated Akharab, “I am already dead, stop killing me.”
“No, Akharab, you are Tuareg and you live. As we, the people of the margins, can resurrect even the souls of wrecks and rags, why could we not do so for a friendship sealed by the tannin of salt and the bitter sap of days of fire and sweat?”
Hausa shouted. “People of the double-stitched edges at the end of the fabric, you bleat like dazed sheep, where is your reason, and where did you misplace mine—that of the old tanner launderer of memory scraps? When our peoples become courtiers encouraging monsters to devour some of their guts, what is our role, we the margins, riveters of peoples? Where are the three rhythms which once made this country dance: that of the balancing of caravans undulating from north to south; that of the shepherds, whose flutes spread through the savannah from west to east; and the third, the gripping one of hawkers, people weaving thoughts and kinships, those of all the winds, all the stars and all the exchanges—I speak of us, people of the in-between, ragmen of ideas, utopians of the margins.”
From under the black wings of the burnous draping his body, Ashamur, proud of his chest, displayed two submachine guns:
“Hausa, you say that this country was once fed by three nourishing winds. Then, why do we wait to give them rockets AKs bazookas and all that spatters the opponent’s vanity. On this disjointed earth, what shadow could recover its figure except in the uncertain span of chaos? In the present or in the future, no one can exist on this ground as long as enemy targets are in sight…”
Hitting him in the nose with her elbow, Tamajaght interrupted Ashamur.
“You and your brothers-in-arms sowing abscesses everywhere, with your piling up of Fronts where visions don’t go beyond even the horns of your sheep, you are ransacking a resistance as hard and as old as the stones. What else did you do but turn our cause to crumb-picking and sell off our struggle to flies bartering blue carrion? You bunch of crows, turista-drinking ticks, go polish Marianne’s ass and do it full-throated ‘till the undercarriage, go swallow the Dakar Rally’s exhaust pipes. Soon, you’ll be cochineals baiting the ladybugs of slimy humanity in search of mange-stricken noble savages. For the price of which fart again will you barter our souls?”
“O woman of words and ripe age,” answered Ashamur, “in truth, you have just drawn what we’ve become over the past two years. We’ve swallowed all the mixtures, and even our name, we’ve engulfed it. But do not brand all warriors with the same seal. I know only the language of resistance and of weapons, weapons that I’ve looted from the army. If I was a child born and bred in the tents, I would know how to tell you, with artful speech, how I tattoo the pride of my nation on the neck of its oppressor.”
“You,” said Tamajaght, “I advise you to learn how to shut up. Perhaps silence will protect your fox-head, abused as it is by your brothers trading in exoticisms, who sell off their ghostly sisters.”
Amanar’s chapped and arid voice rose from below his veil:
“Fragments of a dismembered corpse, this land is nothing but the shadow of its ruin and, with whatever fire Americans and Europeans choose to manage it, no clever border carver will be able to save it, or find stability within the ripped filter of these stitched-up States. That it be straight-up or upside down, the margins’ cause has only one face, that of the blowtorch welding the fiber of the worlds. It is a comb teaseling the smoke gushing from the ancient notched weaves of the edges. I am neither a prophet of the darkness of a frustrated Orient nor of the mirages of a bulimic Occident. I am just a ferryman passing between the ardent blades of suffering, and I’ve always counseled travelers: what is the point of mending the feet if the head is devastated? I prefer to navigate on dizzying summits. The depths of puddles, give me dash, I leave to those rescuing drowners in stagnant waters, already softened by the tear-filled basins and self-pity in which they mold year-round.”
Fury. Fury, as if all the skies of the seven earths trembled and thundered in the voice-covering bottles.
Winds and margins chanted the hymn of expiring universes. Akharab hiccuped after mis-swallowing a blood clot and the stream of his life. On the minaret of the great mosque, the rooster strove to replace the vanished muezzin, but its gullet’s heroic song was gulped down by the scream of a vulture which, like the nurse of humanitarian intrusions, saluted the officer who assassinated the city with shots of lead. Around Akharab, the margins were standing, singing the hymn of a dawn murdered again in the night’s vagina.
Facing the east, ragmen and the aborted birth of the day were muddled. The light and the desert’s yellow hue, sullied by Akharab’s blood. Our humanitarian nurse embraced the officer while a chipped voice addressed the Levant:
“I, dyer and launderer of all fibers, and even pumices, who would stop me, Akharab, from cutting for you a shroud in one of the thousand flags laid out, even on garbage cans, to honor the French minister of tears and nafrican-naffairs-lalala-amen. Your shroud, Akharab, it is in red and in black that I will dye it, and I’m going to do it right now.”
Translated from the French by Simon Leser with the invaluable help of Christiane Fioupou. The original appeared in the February 1994 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, a magazine, and is published here courtesy of the author and his French translator, Hélène Claudot-Hawad.
Read our interview with the author here.