The Kaffir of the Karthala by the Comoran writer and ambassador Mohamed Toihiri was published 25 years ago and is the Comoros selection for our Global Anthology.
“Since you insist on knowing: you have cancer; but you know as well as I do that our X-rays aren’t always trustworthy.”
The sky fell on Dr. Idi Wa Mazamba’s head; he almost fainted; he lost all notion of time and space; his throat tightened; he swallowed; he was hot all over; his vision was clouded; his bowels contracted: he was petrified.
“Idi, I’m telling you that further exams are absolutely necessary to give an accurate diagnosis,” continued his colleague, sitting opposite him, helpless in his awkwardness, as he awkwardly crushed the X-rays he held in his hands.
But Mazamba heard nothing more. It was as if he were already dead. Even for him, a doctor, the blow was too hard to take. He made a superhuman effort to ask, “How long do you think I still have to live?”
“I’m begging you. No beating around the bush between us. Tell me: how long?”
The other lowered his head and said uneasily: “Maybe a year, maybe eight months… You know as well as I do that…”
“I know nothing. You’re the cancer specialist, I’m just a general practitioner. So how long?”
The specialist let the words “12 months” fall like a cleaver.
Strangely, rather than being devastated by these two words that sentenced him to death, Idi Wa Mazamba once again found the energy to think.
So it seemed that he risked losing his life at any moment. Already he heard the clamor of the choir of professional mourners saying: “He died, when he was not even ill.”
In this country, medicine is a luxury, biology a revelation: only those with an illness that is known about in the village, in the whole region and the whole country, are permitted to die.
But to die abruptly of a cerebral embolism, a heart-attack or acute marsh-fever is implausible.
During those moments of panic, Dr. Mazamba thought of himself as both patient and doctor. He knew that this was a country where diabetes was king, polio was waiting in ambush, hepatitis lay dormant, where leukemia, meningitis, cancer and AIDS were given generous accommodation. The afflicted knew nothing… That fellow over there, just like himself, a 35-year-old making a 1,001 plans, thinking about realizing his great wedding next year, buying himself a car in two years: that man was afflicted with an incurable disease which he had no inkling of.
He had six months to live.
But after a few minutes, Mazamba managed to smile, to his colleague’s great surprise. He took his leave of him, serene.
The next morning, Mazamba awoke in a good humor. He even recalled having had a good dream the night before, a dream during which he had laughed out loud. He was calm, almost at peace, as if he had not been told that he had only 12 months to live. He had not told anyone about what he had just learned. Not even his wife. Especially not her.
He was waiting impatiently for the moment when he would hear those light steps trotting on the carpet and heading towards his bed. Then he would pretend to be sleeping; the steps would come closer; the little head with real braids would lean over him; he would feel warm lips landing on his cheek, which he had taken pains to put on display. He would then awake abruptly and wrap in his arms this little darling next to his bed: Lafouza, his eight-year-old daughter. The daily ritual would be respected, and both would be happy.
His wife had already left the bed some time ago. While waiting for Lafouza, he turned on Radio Zanzibar, stretched out in his bed, wiggled his toes, pulled the sheets over his head and let himself sink into this state of happiness, in a dense semi-consciousness between sleep and waking. It did not last long. Lafouza flew in, kissed him and took off at full speed towards the kitchen to gobble her breakfast; she was late for school. It had been too quick.
Only then did he get up and begin his first day as a cancer-patient, as a doctor with cancer who was conscious of his incurable sickness.
* * *
A week went by. Idi knew that the inexorable was lying in wait for him. But he had decided that his death would serve some purpose at least. The inspiration had come to him suddenly in the office where he had learned of his death sentence. Little by little he was getting used to the idea of his death. He had told himself that from that moment he was going to live differently. A profound break with his past. He spoke of death with detachment, derision and sometimes even with an inexplicable delight. He laughed often and joked about it.
So much so that that day, as they were lunching at the Imam restaurant, one of his female colleagues said to him, “You seem cheerfully morbid.”
“Nacira, you’re afraid of death.”
Tazmeen, an Indian urologist employed at the UN, and follower of Hasan Bin Sabbah, founder of the sect of the Hashshashins—Assassins—who extolled death as an ecstatic recompense, turned around brusquely and said:
“You’re afraid of death, Nacira?”
“No, but sometimes I think about it, and yet I’d rather never have to think about it, even though I know it exists.”
Tazmeen’s expression changed.
“What’s the matter?” Idi asked.
“It’s those old farts sitting on the terrace of the mosque,” thundered Tazmeen, “shamelessly ogling all the girls who walk by.”
“But my dear Tazmeen, I think it’s normal that these old men drool over pubescent girls. The world ought to be indulgent towards them. Don’t forget that these old men have only a short time to live. Let them have at least a few pleasures in this world. We should try to satisfy their desires, which clearly derive from their sterile libido.”
“You’re disgustingly cynical. I think it would be best if we left. We’re already late.”
* * *
At six o’clock sharp, Idi left El Maarouf Hospital as usual. But instead of turning right, as was his habit, he turned left towards Oasis City.
His ancient Trois Chevaux bumped along. He kept it chiefly out of defiance in this country where appearances are everything. As if in echo to the noise of the old car, a sudden and intense pain took hold of him below his right shoulder. He brought his hand behind and massaged his back—a gesture he would perform quite often. He smiled at this manifestation of his illness. He wondered how long he really had to live. After all, his colleague could have been wrong about the time-frame. Was his peacefulness a result of ignorance of fatalism? Neither of the one nor the other, he told himself. But rather to his decision to make of his death an act of life. But he needed to act quickly, as death could take him anywhere: at the wheel of his car, deep in conversation with a friend, at the moment when he was examining his patients, or when he was sinking into Kassabou’s warm, moist depths.
With his right hand still on his back, he drove with his left, nevertheless being very careful. At that hour Moroni’s streets where white with the kandus—robes—of the people heading to the mosque. He arrived at the Volo-Volo market and stopped in front of Al Qamar cinema, which had once been the night-life of the Comorian capital. “Had been,” for today this lone big-time movie theater on the island gave the impression of a cast-off old woman.
Idi fondly recalled the nights when, as a young man, he came here with his betrothed. He still remembered the hubbub and the Homeric crush to buy tickets. He, for his part, when he could afford it, had his tickets purchased for him by one of the beefy fellows whose specialty was making use of their shoulders in order to reach the ticket-counter as fast as possible. Waiting in line was unheard of on these islands. This hall, a historic site for cinema on the Comoros islands, had been murdered by the upsurge of video in the 1980s.
Each person transformed his parlor, dining-room, or shower into a theater. The price of a ticket at Al Qamar was divided by 10. The video-viewers jumped on it. They were piled up by 10s on the floor: they were served up spaghetti Westerns, stuffed with Indian tripe, and filled with Asian vacuities. And so Al Qamar emptied and the private theaters filled up. Fortunes were made, and Al Qamar went downhill. Today the theater is definitively closed. One no longer sees the middle-class seated in the first row, looking disdainfully at the plebs seated in the second. One no longer hears the shouts of enthusiasm from the spectators who participate noisily in the film: they laugh, cry, become sad, incite, warn, gesticulate. All of this was of yesteryear; today all life is dead at Al Qamar, which too will soon die.
Idi came back to reality; he got out of the car and went to sit on a wooden bench in front of one of the mchakik—kebab—vendors. Just like a common passerby, for 500 Comorian francs he bought himself some of those mchakiks that the Comorians have become the specialists of across the whole Indian Ocean. He sank his teeth in, accompanying his kebabs with toasted breadfruit. From time to time he dipped the kebabs into a metal plate which contained a garnish of hot pepper and salt. In order to quench the fire that burned his mouth, he lapped up tamarind juice.
After washing and drying his hands, he took off again and made directly for Oasis City, the neighborhood where Aubéri de Kaiftchene lived. Unfortunately, according to her groom M’bakari, she had been called away. The boy held out a piece of paper that was neatly folded into quarters, and on which was written the following:
I am obliged to leave in order to see a friend who is being evacuated this evening by plane for Paris: the poor thing is a victim of Dengue fever.
No one is more upset by this setback than myself. I hope we will see each other again as soon as possible. I leave it to you to name the day, the hour and the place of our next meeting. I am sure you will have the gallantry not to let a young woman languish.
Aubéri… Idi recalled the particular circumstances in which they had met. It was thanks to a simple literary reference that he had come to know this countess of Jewish origins. Three weeks earlier a dinner had been organized at the house of Marshal Kabaya on the occasion of a sultana’s marriage. The marshal had gotten rich in France and Guyana. Back in the Comoros, he naturally had political responsibilities: at first Minister of Sand in Your Eyes, he was then promoted, following a shuffling of the cabinet, and became the Minister of State in charge of the Occult Sciences.
Groups formed little by little when the evening was in full swing in this Chaffyyite Republic. Over there was a table composed mostly of professors: Belgians, Tunisians, Senegalese, Burundians, Canadians and the very rare Comorian, including an engineer from the Public Works, and a businessman, a member of the opposition, and a highly placed civil servant in the Treasury Department.
A little further on, one could see the French instructors who made it a point of honor not to mingle with nationals from beyond the Ardennes.
Idi heard a female voice say, “Baudelaire.” He pricked up his ear. “But of course,” the voice said, “L’Invitation au voyage!”
“Mon enfant, ma soeur, songe à la douceur d’aller là-bas vivre…,” Idi completed, casually entering the conversation. The young woman who had spoken looked at him in surprise. He smiled at her and raised his glass in her direction:
“Doctor Idi Wa Mazamba, at your service.”
“Pleased to meet you: Aubéri de Kadiftchene, professor of literature at Said Mohamed Sheikh High School,” she went on and held out her hand to Idi. He was struck by the young woman’s first name. Aubéri was a very unusual name: masculine for its vowels and very feminine for the image and color that it evoked.
Aubéri was a young brunette with a few rebellious red dots decorating her cheeks. She was of medium height with deep, moving sea-green eyes; her hair was cut short like a flapper’s.
“I see that you’ve already had a taste of Baudelaire, doctor,” she said, raising her glass as if the poet mentioned were the very champagne that she was now drinking.
“Well, actually, I had occasion to read Les Fleurs du Mal: he’s a courageous writer, don’t you think?”
Aubéri was sincerely surprised to meet a Comorian beneath these coconut trees who could talk this way to her about poetry. She looked intensely at the doctor and suddenly noticed that she had turned her back entirely on the group of her compatriots with whom she had been talking. Idi—who knows by what magic—had also drifted from his friends who were hopelessly trying to slake their thirst.
Turning his head slightly to the right Idi noticed the five pillars of the Islamic Republic attempting to conceal the nature of their drink by ostensibly pouring great quantities of coke into their glasses. But one only had to get within a meter for their breath to expose them, despite the cloves and gum they chewed. These gentlemen chatted fraternally with the representatives of all the opposition parties; ecumenism revealed the origins of the inhabitants of these islands: four brother jinns who had come from over there where the sun rises, where incense embalms and the tam-tam beats, had established themselves, each on one of these islands of the moon: the eldest on Ngazija, the second on Ndzuani, the third on Maoré and the youngest on Mmwali.
Abruptly, a crowd formed around the track. There were two men: one very tall, about 30 years old: professor Kano, a brilliant university career, freshly honed at one of the prestigious French universities; he issued from one of the great families of Domoni. He taught para-psychology. The second, originally from Mitsamiouli, was one of the stars of Comorian social and political life. His name was Said Amboulot. He had the President’s ear. He was the Director. He was reaching 68 years of age.
The professor stood on the left of the track, with a nearly-full glass of Haut-Brion on his head. Standing straight up. In front of him, the Director was smiling, legs bent, coat flapping, with a glass full of vodka balanced on his greying hair. The music launched a kwasa-kwasa. The professor moved his left foot; the director arched his torso; the glasses did not fall; the jeering crowd applauded.
The young man kicked out his right foot; the old man responded by swaying his hips, the glass still balancing.
The applause attracted the attention of a white man in a two-piece suit. He approached the crowd. He smiled, turned his head to the right, forcefully grabbed the first woman whom he saw. She resisted. He pulled her violently. She submitted. He parted the crowd. He planted himself at the center of it with her.
General amazement. She was the wife of Wakala Wa Madini, Minister of Renunciation, a powerful man in the regime who kept his ministry in a tight grip. At that very moment he was talking with the Commander of the Brigade. Someone went and whispered something in the Minister’s ear. The Minister hurried, broke through the crowd and stood motionless. The white man who was caressing his wife turned out to be a Generous Partner—GP—and was thus untouchable.
No one could say whether the Minister was laughing or crying, the expression frozen on his face was so enigmatic. It could just as well have resembled a smile or a grimace. The witnesses to this scene were never able to agree on a translation of the physiognomy of the minister’s face, even 10 years later. They were unanimous on one point however: one could see his teeth. But was it, as some claimed, a smile of satisfaction at seeing a Generous Partner, one of the true rulers of the country, deigning to pay deep and insistent respect to his wife, or rather, as the others gave to understand, because he was stifling a sob? No one ever learned the truth, except Dr. Idi Wa Mazamba who took the minister’s last and painful confessions just a few seconds before his death.
So the Minister of Renunciation applauded. Whom? No one ever learned that either. The Professor moved his shoulder forward, shook them in a harmonious movement. The Director responded with a stunning pivot.
The crowd held its breath. One could see two drops disappear in his snowy hair. The rhythm picked up. Kano kicked up his heels and drank sideways from a glass that someone held out to him. One of the old man’s fans gave him something to drink too. He exhaled a satisfied “ah” and bent his knees. Oblivious to the crowd, the Generous Partner let his hands wander over the rounded flesh of the Minister’s wife. And she did not know where to hide her shame, so she buried her head in the Partner’s shoulder, which he took for belated consent…
The Professor and Director were now 20 centimeters from one another. Kano bent his legs, and brought his head close to the Director’s. In a ballet that followed the rhythm of the music and the movements of the two actors, their foreheads touched, like two rams butting; their glasses clinked and the spectators saluted the performance of these two glorious heroes. Once the show was over, the Partner felt obliged to let go of the Minister’s wife.
It was during this party, rich in events, that a certain understanding arose between the Comorian doctor and the young French professor.
Translated by and published with permission from Anis Memon. Mohamed Toihiri, a former Comoran UN diplomat, is often cited as his country’s first novelist and the author of several books. The editor would like to thank Ann Morgan’s A Year of Reading the World for highlighting Memon’s unpublished translation.
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