from al-Majus (The Fetishists)by Ibrahim al-Koni, translated from the Arabic by William Hutchins
The Dervish’s Purifications
He stole the oil from his elderly black foster mother. He waited till she went out to milk the goats by the light of the splendid firebrand. Then he crept to her corner and poured the pure, mountain liquid in the water skin. Olive oil—legends say it flows from majestic, age-old, pharaonic trees distributed around Jebel Nefousa like black stars—dark beads in prophets’ strings of prayer beads. Pressed by the fingers of attractive young women, it is carried south by merchants in caravans to exchange in Timbuktu and Kano for its weight in gold dust. His elderly, black foster mother traded for it three times its weight in clarified, desert butter that disseminated the fragrance of retem blossoms. The oil from the mountains carried the scent of those black stars of the pharaohs and of chips of sandalwood and musk that had rubbed off the prophets’ own prayer beads.
As evening fell he gathered some provisions and headed to the open countryside.
He collected some calligonum wood and lit a fire. The wind had died down, and a dark gloom encircled him. He picked out three stones to place in a triangle at the hearth and then set a crockery pot on them. He poured the oil from the waterskin into this pot and took a deep breath. breath. The scent of the legendary oil was released into the dead, mysterious, dark wasteland. The oil’s fragrance reminded him of his circumcision, and the dagger did too. He had been sickly, scrawny, and withered since birth, and his ailments had matured along with him, keeping him company during his first years. So the imam had refused to circumcise him, fearful of the effect that the bleeding might have on him. When he turned eleven, the imam finally consented and gave the go-ahead. They prepared the necessities and the tent, creating a throne of sand for him like those they built for a bridal couple. They planted daggers, knives, and swords around it to frighten away the jinn and to force them to abandon their scheme to kidnap the child. Women arrived in black swarms and congregated in front of the tent, drumming and filling the plain with their trilling. Boys huddled in a corner of the tent, and an old Toubou woman approached his throne, jabbering pagan amulets in both Toubou and Hausa. Then she put a leather bracelet around his arm and suspended from it a pouch of wormwood to frighten away denizens of the Spirit World. When she departed, the imam entered and hung around Musa’s neck a necklace of talismans encased in gazelle skin. Raising his right hand, he sliced through the air with a pair of vicious snippers designed to shear goats and to clip the hair of lice-infested boys. A female idiot he had never seen before entered with a polished, acacia-wood pole she waved before his face. At its top he saw a bundle of leather thongs, copper discs, and colored beads. The imam put his rough hand beneath Musa’s navel and seized his organ. Musa screamed. The idiot woman waved the pole in front of his face, creating a weird mixture of sounds like a soft rattling. So he laughed in spite of himself. At that moment the two blades of the shears closed around the organ’s foreskin. He felt a sting and then a hot viscous liquid streaming across his thighs.
He screamed, but the women’s trills drowned out his shrieks. The idiot woman reassured him and cried out the glad tidings: “Weep! Weep, Dervish! Today you’ve become a pure angel!”
But this purity had not been complete. Cutting the foreskin from his organ of sin, from the devil’s staff, had not sufficed to purify his body, which was sullied with desires. An ember flaming with appetites scorched his head, turning it into a hollow gourd, and devoured the heart’s arteries, transforming it into an empty colocynth boll. It flew off with his mind and created an oasis of fantasies rivaling Waw in richness, munificence, and beauty. So it creates from a bronzed terrestrial woman, who breathes, eats, and responds to nature’s call, a celestial angel…a colossal goddess that settles arrogantly into the rock.
The devil’s rootstock….
The organ of sin….
The way it toyed with the stupid noblemen was even more cunning. This demonic rootstock messed with their heads and prompted them to wrap themselves with two awe-inspiring veils, one around the head and the other around the heart. The fools wrapped the miserable heart with a veil they referred to as nobility. The desert created them free, but they preferred to devise fetters, because in God’s vast desert they found not a single shackle to hobble them. When they found nary a wall to enslave them, they discovered nobility’s rites, which they ascribed to the lost Anhi. That did not prove an adequate fetter for them; so they adopted another idol. They knelt before women and crawled on their bellies at maidens’ feet. They embarked on tribal wars, launched nefarious raids against their neighbors, and joined far-ranging tribal confederations in order to attack the forestlands, returning with black bondwomen and lighter complexioned Ethiopians. The fools! They start a fire in the desert, motivated by the devil’s rootstock. They never achieved victory, though, because they did not know how to fill the void. Even sages forgot that the sinful organ was an abyss that could never be satisfied by tribeswomen. Not even all the desert’s women could satisfy that. Not even all the bondwomen from the forestlands could sate its flaming appetite, because this burning desire…because this eternal hunger was in the root itself. No creature would ever succeed unless he summoned the spiritual courage to rip it out at the base the way herdsmen pluck watercress in the Hammada.
This is virility, Ukha. This is nobility, Udad. This is reality, Akhmad.
The true nobles are the eunuchs. Ha, ha.…They alone are pure. Nobility exists in purity. Ha.
The stillness that preceded Adam swallowed the desert—that virgin stillness, the Unknown that trails after annihilation or that precedes creation. A lone acacia stood at the head of a track leading to the hoodwinked Idinen. It was eerie, anxious, and lost in the desert’s dark recesses and dissolution’s stillness. By the light of the fire, the crest of its dark head resembled the turban of a visitor from the Spirit World. Musa felt tranquil beside it.
The fire crackled as it ate the bones of the calligonum wood, profaning the sanctity of the divine stillness. To the south, toward the mountain, the distressing howl of a hungry dieb resounded.
He drew the hilt from the scabbard, and the voracious serpent emerged from its secret lair. A priest from the forestlands peeped out of his pagan temple. Examining the dark, uncanny blade of the dagger, he found the Sura of the Amulets, talismans of a thousand years, and chants of the forestlands’ tribes.
He removed his drawers.
The stillness increased, the stillness of a time when stones were still liquid, a time that he knew by sensing it, not by reasoning about it, the lost time he had always sought, a time before Eve had been pried from Adam’s breast, when Adam had not yet been separated from the earth’s bosom, the time that would never return—unless he removed the organ of sin and pulled out the devil’s stock by its roots—the way herdsmen pluck watercress in the Red Hammada.
He knelt on the pebbles. As his knees sank into the merciful dirt, he felt consoled and summoned his courage. He raised his bare head toward the dark heavens, and grasped the magical hilt forcefully. He brought the legendary, greedy serpent’s tongue to the demonic rootstock that caused the minds of Adam’s sons to fly off, turning them into a foolish puppet in the hand of a fickle rib!
He saw the stars, those white olives, hermits’ companions, the guide to men eternally lost in the earth’s desert and the sky’s desert.
He closed his eyes and began to sweat. He held his breath and drew the greedy blade across the devil’s neck. The earth shook. He saw a throng of women cloaked in black. The idiot woman shook her staff, which was crowned with copper discs and beads. Then she shouted the glad tidings: “Weep, weep, Dervish, for today you are pure!”
The she-jinnis on haunted Idinen ululated. The lost acacia bowed down and eased his pain with a magical touch. He crawled. The viscous liquid drowned his thighs. He seized the cauldron of oil with both hands. It spilled out, and some superhuman power gave him the courage to remain resolute till he had drowned his wound with the boiling liquid.
He fell on his back.
He smelled the scent of blood mixed with pharaonic olive oil.
He heard the trills of the beautiful lady jinni in Idinen.
The distressing howl of the dieb resounded.
He withdrew into the dark recesses and the stillness.
A Dervish Returns to his Pack
At the end of the night when the moon was fading and its face was becoming pale and tired, another mysterious, savage cry in the wadi of the acacia wounded the desert stillness: Aw-w-w-w. Aw-w-w-w-w. . . .
This grievous, enigmatic cry upset the camels, and they felt glum and majestic. On hearing it, goats were afflicted with paralysis. Herdsmen listening got goose bumps. Old women have taught children about its wiles and character from their first years, and it commands from shaykhs respectful veneration comparable only to that accorded the denizens of the Spirit World.
This is the only animal that claims the lion’s share in the narratives and tales of people of the desert. They call it by a thousand names, a thousand pet names, a thousand nicknames, but never by its true name, because to pronounce that name is equivalent to summoning it. Every utterance of the Tamahaq word “ibajji” by a child, old woman, or man brings this creature a thousand steps closer to the herd. “Ibajji” is a taboo name that diviners struggle with, exhausting all their secret knowledge as they attempt to bind his legs, blind his sight and insight, and keep him far from the herd. They say this requires more effort than preparing a restraint for the strongest demon in the desert. Despite all that effort, nothing is easier than sabotaging this talisman. All it takes is for one naughty boy to utter this taboo name; then the amulet is canceled and the beast enters the herd. Once he enters the herd, it is like fire burning through straw. The jackal will decimate the entire herd before the herder has finished singing the first half of his mournful asahag songs.
Only wise herdsmen, however, can also detect the secret message in his voice. They know when he is hungry and when sated. They know that his cry is coded, because if he is satiated, he weeps; when he is hungry he laughs. They say he howls grievously when he is full, because he knows he will be hungry for a long time before he gains another victim. He cries merrily and cheerfully when he is hungry, because he knows that no matter how long his hunger lasts, it will end with a lamb banquet that will leave him feeling sated. Only these wise individuals can discern this beast’s condition and fathom what his howl is saying.
He descended into the valley, guided by the smell of blood and oil and…the scent of a man who was still breathing.
He was young—about the size of a three-month-old billy-goat, or actually more the size of a fox. His hair was matted, thick, pale, the color of rocks on plains in the southern desert. Whenever he sniffed the earth with his long, greedy muzzle, following tracks in search of blood and life, his jaws disclosed two vicious, projecting canines. Sages treat this creature deferentially, and old women piece together legends about its viciousness and power. Desert dwellers are forbidden to refer to him by his true name, and diviners spend an entire lifetime devising against him a talisman that will blind him and cause him to lose his way when he searches for herds. Mukhammad is his adopted name. The dervish also addressed him by this borrowed name from his death bed that night when the moon suffered from fatigue and pallor. At first, when he regained consciousness, he did not know where he was, what had happened, or how much time had passed while he lay in this location. He felt dizzy, and the pain below his navel was intolerable. His throat and mouth were parched, and his last drop of saliva had evaporated. In his nostrils, the smell of scorched flesh and blood mixed with that of wood smoke. Even before he opened his eyes and looked at the pale moon, his guest was busy with an ancient, sacred task inherited from his remote grandfathers. They had informed him in a testament to keep his distance from desert dwellers and had strongly cautioned him against interacting with people, whose baseness, malice, and craft troubled the Creator Himself. Their testament included a surprising tip: When man lies down to sleep, he sleeps deeply, but just because he is lying down does not mean he is asleep. He might use the dirt for a pillow, and his breathing might be regular, he might be as still as a corpse, but if the dieb approached, the man would harm him. This was just one more of man’s many ignoble, tricky strategies. Only a cunning strategy could counter a cunning strategy. “So if you find him stretched out to sleep, kick dirt at the man to make sure he is really asleep. If the person doesn’t move, then you can be certain he is sound asleep. Dig out beneath his head till his head dangles down and his collarbone protrudes. Only then will you be able to make bold and rip out the bone with your fangs, which are peerless in their strength and quickness—superior to man’s intellect and the jinn’s sovereignty.”
The tired moon knelt and sent a pale light into the wasteland, doubling the desert’s inscrutability. Mukhammad investigated the scene, sniffing the earth with his muzzle. He leapt with alarm at a dying ember. Then he returned and approached the victim. Cautiously. He sniffed the dirt and raked some together with his toe nails. He turned his back on the dervish and splattered his face with sand. He waited for a moment for some reaction from the human being. He turned his back on the victim again and pelted his face and body with quick, thick, consecutive volleys of sand. At this moment the body shuddered, and a death rattle emerged from the dervish’s breast. Mukhammad retreated several steps to listen to the stillness and the body’s breathing. He sat back on his rear legs and waited. Musa opened a crossed eye and saw the noble guest seated over his head with dignity, obscuring the moon’s tired face.
The dervish murmured, “Is that you, Mukhammad?”
The specter did not budge, and the dervish continued with a broken voice, “Have you come to return this grandson to his grandfathers’ clan?”
Mukhammad retreated several more steps and stopped beside an acacia, where he sat on his back legs thoughtfully as he attempted to find in the symbols of the ancient testament some answer to the victim’s astonishing question. The dervish’s memory was, however, clearer and purer, perhaps because death’s stupor had cleansed him of evil’s gloom and had drawn him closer to the sanctuary, returning him to his pristine origin. Thus he found himself at the gates of the first Waw—Waw the alpha and omega.
In his swoon, the dervish had recalled his grandfather’s lineage—his grandfather who had been lost in the desert with his mother and father. The father and mother had died of thirst and a dieb bitch had adopted him and raised him with her pups on the mountain. She had nursed him with the milk of her teats and torn to bits with her legendary fangs a serpent that tried to strangle the wretched child with its hateful body. The great grandfather of the dervishes had grown up in the care of the diebs and had learned the language of the beasts. He had learned to laugh when howling to signify that he was hungry and to weep when howling to signal that he was sated. The compassionate dieb bitch taught him all the tricky strategies of the diebs…until Eve arrived.
They descended in an awe-inspiring pack on a valley that had abundant retem trees. These diebs detected the scent of livestock, and their sages decided to seize the opportunity to raid the herd before the encampment’s diviners could prepare a deterrent by perfecting their amulet’s symbols. His ancestor participated in that raid and attacked a female goat he planned to seize with his talons and strangle with his fangs. Then he saw…Eve. The goat girl stood there alarmed, clasping a jujube stick, with a leather sarong wrapped round her slender waist. Down her virgin breast hung leather amulets and coal-black braids that had been plaited delicately and carefully. Twilight rays spilled over these oiled braids, which glowed like gold dust. Her astonishment showed in her eyes, and her tense, violet lips revealed her fright. His vicious claws relaxed their grip on the neck of the miserable she-goat, which escaped only to stand there terrified—as if she did not believe she was safe. The beautiful goat girl, however, continued to retreat. For every step back she took, the ancestor advanced a step toward her. Then the nape of her neck bumped against the remnants of an old, dead tamarisk worn down and partially covered by blowing grit and salt. So she fell on her back. He approached and stood over her. When he felt her soft body with his harsh talons, she closed her eyes in fright. He did not understand why this beautiful creature was terrified, because he did not know that a person who had lived among wild animals and drunk the milk of a dieb was a dieb and a wild animal. She did not understand that behind this ugly mass of hair and nails rested the innocent heart of a dervish who had lost the way to Waw and drunk the milk of diebs. The poor shepherdess did not realize that a man, no matter how long he has been lost in the eternal wilderness, must find his way to Eve, because woman is the only creature who can return the savage beast to the human fold, even a dervish nursed by diebs.
That evening, in the sunset dusk, this wild animal became a person again. The soft body of the shepherdess was able to remind him of people and to return him to the oasis that he had quit before he was truly conscious of life.
That night, the ancestor did not share the celebration of the slain prey with his dieb brethren. He sat on his toes and dug his front claws into the dirt before him while he gazed into the darkness. He sensed that a sad little bird was singing inside his chest and fluttering its wings. He listened carefully to the bird’s amazing aria without realizing that this bird was his own heart and that its song was man’s eternal yearning to separate from his mother to unite with a woman, with the female he had lost when he emerged from the caves of the Unknown.
Only the mother dieb understood this secret, because nothing could ever prevent a dieb from banqueting on prey, unless a human heart hidden in his chest was pledged elsewhere. Watching her biological pups snatch bloody pieces of meat from each other, she grieved.
At dawn the dervish fled to the encampment. His mother had sensed he would do that. She followed his trail and climbed the hill. Then she opened her jaws with the grievous cry: Aw-w-w-w. Aw-w-w-w-w….
The howl echoed off the distant mountain and redounded as an even more painful, grievous cry. The bird fluttered in the fugitive’s heart, and he returned to his mother. He thrust his head against her chest and told her he could not stay. She replied in the dieb language that his destiny had sentenced him to live torn between pairs of opposites: man and wild animals, exile and origin, body and heart. He would never find serenity unless something impossible happened and the two contradictories united. If he thought that leaving the mother who had nursed him with her milk to join a human female, that cleaving to another woman, would guide him to serenity, he was fantasizing. He was fleeing backward, to the dark recesses of the first cave, to emptiness and madness. Then she approached him and shook him with her claws. She addressed him in stern, clear language: “Who has sowed evil in our desert, which has no rival for beauty or splendor among the Creator’s creations: man or the dieb? Who has wiped out the gazelles and exterminated the Barbary sheep: man or the dieb? Who has drained the water from the wells and polluted the springs: man or the dieb? Who has uprooted the desert trees, set fire to the plants, and destroyed the grasses: man or the dieb? Who has dared to kill birds merely for sport: crows, cranes, and tiny sparrows: man or the dieb? Who has lifted his hand to kill his mother, brother, and father: man or the dieb? So, now: which of us is the savage beast: man or the dieb? You are fleeing from a mild-mannered clan that seeks only some small, bitter morsel of food once a month to avoid dying of hunger and are taking refuge with a clan that kills without being hungry, drinks water, wastes it, destroys needlessly, and kills for no reason at all.” Weeping, the dervish replied that he would never be able to resist the cry, because the bird in his chest had flown and entered the beautiful shepherdess, leaving only his vile body behind on the plain, with her. The poor mother understood that man must return to his people’s fold just as a dieb returns from men’s campsites to the dieb pack. She embraced him for a long time, but hid her tears. When the dervish disappeared behind the hills, she faced the qibla and pointed her long muzzle toward the pristine desert’s dawn firebrand. Then she opened her chest with the lament at this calamity: Aw-w-w-w.
It is reported that this howl of farewell lasted for an entire year—in other versions of the story, for twelve years. Since that time, this calamitous cry has become the language of the diebs.
Musa had heard this story of alienation and had known since childhood that his first grandfather married the beautiful shepherdess after he returned from life as a jackal. Now, he remembered this story, not because he saw a dieb over his head, but because he had rid himself of the member that was the cause of the grandfather’s flight from his mother, the demonic organ that had tempted him to the shepherdess and inflamed the heart of a mother who had plucked him from the barren countryside, rescued him from thirst, sheltered him, and granted him security and life. He had not been able to prevent himself from feeling angry at his idiotic ancestor ever since he heard this shameful story. Today he had exacted vengeance for his jackal grandmother and had cut off the reason for that exile. He licked his lip with his tongue in an attempt to moisten his mouth and to create some saliva.
He murmured with difficulty, “Now you can bring the good news to your grandmother that I choose to return to our clan, and here’s the proof. Take it and inform Grandmother of the prodigal grandson’s desire to return to the clan.”
And…he lost consciousness again.
IBRAHIM AL-KONI is a Saharan, Tuareg writer and one of the most prolific Arabic novelists. Born in 1948 in Fezzan Region, Ibrahim al-Koni has written extensively about political and environmental threats to his age-old, Saharan Tuareg people. Mythological elements, spiritual quest and existential questions mingle in the writings of al-Koni who has been hailed as magical realist, Sufi fabulist and poetic novelist. He spent his childhood in the desert and learned to read and write Arabic when he was twelve. Al-Koni studied comparative literature at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow and then worked as a journalist in Moscow and Warsaw. He is one of ten finalists for the Man Booker International Prize for 2015 to be awarded May 19, 2015. This excerpt is from his masterpiece, which has not been published in English translation yet. Among his works currently available in English are: The Bleeding of the Stone, Gold Dust, Anubis, and A Sleepless Eye.William Maynard Hutchins
WILLIAM MAYNARD HUTCHINS, who is based in North Carolina, was educated at Berea, Yale, and the University of Chicago. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant for literary translation in 2005 - 2006 for his translation from Arabic of The Seven Veils of Seth by Ibrahim al-Koni (Garnet Publishing) and again in 2011 - 2012 for a translation of New Waw by Ibrahim al-Koni (the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas). He was the co-winner of the 2013 Saif Ghobash/Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal (Garnet). He won the 2015 Prize for Prose Translation of the American Literary Translators Association for his translation of New Waw.