Berber Perfumes

Translated from the Arabic by NARIMAN YOUSSEF 

They say that, sometime at the end of the nineteenth century, a woman came on a wooden ship from Najd, married a wealthy man from the island, and, when she didn’t conceive, had a maqam built on the ruins of a pagan temple near the cliffs of the shore. Having had a dream where a man holding a staff spoke to her, the woman then named the maqam after the mystic Al-Khidr.

They say that, at the end of that year’s spring, when the earth sighed out and released an explosion of yellow Nuer flowers, a boat with sails that swelled with the evening breeze dropped anchor at the island. At the helm was a man and next to him a woman in a black abaya, and they spoke either Farsi or the language of Baluchistan. Having alighted, they walked along a winding, seaweed-carpeted path toward the dome that crowned the maqam’s entrance as though an ancient roc had laid her egg on the cylindrical stone platform. When they reached the maqam, the woman went in and the man waited outside. Later, the two of them rode a donkey that wandered between the mud houses and banak trees.

In the afternoon, the women of the island gathered at the maqam’s entrance. Someone brought a wooden ladder and leaned it against the oval dome. Arms extended, the women pressed their hennaed palms on the smooth white walls, murmuring invocations and raising their hands in prayer. From within the maqam, thick incense smoke rose up, carrying the smells of oud, myrrh, and camphor.

When night descended and a moon like a corroded skull rose up to guard the sky, three of the women grabbed a sheep by its horns. The animal dug in its hooves and rolled itself on the ground as they dragged it along the path, but there was no escaping its fate. They took the visiting woman’s hand, dipped it in the warm sacrificial blood, and marked with it the maqam’s walls. Out of clay burners rose more of the heavy vapors. The humming and murmuring rose in harmony with the calls of the night crickets. When the women left, the red fingerprints stayed behind, waving from a distance and reaching up to touch the sky.

The visiting woman returned the following spring with a newborn infant. Word about the auspicious maqam spread and reached those who were late conceiving. They began to arrive in clandestine wooden boats from the city and to flock in groups from faraway places. They slaughtered sacrifices and spilled the blood of votive offerings. They brought bunches of reeds, twine heavy with conchs and whelk shells, and colorful ribbons carrying prayer notes, which they hung on the walls and pressed into the gaps between the rocks and the crevices in the stone.

Years went by. The maqam became a pilgrimage site for women.

Then, one spring day, a delegation of men arrived from the mainland: men in military uniform, sheikhs in woolen bishūt, and a select party of sandaled religious clerks. A bisht-wearer, standing on the threshold of the maqam, spoke first: “Disgraceful!” Another, bearded and turbaned and carrying a cane, sucked his lips and said, “Fads and superstitions!” A man in military uniform stepped out of the maqam’s darkness, nostrils flaring in disgust, and said, “Berber perfumes!”

They appealed to the island prince, who issued a decree.

One sunny morning, the earth aflame with red wildflowers like small wounds on the surface of the soil, the yellow bulldozers atop the boats that cleaved the sea toward the island appeared like fantastical creatures, water foaming and boiling around them all the way to the shore. When they were offloaded, the bulldozers woke up as if from a deep slumber and thundered forth, growling as they crushed the earth, the steel of their teeth glinting angrily. Under the roaring wheels, the blades of soft grass bowed their necks and the wildflowers made way, until the bulldozers, like monstrous dragons with jaws wide open, all metal fangs and claws, pounced on the maqam, tore down the walls, smashed the roc’s dome. The wooden door held out longest, before submitting to the dragons’ power and surrendering its ancient planks.

The rubble bled under an indifferent sky. The militarily clad man, who was a descendant of the woman who had built the maqam, stood and surveyed the scene. Colorful prayer ribbons scattered the pleas they carried. The whispers of the green rags that had been knotted all over the haunted maqam dispersed like the feathers of migrating birds and were carried by the careless wind over the expanse of the sea.


Hooda Shawa Qaddumi is a Palestinian Kuwaiti children’s and YA writer living in Kuwait. She holds an MA in comparative literature and cultural studies from Kuwait University. An ardent theater lover, she is the founder and managing director of TAQA Productions, a Kuwait-based production company that produces independent theatre and drama. Her bookThe Birds’ Journey to Mount Qaf won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Children’s Literature in 2008.

Nariman Youssef is a Cairo-born literary translator and translation consultant based in London.

[Purchase Issue 25 here.] 

Berber Perfumes

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