The Bedouin’s Journey
I know a man whose heart is instructed in Bedouin life. He knows the desert and its moods, and has learned early on that it doesn’t like to be challenged. I know him walking without pause, teaching his feet and his heart the ways, walking slowly and deliberately, the trails trembling beneath him. Aimlessly he digs into the sand of the earth and settles nowhere, for his early existence taught him that a real Bedouin doesn’t settle except in death. He may pause, but if he does, life sneaks up on him with its poison. With every pause comes an ache. The trick is not to overcome life’s problems, but to understand its laws.
I know him walking as he is destined to do, sometimes shaded by the clouds, often in the sun. When a lone cloud passes over him, he stops suddenly, until it goes on its way. He might wonder then what it is that he’s doing, to what purpose. He might grasp that life lies in the distance between what we want and what we are able to do. This man might die if the ambiguity lasts for more than a short while.
The man is dark-skinned, as is the fate of all who share their days with the sun. The blue he’s wearing covers him from face to feet. His name doesn’t matter. Nor the time he belongs to. He might be from the present or from the past, from the start or the middle of the century. He might belong to the future. Who can say that time means anything in the desert? I know him, and I know his intention and his destination, but I wouldn’t give anything away.
I wouldn’t say that he trawls the desert in search of a woman. The truth is graver than that. I would be lying if I said that he’s after money or gold, and I would be pretentious if I said that he’s looking for an idea. He is just searching, that’s all. For something mysterious. I would have liked to be more specific, but my duty is to protect the ambiguity. He’s a man whom I have been learning to write all night long, but I only reach the end to start again. He in turns has learned to torment me. Can I say that my story is simply about walking? It walks me to exhaustion.
The cords of the man’s back are bent by sun and time. He is never at ease, for he knows that life’s poison is deadly. The sheikh of the small mosque he passed on his journey, whose people he asked for food, told him that being lost does not lie in the sand or the heat or the wind, but that the Bedouin is always lost “in here,” and he pointed at his chest. We are the maze. You find what you seek in your heart or nowhere.
The man walks with his back bent, buoyed by the wind when it’s on his side, challenged by it when he goes against it, and cuts its solidness with his head, sand filling his eyes, the storm a kind of music. One thought fills him: The desert is no longer a desert. The thought disturbs him. A man who trawls the desert searching through the wind and the heat. What is it that he’s after? Meaning or form or a beacon that illuminates the heart?
He walks, glimpses a fire, and heads toward it, this time greeting the people in the tent. They lead him, after dinner, to his bed, where it will be just him and his fears in the dark. The night is long, the stars wide awake; his eyelids cannot taste what they desire.
Surrendering to the ecstasy of darkness, to the elation of comfort after exertion, he hears them talking. But what does he care if his hosts, in their intimate gathering, speak of others? What matters to him now is rest. He doesn’t care for the strangers. He sought respite from the strife of the search, and they granted it. He doesn’t care for their conversation, which now begins to get louder. Their problems will float up like dirt on the surface of their night, and things won’t go back to how they were. They descend into disorder, join nature in its violence. They ransack the lives of others and uncover unhealed wounds. Their voices reach his sleeping place, and he is aware of the pain of what’s going on. Yet, deep in the warmth of his comfort, he cannot be complicit with the details of their stories. He is steadfast and suffers no anguish. His self is as deep as a lake. He doesn’t fall, doesn’t need to speak. The Bedouin is translucent but taciturn, he says to himself before he sleeps and dreams.
The night can let down its curtains, its darkness can pour forth, for the man is drained, alone in the deep night, the sky a faraway dome and the earth an endless black. The desert can camouflage itself. Distance melts away, and only emptiness remains. The void. The porcupines can open their mouths and eat the cold. The hot sand wind can blow even at night, for it knows no times of day. Aicha Kandicha can arrive whenever she likes. Aicha, with her skillful cunning. She who emerges from the night of all the stories. The woman who can take on many faces and many features but can never change the shape of her feet. What sadness for her!
She arrives this night and is standing before him. Her teeth are so long they almost reach the floor, her ears the ears of a donkey. “Do you see my teeth?” she says. But he stands still like a pillar of steel, his heart leaking neither fear nor worry nor chaos. He doesn’t melt before her like snow in the heat and doesn’t surrender to the beat of the shudder. Despite his weariness, he is full, filled with his Bedouin sensibility that helps him cross every obstacle and inhabit any possibility.
The man doesn’t shudder, but he looks for his sword and doesn’t find it. He remembers the story his mother used to tell, about an old ancestor who showed Aicha the sheath and asked, “Can’t you see my sword?” He wakes to the sound of the wind whistling. Dawn has broken, and having looked with regret upon the tent and its people and found no meaning, he thanks his hosts and resumes his walking. Their way of being has confirmed to him the value of his search. He feels hopeful. He might find what he’s after. But the open horizon before him offers him nothing but the crows that have always enticed him. They show up suddenly now and gather around a deer’s carcass. They croak around him, then turn into scythes that beat into him. He awakens and realizes he has fallen asleep while walking and everything was an echo of his dreams.
The horizon is a mirage, and the mountain before him opens unto an immense void, then another mountain. With back bent, he ascends. A wine-colored land spreads before him, tents and buildings. He has arrived, as perhaps he shouldn’t have, to someplace.
And I know this village; I know its people. Another night descends upon the man, so he follows the path to another fire and greets the people of the village. No dog barks at him. Instead, through the opening of a half-curtained door, an old woman welcomes him, leads him to a bed of black fur, and asks him what type of woman he desires. The question crushes him.
“Is this what you Bedouins have become after settling?” But he gives in. He can try, in any case. It’s possible for the interior of a thing to hold more value than its surface, for words to carry more than their usual meaning.
The handmaid comes in, swaying under her veil. Behind the bed, silence grows. Then she opens the closed window to let in some fresh air. The Bedouin seductress dances for him, revealing untold beauties and breaking his heart. The female of his dreams would’ve been a virgin.
He feels a great humiliation. And a headache that all but annihilates him. He leaves the place and climbs a hill. There he feels for the first time the purity of the air. His anxieties stop flowing. His stubborn head is softened and calmed by the sudden cold. For the first time he questions himself: “What are you searching for, sailor of the desert? Why did the sheikh say that the maze was within? Do you belong to the past, or are you the future’s son? What hole in the time continuum has thrown you here? Are you dreaming or awake? And why this order or things: the search for truth, the whips of gossip, then the woman who breaks the heart?”
The questions torment him, and he squats down on top of the hill.
And I know many men, green-eyed and blond-headed, comfort showing on their features despite the delicate layer of dust that covers them. They come from Chicago or New Jersey to escape routine. They walk and hunt rabbits and deer. They wash their bodies in beer, cook the deer meat, then put out the fire with precious water. They fight until their faces bleed, glaring at each other’s features in the darkness that comes before dawn, their eyes blurry from the long night. They laugh a lot, curse each other in their foreign tongue, then set off once more to the hunt.
They walk, then spot a ghost moving and squatting on the top of the hill. Unable to rely on their vision, they place bets on the type of prey they’re looking at. Some say it’s a deer; others lean toward antelope. They haven’t settled it yet when one of them prepares his shotgun and takes aim.
Heavy sleep, a dense darkness fences the place, wraps around its silence. There’s also the sky: exultant, expectant.
Who can feel the density of darkness? The desert woman fast asleep, crowned by her thick, salty sweat? Or the child sunken in her embrace? Who can sense, in particular, this movement near the child’s foot? A neutral movement, touching but not touching his foot, creating a kind of distance, producing a double sensation, of pleasure and panic.
The pleasure results from the foot being tickled by a strange body: a light, pleasant feeling that seeps into the depth of the soul. The panic is instinctive, stemming from the unknown, born with the child or maybe before him, the sensation of deep dread.
The two sensations unite, merge, springing from the same place: the soul of the child sleeping in the openness of summer, under a shimmering night sky.
A mysterious movement near the child’s foot, before he pulls his foot away to escape the fear and the pleasure. He pulls away quickly. But the body clings on his foot for a few seconds, during which the child has a dream that lasts for days. He sees himself in a desert, escaping some unknown, hesitating as the other children urge him to escape. There it is, the unknown thing getting closer, surrounding him, leaving him no way out. He will have to jump in order to escape. He jumps. And falls. A thorn enters his foot. The child screams after the sting, in dreaming and waking.
With the scream, the two universes collide: the dream universe and the waking reality. Startled by her son’s scream, the sixteen-year-old mother wakes up and sees a scorpion skittering away.
She quickly throws on some clothes, the child in her arms, and runs to her mother’s house like someone who has lost her way.
“Did you kill her?” the old woman asks. She doesn’t wait for an answer, but inspects the injury and begins to try her healing recipes: onions, eggplants, eggs. She tries everything before she reluctantly agrees to visit the doctor in the village clinic, once she notices the swelling of the child’s body. The doctor administers an injection and goes back to bed.
By daybreak the house is full of women hovering around the sleeping child, until they forget about him and turn to chatting with each other.
Except his mother, who watches him, watches his breathing, and checks the temperature of his forehead with her trembling fingers. When he slowly opens his eyes, her face brightens, her tears pour down in silence.
Fenced by her silence and the chatter of the women, she looks at his eyes like she’s seeing him for the first time.
“Did you kill her, the scorpion?” the old woman asks again, like she’s only asking now. No difference between the first and second time, the question suddenly remembered.
“No,” the young woman replies.
For a while, the women stop chatting, looking at her with open bemusement. A spell of gloom reigns, broken only by murmurs: “How could she have made such a mistake?”
The old woman is about to give her orders.
Then the kids will disperse and the young mother will wait in silence, thinking about her mistake. Then she will be overcome by calm, and will sleep and dream her dream.
She dreams of a horse galloping in the sand, a green horse, his rider all in white. She asks the rider, when he passes near her, if he is Sidi Abdelqader Algilani or her husband. But the rider speeds away like a storm. She wants to ask him so many things, but then he’s gone. Maybe he’s someone else, her father perhaps, riding not a horse but a greying donkey. She sees him coming toward her, head down, she knows not if in humility or shyness. She wants to ask him why she married young. But she follows the flow of the dream and then is awakened by the hot morning sun.
The children have dispersed to look for the scorpion.
“Every time the scorpion moves freely, the poison flows freely in his blood,” the old woman tells them. They rummage in every corner in the house and the animals’ pen. They end up in the place where the firewood is stacked. She goes to lift the first bundle, and the children follow. “Don’t use your hands.”
Every time they see blackness, they take a step back. In the end, they stop before the last bundle, sticks fastened together with palm leaves. The grandmother lifts the bundle, with difficulty and expertise and a seeming indifference to what might come next. The blackness oozes out.
Tens of tiny scorpions, some not fully formed, left and right and under the bundle, huddled upon themselves. The bigger scorpion sleeps, calm in the knowledge that the end cannot be escaped, a swarm of the smaller ones on her back.
The children pause to contemplate the scene, entranced by the movements of the little ones. A unique kind of movement, daring and wild, here and there, aimless, immature, unmoored, exuding the sweetness of the will to live, filled with nature and questions.
Abdelaziz Errachidi is a writer from Morocco. He is a professor of creative writing and cultural development at Ibn Tofail University in Kenitra. His published works include two short story collections, two novels, travel chronicles, and other collections. He was awarded a number of residencies in the USA, France, and Switzerland, and received the Sawy Culturewheel Short Story Award in Egypt and the Moroccan Writers’ Union award. He is director of the International Storytelling and Folklore Festival in Zagora and the Agadir Novel Symposium.
Nariman Youssef is a Cairo-born, London-based semi-freelance translator with an MA in translation studies from the University of Edinburgh. Nariman works between Arabic and English and part-time manages a translation team at the British Library. Literary translations include Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter, Donia Kamal’s Cigarette Number Seven, as well as contributions in Words Without Borders, The Common, Banipal, and poetry anthologies Beirut 39 and The Hundred Years’ War.