The Locusts

The village follows a never-changing script: Things are today exactly as they were yesterday, which is the same as they were the day before, and a year before that. There is Omran, dutifully executing his daily chores, drawing water from the well using a bucket raised by a beast of burden. Now he's tossing daily feed to his livestock. Now he's moving back and forth with an ox, cutting a furrow in the ground. From the mountains through which so many tomorrows pass floats a sweet but unremarkable tune. Omran is singing as he pushes his ox forward. He doesn't hit the animal with his stick, heavens no, he just urges it cheerfully along a path that can't be more than five meters. Over there you can see Mabrouk, axe in hand, sweat dripping from his broad brow. Hoeing in his small garden has made him short of breath. And there-see? Haj Salim is tilling his field, rippling with blades of wheat and barley. What's he doing? Ah, he's evicting a wayward donkey from his premises. Wait, no, he's shouting at a herd of sheep. Now he's throwing stones at a flock of sparrows that has settled in some corner of the field. Sometimes you can find Haj Salim setting a trap where he's found traces of fox or jackal-feet, evidence of a nocturnal raid on the chicken pen. Like clockwork, the villagers move to and fro as they go about their usual tasks. The sheep herder, poor fellow, he's lost his voice amongst the incessant bleating of his charges . . . baaa . . . baaa . . . . Straddling a well, another villager gathers up his forearms and heaves water into one of several stone troughs, which camels drain with loud slurping noises. In short, until that very evening, everything in the village was quiet as usual.

Suddenly (of all the rare things in this village, the rarest of all was something worthy of being called "sudden" or "surprising") a man comes running, his voice accented with fear.

"Come, everyone, come!" he cries, carrying a message that makes the skin crawl: locusts are at the gates of their small village! Not only are they near, but very near, no more than five kilometers away.

The man's cries transform the idyllic scene, turning the villagers into a group of crazies, darting around like chickens with their heads cut off. Each of the villagers' faces betrays their feeling that a monstrous creature is lurking in wait in every corner, at every bend in the road and under the roots of every tree. Some run to their fields and orchards and just stare at them, their eyes filled with longing, certain that tomorrow will bring an end to it all. Soon, all that will remain are memories and no more. Haj Salim is among them. This would be the first time he looks out over the birds landing in his field and does not throw stones, or notices trespassing ewes and does not bark at them in an excited voice. The news had a paralyzing effect. Nothing but Locusts were on people's minds. For once, the sheikhs' wagging tongues stopped telling interminable stories. Women lingering in front of the village infirmary, or alongside the well to fill their water jugs forgot their gossip about other women, giving them a rest from the lash of their tongues. Everyone's thoughts were caught up in the terrible ghoul branded with the name of destruction: Locusts . . . locusts . . . .Tomorrow the insects would begin their invasion of the little village. Slashing and burning, the creatures would strip the green coats from the trees, take from them their luxurious shade and leave only dead, withered sticks. Absconding with morcels of trees and plantations, the Locusts would steal food from the mouths of Haj Salim, Mabrouk's family, the sons of Omran and everyone else in the village. No doubt about it, they would transform every green inch of land into a barren wasteland.

Many events bring the villagers together: a death, or when the police arrest a transient for some crime or other, or when an old woman descends into lunacy. A force so powerful as to graft the villagers' individual and collective fates together into a single destiny, the village had in its long history never seen before this evening. Agitation was plain in peoples' looks, and in the way they spoke. As always happened when danger knocked at their gate, the men felt compelled to assemble at the mosque. Abdul Nabi raised his voice to deliver the evening call to prayer, "Come . . . come farmers . . . men of the village . . . hurry!!" They then rushed to the mosque, which had only seen such a rush on two sorts of occasions, when the village faced danger, or at the time of *Š…eid. All of them were now assembled, huddled in a single mass. At times they spoke in a single voice, laden with frustration and anger. There was profound sadness in the air. Hands marked with blue veins flapped and waved in anxious gestures.

Some of the shaikhs indulged themselves, relating ancient accounts of how the locusts had invaded a long time ago, transforming that village proud of the gentle-heartedness of denizens, its natural beauty and bride-like freshness, into a graveyard over which the owl squawked an obituary. It would be a full year before there returned any trace of the verdant cloak the locusts had peeled off. Another sheikh interjected with a melodramatic account of yet another attack of yore, a story about ten men camping at night in a ravine. The locusts set upon them while they were sleeping; in the morning there remained of them not a trace. "Even the bones...even the bones the locusts ate, O brethren!"

At that moment, Fagih Misbah came forth to speak in his inimitable fashion. He raised his hands as if to grab a bolt of lightning from the heavens, then opened his eyes crazy-wide, in the way he always did when invoking Shartookh and Shabrookh and the other creatures they call My Friends, the Kings of the Djinn. Creating a full-blown spectacle, he scattered drool and shook his thick white beard. He called upon Allah the Merciful, and cited past prophesies of great swarms of locusts sent to eat men, women and children alike. The locusts, the Fagih shouted, will beset animals, trees, castles--even pieces of metal!

All of these frightful stories about locusts, the dangers of locusts . . . locusts . . . locusts . . . With the holy men standing there with angry bronzed faces, the crowd felt in their hearts the looming disaster. The shaikhs' talk had infused them with a great hatred. They felt now as if nothing could compare with this thing called locust: not death . . . They felt now as if nothing could compare with this thing called locust, not death, not plague, not any other terrestrial catastrophe. An old man, caught up in the throes of an emotion that chilled all around him to the bone, suddenly called out for divine mercy, "Your grace O Lord! Your forgiveness!"

There followed another voice, shot through with intensity, "Now, what you think for us, chaps? And then another, "Yes, what do we do now?"

And all of a sudden there was a torrent of voices, a cacophony of floating question marks. Heads twisted in confusion. A mantra of distraction, "What to do? What to do? What to do?"

After a bit, the first thing resembling a suggestion emerged from the lips of Fagih Misbah, who insisted there was no other option. They must all go to the tomb of Sidi Abu Kindil, illuminate for him candles, burn "Jawa" incense, loban and fasukh and entreat him to intervene with Allah to keep this danger at bay, so that they might all return to their houses to sleep in peace.

"Sidi Abu Kindil will not disappoint," Misbah promised. "He will keep the locusts from the path of the village . . . "

Once the confusion settled, and the villagers could begin to focus on the problem, Fagih Misbah's proposition was quickly lost in a jumble of other suggestions. Among those offering alternatives was Omran, who was bound to be taken seriously for he was in his forties, meaning that he had surpassed the age of recklessness. An even greater distinction was the fact that he hadn't yet reached the age of feeblemindedness. Omran's suggestion was that they make a fires in different places around the village. Perhaps, he reasoned, the locusts would change course once they saw the smoke. Since noone could see why this wouldn't be just a temporary diversion, those present craned their necks and traded looks, searching for better ideas. Defending his original idea, Omran waved his fist and shook his head in anger.

All the while Mabrouk remained silent, head down, his body shaking uncomfortably as if he were sitting on a village of ants. He was twenty five. When his father passed away, he inherited a big family and small garden. Though he worked like a dog, Mabruk was barely able to make ends meet. A thought kept echoing against the walls of his consciousness. The idea seemed to him at alternate moments to be so laughable, so absurd. He worried that if he dared speak it, the group would erupt in laughter and seriously doubt his capacity for rational thought. He continued to mull it over in his head, when one of the group elbowed him, indicating that the crowd wanted to hear what he thought of the ideaHaj Salim just put forth. Is it really possible that with banging bells and drums and the hollow chiming of empty glasses they might succeed in driving the locusts from the village? The crowd had begun to settle on this idea, and were now turning to Mabrouk for his opinion. He thought it was also silly, yet he still recoiled from addressing the assembled crowd.

"Speak ya Mabrouk. What's in your head? You're quiet about this . . . why?"

"You don't like Haj Salim's idea . . . is that because you don't think it will work?"

In spite of himself, Mabrouk blurted, "No, I don't think it will."

The group was shocked.

Haj Salim, the author of the idea under consideration, winced and cast a disbelieving eye at Mabrouk.

"And how is this, that would it not work?"

"It won't work," Mabrouk said, " . . . because when we divert the locusts from our village, they will go and find other villages, with people and farms and hearts that beat."

Hearing this, Haj Salim in turn felt the need to defend his idea.

"What is this, Mabrouk? What would you have us do, sign a contract with these insects--the creatures that are almost upon us--not to harm other villages, where there are people and farms and hearts that beat?"

"We have not found a better suggestion . . . "

Mabrouk continued with his speech, in spite of Haj Salim's interruption, but no one cut him off . . .

Mabrouk was astonished to note the crowd was straining to hear what he had to say. Once he had spoken his mind, those present found they couldn't overcome an urge to show their scorn with a collective gnawing of lips and the exchange of incredulous glances.

Mabruk attempted to bring the temperature down a notch, methodically adding more details, "Tonight, in the pre-dawn hours, it will be necessary for us to assemble two groups at the Southernmost edge of the village. Two groups, as otherwise each will forget his empty bag. Each person should bring with them an empty sack. A battle awaits us that even past ages have not known. In this battle, the sacks will be our weapons. We will then make for the place where the locusts sleep. As is known, the locust does not wake until rays of the sun rouse him. There, we will cram those sleeping locusts into our empty bags and cases. Then we will come back and cook them in black pots and pans. We will transfer the locusts from the dark recesses of our bags to the dark recesses of our intestines!" Here he concluded with delicious emphasis, "This will be the most wonderful extirpation that has ever been known in the history of locusts!"

Mabrouk had barely finished his soliloquy, when sarcastic commentary bubbled up from every corner of that small hall.

"This is an army, an army of locusts. Not a single locust or two locusts."

"An army whose queen rules its throne," said the mob sarcastically.

Fagih Misbah took advantage of the shifting wind to remind the crowd of his original idea, exhorting a mass pilgrimage to the tomb of Sidi Abu Kindil, Shaikh of the Saints and the Virtuous Ones.

Just then, a heaviness fell upon the crowd, as it was getting darker by the minute. Children called their fathers to dinner, with the programmed urging, "Mother says to tell you dinner is already cold"

Mabruk felt the crowd had not understood sufficiently what he had said, and that he must explain it better . . .

"Listen brothers," he continued, as the cacophony died down somewhat.

"According to my thinking, the words of Mabrouk are not devoid of some logic . . . but this army of locusts . . . if it spread across the air, it would cover the sky itself."

"Mabruk has told us that these two groups, which do not exceed fifty individuals, will collect the locusts and then dispose of them. If you ask me, this is impossible."

Sheikh Masoud nodded, as if to fill the void . . .

"And why fifty men only? Why don't we send the whole village, with its large and small, its old and middle aged, its children and women, and all the shabab? Everyone, absolutely everyone, will participate in this campaign."

The silence that followed these words was deafening.

Sheikh Masoud had indeed opened a new window on Mabrouk's suggestion. Even a fly on the wall would have noticed. The crowd was almost sold.

The first to raise his voice in clear support was Haj Salim, "I want to say there is absolutely nothing wrong with Mabrouk's idea."

"I swear by God that's true!" said another.

"Why don't we try this tonight. If it doesn't work, we'll go back to Haj Salim's idea tomorrow."

"We will kill two birds with one stone", said a third.

"On the one hand, we will get rid of the locusts, and on the other we will be able to feed our children for two, perhaps three days."

Only one person remained steadfastly against the plan.

"You are all crazy," screamed Fagih al-Misbah. "There's no doubt about it now, you are all completely nuts!" he muttered as he struck the ground with his stick, then stormed out of the room, wondering how these people could shun his sage advice in favor of the ravings of a youngster like Mabrouk.

And so it was, in the early hours of the morning, as a rooster somewhere first thought about stirring, as dogs bayed at the stars and the wind carried the holwing of a lone wolf from a faraway place. At exactly this moment, the Southern perimeter of the village witnessed a gathering unparalleled in the history of all the village gatherings. Their numbers were great, very great. Ashur managed to capturre perfectly the thoughts running through the minds of the crowd when he remarked that he would never have imagined the village contained so many people. Outwardly, the only shared attribute was an empty sack slung over each shoulder, for this was a motley crew of men, women, the elderly, their heads bent with age, and children, whom the coldness of night could't stop from from jumping here and there.

One woman brought with her nursing baby. Amer came riding on his donkey. Abdul Nabi had even brought with him even his small wheelbarrow in which he would put two or three sacks of locusts. Making up a long tail of the procession, dogs nipped at the heels of those in the rear. The sounds of the treading of feet over a vast land mixed with the barking of dogs, braying of a sole donkey and the clatter of the small wheelbarrow.

So it was that the villagers set off into winds laden with the scent of citrus. It would have been apparent to anyone watching that each individual was part of a whole. The very unique scent that pervaded the place was a symbol of unity, with its intermingling of essences of orange blossom, sheaves of wheat, and balah. There was no full moon to light the way as they covered ground, but the stars compensated, pulsing as if they were heaven's very eyes, their luminescence dissipating patches of darkness. When the group arrived to the area where the locusts slept, shafts of luminous dawn suddenly exploded from above, enabling the villagers to scoop up the nefarious insects with ease.

The horizon simmered in ochre; the color of burnt mountain-tops tapered off into a thin layer of blue before being crushed by an obsidian black. This heavenly aurora carried within it something resembling a palpitation. One would have been forgiven for thinking that this display was itself a great, living being.

The locusts had chosen a wide hill upon which to sleep, and spread themselves upon it. Under the light of dawn, it appeared as if it was an unending field of ready-to harvest sheaves of wheat, caramelized a golden hue. Here was the defining moment. The troops began their attack. Men doffed their cloaks and threw them into any number of heaps. They tied their belts around their bellies and gathered their sun-scarred forearms, from which grew thick mats of hair. Those wearing baggy pants rolled up the bottoms from the feet up. The mother of the newborn wrapped her bundle with care, kissed it, then lay it down in a safe spot under a tree Amer tethered two forefeet of his donkey and left the animal to eat its fill of grass. Some of the villagers had carried with them jugs of water; others, thinking ahead to the inevitable wailing of hungry children, carried with them small pails full of loaves of hard bread. Food and water were distributed strategically across the battlefield. Soon all these details were forgotten. Everybody was engrossed, transfixed by the task before them, indifferent to thorns and jagged bits of rock which might cause their hands to bleed, to bugs and scorpions. All that concerned them now were the locusts before them and the need to gather them up as fast as possible, before the sun had a chance to warm their exoskeletons. Children stepped out tentatively in between the feet of the advance guard only to retreat suddenly, frightened by the clamor of a copious shooing. One old woman, Saida, never stopped shouting, all the while urging them on, insisting that they find the locust queen! In places along this human phalanx, villagers started singing. Some sang the harvesting song. Some of the sheikhs raised their voices to deliver the satirical poetry they recied during the days of the war against the Italians, in so doing making plain the connection between war and that they were all doing now. The voices rose, singing . . .

"We are fighting the enemy amongst us . . . our boys are brave . . . our boys . . . . "

In another spot, others sang in unison . . . "Moon on high . . . travel on, come here . . . "

The younger children, too young to have been exposed to these patriotic anthems, found something hidden in the nearby chasms: echoes, curious and beautiful, set off by the singing of the procession. The children strain to hear, their small black eyes open with fascination. Then they howl in unison, "Haww, awww . . ."

And the echo responds, "Hawww, hawwww . . . "

Standing astonished, they all laugh and clap in overwhelming joy, as if they had stumbled upon the greatest discovery in the world.

Throughout all this, the locusts were calm and still, as if already dead. The human chain advanced inexorably. The mass of villagers appeared at times neverending line of soliders, at others like a winding snake ingesting a huge, wide carpet. Each of the members of the chain silently wished it possible to widen or multiply their numbers, so they might scoop up yet more locusts.

When the hand of the old farmer reached out to snatch a group of locusts in front of Omran, the zeal of the two was so great that a fight might have broken out if the old man hadn't withdrawn his hand in time. Some of the sheikhs present seemed to be off in some parallel universe, channeling rage at past injustices. It was as if they had had with these creatures something approximating a blood feud, and how sweet was the revenge! Voices cried out from everywhere, urging the group to redouble their efforts. The most insistent of them all of all was Sheikh Masoud, "Faster, fellows! Push forward!" But lo, the unfolding dawn revealed his mistake. Half of his group was made up of women and children!

And in one of the corners of the great line, euphoria overtook seven friends, among them Ashur. They agreed to make a bet, to see which of then could be first to the top of the hillock, collecting locusts on their way.

Even though Ashur's six companions had exerted themselves to the point that, despite the cold weather beads of sweat fell from their brows, Ashur took the early lead, cutting the distance in record time. Standing at the summit, he raised his hand in elation, "Huyya, huyya!"

Ashur felt at this moment like a great leader in the throes of battle. After him came the others, their bags full of locusts. Before the sun could rise from behind the far-off mountain peaks, even the parts of the line lagging farthest behind had finished his mission. They all stopped to look at their catch and marvel at the miracle that had fallen into their hands. Their collective hearts were full of great pride. Each felt as if this miracle had fallen both upon him personally and the group simultanously. With that epiphany, and for the first time since the crisis began, smiles broke out all around. Under the light of early day, the sandy hill showed red. There was not a trace of the locusts that had covered it, save a except a few-odd specimens jumping this way and that, trailed by hopping children. And there, look there . . . Haj Salim surveys the scene, wondering how in heaven's name they managed to do what they did. In the name of Allah, what had they done!

The women anticipated the moment they would arrive back at the village and could boil the locusts in their black pans. Finally, they could quell the childrens' endless clamour for bread, out of which there was never enough. Shortly thereafter the children would discover that when boiled, those bottomless handfuls of locusts were so tasty! As the crowd, lugging locusts on backs and shoulders, returned to its small village, joy was in their minds as well as on their faces. Every step was a pleasure! They marched, and they danced.

There . . . Abdul Nabi with his small wheelbarrow containing three bags of locusts. Chasing a few children, he's making car sounds as he moves . . . beep! beep! The children burst out laughing.

Look over there at Ashur and his beloved donkey. Over that way, the mother carrying her newborn in her arms. What a beautiful sight. Oh, and over there, Ashur, winner of the bet, joking with his companions. To a soul, they loved their village, which now appeared to them a vision of green. Life-green. The sun was now at their backs, fashioning long shadows from their figures. Individual projections merged into one enormous silhouette, that of a single living creature, the largest the world had ever known.

Source: Thalath Majmua't Qissasiyya, Ahmad Ibrahim Al-Faqih, Qita'a al-Kitab Wa Al-Tawzi' wa Al-I'lan, Tripoli, 1981