The Right Course

1

The Camel

He adopted the jenny as his mount after a disastrous experience with the malice of camels. In fact, it was the spiteful behavior of this species that drove him to the she-ass. To quench the thirst of some camels in Tassili, he had been busy drawing water from a well, aided by a camel, which he had received from a foreigner in repayment for a loan, without ever imagining that any of the tales of this species' perfidy might come true. Just past noon, when the heat was most intense and going back and forth around the mouth of the well had exhausted him and apparently that creature too, he was caught off guard by the behemoth's rebellion. When it first veered off course to the right, he assumed it had become disoriented, but once he tried to catch it to guide it back to the path, the camel lengthened its stride and quickened its pace. Then the leather bucket, which was fastened to the well's winch, tore apart, and the camel dragged the rope away behind it. He shot off in pursuit but did not catch it until it had descended into a nearby ravine, where it was halted when its halter rope became entangled in an acacia. He found it frothing and spitting angrily and voluminously as it tried to escape from the trap that the shrubby acacia had devised. He grabbed hold of the nose rope and attempted to calm the beast, but that was not meant to be, for there stirred within it a jinn troupe that--according to the tribes' tales--had concluded an age-old pact with this creature's ancestors. Although he detected a look of overt hostility in its hideous, bulging eyeballs, he freed the nose rope from the tree's root and stroked the camel's flank, caressing it the way mothers caress their babies, for he knew that camels delight in all types of fondling. Then he sang a lament, since he was sure that these creatures dote on songs of longing, but insanity--once awakened--is a demon that does not recognize affection. Frenzy too--once it emerges--is a ghoul that is not seduced by songs of longing. From deep in its chest it released an abominable sound. Then it twisted its neck back in a lightening-swift movement to bite his hand with its vicious teeth, which were filthy with foam and spit. Had he not fallen back at the last second, it would have seized his hand. Instead its teeth raked the back of his left hand, wounding it.

Then the battle flared. He pulled hard on the halter, but the beast reared its legendary neck upward in insane rebellion, severing the rope that twisted round this scoundrel's head and freeing the demon, which once liberated, attacked him, braying with delight at its liberation, confident of its triumph. Finding no way to defend himself, he retreated with a bound. Since the open countryside offered no sanctuary for anyone fleeing from a raging camel, he leapt aside and took refuge in the acacia. The camel circled the tree, casing it with the rash defiance of one determined to take revenge in some undisclosed way. This circling was also foolhardy and exhausted the beast. Then it paused to growl, bray, and threaten him from the far side of the shrubby tree. When it stretched out a serpentine neck to bite him, he retreated. The demon's rage peaked and, oblivious to the thorns, it threw itself on the acacia's boughs. It crushed the vicious canopy with its body, as thorns penetrated its hooves, and then reached him. At that moment, since his only hope of deliverance lay in the open countryside, he burst off, racing toward the neighboring mountain chain, and the beast burst off, speeding after him. He came to an area strewn with jagged rocks that skinned his legs and severed the strap of his right sandal, which he cast off. Then the stones lacerated his foot. He stumbled on a hill in the next stretch, lost his balance, and fell. The demon caught up with him, and he rolled across the flank of the hill and used his hands to help him gain his feet so he could continue fleeing.

In the following lap he forgot about himself and so forgot the danger threatening him, because he soon adjusted to running. Indeed, he began to enjoy his flight. Then he realized that man only escapes from danger once he relishes it and grows accustomed to its thrill. He felt exhausted, but the mountain chain was still far away, even though it looked very close. The mountains of Tassili, like those of Tadrart, look a stone's throw away, even when a traveler is days from them.

Exhaustion and thirst got the better of him and he sensed the ghoul's mouth above his head. When the camel's frothy saliva rained down on his arms, he realized that the accursed beast had caught him. He decided to try to outsmart it and suddenly veered to the right. He sped a short distance and then changed course again, to the left. The sly demon, however, kept right on his heels, veering in pursuit of him with the deftness of a bird and the suppleness of a serpent; so he felt desperate. He despaired because exhaustion had overwhelmed him and thirst had betrayed him, casting him into the all-encompassing consciousness of danger once more, for peril lies in ambush whenever one is conscious of danger while feeling its thrill.

In the succeeding lap, the beast pulled off his veil when attempting to bite his head. So he ran bare-headed across the barren plain. In his flight, he descended some gorges, but these led to a steep incline, which he started to climb, gasping for air, his heart almost leaping from his breast with each breath he took. Had he not used both hands and feet, the beast would have savaged him before he reached the top of the slope.

As he gained the summit, he fell. He fell and rolled across the extremely hard slope. He did not stop to think what he was doing until he reached a depression. Then he found himself in a deep ravine where trees grew at scattered intervals along the valley bottom and livestock grazed. No, these were not sheep or goats; these were donkeys. Half of the herd bolted; the others were startled but did not flee. Nearby, a few paces from where he had fallen, a gray she-ass gazed at him with inquisitive eyes. He detected in her look a mysterious smile. In this mysterious smile he discerned a message of salvation. He leapt to her side and then mounted her with another bound. At first she took offense and bucked in a heroic attempt to free herself, but he clung to her. In fact he melded himself to her back, for he was certain this was the only straw to which he could cling. At that moment the ghoul reached them. First off, the jenny kicked it with her hind legs to halt its attack. Next she shot away down the valley with insane speed. She went past the trees and then regained the half of the herd that had bolted. In the wink of an eye she had outstripped them to continue her mad flight. She attained the mountain chain in an incredibly short time and deposited him at the foot of a mountain, beside a commodious pool, which the torrents of the last rainy season had left there and which rocky outcroppings sheltered from the fiery sun. Gone was the barren wasteland, and the beast had disappeared along with it. So he bounded to the pool to drink.

2

The Wayfarer

He climbed the slope and stretched out in a cave for a long time. On regaining consciousness, he brooded about the camel's secret. He knew a lot about the wrath of camels but did not remember ever harming this one since receiving it from a noble of one of the tribes of Azjer in compensation for a long-deferred loan. Whatever could have come over it?

The next day he descended to the base of the mountain, drank from the pool, and ate some plants in the valley bottom before he made his way to the jenny. He found her grazing in a southern bend of the ravine. Then he stroked her neck for a long time and sang her an ancient lament. Next he tore apart his garment, which was stained with blood from his insane trip, and made a shackle for her from the strips of cloth. After placing this fetter over two of her legs, he set off to explore the area. He discovered evidence of camels and ashes from the fires of herdsmen but did not encounter anyone before evening fell, and so he relaxed. He climbed the hillside again and sought refuge in the cave. He lay down and immediately fell asleep. He was shortly awakened, however, by a ruckus. He searched to see whether those responsible were at the entrance to the cave but found no one. He crawled outside to discover, towering above him, a man wrapped entirely in dark-blue fabric, from his veil to his feet. Rising, he found himself face-to-face with the specter. As desert people normally do when uncertain of the lineage of a wayfarer or of a stranger's ethnicity, he inquired:

"Am I addressing a human being or a jinni?"

The specter replied immediately, "In the caverns of Tassili we frequently meet human beings with the body of a jinni and jinn in the bodies of human beings."

"But we can always rely on amulets. The unintelligible lingo of the ancients reveals a creature's constitution and shreds his veil of dissimulation."

"Tribes of jinn have buried in the Tassili caves some of the most potent amulets. The only amulet worth anything here is a man who sees no difference between men and jinn."

"I actually have never detected any difference between them."

"That's your most authentic amulet."

"My master may sit with me, but I am unable to offer him food or drink, because I am also a guest in these lands."

"We are all guests in these regions. Anyone who thinks differently is a scoundrel."

They sat facing each other at the entrance to the cave. The guest spoke of rain and then changed his topic to discuss armed raids, then epidemics, and finally famines. When it was his turn, he spoke about the fortunes of the tribes in the northern ones and finished with his migration to the central deserts. Then he recounted his bloody ordeal with the camel that he had received as repayment for a loan. The guest interrupted him: "Did you say you received it as repayment for a loan?"

"That's right."

"The secret lies in the loan, not the camel."

"What?"

"We violate the commandments of our lost Law when we ask for a loan. We violate the Law twice when we grant a loan to people."

"Is this a riddle?"

"Not so fast! Take it easy! Your first mistake was in making a loan to your friend, because a loan serves to nurture enmity in strangers, whom we provide with an incentive to become our enemies."

"But why?"

"Human nature!"

"Do you think the debtor doctored the camel with some secret potion?"

"Didn't I tell you that even worse than the jinn are people who disguise themselves as people?"

"But what should we do for individuals who fall on hard times and are in pressing need of a loan?"

"We give them what we can as a present, not a loan."

"Amazing!"

"That's preferable to loaning them something and then receiving a booby trap in return."

"I don't understand how a person can turn a beast into a booby trap."

"That's incredibly easy. One simply abuses the animal and then dispatches it to a competitor or enemy so that its bile will be vented on him instead of on the owner who mistreated it."

Then he prepared to depart, and his host descended the hillside with him to see him off.

3

Vengeance

He decided to rely on cunning. So he descended to the valley to dispatch the camel as a warning.

He traveled along the twists of the valley to the south until he reached the caves where he normally hid necessities for his journeys: water skins, leather buckets, saddles, ropes, lances, swords, and arrows.

In the ancient cave, which was carved with the designs of the ancestors, he found that the saddle had disappeared, although the water skin still hung from the cave's ceiling where he had left it a year or more before. It had shriveled and shrunk, and its leather had dried out, making it difficult to recognize as a container for storing water. The water skin and the saddle, however, had been hung there simply as part of a strategy appropriated from the customs of sorcerers, who toss down a bit of gold where people can reach it in order to put them off the trail of the true treasure.

He stood at the heart of the cave with worshipful humility. He turned toward the mouth of the cave and took one step forward; then a second step. He halted. He turned to the right and once again took two steps with eyes closed and head raised. He halted. Then he swung round to face the cave's interior. He took a step, a second, and then a third. He halted. He turned right once more. He faced the north wall, which was decorated with colored and incised depictions of chimerical creatures that were composites blending human beings with animals and jinn. He stood in the presence of his ancestors' altars with the prayerful attitude befitting a place that exuded antiquity's scent, conveying a message thousands of years old. He murmured a charm in the forgotten language borrowed from the tongue of the forgotten tribe that had left him these cryptic maxims carved into the cave's wall. Once he had recited this incantation of unknown meaning, he turned left. Then he took two steps before he knelt and began to dig beside the wall. Thus he liberated from the people of the netherworlds a treasure that he had entrusted to them for safekeeping many years before. They had appropriated it, and he would certainly not have been able to retrieve it from them without the secret password, the worshipful rituals, and a recitation of the charms of the first peoples. He dug for a long time, scooping out dirt and then rocks before finally extracting the treasure, which consisted of a brass sword and a spear the shaft of which ended in a vicious iron triangle. The sword was metal and the tip of the spear was metal, and-like gold-metals are treasures that denizens of the spirit world love to seize, just as they seize gold dust and the newborns of human mothers who have not protected them with wormwood leaves, knife blades, or the charms of the ancients tucked into pieces of leather. He brandished the spear in the air and then removed the sword from its scabbard. He felled an invisible enemy with a single blow and then descended the hill.

He caught up with his camel in the northern ravines and found that with its hideous chest his crazy beast was covering a she-camel. He lit a fire nearby and then thrust the metal point of the spear into the ashes. He fetched a new, palm-fiber rope from his kit and profited from the beast's preoccupation with mounting the female to fasten a fetter around its jaws and then to draw the rope back to tie firmly around the stallion's rear legs. When he took the spear point out of the fire, it looked blazing, like a live coal. He advanced on the frantic camel and plunged this fiery triangle into the creature's butt. The singed flesh made a hissing sound like a burning coal dropping in water. His nostrils were assailed by the scent of burning flesh. The scoundrel vented its pain with a voice that was not an animal's or a human being's. It was more like the sound of one of the unseen creatures: the voice of a ghoul, a she-demon, or a jinni. This sound blended with the voice of the miserable she-camel so that the braying became an earthquake that rocked the stillness of the desert. He was not finished, however. He removed the spear and returned to the fire, heating the sword furnace-hot. He placed the blade against the beast's right jaw, burning the skin and sending smoke into the air. The earth shook with the ghoul's howl. It tried to stand up to evade the pain of the fire but its attempts to free itself were frustrated by its copulative union with the female's body. So it collapsed on the she-camel's body as he struck the fiery blade against its other jaw. Smoke from the burning flesh filled the air once more.

When he had finished acting out his maxim, he approached his victim. After mumbling an invocation, he said: "Scion of misfortune, this is my message to your master."

He unfettered the camel and took it to a herdsman for return to its master as a present.

Within a matter of days, herdsmen told him that the ignoble beast had caught its master off guard as he stretched out to sleep, pounced upon him, and crushed him under its chest.

4

The Jenny

He swore that from that day forward he would never take the offspring of camels as his companion, for he considered any animal making a trip with him a companion in a desert of the never-ending journeys.

He went to the higher gorges and searched the herds of wild donkeys for his jenny that had saved him from the teeth of destruction one day. He handfed her barley and--from passing caravans--purchased for her dried clover imported from the oases. He placed a halter on her head and from then on thought of her as his companion, substituting her for those offspring of baseness, malice, and perfidy referred to in the tribes' languages as "camels." He was not content with this compact that provoked the horror of those who love the mahari and of devotees of other fine camels. He also launched a hostile attack against this species, accusing them of descending from inhabitants of the spirit world. In one of the satirical odes he composed, with some assistance from the talents of a wily herdsman, he said that demonic jinn like to cling to the backs of camels to make them their steeds and that, indeed, camels rank second as mounts in the customs of the denizens of the spirit world, topped only by the wind. For this reason, arrogance and haughtiness are a curse that befalls all those who choose to ride a mahari. By contrast, desert tribes have never known a single presumptuous person feel haughty while mounted on a donkey. Times would come that would turn this innovation head over heels, just as the desert previously had been turned topsy-turvy by an innovation called commerce, which had transformed the most noble people into the basest and converted prominent heroes into riffraff, while turning members of the lower class into nobles.

The tribes attributed to him provocative verses that denigrated the status of camels and extolled donkeys by contrast. Despite the anger aroused by these verses, which some people interpreted as a challenge to the law of chivalry and a heresy attributable to the common people, many elders discovered that they were not devoid of wisdom, especially since the donkey was the first beast of burden domesticated by their original ancestors. In their lives back then, they relied on the donkey for assistance even before cattle, which eventually were wiped out by droughts, leaving no evidence behind them in the desert. These men confirmed that it would be slanderous for them to snub their grandfathers' companion, which had sprung to their forefathers' rescue, or to celebrate the heroic deeds of the camel, which was proverbial for being as hateful as a slave or a flood. When panegyric poetry ruled supreme and the story was disseminated through the tribes, spiteful individuals jested and thus bestowed on him the epithet Wantahet1 drawing hope from the hero of the story, which was transmitted down through the generations with the comment that the master of the jenny at the end of time would approach villages to entice tribes to a banquet only to pull the banquet carpet out from under them, allowing them to fall into a bottomless abyss. When this message reached him, he responded to these people with a message in the form of a long ode, in which he eventually admitted he was the jenny master but denied that he was the jenny master who would lead the tribes to a banquet in the abyss. He was, rather, the jenny master who would lead the tribes to the banquet of deliverance.

Footnote: 1. Wantahet: Tamasheq name for the jenny driver.

"The Right Course" is an excerpt from the novel Al-Bahth An al-Makan al-Da'i` (In Search of the Lost Place), which is forthcoming in English translation as The Seven Veils of Seth.