NOTE: Haggag Hassan Oddoul (born Alexandria, Egypt, 1944) an ethnic Nubian author–who writes in Arabic–did construction work on the Aswan High Dam and has served in the Egyptian armed forces during two wars. He began writing at the age of forty and was awarded the Egyptian State Prize for Short Stories in 1990. An English translation of some of his stories by Anthony Calderbank has been published as Nights of Musk: Stories from Old Nubia (Cairo & New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005).
In December 2005, the Sawaris Foundation award of 100,000 Egyptian pounds went to Oddoul’s novel Ma’tuq al-Khayr, naming it as the best Egyptian novel published between 2002 and 2004.
The translator gratefully acknowledges Abubakr Sidahmed for his invaluable assistance with this translation.
Oh, I’ve been ill for a long time! From Cairo they brought me a doctor, Who told me, “Specter, your illness is growing worse. It’s caused by the three green scars on her cheek.1
The innovative Nubian musician Muhammad Wardi with his magical song “Al-Qamar Buba” has increased young people’s passion and licentiousness, driving girls insane and robbing boys of their senses. Whenever a young man’s warm blood comes to a boil, he sings along with this song. Whenever a young woman’s vitals heat up within her, she sings along with this same song.
The necklace . . . the qamar buba necklace hangs heavy on you. The full moon weighs you down.
Consumed by anxiety, fathers and mothers blame Wardi: “Don’t we already have enough problems? Our sons are sexually precocious anyway, and then you come along to strike the match of their bodies, turning them into cobs of corn roasting over flaming coals? May God forgive you, Wardi, you son of such-and-such a woman.” They shout, “Shaykh Karar, Shaykh Karar, you fine old marriage clerk and sweet-voiced muezzin, go ahead and draft their marriage contract so we can celebrate their nuptials. Let’s marry these fools to each other expeditiously, before it’s too late, even if we’re a few years ahead of ourselves.” They then traverse a preferred course, drawing inspiration from the law. Before dawn the groom and the bride descend to the pure Nile to cleanse themselves. So they cool off and free themselves from worries about the greatest distress.
In the middle of the wide Nile, after the great bend, the island looked like a forest of palm and trees. Its vibrant verdure glowed in the bright rays of the brilliant sun and the legendary stream glimmered beside it. The sails of the boats were dreamy, white butterflies fluttering on the water’s surface.
At the bride’s house, the extensive, sandy courtyard was as crowded as a market teeming with people. Along the south wall, seven girls squatted on their heels in a row. A container full of dough was beside each one, and before her an iron griddle rested on three stones, which held it over the flaming firebrands. They were cooking loaves of kabid3 bread. Near the kitchen at the far end of the courtyard, women were busy preparing various kinds of vegetables. The mothers of the bride and of the groom circulated here and there, overseeing the whole production.
Outside the house they had a cow on the ground, and Dafaèullah, a mature, capricious fellow, stepped forward to slaughter it. The groom’s grandmother-supplicating God the Giver-danced around the cow while singing an immolation hymn. To the cheers of the children and the bride’s sister, she placed the palms of her hands in the warm blood and stamped red handprints on the home’s door as talismans to repel the evil eye. These would reinforce the china plates set into the outer wall to reflect the rays of the sun and to deflect the glare of envious eyes.
The bride’s mother released a trilling ululation that shot up through the pure sky: Lili lili lili lili. At the same time, swarms of trills from tens of mouths combined with hers in a concatenation of truly loud reverberations that blanketed the island and swept on to the villages scattered along the Nile’s banks to announce that the wedding party had begun. “So come along, all you kinsfolk.”
The sun plunged out of sight behind the mountain on the west bank, releasing behind it–in the still twilight–a pink glow, which reflected off the edges of the house’s roofs and the crowns of trees and slender palms. Singly and in groups people from the island’s three hamlets headed toward the courtyard of the wedding feast: lasses, lads, men, women, and children. Most of them came on donkeys, although some walked and a few rode lofty camels.
Night fell, and the donkeys of the young men became as giddy as they were. A group of them sped off in a race on the north side. A youth renowned for his frivolity and good humor lagged behind them and veered away, cutting through the trees until he neared the waters of the Nile, which was rising and had covered the lower portion of island’s shores with a subdued roar, for the flood season was beginning. He slowed his donkey as he looked around eagerly.
The shadows of a bevy of young women on their mounts became visible in the distance, and their shrill but delicate laughter preceded them. A girl with honey-colored eyes and long lashes quit the others, and the laughs and comments of her girl friends pursued her.
“Beware of the River Folk4.”
“They will kidnap you, daddy’s girl.”
“Let her go. Her land is parched and needs irrigation.”
“Her jackal is licking his lips among the palms.”
“I wonder whether this time he will be satisfied with the flirtatious look of her eyes?”
She stopped her jenny. Around her the stalks of esparto grass were so dense that they assumed frightening shapes. In the gloomy darkness she glanced about furtively. Her jenny caught the scent of a jackass. When the young jackal approached longingly, his donkey nudged the jenny’s rump. The young man whispered, “Najmiya.”
“In God’s name! You frightened me, Karami.”
“I want you.”
“For a wife, girl.”
“I love you.”
“And hate your mother.”
“Get away from me!”
“Why does your mother reject me?”
“Is that my fault?”
“. . . .”
“You delight me. You enchant me.”
“Your complexion, your figure, your pair of mangoes. . . .”
“Oh! . . . Mind your manners, Karami.”
“And what I like best about you, Najmiya. . . .”
“Your eyes, good girl.”
The boats sailed toward the wedding isle at a good clip. Those coming from the south left their sails furled as they almost flew north with the Nile’s surging current. The sails of the feluccas heading upstream flapped in the humid breeze from the north as the boats struggled against the river’s strong current, which was thick with silt and met them head on with determined dignity, attempting to return them to their point of origin. The women seated on the boats released ululating trills from the center of the Nile, and these cries joined forces and combined with the trills of the wedding party on the island.
From the harbor, adult and adolescent males took the road to the distant guesthouse, where dinner was to be served. The women headed to the bride’s house, where they would sup with the island’s women. A small number of the men and younger boys split into groups that visited various private homes. Some gathered beneath trees at edge of the gathering and others stretched out on the soft, gleaming sand at a comfortable distance from the action, so the darkness half-hid and half-revealed their presence, while they smoked bango5 and drank aragi6.
At Dafaèullah’s house, his two friends sat demurely on a sofa in the spacious parlor. The two men were happy to see their host enter with hands held high, each hand clasping an aragi bottle glistening with cold water.
“I’ve left these two bottles of forbidden booze in the big water jar till they became as frigid as my cousin Salim Nafisa.”
Four black percussionists, who were clearly of African heritage and as slender as palm trees, each holding a single-skin frame drum, the head of which had been stretched tight with heat, played their instruments softly. The children arrived. Then came the young women who were followed by their mothers, and finally by the men. Then throngs of men emerged from their hiding places, after their mental equilibrium had been restored to a delicate balance between sobriety and inebriation. Restless Dafaèullah, however, was almost always under the influence of aragi, to which he had become addicted in childhood. For this reason, his sole full-brother Shaykh Karar, avoided him. He would quarrel with Dafa’ullah, curse him, and disown him only to forgive him soon thereafter, because Dafaèullah was a good-hearted and good-tempered fellow.
The dancing began in earnest, and the drums grew louder. Dafaèullah shared his vivacity with the island’s inhabitants, fussing at everyone he encountered, old or young, male or female. The lines of men merged, crowding together in parallel rows, and began to move like waves in the Nile. Opposite, separated from them by the dance floor, from which the four percussionists broadcast the rhythm with their sensitive drums, were the women’s rows, which lines moved fluidly, flowing from one dance to the next.
Beyond an interval of sand, near a sand-hill, there was a single row of men, who danced proudly, separate from the others. They wore expensive wool cloaks, even though the weather was mild. The central figure was the umda7, and dancing with him were Shaykh Karar, his cousin Salim Nafisa, his sidekick Diyab, and three others. Only Yaèqub was absent. They were dancing in a line, all by themselves, calmly and proudly. Dafaèullah, unsteady from drink, advanced toward them. He confronted them and-the reek of aragi emanating from his mouth–assailed them, to their faces: “Island elders, aren’t you Nubians like the rest of us? Are you really dancing? Do you think yourselves superior? Immmm8 on you . . . on the umda himself, on my cousin Salim Nafisa, and even on my own brother Karar.” Before any of them could take offense or curse him, he danced off again, circling toward the rows of women.
Diyab was always at the end of the row of important men, placed next to Salim Nafisa, who would whisper slanderous comments meant only for the ear of Diyab, who was the village grocer. Salim Nafisa was intolerant of people who put on airs. From childhood on, his list of grudges against the world had continued to grow. He had not married Saèdiya, whom he had desired. Hasan had taken her from him, even though Salim Nafisa was wealthier than Hasan and more closely related to Saèdiya. No matter how magnificent a gallabiya and cloak that Salim chose for his powerful body, people always said Bakri Zahra was more elegant, better built, and better looking. Although he prided himself on his light tan complexion, how could he compete with Sharif Jarakusa, who was pure white? Whenever he tried to be witty and a bon vivant, the alcoholic Dafaèullah easily surpassed him. Once he reached manhood, the island’s inhabitants did not select him for umda, preferring instead Abdullah Jazuli, an elder from the Alubab family. When it came to attacking problems, people could not do without Shaykh Karar. One day, wishing to challenge Karar, who was the muezzin, he climbed the minaret before him and gave the call to prayer in his ugly, raspy voice. Then people told him, “If you offer the call to prayer again, we won’t respond and come to the mosque.” In short, Salim Nafisa had not succeeded in being the best at anything. For this reason, he was unhappy with the standards of the island’s people and even with those of all the Nubians. He would say, “Folks, people’s greatest failing is that they do not award a man’s destiny to him or grant him his due.”
Since he was such a whining, habitual malcontent, people avoided listening to him-everyone except Diyab, who was his constant companion, since Salim paid Diyab’s expenses whenever they were together. The audience of one, although he was affluent, was known for his extreme avarice. For this reason, Diyab went out of his way to humor Salim, listening to him and feigning admiration, astonishment, and amazement at his small talk, raising his eyebrows and striking his hands together as he exclaimed, “My goodness! Well phrased! By God Almighty!”
Then the querulous Salim felt satisfied with Diyab and brought out his tobacco pack, which was filled with rolled cigarettes. He placed one between his lips and gave another to Diyab. Because the only listener was such a miser, he had not brought from his shop even a match to light a cigarette. When Salim Nafisa deliberately stalled before lighting the two cigarettes, Diyab begged, “Strike a light . . . strike a light, shaykh.”
Diyab was addicted to smoking marijuana, as long as it was at Salim Nafisa’s expense. In fact, he was addicted to anything that came free of charge but was intensely annoyed whenever youngsters called him “Cheapskate Diyab.”
The men were in white gallabiyas and turbans, and the women wore silky, flowing Sudanese-style over-dresses in a rainbow of bright colors. These garments, which enveloped them totally except for their arms, upper chest, and neck, fell from the top of the head down the back, showing off plaited and oiled hair that crowned smiling, complacent faces. They danced in close-packed lines, uniting all the colors of the world. One wore a red thob9, others green, blue, and yellow ones; some of these were bicolor or tricolor, and others were all the colors of the rainbow. The bride’s gauzy over-gown united the most luminous colors, which blended with each other like those on the neck of a homing pigeon. They gleamed and vibrated in a dazzling and enchanting fashion. The dancing was hot but had yet to reach a truly creative phase. This was merely a rehearsal for the true dancing, which would begin once the tall musical genius, whose boat had been delayed, arrived.
Samha’s house was in a remote region of the island. Although the girl’s family had left for the wedding house, she had stayed behind. She was determined not to go unless accompanied by her grandmother Kashifiya, who had turned into a recluse since her daughter had died, saying that dancing and listening to drums made her ill and that all those shrill ululations got on her nerves. She had refused for some time to attend any wedding-which was nearly inexcusable-but had also neglected to perform a necessary duty that no woman would shirk-no matter how young or old-namely, participating in the women mourners’ traditional dance rituals, performed whenever they lost a soul from among the island’s population. All the women took part in the lamentation, which was danced with slow steps accompanied by poetic recitation of the virtues of the departed soul. She had ignored the other women when they blamed her and became irate, even after they actually shunned her. The reason for her self-imposed isolation, her laconic conversations, and for the sorrow that stained her face was the death of her only daughter Saèdiya-in her prime.
This night Samha insisted on taking her grandmother to the wedding. So they left her the donkey in case she was able to persuade the old lady to ride behind her and come along. The grandmother was petite and slender. Fifty years or more before, she had been more beautiful than any of the other island belles. In fact, she had been more beautiful than all the beauties in the whole district. Then she had handed her throne on her daughter Saèdiya, whose hand Salim Nafisa, Diyab, and others had sought, although short-lived Hasan had won her. Then Saèdiya had died two seasons after him. From that time, Kashifiya had enveloped herself in gloomy sorrow. Now that her granddaughter Samha was at the threshold, ready to mount beauty’s throne: her mother’s and her grandmother’s throne, Kashifiya was still prevented from acknowledging the beauty of her granddaughter by some psychological hang-up.
We pronounce al-qamar as if it were spelled al-jamar, and al-qamar buba is our most celebrated type of necklace. It is heavy, made of gold and hangs from a woman’s neck to her chest. Every girl waits longingly as she yearningly asks time: “When will I develop into a young woman with clear definition so my mother will give me al-qamar buba? Then I will feel its weight against my chest and enter the dance floor to take part in all the dances with this heavy piece of jewelry bouncing against my chest, chafing and caressing me. I will grow ever more ecstatic and full of yearning and so present an eminently artistic dance performance.”
When the musical genius Muhammad Wardi’s star rose and he sang the ancient folk song “Al-Qamar Buba,” reinventing it, adding his own artistic touches and his voice to its music, all of Nubia sang it with him, both in the Sudan and in Egypt. Girls then yearned even more fervently for this necklace, while fantasying that Wardi would sing the song for them, celebrating what was most beautiful about them: a tender torso, a swelling breast, a long neck, gleaming teeth, and wide eyes. How happy she would be if Wardi were to sing a stanza of “Al-Qamar Buba” for her!
Samha dreamt yearningly that this would happen to her. On that night, the night of the wedding, she entreated her grandmother and begged her even more vehemently, whispering her dream to her longingly. The grandmother could not imagine that anyone deserved to claim her daughter’s throne of beauty, not even her granddaughter, who was the daughter of her own daughter Saèdiya. That night when Samha wept, her grandmother weakened and was overcome by affection. So her psychological barrier fell, and she removed the necklace from its hiding place at the bottom of an old chest to present to Samha. When she observed the ocean of delight on her granddaughter’s face and when this reminded her of how Saèdiya had looked, she decided without any hesitation to accompany Samha to the wedding.
O Wardi10, you beloved genius, you sing for us at times in Nubian, in the language of the tribes of al-Fajikat and al-Mutawwakin and the clans of Sukkot and al-Mahas, and at times in Arabic, the language of the letter Dad. You, Wardi, are a rose that grew on the four river banks of the Nubians: those of the White and Blue Niles, disseminating its fragrance with the spilling of the river over the banks of islands in this earnest stream. Its perfume spread over the villages at the confluence of the two Niles in al-Maqran and at Tuti Island. It took its sweet, fresh Nubian accent to Halfa and Argim. Then this diffused over the heights in Qasr Ibrim and rose over the hills of the village of Abu Simbal, which the exceptional Ramses amassed with the golden, Nubian Nefertari, reaching the Plains of Tumas and al-Maliki, becoming intoxicated from the date palms of Anayba, drawing perfume from the vineyards and hamlets of al-Junayana and Amir Kab and perfumed by Wurud Su-Hayl and Jandal Su-then sweetened by the sweet names of the two villages Tushka and Adnan. Even the different modes used by your voice come from the modes of the powerful water-tossing cataracts in the center of the Nile. You soared, Wardi, in our pure skies. Pursuing you were Munib, the devotee of the tambura11 and Munir, that slim, aristocratic youth who is speeding after you.
Samha and her grandmother mounted the donkey, and the grandmother tucked under her arm the pair of faded red leather shoes she had preserved as carefully as the two teeth that remained in her mouth. Samha was engaged to her cousin but would never savor her own beauty or feel she was as beautiful as her mother and grandmother had been in their days unless Nubia’s bronze-faced jackal sang to her:
Al-qamar buba hangs heavy on you; On you al-qamar buba is heavy.
The boat rocked back and forth. They conjectured that this was Wardi’s boat, since the music was so splendid that the performer had to be Wardi’s companion Munib. Once the felucca drew closer, Wardi’s turban was visible above the others’, for Wardi was tall and slender. He leapt to the shore and everyone embraced him. They mounted the animals and sped off like cavaliers to the radiant square. Men’s voices applauded him and the women’s and girls’ trills reverberated in his honor: “Lili lili lili lili!” Then everyone shouted, “Blessings on the Chosen One . . . Blessings on you, Muhammad.” After this came the lively roar of exploding gunpowder from two-barreled rifles: “Dayy, dayy, dayy, dayy.”
Dafaèullah, who had sold his rifle during a period of financial distress, made a pole with his right arm, pointing it to the heavens-as if it were a rifle-and his tongue exploded with the sound of gunfire: “Dayy, dayy, dayy, dayy.”
The rhythm of the drums contributed to each phase of the ritual: “Tuum-taka-tuum-tak,” and the authentically African leader of the drum ensemble shouted the traditional greeting: “Joy12, Young Wardi! A joyous welcome to the youthful Wardi!”
The groups of people responded, seconding this wishful prayer to the only One who is truly One: “Oh, the One!”
They took him and his troupe to the guesthouse. His bronze complexion showed off his pearly teeth in his famous smile. They all sat down, cross-legged by silver salvers heaped with garnishes and chunks of meat. Trays made from plaited and colored palm leaves held–in their commodious interiors–bread, dates, popcorn, and fruit. After eating, they washed their hands with water from bronze ewers. Then Wardi asked, “Now . . . where’s the aragi? Or are you misers?”
The hospitality committee laughed, because they knew he was fond of aragi and that he had certainly consumed a lot even before arriving. Why should he have date wine and how would it help him focus, since he was such a habitué?
After dining with the other men in the guesthouse, Uthman proceeded angrily to the wedding house. Claiming to be thirsty, he headed to the parlor. His shoulder bumped against his aged aunt, who studied him with her feeble eyes: “Who is it? Uthman the Kid? What’s brought you here? Didn’t you find any water at the guesthouse? You claim to be thirsty when you come to check out the women. Immmm! Don’t you ever slow down, Fadila’s son?”
Uthman ignored her. His eyes were searching for the person who had angered him. Sharifa Hasana passed through the courtyard and spotted him too. Her face registered her contempt and rejection. Uthman frowned and threw the water jug to the floor as a warning threat. Sharifa Hasana moved away, muttering to herself. He knew she was cursing him and muttered in response: “May God curse all you girls. You lack both intellect and religion.”
He filled the jug with water again and drank.
“After the wedding, I’ll give her a black eye. I’ll hit her so hard her face bruises. That’s the only language females understand: takh, tirakh . . .tuukh.”
Sharifa Hasana sat in a corner of the courtyard washing the plates after feeding a swarm of twenty men. She turned to the woman helping her: “Down with men and anyone who likes them! Sixty out of seventy are foolish kids.”
“Has your husband angered you one more time?”
“One more time! Say a hundred more times . . . or a thousand. He wants me now. His excuse is that he won’t dance as vigorously or creatively until he’s done it. He’s crazy. He’ll make me split my dress and cry out, no matter how many people are around. Ibiyuu . . . ibiyuu13.”
“They’re all nuts! My husband Mahmud ibn Abdul. . . .”
“All of them? But this Uthman-my husband-has the thickest skull and is the stupidest of the lot!”
“But he’s a good man! When it comes to my husband Mahmud ibn Abdul. . . .”
“You say a good man! By God, once the wedding is over, I’ll refuse him again and have him ramming his head against the wall in rage.”
“That’s what I’m going to do with my husband Mahmud ibn Abdul. . . .”
“I’ll show him who Sharifa Hasana is . . . this Billy-goat who never gives me a moment’s peace!”
When Wardi finally arrived, he was intoxicated and ready to perform. Then the true creativity could commence, glory to the Absolute Creator. “Lili lili lili lili . . . tuum-taka-tuum-taka, buum biyu, buum buum. Blessings on you, Muhammad. Dayy, dayy, dayy, dayy.”
“Young Wardi, joy to you!”
“Oh, the One!”
“Youth of Nubia, rejoice!”
“Oh, the One.”
“Groom and bride: wedding joy!”
“Oh, the One!”
Wardi’s singing was backed by his troupe, and joining them were two future stars: Munir and Kashif. The groups of people packed into the lines, which kept re-forming and changing appearance. They also sang, responding to his call to them, moving him and being moved by him, animating him and being animated by him.
The merit of our approach to singing is that everyone sings, and the fairness of our dancing is that everyone dances. The mercy of our creativity is that everyone is an creator and asserts himself as he sees fit. The hot, steady rhythm of the percussionists’ drums bound together the diverse contributions of individuals, transforming all of these into a sea that had rising and falling waves and ripples that spread across the surface or spiraled in whirls there. The surface would drift in one direction while undercurrents flowed the opposite way. There were parallel eddies and still others that twirled gently and calmly around. The important thing was that all these were backed up by a uniform rhythm, a single fabric, and so became homogeneous performances that were enveloped by the beating of the drummers and the successive handclaps.
A half-moon swam to the dome of the dark violet sky. From on high it contributed its silver light to the courtyard’s illumination joining the golden mantle-lamps’.
Kashifiya sat cross-legged on a sand-hill near the square with its silky sand. Alone, she watched her granddaughter Samha, who had walked onto the dance floor wearing al-qamar buba for the first time. Lili lili lili lili . . tuum-taka-tuum-tak. She circled round as effortlessly as a strolling gazelle. Wardi noticed her and smiled. So the tambura of Munib became gay. The dancers’ bodies sauntered with light, calm quiverings until the four tall men finished heating their drums’s heads over small fires they had lit. So Munib’s tambura’s reverberations became full-throated: tutun, tutun, tun. Wardi did not wait for the beats of the drums. His eyes had slowly fixed on the lovely girl, the flower that was coming into full bloom, the girl who had walked onto the dance floor to dance with one of her girlfriends. A lock of her hair skipped around her forehead and refused to stay put. Samha was a butterfly in flight over the sand. Her gossamer, sherbert-colored over-gown, in response to her deft movements and gliding maneuvers, floated in the air and twisted only to straighten and then coil in spirals only to fall for a moment as if to catch its breath quickly before leaping back again and following the lines of its wearer’s svelte body, which seemed to lack any bones. It flowed as if it were a flight of the imagination made flesh but not quite embodied. The thob slipped away from the top of her head to reveal a diadem of black hair plaited into oiled braids. Wardi stepped onto the dance floor to dance with her, and her girlfriend slipped away. “Lili lili lili lili. Blessings on you, Muhammad. Dayy, dayy, dayy, dayy. Buum, biyu, buum, buum. . . .” Wardi and Samha separated from the others on the dance floor, responding fluidly to each other with quick steps. They flirted with each other by their gestures, facing each other joyfully. They roamed the dance floor: a playful, well-fed jackal and a serene and lissome gazelle. He placed his hand on her shoulder, and they merged, shoulder to shoulder, stepping harmoniously as one: a legendary creature dancing with four feet, an erect, two-tone torso, and twin heads: one with a turban as white as day and the other night-black braids. The creature circled, advanced, and fell back in response to the melodies and the rhythm. The illumination from the mantle-lamps was fading, and in the light of the moon wafted fragrant, silvery breezes. The sisters and mothers of the bridal couple were sprinkling perfume on the exuberant groups. Samha’s brother was delighted. Her prospective father-in-law was gleeful. In the distance her grandmother had difficulty suppressing her body’s quivering as she lay on the silky sand. None of the men was jealous of Wardi, since each of them emulated him and he represented all of them. He was savoring beauty and beauty was savoring him. He was the exemplar of the fiery, dancing, Nubian Southerner.
Yaèqub, who was the same age as Karar, was just arriving by himself on his steed, uncharacteristically late. He deliberately came by way of the hamlet’s quiet houses instead of heading straight toward the wedding court. He paused in front of a silent, lifeless house and dismounted. He stepped forward and stood in front of the door for a time. He entered and then recited the opening prayer of the Qur’an in memory of his parents, for it was in this house that he had been raised and had grown up. In the expansive courtyard, where the sand was cold, an aged palm tree lay severed from its broken trunk. They had chopped it down that noon with numerous axe blows. It had been dead for several seasons. Fearful that it might conceivably fall on the house’s rooms, they had slaughtered it and here it lay: a rigid corpse. It had fallen to the earth, and some of its yellow branches had stuck to the wall. Although shattered, it seemed to want to lean against him and to rise once more to stand as lofty as before, when it had been the centerpiece of the courtyard, guarding the home, bestowing many blessings on the residents, shading them, scaled by generation after generation of men, who had harvested baskets of its precious dates.
Yaèqub gazed sorrowfully at the palm. He had climbed it ever so often, season after season, his shoulder pressed against it. It had been part of the dowry of his wife, the mother of his children. Its fruit had paid the expenses of his wedding. It had provided food for his children and their clothing. Guests had been greeted with its dry harvest. Now . . . with these two hands, which had taken fruit from its breast . . . with these same two hands he had struck it with the axe so its trunk wept and it came apart, screaming, and then fell to the ground. Oh! Oh! What lessened the sting and his grief over it was the fact that the palm was dead and did not feel the axe-blows from its lover. He consoled himself, saying: “Once the sheep has been slaughtered, does skinning it do any further harm?” He wiped away two tears. He entered his parents’ room and remained inside it for some minutes. He left it to enter the room used by his brother and his brother’s wife and then their children’s room. He wiped tears away as he prayed for their prosperity and safe return to their island. This was the family home where his younger brother had married and had had his children. Now he had taken his small family on a search for a more prosperous livelihood in the North. Yaèqub returned to the courtyard and sat down on the sand facing the palm, toying with one of its branches and patting it. He scrutinized the house, where motion had never abated. Now it was pervaded by a silence resembling the tomb’s. “What days these are! Who knows . . . after I die . . . will my children also migrate and leave my house, which I built at the tip of the island, and leave their childhood home as still as a tomb?”
He hurried away on the jenny. In a place unconfined by the walls of houses, he looked off into the distance where the cemetery hill disappeared into the gloom. “Forgive them, righteous ancestors. Our life has become very, very hard.”
The night progressed, and the moon became a silver mirror. The mountains in the distance looked like otherworldly phantoms that had grown sluggish and sought out a resting place on earth. It seemed that if you threw rocks at them you would damage them, piercing their gelatinous bodies and scattering specks of their viscosity in vaporous liquids. The Nile River flowed around them in two channels, its waters bringing peace to peaceful people, flowing with determination as it gushed toward the North. Groves of palm trees, Nile acacias, red-gum eucalyptus trees, oranges, lemons, and vineyards-all were lost in an attractive obscurity. They dozed heedlessly, guarded by the tall palm tree. The water had surrounded their front rows and risen to their lowest section. The nearby hamlet’s buildings had stayed behind while the island’s inhabitants had filled the wedding courtyard. High up on this village’s house-walls, china plates glowed like the eyes of legendary creatures that never sleep.
Karami held fast to his place in the first line at the right end so that he would be opposite Najmiya who remained in the second line on the women’s side, facing the men. They were separated only by the dance floor, where Wardi, his entourage, and the four percussionists were playing drums and beating the rhythm. Karami was watching Najmiya’s wide eyes. Then their eyes met, and he was smitten by an insane lust that made his body tremble, even though the dance floor lay between them. Najmiya’s heart fluttered with passion.
As Dafaèullah came and went, he made a point during these peregrinations of glancing at the love of his life with her golden-brown complexion, Arju, whose shoulder showed above those of the other women. She saw him, even if she was not looking at him. Her shoulders, upper chest, and head were cellular sensors that sought out and kept track of all the movements and interests of Dafaèullah. She could hear and sense him with her blood and guts. Behind this powerful, explosive body danced Samha, who was concealing herself in a row of girls, after being overwhelmed by a mixture of pride and embarrassment. Wardi had danced with her. Her thoughts flew to her fiancé who was working in Cairo of the Egyptians. She was saying to herself, “Oh, if only he were here!”
Shaykh Karar approached Yaèqub, “You don’t seem yourself, Yaèqub.”
“Why? As you can see I am here with you, dancing and singing.”
“No, you’re sad about the date palm we put to rest.”
” . . . .”
“We’re all the same. Pull yourself together, man. God gives and God takes. May God provide a substitute.”
“Oh, glory to Him who is enduring.”
“Come on; let’s plunge for a bit into the lines of young men to warm ourselves with their vigor, for time has cooled our bodies.”
There was a new, tighter, swifter attack on the drums. Karar stepped forward trailed by Yaèqub. Beside Wardi’s turban, Karar raised his right hand high and snapped his fingers: zat zat zat zat.
“Rejoice, Wardi, rejoice.”
Then Yaèqub went zat zat zat zat: “Rejoice, Wardi, rejoice.”
They withdrew to allow Dafaèullah, who never slowed down, to enter. A new hope had entered his heart: that he might revive an ancient love after the death of his beloved, honey-colored Arju’s husband. Zat zat zat zat. “Rejoice, Wardi, rejoice, you in whose veins flow rivers of fiery aragi.” Dafaèullah turned to leave the dance floor for the rows of men, but Arju entered the dance floor just then. She was dancing with her girlfriend Hayriya. He forgot his forbearance, his forbearance that had lasted for long years and headed toward her only to find her before him. He faced her and began dancing, and so Hayriya was forced to exit. This was unexpected. Everyone knew their story. Salim Nafisa’s face grew gloomy: ibbbb. Diyab struck his fist in his hand, as a glum feeling of disapproval overtook him. The amorous dancing couple first danced bashfully. The four tall men were inspired by the spirit of the wild forests beyond the four cataracts and delivered what only a native-born son of those rainforests could. They performed with extraordinary depth. Then there was a lili lili lili lili from pleased women, a buum bibu buum buum from sympathetic women, and the thunder of exploding gunpowder and its echo: dayy dayy dayy dayy in his defense. The girl Samha’s dancing had been like the Nile when it is calm and complaisant; Arju’s dancing was the Nile when it floods and inundates the land after a period of forced restraint. Her clearly defined, well proportioned body, which was loaded with all the signal characteristics of the African female, was tall, succulent, tender-skinned, fresh, and vigorous. It roared, forcefully transforming what lay still in the depths, goading it to rise and to manifest itself in material form. Her full lips purred and murmured. Her light tan face became flushed as a slick of ardent fertility covered it. The fire of the passion matured, ascended, and dawned in its season, which was as predestined as anything else of which one says: “Be!” and so it comes into existence. Dafaèullah’s searing passion assured that he would catch fire. So he matched her dancing with some new moves. He circled round her, leaned low, and then sprang aside, to the right and left, with the vigor of a man in his twenties. His hands moved vertically, like a kettle, one rising while the other descended. Then they went horizontal, one straying to the south and the other swinging to the north. They pressed forward when his feet did and pulled back with them. Arju’s eyes shone and her full lips opened. Her long neck inclined to one side. It straightened to incline again. Her body, which had not aged, trembled. Dafaèullah with his animated dancing was saying, “I’ve always loved you. I still love you.” Arju, who resembled an Egyptian-hued, African-bodied giraffe, sizzled as she moved back and forth, creatively expressing herself with a bangle-adorned body that announced its intentions with the pit-a-pat of her feet, the quivering of her torso, and the constant movement of her lean neck: “You have not loved me as much I as have loved you. Never . . . never!” The movements of the middle-aged man, who was reeling like a palm frond during the peak of a thunder storm said: “I have drunk myself silly for you. I have fled my island for you. I have returned for you. I have lived for you. I have sung for you. I have danced for you. I have angered my family for you.”
Around them, the wedding party and clan members were no longer singing. To the beating of the drums and the notes of the tambura, they were dancing in place, quivering. Their role now was to act as a dance troupe, adding background and depth to the performance of the two dancing lovers. They were following sympathetically the revelations of this confessional dance. Even Karami did not focus on the fact that the dancer was his mother. Instead he saw her as woman–pure and simple–who was in love. Munira, who was Dafaèullah’s daughter and Najmiya’s mother, did not see the male dancer as her father, whose history of love for Arju annoyed her for her dead mother’s sake, but as a man, merely a man, a tortured man who was saying through the ardor of his very cells, expressed in his dancing: “Oh townspeople, oh inhabitants of the island, oh my family, how long have I stifled my emotions.” Munira felt sorry for him and from the bottom of her heart hoped he would win his sweetheart.
The four percussionists, with their wealth of professional experience, realized that the dance should end there, because it had attained the apex and everything that needed to be said had been said in the clearest way through a dance more eloquent than any human words.
“Dafaèullah, may you rejoice!”
“By the One!”
“Arju too, may you rejoice!”
“By the One!”
Salim Nafisa had stopped dancing for a time, since he felt tired, and had dragged Diyab along with him. The two men rested beside the sand-hill on which sat the old lady Kashifiya. Salim did not like what was happening. When he saw Arju and his own wife Hayriya slip to the side of the guesthouse, where the darkness swallowed them, only to be followed by Dafaèullah, he punched Diyab.
“That drunk still loves her! He still hasn’t grasped that she’s not for him, even though her husband has died.”
“By God Almighty!”
“He’s never repented since the days of his ancient scandal. Do you remember, Diyab?”
“Naturally. My goodness! That was a scandal to end all scandals.”
“Thirty floods ago-a lifetime–brother, he was cruising the Nile in his skiff. He was a drunken, young nincompoop, just as he’s a drunken old nincompoop now, and Najmiya was in her prime. What a prime! Every pubescent male dreamt of her beautiful body. She was admirably tall and her pair of mangoes heavy. Her seat was rounded and prominent. Uff! Her features were African with her broad nose, full lips, and kinky hair, but her complexion was tan, inherited from her grandfather, who was an Upper Egyptian. That mixture gave her a powerful physique. Frankly, Diyab, I dreamt of her. As far as I was concerned she set the standards for females . . . and still does, although I loved Saèdiya, but let’s go back to Dafaèullah. The scoundrel was pulling on his oars without making any sound until he discovered the reed-bank where Arju normally bathed early each morning when she filled the water jug. Then the wretch surprised her bathing in a slip. Uff. . . .”
“So then what, Salim Nafisa? Good-hearted fellow . . . bring out your cigarettes, my poor dear.”
“He pounced on her, embracing her in the river. She slipped out of his embrace like a fish and climbed the bank, but the nincompoop pursued her. He grabbed hold of her, and they both fell in the mud. They rolled around in the dirt. Sensing that he was the stronger, she screamed and bit him. So he screamed too. That started a battle between the two families. Yes, I saw her myself. You know what, Diyab? She was breathtaking–soaked with water and caked with mud. By God, she was breathtaking, my man . . . really, really breathtaking. Uff!”
“My goodness! Finish, man, finish.”
“There was a battle, but can you imagine who defended and protected him?”
“So . . . who was it, Salim Nafisa?”
“Come off it! God Almighty! A light . . . a light, shaykh!”
“She shouted at the men: ‘A drunken boy attacks me, and I repay him in full by biting and ripping him with my fingernails. I pound him so hard in the belly that he throws up everything. That’s it . . . we’re done. Are you going to provoke a battle because of something a drunken boy did?’ She looked at her father and gestured to her mother. “We’re done, people. We’re not going to lose men over this.”
“Well phrased! My goodness!”
“The following season they married her to her late husband. Dafaèullah exploded with rage. That affected his nerves, and ever since he’s been wallowing in drunkenness. He got married. He got divorced. He married a second time. But he’s never forgotten her. He fled from the whole island. Then he returned after his second wife died. Now they openly declare their old passion. What sort of story is this?”
Arju and Hayriya were seated, propped against the guesthouse wall that overlooked the courtyard, veiled by the darkness. Arju was wiping away her tears while Hayriya patted her head. Dafaèullah caught up with them and squatted on the ground facing them. The smell of aragi emanated from him.
“What’s to become of us, Arju?”
“Whatever God wills, Dafaèullah.”
“I’ve been waiting for you for years.
“My children and my husband.”
“Your children are my children and your husband was an admirable man, God rest his soul.”
“God rest his soul.”
“. . . .”
“I propose to you. Will you marry me, woman?”
“. . . .”
Hayriya nervously interjected: “Don’t you understand, Dafaèullah? Men! She declared her acceptance in front of everyone.”
“I won’t hush, Arju. And you, Dafaèullah, go away; leave us now.”
“I want a frank response from Arju.”
“I’m afraid of angering my son Karami, Dafaèullah.”
“Don’t be afraid of him, woman. Your son wants my granddaughter Najmiya, and she will not climb into his palm-branch bed until his mother climbs into mine.”
Hayriya shoved him so he lost his balance and fell on his butt, laughing.
“Be off with your obscene talk, lewd man.”
Dafaèullah danced back to the dance floor as Arju watched his spectral image move away. She was smiling. Salim Nafisa pounded the sand with his fist.
“Look, Diyab: Dafaèullah has returned, dancing merrily. Diyab, I’d wager my donkey he’s struck a deal with her.”
“So let them strike a deal and get together then.”
“What? What did you say, Cheapskate Diyab? Ibbbb!”
“By God . . . it’s just . . . . I mean. . . . The gist of the matter . . . I mean. . . .”
“Don’t you know, man, that I’ve grown tired of Hayriya and want to marry Arju?”
“Oh! Then fie on him, on Dafaèullah, that drunkard. Shame on him and on those who begat him. Does no one have a sense of shame anymore? He’s inconsiderate. By God! He’s going to marry her? My goodness! He said he’s going to marry her? He said. . . . By God Almighty!”
Old Kashifiya was sitting alone some paces from the pair of vexed men. She had closed her heart to prevent it from warming or fluttering with the rhythmic, dancing beauty. She claimed she was sleepy. She did not like how animated people became at the wedding or the way they insisted that Wardi sing the masterpiece “Al-Qamar Buba” for them. She cursed him privately, even though he was the most beloved man among the Nubian people. He was the musician who celebrated the sun and the moon, which showed their compassion for the Nubians’ plains and haughty mountains. She was enraged by his voice, which was so soft that it caressed and whispered like the ripples in the body of their Nile. It sped forward like the quick pace of their camels. Its sentiment was so venerable that he seemed a monk chanting psalms among the pyramids of Carmel. Its plaintive reverberations were the wail of people chanting at ancient shrines. Its sorrow was so touching that it resembled bygone hymns in monasteries and churches at Faras. When it whined in high modes, it produced the reverberations of armor, spears, and the arrows of the Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa when advancing toward the north. . . . His lower register was like a rebellious child snatching at the hearts of young women.
Munib was plucking his tambura to introduce the songs: tun tutun . . . tun tutun. Then the lines of women began to stir: lili lili lili lili, and the four percussionists rejoiced: buum biyu buum buum.
“Blessings on you, Muhammad.” Dayy, dayy, dayy, dayy. “Rejoice, Wardi, rejoice.” Zat zat zat zat.
Then everything calmed down to allow the rhythm of the clear, gentle drums to ring forth and with the clapping of hands. Buum buum . . . tirak tirak . . . buum buum . . . tirak tirak . . . Then he sang:
Buba hangs heavy on you . . .Oh qamar buba, how it weighs on you. My spirit and growing love are yours. Her neglect does not allow one to remain in the heavens. People are not stingy in their blame for me. My spirit is tried on your trail. Oh drowning one, oh you who have come resolutely, Oh qamar buba.
Tirak tirak . . .buum buum.
During their dance, while they were shoulder to shoulder, Nuri realized that the shoulder next to him was his foe Husayn’s. So he cast him a contemptuous look, and they moved farther apart, grumbling. The dispute between them had lasted for months, from the day they had quarreled, lifting riding crops against one another, almost flaying each other. They had cursed their ancestors, even though they shared them. They had never forgiven each other, despite attempts at mediation and conciliation meetings at the home of the umda, Abdullah Jazuli.
“The qamar buba hangs heavy on you. . . . Heavy is the qamar buba on you.” The old lady Kashifiya ranted in the distance. Wardi’s eyes, like a hawk’s, roamed the lines of honey-hued women, who displayed every type of beauty and complexions from the rare white to the predominant golden brown, as well as a minority of gleaming black. His eyes paused on the girl with the wide eyes: Najmiya, and she closed her eyes in embarrassment.
The young ones who are not fully grown yet: With a neck like a juice bottle, Eyes like cups, The lock of hair you’d say is silk. Mother of this youngster, the shutters are crumbling, Making the young men’s hearts fly off. You, your fragrance is French perfume, Not the common Sudanese scent. Oh, you with the jamar buba14.
Tirak tirak . . . buum buum.
Karami was ecstatic. Here was Wardi celebrating Najmiya’s eyes. He launched into: “Long live Wardi!” Zat . . . zat . . . zat . . . zat. “Wedding joy to Wardi!” His family smiled, for they all knew he was wild about Najmiya and that Najmiya’s mother was opposed to their romance, because she was upset with his mother Arju, with whom her father Dafaèullah in love. Meanwhile Najmiya continued to dance in her line, her eyes still directed toward the ground in a mixture of embarrassment, shyness, and delight.
An hour later, Wardi concluded the song, after adding to it and repeating it. Then the African drummers rumbled forcefully: buum buum buum buum.
The bridegroom was olive-skinned, and the bride, who was decorated with henna, was date-colored. The groom’s father resembled his father; they both were dark. His sister was reddish, like the dum palm’s fruit. The mother was a gleaming copper. The bride’s younger sister was wheat-colored, and her older sister was as black as night. She was sprinkling perfume on the dancing throngs and carrying on her shoulder her silvery infant. Her mother was brown with very bright eyes. Her father had an Arab nose and a northern brow.
There were some rest breaks for relaxation, gossip, whispering, laughter, and smoking rolled cigarettes with or without bango. The four percussionists were bent over little fires heating the heads of their drums. Unmarried girls were pinching the bride for good luck for their own weddings, and age-mates of the groom were congratulating and teasing him, for this was his night during which he would obtain his heart’s delight.
Samha raced to the sand-hill beside which her grandmother dozed and roused her. “Don’t claim you fell asleep, grandma. Listen to my final request. By God, by God, grandma: may God’s Messenger protect you. Dance with us this evening. You don’t need to enter the dance floor. I’ll be satisfied if you dance in the rows of grandmothers like yourself.”
“Can this dance you do nowadays really be considered dancing?”
“For Saèdiya’s sake.”
“May God be compassionate to Saèdiya. . . my daughter.”
On the sand-hill itself, Salim Nafisa was placing a cigarette between his lips and handing a second one to Cheapskate Diyab.
“You know, Diyab . . . I’m not content with my wife Hayriya or the umda or Karar. The fact is, Diyab, I’m unhappy with the entire island. I’m thinking of washing my hands of it and leaving all of them to fend for themselves.
“My goodness . . . shame on you. Without you, we won’t exist, Salim Nafisa. Iyyyeh. A light . . . a light, shaykh.”
The half-moon was starting to descend from its tower, and a welcome light chill descended over people like delicate veils, wiping away their perspiration to calm their bodies. The assortment of dances had released the stress from their bodies, sucking it out by the roots and dissolving it. Their souls had been relieved of the deposits of grudges and the heavy vapors that had contaminated them had been expelled. A feeling of brotherhood and of participation in a common destiny enveloped all of them. Everyone was smiling and laughing, placing a hand on the shoulder of the person beside him, guffawing at the slightest jest.
The bride and the groom slipped away to be about their doings. Lili lili lili lili. “May God bless you, Muhammad.” Dayy, dayy, dayy, dayy. After a rest break and a reheating of the drums, however, the dancing continued unabated, until Karar climbed the minaret and gave the dawn call to prayer. Buum biyu buum buum . . . tuum-tak-tuum-tak. The dancing craze visited everyone again and the blend of fiery Southern songs encompassed them. A “hand” dance began as the men formed a large but incomplete circle into which the women inserted themselves. Husayn discovered that Nuri was beside him once more, as the luck of the draw decreed. He thanked God that this dance did not involve clasping hands, since each person clapped his hands and strutted his stuff when he returned to the circle, which would almost have been unbroken had the lines of women not penetrated it.
Most of the senior citizens entered the guesthouse or village houses near the square to relax a bit before the dawn prayer. Salim Nafisa, even though he was not dancing, having preferred to sit for hours, did not leave the square, since the celebration offered him an opportunity to criticize his clan mercilessly. Beside him were Diyab and the second cigarette pack, which was still full. That was why Cheapskate Diyab was still there.
The male dancers realized that they did not have much time left and shouted with the beat: ‘Wardi . . . Wardi . . . èAl-Qamar Buba'” to request that song one more time. On the sand-hill, the grandmother was lying down. Samha stood up to go dance after giving up on her grandmother, but the old lady pulled her by the tail of her grown: “èAl-Qamar Buba’ again? Don’t they ever tire of it?”
“It’s lovely, grandma.”
“Aye . . . because he flirts with you, crazed females. Listen: Everyone my age has gone off to rest. I want to go home.”
“I’m going to dance. You can do whatever you want.”
Tirak tirak . . . buum buum.
Tirak tirak . . . buum buum.
Arju was in the back rows, but her lofty height made her visible: a towering head with a contented face and a chest she did not hide. The eyes of Wardi were upon her. Then she turned toward Dafaèullah in the men’s lines.
The river’s floodwaters descended in torrents, Now irrigating the beans and the palms. Oh you who have captured my mind, I’ve risked my spirit for you Although you are as far from me as Saturn, Oh qamar buba!
Tirak tirak . . . buum buum.
Dafaèullah skipped out of his line and sped with dancing feet, his arms roaming around him, as if he were swimming through the air. He reached Wardi. Zat zat zat zat. “Wedding joy, Wardi, rejoice. Rejoice, you who reveal the heart’s secrets.” He circled round to address his people: “She was farther from me than Saturn, you there. She was . . . she was, people.”
He circled and circled. People near him noticed two tears in his eyes. Dafaèullah linked up with Wardi, dancing together shoulder-to-shoulder, as Wardi completed the song by taking note of this Amazon’s wheaten complexion.
Al-qamar buba hangs heavy on you; Heavy hangs al-qamar buba on you, The gazelle in the acacia. Love increases the pain. Every day I’ve spent in sorrow, There’s a purging effect of your physique15. The candle of your breath has not been snuffed out, The oranges of your breasts are swelling, Oh you on whom al-qamar buba hangs so heavy.
Tirak tirak . . . buum buum.
“Lili lili lili lili; God bless you, Muhammad. Dayy, day, day, dayy.”
Suddenly the aged Kashifiya was reeling toward the dance floor. The women greeted her: lili lili lili lili. She still had her shoes tucked under her arm. She looked down the lines, searching for her granddaughter, who was delirious that her grandmother was returning to participation in the emotional life of her people. Kashifiya raised her slippers and tossed them to her, instructing her: “Guard them with your life, girl.”
Samha caught the shoes, while the other girls laughed at the old lady’s concern for her antique shoes. From the sand-hill Salim Nafisa was watching. He leaned toward his sidekick’s ear: “Ha ha. By God, these shoes are the first she ever wore and the last, too. Do you know . . . it’s said that these very shoes were her dower from her husband. Ha ha. That old lady kept me from marrying Saèdiya. Diyab, those shoes are older than you are and more precious to her than your stingy self. Ha ha.”
“Hee hee. Bring out your pack of cigarettes, Salim Nafisa. Bring it out in honor of this delightful joke. Hee hee.”
Kashifiya danced, laughed, and showed her two remaining teeth.
“Wedding joy, Kashifiya!”
“Oh, the One!”
Samha raised her voice from the lines of women: “Kashifiya, yoo-hoo. Laugh some more, Grandma.”
Uthman tried to tease the old lady who had returned: “Don’t play the coquette and lean over too much while you dance, woman.”
The pair of mangoes wiggled as she turned toward him. She stared at him for a couple of minutes before she recognized him. “Who’s that? The son of one-eyed Fadila? Your mother, may God be compassionate to her, was a stalk with no chest. Your father breastfed you. Ask him how.”
Tirak tirak . . . buum buum.
Wardi advanced toward Kashifiya, who was dancing sedately and gracefully, despite her advanced age.
Al-Qamar buba: The lady’s as old as fate– Two geese floating in the wave– Oh tranquil water of few words; Your sweetness says hello; Oh you with the qamar buba.
The men were clapping: tirak tirak. The drums were resonating buum buum. For the third time in this constant exchange of positions Nuri found himself rubbing shoulders with Husayn. He glanced at him quickly. Then Husayn looked at him and smiled. So Nuri smiled.
Kashifiya called for her granddaughter to dance with her, and the girl’s friends pushed her forward. She found herself in front of her grandmother, who immediately asked, “Where are the shoes, girl: the shoes?”
She was reassured to learn that such-and-such a girl had them in her custody. The surfeited jackal came between Kashifiya and Samha, placing his hands on their shoulders. He looked at Samha’s placid face. Tirak tirak . . . buum buum.
The young one is the cream of the crop. Oh, my noble lord, protection: Keep evil far from the encampment. She upset her mother, Who was on Mount Arafat and gave birth; Blessings on the belly that bore This product of the grandmother’s care. The little date in a cluster Turns green before it becomes yellow. Her mother is excused for hiding her [from the evil eye.] Her lips destroy those who see her. People, those who torture me, me a lad from the encampment, Oh qamar buba. Tirak tirak buum buum.
“Lili lili lili lili. Blessings on you, Muhammad.”
Dayy, day, day, dayy . . . Zat zat zat zat. “Wedding joy, Wardi, joy!”
“Wardi, oh people, joy!”
“Oh, the One!”
“Kashifiya, too, wedding joy!”
“Oh, the One!”
“The youngsters too, wedding joy!”
“Oh, the One!”
Kashifiya hung on tall Wardi’s neck: “I’m going to kiss you, Wardi.”
“And I’m going to kiss your granddaughter.”
“Keep your clean-shaven mustache away.”
Salim Nafisa and his sidekick, the cheapskate, descended from the sand-hill to the animal corral. They would be heading home without offering the dawn prayer. As usual Salim Nafisa was speaking and Diyab was marveling at his every word.
“Can this be called a dance? That old woman who wouldn’t let me marry her daughter . . . hasn’t she tired of dancing after a century of it?”
“Aye, by God, Salim . . . where are your cigarettes?”
“And my wife Hayriya . . . she’s still dancing and swaying like a girl in her twenties! I’m her husband and only three years her senior, but I’m all worn out just from sitting on the sand. What’s the meaning of this, Diyab? Never . . . never, my goodness! So I have the right to consider some other wife besides Hayriya. It might be Arju, but this Arju has announced her acceptance of Dafaèullah through her shameless dancing. Ibbbb! So . . . I, Salim Nafisa, don’t want her and will never marry her.”
“You’re right; bring out your pack, man.”
“How could I marry a woman who has announced her love for a drunk? Then too, she’s more than a foot taller than I am. And this strenuous dancing does not wear her out. If one night I took a mind to disciplining her and raised a hand against her, she might give me a push that would slam me into the wall.”
“Well phrased. . . . Won’t you bring out two cigarettes, man?”
“I’ve made up my mind. I won’t marry Arju or anyone else. And if only to spite you all, I shan’t emigrate from the island, to deny people the pleasure of gloating at my misery.”
“My goodness! How wise you are, Salim Nafisa. You’re wise beyond measure.”
“Help yourself, Diyab, you cheapskate. Here’s a cigarette to smoke as you clamber on your mount to ride home and here’s a second one to smoke when you climb on the jenny who beat you home. Ha ha, Diyab.”
“Hee hee, Salim.”
Although the square had lost many of its dancers and all the women and some of the girls had withdrawn, sitting down hither and yon, the young men surrounded Wardi and Munib, and Wardi still had some more verse to his song.
Passion for him sears me.
His family are opposed to him and me.
Love for you is what has caused me to forget my father.
I’ll never be free of you so long as you live,
Oh, you fresh little sugar cane.
It’s your breast that has suckled my offense.
Shame on your mother
And double-shame on
The qamar buba.
Tirak tirak . . . buum buum.
“Lili lili lili lili. Blessings on you, Muhammad.” Dayy dayy dayy dayy.
The conclusion of this song terminated the festivities. Wardi and his troupe stayed on the island as guests. The boats returned to take people back to their villages to the north and south. They were butterflies inebriated by the honey of the wedding. The young men hopped on their donkeys, youngest first, displaying their chivalry and dexterity to the girls. They sped away like a star to the sandy path. Karami, who had drunk some aragi, before they disappeared from sight was trying to stand on the back of his slow-paced donkey, balancing himself as he sang with his raucous voice the refrain that was searing his chest: The qamar buba hangs heavy. . . . It’s your breast that has suckled my offense.
One of his friends leaned from the back of his donkey to poke Karami’s jackass in a sensitive spot, making it balk. Karami fell to the ground before the oncoming donkeys that were speeding toward him. The girls fell silent and Najmiya groaned with fear. They started laughing again once they saw Karami’s spectral figure rise to his own two feet and gaze back at the girls, among whom stood Najmiya. He completed his rendition with his hands clutching his sore butt:
Shame on your mother,
And double-shame on me.
Karar’s voice rose sweetly from the short minaret, gliding along with the humid dawn: “God is most great!” The men were bathing in the Nile—despite the danger—and performing their ritual ablutions. Karar concluded the call to prayer: “Prayer is better than sleep.” But had any Nubian slept through this wedding night?
Uthman bathed at his house. Before he left for the mosque, his wife Sharifa Hasana called him. He turned toward her as he dried his face. She smiled: “I feel rested, Uthman.” He laughed and left happily.
Near the door of the mosque Husayn clasped Nuri’s sleeve as they headed for prayers. Ya‘qub walked behind them, caressing his prayer beads and mumbling to himself: “God has given and God has taken away the equivalent.” He encountered Dafa‘ullah, who was squatting on the ground with his head between his knees.
“Dafa‘ullah, what’s the matter?”
“If I didn’t reek of aragi, Ya‘qub, I would accompany you all to prayers. I bear witness, though, Ya‘qub, that I will be lined up with you for the noon prayers.”
“God the Guide guides us.”
The half-moon and its pale illumination faded as the post-dawn light streamed out from nowhere to rouse the world with fresh breezes that visited everywhere. With their souls at rest, each man entered his home with calm steps, calling down blessings on the Chosen Messenger, Muhammad.