In the Country of Sands
There are hours apart, very mysteriously privileged moments, when certain lands reveal to us, during sudden intuition, their soul, in some way their own essence, when we develop an accurate and unique vision, and which months of patient study would not be able to complete, nor to modify. However, during these furtive instants, the details necessarily escape us and we are only able to perceive the whole of things. A peculiar state of our soul, or a special aspect of places, seized in passing and always unconsciously? I don’t know . . . Thus, my first arrival in El Oued, two years ago, was for me a complete, definitive revelation of this harsh and splendid country that is the Souf, of its peculiar beauty, of its immense sadness, too.
After the siesta in the shady gardens of the Ourmes oasis, my soul fully in an anxious state of waiting, made irrational by my vision of surpassing in splendor all that I had seen up until then, I once again took the eastern route with my small Bedouin convoy, a steep path which sometimes snakes through the fleeting succession of dunes, sometimes climbs dangerously onto the sharp ridges, and at unbelievable heights.
After having crossed, slowly, and as if in a dream, the little abandoned towns squeezed around El Oued-Kouïnine, Taksebt, and Gara-we reached the receding steep crest of the high dune known as Si Ammar ben Ahsène, from the name of a dead man who is buried there in the place where he was killed long ago.
It was the chosen hour, that marvelous hour in the country of Africa, when the great fiery sun is going to finally disappear, leaving the earth to rest in the blue shadow of the night.
From the top of this dune, one discovers the entire valley of El Oued, upon which the sleepy waves of the huge ocean of gray sand seem to close.
Laid out in tiers on the southern slope of a dune, El Oued, the strange town with innumerable little cupolas, slowly changed hue.
At the top of the hill, the white minaret of Sidi Salem rose up, already iridescent, already completely pink in the western light.
Shadows of things lengthened disproportionately, were deformed and became pale on the ground, which had become alive all around us-not a voice was to be heard.
All of the towns in sand countries, built in light-colored stucco, have a wild, ruined and crumbling look.
And very near by, tombs and tombs, a whole other city, that of the dead adjoining that of the living.
The long low dunes of Sidi-Messaour, towering over the city toward the southeast, now seemed like as many stretches of flowing incandescent metal, of glowing fireplaces, of an incredible intense purplish-red color.
On the little round domes, on sections of walls in ruin, on the disheveled crowns of huge date trees, glimmering fire climbed, magnifying the gray town into a blazing apotheosis.
The sea maze of the giant dunes of the other deserted route that leads to Touggourt, from where we come via Taïbet el Gueblia, stood out, iridescent, drowned in the reflections of silvery fawn hues against the dark purple of the setting sun.
Never before, in any country of the earth, had I seen the evening put on all its finery in such magical splendor!
In El Oued, there is no dark forest of date trees encircling the city, like in the oases of the rocky or salty regions . . . The gray city lost in the gray desert, participating fully in its blazing and in its paleness, like it and in it, pink and golden on enchanted mornings, white and blinding during the blazing noon, purple and violet during radiated evenings . . . and gray, gray as the sand from which it was born, under the pale skies of winter!
White vapors, floating lightly in the deep zenith’s blazing, now left, purple and fringed with gold, for other horizons, like the rags of an imperial coat spread by the capricious exhalations of the breeze . . . And still, during all of these metamorphoses, during all of this extravagant spectacle of things, not a being, not a sound.
The narrow little streets, with their abandoned houses, opened up, deserted, into the immensity of the vaguely perceptible cemeteries on fire, without walls, limitless.
Yet the purple tint of the sky, seemingly reflected in the chaos of the dunes, became darker and darker, more and more fantastic.
The disproportionately large size of the sun’s disk, red and rayless, finished sinking behind the low dunes of the western horizon, in the direction of Allendaoui and Araïr.
All of a sudden, from all the dead little streets, came out long processions of women, veiled in the old style, in blue and red rags, and carrying large terra-cotta amphorae on their heads or on one shoulder . . . with the same sculptural gesture that the women of the predestined race of Sem must have had, thousands of years before, when they fetched water at the Cananaean wells.
In the limitless ocean of red light flooding the town and cemeteries, they resembled ghosts floating along the ground, women draped in dark cloth with Hellenic-style folds, going silently toward the dense gardens hidden in the fiery dunes.
Very far away, a small reed flute began crying its infinite sadness, and this thin inflected moan, also dragging and broken like a sob, was the only sound that animated, just a little, this city of dreams.
But now the sun disappeared, and almost immediately, the flaming of the dunes around the cupolas began to slowly turn the dark violet color of the sea. These deep shadows, as if coming out of the darkened earth, lift back up, climb up, as the lights, still illuminating the summits, progressively go out.
The little enchanted flute fell silent . . . Suddenly, from all of the numerous mosques, another voice rises, solemn and slow: “Allahou Akbar! Allahou Akbar! God is great!” proclaims the muezzin to the four winds of the sky.
Oh! How they ring out strangely, these thousand-year-old calls from Islam, as if deformed and darkened by the most wild and raucous voices, by the dragging accent of the desert muezzin!
From all of the dunes and all of the small hidden valleys which seemed deserted, a whole populace, dressed uniformly in white, descends, silent and serious, toward the zaouias and the mosques.
Here, far from the big cities of the Tell, there are none of these hideous creatures, bastard products of the degeneracy of a mixed race, formed by the prowlers, the traveling merchants, the porters, and the filthy and ignoble people of the Ouled-el-Blassa.
Here, the bitter and silent Sahara, with its eternal melancholy, its terrors and enchantments, has jealously conserved the dreamy and fanatic race that came long ago from the far-off deserts of an Asiatic country.
And they are very tall and beautiful, in this way, the nomads with their biblical attitudes and clothing, who go pray to the only God, and whose saintly and coarse souls are never touched by doubt.
And they are very much at home there, in the empty grandeur of their unlimited horizon where the splendid sovereign light reigns and lives . . . The last violet light has gone out on the white minaret of Sidi Salem, on the crest of the dunes of Treffia, Allendaoui and Debila. Now everything is uniformly blue, almost diaphanous, and the rounded low cupolas blend in with the rounded summits of the dunes, gradually, as if the city had suddenly spread all the way to the extreme limits of the horizon.
The night sky finishes falling onto the sleepy earth . . . The women, in clothing from long ago, have returned to the small streets fallen in ruin, and the great heavy silence, interrupted for a very short moment by a few human murmurs, descends, once again, on El Oued . . . The immense Sahara seems to begin again its melancholy dream, its eternal dream.
For two months during the summer of 1899, I pursued my dream of the old mournful and resplendent Orient in the whitewashed neighborhoods of Tunis, full of shadows and silence.
I was living alone with Khadidja, my old Moorish servant, and my black dog, in a very immense and very old Turkish house in one of the most isolated corners of Bab-Menara, almost at the top of the hill . . . This house was a labyrinth, mysteriously laid out, complicated by hallways and rooms situated on different levels, decorated with multicolored earthenware from times past, and delicately sculptured lace-like plaster, running along the conical-shaped ceilings of painted and gilded wood.
There, in the cool half-light, in the silence that only the melancholy chant of the muezzin invaded, the days flowed by, deliciously languid in sweet but not tiresome monotony.
During the suffocating hours of the siesta, in my vast bedroom full of green and pink earthenware, Khadidja, huddled in a corner, let slide, one by one, the black beads of her rosary, with a rapid murmur of her pale lips. Daedalus, stretched out on the floor in a lionly pose, his slender muzzle set on his powerful paws, attentively followed the slow flight of occasional flies . . . And I, stretched out on my low bed, let myself go in the voluptuousness of dreams, for an indefinite period of time . . . It was a period of rest, like a beneficial pause between two adventurous and almost agonizing periods. And too, the impressions left by my life there are sweet, melancholy, and a bit vague . . . Behind my residence, separated from the street by inhabited Arab houses, fiercely closed off to the outside world, there was an old, small neighborhood, no longer lived in, and with no way out, all in ruin . . . Sections of walls, vaulted ceilings, little courtyards, dark bedrooms, still-standing balconies-the whole thing invaded by virgin creepers, ivy, a population of flowers and devouring grasses growing on the walls . . . a strange city, uninhabited for years. No one seemed to worry about these houses, whose inhabitants must all have been dead or left and never returned . . . Yet in the mystical silence of moonlit nights, the closest of these ruined habitations came alive in a strange manner.
From one of my wrought-iron-covered windows, I could cast my eyes into the small interior courtyard. Only the high walls and two rooms of this single-story house remained standing. In the middle, a fountain with a stone basin, badly chipped but still full of clear water, coming from I don’t know where, had almost disappeared under the exuberant vegetation that had grown there.
There were enormous jasmine bushes covered with white flowers, mixed with flexible vine boughs, and rose bushes sowed the white tile with purple petals . . . In the balminess of the night, a warm scent arose from this corner of shade and forgetting.
And every month, when the moon came to light up the sleepy ruins, I was able to attend, half-hidden behind a thin curtain, a performance that soon became familiar to me, and which I awaited during the languorous days, but that, however, remained for me an enigma . . . Besides, perhaps all the charm of this memory resides, for me, in the element of mystery . . . Without my ever knowing from where he came, nor from where he entered the small courtyard, a young Moor, dressed in delicately colored faded silk clothing, and draped in a light, snowy white burnoose that made him look like an apparition, came and sat there on a rock.
He was perfectly beautiful and had the dark and white complexion of Arab city dwellers, with, too, their slightly nonchalant air of distinction.
But his face was marked by a profound sadness.
He sat there, always in the same place, and with a look lost in the infinite blue night, he sang melodies born long ago under the Andalusian sky, smoothly flowing cantilena. Slowly, sweetly, his voice would rise into the silence, like a plaint or an incantation.
He seemed especially to prefer this song, the sweetest and saddest of all:
“Vivacious sadness grips my soul, as the night grips and erases things. Pain grips my heart and fills it with anguish, as the tomb grips bodies and annihilates them. There is no cure for my sadness, except for death with no return . . . but if my soul awakes for another life, be it even in Eden, my sadness will be reborn.”
What was this incurable sadness, the power of which he sang? The unusual singer never said.
His voice was pure and modulated and never before had any voice revealed as fully to me the secret and indefinable charm of that Arabic music from another time, which has enchanted many other sad souls before me.
Sometimes the young Moor brought along the little murmuring flute played by Bedouin shepherds and camel herders; its light reed seemed to retain in its melodies something of the crystalline murmur of the brooks from which it was born.
For a long time, in the silence of late hours, when everything sleeps in Muslim Tunis, intoxicated by sweet smells, the stranger thus distilled melancholy and sighs. Then he would leave as he had come, without a sound, always with his ghostly air, but returning to the shadows of the two small rooms, which must have communicated with the other ruins.
Khadidja, a former slave, had lived for forty years in the most illustrious Tunisian families, and had rocked several generations of young men on her knees. One evening I called to her to come and see the nocturnal musician. The superstitious old woman shook her head: “I don’t know him . . . and yet I know all the young men of the city’s great families.”
Then, in a low voice, she added, trembling: “God only knows if he’s a truly living person. Maybe he’s only the shadow of one of the former inhabitants, and this music is just a dream, a spell?”
Knowing the character of this race, for whom all questions about its private life, its comings and goings, are an insult, I never dared call out to the unknown man, the stranger, for fear of making him flee his refuge forever.
Yet, one evening I waited a long time for him, in vain. He never returned. But the sound of his voice, and the soft susurration of his flute, often take me back, during the moonlight hours. And sometimes I feel an indefinable anguish at the thought that I will never know who he was and why he came there.