an Excerpt from the Novel,
Translated by Adil Babikir
“Sons of the bondmaid!” That morning, Uncle Abu Ali was grunting like an aged camel. After over a thousand years of servitude, some of the slave families decided to break away from the yokes of their masters. They announced their intention to establish an independent community, and requested that the Government approve the nomination of “Faraj the waterman” as their chief.
The news reached every corner of Ajayeb and the surrounding villages, and people from both sides of the issue poured into the central square. By sunrise, huge crowds were thronging the area.
“You can call us the Ahfaad, the Grandsons,” Faraj the waterman declared in a confident tone, as he stood in the middle of the crowd, leaning on his stick and looking up at the horizon. A mix of cheers and shouts was building up, and the whole place consumed by chaos. Uncle Abu Ali strode towards the centre of the great circle of people. Although he could hardly stand on his feet, he stretched out his humped back and gestured to the crowd with his hooked stick for everyone, including Chief Mohammed, to let him lead the debate.
“The grandsons of whom?
“Grandsons must have ancestors. Do people just spring out of nowhere?
“That’s none of your business. If you don’t respect our wish, the Government will force you to do so.”
“Then you need to find yourself a land other than this.”
“It is our land just as it is yours.”
The thing that annoyed Uncle Abu Ali the most and sent him raving was the defiant tone that he had not experienced before. It was as if all that he had seen during his long ninety years was mere fancy.
The Awtaad tribe behaved as if it was all a surprise to them. But it was not. Meetings had been taking place for months, in view of the village and behind its back. Meticulous arrangements had been made and every single detail had been accounted for.
The Grandsons had been waiting for this moment for many centuries past. Their ancestors had dreamt of it, and shared their dream with their sons and grandsons but it had never materialized. They had continued to live on the margin of life, without identity, waiting for the moment of salvation.
But the saviour had not till then appeared. When signs of him coming began to show, they realized that such a leap would not take place at the time of their choosing. It could only happen naturally of its own accord – like a legend or a miracle – once only in history!
* * *
A spacious room, with a high ceiling like a temple, and filled with antique furniture. It had small ventilation windows that were around the height of one and a half men from the ground, and a small door opening on to the other side of the house, the women’s section.
Ismael took off his shoes and entered. Exactly in the centre of the room stood a large rectangular table. It was clean and tidy and covered with a light blue cloth. On it books were neatly stacked, and inside each one was a small finger-sized piece of paper that protruded from one side. In the middle was an oil lamp, papers and pens.
Ismael advanced cautiously and, without asking for permission, sat on the only wooden stool, which was covered with a soft silk mat. He picked up an open book and held it in his hands. Inside it was a paper on which some remarks were written in pencil in clear and neat handwriting. He closed the book and read its title. It was a book in political sociology by an author who was apparently French as the name suggested. From where he sat, he observed the books in front of him. They were arranged in such a way that their titles were perfectly visible to anyone sitting on the stool.
He ran his eyes quickly over the catchy titles and the names of their authors. No time for elaborate reading. Perhaps he could do that later on. He didn’t want to waste the short time he had on something already known to him. There must be other secrets behind this man Faraj. He moved around to examine the other parts of the room. It was neither a library nor a museum. Perhaps a combination of both. Three of its walls were covered with wide mahogany cabinets about the height of a tall man. They had shelves of equal size, packed with books on history, politics, heritage, biography, and literature – each subject area occupying a separate section. Above the cabinets, and on all the walls were numerous framed photographs, black and white, and coloured, old and new. Photographs of herdsmen, peasants, construction workers, and watermen – barefoot, bareheaded, with naked backs, and exhausted faces. He could easily figure out that they were photographs of “The Grandsons”. On the wall behind the stool, there were oil paintings and some maps marked with signs and lines.
Ismael was overwhelmed by surprise as he continued to examine a place he had never expected to see in Ajayeb. He was examining the portraits and reading the captions, while the waterman followed behind him without uttering a word. He stopped at a strange photo: five or six dead bodies, bloated and stacked one on top of the other. Standing on tiptoe, he reached up and took down the picture. He dusted it off.
“These are of ‘The Grandsons’. They didn’t drown in a river. They didn’t die in battle. Their master threw them down a well as punishment because some of his sheep had been killed by hyenas.”
Ismael examined the picture more closely. There were some lines written in English in small font: “Slave herdsmen who died in the ‘Dig’ water well on the Eritrean coast. It is believed that their master threw them in as punishment for their negligence. From the British Archives, Eritrea, 1946.”
Another photograph attracted Ismael’s attention. It featured bare-chested young girls, smiling at the camera. They were pretty, with long soft tresses flowing down to their chests. Their facial features were captivating: wide, sad eyes; fleshy lips; and straight, slim noses. Although the photo was not in colour, their shining beauty was still vividly clear. Without taking his eyes off it, the waterman said:
“Those young girls are from ‘The Grandsons’. One is my grandmother. Can you believe that? Another is my mother’s aunt, but I don’t know which one. They were bondmaids of one of those lords. Personal property, as they say. This photograph dates back to the colonial era. It was taken during a visit by an Italian friend who had a great passion for photography. We brought the photo from Rome!”
Another black and white photo, which Ismael immediately recognised. It showed charred bodies, some on the floor, others lying on the ginning and weaving machinery. Beside them was a row of cone-shaped bobbins of cotton thread, but they had not been affected by the fire. A caption written in Amharic under the photo read “Fire in the textile factory, Ajayeb, 1931”.
Ismael grew even more astonished when the waterman told him it had taken them more than 20 years to collect these photos from the archives of Asmara and Addis Ababa and from other sources.
“They were collected by young people like yourself. That gives some consolation to people like me, and an assurance that our efforts will not be in vain.”
He looked nervous, his face sweaty and discoloured, like a land over which a cloud had passed, leaving some parts dry and others wet. After a brief pause, he continued:
“All this spacious land once belonged to the Grandsons, who were solidly united except for a few who always allied themselves with the colonial powers. Then history had its say, sending some people up the scale and lowering others to the bottom. We lost our unity to a successive series of famines, wars, and tyrannies, which gave birth to other classes of neo-slavery. These included soldiers, employees, prisoners. All this land around us is the Grandsons’ land. Look more closely. You will see what I mean!”
The waterman returned the photo to its original position and showed him others that he held in a special folder. Most of these had been taken in recent years, in Ajayeb and elsewhere. A recent one showed Faraj with his water skin and white donkey in front of a house. Another one showed him smiling to something behind the camera.
“Forgive my curiosity,” Ismael said, “but may I ask why you stuck so long with this job when you are far more talented than the others?”
The waterman smiled but his face quickly regained its stern outlook. “Because I didn’t want to forget. That is crucial for people like me. Besides, I don’t believe in an easy life: a paid job, a senior position, or even the presidency. All that is lifeless – an illusion. The body is the most powerful aspect of life and it’s only when the body works at full gear that life and man’s role in it become meaningful. I would have loved to go around and deliver water to every house, but the majority of the Grandsons were against this. I might do that again one day. I still have my donkey in front of the house.
Patting Ismael’s shoulder affectionately, he added: “Nothing is more rewarding than quenching someone’s thirst.”
Ismael nodded politely. He was highly impressed by the man’s knowledge and good-heartedness and he grew more eager to decode the mystery behind him.
He headed towards the corner to the right of one of the ventilation windows. There he found an old box on which a jubba had been laid. It was new, red in colour with golden embroidery on the edges. It was carefully folded and above it on the wall there was an old whip hanging on a nail. The waterman approached the box and opened it after moving the jubba to a nearby table. Inside the box, he found three old yellow manuscripts in leather covers. Beside them was a pair of dried-out leather shoes, thin at the back and broad at the front, like a cow’s tongue. There was also a wrinkled water-skin secured on both sides with a thin rope – and another garment, threadbare, with a faded colour that suggested it had originally been red. Ismael noticed that it was like the first jubba in terms of its wide collar and fine golden embroidery. When the waterman placed them beside each other, they looked identical despite the age difference.
“These things – the jubba, the pair of shoes, the whip, and the water skin – belong to a grandfather of mine. He was a highly compassionate person and was nicknamed ‘Gamboos’, which means ‘a person in kneeling position’, because he spent a good part of his time on his knees pouring water for thirsty people and cattle across this desert. Unfortunately, we have no idea what his real name was. Perhaps he was a leader of ‘the Grandsons’ some time back. Perhaps I inherited his passion for delivering water but I didn’t inherit the other great attributes of his that I had heard a lot about.”
After a brief laugh, he continued:
“Gamboos dug plenty of wells in the desert. Each year, at the beginning of summer, he would hold a special ritual and would order his people to make offerings to the river so that it would not cut its supply. I have no accurate account about that early period hundreds of years back, but according to Bakhiet and other old men, the Grandsons had ruled these territories for a long time until some people from the Ethiopian mountains invaded and drove them out. Those who could not run away were taken as slaves and assigned hard jobs like fetching water, herding and milking, while the women and young boys were taken as domestic servants. The invaders would make fun of them, calling them the watermen, in reference to their grandfather Gamboos. They apparently misread his compassion as weakness because such values had no place in the cruel life of the desert people.”
Ismael gently lifted one of the three manuscripts and cautiously flipped through its pages. They were full of drawings. Predators – lions, cheetahs, and elephants. Warriors with finely braided hair and pretty faces, who looked closer in appearance to the Grandsons than to the Abyssinians, even closer to the people of Himyar, in ancient Yemen, in facial features, with their round heads and broad foreheads, and deep grief that, ironically, exposed the beauty of their eyes.
He leafed through some maps and obscure figures. The letters in the three manuscripts belonged to the old Ge’ez language, which is still in use throughout the entire area of historical Abyssinia. Although Ismael was familiar with the language, that particular text was of little help to him as it contained very few words that were still in use.
Feeling embarrassed at having spent too long there, he put everything back in the box and returned with his host to the external part of the living area. They sat in their original places. The waterman wiped his face with his palms, and with an affectionate smile, said:
“I hope it will never occur to you that we are doing what we are doing in order to bring history back to life. That would be foolish. We are not trying to show off, either, or avenge our past. What we want is to see love reign; to see this whole horizon lined with parallel crack-free mirrors. Only love is capable of defeating injustice, disparities, and grudges. To be honest with you, I don’t believe in superstition, although Fatima’s marriage has opened the door wide to superstition: about the one person who can sacrifice his life to save his people. When we started this endeavor, Fatima had not yet been born. But she blossomed and was perfectly ripe at harvest time. That’s simply what has happened.”
Those words hit Ismael hard. He let out a deep breath as the image of his friend Mahmoud rolled across his mind like a film. Silently, he listened to sounds carried from afar through the utter silence. Sounds of cars far away, the breathing of the waterman’s donkey next door, barking of dogs. Those sounds now mixed with clamorous sounds from history with animated images of troops and elephants, the image of Gamboos and other obscure symbols that he had seen in the manuscript. Then came images of Fatima, Mahmoud and the elders of Ajayeb. Gatherings building up and dispersing. Noise. Then suddenly it was quiet again, as if someone had switched the sounds off with a single push on a button. The waterman’s voice brought him back to his senses:
“All that was a small fact encapsulated in grand illusions. If the Awtaad tribe had been closer to the real picture they would have realized that human blood is in all cases like red water and has a neutral yeast smell. It is neither cheap nor expensive. For this reason, sir, we call it a revolution or an uprising – because we are a nation, not a tribe. The Grandsons are not alone on this land. Under each mountain of tyranny are rocks, dissolving and cracking, now running below ground and coming together beneath everything. One day you will see this, in one shape or multiple shapes – it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that it is going to happen. I have no doubt about that. Tell your students that the Grandsons are nothing but them and us and you and all the others – in varying degrees. Perhaps you know this better than I do, so don’t forget to pass it on to our children.”
After a brief pause, he took a deep breath and then continued:
“I won’t ask you to be neutral. You can’t. You are our memory. History is memory, sir, and memory is us. We, after all, are humans. You all belonged to Adam, who was made of earth.”
* * *
The waterman stayed awake for the rest of that night until dawn. That day marked the end of an era and the beginning of a very new one. He had to be alert and to account for everything as every moment in that day – which had not been seen for centuries – had its own importance. Every hour that passed drove away the old era and brought closer the new one. The events of that day were running vividly in his mind like a stunning panorama.
He left the Grandsons’ meeting and headed to the nearby river. He walked leisurely through the onion and clover fields that bordered the riverbank. The farmers had opened the irrigation sluices onto them just before the break of dawn, and with the faint dawn light that now painted the sky’s dome, the fields were turned into mirrors that reflected the waterman’s shadow as he passed until he climbed a barrier on the riverbank.
He looked down at the houses of Ajayeb. They looked as lifeless as ruins inhabited only by ghosts. However, the roaring of the river water by his feet gave him a different feeling. It filled his ears with the sound of life, so vigorous, as if life itself emanated from that very place where water and clay met.
He took a deep breath and sat down, looking at the river and the dark thick trees on the opposite bank. It looked as if an army had landed there under cover of darkness and was lurking there, ready to choke to death a day tethered to the rope of history. He looked up at the faint light coming out of the womb of darkness just as pure milk came from between excretion and blood. He felt relieved.
By sunrise, the spacious open square in front of the Chief’s house thronged with people. The house itself looked like a dilapidated temple and the chief an ancient god as he sat facing the gathering. The workers from the textile factory, in their dark blue uniform and white masks, which now looked clean, had come early. They were carrying sky-blue flags and pictures of the waterman.
Faraj the waterman read out his first announcement in a confident tone. It was an eloquent speech, full of wisdom and lessons from history. He was ready for this day, which was a thousand years overdue. He had been viewing things from on high, but captured the right moment to descend to the foot of the mountain and change course, once and for all.
Uncle Abu Ali arrived, seething with rage. Once he had heard the news that the tribes had gathered in the square, he had thrown his blanket to the floor and threatened his wives, who were sitting around his bed, with divorce if they didn’t allow him to go. He strode off furiously, one leg beating against the other until he reached the middle of the square. But things didn’t develop as he wished. The square trembled with both joy and rage, with pride and loathing.
“This place cannot be led by two heads. That is impossible,” Uncle Abu Ali said in a desperate tone, amid the rising dust and din. The waterman was still on his platform, his hands on his stick, his eyes and heart on the future.
“We are not seeking to become heads, or tails. What we want is far more modest.”
“What is it you want?” asked Uncle Abu Ali.
Looking at the gathering, the waterman said:
“Simply, we don’t want anyone to exercise any authority on us against our wishes. We want to have our names separated from the names of your families. We want you, from now on, to call us the Grandsons, the name we have chosen for ourselves. You should not deny us our legal rights. We need to share water and bread and living space, fairly and respectfully, and to live as good neighbours.”
Uncle Abu Ali moved around the centre of the now silent crowd that had gathered since sunrise to watch the confrontation. Heat and thirst had taken its toll on the gathering, and the smell of sweat and now scorching sun filled the air.
Uncle Abu Ali finally spoke. He dismissed the waterman’s demands as contrary to the will and the order established by the Creator, who had created people in different classes. But the waterman kept reiterating that human beings were born equal.
Uncle Abu Ali never tired of talking as he spun round and round like a bull on a waterwheel. It was now almost noon and the waterman had not even moved his position. For almost three hours, the chief also had not uttered a single word as he sat there on his seat, looking down. Occasionally, however, he would grumble. Sometimes he would hit the ground with his stick. At others, he would make drawings in the sand. The other tribal heads were silent too, while the Government messenger wrote and wrote, filling dozens of sheets of paper. Sweat, ink and words intermingled with each other.
Perhaps the waterman wanted to exhaust them by allowing the hopeless confrontation to drag on until everyone grew too tired to let even one word escape their lips and so would leave before the battle came to an end.
Uncle Abu Ali finally became exhausted, his parched throat finally letting him down. He gestured to those around him to bring him water. Someone handed him a jug of water that must have been hot by that time. He collapsed on his emaciated backside to the ground and emptied the contents of the jug down his throat in one draught. He started choking and coughing profusely before vomiting over the ground. He tried to stand up but his strength failed him as he felt the ground trembling under his feet. Those around him rushed to his rescue and sprinkled water on his face, but it was too much for him and he drifted away, taking with him the follies of history.
As everyone stood watching old Abu Ali, the waterman stepped down from his platform and went directly to where the tribal heads were sitting. He shook hands with them one by one, looking them politely in the eye in such a way as to miraculously win from them a combination of admiration, shyness, and recognition.
Translated from Nabuat al-Saqqa, The Waterman’s Prophecy,
published by Dar Al-Tanweer, Beirut, Lebanon, 2015
First published in Banipal magazine 55 Spring 2016
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