Receive Our Newsletter
For news of readings, events and new titles.
It is well past midnight and I am very nearly asleep, though I am determined to stay awake until the dawn prayer. The noise coming through the window overlooking Madrid’s Gran Vía is making my task easier. There is a nightclub directly below the balcony, and I can hear the stamp of dancing feet and Brazilian samba music booming out, interspersed with fleeting gasps and whoops of delight. Something within reminds me of our quiet village and its innocent pleasures, and I long to join the late-night revellers in the dance.
I long for a past among low houses stretching between two hills of soft sand, and for the joy of celebratory days when, to the beat of the tabla, men and women would come together in the dance arena. The women wear deep blue Indian cloth, which casts a tinge on flushed faces and any visible part of amber arms and legs. The men spar in stick dances, each pair seeming to fight, one striving to defeat and kill the other, but the stick staves off any possible harm. At the climax of the dance, trills of joy rise and soar like birds on the wing, echoing between the secluded sand dunes and through Nabaa’s nearer quarters.
Those trills turned Nabaa’s festal nights into celebrations, while at the Moulid the spiritual charisma of my sheikh would pierce the depths of my being and mysterious feelings burst into flame. Then my troubled soul would open up to the mysteries of its Creator and bodies would melt in a singular spiritual ecstasy. That was my first schooling in the carefree life of the vagabond, as Abdurrahman was wont to describe it.
I liked being a vagabond and it became an ingrained habit. But only a few local men shared my inclinations, those whom the learned men of gravitas described as wrong-headed: rowdy, flighty youngsters who lived outside familiar conventions and paid little heed to strong tribal traditions.
Today, far away in Madrid as I prepare to return to that beautiful world, which sometimes dominates my thoughts for days, even weeks, I bring my friends to mind one by one.
How wonderful it is to feel like those wayward ones, who celebrate life and the pleasures it affords, and to join them in the same free expression of what is in the mind and call things clearly by their names without equivocation, hypocrisy, embarrassment or pretence.
Whenever I am stirred by longing and nostalgia, the image of Nabaa appears. Am I dreaming? I cannot tell. A mix of faces appears out of the haze. I cannot quite make out their features, but they are familiar, friendly. The image of Rajab the teacher emerges. He is putting on his blue litham, his face veil, as if a cloud has appeared from nowhere to provide him shade. A leather bag dangling from his shoulder contains the necessaries to make green tea, plus a few of his favourite tapes. He is heading for one of the houses to spend time alone. The glasses of tea, whose strong taste blends with the music of his favourite singer, Mahjouba, are possibly the only things disturbing the clarity of that seclusion.
His image fades and that of Hussein the poet shines in my mind. He is reciting a love poem praising the full figure of a remarkable woman. He describes her as dark velvet, so black that the morning light does not reveal her. Broad and fat, the sight of her brings pleasure. Because of her mountainous flesh she is only able to stand with great difficulty. Neither tall nor short, it is as if she has been carved from beautiful, primordial matter. In his tremulous high-pitched voice, Hussein repeats a line from a famous poem by Kaab ibn Zuhair:
Waif-like advancing, full-figured receding
no complaints that she is too tall or too short.
Other faces also appear as if from nowhere. In the flow of images comes my sheikh, the man touched – or as we say, attracted – by the divine energy. He is spinning his whole body, merging with the light breeze to whip up the sand of the dunes behind him. As he dances, he recites a poem, twirling his hands to the rhythm as though he wished to catch hold of the music within the letters and words. At the same time, the stamp of his feet on the sand causes it to eddy upwards in cones. The sand whips up more and more and gradually obscures his face.
The images swarm and another man appears. I cannot discern his features clearly enough to reveal his identity: taller than those around him, he is wearing a white turban and a red wrap around his head and face. He is surrounded by a large entourage, also without features, who are dancing and singing on an island surrounded on all sides by water. But the water recedes, leaving only a barren universe without a single drop of water.
I wake from the dream feeling very thirsty. The music rising from the dance club pulsing with life at the heart of Madrid is deafening, and urges me to go in and quench my thirst. Why shouldn’t I take the chance to enjoy the happy atmosphere before I leave the city for good?
Sobriety holds me back. Now that I have turned forty, it is no longer seemly to indulge my passions. True, the Madrid night is rowdy and alluring, making it easy to be caught in its seductive web, but since not too long ago I have become used to curbing the unruly passions of my soul and following my rational mind as it urges me to seek calm and tranquillity. Unless of course the Sufi spark dormant in my heart, an ever thirsty and seeking heart, should awaken and ignite the fire.
* * *
I have spent ten years in the Spanish capital. The pleasures of life came to me effortlessly. Money flowed through my fingers like a river spilling down a mountain. I spend the pesetas without a second thought. Tonight I complete the eleventh month of my tenth year, and now I speak Spanish, which I learned in the cafés and from listening to the chattering of my Brazilian neighbour, who speaks fluent Castilian.
Tomorrow at dawn, I will take an Iberia Airlines plane to Paris, then a UTA flight to Nouakchott, where the roaring ocean waves crash into the burning desert sands.
Will I be able to bear leaving this enchanting city and begin a new life in what is, compared to clamorous Madrid, not a city?