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Gypsies! I first heard the word from Sheikh Jasim al-Ahmadi, the religious scholar. When I was ten years old, my family sent me and my cousin Saleh, who was nine months older than me, to spend our summer holidays at the sheikh’s home, for us to have fun and improve our Arabic. The sheikh had a kindly face and spoke as clearly as a BBC announcer. Every morning he would lecture us and other children of the same age on history, such as stories about Khaled ibn al-Walid and Saad ibn Abi Waqqas, the early Muslim warriors. He also read us Mutanabbi’s heroic poetry and speeches by famous Arabs. He recited chapters of the Qur’an to us, observing all the technicalities, such as when to pause and which vowels to drop. He especially liked the Rahman chapter and when he recited the verse “And which blessings of your Lord do you deny?” in his sonorous voice, we felt suitably humble and impatient for God’s grace. We looked forward to receiving forgiveness from God the Compassionate at the Lotus Tree in the Seventh Heaven. We performed the noon, afternoon and evening prayers with him. He didn’t wake us up for the dawn prayers and when it was time for sunset prayers we were usually playing and he didn’t insist that we take part. Instead he would greet us with a big smile and ask us what we had been playing and whether we had won or lost.
When he mentioned gypsies, I asked him who they were, and he said they had existed since time immemorial. They were travellers. Among them there were no rich or poor. Their trade was travelling, dancing and singing and they were known for picking pockets and petty theft. He had never heard of them committing really serious crimes, such as murder or rape. That’s the way they were made, and they were content with their lives, he said. They had children and roamed the world from east to west and wherever you went you would find a trace of them if you asked. If they wanted they could have a homeland, a nationality and a religion but our Lord had made them the way they are and they would stay that way till the Day of Judgment, never starting wars against anyone, never showing any interest in acquiring real estate or doing business and not using their brains to make nuclear bombs. They danced and sang and were satisfied with their way of life. They were globetrotters, wandering in every valley, followed by foolish admirers. The salt of the earth with their combination of serenity and frivolity.
From the sheikh’s sons, who were much older than us, maybe in their twenties, we heard that the gypsies might be coming to the area soon. Saleh and I slept in the same bed in the courtyard of the house, and some way off slept the sheikh’s sons, each in his own bed. We went to sleep at nine or ten o’clock on a wooden bed among the trees, with a white mosquito net that kept the insects off but didn’t keep out the cool breeze or block out the stars and the moon. We had both been extremely inquisitive since birth and we hoped the gypsies would come while we were staying at the house. For many nights, as we counted the stars, we listened out in the hope that gypsy songs would reach our ears. The sheikh’s sons didn’t go to bed till after midnight. The sheikh also had a daughter who was slightly older than us but throughout the three weeks we stayed there we only saw her once, and that was from a distance. She, the sheikh and the rest of the family slept in another part of the house.
One night we did hear an unfamiliar sound. Saleh shook my shoulder and I listened. It was a woman’s voice. A voice in the distance that filtered through the trees and crossed the open spaces between us. We lay there, our heads on our pillows, our eyes looking up at the sky and our ears pricked up to hear the voice over the rustling of the leaves. It was the gypsies, the gypsies! We pushed off our bedding, slipped out of bed, carried our shoes in our hands, pushed the wooden front door of the house open and went out, swerving right and left so that no one would see us. The house was surrounded with citrus trees and grapevines, the ground was littered with holes and the moonlight filtered through the trees as we pressed on, muttering little phrases that reflected our excitement and listening for that voice, which came on the wind some of the time and disappeared at other times. It was definitely a woman’s voice. When it came, it was like a shooting star streaking across the sky. Hand in hand, we pushed on, following the voice, our eyes peeled, and turning left and right for fear that someone might see us.
We were worried the sheikh might find out that we had gone out in the middle of the night. We were worried he might count us as foolish admirers and our families might hear about it. The sound was our guide. We also began to hear a constant drumbeat that cut through the air and shook the branches of the trees. The lemon trees were in blossom and the moonlight was magical. The cold air drove us on like impatient lovers, but we had to watch the ground to avoid rocks or holes. Sometimes we had to push our way past branches, and other branches would swing back and hit us in the face. But we could tell we were drawing closer as the drumbeats grew louder. In the distance we could now hear laughter and people talking and clapping. We went closer and closer, hid behind the trees and finally saw the source of the music.
The woman, broad-chested and as tall as a palm tree, was trembling as she sang. She had big hair and was resting her arm on the trunk of a tree. The audience was gathered in a clearing. Seated on the ground, they clapped rhythmically and repeated verses of the song. Their arms flashed like daggers in the air, almost independent of their shoulders, as they rose and swayed with the rhythm. Two women with long black hair came and danced in the clearing. The men cheered and some of them leapt off the ground like dolphins breaching the surface, shaking their shoulders and then falling back to the ground like magnets. We couldn’t see the singer’s face. We saw part of her shoulder, her chest and her arm, and we saw the dancers swaying and shaking their hair energetically. They were wearing long red dresses and we could see their eyes, their teeth and glimpses of their legs. One man jumped up to join the dancers and then lay flat on the grass as they spun around him, shaking their hair over him. The men clapped even louder and sang as if entranced. One of the dancers put a foot on the man’s shoulder as he trembled beneath her and lifted his hand to stroke her leg, which glinted like a sword in the moonlight. Another man went into the open space to dance and sat on the ground shaking his shoulders and bending his back as if prostrating. The other dancer put her foot over his head, and he started to fondle her leg with his hands and pulled her foot towards his face and put it against his chest, as we pushed the branches aside to see as much as we could. Everything is possible. In the tree above us we saw several little birds that, like us, hadn’t gone to sleep. Like us they were staring in silence, listening stock-still to the songs.
I nudged Saleh and said: “Look up.” We looked at the birds together – they were stunned, passive, not looking at us, tweeting or whistling, just staring and listening “as if they had birds on their heads”, as the Arabs say. The men in the audience were in ecstasies, driven delirious by the power of the music, swaying left and right like waves in rough seas. They raised their shoulders and clapped loudly, bobbing up and down, shaking and falling. Their singing filled the sky and made the branches drunk.
From afar we saw the sheikh’s sons standing up and saying goodbye to their friends, so we hurried away for fear they might see us. We hurriedly pushed the door to the house and looked around us. There was no one to see us as we sneaked into our bed under the mosquito net. We put our heads on our pillows, our hearts pounding for fear of being found out. We watched the stars and laughed to ourselves. We heard the sheikh’s sons going to bed and talking and then they fell asleep. As we lay with our heads side by side, I asked Saleh in a whisper why the man had put the dancer’s leg against his chest. “I couldn’t see clearly,” he said. Or he was putting his hand over her leg, over her thigh! We couldn’t see properly.
In the morning we were apprehensive, but no one asked us about anything. As on every day, we had breakfast with the sheikh and listened to the morning hadiths. As a lesson in ethics and politics, he explained to us Abu Bakr’s second speech when he assumed the caliphate. Over lunch the sheikh asked his sons about the gypsies, and they told him about the party, while we listened and said nothing. We reached out to take food off the plates, our hearts fearful that someone might ask us about something.
Then the sheikh turned to us and asked: “And you, didn’t you hear the singing?” We looked up at him and said we hadn’t heard anything. The sheikh shook his head. “You young people do sleep well, right through till the morning,” he said. We looked at each other, happy and confident that we could do the impossible without anyone seeing us or finding out what we were doing. We kept the secret even when we went home to our families. We didn’t tell anyone what we had seen, even friends of our own age. And so we learned how to have secrets and how to keep them.
“Secrets” is from the author’s short story collection
Asrar wa Qisas Oukhra (Secrets and other stories),
published by al-Badawi for Publishing and Distribution, Tunis 2016
Translated by Jonathan Wright, and published in Banipal 68 – Short Stories (Summer 2020)