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Here, one can see the wind. Between the mountains of Zaghouan in the west and Fkirine in the east, there is a corridor that is neither part of the northern plains, nor part of the slopes below. Mere hills scattered between the two mountains and positioned to set off the fertile northern sector, where wheat is as tall as men, from the barren lands of the middle, bursting with jagged stones and useless prickly shrubs. The wind blows through this passageway from the end of autumn to the beginning of summer and its howl morphs from sobbing, to wailing, to the maddening trumpet blows of demons and genies.
A howling wind, indeed.
Bringing blistering, depressing cold, or scorching southern heat; the desirable mandara wind that winnows grain from the ears of corn, or the flirting wind that takes away the laundry or upturns women’s skirts. The wind of laziness and disease and death. The wind that steers the feet of dervishes and the sails of eternal travellers, and snatches people away and never brings them back.
The southern wind of late spring and early summer, brimming with the desert dryness that ripens peppers and tomatoes, but that might also bring locusts and scorpions and pythons and lice and the plague and trachoma. It cooks up the Indian cactus and fans the instincts of the he-goat, but might make women barren, as old women say.
And the northern mountain wind that shrouds the world with sadness as it whistles over the roofs and among the trees, twisting cypresses and willow trees, and mildly swaying the heavy, round olive trees. The smaller olive trees are easier victims, and their broken branches often prompt the saddened farmers to appeal to God for more compassion. Sometimes, my father gathers the fallen branches and drags them home with the deep misery of a soldier carrying the bodies of fallen comrades.
My mother quarrels with the wind and curses it, and occasionally curses people I don’t know, which makes me wonder about their connection to the wind. She looks at that invisible being, reproaches it or swears at it, and then shouts at me: “Come on in, chick, before the wind shakes you up,” and I do go in but she never gives a full accounting of all those people she curses. When she lines up the broken branches, she talks to them, relating their previous bounties, and lamenting their current destiny as firewood for the clay bread oven, the tannour.
A rather touching sight is that of slender cypress trees that bend and swing with the wind like a group of wailing women. Their delicate branches defy the carnage, never surrendering to the wind, and leaning one against the other.
When the cold February wind blows, outside doors are locked and people venture out only for emergencies. Chickens find refuge in reed sheds, forever pecking the ground and never relinquishing their safe haven. They might be surprised once in a while by a dog that cannot settle in a hay stack or a cosy corner in the stable, or simply because it is bored and wants to move around.
Among the olive trees, stray donkeys look as if they could not care less for the wind, or for anything else. They do not feed or seek shelter but stay out there like discarded things in the wilderness. Donkeys are strange; how utterly trivial and useless they look in the midst of a howling wind! Just black spots marking a dull space or final touches dotting the landscape of misery that the wind brings to the scene. Sheep could not care less, either. They keep on grazing regardless under that protective ball of wool. No wind will shake them, their limbs are tougher than the branches of peach and pomegranate trees and no wind will ruin their appetite. Goats are cowardly, or too finicky and selfish and have little inclination to bond with their like. They disperse like hay and dust in the face of the wind as if the wind were a pack of wolves. Goats bond only when it rains.
Iron cast is the roof of my home
Its corners solid stone
Let the wind howl!
Let the rain pour!
Throngs of school children swarm along the winding dirt road between rows of olive trees. Human mass are nudged in the back like tiny balls by the wind. Their loud, merry voices defy the wind, come from the depths of the woods and reverberate in the distance. Some scatter in the wind, others carry flashes of joy and song in their faces. Just before the evening, the children will be heading in the opposite direction, against the wind. Their small bodies will bend, their thin legs will buckle, struggling to keep their balance. On such a day, they will not stop to finish the game of marbles they started at midday in the school yard, or watch a couple of mates settling an argument with hands and legs, or cluster to work together on a maths or language exercise. They’ll continue chanting their school songs as they chew on the remains of the bread they brought in the morning for their lunch. Now, it is covered with chalk and ink stains, but remains the most delicious snack even though mothers try to make their supper more nourishing, with hot stew and vegetables, and even a chunk of meat if God happens to bless a deal or if a goat is sick or happens to fall from the roof. High winds have their benefits, too.
Iron cast is the roof of my home
Its corners solid stone
Let the wind howl!
. . .
On such a day they won’t chant this chorus with enthusiasm. Words stick in the throat on a windy day. This is real wind, not the wind in a chant, and they can see it breaking the branches of the majestic eucalyptus tree in the school yard, bending men’s bodies, and ballooning their woollen kashabiyas till they appear to fly, or trot like airmen the moment they touch the ground. The wind can untie an old man’s waistband and toss his kashabiya over his head like a kite, and the poor fellow will falter as he pursues the flying garment, seeking refuge in God from the workings of Satan. A wind bold enough to lift up a woman’s dress or abaya and expose her thighs to the looks of men and boys. Some will turn away, out of modesty or consideration for the victim; others will stare with eyes wide open as the woman bats the dress down with both hands in rapid, clumsy movements. The young get a kick out of such a flash of exposed flesh, the flash of light from the thunder on a pitch-black night.
No house has an iron-cast roof. The better-off who own the estates left by the last colonials live in villas finished off by red bricks. The rest live in mud huts whose roofs are made from hay and branches of willow and pine trees. It’s a little peculiar, perhaps even foolhardy, to brag about such roofs in the face of winds and storms. Children have often seen roofs ripped off by storms and turned into loose hay and weeds, blown away alongside kitchen utensils, old floor mats, blankets and clothes. And the villas are not necessarily safer since many have not been maintained for years. The bricks lining their roofs do not last in the face of stormy winds and the children often curse Nuiama and their own artlessness for believing the empty words of a poet who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Their doubts might even extend to all school books and the vague stuff in them that seems drawn from fables and myths.
The storm might last for one day, three, or seven days, but rarely for two, four, or five days. The one-day trick is acceptable and the three-day is just a rainy storm. But the seven-day is an ordeal. It is also called the afreet storm because the fifth day brings the anxious wait for the sandstorm that cloaks the afreet, who is shackled in gold chains, as old women claim. These are the chains the Almighty ordained to keep the destructive creature from wrecking the entire world.
“But where is the afreet going to?”
“To prison. God transfers it from one jail to another wrapped in a sandstorm, for the protection of the world.”
“And God lifts it with the storm to its remote prison?”
“The storm is the mighty breath of that creature, heralding a presence surrounded with dust and hay and thorns.”
“But why doesn’t God leave it in a permanent prison in one corner of the world since it brings all these catastrophes?”
We will not get an answer to that question, but our consolation is the day off we get on the day the afreet is expected to pass. It’s not only a break from school, but also from gathering firewood and shepherding. We stay indoors around the stove and listen to old women’s stories about someone who actually saw the afreet with his own eyes. A strange creature, he said, that looked like a python the size of a willow tree with a heavy chain of pure gold around its massive, hairy neck. He would have stolen the gold chain but for an unexpected turn of events. And stories of a woman who insisted on getting firewood during the afreet sandstorm, only to be carried away by the storm, and to date never heard of again. And a man who was blown away by the wind as he tried to lay stones and iron bars on a hay stack, and was thrown with a bundle of hay and dust for at least a hundred metres.
The one-week storm also brings death. Once, ten lives were snuffed out in that week of horror. Its howl over the roofs was echoed by the wailing that rose from the rest of the village. Grief scorched people’s faces and bent their bodies, twisted the tops of trees, and paralysed roads and fields. An odd mixture of silence and moaning fit only for the face of death. Silence in the shops and assemblies of men, and in the processions to and from the cemetery, and wailing and weeping elsewhere that the wind broke down and subsumed in its own roar.
It was on the sandstorm day of such an ordeal that German troops landed one distant year, and on the eve of such a day that the daughter of the village mukhtar eloped with a Bedouin. He used to sing at weddings and completely bewitched her. The mukhtar stayed away from men’s gatherings until his death from a broken heart. And it was on the eve of a sandstorm that the sergeant surprised his wife, his junior by twenty years, groaning in the stable with one of his shepherds. “The bitch never groaned like this with me!” He did not hesitate to pull the trigger and soon after was locked away in a remote prison. And once, the sandstorm brought a disease that killed all the livestock, sparing only donkeys and mules.
On a stifling summer day people need a little wind, a delicate breeze that separates grains from the chaff after threshing. This is the mandara breeze we wait for in the early evening, and when it fails to come, the air dries up and threshers have to fall back on tricks to winnow the grain from the ears. They ask the kids to lie.
Lying draws the wind, and that’s why we couple liars with the wind. A strange connection as if the wind blows solely to scatter lies. Perhaps winds are types of discourse we don’t understand, and what’s lying, when you think of it, but loose talk that is like windy discourse. We loved that trick and competed to show our ingenuity in lying to tempt the wind. We told of sleeping pythons we stumbled on in the valley, a cow wearing glasses and reading a heavy book, and the teacher with the fearful cane entering the classroom with the head of a calf. And of a lark we trapped and were about to slaughter but which then appealed to us in formal Arabic to let it go to feed its nestlings.
Adults enjoyed our lies and made us feel important, but the wind rarely rewarded us. Somebody would say: “These are bare-faced lies that will not bring wind”, and advise us to come up with more credible ones.
The oppressively hot weather persists, and it feels like the entire universe is trapped inside an oven. Still trees with branches like stone; threshers monotonously beating ears of wheat; and tired men half-heartedly whipping their tired horses. The water-wheel at the well stops, and people stare at the stony branches of willow and fig and olive trees.
The only thing that could spark some life was the transistor radio. That tiny box, which drew people away from their habitual gatherings and their master storytellers, became the centre piece in a home, or in the open field when people were working. The radio reduced grandmothers to silence, or sometimes to death, and turned screaming kids into dutiful listeners. Some thought the talk coming out of that box was worthless lies and they even used radios to trick the wind. It was a windy day when the first radio came to the village.
Ahmed El-Nuri put the radio on a stack of wheat stalks tied tightly together. He fiddled with its buttons and ariel, and shouted “Yes, there it is!” and signalled to his sons and labourers to carry on threshing. El-Nuri wasn’t looking for a particular station, he just wanted to get a clear sound out of the set to draw the wind to the area. The chaff was falling to the ground with the grains and the tired workers felt helpless as they looked at the immobile almond and olive trees on the nearby hills. A dog crawled from under a pile of stalks, arched its back and padded slowly toward the house.
Then the men saw the northern horizon getting darker, and the sky becoming the colour of lead when mixed with dirt. The sky turned red, and El-Nuri appealed to God for help. The men muttered a little as they tried to catch their breath. Their bodies were dripping with warm sweat.
Bits of chaff started to separate from the grains and El-Nuri declared: “The wind is blowing.” The rhythm of the beating flails intensified and at the top of the willow the leaves quivered a little. Chickens started to move towards the cow byre.
“It’s a sandstorm,” El-Nuri shouted. “You sons of bitches, cover the pile of wheat and lay heavy stones on top of it. Covers. Plastic mats. And stones,” he cried and ran around in a frenzy. The men stopped threshing and ran for the plastic covers. Chaff started to waft away from the wheat and cover the left side of the threshing area in a delicate white bloom.
It was the middle of summer and we thought we were safe from sandstorms and their afreets. What was Ahmed El-Nuri thinking when he fiddled with the radio? Perhaps he just missed the breeze he wanted and so messed up the sequence of seasons inside that astonishing box. Anyway, when the men finally got the plastic covers and started securing them over the wheat, they could barely keep standing. It became dark even though there was not a single cloud in the sky. Soon after, firewood, empty cartons, sheets of paper, utensils and items of clothing were blowing all over the place. The workers had no time to lay large stones over the covers and Ahmed El-Nuri continued to curse them. They had to sit on the covers to keep them in place, especially after the wind scattered a big pile of firewood.
“Sit on it and hold on to the covers with your hands and teeth, you sons of bitches,” El-Nuri bewailed and hit the ground with his stick. “You’ll bankrupt me . . .” and his angry explosion of orders and curses came to a stop when he saw the stack of wheat on which he had put his radio fly into the air taking the set with it. His djellaba was filled with air as he bent to pick something up, then it lifted right up. It appeared he didn’t have anything under that djellaba and people turned away, struggling to smother their laughter. His sons couldn’t look either, at that sudden exposure of the patriarch. The wind twisted him around when he struggled to right his clothing and after a few seconds his hand disappeared as the wind took the garment. Another section of the pile soon followed and the men had to flee when one of them was blown away along with the mat he was sitting on. The sandstorm then took hold of the entire place, spinning the ears of wheat and chaff and grain, the mats and plastic covers and sheets of paper into the air, accompanied by the last curses Ahmed El-Nuri uttered. El-Nuri and the man on the flying mat became completely invisible.
For the children, nothing could have been more entertaining than the exposed nakedness of a grown-up cursing, and the sudden collapse of his formidable authority. They might even wish under such circumstances that the sandstorm would whisk them away a few metres over the houses and fields, just to scare their parents a little, so that in those scary moments they would regret their harsh treatment of the children. The children also imagined that after they survived the stormy adventure, they would return home victorious, to crying and remorseful parents ready to abandon cruel ways with them. But the firm hands of adults did not let them join the storm, so the children confined themselves to joyous and loud shouts to celebrate the grown-ups’ ludicrous loss of control. Children could not care less for what the wind blew away. If anything, they might have envied Ahmed El-Nuri for his ride to one of the remote places of their imagination, regardless of their hilarious reaction to his exposed behind.
Ahmed El-Nuri was found shortly after the storm. Some heard his helpless moans in a thicket and they soon stumbled on him, his djellaba still around his head, his body stark naked. He fell sick and could not or would not eat or speak for more than two weeks, but he acquired the ability to sense an approaching wind or storm and could tell with unbelievable accuracy its type and direction and when it would be arriving and ending. No one found the radio, however. Old and young failed to find even a screw, no matter how hard they searched. Some thought it was possessed by a wind djinn and others said it was a mere receptacle of lies that the wind had come to take to wherever it should. Anyway, no other radio was allowed into the village, and adults had to fall back on children’s lies to tempt the wind during the threshing season. Or until the mechanical harvesters arrived that put an end to the threshing floor and all its gear.
No mechanical device has been invented yet to stop a wind or storm. They continue to blow between mountain Zaghouan and mountain Fkirine but without the caravan of summer labourers heading towards the northern plains for the harvest season. And the caravan heading south towards Kairouan and Sidi Bou Said, loaded with men and women singing to the tunes of their clanking utensils. Also gone are the inscrutable, suspicious travellers wrapped, summer and winter, in their woollen kashabiyas and dark hoods, with nothing but their bright eyes to be seen. They slept where they could during the day and at night they bewitched women and horses with their singing. And gone are the palm readers and the itinerant sellers riding pitiable donkeys. And the beggars whose chants were scattered by the wind with what remained of them sounding more like notes of an arcane puzzle.
Only the wind continues to move between Zaghouan in the east and Fkirine in the west and but for the olives and the eucalyptus and the cypresses and the almond trees one would never know it was there.
Wind is translated by Shakir Mustafa from
its online publication on www.kikah.com.