Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah
Abdallah Uld Mohamadi Bah
Chapter from the novel Birds of Al-Nab'a

In Teresa’s Shadow

 

My days in the desert are sluggish and dull. There is nothing here to rouse my spirits except reading poetry, which helps me escape my current stagnation and keeps my mind clear. It seems I am still longing for Madrid, which I left behind. I’m still longing for my morning coffee with sandwiches stuffed with cream cheese, longing for the sight of the agile Colombian waitress, who would race to beat all her peers to bring me a glass of orange juice with ice, and a smile as wide as the broad sky.

In Madrid, I worked in accounting, but I have no real sway over numbers. I just checked expenses and made sure they complied with regulations. I collected receipts, sorted them, and passed them on to the ministry in the diplomatic pouch.

My work routine at the embassy was boring. The naked truth is that my only job was adding up the endless and insatiable expenses of His Excellency the Ambassador. He knew that the Foreign Office was always generous towards him, so whenever he needed more, he would add a new item to the budget and then simply have a word with the Secretary General at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make sure he approved it. Of course, the funds would then arrive at the appointed time, and never a moment later. Yet somehow at the end of each month, we would find that half the budget had not been spent. At that point, we would meet again and endeavour to spend what was left. His Excellency took the lion’s share. I would look at him as he picked up his bundle of money without even blinking, without even a flicker of guilt in his fingertips, and I would apologise for what had happened. And something inside me crumbled. That said, it gave me something to help combat the tedium of my flat in Madrid.

Inviting my friends, neighbours and compatriots over became a Sunday tradition. We enjoyed ourselves playing cards, laughing and trading witticisms well into the afternoon. Usually, we would lay out a roast Andalusian lamb on the table, straight from the barbecue and untouched by any of us. The delicious smell of the grill engulfed us as we turned our attention back to the cards. Meanwhile, my neighbour Teresa, whom I had instructed in the art of grilling and in our Saharan way of preparing spices, was singing a gypsy song of blood and betrayal, abandonment and who knows what else. She hovered around us like a moth drawn to the flame, while we occasionally glanced at her with admiring eyes, yearning for the fire concealed behind her song. She prepared the table and some appetisers for us, while flitting among us like a gentle breath of fresh air.

At first, Teresa thought it was unbearably extravagant. She came into my place while I was preparing to welcome my friends one Friday evening and she was wearing very little, just a scanty white shirt wrapped around her firm breasts that barely reached her smooth, pink belly button, and a pair of shorts that revealed her fleshy thighs and slipped down when she moved, not quite reaching her ivory knees. Teresa shook her head like a restless filly in heat. The fragrance of her long hair, hanging loose down her back, spread through the room so that every corner was filled with the scent of orange blossom pouring off her. At that time, I was almost knocked sideways by how alluring she was in that deserted apartment in the heart of lurid Madrid.

Cover of Tuyour al-Nab'a (Birds of al-Nab'a) by Abdallah Uld Mohamadi BahTeresa heard me that morning talking to the Spanish butcher, who was originally from North Africa. I was asking him to bring us a fat lamb and grill it on the barbecue for us, when she immediately intervened, saying firmly: “My God, what are you doing with all that meat? You must be some kind of carnivorous rodents . . .”

I replied: “Yes, we are, madam. We fight the wolves for scraps.”

She laughed and said: “Try eating some fruit and vegetables . . .”

“Only animals eat grass,” I said, and went on, “after this advice, you could help us prepare for the Sunday gathering.”

She replied, kindly and politely: “Sure, I could. Let’s get to work then.”

Teresa had burst into my life with no prior warning. Everything aligned to pave the way for a relationship that started out as a mix of friendship, concealed infatuation, and true kinship. All these feelings mixed together like when the weather in some Spanish cities is sunny, rainy and snowy in the course of a single day.

I introduced her to the proper way of making tea. I got her used to buying mint from the Moroccan quarter, while each month I took in a supply of the green tea the Ambassador had recommended; they brought it for him specially from Nouakchott, putting it in a bag inside the diplomatic pouch. Teresa and I exchanged roles through this magical tea: she came closer to the desert, to its flavours and rituals, and her passion grew for preparing tea and grilled meats; I, in turn, took up residency under her genial auspices, in the stillness deep within her merry soul.

Since the North African merchants first brought green tea to parts of the desert in the eighteenth century, the drink has become our companion wherever we go. We know how to pick out the good stuff by its smell, and leave it in bags inside iron boxes to mature. We’re addicted to drinking it at breakfast in the morning, after lunch, and in the afternoon like the English gentry. To maintain our harmony and camaraderie, I taught Teresa to make tea for us whenever possible. It was as if her heart no longer belonged to her, as if she had taken us into her clan. Or perhaps her Latin blood had turned into Saharan tea, flowing through her veins and guiding her through mazes to reach a heart of sand in the desert.

* * *

When I arrived in Madrid, I lived in a small hotel, not far from the Embassy headquarters. Spain was under the rule of General Franco and had not yet healed from the wounds of its civil war. Nevertheless, life in Madrid embraced everything new. The city released both hot and cold breaths from the same mouth, one after the other. It remembered the calamities and blazing fires of the war in its perturbed psyche, but as soon as the flames died down, people stayed up through the night, looking for pleasure and oblivion, as if running away would lead to salvation.

The hotel was run by an old married couple who seemed about to step off the train of life. However, they were resisting by snatching moments of stolen pleasure from the time they had left. They were assisted by their young and impetuous daughter, who went here and there devoid of purpose.

The moment I arrived – and after an initially weak smile had turned into an encouraging one following the first moments of our acquaintance – the old woman gave me the key to a room on the first floor. It was a spacious room overlooking a well-lit, narrow street, adorned with flowers and plants that hung from walls built in a bygone era. Generally, they treated me pleasantly.

I was their guest on Sundays for paella, which they say was invented by our Arab ancestors. Andalusian paella is a mix of fish, seafood, chicken, rice, and vegetables all infused with saffron and other spices and blended with olive oil. They would put the dining table in a courtyard opposite their room with the windows and doors open to let it bathe in the sun’s rays as much as possible. The little faience-topped table was usually placed in the middle, with cups of cold water on it, plus fresh juice from oranges the old woman had brought from a farm not far from Madrid.

The old lady excelled in making this delicious food, which was devoured in copious quantities. That was how they used the proceeds from running the hotel, spending it liberally on themselves; and on Sundays that included me. It was enough for me to share gratefully in their happiness, offering words of thanks that gave them pleasure and cheered the hearts of that lovely old couple and their daughter.

They would set a place for me next to their rebellious, quarrelsome daughter, whose face glowed between frizzy ringlets. She was usually quieter in the mornings, but in the evening, when the sun disappeared over the horizon and darkness spread its wings over every nook and cranny of the hotel, then she was overcome by fits of hysterical laughter. This may have been due to the alcohol she so abundantly consumed in her private room, or it may have been the effect of the drugs she took in secret, without her father’s knowledge.

I spent the whole of my first year at the Santa Mañana Inn. I knew that it had become a part of me. It resided in me, as much as I did in it, as if I were a jailer and it was a prisoner I found hard to release. Nevertheless, one autumn day, I bid the hotel owners farewell. I had learned to speak a little Spanish and what I couldn’t communicate to them naturally, I tried to relay through gestures.

I addressed the old couple courteously, although my voice couldn’t hide my feelings of embarrassment and unease: “This is the end of happy days, but now it is time to depart . . .”

The day I left the hotel was memorable. I felt their genuine affection for me as they said goodbye and the old lady cried passionately. The girl watched the scene without interest from a distance, as if she were free of the burden of my presence and could now relax in the absence of anyone who could tell on her. I left her to her indifference and juvenile fantasies, and turned away.

The old couple accompanied me to the outside door where a taxi was waiting for me. I had gathered up my few possessions and my private papers into a leather Samsonite bag I had bought from a fancy shop, and which I now placed in the boot. The car set off towards my new flat in the centre of Madrid.

Before I left, I turned back to wave to the old couple and to imprint on my memory a last image of the rite of farewell. I saw the couple hugging their daughter, who was deeply affected and streaming with tears. I hadn’t expected that, and I didn’t believe it. I was amazed at her attachment to the Saharan neighbour who hadn’t paid her very much attention. There was nothing I could do. I waved and felt an emptiness beginning to fill my insides.

“Goodbye. I’m so sorry, little one, I didn’t understand.”

I found my new flat on Gran Vía thanks to a private estate agent. They call Gran Vía the Broadway of Madrid, in reference to New York’s famous avenue of arts and entertainment. In contrast to the latter, however, Gran Vía (literally, the “Great Way”) dates back to the nineteenth century, although it didn’t take its final form until the 1920s. Its name has changed constantly with Spain’s political upheavals. Its most provocative name was during the Civil War when the leftists called it “Soviet Union Avenue”; that was before it regained its older name with Franco’s victory. Gran Vía remains one of the biggest and most important streets in Madrid, and its most lively. High-end shops stretch along it, as well as clubs, restaurants, and bars, so it’s known as the only place in Madrid that never sleeps.

On my first night, what worried me was the nightclub right underneath my window. It’s true that it sometimes played nice music, but it became irritating in the summer when the neighbouring plaza turned into an open-air dance floor and I, despite myself, was sucked into the racket.

In my third month, a single girl moved into the flat next door. She arrived at the entrance hall just as I was preparing to leave for work. She said good morning and asked whether I was the “Moro” living at number four.

She was stammering and swaying, carrying a heavy bag on her back, and her eyes were red with tiredness from a long journey that had taken more than twenty hours – as she later told me. They had told her at the estate agent that her neighbour was a nice “Moro”.

When I returned that evening, she was plunged in a deep sleep, judging by the regular snoring I could hear through the adjoining wall. I wanted to greet her, as dictated by the laws of neighbourliness in which my grandmother had instructed me.

The day after she arrived I was on my way to the Embassy when I came across my new neighbour sitting at a small café on the corner of our street. I said good morning. “First of all, buenos días,” I said, taking to heart the idea of the nice Moro, as the agent had described me.

She replied amiably: “I’m Teresa. Have a seat.” Then she asked me to join her for breakfast. We sat opposite each other at the table, face to face, her with her bitter black coffee, and me with my milky coffee mixture.

She kept chatting and talking, without any connecting thread, breaking off sometimes to talk to the waiters about the weather, poverty, music, military despotism. I liked how she drank her coffee with such relish, really taking her time to drain the cup of its contents. She sipped a drop of the black liquid like a bee sucking nectar, then nibbled on her full lips. Her manner reminded me of one of our desert women neighbours, and her great passion for tea. She would clasp the cup between her hands for minutes on end, which annoyed my grandmother, a woman quick to anger but also easily reconciled.

Teresa held her cup as if she were afraid it would escape from between her hands, drinking the black liquid with pleasure. It was as if she were saying “I’m drinking my coffee, but it’s really you who’s enjoying it”. She told me her life story in less than half an hour: she had studied philosophy and recently completed her bachelor’s degree, then returned to live in Spain from her own country of Brazil after one of her teachers had found her a job producing records in a music publishing company.

My neighbour’s job seemed nice, as she spent most of her time listening to music by people of the various nations that were the company’s speciality.

I said: “No doubt they look for unknown artists to buy the copyright for their work at low prices, then sell their records for double the price. Right?”

My neighbour smiled with a sly twinkle in her eye, and said conspiratorially: “Maybe what you say is true. Who knows . . .”

Teresa told me – and what a coincidence it was – that the last thing the company had produced was a record from a “Moro” country, but she didn’t know whether it was Morocco or Mauritania. I, however, later identified this music, which drew Teresa closer to my country and made her tremble in joy and rapture with its beautiful melodies.

That evening, Teresa brought me a vinyl record in a colourful sleeve with pictures of women clad in black and apparently beating on drums. In the middle of a circle, there was a thin man in a baggy blue jubbah, raising his arm and holding a stick that was crooked at the top. The title in Spanish said “Songs of the Namadi”.

We put the record on a new Sony record player. As I listened to the oscillating melody, it was mingled with trilling cries and women’s voices. The girl asked me whether I knew who this band was, and I told her: “It’s not a band in the general sense. It’s a case of when desert people spontaneously turn a simple occasion into a great act of rejoicing. They can turn the smallest gathering into a singing ensemble.”

“Who are they, the Namadi? Is it one of your big tribes?”

“No, they’re a mix of tribes united in the art of hunting. They live in an expanse of desert in the border region between Morocco, Mauritania, and Algeria.” Noticing the attentive and alert surprise in her eyes, I added: “They live by hunting gazelles with their saluki dogs. They value these dogs so highly that they consider them their real treasure, and even include them in marriage dowries.”

The girl seemed amazed as she collected her thoughts around this jumble of hunting and music and rearing dogs. This is what awakened her appetite for knowing more about the desert dwellers.

We were reeling enraptured, our fingers touching, as we listened to that gambolling music, which spoke of love and dogs and dried gazelle meat. The whole time she was giving me a cryptic look that I didn’t fully understand, and I looked back at her quizzically. And that was enough for us!

Later on, the tunes on that record, produced by the company in Madrid, became a sort of companion to me and I kept them with me while I was away from my native country. Through them and other music I was drawn to a world that stirred in me feelings of Sufi ecstasy known only to those whose spirits long for the great expanse of space and whose souls reside somewhere between doubt and certainty. Perhaps Teresa, with her merry soul, would live in that world with me.

Later Teresa gave me yoga lessons, explaining that they helped her to forget about hardship and exhaustion. I tried it for a bit before realising that I have my own spiritual exercises that don’t require me to sit like a Buddha or delve into the teachings of Taoism.

As time went by, Teresa the Brazilian would be my helper in organising matters at home. I would teach her how to make tea, with all the details of its rituals and how to prepare it with greater depth and deliberation. This starts with three different glasses of tea each having varying concentrations of leaves and therefore different flavours. They say that the first is as strong as love, the second as sweet as life, and the third as wan as death. It was unthinkable to me that Teresa should drink from the third glass.

I also showed her how to choose good mint, but the most profound difficulty was in the meditation of making the tea.

Yoga was helpful for that. I made use of some pictures used to advertise tourism in Mauritania that I brought her from the office of a colleague charged with promoting a country that has only very occasional flights. I asked her to draw herself up straight, as if she had been reincarnated as a squatting Buddha, and to relax, turn her thoughts inwards, and think of herself as living in an endless void, to focus on making the tea as if it were her only task, her final task. Then she would achieve a level of Nirvana and ultimate happiness, that kind of heavenly happiness that only the pure-hearted can attain. Or at least, she would think of herself as if she were making paella, since it is a dish that combines different things, and elements of varied flavours and aromas, with the end purpose of coming to a moment of harmony and integration between opposites in order to reach the pinnacle of taste and intoxication. Lastly, I stressed that the most important thing with tea is the elegance of how it is made. I added, joking: “For some Moorish women, making tea is a method of seduction and a ritual of love.”

With time, her practice bore fruit. Teresa was completely drawn to her new work as a domestic helper, a home-maker and an extraordinary, plenipotentiary friend. She made the tea, grilled the meat and cleaned the house, and in return I helped her to meet the monthly expenses, which her paltry wages couldn’t cover.

On Sundays, Teresa took up her place in the reception room like a princess from the land of the Tuareg. I had brought her a wrap of such deep indigo it was almost black and she looked bewitching wearing her flowing robes. She would take the tea things in her expert hands and then pour the tea elegantly, ensuring the bubbles, as I had taught her, ended up forming a froth that looked like foam atop the strong liquid.

With her authoritative appearance, she sometimes looked like a girl from Tiris, that stretch of desert that reaches from northern Mauritania up to the edges of the river Draa in Morocco.

Who’s to say that this Brazilian girl, with her gorgeous, lightly-tanned skin, wasn’t related to those tribes, some of whom live off the coast of the Atlantic, who are experts in nomadic life, and who met the first Europeans who ever set foot on dry Mauritanian land? Did one of them travel in the opposite direction and dare marry a Portuguese woman? Anything’s possible. Even she knows only that her father was of Portuguese extraction and that she was born in Brazil, like most of her compatriots.

She began to crave verification of this story that she had roots going back to this desert region. Being among those music samples with African rhythms had whetted her appetite for reading and discovery. She poured herself into devouring travel literature and the writings of the European explorers, especially the Portuguese, who were among the first to reach that region and write about it in the fourteenth century AD.

Through Teresa I first heard about the ship La Mendes, that was tossed by the violent currents of the Atlantic Ocean towards the coast of Mauritania. It was laden with wondrous goods and commodities, and was greeted by the Saharan tribes with great elation. They considered it a blessing sent to them by God: sugar, tea, cloth, and especially the white slaves, fit for plenty of forced labour.

“They were mostly Spanish and Portuguese, those white men who had been made into prisoners and slaves. It happened in the days when the European nations ruled the seas by violence and by trade, when they deployed all the mechanisms of power in their search for wealth and control.” Her face came so close to mine that I was almost drowning in the colour of her eyes and her rapid breathing. She went on: “Did you know that the Portuguese kings encouraged piracy and spent a lot of money on building ships and enlisting troops? They were jealous of the Moorish tribes and took them captive as slaves, sending them to their colonies, especially in Brazil. Their only opportunity to rival the other European nations was by engaging in colonialism and trade. Perhaps it was with the help of those slaves that they made it as far as governing parts of Indonesia, Brazil and Macau . . . and many parts of Africa. Sadly, though, they left their bad habits behind them everywhere. They introduced the colonised peoples to drinking, gambling, and incest. Look at me, my dear. I’m a part of that callous history, like it or not, love it or loathe it.”

Teresa hadn’t told me much about her family in Brazil. There was something sketchy in her relationship with her father that she didn’t want to speak about openly. Was it because she was born from an unlawful relationship between a Portuguese man and a dark-skinned native woman? I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that she rarely spoke about her father and that her closest relationship was with her mother. For my part, I was outside this chaos that surrounded her life.

I reached out my arms to embrace her, and said: “Well, I accept you, Teresa, just as you are. Maybe your blood is mixed with that of my ancestors, maybe you are my cousin and I don’t know it . . .” Our lips met for the first time and we lost ourselves in a long embrace.

* * *

My relationship with Teresa lasted for several years. I really loved her, and my love was almost entirely chaste, except for a few moments of weakness when the devil whispered in my ear, but I always emerged repentant. I told her many stories of passion about the great Arab lovers whose ardour drove them, at best, to madness or death. It occurred to me many times to marry her, but it was out of the question. The shackles of Bedouin society are harsh and inescapable, and often unseen.

I thought about the social repercussions waiting for me if I brought a Brazilian girl whose origins were shrouded in doubt to those conservative border regions of the desert; if I tried to insert her into a social environment that set such store by family relations, noble descent, and purity of the blood line. My uncle might censure me with his biting words and refuse to shake my hand, my father would probably slap me round the face and chase me out of the house. The only man who would stand by my side would be the teacher Rajeb, and that would be offensive and cruel to the people of al-Nab’a, and also he might try to make Teresa one of his many lovers.

As I was preparing to travel back to Nouakchott, and trying to make sense of the frustration that had overcome me in the centre of Madrid’s tumultuous racket, Teresa came to ask my advice on her wedding to somebody new. Touching my arm, she said clearly: “Even though love sometimes seems limitless, I’ve still always been looking for it. And I found it. Can you believe it?”

I knew that we were both looking for love, and that together we had found it resting between us in a climate of companionship and friendship. So I told her, as if answering a question hanging in the air: “That’s right. Sometimes love is limitless, and that sums up my state too.”

I offered my blessings to Teresa on her marriage to a young Spaniard, who worked in the night club right under my balcony. He was tall and brawny, with huge limbs bearing tattoos of scorpions, snakes, and dinosaurs breathing fire. By contrast, I bore only Teresa’s name, stamped on my heart and impossible to remove by either fire or water.

The last day we met, Teresa said to me: “Look at him. Fernando is such a nice guy. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. I’ve put him to the test and I think he’s right for me, but sadly he doesn’t like drinking tea.” She laughed, then leant towards him and lost herself in his embrace. She held on to his back and hugged him tight. He couldn’t escape her grip. He went on looking around before he lowered his head towards her and looked at her infatuated. That was the last interaction I had with them, at the end of my time living in that Spanish city.

 

Translated by Julia Ihnatowicz

from the author’s novel Tuyour al-Nab’a
(Birds of al-Nab’a), published by Jadawel, Beirut, 2017

Published in Banipal 60 – Alaa al-Deeb: A writer apart (Autumn/Winter 2017)

To read a review of Tuyour al-Nab'a (Birds of al-Nab'a) in Banipal 60, click here

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