By Abdourahman A. Waberi* (translated by Carolyn Shread).
A small coastal town on the southern shore of the Red Sea, one market evening. There’s a crowd in the main square, deep in darkness, in this market town that lives by the rhythm of night tides and moonlight. The monsoon is at the city gates, herding its Indian breezes, its cartloads of heavy clouds and spiced fragrances. Monsoon. Awaited and feared as much as tremors of the earth. Soon it will rain hard for days, maybe a week or two if Allah the Provider bestows his loving grace here on us.
Forever, night and day, have animal traders squatted on their haunches, feeling the flesh and hinds of beasts on their way to the other shore of the Red Sea. A single glance separates the wheat from the chaff. Occasionally they lean over to spit tobacco, eye and hand gauging with detached, meditative calm kids and billy goats, sheep, and cows and calves.
The meatiest animals will continue their journey across the sea, while the less attractive beasts end up in a stew in the local eating houses. They’ll be carved up on the beach within the hour, in rain, wind or pitch-black night. We were always fascinated by this spectacle. As kids we came to admire the dexterity of the butchers, some no older than ourselves. Between two bursts of laughter, the goat or calf is killed and dismembered, cut into pieces. Swarms of flies land on the carcasses, still warm. Flies cover carcasses instantly as if wanting to give them a new skin – a coat the colour of coal, crawling with life. Emaciated cats will gorge on the guts, thrown unceremoniously on the beach, scattered among the dugouts stranded on the mud. The cats arrive now in the field of operation. Shy and slender, they enter the arena according to a mysterious order that exists only in dreams. For this is the role of the feline: to signal objects and events that bear the mark of enigma. If you passed by, you would notice the mysterious three-pronged tracks. They are nothing but the prints of hens coming to parade on the sand in the early morning.
This evening is not like any other. The sparkling sun is veiled in mist. A frown. A threat. Surely a sea fog from Oman or India caressed your skin if you just walked into our little town. This evening, all minds are busy with another event, preempting the caravanserai, the livestock trading and the three-pronged tracks. There is a crowd tonight in the main square. It feels good to be a commoner. It feels good to be in the pack. The children won’t sleep anytime soon and the hullabaloo whirls high around the great mosque.
It’s an enchanted moment. The sound of a reed pipe rises into the sky under a burst of blessings addressed to the Almighty. Words interspersed with long silences, notes, chants, maxims fly to the heavens, twirling and ricocheting off the dome of the mosque then disappearing into the incommensurable celestial vault. An angel passes, a lanky shadow follows. Silence. In the midst of the crowd standing at the centre of this corner of the earth that survived the era of the great dinosaurs, a small man with sloping shoulders and a pipe to his lips draws all eyes. The man who is called the saintly Beggar – of course, unbeknown to him – looks over the crowd with his melancholy gaze, his teary eyes fixing on no particular face, not even the faces of the bare-chested children who run kicking the rag ball at their feet from one spot to another in that great human ring in the square.
A piercing note. Serpentine, entrancing. It lifts the hearts of the men gathered in the main square, all of them alerted by an order from elsewhere or some vague happenstance. A stone’s throw from the crowd, the other gathering appears to be dissipating. The livestock traders, crafty devils, converse about this and that while never missing a chance to interrupt the shepherds with their shanks worn thin and taut from all that walking. It always does the trick. What do these Bedouin think, money doesn’t grow on trees in this town, or we’d have heard about it long ago, the dealers mutter under their breath. And the nomads, weary of the wheeling and dealing, give up and take refuge in the backstreet eateries where a plate of stodgy rice costs, as they say, the skin of their rather angular buttocks.
Now the crowd waits for the piper to exhale his divine breath once more. The youngest spectators rub their eyes and start to move about, already imagining themselves in Diriyeh courtyard, in front of the only television set in town, watching the African Cup of Nations. The Egypt Eagles are coming apart in the final, they whisper, with the Ivory Coast Lions led by Didier Drogba in top form. Before half-time the adults, who will be getting more and more over-heated – perhaps the rush of blood to the brain explains their excitement – will send their youngsters off one after the other for bottles of Coke and Fanta from the Mashallah shop. In turn the kids will bring bottles of soda from the corner shop back to their parents, hurrying along so as not to miss the tiniest morsel of the match, tripping through the dark alleys, all rutted and pitted with broken pavement. The second half will start up with the same rhythm as the first. Again the crowd will forget the little man with sloping shoulders who, on this special occasion, sets an imaginary violin under his chin. And from his instrument rises a melancholy tune.
But for now, a good half-hour before the televised match kicks off, there is already a tight crowd outside the shop. While they wait for the sound of the whistle and the joyful roar, they share in the peace of the evening. Suddenly a man throws out an old proverb, drawn from times past and set back in the saddle for the day. A large lady takes it up from him. The man next to her looks the first man straight in the eye long enough before agreeing to show that he understands him well. All that’s missing is a commemorative photograph. “We no longer worry about time passing; we exist and that’s more than enough. In time, we’ll know the match result; in time, we’ll see the rest of it!” That’s what our two men seem to say to each other across the crowd. No words, just silence and eloquent expressions. But the proverb returns, lengthened and elaborated this time around. Words travel in the wake of the pipe’s crystalline notes – or is it an invisible violin? – knitting together its melodies, the slender reed merging men’s lips, melding their bodies to make but a single receptacle. The music of the reed pipe traverses sidereal space. Like stories that pass from one mouth to another and sometimes come back to the same mouth before making their way to the next person’s ear, the sound never dies.
It was many years ago now that one of the big traders in town, a Somali by birth, got it into his head to compete with the wealthiest man of the land, a man of Arab descent. The Arab had garnered favour with the authorities in the capital early on and, as is the custom in our country, he already had several import licences, notably the licence for Coca-Cola products. For a while the Somali’s business prospered with the new import licence for the Pepsi brand bringing in more and more money, despite underhand competition by the Coca-Cola distributor. They say now that the Somali has fallen from grace in the capital, that his business is going downhill, that he fears the worst. Fear, anger and vengeance have gripped the Somali businessman and the gang of layabouts he keeps. He’s afraid of joining the ranks of beggars, afraid of holding out the begging bowl, of ending his days in the muck, drowned in the dealers’ spittle. His fear of seeing the final fall of the house of Pepsi, K.O.’d by Coke. Sending out their petty pawns, the two American giants cut down each other’s tackle and lose the market.
There’s an atmosphere of revolt on the edges of this small coastal town. Anything goes so long as it pours oil on the fire. Coke and Fanta are symbols of foreign subversion, weapons of the Crusades, intruders sucking the life out of the country. Pepsi and Miranda, as it turns out, are authentic products, native products, introduced by the son of nomads. The people would recognise their own in the darkest of nights. Naturally, Pepsi is favoured at the Mashallah shop, run by a true citizen with nomadic origins, not by one of those effeminate Arabs with their prancing rumps. If Drogba takes apart the Egyptians, the celebrations will double.
Many young people frequent the shop because of its old foosball table. They get up a devilish ruckus. They’ll tell you stories that’ll wring tears from your eyes. Don’t listen or you’ll sully your ears for now and forever. If you cross paths with those youngsters, repeating the phrase that protects you from evil spirits will be no help at all! So what then? Nothing. There’s not a thing you can do about it.
The first victims of martyrdom are ten balls from the foosball. The defenders of the people are fans of Pepsi and its pretty companion, Miranda. They too are granted nothing but bones, guts and hooves – none of the fine red meat that is sent over to the other shore and to the Gulf nations. Every day we hear that Coke rots your guts faster than Pepsi and that Coke comes from Altanda or Adlanta, which we all know is the city of racists who murdered the good priest Martin Luther King and tried to finish off James Brown, king of gospel, adored by our young people and whose flag they fly high.
Our artists, supported by the Coke distributor, tout the benefits of the Coca-Cola Company, here, there, and everywhere. They lay it on thick in the hope that the Arab boss will toss them their weekly coin. They promise they’ll hang the others to death. They treat us as if we were a contagious disease.
Under the burning fire of the midday sun people hurry off to their favourite dive to freshen up with the drink of their side and rank. Remember, there was almost a truce when a new dealer on the square tried to introduce a new brand of cigarettes to dethrone the eternal Craven A, Rothmans King Size and Benson & Hedges imported by the same Arab distributor. His venture failed and his belongings were sold by auction in the middle of the night. They say he’s sadder than a stone and that no one can talk reason to him. He shouldn’t have aimed so high.
All around the town raises its eyes to scour the bitter horizon. Nothing new to chew on. No boats in the port, lost in mist. No catch on the high seas, no good news come to soothe the ears of the town. A mere nod and the killings of the militia, the tribes and their pirates will resume. Good luck will smile on one or two once again. Juicy deals, the vertigo of profit, the return to trading posts abandoned by the Indians and Arabs now in the hands of true nomadic sons whose umbilical cord is buried in the district where they were born. After the events of the big Arab businessman, only nomads will have the right to trade legally. We must expose the straw men, the front-men with all their foreign brands: Coke, Peugeot, Mitsubishi, Seiko, Orangina, La Vache qui rit, and all that claptrap. What does that leave us with? Make it on our own pox-ridden selves, wield a Kalashnikov, poach every skirt on the street? Make a feast of it?
Sitting on the veranda, we watch the rain falling in the courtyard, smell the earth exuding her pregnant odour. Time falls, drop by drop. A few sheep huddle in the least damp corner of the now deserted square. In the nearby alleyways feet can be heard sinking into the mud. Water and cracked earth marry. Beneath the footsteps it seems the earth quietly weeps.
Then we hear some good news. They say that Keynaan Warsame, a true nomadic son who long ago left for Canada, writes rap songs under his own real name, shortened to K’NAAN. They say that one of his songs, “Wavin’ Flag”, has been taken up by the multinational Coca-Cola Company as a hymn for the World Cup to be held in the land of Mandela. Pretty quick the fixed centre-forward of our foosball, the player in the middle of the front row, is baptised K’NAAN, in the hope that he won’t give in to the call of Coke either. Standing in front of the Mashallah shop, we listen to the dying noise. I’m going back into the crowd. Listen, it sounds as if the match has started.
This story features in the Chronic 7 (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.
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