Now that everything is over or nearly over, I can say that it was not bad at all. If I had to put it back from the start, I will certainly do it again, without great changes. On the whole, I am almost satisfied. With the days, the weeks, the months and the years going by, I am growing older and wiser as it seems to me. As I take the seventy-three turn and look backward, I have the impression – perhaps a deceiving one- that I have not entirely missed my life, after all. The ways of the providence are really unfathomable. When I was a youngster, I craved to be an artist – a painter or a sculptor, perhaps even an architect. I would have given anything to enter the Beaux-arts in Paris. I was completely fascinated by the lives and works of my great contemporaries, not to speak of the titans of the previous centuries. I wanted to be an artist and wished nothing more than to obtain a scholarship for the Beaux Arts; but fate intended it otherwise. A scholarship was accorded to me, but to study artillery…far from Paris. Thus, I was put on the way that led me, after a long plight, to the post I was occupying before I arrived here, which is considered to be the highest not only in my country, but anywhere in the world, since I was actually President of the Republic.
I have ruled my country during twenty years. When I think about it now, I find that it was a very short period. I did not even feel it elapsing. It was like a dream or a wink. And today, sitting in my long-chair on the balcony of this nice villa overlooking the river, I am able to see my life unfolding before my eyes like a movie, wherein I have been alternately the hero and the walker-on, the hangman and the victim, the film maker manipulating the strings, directing, advising, ordering, and supervising the comedians and the technicians, and the great star playing the paramount role before the cameras.
Oh, I foresee the smiles and fore-hear the whispers. I don’t mind. I am now an old monkey used to all the tricks. With the serenity of my seventy-three years, I can say that I am almost indifferent to others’ reactions as regards my acts and facts. I am accustomed to be obeyed without discussion or commentary in a wrenched way. This is something that my opponents must know today, since there is rarely an occasion wherein I do not prove that I mean exactly what I say. They are now certainly habituated to that kind of behaviour of mine. My enemies know I am serious. Moreover, if I succeeded in leading the country for a little less than a century’s quarter, it is also because I knew my job and did it conscientiously.
No doubt, I have been well served by the providence. Call it my luck or my good star. Call it fate, chance, fortune, destiny… I am still indebted to it as I am indebted to the barrani trader whom we called Englizi, who taught me how to handle a rifle and thus, without knowing or even suspecting it, put me on the track of my glorious ancestors who had ruled the immense country stretching through jungle, steppes and savannah until the sea. The Englizi was a man trusted by my father- May God be merciful to him. He used to come to our hut by the torrid summer evenings, to smoke and chat with my old man. He was usually accompanied by another Englizi younger than him, who would wait for him at the steering wheel of the Jeep parked not far away from our hut in the glade, wherein the villagers used to gather for the great events and the feasts. I remember our guest very well in spite of all the time that elapsed, because he was particularly kind to me. I was perhaps nine, ten, or eleven years old by then – as a matter of fact, I do not know my true age, for my father was not eager to notice my birth to the authorities- and I used to trot between the legs of my father, bringing in tea or cleansing the pipes after he or one of his guests used them, and in short making myself useful, and thus collecting sometimes – seldom it is true- their praises, and more often their curses. The Englizi, who was called Mr. John, was quite respected by the men of my tribe, and perhaps even feared, whereas we, little kids, adored him for he very often gave us chocolate and sweets, which are only sold in the great store nearby the river. For that reason, his visits were expected and quite appreciated by my brothers and I, as well as by our neighbours’ children, who usually run after his rambling car as soon as it entered the village, shrieking and screaming sedulously with great joy in a cloud of billowing dust.
As the warehouse was at the extremity of the village, Mr. John used to visit us whenever he was coming back from the neighbouring villages, or on his way to the city.
Hearing the kids shouting “Mr. John… Mr. John’s coming…” my father would stretch his hand out, and I – or one of my brothers- would give him his stick of mahogany, the long one not the shorter, which he used for hunting- because in fact it is not a mere stick but a dagger well sheathed in its scabbard. A wonderful gun! And he would hurry up out of the hut preceded by his vicarious baton, fastened on the ground, as a symbol of authority. Then, the jeep would stop at the glade, and Mr. John would climb down and walk swiftly towards our hut at the threshold of which the old man would stand up waiting for him, surrounded sometimes by his friends or children or whoever was present at that moment.
I still picture the Englizi treading rapidly in the dim violet light of the twilight, a small brown stick planted under his armpit, the smile at the corner of the mouth growing into a silly grimace, the temples grizzling, but the gaze clear and the head highly and well worn on the broad shoulders. His khaki uniform is always impeccable despite the great heat; the short-sleeved shirt is unbuttoned at the level of the sternum and one could see the hair of his chest trickling about like the dark vegetation of the neighbouring jungle; while through the shorts reaching his knees, his long brawny tawny skinned legs would move heavily on the hectic ground; and he would stop at two steps from my father and say in his baritone voice:
“ Peace be upon you, Sheikh Imran.”
“ Peace be upon you and the mercy of God and his blessing, Mr. John.”
Then my father would let the Englizi in, and they would sit on the matting facing each other, and we would bring them whatever they need, which is altogether quite modest and consisting mainly in tea, fruits, and other delicacies prepared by the women. The sweets are seldom touched by the white guest, and even my father is not very fond of the domestic sugary, which makes us ready to charge and pick them up as soon as they leave the hut.
I never lose the way. I got my eyes fixed around since my boyhood. I have always been the one who led the brothers, even those who are my elders. Not only I led them in small operations such as stealing the sweets from our father’s hut, but also to some other more sophisticated raids through the jungle. Not that we were a gang of thieves; on the contrary, we were among the best youth of the tribe since our father was a very regarded sheikh who cared very much about giving his offspring the best education available at that time in the village; but in the bush one has to survive and overcome as many challenges and risks as varied they are. That would reduce all wisdom to simple equations such as:
If you don’t kill you’ll be killed.
If you don’t steal you’ll be stolen…etc.
These are neither Christian nor Islamic precepts, I concede it. But that does not matter. Anyway, religion had never had much success with us, people of the bush and the African jungle. We were born to be animist and pagan worshippers, which is more fitting with our idiosyncratic ancestral background. And if by any chance we happen to believe in a single and unique transcendental God, as all the monotheistic religions instruct, then we would endow our God of so many epithets and physical abilities that at the end He would not much differentiate from any Pagan god.
No wonder that when the white man landed among us at once, we nearly took him for another god. It had nothing to do with primitive thinking, as Westerners are prone to believe. The point is that we are so pure, so generous, and so spontaneous that we seldom resist aliens or feel any kind of resentment or xenophobia when we contact them. And if they spurn us for any reason, that does not diminish us and we do not slump into depression for so little. We have been accustomed to living alone with the wild beasts of the jungle for such a long time that adopted or snubbed makes no difference to us. We are gregarious of course, but for reasons that have probably little to do with those of the white men.
Mr. John was far from being the first Englizi who ventured to cross the jungle in a little boat squirming on the rampaging water of the great river for days and days before reaching our village; – that’s how they said he came at once – but he was certainly the first of his race who got so well acquainted with my father that he got the privilege of sharing his pipes, which is something Father never allowed even to the closest of his friends and relatives. This is just to say how much he respected the white man. Nevertheless, I do not trust those who said that Mr. John came over in a little rambling boat, and settled down thereafter in the warehouse wherein he started his business along with his partner, the young blond named Jim, who occasionally served him as a chauffeur. I am prone to think that both men came together in their jeep rather than in a boat, though they very often used shipment for their business. There were a lot of rumours in the village about the two foreigners, although their accuracy is doubtful. For my part, I never understood why Jim- who was about twenty years old- has never been allowed to attend those evening meetings in my father’s hut. Most time, left alone in the jeep, he would wait patiently for John smoking cigarettes in chain, and gulping down what I deemed to be the magical elixir of a mysterious bottle always placed in his pocket.
Many years later, when afflicted by the sudden death of my father I went seeking comfort in one of those great hotels of the capital, I was by then as accustomed to Jim’s elixir as he was himself. The Scotch was no longer a mystery to me, for I used to steal a bottle from the warehouse now and then; then sitting on the bank of the river I would drink it slowly or share its contents with my brother Bashir. I do not think that Mr. John ever suspected us, though he perceived that someone was stealing his whisky. Worse; I am sure that it was Jim who took the blame for our misdeeds. No wonder; Mr. John certainly knew how fond of the bottle his partner was. That was a matter for brawls between them. Finally, as the whisky continued to vanish off mysteriously along with other supplies such as smoked herring, cheese, sausages, etc, and Jim continued to deny that he was supplying himself illicitly; Mr. John in a brusque outburst of anger put an end to their partnership. We saw Jim by one of those hot and heavy afternoons, bearing his knapsack and heading towards the little wharf. When he reached the river, he lurched for a moment – apparently he was drunk-, stopped, turned his head to have a look at the warehouse where he had worked for about three years, spat on the floor, vociferated something inaudible, then stepping forward he swooped and unburdened himself of the knapsack. It was the last time we saw him around. About two hours later, he was having another drink aboard the little boat that took him away through the jungle.
Needless to say that if Mr. John got rid so easily of his partner, – or was he just an employee? – it was much less easy for him to put an end to our little business. In effect, as if nothing happened at all, we continued to supply ourselves with whatever we needed for our picnics on the banks of the river. That had the expected effect of putting Mr. John out of his mind. We heard him several times telling our father about his misfortune and complaining of mysterious thieves that, though they stole food and drinks have never actually touched money, as if it were unusable! Naturally, he could merely not imagine that his thieves were kids, who never leave their village. So, Where would they spend money?
I was then about twelve years old, but stalwart and built up like an acacia, whereas my accomplice Bashir was two years older; and it was definitely out of the question that we got a penny from our father. Moreover, we were so frightened and apprehensive that it never occurred to us to show up after our little bacchanalia. We used to go miles away from the village to have our feast. Sometimes, we invited other selected boys from the village to join us. Generally, we did not come back before next morning. As my father had three wives and a big package of children, he was unable to know whether we were sleeping in our hut or outdoors. Anyway, it was certainly the latest of his occupations to inquire about us. Yet, he wanted us to be models of obedient, well brought-up boys, and for that purpose we had to attend the Koranic school, wherein we could learn some arithmetic and grammar along with the holy Koran. But as we were numerous and he was getting older, he relied more and more on the seniors to help him. He had better rely on the devil! He would likely allow him more assistance.
At last, advised by our father, Mr. John brought one of our dogs to his warehouse, thinking that he would sleep better with the dog nearby. Such candour sounded so close to foolishness. Indeed, the dog knew us. Not only he knew us, but also he would reel and yelp joyously as soon as he sniffs our presence in the neighbourhood. Thus, each time we slipped into the storeroom, the dog welcomed us. Encouraged, we continued to rampage frenetically until the fateful day when, coming back from a short visit to the neighbouring city and driving across the bush, Mr. John unexpectedly spotted us bathing in the river, drunk and staggering, by a languid hot afternoon.
We were splashing and spattering blithely in the lukewarm water, giving free course to our drunken joy; and because we were shouting and making a hell of a noise, we could hardly hear the motorcar approaching. When at last we realized that we were being watched, it was too late to flee or to conceal our misdeeds.
The white man was standing on the border of the river, in his khaki clothes, akimbo. His great round hat slightly pushed to the rear of his head, the forehead sweating, and his blue eyes gleaming in the sunshine. Then I saw him holding the half empty bottle of Johnny Walker.
My first impulse was to duck my head in water and to swim as fast as I could away from him. But where to? Besides, we could not come back naked to the village. We had left our clothes on the bank of the river, along with the food and the bottle. Yet, even if we escaped him at that moment we could not avoid him eternally. He would report the shameful story to our father, and it was well the latter’s punishment that we feared more, not Mr. John’s anger.
Thus after a quick reckoning, I estimated that our escape would only worsen an already too bad situation, and I decided to face the white man and to acknowledge my crime. If I could convince him not to report the nasty affair to my father, I would consider myself lucky. Naturally, I was ready to accept any punishment from Mr. John and thus to bear the responsibility for my wrongdoing, but I did not find in myself the courage to face my father with it.
As I tottered and doddered on the shore, Bashir followed me reluctantly, and we both stood up naked like two worms in the dazzling light of the early afternoon. We waited bashfully for the white man to give free course to his rage, and for the slaps to rain on our cheeks. But nothing came. The sun was zooming on us with its pitiless, blinding rays. I could hardly guess what would be the next step, and whether he was going to slap me first or Bashir. I have resolved not to oppose resistance. After all, it was his right to beat us. But he was not in a hurry. And it was that quietness of him that first puzzled, and then anguished me. Was he going to prolong our torture in order to humiliate us?
The answer came unexpected.
“ Put on your clothes”, he merely said.
Whereas we bent down to gather our garments, he opened the bottle and swallowed a little sip.
“ It’s damn hot”, he said with a grimace of distaste. “ How could you, little rascals, drink that piss?”
He corked the bottle and threw it on the Jeep’s fore-seat. He drew his pipe and his tobacco pouch from his pockets, and was for a moment busy filling up the pipe and lighting it, which gave us a chance to think about our defence.
As I finished dressing I started my apologies:
“ I am sorry”, I began.
But I was unable to continue. My tears were faster than I thought.
Bashir did not even whisper a word. Was he too compunctious to try? Anyway, what could he say? Our crime was too obvious. Moreover it has been perpetrated so many times that it became definitely unforgivable. And if he could forgive us for the harm we did to his store, what about Jim who had been banned like a leper?
I lifted my head. Through my tears I saw the pinkish face of Mr. John hardening up. His features have become suddenly rough and acrid. He stared now at me, now at my brother coldly, almost rapaciously, with those redoubtable, infallible falcon-like eyes of him, while intently sucking at his pipe; then he said:
“ So, it was you Saad! I can’t believe it.”
I did not answer.
“ And you Bashir! I have always thought you worthy of your father’s reputation, of his wisdom and honesty. I am disappointed. I wonder what is he going to say!”
At these words, we both threw ourselves at his feet, wailing, crying, imploring. We acknowledged that our crime was unforgivable, that we were two little bums, that we will accept any punishment he would inflict to us, that we will even work for him without any remuneration until he judges that we have paid enough for our misdeeds. We made sure that we were repentant and willing to serve any sentence he decided, if only he agreed to avoid us the ultimate shame and disgrace in the village and the anger of our father. We foreknew that if our folks got wind of the story, we would be considered as woebegone bandits. We would have our heads completely shaved off and our skulls smeared up with monkey’s shit. Then we would be exhibited in the village like miserable outlaws and beaten up. Mr. John would not have his stolen things back, and he would drew nothing out of that tribal punishment.
“ Yes”, he replied. “But I cannot use two thieves for my business either. How can I be sure that you wouldn’t lay your hands on my goods again? If you think that I am a fool, you’re going to be surprised, I promise you. Now come along, you both. I just don’t mind if your father decides to punish you severely. That will be justice.”
It was the deadlock.
At that moment, when Mr. John sounded so adamant, and the scrape so despairingly tight around us, the idea flashed in my mind like a meteor in a bright summer sky, and I burst out:
“ It’s not us. You should trace Mr. Jim and punish him instead of charging us. We did nothing but just found his cache.”
Mr. John stared at me open-mouthed.
“ His cache? Do you mean that you found this whisky in Jim’s cache?”
I steadied myself, wiped off my tears, and said:
“ We didn’t steal it Mr. John. We found it buried under the Baobab. It was Mr. Jim who had hidden it. We saw him.”
The white man’s blue eyes gazed at me suspiciously:
“Why did you not report it to me or to your father?”
“We feared to be suspected and charged Mr. John. You wouldn’t have believed us against the word of your associate, would you? He is a white man, like you.”
“Oh, come now! You’re implying that I’m a racist, aren’t you?”
“Racist? What’s that? Never heard this word before.”
The pale blue eyes blinked in the daylight.
“All right, forget it. Now, what were you saying about Jim? I want to know what exactly happened.”
It was a great performance for a kid of about twelve years old, but I did it. I persuaded Mr. John that all our crime consisted in unearthing that bottle and tasting it. I emphasized the last word, for we did not even know what was the content of the bottle or its effect. Had it been a poison, we would have been dead by that hour. As to the sausages and the smoked herrings, we would have returned them back to the store and absolved ourselves, hadn’t we actually feared his reaction.
He asked me whether there are still other supplies hidden in the cache, and I answered promptly that nothing was left. Then he asked to see the cache. We climbed into the car, and I told him to drive along the river. When we came close to the village, I stopped him at some yards away from our hut, and got out from the car. He switched off the engine and followed me along with Bashir shambling some steps behind him. I headed straight towards the Baobab under which we used to conceal the stolen things. I knelt down and removed a great stone that was blocking the hole in the trunk, and drove my hand into it. He could see that my arm was engulfed till the shoulder. I withdrew it after a moment, and lifted my head. He sounded puzzled. Obviously, his mind was the prey of the utmost perplexity. Would he believe me?
At last, he said:
“ Are you sure there is nothing left?”
“If you don’t believe me, come and see for yourself.”
He stared at me quizzically, sighed, and waved his hand wearily. Then, without adding a single word, he turned his back and treaded back to his Jeep, climbed into it and drove away.
Fortunately, he never whispered a word about this affair to our father. We continued to go to the Koranic school, and Mr. John continued to visit our father from time to time. A kind of complicity and gratefulness replaced the feelings of hostility between us. I began to appreciate Mr. John much more than I ever did before, and though I was incapable of understanding the nature of our relationship, I respected him and maybe was it at that time that I started imitating him. Naturally, I could not mimic everything he did. Yet, I used to play at being the white man with my brothers and neighbours, and I succeeded so well that Mr. John himself burst in laughter one day, when he surprised me mimicking him before a crowd of children behind our hut.
Unusually, for an unknown reason he came that day in the early afternoon to seek my father who was not in his hut. Trying to find him, he walked around likely following our voices. I did not notice the intruder who had stopped to watch me performing his own character in the centre of the circle, whereas another child was playing the part of the customer. As Mr. John used to speak Arabic when he wanted to communicate with us, he was enough surprised to realize that I had picked up some English words, which I used – à tort et à travers – in my dialogue with the other boy. So he laughed and called me. Ashamed and confused, I stopped the lark and strolled reluctantly towards him. When I was at two steps from him, I ducked guiltily trying to avoid his gaze; but he put his fingers under my chin and lifted gently my face. He was no longer smiling. He has composed again, and his features retrieved their natural placidity.
“ I see you’re a smart boy, Saad. Are you willing to work with me at the warehouse?”
I did not know what to reply, for I could not guess that he was serious and that he had even asked my father for it. Nevertheless, I said:
“ Yes, sir. But…er…my father…”
“ Sheikh Imran has already agreed. Come to the store every day after school. Is it okay?”
Stay tuned: more coming