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African Titanics – Chapter Two

Author : Abu Bakr Khaal
Pages : 122
ISBN : 9781850772736
Language : English
Published : Darf Publishers Ltd (2014)

 

Chapter Two

 

I was completely worn out after racing to and fro between Khartoum and Omdurman for days on end, tirelessly tracking down the ever elusive smugglers. I would cross into Khartoum from Omdurman along Cooper Bridge – an iron relic from the days of the British – and return via the wide Shambat Bridge. Trundling over Cooper Bridge I always felt terrified that our bus would topple into the Nile, dragging us all down with it. I was convinced the other passengers felt the same, although they tried to hide it. My clothes would be soaked with sweat, dry out and then be dripping wet all over again, as I came and went throughout the day. Meanwhile, the wound on the arch of my foot was excruciating – I hadn’t bothered to treat it and the area around it had become painfully swollen. Whenever I trod on a sharp object a searing pain would engulf me, and I’d end up limping around for the rest of the day. As a result my friends had wittily taken to calling me ‘Limpsalot.’ They seemed to have nothing better to do with their time while we waited to cross the Sahara than vying with each other to come up with the most apt nickname for me. During our stay in Omdurman, I often returned to our rented lodgings in al-Arba‘in at around midnight. Those who were still awake would gather round to hear the latest news from the smuggling world. Usually I humoured them, but one night I decided to tell them nothing and instead tossed them a newspaper, telling them it contained an amusing story – that way I could hopefully distract them from teasing me and hassling me for news.

The newspaper did indeed contain a very strange report about a zookeeper who’d been dismissed from Khartoum Zoo. He was suspected of abusing his position in the worst possible fashion, and a committee had been hastily assembled to investigate the various accusations against him. The jubilant headline read: ‘The man who ate the lion’s lunch.’ In short, a zoo employee, whose job was to feed the park’s sole lion, had for many months been filching bits of the poor beast’s dinner. He had only given the lion a mere three of his apportioned seven kilos of meat. The lion had grown visibly gaunt, while the thief was now unreasonably plump. This curious story prompted outbursts of laughter in our house that night, and we decided to visit the zoo the following day to pay our respects to the poor swindled lion.

After wandering around the zoo for some time, we eventually found the lion crouched in a corner of his cage. We’d brought a fresh chicken from the butcher as an offering, but when we pulled it out of the bag ready to chuck into the cage, a man suddenly appeared in front of us and snatched it from our hands.

‘I’m in charge around here,’ he introduced himself. ‘He won’t eat anything strangers give him. I’ll throw it to him at dinner. It’s very unusual for visitors to bring food for the animals, you know.’

‘We read about the man who ate the lion’s lunch,’ I replied.

The man immediately burst out laughing. ‘I heard about that,’ he said between guffaws. ‘Do you people honestly still believe what you read in the papers?’

‘Are you saying it’s not true?’

He laughed even harder, and said nothing more, so we left him the chicken and hurried away from the zoo.

‘Maybe our friend back there is the one who ate the lion’s lunch,’ one of my companions suggested as we passed through the main gates. ‘Maybe he’s gobbling down our chicken right now.’ We walked on in silence. Later that day, my companions gave me a new nickname, which I shan’t deign to reveal here.

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I do wonder how many nicknames I’ll bear throughout my life. In Khartoum I was known as Awacs (the Airborne Warning and Control System) because I’d refuse to go to bed at night until I’d garnered every last useful scrap of information from the world of immigrant smuggling, by land, sea and air. From my lodgings in Khartoum I kept track of the number of Titanics that left North Africa’s shores bound for Europe every summer. I was always informed of the most recent departures and whether or not the boats had reached dry land. I was also familiar with all the rubber dinghies, as well as the small fibreglass boats that were purpose-built for the journeys and could make the round trip in just eight hours. Not a single scam or dodgy deal escaped my notice, and I knew exactly how much the brave captains of the Titanics might reasonably demand for passage aboard their vessels.

Even before I set foot in Khartoum, I had amassed an impressive amount of information about what to expect from the next stages of my journey. I knew the nicknames and pseudonyms of all the smugglers: Wanaas, the Smooth Talker; Wad al-Layl, Son of the Night; and al-Muntaf, the Plucked Duck. I could also identify the Land Rover drivers hired to transport migrants across the desert: Multham, the Veiled One; Jina Shaytan, the Devil’s Son; and Waddar, the Wanderer, who had earned this epithet through the great number of times he’d been lost in the desert, and who would later be my own driver. As soon as we left Khartoum and set off across the Sahara towards Libya I was dubbed ‘the Bat’ in reference – according to the friend who conferred the name on me – to my special skill at detecting faint sounds in the distance, making up for my poor eyesight.

All my life I’ve been dogged by an endless succession of nicknames. In Eritrea, my birthplace, I was al-Shammam, Arabic for Sniffer, thanks to a so-called friend who spread it around that I enjoyed sniffing petrol-soaked rags. Even though the rumour was utter nonsense, that nickname soon superseded my original childhood one of Ambsa, the Tigré word for lion.

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‘Calm down!’ my friends urged me, bemused by my feverish pacing, ‘Save some energy for the trip.’

‘Impossible! How can you just sit there and relax?’

‘You really think we’re relaxed right now?’ came the bitter response, ‘We’d need some kind of superpowers for that.’

Without such powers, the only way to cope with the wave of anxiety that swept over me as I waited for our journey to begin was to spend my days wandering endlessly around Khartoum. I would often end up watching the sunset from Tuti Island, having trudged four kilometres across the city and crouched amidst a mountain of bread and vegetables as the boat transferred us from Qa‘at al-Sadaqa.

I would eat lunch in cheap restaurants packed with cheerful throngs of people and, during the midday heat, take shelter beneath the trees of the Nile Garden along with countless others: government officials, merchants, tradesmen, uniformed soldiers and university students bearing their books off to solitary, shaded spots. The Nile Garden boasts the advantage of being one of the few places in the world where, without getting up, you can read more than thirty newspapers from across the globe, simply by passing them from hand to hand.

I was also constantly tempted to indulge my hidden weakness for the city’s thriving population of fortunetellers and witches, desperate as I was to discover what the future held in store for me. I must admit – based on considerable personal experience – that some of them do possess the most extraordinary powers. There was a time when I was compulsively drawn to the places where they practise their strange professions – what one of my friends used to call their ‘lairs’. The habit began in my home town, as I idled away my hours watching them work. Soon, however, my addiction spiralled out of control and I became too ashamed to admit it to others. The area where the cowrie shell diviners worked was my regular haunt. I would find myself irresistibly drawn to the back streets where they sat beneath the trees, arranging their work tools – just a handful of cowrie shells scattered over a piece of sackcloth – and awaiting the hopeless and the destitute, ready to reveal their fortune, both good and bad. For hours on end I would scrutinise their faces, observing every flicker of their eyes and trying to fathom each one’s individual powers.

In Khartoum, meanwhile, I encountered fortunetellers from the straw huts of Gondar in Ethiopia, as well as lean, enigmatic Hausas from Nigeria and wizened old women of no easily recognisable origin. I would sit before them, a bundle of nerves, as they cast their seven shells onto the cloth. They always seemed to spend the most interminable amount of time examining the position of each one before announcing their visions to me. Was it all pretence? An elaborate show to convince me of their powers? Or were they taking a malicious pleasure in my unease, hinting at a future of doom and gloom? I obsessed over the creases that suddenly appeared on their foreheads as they gazed sorrowfully at the scattered shells. I watched in fascination as the corners of their mouths twitched up and down.

In the end, though, I realised my fate was liable to change from one day to the next. A single fortuneteller might even reverse her prediction entirely from morning to night. They were, on the whole, as fickle as the weather. But despite this realisation, I found my feet carrying me yet again to a witch’s lair one evening. The courtyard floor was damp and I guessed that the servants must sprinkle it with ash on a daily basis to make it look so dark, gleaming like hardened lava. A cheery servant led me on into a wide room, its air thick with incense. Some minutes later, I was forced to stub out my cigarette as I was instructed to enter the witch’s chamber along with a young woman who had arrived shortly after me. During our brief conversation she had informed me that she was there to reclaim her husband from the powerful workings of black magic.

The witch was reclining on a cushion, beneath which was a mat woven from died palm fronds. She glanced up as we entered and indicated for us to sit down. After listening intently to the young woman’s complaints, she reached for a tray of burning coals and placed several lumps on her elaborate incense burner. Opening a tin of frankincense, she took a pinch of powder and sprinkled it onto the burner. A dense cloud of smoke rose up, filling the room with fragrant fumes as the witch added several more large pieces of frankincense to the coals and began the séance, launching into a muttered stream of incomprehensible incantations.

Breaking off, she ordered the woman to observe the shapes which appeared on the fire. The woman cast an apprehensive glance at the lumps on the burner as though dreading what they might reveal. Soon, however, her whole attention was fixed on the melting resin. First, a female face appeared, followed by the outlines of a body: torso, thighs and hands, seemingly shrouded by what looked like a dress. Then other forms began to take shape: humans, animals, buildings and boats, appearing and disappearing, melting into one another in strange patterns. The woman was utterly absorbed, searching for any sign of familiarity. And then it happened. She threw herself backward, shielding her face with her arms as though protecting it from a flame.

‘I knew it was her. That hag!’ She drew nearer to the incense burner and gazed down at the blackened female form on the fire.

The witch handed her a long, shining pin and, following her instructions, she first pierced the fire woman’s right eye with it and then the left, before finally plunging it between her legs. As she did so, I felt the witch’s gaze upon me, gleaming and seductive, and I looked over at her. She had the most enchanting eyes of any witch that ever lived and the instant I met her gaze I couldn’t take my eyes from hers. As soon as the young woman left, I threw myself at the sorceress, telling her the most absurd stories, entirely unrelated to my original purpose in visiting her. I claimed that I, too, was a sorcerer – in fact, I was the most powerful sorcerer in the world! In the darkest of nights, I could walk as though under a bright light! I could swallow all the lobsters in the world and still have room for more! She too boasted of her own supernatural prowess – most prominently, her ability to turn boulders into butter – and I listened to her words with more than a little skepticism. In hindsight, I have no idea whether she believed my own ridiculous rant or not – she simply listened, still and silent. Then I took hold of her soft hand, and stroked her cheeks and her hennaed hair. Suddenly we were naked and she had become like the resin on the fire, feeling the sorcerer on top of her piercing her eyes and her whole body with his pin. My tongue ceased speaking and I heard her moan with pleasure, tingling in every pore. She screamed of my powers as I folded and unfolded her burning body like a cotton rag.

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Abu Bakr Khaal is an Eritrean novelist who now lives in Denmark after spending many years in Libya. He was a member of the Eritrean Liberation Front for a long period of time and fought in many battles against the Ethiopian occupation. African Titanics is his third novel following The Scent of Arms and Barkantiyya: Land of the Wise Woman.