By Mohamed Handour
By Mohamed Handour
Beni Mellal, Morocco – The only tar road in the countryside skirted the edge of one of the biggest and most beautiful lakes in Morocco. Lines of eucalypts trees, planted during the French colonial era, appeared high on either side of the road; their thick green boughs were willing to offer their bountiful shade to the brown-faced shepherds and their cattle on their way back home towards midday when heat was at its height. Two squirrels, maybe a male and female, were enjoyably playing with each other totally indifferent to the donkey grazing abreast of them. Tanchimt, the hard working widow, had just crept past me under a vast load of fodder for her sheep. Ali, the fisherman, was stretching his fishing nets here and there across the generous water of Guerisaffen confident enough that luck would smile on him this time as he had caught nothing for the last few days.
Sitting on a huge rock facing the Lake, whose waters are still holding my childhood innocent secrets, glancing over the pages of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I was suddenly seized by a mysterious desire to write a few lines about another hero of Ait Ali Oumhand- this is the name of the country side where he lives. As a matter of fact, myriads of the inhabitants of this solitary mountainous area, which is cut off from the outside world, but not from the heart of its people, deserve something more valuable than the black ink of my pen. Besides Tahnanait, whom I endeavored to talk about a few months ago, there are others here who are continuously, but victoriously fighting with their destiny to live a few more years at the foot of this mountain enjoying their bread as they dip it in their indigenous olive oil early every morning, while they cast a look further across their native lake roaming through the green trees of Ait Mazigh and Ait Wazzoud and the gigantic peaks of Azourki with a quick shift back to Ighnaine. (Names of local mountains)
This country side has undoubtedly been endowed with some magical power which keeps the dwellers cling to it like glue. To those seasonal tourists who come to enjoy the crystal clear water of Guerisaffen whenever time allows, they fail to understand why these people are so attached to their country, albeit it has almost nothing to offer as far as they can judge basing, of course, their superficial empty judgments on what they behold before them: thatched mud huts that are scattered here and there, thorny weeds which hide nothing but a few hares and a swarm of partridges, scores of black rocks and stones under which snakes and other reptiles like lizards take refuge, a school which stands in full isolation whose little playground is crowded with dusty tiny children who keep scurrying around it for hours utterly indifferent to the blazing sun of summer.
True, Guerssafen is seemingly a hostile barren environment where people plough their few acres of land with the help of their faithful donkeys expecting to get nothing out of their laborious task. It is true that Ait Ali Oumhand offers only shelter while bread comes from outside. Nonetheless, the air and water here are so sweet that they have no equivalent elsewhere; a “tagine” cooked here is worth ten elsewhere; the tiny fish caught at the lake is the sweetest in the world. Above all this, the simple-minded people you always meet smile at you expecting nothing in return.
Here you can leave the door open throughout the night fearing no burglar or any other ruffian to come near with the intention of stealing your property. Here you can trudge all those miles on your way to the weekly market enjoying your thoughts as there is no sturdy beggar to interfere with them. Here, in Guerssafen, the songs of the denizens intermingle with the beautiful Amazigh tones producing a typical romantic farrago. Here Tahnanait still lives raising her hands towards the sky after each prayer murmuring something in full secrecy lest some eavesdropper should grasp some word. Here lives Ajmmiaa, a good humored mason, next to Moha ou Moh and Akddar, two dedicated blacksmiths. Above all, in Guessafen Baba Aaddi is still ready to face any harm with unrivaled power.
It was Tuesday afternoon when I met Baba Aaddi again. His bald skull beautifully reflected the gentle sun rays; his eyelids were raised and then lowered in a regular pattern following the upper and lower movement of the pick. He was probably so absorbed in his work that he didn’t have time to look around as a pretext to take in some breath. Though he was visibly a bit hunchback and the left shoulder was slightly higher than the right, he had never suffered any pain whatsoever. All the residents of Guerisaffen knew he was as fit as a fiddle and as sound as a bell since he had never entered through the door of the nearby hospital. Even if he had been stung by a scorpion more than once and only recently bitten by a huge snake, he miraculously escaped death using only a variety of herbs successfully administered by his affectionate wife, Aida.
This afternoon Baba Aaddi was preoccupied as usual with the service of his community; he had to finish digging a hole at the cemetery where a hundred-year old tribesman was to be buried sooner than sunset. That’s why he couldn’t spare a minute to converse with those around, who could have offered a helpful hand, hadn’t he adamantly insisted on sharing the divine reward of this good deed with nobody. Those standing by his side, mostly a throng of Amazigh teens, were there to assist him dig the grave, but Baba Aaddi refused. “Righ ad itgr tidi adawigh imiq nlajr, hat adgharnagh ak aya adagh irhm rbbi” (I want to perspire so that God may pardon my sins; death is what awaits us all), went his reaction, in his native tongue, whenever a member of the throng tried to convince him to join in the work. So oblivious to the comments and chatter of the crowd, he was indefatigably digging on raising his head from time to time to look at the sun as it continued crawling towards the west.
“Aalayn ay kmml ouhfouritkh, dou a Driss skssou id issird Mohmmad ou Aaddi Aryaz innagh,” he said as he leaned against the shovel. (I have almost finished this hole. Driss! go and see if Mohmmad Ouaaddi has completed washing the man _ he means the body of the dead old man). This was more of an order than a request, but who dared shake his head to say “no” to this man’s orders? Nature had taught him to be direct and spontaneous, so it had never occurred to him to use the kind of language you are wont to hear in “urban” areas, “the beautiful” but hypocritical language preceded by more than one “please.”
With no hesitation, Driss rushed to “Tamssirt,” a room where a dead body is washed in this countryside, to make sure Ouaaddi had perfectly carried out his duty as usual. Before reaching there, he met four stout youngsters carrying the corpse on a wooden bier followed by a group of old men and children repeating “there is no God but Allah” in a sad mournful voice. Driss joined the procession on their way to the burial ground. At the grave, Baba Aaddi had proudly squatted on the edge of the hole impatiently waiting for the arrival of the new visitor to the world hereafter. In his harsh but honest language, he addressed Mohmmad Ouaadi with the confidence of somebody who had repeatedly triumphed over death:
“Did you clean him according to the Islamic rituals? Did you make sure the water has soaked every single part of his body? The water will hopefully cleanse his small sins. As for the big ones, his fate lies in the hands of his Creator.” The whole crowd listened attentively to what he had to say; even the little kids who were driven by their curiosity to this frightening place were attending, or thus it seemed to me, to his words. Although he had never been to school, Baba Aaddi had an aura of wisdom around him which made him know about matters of life and death without necessarily attending the sermons of the preacher or learning from any other knowledgeable religious figure. His understanding of things mainly emanated from Nature, from those contemplations he was accustomed to be immersed in when his kids and other goats were insatiably grazing in the forest above or on the pasture stretching all along the borders of the lake of Guerisaffen.
Baba Aaddi deliberately let the shovel, he had been leaning against, fall on the dry parched ground.
“Grat afous,” (give a hand) he said as he reached out to help place the bier on the edge of the grave. With the assistance of Moha Ggannou, a war veteran recently appointed muezzin, Baba Aaddi took out the corpse beautifully wrapped in a white burial shroud and delicately placed it in its eternal hole. Two youngsters, each on either side of the grave, started shoveling earth and small stones on the dead body when Baba Aaddi, who had been reciting his personal version of “Alfatiha,” suddenly interfered to stop them.
“Not yet,” he shouted. The boys humbly did as he ordered. The only fekih (preacher) at the funeral raised and walked towards the grave; he wanted to make a suggestion or say something relevant to this tragic event, but he was silenced by Baba Aaddi reassuring him that his turn would come later. He took a bottle of cold water out of the hood of his djelaba and splashed the corpse with some. The crowd exchanged looks of astonishment but provided no comment on this strange action. However, they knew Baba Aaddi had a secret behind what seemed to them a bit weird. After all, his understanding of religion was at variance with theirs. For example, observing daily prayers was not something compulsory in his eye as he would always question the value of praying when one’s heart was fraught with evil. Still, fasting was something he could not imagine himself not doing. Besides Ramadan, he would fast every Monday and Thursday- out of faith or out of poverty and deprivation, I could never say.
He turned to the boys and said: “Now you can cover the man with whatever earth your shovels can afford.” Like ordinary soldiers under the command of their captain, or children under the superimposing authority of their father, they nodded their heads as a sign of obedience.
It was dusk when the dead man was covered and a mound of earth was formed over his grave. Aaddi turned to the fekih and asked him to conclude the burial with some verses from the Koran. He was reciting so quickly and softly that I could not personally make out much of what he was saying. No sooner had he finished than he asked us to raise our hands repeating “amen” as he invoked God to bless the old man and pardon his sins. However, it seemed the fekih was not satisfied with the little money he had received for his recital. I could personally understand his feelings and couldn’t help sympathizing with him; for fekihs, especially in mountainous areas, look forward to such a tragic event to read some Koran by the grave and get paid for it to supply their children with some food to eat.
Baba Aaddi fetched a deep sigh of relief; so deep and noisy that even Moha Ganou, who was half deaf because of the sand that had accumulated in his ears as a soldier in Sahara, could hear it. Aaddi was presently looking sideways at the crowd. When he opened his mouth to yawn, I mistakenly thought he wanted to tell off the two little children who were playfully throwing small stones at each other. After two long successive yawns, he put his djelaba across his shoulder and made his way along the crooked alley towards his mud hut very pleased with the mission he had honestly fulfilled.
In the doorway, Aida appeared with a burning candle in her hand following a bark of the dog. Her husband had got home safe and sound; fortunately enough, he hadn’t stepped over any snake in the dark, nor did any sharp stone cut through his shoes and hurt his toes all along the way. She greeted him seriously and opened the door lowering the candle to make sure no scorpion was moving around in search of some human victim. Tonight no peril was noticed and the simple happy couple went ahead to the little kitchen where a knee-high table was standing on the left side of the fire pit. A smile flickered across Aida’s face as she pointed to the two sleeping children a few inches away where the table had been positioned; Baba Aaddi responded with a grin that had almost awakened one of the kids whose tiny body a fat black mosquito was insatiably feeding on. Aida’s smile and her husband’s reaction probably meant something for the couple, who had already started eating the delicious small ‘Tagine’ cooked over the red burning coal.
Around the table, Aida and her husband exchanged a few words but numerous looks. They intuitively understood each other; no doubt they were going to share a typical romantic moment as the children had gone early to bed that night.
Early in the morning, immediately after dawn, Baba Aaddi woke up while Aida remained in bed (if we could ever call a coarse rug a bed). He had made up his mind to drag a sheep to the market and sell it to buy some garments to the little kids, but he suddenly postponed this plan to the following week. As for the shopping, Aida was to do it with the little means she could afford- she would certainly depend on the few dirhams she had recently received as a gift on the occasion of her daughter’s birth. By now, Baba Aaddi had arranged a bottle of water, half a loaf of bread, a sharp knife and a flute in his usual small plastic bag and made his way towards the forest above his home enjoying the gentle breeze of the early morning. Following his enormously large herd of goats, he was steadily making his way uphill indifferent to everything you could imagine except his peaceful thoughts, his kids and the beauty of nature around him.
Almost the whole countryside was still sleeping and the atmosphere was so incredibly calm that you could distinctly hear a dog bark in the distance and the noise of Waskour’s (the country’s cobbler) motorbike not far from the tar road. Also Ouben Aamar’s (the butcher) footsteps interfered with this frightening silence of the dawn every now and then until he stopped for a moment by the usual rock against which he rubbed his knife to sharpen it to easily cut the throat of a kid or two and sell the meat at a reasonable price to his faithful clients.
Aida was fully awake, she made tea and called out to the children who had been playing hide-and-seek among the olive and almond trees outdoors. They came in and wanted to eat their breakfast but Aida, a dutiful wife indeed, insisted that they should wash their hands and face with soap and dried them on a towel first. In less than ten minutes, the whole breakfast was over. She gave clear instructions to the elder daughter to lead the old donkey to the well to bring fresh water (the older donkey’s specialty was to be humanely used only on short trips around the house), while she instructed the younger girl to do the washing up and sweep the floor. She subsequently took her shopping bag and rode the younger and stronger donkey to the weekly market to be overloaded with whatever food the family would need for the entire week. All along the way to the market, Aida enjoyed the company of other donkey riders- men, women and children all dressed beautifully as if they had been invited to a wedding party. Aida, no doubt, enjoyed the trip, but Baba Aaddi was always there in her heart and mind as well .
In fact, Baba Aaddi was humming an Amazigh song as he stepped his way further uphill towards a grazing place where there was enough grass and wild plants for the goats. He sometimes followed his herd and he occasionally went ahead of them. He went on and on giving free reign to his inner thoughts which never ceased to function whenever he was embraced by the natural landscape of Guerisaffen. There was nothing he liked more than going on a journey back to the past. He would recall those beautiful moments when his father, Oudriwch, was still alive assuming the big responsibility he had to shoulder now. He would also remember how agriculture in Guerisaffen used to be so good in the 1980s and how tilling and then ploughing the land used to yield fruitful products. He would go back to the early years when Aida was still a beautiful young bride full of energy and initiative, when his muscles were so pumped up that he would successfully do the most difficult task nobody else could do, such as breaking a huge rock to pieces or constructing a fishing boat in one day, when his goats outnumbered any other flock in all Guersaffen ,etc.
He was moving ahead the herd claimed by absolute absentmindedness when he heard some enigmatic movement, whose source he couldn’t identify, on the other side of a thick bush. Paying no heed to it, he carried on walking in front of two little kids and their mother happily blowing his flute enjoying the sight of the kids climbing up and down a wild tree. Tired of walking, he now sat in the shade of a big rock, laid his favorite musical instrument beside him and began to contemplate the orderly natural surroundings, a miraculous gift from the Creator.
Unexpectedly and shockingly, Baba Aadi could hear heavy footsteps behind his back. “Reality or mere illusion?,” he wondered. “No other shepherd has ever walked as far as Anou Nichou (name of a place) at daybreak except me,” he added. When he turned round, he noticed a big animal grunting and squealing as he was violently running down towards him with the intention to attack. When Baba Aaddi was preparing himself to stand up to face the danger, the monster threw himself upon him. Now, he could identify this cruel animal; it was really a pig. Mad or in good health, no one could ever say. Baba Aaddi, who had previously survived the atrocities of snakes and scorpions, was determined not to give up. “I’ ll cut your throat with this sharp knife I used yesterday to end the pain of my beloved sick kid,” he muttered these words as he tightly pulled the ears of this callous creature trying to bring him down to the ground.
A part from Aida, the cobbler, the butcher, the barber and a few other shepherds, who had made their way to the weekly market, the whole countryside was lying so still that only the shouts of Baba Aaddi could be heard. Now, a few inhabitants could be seen near their homes moving around listlessly as they were probably still under the effect of sleep.
The shouts went up and down. I could behold four tall broad-shouldered youngsters running as fast as they could towards the source of the shouts. They knew Baba Aaddi was facing some trouble albeit they were at a loss as to the nature of the cries. It was too early to say whether they were shouts of triumph or of pain and defeat.
When they got there, Baba Aaddi was snoring as though lost in a deep sleep, Moha Ganou, who had been used to such terrible sights as a soldier in Sahara, drew near and felt his heart.“Ourta immout,” he remarked. (he is not dead). Of course, Baba Aaddi was covered in blood but he was still breathing. Much of the blood was the pig’s. Moha patted his right shoulder while the three other teenagers stood aghast at the dreadful spectacle. Baba Aaddi, who had been lovingly hugging the beast, regained his lost consciousness and addressed Moha with great courage:
“Tassiaat n imnghi nk d louhchitkh wayni ugrkht, grghd isrman noumkhib , ira adi ibdou dwarawinw; bdikht dwins,” he remarked confidently (the battle lasted one hour, I stabbed the monster, I pierced his guts; he wanted to take me away from my children but I have taken him away from his).
Thus the battle ended in favor of Baba Aaddi , who was obstinately reluctant to be taken to hospital though he was seriously bleeding. He was confident that no one could nurse him better and more efficiently than his conscientious wife, Aida. He could bear the pain for more than one month during which poor Aida had to work both indoors and outdoors to support the family. However, what this hero couldn’t endure was the humility he was subjected to by “Lmakhzan” (local authorities) immediately after this tragic event.
The owner of the wildlife- an Arab tycoon and bar proprietor called “Chef Aamar”- lodged a complaint against Baba Aaddi for having killed and mutilated the corpse of the poor pig. He insisted that his pig was more valuable than the dirty old Aaddi trying to gather all possible arguments to prove his point. This Arab tycoon could have taken Aaddi to prison if the latter had not sold two big goats to get enough money to grease the palm of a senior local official.
This brave pig fighter might have been crowned for valor and made the headlines had he lived in Spain where bullfighting is a popular game; still the residents of Guerisaffen, all and sundry, were proud of their gladiator.
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed