THE ANNEX BLOG – Hunted Across the Desert – 20.4.16
“Have any of you ever seen a piebald Mahri before?”
“Have you ever seen a thoroughbred so graceful, so light of foot and so well proportioned?”
“Not until now.”
“Have you ever seen a Mahri who could compete with him in pride, fierceness, and loyalty?”
“Not like this one.” “Have you ever seen a gazelle who took on the form of a camel?”
“Of course not.”
“Did you ever see anything more beautiful or noble?”
“No, no, no! Admit it—you’ve never seen such a thing before and you never will again!” He would leap into the open skipping like a dancing madman until, exhausted, he would collapse on his back on the sand. There, he would raise his voice, singing one of those bewitching songs, like charms against loneliness that riders take refuge in whenever they travel across waterless deserts. He would sing his sad ballad and close with well- known lines taken from the epic of Amud’s war against the French invasion of the desert:
We gave him thoroughbreds dressed for war And lent him riders who never miss their mark…
All night long the young man sat enumerating the qualities of the piebald: “He’s piebald. He’s graceful and long legged. He’s well bred. He’s fierce and loyal.”
“It’s not wrong for a rider to laud the qualities of his mount or to sing about him like an angel,” the experienced poetess abruptly interrupted. “But when you decide to commit praise to verse, you must follow convention. Poetry has its rules, after all! Your Mahri has never raised a battle cry nor made a name for himself at dancing festivals.”
Confused, Ukhayyad tried to hide his embarrassment behind his veil. “But he’s piebald,” he blurted out. “It’s enough that he’s piebald. Did you ever see a piebald Mahri before?”
In the past, he had entrusted the vassals of the tribe with the job of breaking in the Mahri and getting him used to the bridle. But that had to change now—it would be wrong for him to rely on vassals to teach him to dance too. In the desert, only noble- men trained camels to dance in front of the womenfolk.
Before entering the ring, Ukhayyad wanted to fit out the camel in style. He borrowed most of the necessities, from the saddle and saddlecloth to the bridle, reins, bag, and even the whip. His old dressings were pale and dull-colored, bleached by the sun and unfit for adorning a Mahri that was preparing to dance in front of women, swaying back and forth to the rhythm and melody of music.
He spent an entire day fitting out his equipage. The saddle had been crafted by the cleverest of the Ghat smiths. The dressing was an embroidered kilim rug brought from Touat by merchants. The bridle had been braided by old women of the Ifoghas tribe in Ghadamès. The travel bag had been stitched by the fingers of Tamenrasset noblewomen. The whip was a rare piece, covered by strips of leather on which hands in Kano had once engraved magical charms. After the whip played its role in bringing about Ukhayyad’s disgrace, some elders guessed that it had been supplied to him by the envious young men of the tribe.
He entered the clearing after noon. In the small valley, the women sat in a circle around their drums. The younger women made a wider ring around them. The sheikhs took their place on the rise to the south, the men and boys stood across from them, their heads wrapped in lavish blue turbans. When they strode, they swaggered with the pride of peacocks. The Mahri thoroughbreds were hitched together in a long line on the two sides of the open space, one set to the west, another, facing it, fixed to the east.
Soon a wedding procession made its way into the valley. The celebration was for one of the tribe’s vassals—a habitual divorcer and marrier who had decided this time to take a beautiful mulatta, choosing to savor the taste of Tuareg blood mixed with the heat of Africans.
The entertainment now began with the secondary formations.
Two sleek riders from the western line went first, then two set off opposite them from the east. They met beside the dance arena and galloped off to a torrent of ululations.
Ukhayyad got ready. Beside him gleamed one of the vassal youths, crowned with a Tagolmost turban and girthed with a shiny leather belt. He sat on an elaborately decorated saddle that rested firmly on the back of an elegant gray Mahri camel. This youth would accompany him as he went across the field.
The two approaching men from the other side drew near. The youth sidled his camel up to the piebald Mahri. “It’s my proud honor to escort you today.” He smiled. “There’s no purebred like your piebald throughout the whole desert.” An eye winked behind thick blue fabric. The gesture unnerved Ukhayyad. He saw nothing sincere in the eyes of his companion.
They began to move.
They paced in unison, with firm, arrogant strides, pushing the other camel on, moving in harmony. In the short space that separated the emptiness stretching to the west from the singing circle in the middle, Ukhayyad experienced a lifetime of happiness.
The two thoroughbreds moved in unison, their approach slow and balanced. Ukhayyad felt that he was flying on wings in the air, his heart nearly bursting from the enchantment, anxiety, and hidden joy of the moment. Possessed by the music, he lived as hostage to the dance, its passion, and mysterious longing. He guessed that the magnificent piebald shared these same wrench- ing sensations as they went along to the circle, though he could not say how.
He awoke from the dream to find his partner had swaggered off to the east, toward the line of riders. For his part, the piebald had veered instead to the left, and turned back upon the dancing arena. The girls in the circle laughed among them- selves. Mortified, Ukhayyad took the enchanted whip into hand, hoping to drive the camel back into formation. But as soon as the piebald felt the blow of the whip on his skin, he went mad. Instead of moving toward the right or rejoining his partner, he kicked at the circle of girls, then lost his mind altogether. Ukhayyad whipped his flanks again, but the beast’s madness only grew fiercer. He rushed directly into the women’s circle, smashing a handsome drum covered with gazelle skin. The women scattered and the singing came to a halt. Then all was commotion. Ukhayyad pulled the reins until the neck of the mad thoroughbred arched backwards between his legs. But even reining him like that did not stop his frenzied motion across the dance arena. He continued to kick at everything in his path, frothing at the mouth and champing wildly at the bit.
Froth began to fly all over the women in gleaming sprays. Then a throng of strong men on foot hurried over and caught him in ropes. The piebald struggled against them too, so that they were forced to knock him down.
Together, Ukhayyad and the piebald were thrown to the ground on the dance arena.