Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The King and the Guewel: A Ramadan Fairytale #2

Part 1 here

The next day the King, hungry once more and in a foul mood, looked about him for someone to take it out on. He remembered the mbahal he had eaten the previous night, and how good it had been. Remembering it now made his stomach growl, and made him even angrier. It was all that guewel's fault, talking to him about food and getting ideas into his head. He ordered a member of his guard to bring Alpha before him.

"Rise, guewel!", the King roared at him as he bowed low before him, "and give me one reason I should not have your head off this very minute!".

"If the Burr would have my head", Alpha replied, trembling, "I myself would separate it from my body, and present it to you...". He stole a look at the King, then looked quickly down again. "However, once more my head is much more useful to you where it is located, now".

"?", the King said (meaning "And how is that so?", for Kings do not need to ask full questions).

"Because, my Burr, I have another story for you which I think you will rather like...".

The Story of Domoda

Once there were two tribes who lived on the other shore of our magnificent river. The guewels have forgotten their names, but what is remembered of them is the great animosity that existed between the peoples of these tribes. This enmity went back centuries - its initial cause had been forgotten, but not its result. Children from each tribe were taught to fear the members of the other, young people were warned on the point of banishment against marrying or setting up any form of romantic attachment with them, old people spoke of them only with bitterness. This was long before your coming, oh Burr, and your abolishment of all tribes, that we might all be one under the guidance of Allah...

One day a hunter from the first tribe went into the forest after game. His name was Salifu, and whilst it was normal at that time for large hunting parties to go out at once, together, he had long preferred hunting and killing animals on his own. That day game was not forthcoming - it seemed all the animals in the forest had been warned of his coming, and had gone into hiding. He wandered desolately, not seeing a single deer. Sometimes he would hear a rustle behind him, but turning there would only be the movement of leaves recently parted, and nothing more, not even footprints. Finally, exhausted and dispirited, he came upon a clearing, and decided to rest a while in it. As he sat with his head against a sturdy tree trunk, by and by he heard the sound of singing. It seemed to come from somewhere behind him, a sweet voice filling the air with melody. Rising he followed it.

At the other end of the melody was the prettiest woman he had ever seen. She had come to the forest to collect kindling for a fire, and whilst she foraged for pieces of wood on the ground she sang to occupy herself, thinking herself alone. The song she sang was a silly childhood one, with no meaning, but he did not notice this. All he could see was her face, and her voice in his ears, and he stood watching her in a daze, amazed as he had never been before. He was careful not to make a sound - he felt he would not be able to bear it if this moment were to end, if she were to stop singing, and leave. The world he had left - his father's farm and his village and the lands of his tribe - seemed but a dream he had woken up from into the real world, this one, where such beauty existed as he had only ever dreamt about. (You smile, my Burr, but who else can describe love as well as a Guewel? Who else with such words? Is it merely a coincidence that we are the ones sent at the head of every wedding party?).

But soon the woman paused at her task, warned by that ability of women to realize when they are being observed, and turned to him. Her song died in her throat as she saw who was there. She recognized him for one of the other tribe the minute she saw him, by certain identifying marks on his face. And he saw in her recognition of him, in the look in her eyes, that she, too, was of the opposite tribe. There came flooding into his mind the meaning of this: the years of bitter enmity that stood between their people. Yet this only awakened in his heart further desire, so that he was determined that he would have her for his own. And what she thought at that moment we do not know, though her eyes looked down shyly at the ground at his feet, and the bundle of faggots she held swung limp in her hands.

The story does not tell us how he hunted her. Surely not like the animals he hunted: first with stealth, and then a calm and vicious intent to kill. She would have required gentleness, my Burr, and a light touch. Perhaps they arranged to meet again: he suggesting it, and she agreeing (for she had been caught at her most vulnerable, in song). And this meeting led to other meetings, and to even others. And within the spaces created by these they gradually learnt the ways of each other. In any case they came to desire each other as only young people are able.

All of this had happened, of course, without the knowledge of either of their tribespeople. They were not unaware of the situation that existed, and of the problems that would arise from a discovery of their illicit affair, and they spent many hours in conversation trying to come up with a solution to this seemingly-insurmountable problem.

One day they arranged to meet at their usual spot in the forest. This was in the time of the Harmattan, when the nights became cold, and the days were filled with a dry dust. She waited for him, as she had waited many times before, expecting at any minute to see his form making its way through the trees. But he did not come. After a while, when it began to get dark, she left and went back to her village, her thoughts divided. What could have kept him? Had he come upon some tragic accident, that had made him unable to come? That night she moved closer to the night fire and the conversation of the men, hoping to pick up a clue to his fate. But they did not speak of any accidents that had befallen the other tribe, as they would have been sure to do, and with great delight.

All night she worried, unable to sleep. The next morning fetching water from the river she broached the topic with her cousin, a young and mean-mouthed girl who was jealous of her.

"I do not know where he has gone", she told the cousin, "he has never before acted in this way". The cousin gave a snort.

"As to that", her spiteful cousin replied, "You may as well set your mind at rest, and look for someone from your own tribe. For he is bethroted to another, and will be married to her tomorrow".

She would not believe her. It was only her jealousy that had made her speak in that fashion. Turning away from the hateful words she set off home, not listening to the admonishments of the other girl.

All night she lay, wondering why he had not come, and thinking perhaps that what she had heard might be true. She woke early the next morning, and tying a wrapper around her waist went out. She heard the drums from the neighboring village in the distance, and followed their sounds of celebration. She came in this manner to the village of the other tribe, where marriages were held early in the morning, before the sun had risen. Concealing herself behind a tree at the edge of the village, she looked out on the ceremony before her. There was her Salifu, sitting on the ground, with a beautiful woman at his side. They were dressed in the traditional wedding cloths of the tribe, and were both eating from a large bowl set on the ground before them, a practice that would tie them together for life. She stood watching them as if in a dream, and a great trembling rose through her body as she forced herself not to cry out. She gnashed her teeth and wringed her hands, without even noticing. And then when Salifu got up and gave a piggyback ride to his new bride to complete the ceremony, she could take it no more. In a despairing madness she ran into the forests, screaming and tearing her hair out, pursued by her cousins, who had at last tracked her down. She came at last to a deep pit that had been dug as a trap for wild game, and even as her pursuers called out her name she flung herself into it, so her body was broken on the sharp stakes placed within it.

The men of her tribe gathered, in anger. There would be war, she would be avenged - this was swiftly agreed. She had been grievously wronged, led on by a good-for-nothing from the hateful tribe, and driven to suicide. Such an insult the tribe could not let stand. A messenger was sent to the other tribe with a challenge - tomorrow at noon the two tribes would send their best men into battle. There would be no quarter. There was no room for negotiation. The drums beat. The young men sharpened their weapons and set up camp along the banks of the river. There was a great clamour, and a great excitement.

But that night whilst the men slept, the women of the two tribes gathered. Certain old women amongst them had long thought about the futility and senselessness of the enmity that existed between them, and had mused idly on what it would be like if the tribes were to come together. But men will not listen to old women when it comes to matters of diplomacy - and besides what did women know about war? And so the old women had gone unheeded all these years.

But now they had called together a meeting of all the women-folk from both tribes. The mood of the meeting was defiant. They were tired of their men fighting each other, and really for what reason? Who remembered what reasons the tribes had originally become enemies? Even the oldest woman present, who had lived through five generations, had only a vague memory of her mother telling her of a fight involving food during a famine... but even she could not remember the details, so young had she been then. They had to come up with a solution. Speaking to the men would not work - the men of both tribes were stubborn when it came to matters of pride, and would not budge from their positions.

Finally someone suggested a simple solution which nevertheless began to sound more and more like something that could work, as it was discussed: they would cook for the men. Coming together as one tribe they would create a dish which was so filling and yet so delicious, whose smell and taste and savoriness were all of such high quality that all thoughts of war would be driven from the minds of the men.

And so all night whilst the men slept in preparation for war, the women cooked. Gathered at the mouth of the river, they had set up camp with many cooking pots on many fires. But what would their men eat? What food would they serve them the next day? And keep in mind, my Burr, that it could not just be any food - it had to be good enough that it would stop a war, and restore peace, perhaps even heal the rift that had existed for so long. The best cooks from the two tribes, the women whose names were spoken most loudly in the bantabas when the subject of food came up, conspired together and at last came up with just the right dish.

When the men woke the next morning, early at dawn, they were so distracted by the mouth-watering smell coming from the mouth of the river that not a single one of them thought more of war, but instead all together they moved towards the source of the smell. When they got there and saw the preparation of the women they begged to be allowed to have some of the food, as they were all to a man very hungry; and the women would not let any man get a serving until he handed over his weapons and promised to not go to war.

And in this way the war was averted, and the two tribes once more made friendly, eventually even merging to become one tribe. The name of the dish that those illustrious women invented that night to stop a war, my Burr, was Domoda. And if I am not mistaken it is what your cook brings in now on a platter, for I can hear the muezzin proclaiming the end of the fast.


Thus was Alpha saved from a beheading for the second time.

1 comment:

  1. Amran, it turns out a close friend of mind have the habit of saying fulas love Domoda. This tale proves that the fulas are a peaceful lot for those who love domoda have forgotten to make war. Thanks!