Posts Tagged ‘deserts of Algeria’

Chapter Three, TIN HINAN, Part two.

August 20, 2009

I fell asleep sitting at the fire, my blanket wrapped around me and covering my head. It was cold at night in the desert.  The wind picked up towards morning, and at some point in the night  I lay down, pulling my blanket tight around me. .  Someone had placed heated stones nearby and this helped ward off the chill of the night.

Towards dawn, I needed to pass water, and I walked into the desert.  In case I was watched, I stood and pulled up my robes high like a man would do.  Of course, I watered my leg, and the warm stream steamed in the cold morning air.  Shaking my leg and trying to wipe it dry on my gown, I headed back to the tents.  Women had brewed a strong mint tea with honey, and I was grateful for this and the breakfast of couscous, flat bread and  goat’s milk.

“You must stay with us as long as you like,” said the tall chieftain.

“We would have news of different tribes and we hunger for knowledge as to warfare.  We have heard of raiders from the north, these Arabs, who attack our settlements over the mountains and take our women and children for their slaves.  May Ammon slay these nonbelievers!”

The chieftain spat in the sand.

Ah! There was a problem.  Two problems, actually.  One there were possibly raiders around and also my stubborn determination to keep going. Where, I had no idea.  All those hours on top of Niefa, plodding eastward had led me to the belief that my fate was to be revealed.  I was to be carried on the sands of the desert to some final haven, where the still-galling thoughts of Hasim would be erased and I would emerge anew, in body and spirit. Somehow, I would be reborn from the distance I traveled and the time passed.

As I relate here: I was very young. I also was not prepared for what happened that day.

I had given my name the night before as Adal Berkan Yellel, which in our Amazigh language meant Tiger – Dark – to be Free.  All those hours on Niefa in the hot sun had baked my brains and I should have picked names less colorful.  But Adal Berkan Yellel I was now and I had days to memorize it.  I even felt I could wear these names truthfully, for I wanted my freedom from the previous shameful life.  It took many years for me to come to a place of peace with my shame, which really was not of my doing.

After breakfast, when Takama and I were attending to our beasts, I was asked by the chieftain, Zeggan Yuba , to walk with him out of the encampment to the edge of the desert.   I thought this reasonable, for he realized we were very young and was taking a fatherly concern for two youths alone in the desert.

We walked out from the oasis, past the chott, where dried flood lakes were depressions on the landscapes and came to a place of hamada; rock strewn plains.  Zeggan Yuba pointed out the Nubian bustards, other raptors and even desert eagles.  There were many migratory birds, some now traveling towards the mountains, flying with the updrafts from the heated plains,  and others in long flights from the shores in the north, many weeks travel from here.

I was watching a desert eagle, it’s effortless flight on the thermals above us, when Zeggan Yuba pushed me up against a large rock and placed his two hands on my breasts.  Then, before I could protest, he ripped the veil from around my face, and held it hard within his large hand.  His eyes searched my face, and at the same time, his other hand slipped down my belly to my woman’s place.  Obviously, to his satisfaction, I was no man.  Just when I thought I would be raped, he stepped back and laughed softly.

“I thought you were a woman from the first time I laid eyes upon you.  By all the Gods, tell me now the truth, and I will not betray you.”

I fumbled to rearrange the veil over my face, and he slapped my hand away.

“Do not increase your sin.  Men, and only real men may wear the tagelmonst. You are clearly a woman, though I could find out for sure if you defy me.”

My eyes widened in fear, and in spite of my former swaggering, tears, a woman’s shameful tears, collected in my eyes.

“I implore you, O Father, not to betray me, nor hurt my slave, Takama.  I am a woman, though I run from that knowledge, and I take my slave with me in my journey.”

The desert men are a tough breed, immured to death and violence and many horrors of life, but they can be just men, and their word is their honor.  I was assuring myself my truthful words would not fall on deaf ears.  For him to violate me would also defame his own reputation.

So I told him my circumstances, and how I had come to be in the desert with only a slave girl as a companion.  He squatted in the sand and I sat on my haunches as a proper woman would before a man, and poured forth my sad tale.

Zeggan Yuba was silent, and only the eyes above his veil gave me encouragement to tell him my story.  At that time, he had the power of life and death over both Takama and myself.  I was appealing to his tasa, the liver, where we desert people, now called Berbers, say the soul dwells.

All Berbers love a good story, they are the best in the world for storytelling and poetry.  We are a talkative people and enjoy jokes and humor, too. I could see he was weighing carefully all I told him.

“Tell me, my child, what your name is, and don’t think for one moment I believe it to be “A free dark tiger’.”  He laughed softly, his eyes never once moving from my face.  Even though I was stained by the indigo across my cheeks, I blushed as any woman would do, caught in a lie or by flattery.

I told him my birth name was Aicha, and the name of my father’s tribe.  I also said how far we had traveled, and that I was determined to find my fate, whether it was as bleached bones in desert, or in a village somewhere far from there.

Zeggan Yuba nodded his head, and sucked on a tough grass he pulled from a clump nearby.

“You show courage far beyond your years, but you don’t have the wisdom to back it up.”

I dropped my eyes to the sandy soil and was quiet. He was right, I was on a course dangerous and deadly, not only for myself, but I was dragging Takama into my fate, and this was compounding my sins.

“We are a hard but just people, my Aicha.  If I were you, I would return to the tribe of your father.  So you have cut off your woman’s crowning glory?  It will grow back.  You will find another man to marry, for you are comely, inspite of the indigo dye on your face.”

He looked out towards the desert, his eyes like a hunting hawk, narrowed from the sun’s rays on the sand.  Even his bent nose looked like the beak of a bird of prey.

“ When you are young, you find great problems insurmountable, but when you grow older, your wisdom grows with you and these problems will lessen, with prayer to the Gods and patience to listen.”

How could I tell Zeggan Yuba that I had rendered myself unworthy for a husband, for what man will marry a woman without a maidenhead? Yes, if I was widowed or divorced, but that was not my station. No, I had no choice but to push on, and hope that fate would clear my vision and rest my liver.

Zeggan Yuba watched me closely and shook his head.  “Aicha, Aicha, I see your father has bred a stubborn child.  You will not listen to me?  Isn’t returning to your tribe better than a mass of bleached bones in the desert? Or think of a raider party, what chance would two young girls have against such odds?”

He meant well, but I was Zar-driven, or I must have been, because all his reason fell on deaf ears.  It was as if the Goddesses had stopped up my ears along with their own. I shook my head and he put out his hand and patted my shoulder, much as a father would do to comfort his child.

“If you are determined to go, we will supply you with food and water, enough to get you both across the mountain and down into the valleys.  There you will find another settlement and hopefully you will make your way in safety.  I have promised to keep your secret, Aicha, but know there will always be a place for you in our tribe if you have a change of heart.”

Again he looked out towards the desert and sighed.

“Think of my words, Aicha, when the winter’s winds howl and you and your slave are alone in the mountains.  Think of the warmth of our fire and the smell of our stews. Perhaps your stubborn heart with turn with the scent of our food in your nostrils and the howling of your empty stomachs.”

Later that day I exchanged a silver necklace and bracelet for the generous water and food given to us.  Mounted on my Niefa, with Takama on her donkey behind,  I gazed into the eyes of Zeggan Yuba, as he stood besides me, his eyes searching my face.  I had returned the veil across my own, and my eyes filled with tears.  Kissing our fists and touching our foreheads, we bid each other goodbye, and turning our beasts to the east, we started our journey over the mountains.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2009

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