BARZAKH: The Land of In-Between
Translation by Marybeth Timmermann
L’Amour Impossible, a novel, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2009;
Madinetou al-riah, a novel, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2010;
Science Fiction and Heritage, a study, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2011;
Hajj al-Vijar, a novel, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2012;
La Mecque païenne, a novel, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2014;
Patrimoine oral mauritanien, recueil, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2015 :
- T.1. Contes d’animaux ;
- T.2. Contes merveilleux ;
- T.3. Maximes et proverbes.
Fragments de futures, recueil de nouvelles, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2017;
My story, an autobiography, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2018;
Paganist Mecca, a novel, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2019;
Hajj 2053, a novel, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2020;
The new Eve, a novel, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2021.
Honeymoon on the moon and other stories, collection of stories, Nouakchott, DIWAN, 2021.
Moussa Ould Ebnou
BARZAKH: The Land of In-Between
Translation by Marybeth Timmermann
© 2021, Moussa Ould Ebnou
All rights reserved.
Teams from the Archaeological Institute of Human Thought were visiting tombs in search of buried vestiges of lost consciousnesses. This season, the excavations were taking place at Ghallawiya, in the northern part of Barzakh. Seventeen skeletons had already been excavated, at depths varying between seventy to one hundred meters below the surface. They were all in extremely poor condition. Usually, the bones crumbled into dust the moment they were unearthed, at the least breath of wind or the lightest touch of a brush. In this campaign, there remained only one more skeleton to extract, at the top of the mountain.
They dug down five meters to exhume it. It was isolated there, like an outlier, polished by the erosion of time, its skull crowned with fine, light-yellow, mixed-grain sand. The highest ranking searchers bent over it with equal parts interest and perplexity, excited by their desire to read the thoughts of this being who just sprang out from the void.
The preliminary biocrystallographic tests revealed traces of Myelin in the form of solid crystals. Myelin crystals carry partial copies called “transcripts” which contain data on the speed, amplitude, and frequency of depolarization wave trains characterizing the activity of nerve cells. To unlock them, the crystals are simply dipped in an extremely concentrated aqueous solution of double helix DNA. Once these transcripts are decoded, they can be translated into written sentences, thus expressing the flux of a consciousness during the typical phase of death throes.
Back in the lab at the Institute, the crystals were subjected to a physico-chemical analysis to identify partial copies. The transcripts were obtained and entered into the computer for syntactic and semantic decoding. A few moments later, a text started to scroll across the screen:
Part One The Black Way
010/K73X7886B1C54EB1BBE83925BD015D19EF78BENMS.Barzakh/Ghallawiya.T936.CP.D.123456789101112131415161718… Memories of Vala had given way to a profound fear, a dreadful anguish and a ferocious hatred of the human species. Each hour that passed was torture for my body doomed to hunger and thirst, which abated at night only to make the trial more cruel the next day. Suffering gradually took over my entire body, like quicksand. My lips, mouth, and throat dried out and cracked. My stomach and intestines tightened up and were twisted by a prodigious force, as if it were wringing the last drops of liquid from them. A raging fire burned my entrails, the blaze then spreading up to my face, hands, and chest. Atrocious pain radiated throughout my entire body, getting worse over time, in sudden bursts, followed by slow lulls. My head and brain were painfully compressed by a powerful vice, and violent fits of fever racked my body, beginning with severe shivering, then despondency, then gradual euphoria. The intense pain eased up, the spasms stopped, and my legs stretched out. My panting, exhausted flesh no longer needed anything, no longer suffered-- no longer felt hunger or thirst… When I felt the vultures approach and put their rough feet with sharp claws on my body and strike me with their powerful beaks, my body shook in a violent and desperate convulsion. The vultures let go and lept back, beating their huge outstretched wings. I heard a buzzing-- impressions of chloroform through long sound waves. I was in a new world, where insignificant and bizarre memories of my departing life besieged me like vultures. As life was about to leave me, I felt like I was pulling away from my own body. At the same moment, a luminous tunnel appeared to me, and all my past life unfolded before my eyes. I had the feeling of reliving it. I witnessed it as a total stranger this time.
Throughout my existence, I have always tried in vain to connect my life to my dreams, my conscious to my unconscious, and my consciousness to other consciousnesses, so that I could judge others, myself, and time with cool composure. But I remained isolated, a simple monad-- adjusted, protected, and absolutely cut off from everything else. And suddenly at the moment of my death, all these connections automatically formed with no effort on my part. In the throes of death, my dream and my life descended before me into the arena to be given an ultimate explanation, lining up in one very straight line, before sinking into the void. The entire world was piled up in a sort of little circular and transparent porthole, located just in front of me, where all enigmas and all secrets had come to be resolved and became self-evident. The past, the present, and the future had merged together into a single instant. Dying had shed its unremitting light into every corner of my life, laying bare everything I had touched. I suddenly discovered the hidden meaning of situations, the significance of each silence, every gesture and spoken word. Nothing about any being or thing escapes me now, not even their intentions. My entire life-- so close, so inaccessible, and so inordinately gratuitous-- was rewound and then replayed before me, a washed-up actor, an immobile spectator this time, tormented by the profound regret of having participated in this grotesque comedy...
The Salt Caravan
I remember that tragic night-- I tossed and turned on my damp straw bed for hours, chasing an elusive night’s sleep. I was tense, drenched in sweat, besieged by mosquitoes and macabre premonitions-- terrible, nameless worries. Outside, it was oppressive. The heat had immobilized and solidified the air. Far away, I could still hear the muffled beating of drums that, for two days now, had been echoing endlessly across the entire savanna to announce the salt caravan. It was as if they were beating inside my head, which was on the verge of exploding. I could imagine the camel drivers entering into the enclosure reserved for the caravan, leading their animals-- exhausted from the long and difficult journey-- by the nose, and the slaves perched on the camels’ backs, tirelessly beating the enormous drums securely wedged between the double loads. The caravan travelers would have their camels kneel down while they unloaded their packsaddles, shouting to one another. The animals would be grunting and thrashing about in pain; the heavy loads they carried had bruised and scraped and dug into their backs for so long that necrosis had set in. The slabs of salt would be untied from the saddletrees, transported far from the fence and arranged in stacks, according to which merchant owned them. Once the camels were freed from their saddlepacks, they would be led out of the enclosure and hobbled tightly to prevent them from wandering off. These desert men and beasts would be intoxicated by the strong smells of the luxurious vegetation of the African savanna and stunned by the oppressive heat so laden with humidity.
Dispassionate sleep had finally deigned to visit me when I felt a hand shake me vigorously and heard the voice of my father close to me.
“Gara! Gara! Wake up; get up, my son. We’re going to the salt caravan. Hurry, hurry, before all the salt is sold!”
I squinted my eyes open-- it was still dark out. I couldn’t even make out the silhouette of my father who was still shaking me. I got out of bed, rubbing my eyes, wobbly and half-asleep. My father put a rough calabash into my hands.
“Here, drink this. The day will be hot.”
I lifted it to my mouth, gulping down the bitter mixture of water and curdled milk.
We left the village before dawn, passing the millet fields located to the west. I thought that I was accompanying my father to comfort him during the trip. However, I was intrigued. In previous years, he went to the salt market with gold and slaves; now that he no longer had any slaves, he should have at least brought some gold.
“Father, how are we going to pay for the salt?”
“You’ll see, it’ll be easy! You merely have to ask one of the merchants to lend us some until the next caravan-- I’ll reimburse him with double the gold and double the slaves!”
The sun found us in a vast marshy plain rich in aquatic plants and acacia trees whose sturdy branches supported thin, flexible stems that, after reaching their summit, fell back down in a tangle of richly flowering garlands. Often, they wound themselves around other nearby plants, becoming a tight unit with them through the interlacing, sinuous folds of their many branches, and forming a celestial vault through which other, still more beautiful compositions delighted the eyes.
The short shadows were still slightly slanted toward the west when we arrived in view of the marketplace. The slabs of salt sparkled in the sunlight; a dozen slaves put up for exchange were already there, surrounded by scattered piles of gleaming powdered gold, calabashes full of grain, heaps of multicolored fabric, elephant tusks, and a few horses. My father ordered me to go on ahead and wait for the salt merchants. Once I reached the marketplace, I stood next to the slaves and waited anxiously. The local Gangaras continued to parade about the marketplace. Each one set down his merchandise and ran back, in keeping with the long and ancient custom of silent trading between the Zenetes and the inhabitants of the gold country of the Sudanian savanna. This trade was carried out according to an immutable ceremony: the salt merchants, after traversing the Sahara and reaching the gold country, set up camp inside an enclosure formed by felled trees, and display the merchandise they have brought outside of the enclosure. On market day, the Gangaras arrive and take their turn placing the items they are offering in exchange, and then retire at a distance. If the merchants accept the proposed transaction, they take the items, leaving in their place their equivalency in salt, which the Gangaras come collect as soon as the Zenetes have left the marketplace. If, on the other hand, a salt merchant does not accept the proposed item, he takes his own merchandise back and the Gangara takes back his item, unless he agrees to add a certain amount of gold to the already offered price.
Shortly after midday, the merchants came out of the enclosure and headed over to the marketplace in small groups. They were holding sharpened handsaws in their hands for cutting off portions of the salt slabs. A tall man with copper-colored skin approached me. He was wearing a short tunic-- its fabric discolored by filth and faded by the sun-- cinched around his waist with a wide leather belt and falling over loosely gathered pants; a thick coil of rope hung from his right shoulder. He scrutinized every inch of me, from my head to my feet, with his gleaming, sunken eyes.
“My father, Fara Moul, asks if you would please lend him a bit of salt, until the next caravan, when he will repay you with double the gold and double the slaves!”
Perhaps the salt merchant was deaf-- it was as if I hadn’t spoken. I repeated my father’s request in a louder voice. He took a large slab of salt from the stack next to me and placed it at my feet. I got worried. In the caravan market, the salt slabs were cut out in the shape of the feet of the slave to be sold and the weight of that piece represented the price. He lifted my left foot and put in on the slab of salt and did the same with my right foot. I was now standing on it. He took his handsaw and cut off a chunk of salt following the contours of my feet. He then divided the rest of the salt into equal parts, took a canvas bag out from under his tunic, and gathered a few stacks of gold, putting salt in their place. He threw the sack of gold over his shoulder and took me by the arm, trying to take me toward the enclosure, but I managed to break free and, with a chunk of salt in my hands, ran toward my father. The merchant let out a terrible shout that echoed throughout the entire forest. They chased me down and caught me only a few hundred meters from the market place. I was taken back to the camp with a rope around my neck. They all joined in beating me soundly. Then, shackled like an animal, suffering from a thousand injuries, I was thrown in among the other slaves in the corner of the enclosure.
The caravan broke camp that same day. That year, they had sold almost all their salt; only a few slabs remained, and they would be sold off at stopovers along the return route. Black men dressed like the Zenetes and speaking their language helped the merchants load up the packsaddles and put them on the animals. The camels reserved for baggage carried wooden saddletrees, made from two connecting arches joined together by two braces; each arch was comprised of a pair of opposing slats, doweled together two by two and placed on top of the thick rolls of padding, which were folded in half in front of the hump. An anchor rope was tied to a collar whose rings held a curved piece of wood placed between the arches; serving as surcingle, girth strap, and crupper all at the same time. Tied off to one side of the collar, it went under the animal’s belly, behind the sternal callus, came back to pass through the curve of the wooden arch, looped around the camel’s neck and then under its tail and over its back to finally return and be tied off at the collar. A few other camels carried tri-lobed saddles, with tall flat pommels, cantle backrests, and raised panels, made with pieces of wood and leather that were fitted, doweled, nailed, sewn, or laced together-- the saddle was held in place by a strap affixed to the saddletree band and by a crupper made of braided leather, passing under the camel’s tail to prevent the saddle from tipping forward.
The caravan men shouted to make the camels kneel, get up, or calm down. They verified that the reins were properly tied to the metal rings placed in the right nostril of certain camels, tightening the chin strap around the lower jaw of others, or hobbled the knees of some nervous beast who might try to stand up. Then, they loaded the baggage. The great rectangular goatskin or sheepskin sacks, beautifully decorated in many bright colors, predominantly red, dangled from long ropes tied to the saddles in front of the pommels. Other larger and heavier sacks were placed on the pack camel’s flanks, securely attached to the saddletrees. They hung the goatskins up by their legs-- swollen and dripping with milk or butter-- balanced equally on both sides of the camels. Finally, they untied the hobbles and made the camels stand up one by one. And the caravan started off. A few men rode in the saddles, but most of them walked, pulling the camels by their bridles. The newly acquired slaves had their hands tied to the end of a rope attached to a saddle or saddletree and walked painfully to the side and back of their new masters’ camels. Some, unable to walk, were dragged along the ground. I was one of those. I stumbled and tripped with each step. When I fell, I was pulled along the ground. Thorns dug into my face, chest, stomach, and legs. Sometimes I managed to get up and walk painfully. Then the camel’s urine-- which always sprayed backwards-- would hit me in the face and get in my eyes and mouth as it was spattered by the wind.
The caravan crossed hills covered in greenery, separated by numerous valleys full of luxurious vegetation. The woods were inhabited by wild boars and antelope. The yowls of a wild cat who had caught sight of the caravan could be heard before it slipped away. The hilltops, peaks blazing in the red light of the setting sun, poured out their exaggerated shadows across the valley floors already devoured by the encroaching night. The caravan halted near a pond surrounded by gigantic baobab trees. Some of them had neither branches nor leaves, and in spite of that, their trunks were thicker than several trees together. Some had suffered from a decay that had left holes in them and might provide a happy alternative to the muddy pond water, for those cavities often held rainwater for a long time. They might also be inhabited by some spinning creature who had set up her weaving shop there or by bees buzzing around a hive bursting with honey. But this particular evening, the men of the caravan found a decomposing cadaver there, still wrapped in its burial shroud-- tradition called for burying griots inside the hollows of baobab trees. Swarms of buzzing mosquitoes stuck to my skin, causing abominable pain. I was still hobbled, but I forgot my suffering and fell into a deep sleep. I saw myself in the sky holding a comet by its tail. This image, the only one I remembered after I woke up, intrigued me for a long time. My master woke me up before dawn to prepare for our departure. A big fire was already lit in the middle of the camp and the caravan men were shouting and running back and forth between the baggage and the animals. The caravan set off again, heading toward the north. At dawn, we crossed a stream with a fast current. The water came up to the men’s necks and soaked the dromedaries’ bellies. Downstream, not far from where we crossed, men were crossing in the opposite direction with tall earthenware jars on their heads.
A burning wind from the east picked up and the heat was overwhelming by mid-morning. The caravan had to halt before noon, setting up camp under a huge baobab near the entrance to a village. This was where passing travelers traditionally rested while they waited for the villagers to come offer their hospitality. As the caravan watched, women came out with gourds full of millet, sour milk, cooked chickens, lotus flour, and beans. The men of the caravan bought what they wanted with little pieces of rock salt. A man, even whiter than the Zenetes and wrapped in a dirty pagne, came up to the caravan with his Sudanese guide. The furtive look in his clear blue eyes revealed an unhealthy curiosity. He seemed completely out of place and his presence was an unspoken threat. He spoke in an unfamiliar language and his guide translated.
“My name is al-Nacrani, and I would like to join your caravan to go to Awdaghost. I have learned from travelers that in that city, you can find young women with beautiful faces, fair skin, supple bodies, perky breasts, narrow waists, broad shoulders, ample rumps, and narrow vaginas. They assured me that whoever is lucky enough to have one will experience as much pleasure as with a virgin in Paradise.”
Al-Nacrani accepted polite greetings from the caravan men, who invited him to join them. This man had the appetite of a black hole. He kept asking for sanglé-- a local soup that he had taken a voracious passion for, which was a sort of thick mush prepared with an herb similar to cocoyam. Every time he was given some, he would ask for more, as if his stomach had no limits. On that particular day, the men of the caravan had bought a large quantity of it, so there was enough for everyone to have as much as they wanted. Al-Nacrani and the slaves drank a significant amount of it. A few hours later, they were all sick. Several lost consciousness during the afternoon prayer. The caravan men solicited a remedy from a village healer, who brought a vomit-inducing substance made out of pulverized plant roots mixed with anise and sugar that he put into water and shook. Those who were sick drank this medicine and vomited everything they had eaten along with a lot of yellow bile. One of the slaves died from it. After washing him and wrapping him up in a white burial shroud, the men of the caravan recited the ritual death prayers for him. Then they took the body to be buried in a nearby cemetery, near the entrance of the village.
“Hurry up; we are going to load up the baggage and leave,” cried the caravan chief to the slaves who carried the body.
The animals were already loaded up and were about to stand up when the village chief made his way over to the caravan, accompanied by an imposing entourage and surrounded by men armed with sabers and lances. The warriors formed a circle around the caravan. The chief brandished his saber wrathfully, his cheeks and lips trembling.
“Why have you miserable foreigners dared to offend our dead?”
The caravan men’s eyes grew wide and they stared at the chief, his entourage and his soldiers, and then looked at each other. No one understood the reason for this anger. Finally, Taluthane, the chief of the caravan, came forward.
“Noble Chief, how can you level such a serious accusation against our peaceful caravan who were enjoying your generous hospitality?”
“Are you that miserable, that you thank us for our hospitality?”
“I beg of you, tell me what you reproach us for!”
“You have committed a heinous crime-- you have offended the spirits of our dead!”
“But how could we have done that?”
“You buried the body of a slave among them!”
“But what’s wrong with that?”
“It’s a crime! Slaves are buried in cemeteries reserved for them, far from the cemeteries for free men. The spirits of the slaves must not trouble the spirits of their masters!”
“I humbly beg your pardon, honorable Chief! We were unaware of this custom-- for us, men are equal in death… But we will immediately dig up the body and put it in the slave cemetery.”
“That is not enough! You must give us a slave to be sacrificed, in order to appease the spirits of our dead.”
Taluthane designated one of his slaves for the sacrifice and the village chief ordered his soldiers to grab him. As they took him toward the village square, he tried to resist, screaming horribly, like a beast whose throat is being cut. The exhumed cadaver was transported to the appropriate cemetery.
The sky had darkened to the east, thunder rumbled from the threatening storm, and the flashes of lightening irrigating the sky indicated that it was close. A lead wall advanced, melding the sky with the earth. Then it unleashed a violent wind that swept up clouds of sand that whipped the body and carried off everything in their way. Later, the wind eventually died down and the storm dissipated without a drop of rain. When the caravan finally left the village, the dust had already settled and the air had resumed its immobile transparency. A full moon lit up the sky. The men walked in front and to the side of their beasts and behind them in a line.
After two hours of painful trekking, al-Nacrani, his tattered pagne dragging behind, launched into a litany of complaints, hoping to wrest compassion from the caravan men; he hopped from one to another, begging each one to let him ride on his camel. But the animals were already overloaded and tired; they would not be able to bear any more weight. Al-Nacrani kept on badgering everyone.
“I’m exhausted, my feet and legs are bloody, I can’t walk any longer!”
Not only was he unused to walking, but also he was handicapped by the impressive amount of sanglé he had ingested. His pleading was in vain. Some responded that through this suffering, and with resignation, he would gain entrance to paradise; which he took as sarcasm. Others told him that in Awdaghost, everything would be forgotten… Finally, giving up on camels, he made a deal with one of the slaves to be carried on his back, in exchange for three tobacco leaves.
In the dim moonlight, the path was very difficult and the slave who carried al-Nacrani got many thorns stuck in his feet. He was forced to stop often to pull out the biggest ones. During these stops, al-Nacrani remained securely on his back to save himself the bother of having to get off and then on again. The slave advanced with difficulty, sweating profusely and panting like a sickly beast. Since he was bored, al-Nacrani attempted to make small talk with his ride.
“Is this the first time you are on the caravan?”
There was no response from his ride, who was huffing and puffing. When the terrain got a bit easier, he panted his response. “M… y master… Zenk… Zenko Ba… Zenko Bada… exchanged me for salt… Be… fore… I work… ed… in his tob... acco field...”
But al-Nacrani had already stopped listening. His face lifted to the sky, he was gazing at the great curve of light formed by the Milky Way. In the brightest part of this milky belt that crossed the entire sky, Sagittarius let his arrow fly as the three summer beauties watched. All around, the black veil was studded with an infinite number of diamonds, and the night went by at its steady rhythm, creating the illusion that it left beings well enough alone. The calm was barely troubled by the panting beasts and the rustling grass under their feet.
In a loud voice, one of the men in the caravan sang out the call to morning prayer. The convoy stopped without kneeling the animals. The sky grew incandescent in the east, and a great flame rose up from the horizon, chasing everyone from the empyrean, which was soon deserted by the stars frantically rushing off. Alone, holding close to the moon in the desert sky, the Shepherd’s Star resisted for a moment against the dragon’s fire, before vanishing soon after with her knight, snatched up by the sun.