Abdourahman A. Wabéri was born in Djibouti in 1965. Writer of short stories and novels, he published ’La galerie des fous’ by Le Serpent à Plumes magazine. He is now teacher of French Literature at the George Washington University. Since ’Le Pays sans ombre’ (The Land Without Shadow, 1994), trilogy in his home country, and ’Transit’ (Gallimard 2003), until ’Aux États-Unis d’Afrique’ and ’Passage des Larmes’ (In the United States of Africa and, Trail of Tears, Lattes publisher 2006 and 2009), his novels are translated into many languages.
[published in RN 04 in March 1992, original unpublished text written in French translated by V.C. Koppel]
'As far off echoes from a distance sound'
We are tight-rope walkers on the high wire of Elsewhere, our dreams oriented on far away. With the fine hearing of a hyena magic words echo like anthems in our ears: CANADA-UNITED STATES-AUSTRALIA-AMERICA-EUROPE-HOLLAND-SWITZERLAND-SCANDINAVIA-USA... This echoing string of sounds keeps us alive. CA-NA-DA-CA-NA-DA-CA-NA-DA-CA-NA-DA... Why do we complain, we shadows, somber somnambulic zombies, while our leaders, yes-men, shining lights of the Nation, have fled with nothing less than the state’s coffers ?
The best educated among us, struggling to speak the most obscure jargon, bring us new words every day. Richly sonorous words that fall like water from their breath. Words that crack like a leather whip and sting with the force of strong liquor. Nowadays, the wire is considerably charged with meanings hitherto unknown to us. We owe it to a zombie friend – recently settled over there – who’s taken the trouble to send intoxicating echoes (by telephone) to whet our appetite. Oh, we are incapable of taking the slightest comfort in our real lives. But now we have these precious gifts, these wonderful presents we couldn’t even find in the depths of our damned society’s imagination: QUEBEC and ONTARIO, ACADIA and MANITOBA, among other places. These are the most memorable delights one can offer in this season of agony.
* * *
Nothing on the horizon, nothing behind us: we are the children of Nothingness. Our muscles are completely anesthetized, our young reason has sought refuge in the furthest reaches of our toes, our blood has run still, or evaporated, under the sun of this baneful season. We are tight-rope walkers on the high wire of Elsewhere. Our world is in a state of advanced decay and giving off noxious gases.
We too search in vain for the place and the answer.
* * *
Only the mosque and the microphone of the Party have the (coveted) right to spew litanies on the still-births, the deaf-mutes, the bums on unemployment, the widows of dissidents and other sufferers in forced hibernation :
- “Your world is not Here, your world is the great Elsewhere!”
We take them at their word. Inevitably.
With characteristic flair and clairvoyance, the zombie-recently-settled-over-there called us just the day of Aïd, when the whole neighborhood was as sad as a hot summer morning. On days like these the air is so asphyxiating and disguised that children don’t come into the world. But just this day, our joy was boundless ; surely we were even happier than on Independence Day, a vulgar, torrid day in June when joy struck down 20 weak-hearted old men, and 20 rams were run over by green and white cars coming from who knows where. Carelessness and rashness. A prelude to sorrow to come, perhaps. So, even on a day like this, we were overcome with happiness when we heard a brand new, unknown, and unsuspected resonance coming through the squeaky telephone line. It was vibrant, intoxicating, richer than rich. All of a sudden our hopes sounded softly everywhere. Almost in harmony. Then with a certain violence. Our horizons widened a tiny bit when we heard the cascade continue.
– “What it is saying, this richer than richest voice?”.
– “Wait ! Start again, very slowly. Yes, we’re all here hanging on the thread of Hope, yes, we’re here, speak clearly, that’s good, go ahead...”.
A deafening thunder struck the hovel ; the cascade, the decrescendo of a metallic voice vibrated in the zinc walls and aluminum roof. The echoes of the jawbreaker on the telephone multiplied and fragmented in our eardrums to such an extent that our other senses were paralyzed. We were all ears. Even after the zombie hung up we were deaf for a few seconds – the time to shudder.
Nothing but hearing. All our other senses went on strike. With the complicity of the telephone and the good will of the just-exiled zombie, we learned a whole new sound, words as bright and shiny as a new penny. Instantly, we appropriated a little piece of Elsewhere. A new hope was born. The day began to break. The hens began to lay. It was but a budding, the flowering would doubtless come much later. But what did it matter. Our zombie, here yesterday, was over there today. There, on a bottle-green island, transported (so he said) by an immaculate, wind-swollen sail, over an ultramarine sea with a gold and ivory glow, while we, nowhere, drifted on cinder gray dunes, tiring the eyes and legs.
* * *
When the silence, calm and perfect purity of the midnight dew returned, one of the marble-faced zombies asked:
– “This new word, this unheard of name he spoke, what is it?”.
We flung ourselves at him as if to crush him, all of us unloading our daily quota of bitter bile. He was paralyzed by our shrieks, more than mere agressivity, a symptom of atavistic impotence. The zombie chief, a forever out-of-work teacher, spat in his face, and with no further ado cut the left earlobe off the mask of marble, marking it for life.
– “He’s in SAS-KAT-CHE-WAN, SAS-KAT-CHE-WAN. Remember that name forever, or watch out for the other ear, poor bastard!”.
The name, it’s true, always had something particularly juicy about it. We adopted it. We rolled it around in our mouths until our jaws hurt, until our mouths went dry, until we choked. We were rich, finally ; we had bubbling music in our game bag, music that livened up even the leprous corners of the desert, music no one could take from us – not even the Party leaders. We had acquired one more name, we gave ourselves a vigrin land, a new world. And what a name it was ! What richness ! What an appropriation !
A whole universe, really. We took up the chorus again, to learn it by heart, to occupy the universe forever :
And once more, from the beginning:
Abdourahman A. Wabéri, Novembre 1990
[published in RN 04 in March 1992, unpublished original text in French translated by V.C. Koppel]
between the rubble
and the sovereign
all the water drunk
all the woes unspoke
since the dawn
this country remains:
an open wound
a tortured geology
from a bird’s eye
under each step
a scaley skin
no ashen clouds
for his taste?
that the Prophet
had to bless
the country of Habash**
- be it in memory
of Bilal? -
does not explain
of my shore.
is more sparse
the men too
they say it’s rich.
to a republic
Abdourahman A. Wabéri, 14 April 1991
* A volcano in the Republic of Djibouti