Delirium in the Desert
The white bus that had picked us up in the capital at dawn was now approaching Douz in the far south of Tunisia. The sun had begun to set as a golden disc in an awe-inspiring emptiness so frightfully vast that the bare mountains could fill only a smidgen of it. Even so, I was delighted by what I saw, because I had grown weary of life in large, rowdy cities. After turning fifty I had begun to long for seclusion and a life in the countryside and in small villages along the coast. Since I settled in Hammamet–after spending almost a quarter century at the foot of the Alps, which Hannibal crossed riding on an elephant and which remained snow-covered throughout the year–I could no longer bear to be far from the sea. All the same, while the white bus was crossing this terrifying void that was illuminated by this fascinating sunset glow, I would have liked to remain there alone till I was enveloped by the darkness. Then, perhaps, the desert would confide some of its secrets to me and narrate some of its myths that I still haven’t learned. Perhaps the desert…. Oh! Perhaps the desert!
But has the desert confided its secrets to anyone? I doubt that, because its secrets have no beginning or end! Every day, even every hour brings it fresh secrets. Then the arid wind blows them away, annihilating them as it does sand dunes, which at sunset resemble caravans of camels, as the French poet I will meet the following day in Douz will say. She fled from Paris, dreaming of becoming the heir of Isabelle Eberhardt, who died as a martyr to her debilitating love for the Sahara and its mournful songs.
In our group we had the Berber Tayma’, who reminded me of the young Andalusian women of Lorca’s poems. She also gazed at the debilitating void–aghast, astounded, and as enchanted as a young woman traveling for the first time to a foreign land that her grandmother described in tales during festive evenings. I had met her in Douz some months earlier. One clear night when the moon was full we were invited to an al fresco dinner. The stars there inspired you to believe that you could pluck one from the sky, and the desert around you whispered mysterious anthems to you during a night that spread far and wide. She sat there–happy and smiling–and said very little, perhaps because she knew her smile conveyed all the excitement within her breast. From time to time a word or two slipped from her lips. Then she would fall silent again. Her silence was majestic–the silence of Berber princesses fully cognizant of their beauty’s enchantment. She seemed to wish to convey to her admirers that night this message: “Don’t ask me to speak. If I spoke, you would be enflamed by my words’ magic and lose your tyrannical power–like Shahrayar after Shahrazad tamed him with her amazing tales.”
That evening she said only a little but danced a great deal—so expertly that the night collapsed at her feet, ensnared by love for her. She suddenly began dancing. At first she listened with a smile to the music of the drums, tambourines, and mizmars. Then she leapt into the dance circle, where she began to sway and swing until her body filled the entire desert. She was all I could see!
“Will you dance this time?” she asked as I gazed at her Berber body’s strikingly symmetrical contours. I thought perhaps she–like the desert–wouldn’t reveal her secrets to anyone, because her secrets too were always eternally renewed.
Lilia, a photographer, was with us on the bus also. Her mother was German and her father was Tunisian. Her face was as clear and luminous as a drop of dew on a leaf that has begun to wilt. She told me that her aunt lived on Schilling Street in Munich and that I might have seen her there repeatedly, because I had spent more than ten years at number 67 on that same street, which also had been home to Berthold Brecht, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Lou Andreas-Salomé–that charming, cultured, brilliant woman around whom many men, including Nietzsche, the archenemy of women, hovered. It was also on this street that Adolf Hitler, after his pitiful failure as an artist, began his campaigns in the early 1920s to rally supporters to his Nazi ideology. There he opened an office for the newspaper that was the mouthpiece for the political party he had founded. In his Schilling Salon, he received his supporters and disciples, who–like him–wished to avenge the disgusting defeat inflicted on the proud, self-confident German nation in World War I.
But why am I talking about this here? Instead I should return to Lilia–or Layla, as those who loved her called her. She adored Tunisia and could not bear to live in Germany or any other European country. “I go there occasionally but always return,” she observed. She was silent for a short time and then added, “I love Ghar al-Milh. I love to swim nude in the sea there, early in the morning.” Then she showed me two wonderful photos. One portrayed a yellow-colored tomb and the other a lane that twisted across a green plain where a man was riding a donkey. Lilia was silent again, because the sunset close to the desert of Douz was too beautiful to be spoiled by chatter about photography!
Nuri, who had organized our trip, was enraptured by the scent of his native land and quickly wrapped the turban of his tribe–the Merazig–round his head. Then he asked the driver to turn on his CD player so Nuri could listen to the songs of his friend and favorite singer: Belgacem Bouguenna. These monotonous songs were devoted to grief, love’s torment, and a Bedouin agony that sears heart and spirit. These songs evince no trace of joy and life’s delight, and woman appears in them only as a footprint on undulating sands…as is the case in pre-Islamic Arabic poems. Nuri, however, was passionately fond of these songs of his friend, with whom he had spent many a desert night beneath a palm tree or having a drink. Nuri once cockily and confidently told me, “If my friend Bouguenna had been American he would have been as famous as Louis Armstrong–the King of Jazz!”
When we reached Douz, the setting sun was staining the desert horizon a dark red. Tayma’ was glowing like an Andalusian poem on a night during Granada’s age of might and glory, and Lilila’s face shimmered with the color of the moon fading from sight as day dawns. It would be a long desert night. The people on the bus had become acquainted, and everyone gathered at the Touareg Hotel, where we were staying. I grew quite tipsy–like Joyce’s heroes in his masterpiece Ulysses when inebriation grips them in Dublin’s brothels and they’re no longer able to tell black from white. I was delirious because the ember of love for Tayma’ had ignited my spirit. I naturally angered the others with my drunken words and deeds. I became so extremely intoxicated and raucous that I created fissures in the calm night and the desert’s silence, which is awe-inspiring and indifferent to everyone. Long ago I had accepted who I am, and that’s why I hate sham veils. I can’t abide them! The people who could not bear my insanity fled from me, and Berber Tayma’ was one of them.
“So be it!” I said. “I haven’t come to Douz to earn a merit badge for good behavior.” I had come for some other reason I wasn’t able to pin down precisely. Moreover, like James Joyce, I believe that a truly creative text must be the offspring of anarchy and beautiful insanity.
“So be it, Tayma’–my tormentor in the desert night!”
I awoke with a bitter taste in my heart and spirit. I pulled together my body, which exhaustion, inebriation, and staying up late had devastated, and spent a long time in the shower. Afterwards I roamed through Douz by myself, surrounded by the massive throngs who had come to attend the opening ceremony of the town’s Festival of the Sahara. It featured drums, mizmars, riders, African dancers, and folk poets who extolled the merits of their tribes, their Bedouin generosity, the beauty of the oases, the magnificence of camels, the chivalry of Bedouin men, and their women’s hips, not to mention their kohl-enhanced eyes and their bosoms, which are bedecked with gold and silver. Old men in thick burnouses observed all this silently and noncommittally. Their salad days had passed, and what they witnessed now meant little to them.
At noon we went to Place Haniche for the first event in the great show that celebrated different aspects of Bedouin and Saharan life. Suddenly I found myself separated from the massive crowds, wandering among sand dunes while my imagination fled to another world–to the Tyrol region of Austria and Italy. I had gone there for the first time in the autumn of 1987 with a Bavarian student named Monika, who had green eyes, short black hair, and a sweet voice that melted your heart. I recalled that Henry Miller said: “The mission of man on earth is to remember.” I think the best place to recall the enchanting mountains of the Tyrol, which are covered with thick forests, is its antipode–in other words the Sahara. So my memory quickly took me back to that amazing trip with Monika in her red automobile–I don’t remember the make. We spent the entire day hiking through the forests and apple orchards. Occasionally a farmer would detain us to share a glass of his wine. Then we would continue our hike. We returned before sunset to the small, wood-frame hotel. After dinner we took a bottle of red wine up to our room. Monika would whisper from time to time, as she clung so tightly to me that I couldn’t distinguish her body from mine, “When I’m in bed with you, I’m overcome by a feeling that I’m in an oasis in the middle of the Sahara. In fact, I imagine I smell wild thyme and date palms!” I promised Monika that I would take her to the oases in the south of Tunisia, but our love story ended as abruptly as it had begun. Some years later, by chance, I saw her in Berlin, and we had a drink, standing in a bar in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. During our brief encounter, Monika told me that she had married and had a daughter who was three.
Could such memories extinguish my smoldering crush on Tayma’ while I wandered among sand dunes? No way! Indeed, those European memories may have caused that ember to ignite. So I thought I would return to the hotel for a nap, which might help me prepare for my second night in Douz.
This evening was less burdensome for me than the first. We watched a lovely documentary film about the customs and traditions of Douz. I enjoyed an elderly Bedouin woman’s discussion in it about the characteristics of tattooing as a tradition of the Merazig tribe. She spoke fluently and spontaneously–oblivious to the camera pointed at her. This wasn’t typical for the Bedouin, who tend to lose their focus when caught off guard by a stranger’s presence among them. Another brilliant sequence in the film presented an old man who had chosen seclusion and a solitary life in the desert; he had turned his back on the world and on people. His sole concern was worship and heeding the intuitions of his soul. His most beautiful comment was, “I’ve begun to understand the desert’s language better than what people say!” There are hardly any people like this nowadays, because Arabs have become disturbingly and even disgustingly materialistic. They fight like dogs to amass wealth. Egoism has grown so virulent among them that it is a chronic and almost incurable disease. When I returned from Germany after a long absence I was alarmed to find myself confronted by people motivated by greed and avarice. Their desire to possess even inexpensive goods was boundless. So it is possible to say the spiritual East that sired the great ascetics and Sufis, the East that fascinated the Western Romantics at the start of the Industrial Revolution exists only as a fantasy and chaff blowing in the wind.
O Tayma’! My tormentor in the southern desert!
On the third night I invited Mustafa to dine with me. He is a friend of long standing; our relationship dates back to our youth. We ordered lamb with salad. During this quiet evening we recalled memories of a lean year we spent in Gafsa. He was a member of a theater troupe there, and I taught French in the secondary institute. We met every night and stayed up till the next morning, especially at the end of the work week. We had many dreams and even more pipe dreams. “We have no choice, we remember everything,” Henry Miller said. Everything remembers us too, and in excruciating detail.
When we tired of leafing through the past’s yellowing pages, Mustafa began to tell me about his daughter–the most precious part of his life. I listened to him without comment, watching his face turn ashen and his right eye, which squinted in the best of times, become increasingly crossed, because he was tired, because he was drunk, and because of his past and present worries. All the same I allowed him to continue his monotonous monologue, hardly paying attention to what he was saying. I ignored it all except for his discussion of the ramshackle house in the Halfaouine district of the capital. He had begun to share this house with his sister, who was also divorced. On returning to the hotel, he could barely walk and stammered so much that he had difficulty uttering even a brief sentence.
Yawning and exhausted, we left Douz on the fourth day at dawn. Some of us slept. For my part, I started to gaze at the day’s dawning light, which shimmered because the night had been cold. I reached my house a little before sunset, my breast filled with sorrows that seemed ashes from a fire that had just gone out. I lit some candles and began to listen to Mozart’s Requiem. In my memory that Berber princess glittered like a Hellenic love poem.
 Henry Miller, “Tribute to France” from Remember to Remember,” The Henry Miller Reader, Edited with an introduction by Lawrence Durrell (New York: New Directions, 1959), p. 271.
 Henry Miller, “Tribute to France,” The Henry Miller Reader, p. 270.
Strange where our passions carry us, floggingly pursue us, forcing upon us unwanted dreams, unwelcome destinies.
Truman Capote, Music for Chameleons
I don’t know why I wasn’t surprised when I suddenly found myself at the entrance to my birthplace, the city of Qaf, Tunisia, after a long absence that had lasted almost five years. How I had arrived there with such extraordinary speed and so easily was beyond my comprehension. This matter did not worry me at all, however, because I told myself just as soon as the question crossed my mind that modern forms of transportation are capable of producing miracles. It’s possible for a person nowadays to drink coffee one morning in a country covered with snow and then a few hours later eat grilled fish on the terrace of a restaurant that is open to the sea and the sun while he’s dressed lightly. In fact, it’s even possible for him to dine there while wearing a swimsuit. Such matters have become very commonplace, and people are not at all amazed by them. In fact they do not even comment on them.
Naturally I could not remember what form of transport I had used. The one thing I was quite certain of was that the only way I could have traveled back to my homeland from the country where I live now was by airplane. I must have flown. Thus I resolved the issue without any real effort. As to the lacuna about details of my trip, that did not upset me at all, because for some time and definitely since nearing fifty I have suffered from a poor memory. For me it has become normal to forget, for example, what I ate yesterday and whom I met at the party I was invited to a week ago. Many times, the bits of advice that Doris is keen on giving me like abrasive military commands–before we fall asleep or in the morning when I rise–slip my mind. (Doris is the only woman who has agreed to share my cold bed in Germany. She is not all that pretty, but I love how she shrieks when we have sex.) She has of course raised hell because of my forgetfulness. The last time, Doris threatened to leave me. She did actually disappear from sight, leaving me to stew in that cramped apartment in the Turkish area of Munich. When, one night during a blizzard, she returned, I wept bitterly and embraced her. After we made love, I sang her some Bedouin songs to celebrate her return. She listened to me with an expression that suggested some sympathy and affection.
In any event, I think that expatriates suffer more from forgetfulness than other people. A friend, who is an émigré like me, told me that one dark morning he found himself in the Hannover train station, even though he too lives in Munich. He was forced to spend many hours digging through his memory to discover that he had spent the entire previous day in bars and had boarded the train the night before with a wild blonde, who had told him about Australia and Truman Capote. My friend was so exhausted he fell asleep only to find himself alone the next morning in the Hannover railroad station with nothing but twenty euros and an empty pack of cigarettes in his pocket. I was deeply saddened by what had happened to my friend and frowned like an owl when a storm is approaching. He, though, began to chirp like a bird that has escaped from a snare.
So I found myself at the entrance to my hometown. It was spring, and warm rays fell from a clear sky with only shreds of clouds scattered here and there. The breeze was perfumed with the fragrances of jasmine and almonds blossoms from the orchards that surround the city. It was very calm–with the expansive calm of the vegetable plots there, as calm as a woman ready for love. This calm invited me to shrug off my terror and anxiety and to enter the city tranquilly, with my mind at rest. But before I took my first steps, I remembered I had a telegram in my pocket. I had received it at some time I would not have been able to specify, but this telegram might explain everything that had happened to me. I took it out; it was crumpled and stained with sweat. When I opened it, I read: “Your grandmother is dying!” I put the telegram back in my pocket. So the matter was straightforward. Our house was nearby, and getting to it wouldn’t take me more than ten minutes. But I’m deprived of splendid, clear spring days like this in my place of exile, and that made it hard for me to head home to collide with hideous death and confront gloomy, mourning faces. Yes, that would be alarming! Moreover I’ve shied away from funerals since childhood. After a long separation I would hate to find my family huddled on the floor, their faces distorted by pain and their eyes swollen from crying for my departed grandmother, who was over ninety, I think. When I surprise them by my arrival, they will leap from their places, wailing and lamenting loudly. Aaaah! How I hate the mourning of my Bedouin ancestors, especially at wakes! I ought to admit that I didn’t love my grandmother very much. Perhaps it will be better if I don’t attend her funeral. When I was a child, she would beat me violently–usually for no reason at all. Her cruel treatment intensified whenever she found me in some dark corner ranting in some strange language drawn from the Qur’an, Bedouin poetry, and filthy words favored by dissolute men in poor neighborhoods, beautiful girls in their boudoirs remote from the eyes of men, and old, gray-haired women. My grandmother chased me many times, brandishing a stout stick and screaming breathlessly, “I’ll cut your tongue out, you bad boy!” In the evening she would complain about me to my father: “If you don’t discipline your son, he’ll become a wastrel like those jokers who wander in the deserts with empty bellies and tongues parched from thirst!”
I plunged into Qaf’s markets like a creature plunging into a grove of beautiful dreams. From the first moments I was amazed at my own transformation; I found that I was wild about all the things that had once disgusted and repulsed me. Here I was surrounded by thick, yellow dust and stifling congestion but felt I was being carried along by the waves of a calmly flowing stream. I stopped more than once to gaze at obstinate flies in sweet shops, the brightly colored clothing of Berber women whose faces were decorated with Berber tattoos, walls stained yellow at the bottom from urine, old tumbledown buildings, and all the other items that were quickly and irrevocably joining the past. In front of the Great Mosque, I stopped–fascinated by blind beggars wrapped in dull-colored burnouses, chanting eulogies for the Prophet and remembrances of God in heartrending voices while their wiry, veined hands spread into the air like a tree’s bare branches in winter. “This is all so special,” I told myself, “especially contrasted with the many depressing shades of gray–virtually the only color I see in my adopted homeland.” It may be all those grays that have afflicted me with aridity and sterility, caused me to grow old prematurely and to become as dry as the earth during long-lasting droughts.
Near Bab al-Jalladin, where in times of religious strife atrocities were committed and the corpses of shaykhs and leading citizens were exposed on the walls, I encountered a strange surprise. I caught sight of Truman Capote about thirty meters away. Clad in a white summer suit and a white hat, he was strolling slowly and self-confidently without attracting the attention of any of the other pedestrians. He appeared to be someone the city’s residents had grown accustomed to seeing here more than once a day. “Is this conceivable?” I asked myself, almost collapsing to the ground from the shock of this surprise, which was all the greater because I was well aware that Truman Capote had died many years before. How could he have returned? How had he come to the prim, Muslim city of Qaf, which has grown more straight-laced and insular in recent years? It has become an ideal locale for men who dream of establishing a new caliphate that would legalize amputation of hands and feet, beheadings, and death by stoning for adulterers.
Truman Capote started to approach me and soon was only a few meters away. I scrutinized him. It was Capote–there was no question about that! He looked exactly the same as in Cecil Beaton’s portrait of him. I have that photo hanging in my cramped apartment near portraits of Rimbaud, Joyce, Céline, Dostoyevsky, and Adonis. I probably put up that image after I finished reading Music for Chameleons. Before then, I hadn’t known anything that would have attracted me to Truman Capote and his world. Then an émigré friend happened to lend me Music for Chameleons, and I devoured the book in a single day. Oh! How entertaining all its stories are–especially the story about the old man lost in the Mojave Desert! So I became one of Capote’s fans, one of those readers addicted to reading any of the books he can lay hands on.
I was still processing these memories when Truman Capote suddenly stopped and glared at me sternly as if staring down an obdurate foe at the onset of a bloody confrontation. Then he immediately twirled around and started to head up the street leading to Bab Tunis, toward the north of the city. “I must catch up with him,” I told myself. “Perhaps he’ll agree to discuss Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” That’s a novel Doris loves a lot. Truman Capote, however, quickened his pace till I despaired of catching him. I began to struggle through the congestion and the crowded street’s dust–surrounded by commotion and putrid smells. I was panting and bathed in sweat, but my eyes remained trained on Truman Capote’s back, which was as broad as Marlon Brando’s in The Godfather.
Before reaching Bab Tunis, Truman Capote took a left turn and entered the brothel. “He won’t escape from me,” I assured myself. I knew the brothel had only one door, which served as both entrance and exit. Yes, he would not escape from me! When I reached the door of the brothel, two short policemen appeared from nowhere. They each had a huge head and a thick neck, and their bushy mustaches made them look like bandits in a Mexican film.
“Where do you think you’re going?” they barked at my face as they brandished their metal batons.
“To the whorehouse.”
“What whorehouse?” they shouted back as their eyes glinted maliciously.
“Isn’t this a whorehouse?” I asked them, pointing with my index finger at the door, which was so dirty that its original color was indiscernible.
“This isn’t a whorehouse, idiot. It’s the headquarters of the New Party!” they shouted as their faces swelled with hostility.
“My mistake! But I have a foreign friend who entered the headquarters of the New Party just now. I want to catch him.”
“Entering is prohibited!”
“But my friend entered, and no one stopped him!”
“That’s none of your business. Scram now or see stars in broad daylight!”
I withdrew, shaking with panic. I took a few steps, but then a crowd of loiterers with frowning faces surrounded me. They clearly intended to harm me; they might even kill me or slash and disfigure me with their knives. I wiped away the sweat that was flowing profusely, especially from my forehead and neck. I looked around for the two police officers, hoping to ask them for protection. I found, though, that they were watching what was happening to me with supreme satisfaction, as if they were egging on the wastrels to treat me any way they wanted. I grew even more alarmed. In the midst of these malefactors, I seemed to have shrunk even smaller than a dung beetle. Then, suddenly, they guffawed loudly, and I heard one of these ne’er-do-wells remark disgustedly: “What a coward! Look! He’s about to shit his pants! Hahahahahahaha.”
Then the group around me dispersed, and I continued my walk, with the bitter taste of ashes in my mouth. When I was sure no one was following me, I retreated to a dark nook by the city wall and began to watch the brothel that was now the headquarters for the New Party. Eventually a heated quarrel exploded between a couple in an old house near me. The husband seemed to be elderly and no longer capable of satisfying his wife’s desires. Her powerful voice suggested that she was still a young woman. She scolded her aged husband: “You’re old, and I can no longer bear to live with you. I must leave this house–the sooner the better! Otherwise I’ll die of suffocation or rot because you’re so old and smell so foul!” His grunted reply was incomprehensible. The one sentence he enunciated clearly enough for me to understand was: “Like most women in this city, you’re a whore! I’m tired of living under the same roof with you!” Their verbal battle continued according to this script for a long time but suddenly calmed down. Then all I heard was the market’s clamor, which seemed to come to me from afar, as if emerging from a deep well.
I was overwhelmed by the desolation of an orphaned child in a city that had slammed its gates in his face. I felt like crying. Finally Truman Capote emerged from the door of the whorehouse that now housed the New Party’s headquarters. He was smoking a Cuban cigar and had his arm around a sublime Bedouin prostitute with kohl-lined eyes, full lips, and a huge bosom. From time to time she laughed loudly and wiggled her hips like a belly dancer. Then she said in English to Truman Capote, who looked happy, “You’re a bad man!” She winked at him with wide, black eyes and kissed his neck. Then they continued walking through the market, without attracting anyone’s attention or provoking anyone’s outrage; they might as well have been invisible. “Amazing! Is it conceivable that this is happening in a city that is considered the fourth most sacred city in Islam?” I asked myself.
At Bab al-Jalladin, the same two policemen stopped me again. “Where do you think you’re going, misguided stranger?” they shouted at me as their batons almost touched my face.
I really had nothing to say.
“You’re obviously an unusually obstinate rogue. So we have no choice but to teach you a lesson.” They gnashed their teeth when they said this. Then their rough hands grabbed my neck and dragged me to the city’s outskirts, leaving me where there was nothing but the desolate scrubland of thorns and mirages.
They shouted: “Beat it and don’t ever come back! May all men and angels curse you!” Then they pushed me forcefully and caused me to fall to the ground, where my face became covered with dirt. When I stood up, I brushed my face off with the back of my hand and shook the dust from my clothes. I glared at the policemen furiously and defiantly, but that enraged them all the more, and they brandished their batons, threatening to beat me. So I ran off into the empty desert. I ran and ran till I felt I could hardly breathe. When I stopped running, I found myself in my city of exile.
Snow was falling heavily, and the bells of ancient churches were chiming loudly. “Everything seems to be happening quickly,” I told myself. Then I entered a sleazy bar of the type I patronize when I’m broke. It was teeming with giant Bavarians, who had thick necks, bald heads, and bushy mustaches. They were drinking beer and singing lustily. When I entered, though, they stopped singing and began to stare at me with lethal malice–their brows oozing sweat and rage. One man rose and shouted at me: “Was machst du hier, scheiss Ausländer?” I was scared. “I need to leave immediately,” I told myself. So I quit that bar and raced back through the snow to my apartment. When I arrived there, I stretched out in bed, hoping to sleep after all the exertions of that long trip. Soon, however, I felt thirsty and needed to pee so bad my balls were burning. I rose, urinated, and then drank a glass of water. Then I opened the window curtains and began to watch the snow fall heavily on a silent Sunday morning. Doris woke at eight and strode naked to the shower. After slipping into some of her light clothing, she made coffee, lit a cigarette, and told me, “I hate Sunday!” A few minutes later, she added bitterly, “I’d like us to do something that will entertain me and chase away my Sunday blues.”
“What?” I asked.
“Let’s go for a walk in the English Garden this noon and then head to the cinema.”
“Splendid! But what film would you like to see?”
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Oh…I like it a lot.”
“But we saw that a few days ago, on the Swiss channel, I think.”
“No…no…I want to see it on the big screen.”
Delight lit up her face. She hugged and kissed me as her tongue slipped into my mouth. She whispered to me, “Come. Let’s do it now, on an empty stomach. I love that!”