I had come with the young caliph of Monastir, Si Labbi Chabet, to collect the overdule poll tax, the medjba, levied on rural Tunisians. Si Larbi never suspected that I was a woman; he called me brother Mahmoud, and for two months I traveled with him, helping him with the work.
Everywhere we went, among the poor, ungovernable tribes, we were received with hostility. Only the red burnous of the spahis and the blue burnous of the deira * had any effect on these half-starved hordes. Si Larbi's compassion got the better of him, and we became ashamed of what we were doing--he out of duty and I out of curiosity--as if it were a crime. Yet, there were moments of genuine enjoyment, the names of those places evoke unforgettable memories for me.
Leaving Moknine, the road, which was separated from the olive groves by bushes of hendi (prickly pears), continued, dusty and straight. The olive trees, tipped with silver along their crests, kept pace with it along its length, rising and falling like waves.
A small, plain mosque of dull yellow, similar to the buildings in the South made of tob, a few houses of the same ocher color, ruins, scattered tombstones--this was the first village in Amira, Sid'Enn'eidja.
In front of the mosque was a small courtyard where the weeds had run wild and, toward the back, a sort of vaulted alcove beside which a fig tree spread its wide, velvety leaves. Nearby was the well, deep and cold. We sat down on a mat. To speed things up, Si Larbi asked me to help him. I would be his clerk.
The spahis and the deira brought the sheik before us, a tall old man with an eagle's profile and wild eyes, accompanied by the elders of the tribe and their sons, tall and thin in their tattered sefseris. What a strange collection of faces, burned by the sun and wind, with a kind of savage dynamism, severe and withdrawn.
In a whining voice, the sheik gave a series of long, complicated explanations. At each moment, cries broke out around him, loud and with the sudden vehemence of this violent race, which moves from dreams and silence to turmoil. All of them affirmed their poverty.
I read their names, one by one, from a list.
"Mohammed ben Mohammed ben Dou'!"
"How much do you owe?"
"Why haven't you paid?"
"I am rouge-nu, Sidi. (A Tunisian expression meaning fakir, poor.)
"Don't you have a house, or a garden, or something?"
With a gesture of noble resignation, the Bedouin raises his hand.
"Elhal-hal Allah!" (Fortune is in God's hands.)
"Stand on the left."
In most cases, the man, resigned to his fate, steps aside and sits down with his head bent; at length, the spahis put him in chains. Tomorrow, one of the red horsemen will bring them all to Moknine and from there to the prison at Monastir, where they will work like slaves until they have repaid their debt.
Those who happen to own anything--a small house, a camel, a few sheep--are allowed to go free, but the caliph will have these few possessions seized by the deira in order to sell them. And our hearts bleed with sorrow when the women, in tears, bring out the last goat, the last lamb, upon which they lavish a final embrace.
Then, leading our dismal and submissive band of chained men, marching on foot between our horses, we move on.
Chralel, called Ichrahil by the educated. A few houses scattered among the olive trees, which are more luxuriant than anywhere else. We set up our long, low nomad tent made of goatskin. Beneath their brilliant outfits, the spahis and the deira are moving about, lighting fires and requesting the diffa, the welcome meal that is, unfortunately, offered to us with great reluctance.
At dusk, Si Larbi, spahi Ahmed, and I stroll around the village for a while. We come across a young woman, alone, who is gathering prickly pears. Ahmed approaches her and says, "Give us some pears, little cat! And take out the needles so we don't stick ourselves!"
The Bedouin is very beautiful, very solemn. She stares at us, hostile and withdrawn, with her large dark eyes. "God's curse on you! You come to take what is ours!" And she angrily empties her basket of prickly pears at our feet and leaves.
The red horseman, with a feline smile, stretches out his arm to grab her, but we stop him. "Isn't it enough that we arrest the poor old men, without going after the women?" the caliph says.
"Oh, Sidi, I wasn't going to hurt her."
And yet these men, dressed in brilliant colors, come from this same people, whose misery they understand, since they once shared in it. But the spahi is no longer a Bedouin, and, in all honesty, thinks he is greatly superior to his brothers of the tribe because he is a soldier.
We spend another quarter of an hour talking to an indescribable little Negro boy we ran into on the road, who has us bursting with laughter at the unexpectedness of his repartees and his lively intelligence.
Then, after dinner, indolently stretched out on our mats, we listen to the young men of Chralel sing. The people of the Sahel are excellent musicians, and the shepherds in these regions still compose perfectly rhymed songs, where words and melody are of equal beauty:
Oh mother, mother, my friend! The world has lost its smile for me ever since they carried you to the cemetery.... Grief dwells in my heart and tears flow from my eyes like bitter streams.
Translated by Richard Bononno