The Open Bar is excited to publish an exclusive excerpt from Morning Sea by Margaret Mazzantini, translated from Italian by Ann Gagliardi. Morning Sea will be published in April by Oneworld Publications.
Farid has never seen the sea, never gone in.
He’s imagined it many times. Dotted with stars like a pasha’s cloak, blue like the blue wall of the dead city.
He’s looked for fossilized seashells buried millions of years ago when the sea extended into the desert. He’s chased after fish lizards that swim beneath the sand. He’s seen the salty lake and the bitter lake and silvery camels advancing like shabby pirate ships. He lives in an oasis on the edge of the Sahara.
His ancestors belonged to a tribe of Bedouin nomads. They set up their tents in wadis, riverbeds covered with vegetation. The goats grazed; the wives cooked on fiery stones. They never left the desert. They didn’t entirely trust the coastal people, merchants, and pirates. The desert was their home – their open, limitless sea of sand, mottled by the dunes like a jaguar’s cloak. They possessed nothing, only footprints, which the sand covered over. The sun moved the shadows. They were accustomed to withstanding thirst, drying out like dates without dying. A camel opened the way for them with its long, crooked shadow. They disappeared in the dunes.
We are invisible to the world, but not to God.
They moved from place to place with this thought in their hearts.
In winter, the northern wind that crossed the ocean of rocks stiffened the woollen shawls on their bodies. Their skin, bloodless like the goatskins stretched taut across their drums, clung to their bones. Ancient curses fell from the sky. The fault lines in the sand were blades. Touching the desert brought wounds.
Their elders were buried where they died, left to the silence of the sand. Afterwards, the Bedouins set out again, fringes of white and indigo cloth.
In spring, new dunes emerged, rosy and pale. Sand virgins.
The searing ghibli wind drew near, accompanied by the jackal’s hoarse cry. Here and there, little tendrils of wind nipped at the sand like wandering spirits. Rough squalls followed, as sharp as scimitars. An army brought back to life. In a flash, the desert rose to devour the sky and there was no longer any border with the hereafter. The Bedouins bent beneath the weight of the grey tempest, protecting themselves against the bodies of animals that had fallen to their knees as if beneath the shroud of some ancient judgement.
Then they stopped, built a wall of clay, an enclosed pasture. Wheels left furrows in the sand.
Now and then, a caravan passed through. The settlement lay on the route used by merchants who cut across the desert from black Africa to the sea. They carried ivory, resin, precious stones, and captives to sell as slaves in the ports of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.
The merchants rested in the oasis, ate, drank. A city was born, with roofs of palm and walls of dried clay reminiscent of braided rope. The women lived above the men, separate. They walked barefoot across the roofs and went to the well with terracotta jars on their heads. They mixed couscous with lamb innards. They prayed on the tombs of marabouts, of holy men. At sunset, they danced on the roofs to the sound of the nay, their bellies moving like drowsy snakes. On the ground, the men made bricks, bartered, played tawla, and smoked the narghile.
That city is no longer there. Nothing remains but a sketch, a sanctuary eaten by the wind of sand. Next to it, a new city arose, built for Colonel Gaddafi by foreign architects from the East. Cement buildings, aerials.
Along the roads, there are huge images of the colonel, here pictured in desert camouflage, there as a devout Muslim or a military official. In some, he’s imperious and grave; in others, he smiles with open arms.
People sit on empty petrol cans, bony children, old men sucking roots to freshen their mouths. Electrical wires travel limply from one building to the next. The searing ghibli bears plastic bags and litter left behind by desert tourists.
There’s no work, just sugary drinks and goats and dates to can for export.
Many of the young leave to find work in the oil reserves, the black blocks on the map, the eternal flames of the desert.
It’s not a real city. It’s an aggregation of lives.
Farid lives in the old city, in one of those low houses with doors all round the same central court, a wild garden, a gate that’s always open. He walks to school, runs on his thin legs with their skin that peels like the bark on reeds. His mother, Jamila, wraps sesame sticks in paper for his snack.
After school, he and his friends play with a little old cart that drags tin cans, or else football. He rolls like a grub in the red dust. He steals little bananas and bunches of black dates. With the help of a rope, he climbs high into the heart of those trees full of shadows.
Round his neck, he wears an amulet, a little leather pouch stuffed with beads and a few tufts of animal fur. All children wear them.
Evil eyes will look at the amulet. You will be safe, his mother explained.
Omar, Farid’s father, is a technician. He installs TV aerials. He waits for the signal, smiling at the women who don’t want to miss the next episode of the Egyptian soap opera and treat him like a saviour of dreams. Jamila is jealous of those stupid women. She studied singing, but her husband won’t let her perform during weddings or at festivals, let alone for tourists. So Jamila sings for Farid, her only spectator in the rooms full of drapes and rugs and smelling of sagebrush and herbs beneath the domed plaster roof of their house.
Farid is in love with his mother and her arms, which make a breeze like palm leaves, and the smell of her breath when she sings one of her maloufs full of love and tears, and her heart swells so much that she has to hold it tight so it won’t fall into the rusty iron rainwater basin that’s always dry.
His mother is young, like a sister. Sometimes they play bride and groom. Farid combs her hair, adjusts her veil.
Jamila’s forehead is a round stone; her eyes are rimmed like a bird’s; her lips are two sweet, ripe dates.
It’s a sunset with no wind. The sky is peach-coloured.
Farid leans against the wall in his garden. He studies his feet, the filthy toes sticking out of his sandals.
A flurry of new moss is growing in one of the cracks in the wall. Farid bends to smell the fresh scent. Only then does he realize that an animal is breathing beside him, so close that he can’t move. His heart leaps into his eyes.
He’s afraid it might be a uaddan, a legendary creature, part sheep, part donkey, with big horns. His grandfather told him it sometimes appears on the horizon between two dunes, an evil mirage. It’s been a long time since anyone has seen a uaddan, but Grandfather Mussa swears the creature still hides in the black sandstone wadi, where living things are unable to survive. Grandfather Mussa says the uaddan’s very angry about all the jeeps ruining the desert, damaging it with their wheels.
But the animal doesn’t have white tufts and lunar horns, and she’s not grinding her teeth. She has a sand-coloured coat and horns so thin they look like twigs. The animal gazes at Farid. She may be hungry.
Farid realizes it’s a gazelle, a young gazelle. She doesn’t run away. Her eyes, wide and so near, are lustrous and calm. Her coat shivers with a sudden tremor. Maybe the animal is trembling, just like Farid. But the gazelle is also too curious to move away. Farid slowly moves a branch towards her. The gazelle opens a mouth full of flat white teeth and tears off a few fresh pistachios, then backs away in her tracks without taking her eyes off Farid. All of a sudden, she turns, jumps over the earthen wall, and runs over the horizon of the dunes, kicking up sand.
At school the next day, Farid fills pages with gazelles. He draws them crookedly in pencil, then jabs his finger in tempera paint to colour them in.
Copyright © Margaret Mazzantini 2015.
Translation copyright © Ann Gagliardi, 2015.