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Nubian salvage, textualized
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 10 - 2005

Nights of Musk: Stories from Old Nubia, Haggag Hassan Oddoul, trans. Anthony Calderbank, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005. pp 123
Born in Alexandria in 1944, Nubian playwright and fiction writer Haggag Hassan Oddoul stands at an unusual angle towards the tragedy of the loss of Nubia with the construction of the Aswan High Dam from the mid-1960s to the early '70s. He does not belong to the massive wave of displacement and resettlement (in unsuitable environments) that was to sweep the Nubians with the inundation of their land. On the other hand, Oddoul, who served as a construction worker in the High Dam project, was in the position of witness to the traumatic event itself.
The construction of the dam and the loss of Nubia were preceded and surrounded by various local and international salvage projects. There was the UNESCO-backed project of relocating the antiquities of Nubia, and there was the Egyptian Ministry of Culture project of sponsoring intellectuals and artists, such as Tahiya Halim, to spend time in Nubia to document and depict its culture on the eve of the area's inundation.Similar projects were also undertaken by others, such as Egyptian- born Swiss artist Margo Veillon's tours through old Nubia in the early 1960s, sometimes with photographers and ethnographers who were part of an especially formed Nubian Ethnographical Survey (see John Rodenbeck's introduction to Margo Veillon, Nubia: Sketches, Notes and Photographs). Indeed one of Veillon's Nubian watercolours is reproduced on the cover of Nights of Musk.
What anthropologist James Clifford has described and critiqued in another context as "salvage ethnography" -- an allegory of ethnographic writing where the "other," construed as primitive or traditional, "is lost, in disintegrating time and space" -- is relevant to the Nubian context (see his essay "On Ethnographic Allegory" in Writing Culture). But Oddoul's project, even if it proposes itself as one of salvage, an undeniable rupture having occurred, speaks more closely to what Clifford (who does not deny cases where languages and customs disappear) sees as signs of challenges to the allegory of salvage by the allegedly more "evolved," in that it subverts the outsider's monopoly on representation and attests to a culture "already textualized" (to borrow a phrase from Clifford). Comprising four short stories -- the Arabic original, Layali Al-Misk Al-'Atiqa (Ancient Nights of Musk), was first published in 1989 -- this collection may also be seen as a novella composed of texts that, while they can be read individually, acquire additional grafts of meaning when read in conjunction with each other.
Two of the stories, "Zeinab Uburty" and "Nights of Musk," are set in what seems to be a time that predates the tragedy. "Zeinab Uburty," framed in myths of origin and classifications of beings -- into the descendants of Adam (the "adamir"), half of whom are good like Abel, the other half being evil like Cain, and the River People who are divided into good (the "amon nutto") and evil ("amon dugur") -- is a Nubian legend of the cyclical struggle between good and evil. Within this frame, the story reproduced by the unnamed narrator is an oral account heard in early youth from an elder, the then centenarian Hulla who witnessed the events in his own youth. Hulla's narrative is about the calamities that befell Nubia and its inhabitants when Zeinab Uburty, an ugly and spiteful village crone, following in the footsteps of her great-grandfather, an evil sorcerer, unearths a book of magic that had belonged to him, and forges a pact with the devil that, as with her ancestor, brings a curse of impotence on the men and disturbs the natural order of things, only to fall victim herself to the evil that she has wreaked, thus breaking the spell as the pattern goes.
In "Nights of Musk," the narrator, Ibn Zibeyda, while waiting in the courtyard outside the house where his wife is giving birth to their first child, mentally weaves in and out of the stages of the relationship through their teenage frolicking, wedding night, and the moment of childbirth delivery itself in a lyrical fashion that intermingles ululations from the wedding party with refrains from amorous ballads and flirtation lines, in what ultimately becomes an ode to Nubia itself.
These two stories might seem to describe a culture that is as yet intact and secure in a pre-modern world view embodied in orality, but both traces in the texts, and the contrast between them and the other two stories, indicate otherwise. The translator rightly notes the presence of onomatopoeia in the title story, "Nights of Musk," as indicative of the "oral tradition" in which the collection is steeped. Indeed in both this story and "Zeinab Uburty" onomatopoeia is most distinct. There is the chattering of teeth in a particularly cold winter making the morning greeting come "out like this: 'Takataka mas takataka kag takataka ru"" ("Zeinab"); Ibn Zibeyda reflecting that "the hot thud of the tambourine resounded with the beat of my heart: Duum-taka dum-tak duum-taka dum-tak" ("Nights"); "the dark-skinned generations [who] come forth, carrying the sun in their faces, screaming: Waaaaah waaaaah waaaaah... Eeeeshshshsh eeeeshshshsh eeeeshshshsh... The rustle of the ears of corn, the leaves of the blessed palm, and the ripple of the Nile's gentle waves are questions that do not wait for answers" ("Nights").
Such instances are not solely rooted in the oral and the mnemonic (perhaps also the animist); seeking to heal the rift between signifier and signified, to overcome the arbitrariness of language, they betoken the larger quest for wholeness and continuity in these two stories specifically. Both stories variously resort to a cyclical pattern, seen for example in "Zeinab Uburty" where Hulla's age is computed with the words, "God granted him a long life, through one hundred and ten floods," and in the harkening towards the securing of kinship patterns in the next generation, as in Ibn Zibeyda dreaming, at the end of "Nights of Musk," that his young nephew would one day marry his own newborn daughter. But then, a closer reading of "Zeinab Uburty" suggests that the unnamed narrator who relays Hulla's story is narrating after the fact of the loss of Nubia: "The following events took place in our land, the land of Nubia, land of gold... at the foot of the mountain chain of Wawaat, where our village, that had been secure, nestled" (translation modified).
Indeed, even within Hulla's reported narrative there is an after-the-factness: to his audience he comments "as you may or may not know, the flood season is..." and he teases the younger generation about their more purist pronunciation of an Arabic name in contrast to his Nubian rendition, "his mother Hajija (that is to say Khadija, as you pronounce it nowadays with your queer way of speaking)," suggesting linguistic attrition. The bonds of language and kinship are the two key axes along which the rupture of the loss of Nubia is reflected on in the two other stories, "Adila, Grandmother" and "The River People," both set after the loss of Nubia.
In "Adila, Grandmother," the narrator, a young man born in the north to a Nubian father and a non-Nubian Egyptian mother, returns to the poor village to which his paternal family has been resettled, there to attend his grandmother's funeral. This prompts him to recollect boyhood experiences visiting the village with his father on vacation and the initially antagonistic treatment he received from his grandmother and the community. On first laying her eyes on him, the grandmother exclaims: "Immmmmm. You Mohamed? The gorbatiya's son?" The narrator recognises the term as "a bad word that is used to put down anything that isn't Nubian..." Traumatized by the loss of her land and the undoing of communal ties that meant, among other things, that her daughter Awada became a spinster when her fianc� left for the north and also married a non- Nubian, the grandmother taunts the young boy and his father. Mohamed becomes in her eyes a representative of the hybridization enforced on the Nubian people whereby a child born from a mixed-marriage is referred to as a "half mule."
Over regular visits to the village, Mohamed is introduced to the extended blood ties and kinship bonds of the community and acquires Nubian words, as well as affection for his grandmother. If the story begins and ends with the fact of the death of the grandmother, it also leaves off on a note of regeneration in that Mohamed has become engaged to his cousin Zeinab, whom the grandmother had feared would face the same fate as Awada, and in fulfillment of her wishes, as against his own sister's decision to marry a gorbati. The title of the story, which is also Mohamed's last words at the end of the text as he leaves after the funeral, "Adila, Grandmother," encapsulates through the Nubian word, meaning "Return, safe and sound," the hope for at least a partial recuperation and continuity of Nubian culture. Yet, this hope is reversed in the final story that functions almost as a mirror image of "Adila, Grandmother."
Entitled in the Arabic original "Al-Rahil ila nas al-nahr" (Departure for the River People), it resorts to a cyclical pattern, albeit in the vein of finality. Most of the story is narrated by Asha Ashry, born the year the dam was built and named after her great-aunt, a beautiful young girl who was infatuated with the River People, often went swimming among them, and ended up drowning in their midst. The great- niece, who hears this antediluvian story from her grandmother Anna Korty, and is likewise a beauty enamoured of the River People, turns down marriage proposals and waits for years for the return of her childhood sweetheart, Siyam, from Alexandria, where he resettled in search of a livelihood after the construction of the dam and where he appears to have taken up with a Greek woman.
The news that Siyam will finally return on the next mail boat is quickly followed by news that the boat has sunk and that the young man has drowned, his body not being found. In grief, Asha Ashry dons the jewelry and accoutrements of Nubian nuptials and drowns in the Nile, her grandmother intoning, "'Asha Ashry has gone. Asha Ashry has gone to the River People.'" Elaborating in another variation on the plight of Awada from "Adila, Grandmother," Asha Ashry's fate symbolically undermines the promise of survival of Nubian culture and of a return to it, safe and sound, at the end of that story. That Asha Ashry and Siyam both drown can be read as a metaphor for the trauma of Nubia's drowning. In any case, "The River People" is an elegy for Nubia, couched in the myths of the land itself, that functions as a foil to the ode that is "Nights of Musk."
The English translation carries a glossary, which might prompt a knee-jerk reaction dismissing this as an "exoticizing" practice. But then, Oddoul's original also carries a number of footnotes explaining Nubian words, highlighting the writer's deliberately resistant linguistic practice vis-"-vis the hegemony that the Arabic language has historically exercised over the languages of the region. Dealing with an original that is inherently translational, Anthony Calderbank proves himself an adept accomplice of Oddoul's. Granted, there are a few instances where a reference is omitted, as with the mention of Sufi chants that accompany the wedding procession in "River People". But Calderbank's translation not only preserves Oddoul's salvaging of Nubian words as infiltrated into Arabic -- going as far as rendering an equivalent of the idiosyncratic Arabic of a Nubian grandmother -- but also extends the writer's resistant strategy into another, more global arena of linguistic hegemony, that of English, where translated Arabic literature occupies a very subordinate position. The translation also attends to the lyricism of Oddoul's Arabic, rendering as far as possible the narrator's reflections, in "Nights of Musk," on a gesture or Arabic word that each letter can be made to correspond to in the exclamation, in a ballad, "ya salaaaam."
By Hala Halim


Clic here to read the story from its source.