High in the Atlas Mountains, lives an old Amazigh lady who never knows the true meaning of despondency and depression in spite of her abject poverty and solitary existence. Her real name is Hadda, but people call her Tahnanait. Whatever this word means in Tamazight, whether it is illustrated in the dictionary or not and regardless of its positive or negative meaning, this old woman’s solid personality and unshakable chastity are what really count for me.
I can’t tell exactly how old she is, but a quick look at her wrinkled face and furrowed brow gives one a clue to her age, which can be put between ninety and one hundred. However, those who repeatedly inquire, out of curiosity, about her age are always frustrated by her quick answer: ‘’I’m sixty’’. Years come and go, seasons set in and end, one generation follows another but Aunt Tahnanait’s age is the same. In her case, time stagnates; days, months, years and decades come to a halt. This is what I personally conclude whenever I have time to count the lines on her face. Since I was a little boy, there has been only seven lines on both cheeks and three deep ones on her forehead; there has been a widespread rumor that those lines suddenly appeared on her visage in the year 1945 immediately when she had failed to save the life of her husband Ichou and her children: Touda, Fadma and Bassou , who died from hunger. At this juncture, she suffered a bitter defeat by her enemy, Time, whose effect she couldn’t eschew as a result of her emotional and psychological breakdown following the decease of all her family.
About twenty years ago, I would occasionally come across Aunt Tahnanait on her way to the weekly market, at the well waiting for her turn to fill her medium- sized jar as the water was so scare owing to the drought, or at Si Abdelwahd’s shop (the man was the only resident called ‘’si’’( sir) then as he had learned the holy Koran). Si Abdelwahd was the only grocer in the countryside at the time. He came from Sous and set up his lucrative business among the downtrodden, deprived and destitute residents of the countryside whose social situation wasn’t much different from that of Aunt Tahnanait.
Tahnanait once came to the shop not to get groceries such as sugar, tea and coffee but to buy a packet of cigarettes. Everybody in the country knew that she was a smoker, but she never smoked in public; deep inside she was convinced that only men could do that. After a short and quick chat with the grocer and those playing cards inside the shop (a group of Amazigh youth without work and education), she undid, with all dexterity you could imagine, the zip of the only pocket of her breeches, took out all the money she had secretly hidden in there. She put those little coins, most of which were yellow and rusty on the counter and made a request to Si Abdelwahd: “a packet of Casa, please!’’. He counted the money and courteously served the old lady, who endeavored, but in vain, to avoid the inquisitive looks of the card players who were secretly making fun of her.
The shopkeeper gave her the packet which she dexterously hid somewhere in her bosom. With a huge smile on her face, she bade farewell to us and immediately stepped her way uphill towards her cozy hut at the foot of the mountain. She was walking as quickly as she could with the help of her stick which she used for different purposes. She would, for example, use it as a kind of weapon to frighten a dog barking at her, kill a snake coming her way, intimidate naughty children taunting her with sarcastic comments when she secretly lit her cigarette in the shade of a big rock or that of an almond tree, and to keep away a little mouse trying to disturb her peaceful sleep, especially at night.
It was so chilly that afternoon, I still remember. I was in a hurry to get a box of sugar and a packet of tea which my mother badly needed for our dinner. It was winter then. There were dark clouds in the sky. Certainly, it was going to rain soon. Aunt Tahnanait was aware of that. She walked on with tireless energy like a well-trained athlete. I followed her; for my house stood alone on a little hill far beyond the old woman’s humble abode. I had to shake a leg to catch up with her. Though I was just a boy and as sound as a bell, I couldn’t keep pace with her. She walked past olive trees, past Mohmmad ou Aadi’s house, past AIT Chaaou( my uncles)… with all her might. I felt a drop of rain on my head; it began to rain. I was doing my best to catch up with her but couldn’t as she was incredibly fast. It was raining heavily now. I was so scared of the rain, so scared of the ghosts and phantoms which I would often hear in my grandmother’s Amazigh tales and anecdotes. The bare trees and stones, two hundred meters away, were black and looked like some unearthly creatures. Overwhelmed by rain, fear and cold I gave in. I had to call out to the strong old lady. “Wa khali Tahnanait! Wa Khalli Tahnanait!’’, I repeated. ‘’Naam Ayarbanw awa naam!’’, she responded. (Yes, my dear child! Yes, my dear!) I didn’t have to call her several times as she had very good ears though she had never resorted to any drops or similar medicine whenever she had an earache or any other pain, either physical or psychological as I would discover later. “Irbbi ql zari dinagh hat taghi tassa’’(please wait for me there. I am scared), was my request. “wakha. Srba. Hat iqnd ssihl. Ila ousmid. Aanigh tignout ayya win ddouri. Ghir ayg Rbbi sslamt’’ (ok. Hurry up! I am here waiting for you. It’s so cold and rainy. It is so black, so dark in the west. More rain was to come. Perhaps it was torrential rain). Her reply gave me more power and energy to run as fast as I could. Because of that effort up that precipitous slope, beads of perspiration were running down my boyish cheeks but I didn’t care as long as Khalli Tahnanait was there waiting for me. I said, “Hello’’ and shyly kissed the old woman’s hand. My father used to say: “ssodounat afous iwanna kn yougrn’’(when you greet the elderly kiss their hands). All Amazigh children are brought up this way to show full respect to those who are older than them. “Yiws nmi at tgit’’ (who is your father?), she asked “Yiws n Moha ou Aaddi ’’ (He is Moha ou Aaddi) . She inquired further about his health, especially his joints and muscles as he suffered from a sort of chronic arthritis. She also asked about my mother and how she was doing with the housework chores. For my part, I asked how she was and then we resumed our walk uphill. “Aflla s Rebbi Aflla’’, (going upwards. Still going upwards) ,she muttered as we got near her hut. I would like to provide some comment even if her words were not meant for me, but I was interrupted by a deafening rumble of thunder on the horizon. Another crash came then another accompanied by lightening in the east. I was startled by the horrible sound which made me jump in my place. I couldn’t control myself, especially as a strong wind began to blow and more rain began to fall. As for the old woman she was continuously walking with a sense of total indifference to this awful weather. “Don’t worry my boy!’’, she said trying to reassure me. “ Here is my house. Come and take shelter’’, she added. ‘’I won’t let you go until it stops raining’’. Although the sun was setting, I didn’t turn down her offer as it was still raining heavily, heavier than before. Tahnanait warmly invited me in to her one-room house. She impatiently took the packet of Casa (the cheapest home-made brand) out of her bosom and lit one; even if I was there, she couldn’t help it. She told me that she hadn’t smoked for three days as she was short of money. Three days is such a long period for an addict. She then hid the packet in a hole where a window should have been.
Now that she had regained her concentration, she went to the fire place and lit a fire. We indulged in the wavy flames. As I stretched out my hands over them to get some warmth making sure I was close enough to the pit for my wet shirt to dry, Khalli Hadda was busy washing a little rusty pot to make tea. In a few minutes, her tea was ready; she filled two cups: one for me and one for her and lit another cigarette. She enjoyed puffing as she took a sip of her favorite drink. She snatched a drag and then stood up so quickly as if she had just remembered something important. She cast a look at the ceiling followed by another at the front part of the room to the left. There in a dark corner stood a ewe and her baby with some grass and straw in front of them. “I always make sure the ewe has enough to eat or the baby would die from hunger’’, she said. But I was not sure she was speaking to me. She pressed the baby sheep so tightly to her bosom as if it were her only little child and whispered a few words in its ear. Then she carefully placed it near her mother to ensure its comfort and happiness. When she went back to her place near the fire pit, I expected her to talk about the sheep but she didn’t.
She suddenly ceased to drink the tea. I could easily infer from the look on her face that she wasn’t there anymore; she was absent-minded; she was lost in some reverie. I didn’t have the intention to disturb her peaceful thinking. So, I kept absolutely silent trying to keep my feet still and my head well-fixed between my shoulders ; I knew I had to avoid the slightest movement of any part of my body so that the old lady could indulge in her deep reveries. She undoubtedly have already set out for some long inward journey; a journey back in time which served as a kind of mental exercising to allay her stress, her downright solitude , isolation and deprivation in that seemingly dreary world of her.
The sheep started bleating as if they had not used to that sort of psychological exercising of their owner, or rather their housemate. It seemed as though they wanted to remind her that that kind of odyssey was not necessary as long as they were there, in that dark corner of the home, to share her chronic loneliness. Her black cat suddenly jumped in through the tiny hole which could have been a window had the old lady had enough money for luxuries. The pet was strangely mewing not out of hunger, for her belly was noticeably full, but because she couldn’t stand her owner not receiving her with her usual broad smile. I could also hear the flutter of her cock’s wings outside as he changed his place from one side of the dunghill to the other.
In spite of all this, Aunt Tahnanait went further and further into her journey heading for some distant destination with a smile, a frown, or a sigh at regular intervals completely oblivious to what’s going on around her. All this noise created by the sheep, the cat and the cock did nothing to bring Aunt Tahnanait back to the present. A few minutes later, a strong wind blew violently and pushed the door open. Tahnanait was jolted out of her reverie. Now she certainly recovered her consciousness. She cast a look in the direction of the fire place where I was squatting enjoying the warmth of the embers. She blushed but didn’t utter a word.
Though I was abnormally taciturn and a bit introvert and though I didn’t like to meddle with people’s affairs, I couldn’t help asking the old woman a few queries. I wanted to delve into this woman’s past. I was seized by a mysterious desire to decipher the inward journey she had just made.
“You were a bit absent-minded, Aunt Tahnanait. It seemed you didn’t even have time to finish your tea”, I said.
“Oh, son of Moha!”, she replied. Aunt Tahnanait never called children by their first names but rather as “son of …” or “daughter of…”. Whether to raise their self esteem or to accentuate their childishness, I could never say.
“Oh, son of Moha”, she repeated letting out a deep sigh more of grief than relief. “I can’t help that type of exercising; I resort to it on a regular basis to make my present meaningful and worth living”. By exercising, she meant going back to the past, to the seasons of her youth, to the beautiful years of yore. Indeed one question was enough to let me into the deep recesses of this woman’s distant past.
I understood that Aunt Tahnanait had to open the door of the past and go through a series of flashbacks whenever life was no longer bearable. Talking to her pets and conversing with them for hours was not enough for this woman to live a few moments of euphoria and felicity. She was badly in dearth of Touda’s smile and Bassou and Fadma’s childish convulsions; she , above all, missed Ichou’s warm and friendly voice. The sheep bleating, the cat mewing and the cock crowing on his own dunghill couldn’t probably fill the gap left by the demise of the entire family. In short, going backward rather than moving forward was the only way for this woman to relive the family atmosphere in her cold and solitary hut. It was also a kind of tranquilizer to keep nightmares and hallucinations at bay.
Be that as it might, Tahnanait always concealed her true feelings; she never complained about her” misery” and “poor living conditions”. Whenever anybody, children or grown-ups, asked about her health, she would spontaneously respond, in Tamazight of course, “Nhmed I Rbbi nshkras” (we thank and praise our God).
I was actually eager to further probe into this woman’s past. I was pretty sure the tragic event of her family’s death was only the tip of the iceberg. I needed to know more about her short-lived marriage to Ichou, how she put up with hunger, how she managed to cope with the great loss ( the death of all her family), etc. This was the right moment to break this ominous silence before she embarked once again on a deep reverie. I had to make a request:
“ Please, tell me about your marriage; I hear that Ait Bouzid ( people of Ait Bouzid Tribe) all and sundry say it was a typical matrimony”. She let out another sigh, which usually preceded any response or reaction regarding her past experiences, and said: “ True, it was one of the most beautiful weddings in the region ; Imdiazn ( regional Amazigh poets) talked about it in their ballads and the leaders of the nearby tribes attended it. It took place in a well-decorated gigantic tent. I used to be breathtakingly beautiful then. Ichou, who was a handsome thirty-year old man, could defeat all his rivals and win my heart…”
A deep silence followed again; I had to break it by another question; I didn’t have much time to spend here as my mother must have already started to wonder why I was so late in such bad weather conditions. One more question and then resume my walk uphill now that it began to clear up and parts of the sky were blue on the horizon: “ tell me about the tragic event of 1945”
“ In 1945”, replied Tahnanait, “ the area was hit by such an unprecedented drought. By October that year we had already run out of the little food we had ( a small bag of barley and a five-liter jar of olive oil). Touda, my firstborn daughter, was only four; the twins, Bassou and Fadma, were two years old. They were the first to pass away as my breasts had run dry and had not a drop of milk to offer the babies. I broke down; it was such a big loss to all of us; I shed more and more tears but in the end I had to accept my destiny; deep down I knew it was no use crying over spilt milk. My husband, whose body was so weak due to anemia, had to stoically resist hunger for forty days before he humbly succumbed to death in December 29th. I went in mourning for one hundred and thirty days wearing only white clothes and shoes during that period. I had only Touda left. She was a beautiful little living thing; she took after me. She felt comfortable nowhere except by my side, especially when I volunteered to tell her an Amazigh tale; there was nothing she liked more than listening to “The wolf and the hedgehog” or “Harmjjoud”. All my neighbours had already made their way to Lkbalt ( now Ouarzazat) to feed themselves on dates, the only fruit that could resist the drought, and therefore escape the jaws of death. I couldn’t join them because Touda was too small to walk for thirty days. Moreover, I was too weak to give her a ride on my back. I had no other option but to stay in my hut and get myself armed against hunger to save my daughter. I still had one bag of dried Adrn ( acorns). I crushed them and used the powder to make something like bread but Touda refused to eat it as it was a bit disgusting. I didn’t give up. I tried a variety of herbs and leaves of plants but to no avail. I finally resorted to Tikiwt( uneatable cactus-like plant) , which I would boil and re-boil to make it less poisonous. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to feed her, Touda would always say,” No” to my offers. As she had been used to the sweet milk of my breasts, she naturally turned down anything sour or bitter. After thirty days without food, Touda lost her speech, her face was pallid and her eyes were incredibly hollow. She would look at me and moan or murmur something I couldn’t make out, except the word “Imma” (mother)”. Tahnanait paused, she went speechless. I thought she wanted to recover her strength, for she was breathless now, and then resumed her talk. Nothing of this happened. She was on the brink of another reverie. I had to say goodbye.
“Aunt Tahnanait”, I called “ I have to go. It isn’t raining anymore. It’s getting dark. I can hear the hoots of a nearby owl and a distant howl of a wolf. My mother must be worried about me…” she offered to lend me her oil lamp as she had an extra one; I profusely thanked her and hurried out to the knoll where my home proudly stood in full isolation.
Yesterday I saw fit to pay a short visit to this strong-willed widow in that mountainous area up that steep hill. Almost nothing had changed since my first visit twenty years ago. I found her sitting in the sun near her hut; four sheep were grazing around her, a white cat was sleeping in her laps and a hen and her six little chickens were hanging around probably looking for a grasshopper or cockroach to swallow. The same walking stick she used twenty years ago was lying by her side. There was a silver tray with a cup and a small tea pot on it. There were two butts of Casa on the ground a few inches away; one of them was still burning. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. It seemed Tahnanait had just had her lunch as the tea and bread were still warm. It was a lovely nice weather. A light breeze of spring was blowing and the flowers and olive trees were gently swaying. Two bees were lazily buzzing among the flowers filling their tiny bodies with the sweet nectar. Indeed, Tahnanait was sitting on a rock with her eyes shut; she was having a nap or she fell into her familiar reverie. She couldn’t hear the sound of my footsteps on the green grass. I was s about to call her or tap her left shoulder to say “hello” when the sound of a distant bullet fired by a poacher on a partridge or a swine destroying his crops awakened her. As expected she didn’t recognize me; she tried hard but she couldn’t. So, as usual she asked:
“ yiws nmi atggit?” I introduced myself and reminded her of the previous visit in the year 1991.
“ nani tgit adbib” ( I was told you are a doctor). Though I am a mere nurse, people here call me doctor.
“ yah” ( yes).
“ ikk myagh kra a damkgh assafar. Atjit s Rbbi”, I said jokingly.
( if you are sick I can give you a potent drug)
“ hmdgh irbbi; ghir tadawt dayitnqqa imiq” ( I am fine though I am suffering from a slight backache). People here never complain. Although they may really have a serious problem, they prefer to remain quite rather than talk about it openly.
“ ghouri kra n lkinat, madisntitaft laafou s rbbi” , I immediately said trying to give her some psychological support.( I have some pain-killing pills that will hopefully help reduce the pain of your back) For a childless widow who was “sixty” , as she had just told me in response to my question about her age, that kind of support is what she needed most. She needed to hear a warm human voice from time to time in her cold solitary hut.
“I can’t take those pills, my boy”, went her reply, “they would kill rather than heal me”. I was surprised at her response; I didn’t utter a word; I just kept looking in her direction with my mouth hanging open. Just consider how solid this one- hundred year old Berber woman is. Throughout her life she has learned to tolerate the pain and agony that keep gnawing at every single part of her body though she complains only of mild backaches.
“ I have a mixture of herbs,” she went on, “ I have collected them from yonder forest ( pointing further uphill) I soak them in a little natural honey and take a mouthful after each meal.”
“And do they stop the pain?”, I inquisitively inquired.
“ Not at all ; the agony caused by years of cold and manual work never heals; the herbs simply reduce it to a minimum. Without such herbs, I would not sleep at night owing to the pain.”
“Help yourself”, she said pointing to the pot. She was certainly fed up with talking about disease, hardship, hunger, solitude… They are extremely boring topics.
“Hmm”, I said, “good tea! Beautiful utensils! It seems you have saved some money for luxury; Aunt Tahnanait is no longer poor! Her social situation has changed for better!”. I was joking of course. She burst out into a wild guffaw. I could see another change. Aunt Tahnanait’s once strong teeth were now hanging loose; they lost their white colour as they were a bit rotten.
“The tray and the pot are Mohamed OU Aadi’s; a good neighbour ; he pays frequent visits to make sure I am all right. Whenever I am hungry, he fetches me something to eat and whenever I need his donkey to bring some water he never hesitates to lend it to me. You know, I no longer use my back to carry the water, firewood, fodder for the sheep or anything else. Gone are those days when I would always rely on it. It has betrayed me. I feel as if it has fallen apart because of agony, but I won’t give up , I’ll carry on the fight and Time will never beat me; I won’t let him engrave any more line on my face, I won’t grow older than sixty ….” Any woman in her place would probably be reduced to tears as she related the unfortunate story of her life. This was not the case with Tahnanait, who was still speaking with incredible intrepidity and heroism when Mohamed Ou Aaddi, her kind-hearted neighbour, came into sight. He wanted to see how Aunt Tahnanait was getting on with her chronic backaches and take the utensils back home. We warmly greeted each other and had a casual chat for a few minutes. It seemed Mohamed ou Aaddi was busy as usual. He was going to plant some olive trees. I had to bid farewell to Tahnanait as it was getting dark.
Short story by Mohamed Handour