This excerpt from Aichetou’s historical novel Je Suis N’Daté . . . details the legend of the Forsaken, a community of Bedouin women in a seventeenth-century nomadic encampment.
“You don’t know who the Forsaken are?”
O Sand! Son of the impudent Wind . . .
Much later, for want of having made good my escape, I was to come to know these Bedouin women, the Forsaken:
The Mariemes, eldest daughters of their families, are insignificant but for the names they bear: those ancient clans whose list of ancestors is endless. . . . Do they make them up?
A certain girl named Khadi always occupies a spot between her friends, who are never to be seen without her. She is the daughter of the largest family of Bedouin blacksmiths. Like the Fula, they too have their smiths, pillars of each encampment. Khadi is also called the beauty of beauties.
None of the Forsaken go an afternoon without El-Hartaniya, daughter of the Beautiful Freedwoman, ever-absent and greatly anticipated, of whom everyone speaks, who feeds the conversation of the Forsaken, though she be far away, or perhaps en route for a return the entire encampment awaits. Till then, her daughter is always to be found seated in the center of the small gathering: she is its soul and dominates it completely. Her strength lies in her size, far greater than all the other Forsaken. She is neither really black nor bister like all those around her. She looks like a daughter of the Fula . . .
Beside her sits her friend Sara, elbows ever propped on the knees of one of her neighbors.
Not far away from these two, a Marieme is inevitably to be found. Marieme is such a common first name here. The Bedouins call all their eldest daughters Marieme, in memory of a goddess who, as a virgin, bore a son because their God decreed that it should be so, in a display of His power and His magic, in order to remind one and all that He was the one true Master of women and men. Had He not made a young woman, a virgin, into the Mother of His Son? No need to be violated to give birth to a baby . . .
I knew that the Mariemes, pillars of these little gatherings of the Forsaken, lead such boring lives that they are soon forgotten in the presence of a black woman: Essoudania. She is never without Ramla, her protégé.
Essoudania was born among these tents. She is the chief of her master’s family, the master who made her his wife after his own died from a miscarriage, hoisting a slave to the other's rank, most splendid Forsaken.
Ramla the pious: daughter of a foreigner, whence the shyness that often drove one of her comrades to remind her she was no mute. Her mother, widowed very young, had been protégé to Essoudania’s mother, and so Ramla naturally became protégé to Essoudania.
El-Hartaniya is the rival to a strange woman of a color that does not exist in our Balanta lands, nor in the lands of the Serer or their neighbors. The other Bedouin women all call her El Beidha, the white one. If Essoudania is a former slave, El Beidha belongs to the caste they call Znagua here, a caste formed for the most part of camel drivers said to be swifter than all the djinns and all the winds. But the Bedouin are especially pretentious and underestimate them, as they do all who are not Bedouin. El Beidha has strange eyes, gray like those of a panther surprised while stealing off with a youth barely emerged from boyhood . . .
Sometimes, with the Forsaken can be found other Forsaken just passing through camp during the rainy season, on their way to visit an aunt, a grandmother, an uncle, a sister: Raki, Sektou, Koriya, Zoueinouha, Maimouna, Hafsatou, Zakiyatou, Safiyatou, Aichetou, Fatimatou, Salma, and others still, whose first names betray their foreign origins amid these black tents. All of them have noses that confess they belong to distant encampments, and their very obvious earrings confirm this foreign origin, a world born of unfamiliar dunes, less shifting than the ones surrounding this camp, where the wind god is perhaps more clement.
Every day, these women gather to braid their hair, to throng to repair Bedouins’ tents, to welcome a lost camel driver who tells them tales, recites them poems they always love, no matter their shortcomings. More often, they gather to help a woman giving birth, or to grieve another woman who dies just after.
They also gather at the tent of Khadi’s mother, the lady blacksmith who beautifies all things, who makes everything to be found inside these tents, aided by her husband.
All the Forsaken bow to the whims of the Beautiful Freedwoman when she returns from her long voyages whose secret has long since escaped me.
Will I tolerate these women all my life?
Listen, all of you, to what will later be said of the Forsaken by one of their descendants, who fled the desert, its mirages, its impudent winds, its desiccating winds, its deceitful wells, its shifting dunes, its devils everywhere aprowl; who preferred distant lands like Mortagne, cold and icy, where white, sometimes very white people live, whose shamans know more than those of the Susu, the Bedouin, the Fula, or the Balanta; they are tall, very tall, their hair long, sometimes very long, or very short, often red or ginger, depending, and their eyes blue, gray, green, sometimes brown, faded, but rarely black; they are strange and savage; they build enormous huts of stone to shield themselves from the flood-like rains that drown everything in their wake:
The ten years before the Forsaken came into this world had been relatively prosperous: two green years had followed two green years. Such a thing had never been seen before. Many boys had survived, upsetting the pyramid of the sexes. There were so many that the camp even came to send one caravan, at least, to the edge of the Black River. Male slaves, too, were almost surplus in number. A problem arose: how to find wives for so many men if such growth kept up? The generation of Forsaken was usually meant to supply wives to young boys who’d overpopulated the encampment, but there were even more girls than expected. The God of Abraham does not take kindly to those who complain of His designs. Everyone here knows that.
Had He wished to please the prayerful, or was He calling them to order? The year the Forsaken were born, He carried off half the little boys, saddling the encampment with a horde of particularly robust little girls. They had survived thirst and early fasting imposed on the pretext that there weren’t enough wet nurses.
A great number of men, despite the precautions taken by all the grandmothers, aunts, mothers, stepmothers, serving-girls, cousins, and sisters, passed away. So it was that the Bedouins were reminded that God was the Master of all things, and it was not wise to tempt Him . . .
His will was accepted: the number of Forsaken exceeded all expectations, and soon they dominated camp, until the great drought that forced upon them knowledge of a world they could not have dreamed; and yet their imagination was great. Had they, too, been punished?
Only the God of Abraham could say. He was known to punish both victims and executioners, for the sake of greater balance.
Finally, the people of the black tents came to suffer the Forsaken, to grow used to their invasive presence, to bow to their law, and they soon became the peerless driving forces of the modest life of the encampment, starting with its school and its upkeep, forever marking its history, whence the importance of the Schoolmistress in their lives.
Could they, these Forsaken, understand who I am? Who is the daughter of the Beautiful Toura?
From Je Suis N’Daté . . . © L'Harmattan. Published 2018 by L’Harmattan. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.