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from the September 2014 issue

The Curse of the South

“Two kinds of people live in this city: The ones who were born here, and those who came here, fleeing something. Me, I wasn’t born here!”

When his fever peaked and he started to sweat, at night, the truck driver’s assistant brought him to the closest clinic along the road.

The doctor received him and asked him his place of birth. He didn’t answer,but simply exposed his right shoulder to show him his tuberculosis vaccination scar.

Mary, the tall Italian girl. And the white Land Rover with the Red Cross, how could he forget them. He was a barefoot child, like all the other kids, like all the other quiet days in this village.

Yes, some days pass in front of us, quiet and barefoot.

Such are the barefoot persons, always in a hurry, with the same pace. He didn’t know monotonous days before he suffered from hunger in Yemen. The Red Sea had rejected him just like a father who chases his disrespectful son away and forbids him to cross over the threshold of his house ever again.

He was no longer able to believe the lie that homelands are like mothers. In Africa, the homeland is more like the uncle, the one who inherits your mother from his own brother, like the furniture of the house, and looks at you anxiously, as if you were an exiled figure ready to come back.

When he passed Najran and arrived at the Saudi territory, he was bothered by the revolt of the letters just over the border. The pure q south of the border had become an ugly g in the North. He was afraid that all the other letters of the Arabic alphabet would change along the road to the North.

He really had to reach al-Kharaj, though he didn’t know anything about this city, except that it lay eighty kilometers south of Riyadh.

When his cousin, who lived there, gave him this useless information, he laughed inwardly, thinking: “Obviously, this fool doesn’t know that I definitively said farewell to the South one month ago. I don’t turn my face to it anymore. From now on I just have three compass points, not four. I don’t have anything to do with the South.”

The curse of the South caught up with him the day after. A strong fever and the sweat, increasing as the dawn approached. The delirium didn’t expose him to the others, because he was raving in his mother tongue, which has nothing to do with Arabic, except for the names.

His appearance was familiar to the doctor. The people who come by are betrayed by their smell, their clothes, and even their worn-out shoes. If the sickness could speak, it would have told the doctor that every compass point has its own diseases. And that this was the rest of the South still lying in his blood.

The doctor examined him quickly. And before he could question him, the man announced:

“Two kinds of people live in this city: The ones who were born here, and those who came here, fleeing something. Me, I wasn’t born here!”

© Mohammad Ali Diriye. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Xavier Luffin. All rights reserved.

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