from Vieuchange: A Novel

Friday, October 18, Tigilit

I remember seeing Isabelle two years earlier, as she entered a desolate hostel in the French garrison town of Batna, dressed as a young European woman. She emerged a few hours later as one of her other selves, Si Mahmoud Saadi, a young Tunisian traveling from village to village, seeking, in the ancient manner, knowledge of the Koran. She was so young — she was always so young — and thin and agile that she passed easily for a boy-man, though the Arabs certainly knew her to be a woman in disguise even if she believed, at least for a time, that her disguise was wholly convincing. Used to dressing as a boy from birth thanks to Trophimowsky’s radical belief in the equality of the sexes and the right of girls and women to go where boys and men go and to do the things that boys and men do (but not in the right of a girl to be acknowledged by her father), she became a wanderer, journeying deeper and deeper into the desert, deeper and deeper into Islam, and into randomness. She moved fitfully, sometimes proceeding with fluent ease, sometimes with stumbling confusion. In all, since he had taught her Arabic, she blended in better than most Europeans.

…she became a wanderer, journeying deeper and deeper into the desert, deeper and deeper into Islam, and into randomness.

As Mahmoud, he wore a turban or a fez, and always a burnous and scarf, a vest, riding trousers, a man’s boots, and thin as he was, he barely had hips or breasts, the layers of garments all but insuring him the shape and lines of a boy.

Like Trophimowsky, he smoked incessantly, furiously, when he could get cigarettes, and he always preferred pants to skirts, and learned to ride horses while his friends were still playing with their dolls. Like the sailors or caravaniers with whom he so often sojourned, and among whom, when he abandoned Arab garb for European, he sometimes called himself Pierre Mouchet, he could curse and drink with abandon and preferred ports and waterfronts or crumbling, remote villes and oases to cafés in Geneva or salons in Paris. He preferred rougher sorts of entertainment.

The Arabs, believers (if sometimes ironically) in discretion, allowed him the pretense of his disguise and treated him as he wished, even going so far as to allow him, after he had been among them for years, to become part of the Qadryas, a sect of Sufi mystics. Despite the smoking of cigarettes and hashish, the drinking of alcohol, and the nocturnal wrestling matches with sailors or traders of all nations in the dark backrooms of seafront bars in Marseille or Algiers or Bône or in the gloomy corners of kef-dens in Constantine, Biskra, or Nefta, he was a true believer, I know. One only had to listen to him for a few hours to discover how much he knew about the Koran and the history of the Qadryas, to sense the depth and intensity of his spiritual yearnings.

In her way, she was fearless, a seeker, a disordered seer, and though we never spoke, I was not surprised, years and years later, to receive her letter.

I saw her first in Batna, and then a few years later in El Oued, the village of a thousand domes, to the south of the Aurès mountains. By then, she was living with Slimène, a ridiculous, penniless, évolué Arab demi-officer in the spahis, the hapless Gallic Ghurkas. In imitation of his French masters, he wore a quaintly-trimmed mustache without the dagger Arab beard, and he had the long, narrow face and independent, star-gazing eyes of a desert chameleon. He was constantly licking his lower lip, as if it were as dry as the sand at noon, and one half-expected the bulbous pink flesh all at once to unfurl and snatch a fly from the air. His father had risen through the ranks to become the Commissioner of Police in Bône, but he could do no better than sergeant, and his commanders, finding him useless, shuffled him from post to post, no one able to find anything he could do well. He was often on half-pay, or no-pay, and except that the French believed Si Mahmoud Saadi to be a Russian spy, or a spy of some sort, possibly connected to the Russians or perhaps the Germans via Switzerland or to the English who knew how, he would have been discharged years before and sent off with a cuff to the back of the head:

— Toh!

She called him her Rouh, her soul.

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