As-samt / The Silence

Author: Michael Roes
Translator: Seiriol Dafydd

I haven’t seen Hafith and Mansur speak to each other since they returned to the village from the pasture. To be more precise: Mansur is no longer talking to Hafith. He seems to be avoiding him, while Hafith behaves as if nothing has happened.
I ask Ali what’s happened between the two. But Ali knows nothing of a quarrel.


One afternoon a few boys were sitting in the shade of my hut, close against the door. I went out to them. Some of them I already knew by name. I asked them to show me some of their games.
They showed me a variation on ghuma, ‘blind man’s buff’, which I, due to a misunderstanding, called Hafith wa Mansur, ‘protector and victor’.
In this game, unlike the blind man’s buff games that I was already familiar with, both players, the one chasing and the one being chased, have their eyes blindfolded. The one being chased has to draw attention to himself repeatedly by hitting a drum or a rattle, serving as an orientation aid to the one chasing. Of course he has to change his position as quickly as possible after each signal so as not to get caught. But since his eyes are also blindfolded it can happen that he runs directly into the catcher’s arms.
When I ask for the game’s name (matha ism al-la’ib) the children answer: hafith wa mansur. Only later, when I ask them to repeat hafith wa mansur, does it become clear that they had thought I had asked for the name of the players (matha ism al-laa’ib), and I had interpreted their answer literally.
And from then on the friendship between Hafith and Mansur really seemed to me to be both an almost proverbial comradeship between protector and victor and a friendship like that of two blind men who search for each other and miss.


When they meet each other on the village square Mansur reacts to every friendly word from Hafith with silence. That’s how it’s been since their return. Ali doesn’t think it means anything since Mansur is well known for his obstinacy. Maybe Hafith took his jests too far when they were alone with the herd for weeks on end. Now Mansur is jesting with him.
Yet Hafith’s efforts with Mansur seem to get more and more pressing and nervous. Instead of leaving Mansur in peace for a while, he follows him. He won’t regain his friend that way. Quite the opposite: Mansur’s silence only becomes more significant and grievous. In the meantime all the villagers will have noticed that something must have happened between the two.


The village: four fort-like, multi-storeyed stone houses, surrounded by high walls, each on small hills situated about two hundred paces apart. In between, smaller, new houses, irrigated gardens, a mosque, a shop, sand, rubble and scree.
The forts are over three hundred years old and were built by the four sons of the tribe’s founder. They were laid out on such a grand scale that up to a hundred people could live there, an extended family that is, with three or four generations. Today there are perhaps three hundred living in the whole village, among them eighty men-at-arms.
Despite the fort-houses the village conveys little feeling of security. The towers stand too far apart from each other. The façades are almost completely unadorned and windowless. Life takes place covertly behind the thick stone walls. Everything is orientated towards defence and repellence.


Hafith has already been prowling in my vicinity the whole morning. When I step outside the door I trip over him. When I sit in my divan I see him standing in front of the window. Why aren’t you in school, I ask him. He has things to do, he says.
You have time, nevertheless, to accompany me on a short walk? – I want to draw the fort-houses from the small hill (which I call thahr alkalb, the ‘Dog’s Hind’, because it lies like a big dozing dog at the village’s entrance).
His face is paler, more transparent than before; as if he were not eating or sleeping enough. Admittedly he whirls about more than ever and fools around, but his liveliness seems to be more an expression of inner restlessness than of high spirits.
He runs ahead, chases blue-green desert geckos, called djub – ‘graves’ or ‘pits’ – by the children, out of their hiding places. Or stays behind, kicks a tin over the blue-green scree, into the hollows of my knees or heels.
I ask him whether he’s spoken to Mansur in the meantime. – Of course. He meets him every day.
What did Mansur say?
The usual.
Then everything is all right. – I ask him whether he wants to draw something and hand him pens and paper.
When Mansur wants to go on his way I ask him: Would you like to tell me what’s happened between you two?
La shi – nothing’s happened!
He says this la shi not as a rebuttal, nor to offend me; not in a manner as if to say that this issue is not my business. His la shi sounds, rather, like a bolt that is placed before the entrance to himself.


The muezzin leads the call to evening prayer. Reluctantly the children break off their game. The sun has almost reached the horizon but it is still not dark. They want to enjoy to the full that short time between the end of the working day in the afternoon and the onset of night.
And every evening they ask me the same questions, why don’t I too go to evening prayers in the mosque. That I am not a Muslim is not a satisfactory explanation. I rummage in my memory for the adages of confirmation: If God is everywhere, I can pray to him anywhere. – They find that argument understandable.
Again and again some boys, out of a sense of solidarity with me or my notion of God, want to fulfil their religious duties in the open air, until the pious elders of the village wrest them away from my corruptive influence, always with the same threats, lead them to the meeting place and punish me with a gaze reserved for non-believers and child abusers.


Mansur’s silence continues. Hafith is not to be seen on the village square as often. Ali says he is seriously ill. His mother has already ordered an amulet for him. But it might be better if I were to look in on him.
Hafith cannot receive guests! shouts his mother at me through the locked door. – His family is evidently keeping him in detainment at home. The longer Mansur is silent, the more ominous it becomes for Hafith. The villagers develop fantasies regarding the reason for the sudden end of the almost proverbial friendship and for Mansur’s obstinate silence. And naturally the reasons are looked for in the most secret, the most intimate realm of the previously amicable relationship.
The families of the two, according to Ali, are urging them to either state the reasons for their strange behaviour, or to finally put an end to that behaviour. But both insist that nothing has happened.


I ask Mansur whether he’d like to come with me to visit Hafith. He’s surely heard that Hafith is seriously ill.
Has the family got you into it as well now! He flies off the wall. Leave me and Hafith be!
Whatever it is that’s happened between you two, I answer him calmly, can’t possibly mean that you don’t care what happens to him.
Nothing, nothing happened! he screams.
I show him the picture that Hafith drew on the ‘Dog’s Hind’. He asks what the scribble is supposed to mean.
I think that that is Hafith’s version of this nothing.
He turns away: Well, now you’ll soon be rid of me. I’ll go with the other men to Aden. Then Hafith can carry on with his jesting without worry.
I hold him back: Hafith trusted you, Mansur. His friendship towards you, as with everything concerning him, was full of exuberance and thoughtlessness. That’s why you were his best friend, isn’t it?
Mansur smiles stiffly. He pushes my hand from his shoulder and leaves.


The conversation with Mansur prevents my mind from being at rest. What should I have said to really get through to him? Is language the key even? Western culture lives in the conviction that (almost) everything can be said and is therefore negotiable.
Yet doesn’t Mansur have the right to protect his innermost being?
The people of the West believe that they can free themselves of this burden by expressing their most secret feelings (psychotherapy, confession, avowal…), while in Arabic culture that which is unmentioned only begins to exist through its articulation in words. Our creation stories (And God said, Let there be …) are myths in the East!
Yet in the meantime Mansur’s silence is so ‘eloquent’ that no more words are needed for it to be understood as reproach or accusation.
What is stopping Mansur from making his accusation known? Or from forgetting? – Shame? Honour?
Is it possible that my tacit assumption – that every person aspires towards the minimum of suffering and towards in its stead a measure of inner comfort and peace – is incorrect? Maybe Mansur’s behaviour is a targeted act of dramatization and escalation: You went to extremes. Now I’m going to extremes. – Not in vengeance, but out of a desire to live life to the full.


Although they could hardly have been more different they were inseparable friends. Mansur, a youth who had shot up in height, with a round face that was rather pale for a Bedouin and almost black eyes, and Hafith, no doubt a head shorter, yet even if a little younger certainly just as tough as his companion.
Mansur loves to be with the younger children, to play the fool and to appear dumber than he really is, despite the fact that he is, according to Yemeni understanding, already considered a man and should behave accordingly: men don’t play, men don’t waste their time on children, unless as a teacher.
He is the eldest son of the family. His father lost an arm in an accident with his own rifle (even if he is always reascribing this misfortune, well known in the village, to ever more fantastical adventures). As always the father demands absolute authority in the family, although Mansur performs the largest part of the work in the fields. His feet are cracked and horned and his hands and arms are covered in fresh wounds.
If he’s on the pasture or in the fields or, after work, out on the village square, one meets Hafith nearby. Hafith is bright, and smart. He represents the opposite of Mansur’s good-natured simpleness. He sets the traps into which Mansur, to the laughter of all, all-too-willingly stumbles. They are so used to each other’s ways that they always find an opportunity to tease each other, to scuffle, to make up and offer a friendly embrace, or to do all of that at the same time.


Mansur’s silence forces Hafith’s family to act. The more attempts at mediation that are made, the more shameful the reason appears to be. A last attempt made personally by Sheik Abdallah Abul Reys on the previous day was unsuccessful, according to Ali’s report.
I ask him what the villagers think of these stories.
Well, the men are only speaking in insinuations, says Ali, the lonely pastures, the cold nights, clearly everyone associates a vast trove of personal experience with their time as shepherd boys. But another word is mentioned, and it is unambiguous: haram, crime.
What, at worst, could happen?
Ali makes an unmistakeable gesture: the family will deal with it!


Since al-‘asr, the afternoon prayer, the men have been dancing the bar’a. All the vehicles of the village, heavily laden with weapons and ammunition, stand in the shadows of the houses ready to set off. All the men, including Mansur – only in my eyes is he a beardless boy – will take part in this military campaign. Even the elders have taken their Turkish muzzle-loaders down from the divan walls and are now dancing, made decades younger by the fighting spirit, trying to outdo their sons and grandsons.
Muhammad, a son of the Sheik, wanted to stay in the village, but the pressure of the family is stronger. He may have studied, he may favour the intellect as a weapon over the rifles and mortar but his decisions are not only subject to his own charge. He is a qabili. He represents in all his deeds the whole tribe. Dishonourable behaviour, that is anything unbecoming of a warrior, consequently brings dishonour on each of the tribe’s men. Qabili also means guarantor as well as he who carries or takes on responsibility.
Only Faisal, the teacher, will stay here. He is not a qabili, not a tribal warrior, but a medani, a townsman. According to the self-concept of the tribes he has no honour which he must defend or which he could lose.
Some older women are squatting by the vehicles in the shadows and support the men’s dance from a distance by clapping and trilling as if no bloody battle stood before them, but a wedding night.
Most of the women, however, are standing by the ovens, baking qafu’a, traditional flatbread, harder and longer-lasting than the usual khubs that was, even in the old days during the raiding and trading journeys, the main fare of the Bedouins, together with camel milk and dried dates.
Suddenly, with the onset of twilight, everything is over. The men beat the dust from their clothes, climb with brief gestures or without a word into their off-road vehicles, and drive off in a disordered crowd and without light into the desert.


From Krieg und Tanz by Michael Roes, © 2007, Matthes & Seitz, Berlin
Translation © Seiriol Dafydd