excerpts from Tombeau of Ibn Arabi and White Traverses
Tombeau of Ibn Arabi
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Ruins, remember, neglected grounds, dust, wanderers’ refuge, the voice blends with its echo, look at the man in the cave, the rock is a mirror, everything is deserted, I wait for the clouds to shed their tears, I wait for the flowers to speak, I call out, no one answers, the stone hears my excitement, how many moons thrown in the well, how many suns come out of oblivion, the tree touches the sky, and the spark spells out a star, lightning flashes a carpet in the shadows, on the headlands in the south, winds brush against the thunder, on the path, I say a rosary of pearls, black camels double the mounts and hills, sand covers my tracks in the dunes, seers wandering in the shade of gardens, the summer heat is a woman’s smile that unearths the custom of the dolls, so many vague paths, oh memory, oh mystery, the light appears fleeting, inside the heart an ancient feeling is engraved, that separates.
With what words to say, in what bush to set foot, in peace, in danger, overwhelmed with love, to run back in one’s tracks.
She withdrew as soon as she appeared, she brought with her her perfumes and her spices, at the dawn of peacocks, forget the hour, the throne in the vision is dazzling, sashay the lady on a crystal floor, she lifts up her dress, she is a sun that revives the colors of the day, her fragrance brings joy, her ankle jingles with silver, her legs tremble with each step, she sends missives to thirsting peoples, mount of the nomad, home of the passerby, when she offers you intimacy, she opens herself up to your memory, and snatches you from the law, in one night, she initiates into the hidden, and abolishes the rites that check desire, in every famous court, in every temple, she is the glory of every book, in vain I called at her leaving, pile after pile, my patience runs dry, I preserve her beauty, which blazes at the most extravagant of my travels, and in me the angel’s shiver spreads.
Hello nostalgic one, orphan, friend buried in the fabric of pain, come back to the resonant light which, from its source, gushes forth, you, the recluse, who consecrate your fasting, your penitence, your effort, your seasons, now you leave the hermitage, you emerge from your wintering, don’t back away on the day of the meeting, don’t skirt round the canopy bed, where the curtains fall soft, altar that smells of the entrails, near the lake that mirrors the blue of the sky, your heart is a burning lamp, you throw a handful of live coals, your throat cadences the pulsing water that, out of rock, rises up, and you who lead the docile camels, lower the flag next to the stela, there, at the crossroads, stop at the bends in the road, rest an hour and say hello, before you go toward the red domes that appear in the distance, on the horizon of fever, hello nostalgic one, orphan, tearful one, if they answer your greeting, may your gift be of beauty, if they say nothing, continue on your journey, cross the river, don’t speak to the group, to the tribe, pass through the white tents that throw their shadows on salty lips, and hail the lovers all, Judith and Aya, Hind or Hera, ask them to show you the way, brilliant white, sparkling between the peaks.
Welcome her who descends among you, whom fine gold dust blinds, that she scatters in passing, she stops, before she opens the closed door, while the night drops her black veils, and you say to her, welcome, elegant one, stranger, subtle in love, in your name, I enter into bliss, captive in the fortress of your desire, I am your target, your arrows puncture me, on the smooth stone I shine my hands, she shows her bare arms, lightning splits the deepest part of the night, she says, what more does he want, am I not the icon that never deserts his heart, isn’t it enough to contemplate me, in any place, at any hour?
She interrogates me in the knot of desire, and accuses me, homeless, from desert to desert, scattered, I go from one extreme to its opposite, strewn scraps, time doesn’t put me back together, what’s to be done, without harmony, show the way, you who magnetize me, don’t saturate me with reproaches, tall flames rear up, tears course down my cheeks, the exile is different when he comes back, he has trouble walking in an empty labyrinth, no home will stay inhabited, when it is seized, in the revolution of dark nullity.
At night you see sorrow sting, it lives at the very bottom of the heart, I said to them, where can one find the ones who’ve left, they answered, they have chosen to stay, there where the emanations of infinity smell sweet, I tell the wind, go join them where they rest, in the shade of that tree, the one that is neither east nor west, bring them the thought of the disconsolate one, carrying the tatters of separation.
And I was jostled by some ladies, come from far away to visit the holy places, they encircled me, they shaded me from the sun, they told me, be ready, take off your shoes, learn to live the second that your breath leaves your body, how many men have they made holy this way, by suggesting that they run, on a field of coals, joining the branches of the valley, reeling in the shimmering noon, crossing the huge swarm of insects, that cover the hillsides with their hordes, you know don’t you, that beauty ravishes man, and carries him off in the tornado, that despoils, I would find you at the destined time, beyond the infernal valley, there, behind the mausoleum, whose high dome defies the arid chaos, there where they keep watch, the ones who have tasted ecstasy, close to women, who exude ambregris and musk, and who, shy, free their hair, somber drapes, behind which they hide their faces.
Their youth is no more, their tracks have been erased, their site deserted, but their passion, inside their body, stays new forever, such are their traces, such are their regrets, in their memory, hearts melt, I cried out to her while she strutted about, you whose beauty is the only good, see how I have nothing left, I’ve stained my face with black spots, do not despair of love, when he might stop breathing, he who is drowning in his word, and who burns in the fire of exile, you who stir up the flames, don’t lose patience, our bodies will learn how to cross the devouring furnace.
Lightning slices the thread of vision, the chest echoes the voice of the thunderbolt, the stormclouds wander above the orchards, before the downpour soaks the trees, the water falls hard, and hurtles down the slopes, the earth exhales its breeze, mixed with the essence of flowers, and of wood, and of leaves, the body is impregnated with such fleeting smells, and the hand and the soul build glass walls, which let the light fall red, as if to make crimson the black desert vipers, moving at the feet of the white ladies, seated, frontal, hieratic, large eyes quick to unveil, generous, tender, humble in their greatness.
When a child, I remember, there was a woman, from my window, every day, I saw her, she didn’t leave her garden, she didn’t stop contemplating her beauty, she rambled between the beds of tulips and irises, from that, I’m not surprised, the woman I saw then, is a mirror which carried the image of my future mistress.
Ashen doves of the Comoros, your song brings the smells of the tropics, it purifies the breeze, and multiplies pains, your cooing tells of sobs, funereal voices, cease your melancholy recitations that breathe in from dawn to sunset, and like an echo, sighs of the nostalgic and petitions of the forsaken, in unison we chanted the threnody, at the foot of a dry tree, and the wind spread another lament, which woke desire in us, light reaching us from beyond the mountains, night covered with dew, we shared our fruits, she sauntered round me, pagan idol, she sang, counter-tenor, an episode from the Passion, she piled up, in a circle, long flat stones, she invited me to kiss them, to touch them, to such ex-votos she proclaimed her avowal of faith, lips against lips, the fires of our bodies lured a bestiary, the red antelope, the black-and-white heifer, tinged with henna, their eyes, at night, invented in the middle of the desert, a meadow where they gamboled, before coming back luxuriant, to the enclosure of our enchanted garden, it was the night of transformation, forms shifted and changed, and I felt able to welcome them all, I saw myself wandering through lands, mumbling all languages, handling all writings, entering and exiting, according to chance meetings, going from one scene to another, marvelling at the vestiges of peoples, traveling at times, erratic, moving, changing, in the mirror of metamorphoses, at the mercy of passion that runs the world.
Naked, lying on the ground, vague and empty, after the voyage of inner vision, back in the world, present, without taking action, I saw a changing procession, the horse, in slow motion, ran behind the sloping neck of the bison, mask of the buffalo, then bull, the image resists naming, expanding ostrich, flying sea turtle, corrupt vulture camel-humped, slow blue coincidences, which stretch out smoking, on the screen of my eyes, the sky is the backdrop for shadows, at the height of twilight, the caravan rises, and enters, by the balcony, the desert, at the time of the first stars, tracks captured by the mirrors of the cold, behind the windowpanes, streams a winter light, frail sounds, flowers that pierce the weft of noise, veils of insomnia in the city.
I walked in the maze of morning, winter shepherd, watching out for the circle of wolves, the jet-black bird was singing on the obsidian, black on black, night hadn’t left the day, I tricked the subsoil, companion of subways, the lion, guardian of the square, lay dormant on his pedestal, the merry-go-round of cars, dragons spitting fire from their nostrils, my head wound tight in marsh sounds, the nerves laid bare, mirror of the heart, an archer took aim at the clock, on the front of the train station, in the square the beautiful young woman appeared, draped in a golden shawl, scarlet sari, of the caste of love, her braided hair struck her hips, and sounded a noon, which seemed like midnight, I invited her to drink a light Loire wine, brisk and peppery, her long fairy hands, set with rings, were reflected in the ruby wine dress, the smell of sulfur pressed us, to visit the blue rooms, in the palace of the edicts, I saw a white stain, behind the veil of quicksilver, where the eye, bitter varnish, gave sheen, that woke, teeming, the desert track, alchemy of dust, on the immaculate page, the caravan awaited my arrival, to give birth to the wonders of the world, ores from Africa, Andean masks, busts from China, stelae from Arabia, scents from the islands, Tartar parchments, under the languid weight of palm trees, opening one’s eyes, the aircraft flew over the city, unmoving shadows, in the milky skies, the gulls, on yellow waves, drifted far from the gray shores.
Climb step by step the stairs, from the top, examine the abandoned monasteries in the desert, marble columns, partly standing, pediments in ruins, gazelles graze there, slender, fragile, wary, fearful, veins trembling under skin, film of sweat, it is a feverish morning, you carry allegiance to the sky, in the brilliance of day, the movement of the stars appears to you, you are the guardian of a perennial garden, you thwart the changing of the seasons, you read with naked eye the invisible in the heavens, and you save the gazelles, from the wounding teardrops, and you will not deny the word, that one of them posed to her fellow creatures, at night, she said to them, we are the erased faces of the sun, our hidden whiteness, gives light, like foam, elusive firefly, which goes out on the milky breast, barely covered, in the shadow of the branches, trembling openwork of foliage, which project their chiaroscuro, on the bed of the illuminated garden, by our furtive smiles, lightning in the night.
Black day, rain beats on the windowpane, the weeping angels come to you, they sing the glory of the absent one, wave after wave, the inspiration inside overwhelms me, and I cannot repeat what I hear, the jealous voice stops at the threshold of speech, the angel musicians blow into their long trumpets, and chase the rain, you go through the clouds, balls of cotton, and you find the sun again, above the metallic vault, lunar soil, depending on the pressure, the cabin vibrates, and straightens out its long quills and remiges, the angels’ music pierces through the steel jet engines, from the porthole, putti aim at me, blond curls, their tears stream down, the soul forms in them, unstable, into what does it incarnate, it might enter into stone, inanimate, unnamed, I recognize it inside the heart, in the beloved’s tears, remains only regret, for her, obscure, I went closer, our meeting celebrated loss, and anxiety, between the two of us, marched, sentinel that now appeared, now disappeared, deep inside me a burn shone, grain of sand that wounds the eye, the tribe invited us to eat, but the burn prevented me, the tents of goods were overflowing, the vision dulled the appetite, the gazelle would rather die, than be taken in the trap, I hid my tear, I walked straight between the men, I listened in secret to the image contained in the heart, the crow flew over us, landed on the antenna, cawed and beat his wings, black voice I couldn’t revoke, I left the grounds in haste, driving at the foot of the sun, to the rhythm of the stones, I said, never, to such a desert, will I return, and here I am going back by the heavens, separation doesn’t interrupt love it kills, sing the angels, in absence, beauty doesn’t tarnish, wherever it is present, it remains as it is, unchangeable in thought.
Light irradiates the sunrise, day appears, it is a revelation, the west stays dark, near the full moon, pale pastille, in the flow of night, the dawn mists dissipate, brightness that turns you away from buildings, which perpetuate a memory of death, on such symbols, runs the east wind, murmur of strange message, beyond torment, beyond affliction, taste of ecstasy, which happens after the seething within, drunkenness carries away the mind, in front of a round moon, which sinks in a trail of blood, on the opposite side the sun is rising, such harmony burns, against your chest her breast heaves, mingled breaths, you doze off, and the day grows, and the east wind stirs up the bodies’ fire, or extinguishes it, in union, to dwell in the beloved, between survival in the igneous traces, and instant annihilation, ash raised by the wind, in gusts, above the silvery waters of the river.
She crosses the oval square, theater in a shell, golden reflections on green damask, bodies find their nature again, bath of red clay, at the edge of the fountain, the hot water burns, the oratorio, in its last movement, gives rhythm to the exchange of elixirs, bodies fallen into the Name, die before dying, enter into the shadow of the All-Power, then return to life, scarlet faces, blood and breath spin quickly in the body, at dawn, the youth wears his silk vestment, corundum intaglios, robe like evening, at the sapphire hour, tents raised, we get ready to leave, nocturnal voyage, stars trace the path, in the shelter of the region of day, in the excess of senses, not being able to move, drooling, eyes bulging, gone out of myself, seeing me other, in the spectacle of calm pain, no one dares come near, beyond the principle, which demands to be kept in, vertigo in the heart, how to face her, her eyes snarl an authoritarian music, the sonorous attraction of the planets crushes my ears, I drink her in, I am so thirsty, vessel without steering, that the waves toss, right yourself, be master of your body, cover yourself with veils, speak to her behind screens, don’t contemplate her face-to-face, go into yourself, in separation, wait for the morning visitors, and those of midnight, air yourself in the shelter of their wings, with a thousand touches, welcome the furtive vision which, after the instant of blindness, adds sharpness to sight, to awaken you to the cries of crows, noisy black characters, inscribed between the abyss and the heavens, jet-black proclamation flying over the white camels, on the edge of the desert, empty space, flat earth, rough, steppe where black sounds write themselves.
With automatic palanquins, human-size dolls, masts tip over, in search of the sea, on the stretch of desert, field of fossils, cavities and moon furrows, lights and sounds, the pact seals the hearts, the deed tricks, she offers me a grappa of black grapes, the tears held back excite the storm, the interior sun is covered, the bitter gorge, capital of the gift, on the outskirts of an oxidized land, where to face the danger, and deposit my income, and see her face in every thing, in the darkness, in the light, in obstacle, in transparency, and wear the mask and the veil, that doesn’t prevent one from seeing, of separation in the beginning, and go around complicated in the world, the bird of prey flies over the cliff, that gives wings to the spice tree, the sap pricks the gum to the blood, within reach of finery, in the quiet night, the recluse moans, pebbles loosen the vast square, footsteps crunch in the jealous night, language gets lost, regular of the night, your form liquefies, incandescent lava, which congeals as it goes by, dark temple, where we hear the ritual fragments, languages inside out, after forty nights, come, knock on the door, cross the patio, enter the tombs, go by the oblong room, go down the seven steps, I’ll wait for you in back of the garden, in the hut, near the greenhouse, don’t speak to the old guard, undress yourself, wear the loincloth the OM adorns, don’t repeat anything from memory, wet your lips with new words, articulate the sound of inspiration, don’t translate the meaning, so that the scansion is thirst in you, cover the stages of refusal, let go your cry to the animal echo, shepherd of stars, nocturnal cup bearer, between the two of us passion speaks, wine flows, I keep watch with the one, who goes to sleep beneath lightning, she closes her eyes, and falls asleep with the dead, then she is reborn, wine’s sister, who refreshes sight, upon the meeting the sun, the late moon, harbor of the senses.
And you who wander, don’t proceed quickly, pay court to rest, time is fixed in the track, stop there, look closely at the wrinkles of the relief, straighten your sleeves, listen to the sharp cry, knead the silt that fashions bodies, how I would like to set foot, in that which happens to thought, but the foot does not follow, scold the voice, the singing exercise is corrupted, if it doesn’t inspire song, change direction, turn to the right, on the banks of the valley, you will find her again, in silence, in dialogue, in rupture, in return to silence, around a people, who await nothing, engraved in the heart of misery, would I be a stranger, among the goitrous, led astray on the red soil, from such high valley, where water streams, among the green shocks of hair, at the boundary of earthen chateaux, in eagle gaps, alone in the country of mules, in search of the unknown woman, who spells my name, on the threshold of departures?
Empty homes, windows torn away, grey of the sky, devastated neighborhood, Sunday of nothing, expatriate heads, between the ruined corridors, and the walled-up doors, language of Babel, which cut the being in two, walking in the shadow of myself, on the lookout for a mirage, on the horizon of a noble modesty, passing unperceived across the hurdles of crime, on the bill of the hospital, with red bricks, on the sermon sign, on the steam fabric, color of diseases, that the chimneys spit out, absence of self, on the way that leads to a drink, eau de vie, which heals cracks on the lips, between the dirty children, and the boxed suitcases, broken lamps, on the paths of the city, the hot wind disfigures, sparks of sand slicing, energy of fission, the melting of train stations, deliquescent rails, beneath bridges, tall towers collapsed, the incandescent air burns the intestines, the city is taken, by incomprehensible beggars, sulfurous smell, which holds the throat captive, sight passes over the bunghole, over the eye of the needle, my face, a flare that changes speed, mountain color, that the sea wind shades, under what rubble to restore it, in what forgetfulness to speak to it, of wood or of stone, on the paths outside the walls, towards a desert that welcomes me, at camels’ pace, the dogs bark in the darkness, the hearth affixes the sign of the beloved, on the walls of night sitting without moving, in the heart of ardent cacti, coming out of the apocalypse, I warm myself at her fire, and pet the speckled lion cubs, which surround her.
I listen to her, who has no voice, in search of the rest, the seasons pass, the houses go to ruin, I was in a good mood, before scowling, the vast plain narrowed, between the columns, things grew, without my knowing, I was not the guard, I would have hunted them down, between the celebration and the business deal, I spat, I sat down on the rugs, which hide the cracks in the floor, our shadows are engulfed, in empty homes, peacocks open the day, bodies flit about, next to souls, between brightness and clouds, the vaults do demivolts, at the cry of the lovers, desire stirs, between the white tombs, banners laid down, on the hill.
I see my heart beat, in a jar, my cheeks bleed, between the two worlds, the tree is a miniature, which awakens the shades, in the lap of a playful girl, round immaculate dresses, my body, in each pore, hollows out, I receive the visit of the sun, a garden grows, in my toe, beauty swells, in the cube of youth, the alma rises, at night, she offers me her body, haughty, I lay her down on the bed of my disease, in the hollow of a room, high and narrow, in the clamor of hieroglyphs, ants, coleopterans, birds of prey, tiara, sickness has clothed me, in white alabaster, it is a gash, which has made a burdenless scarecrow out of me, I feel her scarlet vulva, the gold of her chain coils up on my black pubis, it is a fire that illuminates, in back of the tomb, the face coated with butter, the reified air, in the silence, I hear the noise of bodies, peace dawns, she smells the coagulated blood, which captures my disease, convalescence begins, I tear up the picture, carried next to my heart, I undo the suit, which binds my torso, the sun strikes, free and constrained, I excavate the wet clay, a blue chemistry colors my voices, I transcribe the love letter, I invent a pulpit, behind the veil, hiding the one who, in my illness, loses her way, daughter of a bloodthirsty king, I sneeze, and the breath strikes the vertebra, which burns, she comes to me, sure of her beauty, complexion of straw-colored wine, she sparkles with a fugitive spirit, intoxicated, I undress her, the stars go out, between the wound and the caress, I return to illness, which her lips increase.
Taffeta, sound of the sea, the cypress is a candle, in which green hair burns, the mountain is a camel, it unloads its burden, steps resound on the flagstones, and ricochet off the clouds, I invite her on the journey, in the shade of the fig tree, opposite the isthmus, which is a barrier, where the spirit sinks, before the jetty, awaiting the ferry, lurking in the open sea, at the edge of the storm, the sea sends back its waves, the stars linger to arrange the dawn, the seagull is an island coming near, the mast is a tree groaning, she rises, with the day, she looks through the porthole, she washes in the foam, she covers herself with azure, which rekindles her whiteness.
The survivors of the white night, gather pebbles and pearls, at the rising of the dawn, the banner of night floats away, the day-blind people leave the day, morning is an eagle, decorated with letters, eloquent people, scribes of desire, the foreigner wears the sign of the fish, in the folds of the burn, up there, he waits to die, in a desolate landscape, the water flows on a bed of knives, the fetid smell assails the visitor, who haunts the black night, insomniacs publish a morning musk, drunk, the branches bend under the breath of the night-walkers, wretched, thoughtless, attraction without object, shipwrecked in the cry.
On forgotten tracks, in unnamed places, I see the chorus of mourners, on the south banks, I look at homes in ruin, in the cool morning, I admire her, who wears the mask of pain, the dead cross the black footbridge, and pluck the fruits of silence, the rain crisscrosses the grey light, I said, yes, I’ll come, without ruse, or shield, that’s how I replied, to her who spoke, with a cut heart, hunted, without cover, on the plain, the four winds brought contradictory messages, she says, I will divide myself, I will be new, like the sun, each day.
On the page of the sacrificed animal, the mihrab sings in the interior, the fire, that is devouring in my breast, is a twilight, fed by the evening musk, the moon jostles the branch, the seed splits the face, the fruit breaks open, the star bores into a tomb, pain is a book, which grips my skull, the sun leaves my belly, the sky reddens the shadows, the stage is empty, the crown breaks, the corners murmur, on a crystal floor, the wind brushes the craftsman, who gathers a fistful of sand, his hands crumble, the stone turns, in this yellow world, desire is a dome, that collapses, in the fog of fever, my sweaty body, back again in the desert, covets the solitude of the two sisters, whom my senses, clothe, in white.
The washerwomen came to the house every Wednesday, the day of the week for the big wash, Bedouins from the plains and Berbers from the mountains, women with brown chins or with tattooed foreheads, crosses or brooches as if drawn with a stick of graphite, marks that didn’t fade, didn’t even trickle in the dewy flush of sweat: indelible, they folded into the tics and wrinkles that work inscribed on their skin, taut or flabby depending on age and the structure of the face.
Facing huge copper vats arranged on the paved area bordering the garden, between the wash house and the shed, the washerwomen let themselves fall with all their weight, throwing their arms forward, then pulling them back: repeating their motions till they were in a trance, they kneaded the wash, beat it, rubbed it, twisted it, pulled it out, plunged it back into the sudsy liquid activated by the dissolution of a royal blue cube, foaming azure water that ran towards the drain later, after the rinsing and drying, when the vats were emptied.
Like boas curled at the bottom of these vessels with their tinned interiors, the pieces of laundry were brought out to dry in the area behind the house, the patio as adapted to the modern villa. Sheets, veils, shirts, jebbas were spread, stretched before being fastened with wooden clothespins, hung from iron wire: expanses of white that the wind billowed out, made float, clatter: immaculate white, in the bright sunlight, where the spectrum made rainbows, evanescence of yellow and red flames, haunted by blue and green sparkles, immaterial debris where the mind could get lost.
Such visions I’m left with of all this white that came from the hands of the laundresses to dress up the characters who peopled the scene of rituals in the city, like silhouettes of the veiled women on their way Fridays to visit the dead, scattering among the white patches of the tombs, punctuating as they moved, south out of Tunis, the many-colored hill in springtime, among the overgrown grasses and the sheaves of flowers, a dialogue that brings together the moving white of the veils and the fixed white of the tombs: intimate invocations, wordy confessions, women talking and singing, chased by the winged white of gulls escaped from the harbor, from the canal or from the lake to perch on the crenellations of the Spanish fort that interrupts the harmony of white, an ocher crown where grey sparkles, set firmly on the crest of the hill, between sky and earth.
Or again in summer, at Mahdia, after twilight, on the esplanade that stretches past the quays, when there appeared to me as if by accident a troupe of men crowding out of the upper-class club, all dressed in jebbas blazing with whiteness, colony of seagulls, swarm of giant wood doves, moon banners bellied out by a favorable wind, sails scudding towards fresh watering holes, without hindrance or constraint, luminaries that lit up the night whose rule was just beginning, ample whitenesses that let the air circulate in the intimacy of the body, ventilation that reverberated on the white of walls, white on white that softened the stay during the dog days’ heat.
Should I add the hospitable whiteness of sheets that welcomed lovers during summer in the alcove of siesta? salty bodies tanned by the sun and the sea, burrowed beneath the profound penumbra of the white cave, delight sharpened in the multiplication of white: from top to bottom, from the curve to the right angle, from rigidity to suppleness, from the rough to the smooth, from the stucco to the weft, from stone to cloth.
Evening, between the visible and the tactile, between the eye and the touch, the smell of jasmines has insinuated itself, flowers gathered when the sun was starting its decline, in the last quarter of its course, closed petals whose undersides, Indian pink, tint of a fingernail, sealed the secret whiteness which illuminated the night by the addition of drunkenness which it offered to lovers carried very high, towards their port of call on the moon.
In other seasons, other flowers carried the fragrance towards the opiated frontiers of the absolute, perhaps because of their whiteness, I think of orange blossoms, the flowers of citron, lemon trees, which diffused through the spring garden the mute nighttime sonorities which I caught and translated in my adolescent sleep into a psalm that drove my dream towards transgression, imagining myself in the act of violating my family’s prohibition by manipulating the alembic which collected drop by drop the volatile spirit of the flowers in their evaporated whiteness, before I had to pass through anguish, expecting that family superstition would be confirmed and that death would pierce the walls of the house and come to inhale the soul of one of its residents.
I could recall other great washing sequences, in search of whiteness, feverish activity that would last for days chosen during the hot season, almost at its peak, two or three weeks before Awissou, the month of the Julian calendar, the memory of the Latin name for which was preserved by popular imagination, days spent on washing the newly gathered wool, undoing the bundles of jute, bales larger than men, new wool arranged in heaps, sorted through in search of the prickly grains hidden there, wool from the sheep that had just been shorn, not to be mixed up with wool that had already been used and that came from the unstitched and emptied-out mattresses, cushions and pillows, yarn stuck together, tassels and fluff flattened and soaked in water, that the women trampled, collective dance increasing the intense animal smell, a choreography presented to me again outside, by the sea: at each heel-strike, the peasant-women’s hips quivered under their turquoise mélias, and their ankle bracelets jingled, in the play of the rippling waves, in which the sparkling of silver and foam was mixed, lunar gleams in the fiery noon, axis of day brought to the white heat they sometimes talk about in other uses of the word.
And I wonder: where should I wander to let the resonance of white resound in the endless progression of images I leaf through in the album of my memory?
“Whitening the wool,” the washer-women said, knowing that never would this substance attain immaculate whiteness, reflections of ivory veering to yellow that I found again with the animal smell in the burnous that the people of the Sahara wore indifferently summer and winter, half-white color that protected them from the sun in cold and warm months alike; that I found also in the robes of the Sufis, called libden (body) and that disciples wore over their bare skin, so they could experience the Other body to body, electrified by the coarse wool, wool that absorbed the profuse sweat that regulars and aspirants produced during their vaticinations in these sessions of dhikr, exercise that maintained awareness by means of chant and dance, to acquire His Presence by repeating Huwa till satiety, the two syllables of the third person pronoun that open onto the esplanade of Being, scansion of the loss of self, in the hope that by surprise the Absent might seize you by the tuft of hair that covered the nape of your neck, a knot called by metaphor sufa, signifying tuft of wool.
Thus sinks into uncertainty of meaning the etymology of the word Sufi, which wavers between Greek wisdom (sophia) and the reference to the Companions of the veranda (soffa)—the poor men who haunted the veranda onto which the house of the Prophet opened in Medina and who were raised to the status of founding heroes by the first Sufi generations—and between the wool of their robes (suf) or of the tuft of hair (sufa) and the quest for purity (safa).