The Last Jew of Tamentit Excerpt from a novel by Algerian writer Amin Zaoui

Translated from the French by André Naffis-Sahely

 

My Aunt, the Man-eater

She couldn’t even harm the birds
that came to perch on her window, or the trees.
She listened fervently to their song.
And yet they still call her the Man-eater.

Amin Zaoui ALT
Amin Zaoui

“. . . They called her “the Man-eater”. She loved the colour of yellow and she loved men, regardless of the colour of their skin! She loved all men! My aunt “the Man-eater” loved her nickname and she kept a dozen beehives. Why bees?
When it comes to bees, we know all about the queen, but nothing about the king, my aunt Thamira would say.
She was the queen of our village!
Above all, Thamira adored the Latin language. Why the tongue of Apuleius? I have no idea! For that matter, neither did anyone else! My aunt believed, or rather she was convinced, that bees communicated with one another in Latin. She’d taught herself the art of bee-keeping, the bees’ language and the language of the Ancients! That man-eater certainly had a prodigious brain. She’d read Apuleius’s books, namely The Golden Ass and Florida. She spoke to her bees in Apuleius’s tongue, Berber. She said that these insects, who gave us their phenomenal nectar, and which were spoken or reverently in the Qur’an, were the apostles of love. She had undoubtedly been influenced by Apuleius, that Berber. He haunted her. Drove her mad! Apuleius had also been a celebrated bee-keeper. My aunt loved getting stung by her bees. She savoured that sweet pain.
She would say: “A single sting caused by man is equivalent to a thousand bee stings.”
My aunt Thamira never tried to conceal her passionate love for her brother Daoud. She would kiss him on the lips. She wouldn’t hesitate to slip into the shower with him, completely naked.
Her last husband, who was the imam and muezzin of the mosque in Tidikelt, had drawn her attention thanks to his beautiful voice when it reminded the faithful to pray to their God five times a day. At first, the muezzin had been a little disconcerted when he’d heard his wife speak to her bees in Latin. He told himself that she must have been possessed by a jinn. Yet with time, he too began to learn a few words, without nonetheless forgetting to call the faithful to prayer! On the day of their wedding, having been unable to find the right dowry for her, he’d recited the entirety of the Surat al-Nahl (Sura of the Bees) from the Book of Allah. “Calling the faithful to prayers or singing the song of the bees won’t put food on our table!” my grandmother had shouted, looking very displeased.
Despite my grandmother’s objections to the match, Thamira had not given up. She was stubborn, and never yielded an inch. As for my grandfather, he barely bothered to comment on anything that had happened.
My aunt was an extraordinary woman, she had a fabulous understanding of virility and manhood and never concealed her sentimental inclinations towards Muslims. They were kind at heart, despite their extreme carnal violence. Those Muslims were strong and magnificent between the sheets. “One could say that Islam celebrates the virility of man and the poetry of the human body,” my aunt would loudly proclaim in response to her mother. Ever since she had learned of my aunt’s inclination for Muslims, my grandmother would give her the cold shoulder whenever she could.
My aunt Thamira was married five times in the space of eight years. She never spared a thought for children, setting up a home, or safeguarding her future up-keep in life. All she had ever looked for was a bright mature man to warm her bed throughout the long, silent nights. Four of her husbands in a row met their end between her sheets. Despite not a single drop of their blood having spilled on her hands! Accursed innocence!
The honey in the hives, produced by her bees, whom she spoke to in Latin, was used to cure male impotence and female frigidity. And since none of her husbands managed to restrain their consumption of that magical honey, they all perished in the fires of sexual lust! Some even say they were buried in the ground with their penises still erect! Right up to the day she died, my aunt never expected anything less than a vigorous man if she was to welcome them into her bed, into her night. Men, real men, were born to die in a perfumed bed on top of female flesh bursting with desire. Men weren’t made for war or even bee-keeping, and those who excelled in love always triumphed over violent wars!
My aunt’s conjugal nights with her sweet-voiced muezzin from the mosque of Tidikelt were brief. In order not to compromise his ablutions, he contented himself with making love to his wife by means of his exciting voice. My aunt was crazy for his voice. And she would seek to celebrate it with the secret garden of her volcanic, relentless flesh! When her body betrayed the muezzin, and when his vocal chords replaced the carnal groaning, my aunt decided to put an end to the extinguished life she shared with her fifth husband.
“The muezzin betrayed the sacred honey of Apuleius the Berber!” my aunt declared.
She felt stifled, as though she lived inside a prison cell. The nectar betrayed the honey! The first bees began to commit suicide. Others left their hives behind for good. Others still were struck by an illness, the forest’s melancholy. The day of the final break eventually arrived. That particular day unfolded without any surprises, just like any other day that had come before it. Yet on that night, to celebrate their breakup together, they prepared a special meal. How could one devour a man right up to his illuminated end, right up to his elevation? How to best savour a queen bee? Sat around the little table, they found themselves face to face, eye to eye. They held their breath! On that night, my aunt cried a lot, even though she had never been prone to tears.
“We cry for our men, we miss our men”, she had said. Yet on that evening, she wept for her muezzin, her fifth husband. Yet he seemed quite happy with his jar of pure honey. Silence! Many spasmodic silences were interrupted by a murmuring recitation of three suras from the Book of Allah: “The Women”, “The Ants” and “The Bees”.
“And because I could not attain the heavenly bliss of the Latin-Berber bee stings, I have decided to leave,” the muezzin said in a pious tone. The bed was readied for his final voyage. Everything had been meticulously prepared: the perfume, the pillow and the story.

My aunt loved this strong liquor called boukha. She made it herself by collecting figs that grew on the side of a mountain bearing the rather enigmatic name of Jew’s Hand. Part of the Djurdjura range, in Kabyle country. Those figs distinguished themselves by their cube-like shape and their dazzlingly red skins. According to various sacred scriptures in the region, fig trees originated in the garden of Eden. The Prophet Moses himself had first planted the trees in the sacred Berber lands over three thousand years ago, on that Olympian mountain in the Djurdjura range, or at least that is what happened according to the old men of the village of Ath Yenni, where Mouloud Mammeri the writer was born.

Aunt Thamira suddenly poured herself a stiff glass of boukha, while continuing her story about the Jew’s Hand peaks. Hallucinations! She hummed the story of the fig tree. To herself. She put on a real performance, sometimes speaking in Mozabite, other times in Arabic. One would have thought she wanted to soothe her man with her voice before he left the world of the living . . .
“More than fourteen centuries ago, this mountain, whose summit resembles a finger raised to the skies in a gesture of solemnity or prayer, suddenly spread out its large wings. In the olden days, it had been rooted in the promised land, in the heart of the sacred desert of the Sinai. Then came the day when Okba Ibn Nafi killed Kahina, a daughter of the Djeraoua tribe. Once her blood had been spilled, a voice from the Sky ordered the mountain to leave that place and fly to the land of the Berbers. Thus it was that one foggy morning, the Berbers found themselves facing a mountain whose summit was shaped like a hand held up in prayer.
“The lukewarmness with which the Berbers converted to Islam was admirably described by Ibn Khaldun: the Berbers renounced Islam a dozen times during the first centuries of the spread of the Muslim faith. This lukewarmness was due to the hypocritical, scornful attitude of the Arabs. Thus, sickened by the Arabs’ ill-treatment of his people, the Berber chief Maysara sent the following letter to the Caliph in Damascus: ‘I would like to inform the Prince of the Believers that our Emir led us into war alongside his army, and he distributed the booty we reaped on our own to the latter, saying that we had already received more than we deserved. If a city has to be besieged, we are always part of the first wave of attack, claiming that it would noticeably improve our worthiness to be admitted to heaven. And yet people like us are just as worthy and deserving as his brothers. We put up with all of this fairly well, but when they later abducted the most beautiful of our daughters, we told them that as fellow Muslims, we could not find that such an act was sanctioned, neither by the Book nor by the example of the Prophet’ . . .”
The Man-eater sipped her drink while looking at her man, who suddenly stood up, went towards the far right corner of the room and began to recite the call to prayer. As soon as he had finished, he resumed his place beside his wife. And Thamira continue her story of the Jew’s Hand peaks and Ibn Khaldun:
“. . . The inhabitants of Ath Yenni said that it was Kahina’s pure camel wool burnous that transformed into the winged mountain. It was on the summit of that peak, which was covered in snow throughout the winter and part of the autumn, that the Prophet, our Lord Moses, for the second time received commandments written in the Tamazight language on divine tablets. That mountain, populated by lions and bees, which also bore the shape and colour of a crow, was where Kahina prayed to her God for the last time.”
Hallucinations! The Man-eater was delirious! She was shivering! She was being convulsed by a ferocious cold fever. Her husband, the muezzin, loudly recited verses from “The Women” sura and “The Bees” sura.
“. . . The night before her murder, Kahina saw our Lord Moses in her dreams. He told her: ‘You will be immortalized in the shape of a pious hand etched on the rocks of a mountain that will spring up in your blessed country close to your chosen people.’ ”
The story of the enigmatic mountain that my aunt told left a great impression on the muezzin, who never stopped licking his fingers, which were covered in the sacred honey, or reciting his Qur’anic verses, sometimes loudly, other times softly. Who would leave that evening: the muezzin or my aunt?
Drunk on boukha, the Man-eater lost the thread of her story about the winged mountain. Her tongue began to digress and lost itself on the path of a mystical song. Feeling overly confused and emotional, my aunt vacillated between glancing at her husband, the muezzin, with inordinate desire, trying to conceal the emptiness of her tear-filled eyes – and looking out of the window as though searching for that mysterious mountain in the sky. The winged mountain!
The next morning, my aunt Thamira was found dead, stretched out on her big bed. She was surrounded by thousands of bees, whose swarm was in the shape of a crow. Their buzzing was like a mourning song, or a call to prayer.
On that morning, my uncle Daoud, who had been gone for seven years, perhaps even a little longer than that, came knocking on our door. He seemed troubled, feverish. Much to my grandmother’s surprise, and then my mother’s, he headed towards the little room where Thamira’s body was stretched out on a large plank. He sat down on the floor, next to her head, and started improvising a tune on his lute that had religious echoes and was imbued with a profound sadness. Disapproving of the sound of music during the mourning period – music, in the presence of the departed to boot – my grandmother noticeably raised the volume of the gramophone that was playing prayers and psalms.
“I didn’t know you had bought a gramophone, it looks like the ones you see in the rooms of the Souika brothel in Constantine,” my uncle Daoud remarked, lowering the volume. My grandmother could not contain her anger even though there were groups of people who had come to offer their condolences and to lend a hand. She whispered the following into my grandfather’s left ear (because he couldn’t hear out of his right ear): “We must hurry up and wash the body.”
The dead body was only waiting to be buried.
In front of the main gate of our large house, a dozen Qur’an reciters had sat down on the ground in a semi-circle, and had started loudly reading from the Book of Allah.
They read Qur’anic verses in tribute to a dead Jew! Those were the customs of the people who lived in our town, which knew nothing of hatred or borders.”

 

Excerpted from the novel Le Dernier Juif de Tamentit,

published by Barzakh Editions, Algiers, 2012. ISBN: 978-9931-325-376

First published in Banipal magazine
www.banipal.co.uk

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