For All Nails #245: Laylat al-Ragha'ib

by Jonathan Edelstein

Abéché, Ouadai
11 July 1975/1 Rajab 1395

"Finish up," said Marianne. "We're leaving."

Carmen Valenzuela looked up from the surgical instruments she was cleaning, at the blue sky outside the window. Marianne was ninety and looked every day of it, but she always worked from dawn until well after dusk; Carmen had never known her to close the office while there was still daylight. Then again, Carmen had only known Marianne for three weeks.

"Finish up," repeated Marianne, anticipating the question. "We should eat early. It's Rajab now -- the month of God. I don't think we'll be getting much sleep tonight."

"The month of the God you don't believe in?"

"Finish cleaning."

Carmen had never felt quite as helpless as in her first week in Abéché. It wasn't the work -- she knew tropical medicine intimately from her days in Grão Pará, and she was used to clinic practice. The problem was communication.

A few of the older patients -- the rare women who'd had some education during colonial times -- spoke English, but most knew only the creolized Arabic that was Ouadai's common language. The patients who hadn't lived in the city long enough to be detribalized were even more difficult -- they spoke Maba or Ngambai, or any of Ouadai's other hundred tongues. Marianne was fluent in Ngambai and Maba, but even she was reduced to gestures with the patients from the north.

To Carmen, Abéché was a world of silence. She was alone in a way more profound than she had ever been before. In Montréal, even in Grão Pará, there had been friends, colleagues, confessors, all there to give counsel and comfort. Here, there were none, and things that Carmen had thought long buried were finding their way back.

When she and Marianne worked together, the older woman translated, but Marianne had decided after only three days that she was capable of treating patients on her own. Carmen had floundered for most of a day, not daring to mention her trouble, when Marianne had suddenly appeared with another old woman at her side. "Sara will translate for you," she said. "I promised I'd treat her daughters for free if she did."

Carmen wasn't sure that Sara was really gaining anything out of the bargain -- Marianne treated most of her patients for free, and took only the fees that she was offered. It didn't take long, though, for her to realize what Marianne already knew -- that there is a difference between receiving something and earning it. It took only a little longer to discover that twice-widowed Sara was as alone as she.

In time, Sara would become a friend and Carmen would learn Arabic. The weight of the silence was already growing less. But it would take longer to quiet what the silence had awakened.

The clinic was near the center of the city, on one of its few paved streets. The Majlis house was half a mile away in a colonial building; the newer offices of the ministries were closer. There were a few lokes on the street, carrying the rich men and the foreigners past the store windows and back-street offices.

It seemed to Carmen that this should be Marianne's place. It was certainly hers; the center city was one of the few places in Abéché that held any familiarity. Marianne's home, though, was the old city; the narrow streets and markets -- and even the mosques -- were where she looked natural. How long did it take, Carmen wondered, for a -- French? German? -- woman to look right in a chador? How long before a chador felt right to her? She wondered how long it would take for a Mexican woman, and whether she wanted to find out.

They were in the market now, picking out some goat meat and millet cakes for dinner. The market was full of women, more than half of whom were fully veiled; the mysticism of Ouadai's brand of Islam was matched only by its strictness. From what Marianne had told her, it had become more so in the past few years; women who wore only a chador were likely to be harassed.

But that didn't happen to them; they weren't Muslims, and Marianne was ... Marianne. In the few weeks she'd been in Ouadai, Carmen had got the sense that Marianne was not respected solely because she was a doctor, and that her status had something to do with the war of independence. This was something Marianne neither confirmed nor denied, but there was no doubt that everyone knew her.

She stopped for one more purchase before they left the market -- a stick of incense. She usually had little use for such things, but she looked at Carmen and said, "The first Friday of Rajab."

"The month of God?"

Marianne nodded. "The Prophet said, 'Rajab is the month of God, Shaban is my month and Ramadan is the month of my Community.' God gave us twelve months in the year, eleven of which are ours and one of which belongs to God. What rewards God will give his servants in His month, no one knows, not even the Prophet." Carmen looked at her in disbelief for a moment, and realized that she had been reciting; some Sufi scripture, most likely.

"It sounds like something I heard in one of Father Patrick's homilies," she said. "For the ten days after the Jewish new year, the book of life is open, and nobody knows what will be written for the coming year."

"That is a time for reflection," answered Marianne. "Confession. It's different here. Tonight is a time to dream."

Carmen paused a moment to wonder where Marianne had learned of the Jewish calendar. It certainly didn't seem like something one could do here. By the time she finished the thought, however, they were home.

Marianne was an enigma. She certainly wasn't what Carmen had expected back in Montréal, when the rector had told her she was being posted to a small mission. Small, yes -- Marianne and her clinic -- but a mission?

Marianne was certainly no missionary. Once, seventy years ago and more, she had been educated by the Danielloise order, but that was something she rarely spoke of and then with distaste. She was concerned with her patients' spiritual health, but she defined that in terms of happiness rather than belief. She acted like a Muslim, called herself a Christian and did not believe in God.

She wasn't unfriendly -- in fact, sharing an apartment for the first time in sixteen years had made her positively garrulous. Still, there was something missing. Nearly all her talk was about professional matters or what Carmen's mother would have called "women's chatter" -- she asked little about Carmen's past and said less about hers.

They were friends of a sort, Carmen supposed, but Sara was already becoming a better one. She more than half suspected that Marianne intended it that way; the older woman had hinted that she should live with an Ouadaian family. Part of her job would be to continue the training of the women that Marianne had taught medicine; Marianne had shared what she knew, but she didn't consider herself qualified to teach the modern innovations. That would be Carmen's task -- Carmen's mission -- and it was one that required her to learn the language and become part of the community. Maybe Marianne's manner was a way of pushing her out.

Maybe it was something else.

They were finishing dinner when the first sounds of chanting came from outside. Carmen went out to the balcony and saw the darkened streets filled with people; white-robed marabouts dancing with the Koran and others surrounding them. The street below was filled with the pinpoints of candles and rich with the smell of incense.

"Laylat al-Ragha'ib," Marianne said. "The night of Mohammed's conception. In Cairo the mosques are open all night, but here the whole city is a mosque." She smiled at Carmen, looking almost girlish for the first time since the two had known each other. "Let's go down."

Outside, it seemed as if the entire city was celebrating. The prayers were solemn, but the singing was joyous; many of the women had taken off their veils and headscarves, but not even the marabouts said anything. A lesson from a Montréal classroom a long lifetime ago came to mind unbidden; even the strictest societies have one night of license.

Amid the chanting crowds, people were throwing pieces of paper into the air. One of them struck Carmen in the face and fell into her hand. It was folded; she opened it to find Arabic lettering in an uneven hand.

"It's the Night of Desires," Marianne explained. "They write their wishes down, and whoever catches them has to pray for them to come true."

"What does it say?" Carmen asked. She placed the paper in Marianne's waiting hand.

"Ah, someone wants a son." A smile crept over the older woman's face. "If you wanted, you could probably grant him more than your prayers. People sometimes celebrate this night in a more ... secular way. Mohammed and I always did -- it's good luck to conceive a child tonight."

"Did you have any children?"

"Two." Marianne's voice was flat and final. She shook her head to clear it, and smiled again. "You should find yourself a young man, Carmen; you shouldn't stay with someone waiting to die."

"I'm spoken for," Carmen said, and wondered if she really was. She hadn't written to Pedro, or heard from him, in months; she didn't know where the fortunes of war had taken him, or even if he were still alive.

"Go," Marianne commanded. "I'm going upstairs to get some sleep. You can take tomorrow off. Celebrate."

Nearby a marabout was chanting a prayer. "O Allah, I ask forgiveness of You for everything for which I repented to You then returned to..." When Carmen looked back, Marianne had gone.

She had a piece of paper in her pocket, an invoice that the clinic wouldn't need anymore. She took it out, held it, stared at it for a long moment. Then she wrote "peace" on it, folded it up and threw it into the wind. Maybe she would find the person who caught it.

She had all night.

Forward to FAN #246 (14 July 1975): So I Wouldn't Get Weighed.

Forward to Carmen Valenzuela: Mawlid al-Nabi.

Forward to Africa: The Armenian Quarter.

Return to For All Nails.

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