For All Nails #281: Mawlid al-Nabi

by Jonathan Edelstein

Abéché, Ouadai
2 March 1977/12 Rabi al-Awwal 1397

Mawlid, the twelfth of Rabi al-Awwal, was the Prophet's birthday. Some argued that it was more properly the date of his death, but in Ouadai that didn't make it any less a celebration. In Ouadai, death was not a tragedy or even an interruption, but a continued life in which barriers were lifted and the unknown made clear. The world was the womb, death was true birth, and the Prophet's death the most auspicious birth of all. Mawlid al-Nabi was a day of good omen, any year but this one.

This Mawlid was Carmen Valenzuela's first in Ouadai, but even she could tell that something was different. The streets were as full as they were every year, even more so; people had been streaming into the capital for days in anticipation of the celebration. Houses and streets were decked out with lights and banners, and the day promised to be one of feasting, prayer and charity. But still ... something was different.

It was nine months since Carmen had returned to Abéché, and seven since the army had killed the Sultan and forced his family into exile. Since then, she had become used to waking up realizing that everything might change by nightfall. All power belonged to the Majlis now, but that meant little when nobody controlled the Majlis. One day the Jeffies had the upper hand, the next day the democrats, the day after that the marabouts or the separatists or the army's delegates. Debates ended in shouting and threats, sometimes even in fights; nobody had even begun the work of writing a constitution or preparing the next election.

So this year was different. Even the Mexicans knew that; Carmen's mother kept sending anxious letters along with News del Día clippings warning of imminent revolution. The paper got half the names wrong and spelled the country's name "Guadai" or "Wadi" more often than not, but it was dead-on about the mood; everyone knew it was only a matter of time. For some, that cast a pall on the day's celebration. For others -- for many of the pilgrims arriving from the north, and for the marabouts who would preach to them this day -- it only added to the anticipation. The clinic would stay open today; there was no question of that. Both Carmen and Marianne had seen war, and political uncertainty was hardly enough to keep them from their patients. Today like every other day, Marianne had opened the doors at dawn and Carmen had arrived soon after.

It still amazed Carmen that Marianne could do so much at ninety-two. She worried sometimes about Marianne living alone, but it was the older woman who had made her move in with one of the medical assistants -- "you have to become one of the people, and you won't do that by living with me." Carmen still wasn't sure she wanted to become one of the people -- at least not here - but she had obeyed.

She lived with Sara now, Sara who was two times widowed and whose sons worked far away in the phosphate mines. She had become Sara's daughter as well as her instructor in practical medicine; and Sara had taught her the things a mother taught a child. Moving to a new country was also a form of birth, and Marianne had given Carmen a mother who would raise her well.

But Sara was not at the clinic today. That, more than anything else, told Carmen how different today was. Sara had never missed a day of work as long as Carmen had known her, but today she refused to go to the center city. There was danger in the air even as the feasts were laid out and the streets filled with chanting and passion plays.

Work usually made Carmen forget - usually, but not today. Her mind kept drifting from her patients to the radio, to the noise outside, to Sara, but it was none of these that told her that the celebration had ended. That, she learned from the sound of gunfire and the soldier who came in with a bullet wound. He was in a bad way and was babbling by the time she started bandaging him; there was no need to ask questions. He had been guarding the square outside the main mosque when the fighting had started; one minute a northern marabout had been preaching, and the next was chaos. He was sure it had been planned; why else would so many of the worshipers have had guns, and why else would the preachers have brought so many of their followers from the countryside? Why else, indeed, would half the troops have joined the mob instead of fighting it?

"Look!" someone called. "The Majlis is burning!" Outside the window, flames were rising from the direction of the government offices, and the flames were spreading.

The next voice Carmen heard was Marianne's. "You've got to get them out."


"The patients! You've got to get them out. The fighting is getting closer -- can't you hear? A mob like this -- they're out of control by now, and we're in their way."

"But if I take them out, they might be caught on the streets..."

"I practiced here during the war, remember?" said Marianne. "I made sure there's another way out. There's a tunnel in the basement that will bring you out near the old city; I haven't bothered to hide it in years. Take the other assistants and make sure the patients leave. I'll meet you at Sara's."

Carmen was still too much in shock to disobey. "What will you do?"

"I'll make sure you have time. Now go."

She wasn't quite sure what happened after that. Somehow, she managed to make the chaos of the clinic into order, or at least into a more directed chaos. The patients were as willing to accept her voice of authority as any other, and she got them moving into the tunnel. Then -- it seemed only a moment later -- she was hurrying through the old city past shuttered windows and barred doors to the home where Sara embraced her.

She waited there all day and night, but Marianne never came. The flames in the new city burned until morning.

Forward to #282: My Empire of Dirt.

Forward to 15 March 1977: Easter Rising - Prelude.

Forward to Carmen Valenzuela: Remembrance Day.

Return to For All Nails.

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