Sobel Wiki

For All Nails #185: Ramadan

by Jonathan Edelstein

Abéché, Ouadai
10 October 1974/23 Ramadan 1394

Marianne woke before the muezzin's call, as she always did.

Three stories below, the city was stirring. The smell of cooking rose from the streets as the kebab and millet-cake sellers offered passers-by a last chance to eat before sunrise. People -- black men from the south, Toubou and Arabs from the north, Tuareg merchants with turbans and swords, even a few women - hurried to their jobs, or rolled out prayer mats in anticipation of the dawn.

Marianne sat on her balcony with a cup of coffee and a plate of lamb and dates from the previous night. She observed Ramadan -- fasting was healthy and focused the mind, and it was not polite to eat while others fasted - but she was indifferent to the call to prayer. In the sixty-five years she had lived here, through marriage to an Ouadaïen student and the years underground during the war of independence, she had never adopted the Islamic faith; the country had become hers, but the religion had not. A mere six decades was too little time to erase the things she had learned in the Danielloise convent.

The view from the balcony was the same, almost, as it had been sixty years before. Colonialism had washed over Abéché and receded, leaving hardly a trace. The British had ruled here, out of pride and to outflank the Germans in Numidia, but they'd never really had a reason to stay. A British garrison had stood outside the city for just short of half a century, and then it was gone. There had been a war -- Britain never put down its possessions lightly, even those it did not want -- but at the end, Ouadai was as it had been, with the whitewash slightly more weathered. Those who wanted something different went south to the Doba oil fields, or north to the mines of the Aozou strip, which the Germans had taken three times but never held. The imams grumbled about the foreigners who ran the Aozou mines, especially since many of the workers inevitably drifted back to the capital, but neither the Sultan nor the Majlis was willing to sacrifice the country's meager wealth.

That wealth, small as it was, had brought changes, even in the old city, and even to the buildings that were twice Marianne's age -- plumbing, running water, sometimes electricity. She had lived long enough without those things that they were of no moment to her; in a way, she even regretted them. She remembered the mornings at the well with the other women, the laughter and conversation at the beginning of the day. There was no more of that now, and running water had taken the conversation out of many women's lives. As a doctor, Marianne could only approve of Abéché's modern amenities; as a woman, she mourned for the many whose prison had become more inescapable.

She finished her meal, pulled her chador over her clothes and walked down to the street. Marianne had always insisted that her office be in a different part of the city from her home; she would not be a prisoner. She had been one once, in the convent seventy and eighty years ago; it was a captivity that had led to the study of medicine and her meeting with Mohammed at the Berlin lyceum, but an imprisonment nevertheless. She was grateful to the Danielloise sisters, with a gratitude that even their countless reminders of how thankful a whore's daughter should be to find a place had not worn away, but she had made a vow never to be a captive again. That vow had been broken once, during the war, but never before or since.

The walk to her office was quiet this time of year; the time for prayer had passed, and the streets of the old city were too narrow for lokes. For forty-nine years, Mohammed had accompanied her on this daily journey, but he had been gone a decade and more. Lately, as she approached ninety years of age, Marianne found herself talking to his ghost more often -- a sign, she supposed, of how close she was to being one herself.

She heard her name called in greeting, and saw the patients lined up outside her office door. She had treated some of their grandmothers; unlike her home country, Ouadai had welcomed women doctors even sixty years ago. It was easier that way for female patients to maintain their modesty. In the early days, before she had taught her skills to other women, she'd had many more patients than Mohammed.

And still, the patients came. From the look of them, it would be well past sunset before Marianne even had time to think of eating. That was good. It would keep her, for a while, from seeing what was missing.

It may have been noon before she looked up again, or it may have been two o'clock. The sound of midday prayers was coming from a mosque nearby; men sang their prayers in Ouadai, and danced in circles with the Koran in their hands. Once, she wouldn't have noticed; twenty years ago, or even ten, nothing could have broken her concentration when she was with a patient. Now, at eighty-nine, a day without a meal made her feel faint, made her sit for a few minutes in a shady room to clear her head.

Soon enough, the time would come when she wouldn't make it through the day at all. It wouldn't happen tomorrow or even the day after, but a woman Marianne's age was living on borrowed time. Someone else would take the place that had been hers for sixty-five years.

But who would it be? It was easy to talk about such things with Mohammed; after all, she was the one who had taken his place. She closed her eyes and told him again about how she had come here, of her life before, of how the Danielloise sisters had taught a girl without a family name to care for the sick ...

The sisters. Maybe they had another one who would come all this way, even without a marriage to tempt her. In the instant before Marianne opened her eyes, she told Mohammed she would write to the convent tonight, ask for another castaway to take over the practice where they had worked together for so long. Tonight, after she had eaten, she would write.

Today, there were patients waiting.

Forward to FAN #186: A Boy's Life.

Forward to 13 October 1974: October Surprise.

Forward to Marianne: Laylat al-Ragha'ib.

Return to For All Nails.