‘Life has made me a child of the desert. It reconciled me with my past.’
Malika Oufkir, Stolen Lives, Twenty Years in a Desert Jail
Here’s one version of me:
I was fathered twice, the daughter of an ambitious Berber,
confiscated by a King.
After the two had clashed,
I was parented by a prison.
In that throttled space
the remnants of our family huddled together,
nursing our shell-shock.
Like Ulysses, we kept dreaming of a return.
A caged Scheherazade, I invented
the same version of ourselves in another landscape.
But I forgot about the fourth dimension,
how time dug roads in my skin that lead nowhere.
Today I am a young woman – half-modern –
in a middle-aged body that has nothing to do with me.
In my head I am the one
who didn’t negotiate time,
the obstinate one who solved conundrums
such as how to cook a rotten egg,
divide the scraps like treasure,
handle the rats, scorpions, infernal desert locusts,
and how to escape, alive.
That version of myself slipped under the radar of time
to emerge in different languages, free as a ghost.
The desert is the place where I seem to fit –
that constant, sandy looking glass
where I sense my image intact.
There, I dare to step straight through
and arrive on the other side
just like everyone else.
Only who would have thought I’d be so new
I travel by inches. If the whole world
travels by light years, I shall stick to my inches,
my immeasurable slow-dance, here, in this desert,
and glide and slither as if there were no geography.
I am not carefree. I have my tentative misgivings,
my pace being so slow, the world so large.
Its whirlwinds might overwhelm me, its colours blind me.
An eternity ago I spiralled into being.
Meditation is my forte.
I don’t chase mirages.
The agonies of exile pass me by,
though my eyes are on stalks and follow the caravans
until they melt into the horizon.
I take in the nomads from every laborious angle,
see how the camels creak and bend
across dizzying immensities of sand.
I shall be enough for me.
No dreams of latitude pull me away
from myself. I breathe my way forward
patiently, close to my own apex,
my locomotion slower
than the rocking of the calmest sea.
No claustrophobia catches me,
no heatwave desiccates me.
Sealing myself off from the sun
I’ll sleep foodless homeless at home through lengths of years
and wake like Rip van Winkle
and thrive, my alphabet intact, my muscle-tone unchallenged,
as if time had curled itself up in me and dwindled
to an irrelevance.
This is where I shall live, in this flesh
that has no wanderlust, the shell of myself
I crossed every emptiness thinking
there was a fate for me beyond the border,
a city raised out of dust to harbour us.
The first emptiness was the hole quarried in me
by those I left behind.
The second emptiness: parting with myself as he entered me,
taking it as a rite of passage.
The third: the bodies our group stumbled on:
pilgrims defaced by sand.
The fourth: scavenger fears circling us –
the stranglehold of a vacated sky.
I knew there was space inside me for the desert.
I knew there was space in me beyond the desert.
I know I can walk through the nameless night.
But this desert is absolute
and without end.
‘Keep me up till five
because all your stars are out,
and for no other reason.’
You ripped the moon from the sky,
all your stars were out dancing
and I was drinking roses.
So the world turned a while,
with you at the core
fantastical, hell-bent on breaking
a few idols, a few dreams stuffed with
overdoses of sunlight,
and still I was drinking roses.
Then the stars crept into their shells
and for months all I heard
were the dragons of laughter.