Saturday, January 22, 2005


workgirl, originally uploaded by oldominion.

We lived for a year in Bougouni, Mali, West Africa. Tabb turned two on Tabaski. That's what the Malians called the Muslim holiday of Eid el Kebir; it honors Abraham's decision to NOT sacrifice his only son, a son years in the begetting, to God. Tabaski is a holiday honoring a story familiar to most Christians and proves, if one needed any more proof, the long-forgotten sympathies between the Judeo/Christian and Muslim traditions: God's intervention between Abraham and Isaac, he who laughs, Abraham's only son by his wife Sarah. It is both a chilling story and a curious choice of an event to celebrate, this non-birth, this non-death, this curious, stained victory. God has told Abraham that in order to show his love for God he must sacrifice not a goat or sheep or any numbers of goats or sheep but instead his only son by his wife Sarah, a son named Isaac, begotten only after years of failing to conceive. Abraham, who is a hundred years old, agrees to God's request. He tells Isaac that they must go worship in the region of Moriah. Abraham gathers his servants and son and they travel to within sight of the mountain, where Abraham tells the servants to wait while he and Isaac scale the mountain in order to pray. He loads the wood to be used in the burnt offering on to Isaac's back.

"Father," says Isaac, shouldering his load as they begin to climb. "The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"
"God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering," answers Abraham.

They scale the mountain, perhaps, as the singer sings, stopping en route to drink some wine. Isaac as a character disappears here in the narrative, becoming as faceless and inhuman as any base animal that might be sacrificed. He becomes a goat, a sheep, nothing more. We do not know what he does when he is bound and placed upon the altar, if he bleats or struggles; we do not know what he does when Abraham's hand rises above him, the knife blade glinting in the dull sun; we do not know what happens when the angel of the Lord intervenes just as Abraham prepares to slay his son, saying, "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son. I swear that your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

Chris has left us. We helped her load up her gear---a single backpack---into Madou's Land Cruiser this morning. She and Andrea are spending a few nights out at a rural village. I couldn't tell if the anger brewing in me was directed towards her for leaving us or towards Bougouni for being Bougouni.

So late-afternoon on our post-nap yala yala, Tabb and I take the road West out of town, he in the barely post-industrial stroller, me on foot. Past the outer rim of Bougouni towards the Baole River there is a French-era stand of eucalyptus trees and across from them an old cluster of teak. Beyond these controlled growths of alien trees the woods clear out, scrub takes over and huge thin coconut palms stretch leaning towards the sky. We are joined by three nice boys. They teach us words in Bamanankan: river is Ba, they say. They find Tabb's jog stroller curious and ask me a question that I do not understand. I am beginning to think the question will remain forever unknown until I finally I realize they are asking me, Is the boy able to walk? "Yes,"I tell them. "The boy can walk."

The hard road ends and the stroller begins to bump over mounds of soft dirt. We continue to walk out the road towards the river, passing odd encampments made of sheets of tin, logs leaned against trees, circles burned into the ground. The sky is white and a hot wind blows dryly. It seems the last tubercular gasp of the harmattan. Hot season, we are told, is but a week away. Our friends tell us the earth will soon be as if on fire, the air still and hot and inescapable.

The brown river lies ahead below us. Down along the muddy shore women bathe and wash clothes. A few rows of weedy papaya trees grow along the edge. Across the river there are more scrub woods, more thin stands of mango, more desolate land.

Soon we are struck full-force by a vinegary rank smell and turn a corner and see the earth, suddenly black, covered by countless steer horns, some bleached white, some with black or dark red pieces of flesh still hanging off. I raise my hand reflexively and cover my face as my eyes burn; Tabb looks back at me and gags. We've been following the well-traveled path to Bougouni's abbatoir.

"Boeuf,"says one of the kids, pointing at all the horns. A metal frame with hooks and chains dangling from it is silhouetted against the horizon. I continue to cover my mouth and nose with my t-shirt. Tabb scowls, points at the primitive metal structure. It looks like a gallows.

The sun drops below the trees behind us as we stand there. The sky is orange, the earth gradually more deeply shaded. What I thought was rich black earth is instead earth encrusted with hundreds of years of blood. As we stand there looking at the skulls and the women bathing in the river the shadows grow black against the ground. Animals cry out from the woods; the women rise glistening from the river; the boys call out and we follow them back to town.
"Tell the boy to walk," they yell, running ahead of us.

* * *

I bought loads of music in Mali. I'm currently selling a few cdrs of folk music I recorded there, as well as the music of other artists whose cassettes I bought and burned to my hd. If you live in Baltimore, check them out at the TRUE VINE on the avenue in Hampden; I'm going to drop some off at ONCE:TWICE:SOUND, a great newish record store on Charles St in the Mt. Vernon 'hood here in Baltimore real soon. Was going to do it today but we are, thankfully, having our first real snow of the year. For any of yall who want to hear these musics and who don't live in Baltimore, email me and I'll send you more details.

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