A Thousand Years, One Day
by Edmond Amran El Maleh
translated from the French by Lucy R. McNair
“Paul Celan: no one bears witness for the witness. And yet we always
choose a companion: not for ourselves but for something within us, outside us, that needs us to be
lacking in ourselves in order to cross a line we will not reach. A companion lost in advance,
the very loss that henceforth takes our place. Where do we look for the witness who has no witness?”
Maurice Blanchot, The Last to Speak
The war in Lebanon! June days, summer days under a Parisian sun, hot, torn by violent storms. The war in Lebanon! Was it real?
A man was holding a journal of which we know nothing, nothing but a few fragments, as if, with an incomprehensible gesture, his own hand had torn it up and scattered the pages. Reading at random, decoding absence: an anguished scream fanned out in that space of retreat, powerless before the irreparable, the vanity of speech, the triumph of hatred, an inexorable closure. By sheer coincidence, a mark, a name had escaped from silence and anonymity: Nessim.
He had arranged to meet with Nessim and a lot depended on this meeting.
Nessim… written out in black and white, at daybreak, this first name resonates with a full-bodied, dreamy sonority like an echo cushioned in soft light. Where did it spring from? Why, the Bible of biblical times! It appears, rolls off the lips, calm, soothing. It arrives like an annunciation, the carrier of a multitude of things. In the midst of torments, tempests, it offers shelter, a refuge of serenity. Forever at the beginning of life, it stands at that moment of grace and new promise where past and future fuse in a single incandescence. It is that void and its sweetness of being; death oftentimes endured, intermingling with the breath of birth and rebirth. Made of flesh and blood, Nessim is nonetheless like any man, born to a father and a mother, the same old story. He is not a fictional character, conceived of myth and legend; if his life hugs those shores, it is always because a distance has dug him out from his human anchorage: the life of a completely ordinary man. To what is due then this halo that swaths his life and nourishes the dream, the imagination’s fantastic ride?
We have his life story in his own words. There are no gaps where doubt or the suspicion of embellishment can worm through. In no way does his story need to be reconstituted. Yet sometimes there was the whiff of a suspicion, as when he would evoke the peregrinations, extraordinary for the era, of his grandfather who traveled the Orient, near and far, because then a slippage occurred and the marvelous would erase the marks, the commonplace distinctions, of time and place. Glued to his steps, to the flight of his story, we would enter into a new world that came to us, from father to son, a torchlight carried from generation to generation, a flame of rapture amidst the spark of cymbals igniting the sky.
Nessim, as we’ll soon see, was himself from this race of migrating travelers who, to everyone’s surprise, left this empire of the Setting Sun, this far West, sealed upon its legendary barbarity, forgotten in the night of time, cut off from the rest of the world. Contaminated by our very modern era, we no longer know what it means to travel, reduced by the worthless merchandise our curiosity consumes and that always leaves us unsatisfied. Something else had roused Nessim, something else had set him in motion: the voice or handwriting of his grandfather whose letters, sent from afar, he guarded like a precious possession and preserved with special care as if he were preserving his own life. Held in a cedar wood box inlayed with mother-of-pearl and covered with marbling, this packet his grandfather had sent, taking months to arrive, was in Judeo-Arabic composed in the Hebrew script. The letters had been sent from a great distance, burning with affection and vigilant worried tenderness, thrown like a bottle into the sea, for there was no certainty they would arrive at their destination. A bit crumpled, often yellowed, sometimes marked with a stamp or a seal, the mere envelopes conjured up the pages of a moving saga. Daydreaming on those June days, as he had on other days of his life, Nessim held one of those letters meditatively in his hand marked Cairo… 1880! To be sure of the date one would have to compare the Jewish and Christian calendars. It was one of the letters he was moved to read again and again, no doubt because it was crammed with evocative details and, during those particular days, it suddenly held a profound resonance. Perhaps because its story also mirrored the message it carried, marking with a fold the absence that became definitive after death. To arrive at its destination, this letter had overcome so many obstacles and carried the burden of such an endless anticipation that it had become an occasion of joy and happiness the day it finally arrived. From Alexandria to Tangiers, entrusted to the care of a ship’s captain willing to see it delivered on arrival to a Tangiers merchant who was in business with a Cairo firm. Once it had got there, it had to be turned over to the postal system, run in that era by the German Consulate. Letters were given to a courier, the reqqas, who relayed from town to town, meeting half way along the path after traveling nearly forty kilometers in one day, to exchange correspondence, rest for the night and set out again at daybreak. The letter read:
“To our beloved son, light of my soul and of my eyes. My adored son, may God bless you and protect you. I do not know if this letter will safely reach your hands. Passover comes soon and with it an entire year since I left you, my eyes bathed in tears, a heavy stone upon my heart. At Dar-el-Baroud outside the city walls, as our caravan began to move, I murmured a prayer passing by the tombs of the Oulad Ben Zimro, the patron saints of our beloved city. Will God lend me life to finally see you once again, my pride and joy, to taste the honey of your words? My son, you are a man now since your Bar Mitzvah, do not stray from the righteous path of our fathers, guard over our family of whom you are now the head. Don’t let yourself be distracted from your studies, from the teaching a thousand times sanctified of our venerable rabbi Ephraim whose holiness and wisdom have reverberated outside our city walls. Take good care of our affairs and abide your uncles who are there to advise you.
What to tell you of this long voyage often as incredible as a dream? Our caravan was immense with its camels, mules and horses. A veritable city, when at night, the men, aided by slaves, raised the tents. We carried an incredible quantity of riches, spices, ostrich feathers, gold dust, ivory, and we had only one fear, to be attacked by raiders. But now the routes are fairly secure, our escort strong and well-armed. Only once, at night, did we have an alarm but it passed quickly. We were a mixed group of Jews and Muslims; the latter were traveling to Mecca for their pilgrimage. We had with us a shoheit and thus we could slaughter sheep and chickens that our Muslim friends shared with us. There were musicians, a Souiri singer with a golden voice, we spent nights listening to him. We walked for months and I could not tell you the names of all the towns, all the countries that we crossed. We knew fatigue, even when one is used to traveling on the back of a mule. We had days of cold and rain, days of heat, sand storms that blinded us and dried the gullets and mouths. Some of us took fever. But thanks to God we had with us an Achoubi who came from the Sahara, quite a learned man who knew how to prepare miraculous remedies with the herbs he brought. We had moments of sadness and pain. Haj Taami, whom you know so well and who never once, every time he met you, failed to give you something to buy a sweet, passed away gently. One morning we found him inside his tent. He seemed to be in a deep sleep, his face shining with light. His companions had awoken before him and left the tent without making noise, but his soul had already abandoned his body. We had just left Tunis a few days hence and as we were far from any city we buried him deep in the desert. God intended us to have more than twenty Jews in this caravan. So thus, in that desert, before his grave, we put on the tallitot and prayed, saying Kaddish so that the soul of Haj Thami could enter paradise according to God’s wishes. Our prayers mixed with those of our Muslim companions. Blessed Haj Thami, even if everyone discouraged him from undertaking this journey because of his great age and fragile health. But he was determined to go die in the Holy Land.
What else to tell you! When we finally glimpsed at dawn one day the extraordinary city of Cairo, I fell to my knees and kissed the sandy earth with trembling lips. In what kind of dream was I? Everything whirled in an almost drunken mix: people, places, voices, names. Fervently, joyously, I mumbled the Lord’s name, trembling with fear, as if I would soon stand before the Almighty, but quickly I dismissed that impious thought. The entirety of our sacred Torah echoed in my head. Wide and silty, the river slowly advanced, dyed red, I believed, with blood, my eyes clouded by the turbulence of my thoughts, the coming of Passover in this sacred land, as if I were tossed into the depths of an immense sea. Lost, I no longer knew where to look for a reassuring sign, a gesture to offer me solace.”
Nessim stopped reading. Nessim. It was the name he had received from his grandfather, according to tradition. The power of a name flowed from unknown springs; in an unstoppable river it crossed victoriously over inhospitable lands, casting its sovereign light upon the dark tumult of mixed waters. It was Nessim, him or his grandfather, who, like a newborn, entered into this legendary dawn, the high citadel of a memory one thousand years old. Safed, Tiberiade, Jerusalem: the letters were pressed into the cedar wood box whose fresh, pungent scent watched over a firm presence. They took on life, conjuring open skies, vivid faces, while their folds bore the beauty of women, the bond of friendship, the ardent flame of a faith, amused delight, shocked discovery, the maturation of wisdom, the savor of a fruit, the softness of a garment gathered in anticipation, imprinted with a dream, a body, Bathsheba, Judith, Sarah. The letters mimicked the crazy flight of birds and the charm of the fountains in the gardens of Paradise. They swelled with the roar of peoples cast into the vastness of space, into the fire of a thirsting search for an absolute, trembling before the wrath of the Eternal One! The letters opened, the high mountains split apart, and Nessim, trembling, bowed his head in submission, dazzled, and went forth with a tread as heavy as the world, he went forth as if he meant to carry the entire earth in his hand.
Edmond Amran El Maleh (1917-2010) was a Jewish Moroccan Francophone writer who began his career as a Communist militant in the fight for independence. Heir of the thousand year old interfaith communities in Morocco and witness to their decimation following the mass exodus of Jews in the 20th century, El Maleh turned to literature late in life as a way to confront this loss and its continued misrepresentations. Politically informed, yet in no terms a “littérature engagée,” El Maleh’s novels and essays fully embrace the odyssey of writing, a “poetry of matter” fueled by a deep and situated understanding of the Word and the Book that affiliates him with Joyce, Jabès, Genet, Goytisolo, and the hybrid tradition of Jewish Sufis. He loved art and young people and was often a mentor to emerging writers and artists like Tahar Ben Jelloun and Yamou. Mille Ans, Un Jour (A Thousand Years, One Day, 1986), his second novel, is a caravan of voices that travels through one day in the life and memory of Nessim, a young Moroccan of Judeo-Islamic heritage. This extract, which connects news about the massacre of Palestinians during the 1980 Lebanon War with letters sent from Cairo by Nessim’s grandfather in the 1880s, is taken from the beginning pages of the book.
Lucy R. McNair holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from CUNY Graduate School and translates texts from Francophone North Africa. Her translations include Mouloud Fearoun’s Algerian classic, The Poor Man’s Son, Samira Bellil’s inner city memoir, To Hell and Back, and poetry by Andree Chedid, Venus Khoury-Ghata and Amina Said in The Poetry of Arab Women. Her translation of El Maleh’s short story, “Taksiat,” just appeared in Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four. She lives in Brooklyn.