excerpt – ‘This Land Belongs’
Across the lake
Mra’ja the history teacher had spent the night awake, worrying. At the first show of light, he was loathe to start the day. He prayed, then he let the seconds slip by while restless time passed like sand through a bottom-less hourglass. He felt himself suspended in the emptied globe and let the day go forth without him.
Gradually, the spirit moved him to rise and open a window. Peering out, he found the sky was steely grey. A voluminous, grey cloud was becalmed in the absence of a wind. It hung like a submarine above the white buildings of Derna. The air was cool on his warm skin. He shivered. Dogs barked in the hills. Like exclamation marks they punctured his thoughts. Cockerels crowed as they had done all night in random fashion. They gave a feel of useless assertiveness, now in the East, then over there in the West, next in nearby streets in the suburbs south. A ship in the harbour blasted its horn, a rude interruption. The song thrush, a recent arrival in the orchard, was silent, or else flown. Some things were as before. But the possible arrival or departure of the song thrush spoke of seasons changing. In his imagination, Mra’ja willed the song into being. It was not blended like the blackbird’s, but intermittent with pauses and repeats, like history.
Then panic fell upon him.
For Mra’ja was more aware than most that the past lived on in the present. At the beginning of the new school term, he would as usual remind his students of the ill-at-ease ghosts of things thought to be passed. He doubted that his young charges would feel the need to be troubled as he was by the unfinished business of History, because just now the world was seemingly at peace with itself. Summer had been kind, and Ramadan, the month of fasting, had given them spiritual ease and good company.
Ease was a deception, of course. Mra’ja doubted the recent conflict had really ended with the truce. Did a treaty with all its caveats, no matter how honourably signed, ever guarantee lasting peace? More specifically, would the Sultan stand his ground and defend his Ottoman sanjaks in North Africa, if and when the time came to do so? Mra’ja thought not. And the time would come. He could see the Ottoman Empire falling and crumbling around them.
Peace after all was a distraction, an abstract idea, in Mra’ja’s view. It was a wing and a prayer, less tangible than a child’s trust, or, more ominously, more illusive than hope. This strain of thought made him intemperate at times. He was often irritable. Being used to his alarmist commentary on the state of the world, his wife, Maryam, put his despair down to an over-anxious disposition. But then, of late, she too could sense his premonition of war. Talk of the imminence of war was spreading fast, by telegraph and post, from little town to little town all along the coast of Ottoman North Africa, in the forgotten villayet of Tripolitania.
Mra’ja understood well what was at stake. Under the old Ottoman suzerainty, the three sanjaks of Tripolitania – Tripoli, Fezzan and Cyrenaica – had enjoyed a fair degree of freedom to run their own affairs, safeguarded in large part by a long-established interdependence between the coast and the hinterland. This equilibrium was delicate and likely to be challenged by the kind of change imperialist Italy would impose if she could. That was the question – if Italy could? Mra’ja was one of the very few who anticipated what would come after if the bonds that had kept that peace were torn apart.
Tripolitania was a large territory. To the stranger, it appeared boundless, so sparsely populated as to be considered virtually empty. Believing that the Balkan provinces were more key to the strategic advantage of the Ottoman Empire, Italy did not expect the Sultan to honour his imperial commitment to Tripolitania and so to defend her. And therein lay Italy’s opportunity.
Derna, in Cyrenaica, like so many of the coastal towns, was a surprise in waiting. Lying 170 km to the west of Tobruk, and 291 km to the east of Benghazi, she was a tract of plenty, cradled at its southern boundary by a curve of hills which lay at the eastern reach of the Green Mountain, Jebel Akhdar. Its water reserves were a mystery since there were no observable rivers at the surface, and yet the mountain slopes were covered with a dense forest of oak and evergreen carob, living proof of there being a source of sweet water. In lapses of time not yet understood, run-off from the winter rains that fell on the high plateau rushed into the valleys carrying laterite, staining the limestone escarpment iron-red, gouging the deep ravine of Wadi Derna so that Derna flourished as a green wonder, straddling the two sides of the valley. Gardens and fields were replenished by the flood water that flowed across the littoral, inundating the land with its rich alluvium, and carving a nutrient-rich delta similar to the delta of the Nile. But from the beginning, Derna had been inaccessible to shipping due to its east-facing harbour. Derna was intriguing, unexplored, a fertile backwater, awaiting capture.
The Suez Canal had given impetus to trade with the Far East, but Europe had turned its gaze to the continent of Africa, and its northern and western coasts. By 1911, European forays into West African territories were deliv- ering surprising gains. From the northern coast, France had penetrated the Sahel and claimed Tunisia and Algeria for herself. Germany and Spain had designs on Morocco, as had France. Britain was in Egypt. Only the Sultan’s poorly defended territory of Tripolitania remained for Italy. Its Latin name declared its inevitable destiny of becoming Roman again.
The moment of readiness was signalled on June the 4th in 1911, when Rome celebrated the inauguration of the Altar to the Fatherland, a monu- ment dedicated to the glorious memory of Victor Emmanuel 11 and the founding of the state of Italy. In its panoramic terraces of white marble and with its gilt bronze equestrian statue, it commemorated the fiftieth anni- versary of the Unification of Italy. With its national status now affirmed, the future fortune of the Kingdom of Italy had become an almost-sacred mission. The government of the Kingdom, hesitant at first but spurred on by unrest in its industrial centres, dared to envisage Italy joining the club of European Empires, with the resurrection of an ancient Roman one. There would be no resistance to speak of, so the theory went. Dissent could easily be pushed aside, or overwhelmed by force. In any case, the natives, as they deemed them to be, needed rescuing from themselves and their presumed uncivilised way of life.
Mra’ja heard the song thrush calling out, this time in the real world, with its series of interrupted notes. He searched for the brown speckled bird hidden in the autumn-turning leaves of the vine. There was only the one sound of its song, repeating. Except there was also a jangling of pots and pans indoors. Maryam was arranging items in the kitchen. She would take the whole day to prepare the meal that broke the fast. It would be a modestly elaborate affair, the stages deliberate and thoughtful. The siesta would take its time as would the making of bread.
As for Mra’ja, he stood idly by at the door, committed to the lethargy that came from missing his coffee. The day would roll forwards as it must, slowly, allowing time for him to fret some more. He turned to his wife who was making bread for the breaking of the fast. Her loosened tresses, freed from her headscarf, moved to the rhythm of the kneading of dough.