A Chapter from Amir Tag Elsir’s Ebola ‘76
Translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet
In times of Tragedy,
Things seem real.
Eyes are real.
The hand that greets a neighbor is real,
And the moon is real, not just a fantasy in the distance.
My sweetheart asks me about the meaning of reality,
I refer her question to Tragedy,
Passers-by ask me about the meaning of real blood.
It is that which is sown by Tragedy, I say.
In August 1976, the deadly Ebola virus struck several areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the border town of Nzara in South Sudan. The virus, which causes a severe haemorraghic fever, is thought to have been carried across the border by a textile factory worker. This novel is not about that textile worker nor any of the other characters that appear in the narrative. It is purely a work of the imagination, without any connection whatsoever to real facts. Even the events related to the rebellion and the civil war are not real, and they should not be attributed to factual history.
At noon on that hot August day of 1976, the killer Ebola stalked Lewis Nawa, consumed with the desire to lodge inside his blood.
Lewis hailed from the borderlands of Nzara, in South Sudan. He was an unskilled worker in a small textile factory that produced cotton clothing and was owned by James Rayyak, formerly a fighter with the rebel army opposed to the central government in Khartoum. Lewis had come to the Congo on unexepected and sorrowful business: he had learnt from a traveller of the death of his sweetheart who, after stealing his heart and titillitating his senses for two years, had appropriated herself of all the love he had ever felt for his wife.
He didn’t linger in the city center. He was watchful as he walked down the unpaved road between the stop where the Nzara mini-bus had let him off and the bus-stop to the cemetery, where hundreds of people had been buried. There, on the outskirts of the city, lay the piteous harvest of Ebola’s rampage.
The virus was getting really close now, and it lay in wait for the right moment to attack Nawa. The cemetery’s white stone wall was surrounded with trees, some dead, and others still in leaf, and Ebola was everywhere, inhabiting the body of every person Nawa came across: it was in the blood of the old beggar woman with emaciated cheeks, her hand silently proferred for the half-franc he gave her as he went in; it was in the blood of the security guard leaning on his rifle at the gate, watching visitors going in and out; it was in the blood of all the visitors, whether they caught his eye or not; and it was inside the dead body of the woman on whose account he had made the harrowing journey and on whose tomb he now lay crying, prostrate with grief. She had been alive only two days ago!
The killer Ebola had been terrorizing the people of the country for some time now and couldn’t say why Lewis Nawa caught his fancy, but he was tense with excitement at the idea of migrating to another country in the man’s blood – especially after all the uproar in his native land, where the government had deployed vipers and spiders and every other good and evil thing against him; they had exposed him, they had revealed his identity publicly, and had dispatched vials of his victims’ blood to advanced countries like America, Canada and Australia, where it was scrutinized under fearsome lenses in order to develop a vaccine that would annihilate him.
Truly, Lewis Nawa was not an attractive man, he wasn’t in the least bit handsome; his inordinately thick nose was sometimes covered in white pustules, his shoulders were far too broad, his lips were cracked with heat and thirst, and smack in the middle of his wide forehead were the sacred markings of his tribe, branded onto his skin.
How old was he? Noone knew exactly, but he appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties. His medical history was pristine: no diabetes or high blood pressure, no failing vision, no kidney or prostate ailments, nothing really, except for the swamp-fever that occasionally flooded his body, but it was not considered a disease in that part of the world. His romantic life was unremarkable: the first stirrings of love had come early, he had courted sixteen different girls, some his age, some slightly older or younger, and the only one who ever reciprocated was almost blind and she eventually left him without explanation. Seven years ago, he had married Tina Azacoury, a woman from another tribe who lived with him in Nzara and sold bottles of water on the street with her mother. She was raped six times, and assaulted twice, and while her defilement did not cause Lewis to abandon her, emotional distance had set in between them two years after he had met the woman for whom he now wept bitter tears ... Aline was her name, or Alina as he liked to call her. In any case, it no longer mattered, she was gone forever, the vicious Ebola had seen to it. Nawa couldn’t understand why Ebola had struck Alina and those buried next to her. Mourning relatives were also there, and they too were on the road to perdition thanks to the virus, although they weren’t aware of it, since they dismissed the medical alerts and government warnings against the still unidentified threat and blamed the hundreds of village deaths on the vengefulness of a witch-doctor whose only reality lay in their impoverished imaginations.
Nawa had met the woman while staying in a small hotel on the outskirts of the Congolese capital where he had gone on a pleasure trip. She was an unassuming woman, one of the maids who cleaned the hotel rooms, and he started to visit her once or twice a month, filled with the longings of lovers everywhere. Carrying a bag stuffed with good food, enough to last them two days of uninhibited voluptuousness, he cleaved to the demons of adultery and then left to go back to work, his yearning for her so acute that he would be crazed with desire at their next encounter. It was his good fortune to have been absent when the killer virus had wormed its way into her to squeeze every last drop of blood from her body. Another man, whom she saw when Nawa was gone, transmitted the virus to Aline, who never sought to be faithful.
The man destined to be Ebola’s next victim, whose blood would carry the virus to another country where it would carouse with the same madness, now stopped his weeping. As he dried his tears with a corner of the brightly-colored African shift he was wearing, a little flower seller appeared. She was a skinny, barefoot girl who lived in a hamlet nearby and plied mourners with her tokens of comfort. Though she was slight and somewhat unsteady on her feet, the virus had not yet struck her. She brushed Nawa’s shoulder with a purple flower, whose crown veered to black, and he startled and jumped to his feet. He bought the flower and two others like it, pushed them into the still-damp earth of the woman’s grave and went on his way, unable to tear his eyes from the spot – his poor, lost Alina’s final resting-place.
A group of men of varying ages and physiognomies suddenly swarmed around him, speaking quietly but with a garrulousness which exceeded the bounds of propriety. Noone knew whether they were personal acquaintances of his or merely other mourners wanting to share something with him. What is certain is that most of them carried the virus in their blood and would be succumbing to its effects before long. But Lewis Nawa’s nose was shielded at this point, since he had pulled the shawl up from his shoulder in an attempt to hide traces of his grief, not realizing that by covering his face he was also protecting himself from the tiny droplets of Ebola-carrying saliva in the air.
Wending his way from the cemetery gate to the main road in order to find a vehicle that would take him back into the city-center, he was intercepted by someone whom the virus had failed to fell, the famous blind guitar-player, Ruwadi Monty, otherwise known as The Needle by fans and critics alike. He was a guarded but also handsome man, despite his roaming sightless eyes, and he could smell people exudations a mile away. His outlook was quite Westernized and he claimed to have attended Brussels University which, he said, made much of the fact that he was the first – and last – blind African student to have graduated from its ranks. This was fabrication well beyond the ambit of fiction: the Needle had been living in Kinshasa for sixty years and all the inhabitants and communities of the city knew it. His degree in music was entirely homespun, an African credential earned from diligent effort inside the walls of his own house. He had visited Brussels, it was true: he had performed at the grand Théatre de la Monnaie with a sensational choir in a benefit concert for the unfortunate Third World and had swung along the Avenue des Arts – one of the city’s busiest and most dazzling thoroughfares – with his guitar.
The guitar-player walked in step with a pretty twenty-year old girl named Darina who served as his guide. The sad man from Nzara meant nothing to the venerable old musician, and the Needle had no reason to accost Nawa but he couldn’t help himself. Ever since he was a little boy, he had intercepted passers-by, and once he had achieved fame he would stop people to ask what they thought of his rising star. He would’ve stopped his mother, had she come out of the house; he would stand in the way of armed men who were known to be dangerous, and whom he knew to be dangerous; he would have intercepted his own shadow had it been in the crowd on the street. There was no reason for him to be at the cemetery that day, he had come there just to obstruct the road.
The Needle had often travelled to Nzara and other places near and far, and he displayed the same idosyncrasies wherever he went. He organized noisy concerts full of rash and frivolous spectators, including beautiful girls and others that were quite unsightly, not that he could see any of them, of course. The people who attended these events were the organizers and dedicated ‘party-animals’ who went to any show that was being held, no matter how uninteresting. Sometimes, he came across tribal chiefs or local council representatives at whose tables he would dine would earn a bit of money from entertaining a local strongman who had made a fortune in some war.
Rawadi extended a hand that was so virtuosic it deserved its own stage name – but alas, it never came to pass – and he started feeling around the grieving man’s face. He ran his fingers over the disfiguring marks from the ritual bloodletting and figured out what tribe he belonged to as easily as he took a breath. Then, he felt around the Nawa’s shawl and said: “Mister, forgive me for stopping you so unceremoniously and inconveniencing you ... but I wanted to admire your shawl. Blue is my favorite color.”
How astonishing! Well , of course it was not astonishing at all, since Nawa’s shawl really was blue, as were Rawadi’s tailored suit and silk shirt.
“Thanks,” replied Nawa, pulling his shawl closer to hide as much of his grief-stricken face as he could. Going on his way, he heard the guitar-player calling after him. “We’ll meet soon, sad man, in your hometown of Nzara, in South Sudan ... I am playing a big show there ... Come to the show! Come, and forget.”
That the blind man had been able by feeling his forehead to tell which tribe and nation he belonged to was unsurprising, but Nawa seemed unfazed by the musician’s correct assessment of the color of his shawl. Was it due simply to the sorrow gripping his heart? Would it dawn on him later that it was something worthy of surprise? Or had he simply eliminated surprise from his range of emotions?
To Nawa’s ears, the blind man’s words were unremarkable. There was nothing arresting about them, they were just like the words he heard all day at the textile factory where his workmates had never had anything particularly interesting to say in all the years he had worked there; they were like the words he heard at the market, in the meat and vegetable sellers’ stalls, or in the shops of those merchants who carried goods favored by the Arabs; they were just like the words he heard when he went to Manko Nokosho’s, the barber who cut the hair of two-thirds of Nzara’s male population and derived pleasure from his labors. Nawa went over the words in his mind again, but the truth was that they seemed to him just as ordinary as any others, the same old words that his wife Tina used, over and over again, ever since he had stopped loving her. Thinking of Tina reminded him of his deceased sweetheart, and he was overcome by such a fierce longing that he almost turned back to the gravesite, so that he could weep again and push more black-crowned purple flowers into the still-damp earth.
The people who had spoken to him at the cemetery were utterly convinced that an evil witch-doctor had been sowing death througout the villages and cities of the land for no good reason. Nawa empathized with them, not necessarily because he felt that he should, but simply because they were his community, his people, and they all shared the same outlook as well as a the inclination to be empathetic to each other. The country’s inhabitants had all heard of the so-called mystery virus; the literate among them had read the press releases mimeographed on cheap paper by the ministry of health; everyone had heard talk about the fearful killer over the radio-waves, when broadcasts of beloved traditional songs by the likes of Draydo Lenoah, Suleiman Agho, Ali Farka Toure and Menilik, the Ethiopian, were regularly interrupted. But still, the idea that it was the work of an evil witch-doctor prevailed. Why the idea had mobilized entire tribes and enchanted emancipators, providing them with the raw materials for their exorcisms as they chased evil out of every burrow it inhabited and fought it to the death.
Nawa shared the same mindset: his brain was just as predisposed to gullibility as theirs were, his palms, like theirs, were sweaty regardless of hot or damp weather, the same hormones ran through his body, he shared the same late onset of greying hair and all the other typical features that characterize Africa’s burden. Thus, on that hot noon, there was no other emotion in his repertoire besides sorrow at the loss of his beloved and stifled rage against the evil witch-doctor that had killed his sweetheart and left him adrift.
Nawa found a ride to Kinshasa in the back of a pick-up truck. The thirty-something driver had stopped for him willingly, winking and bantering as he did so. There was one pair of mules on board, and two passengers, a man and a woman, with whom nothing was exchanged. The man had a hacking cough as a result of a benign complication of the flu that had nothing to do with the Ebola epidemic, and the woman, sitting across from him on a rough metal seat that had been especially installed on the truck bed, seemed in great pain. Although she cradled her bulging belly in both hands, Nawa sadly couldn’t tell that she had reached the end of her pregnancy and was having painful contractions, that the man with a terrible cough was her husband, and that they were on their way to the closest hospital in Kinshasa ...
All he could think of was that she had overeaten and was bloated from indigestion!
Nawa was a thick-headed sort of man. He had taken no notice of the green vistas along the one paved road out of town, and scarcely smelt the hides of the two beasts tied up beside him on the bed of the pick-up truck, when the pregnant woman let out a cry. He watched the bloodied water trickling out from under her, and only then did it strike him that he had lived with two women, from two different countries, neither of whom had borne any children. But before the notion was dispelled, or turned into some kind of self-pity, he found himself squat in the middle of the road on the edge of the city. The driver, who was still furiously winking, had dumped him rom the truck and sped away to get that woman to some place where she could give birth. Nawa didn’t give much thought to the man’s winking, and even had he done so, he wouldn’t have known what to think of it. It was truly not impudence on the part of the cattle-truck driver but a chronic and at the time incurable ailment of the optic nerve.
After being let off the cattle truck, Ebola’s next victim had a nasty way to walk before he was able to find another ride to the center of town, this time aboard a decrepit old truck driven by a one-eyed Congolese. He had reached one of the smarter streets of the capital – no garish prostitutes here, no clinging beggars, or any other sign of tawdry life. The street belonged in effect, if not literally, to the old magician Jamadi Ahmad who, for years now, could be found there at all times of day on any day of the week. His conventional performances had so inspired a municipal worker with admiration that he removed the sign with the street-name on it, and replaced it with another, improvised one. Instead of Zubi St. the sign read Jamadi Ahmad St. in a hand-written scrawl.
And here was the magician, surrounded by an audience unlike one that a truly clever magician could marshal because Jamadi had lost his special touch years ago. Over the last decade, he had lost the kind of fan-base that a magician would be proud to call his own: no more players from the national soccer team, because they had all found their way to countries more attractive than their own; no more power-hungry politicians, because they had died in streetside executions without judicial process; and he had almost lost a close relative who came to his shows several times a year and give him some financial support when she was claimed by the president of a neighboring country – except for the fact there there was a succession of military coups that failed miserably.
Nawa stopped dead in his tracks and stood mesmerized by the sight of the magician whom he had never seen before, despite numerous visits to Kinshasa. At that precise moment, Jamadi Ahmad was placing the last fluttering dove inside his cloth bag and pulling out a hare from a hole in the side of the bag, which he then proceeded to return to the bag before pulling out a thickly-feathered white chicken.
Nawa clapped with delight, but his was the only applause to be heard – the audience had long ago given up the habit of clapping. They were in agreement that no matter how exciting the sleight-of-hand there would be no applause until the magician came up with some new trick. And that had yet to happen ... The magician produced six razor-sharp blades from a coarse-cloth hat he was wearing, he took his time swallowing them and then proceeded to inhale a red cotton thread. Nawa brimmed with tension, his hands trembled, and he reached feverishly into his pocket for a franc to drop into the magician’s almost empty cup. When Jamadi reached his hand into his throat and pulled out the thread, hung at regular intervals with the six blades, Nawa could no longer contain himself. Laughing with relief, he rushed to the magician and threw his arms around him. He had forgotten all about his sorrow over the loss of his sweetheart and forgotten too that a killer was abroad and that by hugging an itinerant street-magician, who ate and drank the Lord alone knows what, he was taking a gigantic risk which one shouldn’t take.
Noone knows why the old magician rejected Nawa’s tempestuous embrace, why he bristled and stamped his feet and abruptly ended the show which would otherwise have run until midnight. He gathered his paraphernalia and locked it away in his big trunk, as murmurs of speculation ran through the crowd: was the magician suffering from indigestion because of the bean stew he ate every day before the show from that filthy restaurant? Or was it simply because he was foolish and didn’t like strangers? Had the stranger’s sudden embrace foiled some new trick he had planned on introducing in order to appease his audience’s demand that he switch up his routine?
For Ebola, the killer-virus, whether the magician smiled or frowned, it was all the same. He had his sights on Nawa and this might in fact be a better opportunity for him to use him as his conduit to go on a killing spree in another country, since the exhausted stranger was now hemmed in by the rest of the crowd. Ebola had been nervous earlier, fearing that Nawa would cut short his trip and go in search of the bus back to his country – and then, all would be lost, and a new visitor would have to be found.
Shocked by the magician’s sudden fury, Nawa stood riveted to the spot. His eyes recovered their sad cast and looked hesitant. Even though Jamadi Ahmad knew for certain what that look meant, he ignored it. Pointing to his wooden trunk, he said to Nawa in French, ‘Next time, read this notice before letting your feelings get the better of you!’ (As it turned out, Nawa understood what he said since he had worked for a French family in Nzara years before he had started at the textile factory.) He and the rest of the assembled crowd turned to look at the trunk. DEAR SPECTATORS, it said in red lettering on the lid, PLEASE REFRAIN FROM CLAPPING AND FROM EMBRACING AT ALL TIMES.
The truth is, the sign wasn’t new at all. Although noone had ever noticed it, it had appeared along with the magician all those years ago. But no one had ever been struck with the excitement that Nawa felt and therefore been given cause to heed the warning. Now, the warning would become infamous, it would make the rounds of the town and gain such common currency in everyday life that a man might write on his pyjamas ‘Dear wife, please refrain from embracing me however intense your desire and passion may be’; or maybe a failing student would modify the idea slightly and write on his exam paper ‘Honorable teachers, please refrain from failing me, however dim-witted I may be’; it was perhaps that very warning that would inspire the authorities clamp down on their citizens and issue new laws, under the following banner headline: ‘By order of the government, please refrain from protest, were the entire citizenry to meet its demise.’
It was a dangerous expression. That’s how it was described by a journalist who happened to be in the crowed, by a community organizer for the rights of women and children, and by an activist who had just been released from jail and had come to enjoy his new found-freedom. He swore that he wouldn’t let anyone embrace or hug him until he had expressed all his pent-up feelings and cursed the government and gone to prison all over again. As for Lewis Nawa, the warning had no effect whatsoever, other than to deepen his uncertainty; and as for the killer Ebola, well, he was extremely restless; the chase had gone on too long and the man from Nzara remained out of reach.
While it is true that Zubi Street, or Jamadi Ahmad Street according to the fawning municipal worker, was a desirable destination, it was only so if the magician were present – as he had been these many years. When he stopped a donkey-cart passing by and lifted on to it the paraphernalia of his ledgermain, some which he used daily, and some enrobed in cobwebs, and left for an unknown destination, the assembled crowd was aghast. They couldn’t believe their eyes and stood rooted to the spot, certain that this was the new trick they had all been waiting for these many years. They looked around, taking in the puddles of stagnant water, the windows of broken-down houses overlooking the street, digging around their pockets for something noone was quite sure about. What they did know for sure, was that they were searching for something and that they would surely find it.
Kanini had been keyed up waiting for the magician to come up with the missing trick, but in the charged and suspenseful moments following his disappearance, all the tension fell away from her. Kanini was a young girl who was born in a horse-stable just outside Kinshasa. She was of unknown parentage and had grown up, abused and violated by the grooms and horse-owners and the young teenagers of neighboring farms until she was eighteen. Looking around the fifty or so stunned spectators, she singled out Nawa. He seemed less bewildered than the others, and it was because of him that her time on Zubi St. was pleasurable, as he had forced a seasoned magician to flee the place. She read the sign on the trunk with difficulty because she was better versed in the levity of the body than in any kind of language or fancy talk. Her vocabulary was quotidian, the lexicon of ordinary talk, aside from the naughty language that helped her earn a living. She had left the countryside a year ago, roaming the city in search of visitors she could accompany wherever they pleased, sometimes for a pretty penny, but mostly for the price of dirt.
Lewis didn’t appeal to her the way a man might because he was handsome or physically attractive or because his pockets were filled with hidden riches, but he was the only foreigner around. However broken their oars and no matter how empty their pockets, foreigners always had enough to pay for travel and board.
Lying in wait, Ebola observed the young girl pressing herself invitingly against the back of his intended victim, and he smiled. He saw her nudging towards his scartissued face and laughed, almost cackling as he watched the stranger walk away with the young girl whose blood he had contaminated only the day before. He followed them until they turned off the street, swinging along dirty neighborhoods and deserted alleyways until they reached the one-story building. It echoed with cries and knowing laughter and every so often a a drunk would stagger out unsteadily.
The deed was done.
And that is how on a sorrow-filled visit to the Congo, Lewis Nawa of Nzara became the host for Ebola to cross the border to another country.
[Translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet. The excerpt is from Amir Tag Elsir, Ebola `76 (Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2012).]