As they had raised their chèches out of respect, I wondered what the elders were really thinking. If they regarded it as unusual for a foreign woman to travel alone and admit herself to their home, they had been too polite to say.Experience told them to be on guard. What good had ever come from the West? Everyone who had ever come here had wanted something.
I was not so much a guest as a representative of my country. Worryingly, since some had ever heard of it, for them I was a representative of the West. I hoped I had not offended. Western pragmatism is often thought to lack finesse. Dressing modestly, avoiding gazes, such things can be learned, but not the way we walk, our gestures, our skin and the inflections of our voice.
Samir thought Fleabag had to be treated by a marabout for her psychological injuries, since camels, like humans, remember the cruelty inflicted on them by humans, but as I understood it, a marabout treats people. I couldn’t see how or why we needed one for a camel, and I certainly could not grasp why Suleyman, with all his experience and knowledge, was so keen on the idea of traveling to see one. I imagined it was because of money. Did they think I was born yesterday?
Perhaps I was underestimating the strength of their conviction. Islamic marabouts has always held considerable power in many central Saharan regions, where they conduct marriages and funerals, act as judiciaries, teach the Qur’an and mediate in disputes. To hold the position of marabout is to enjoy a great responsibility. Training takes time, for if a marabout tries to learn too many verses too quickly, it is said he attracts misfortune.
Whereas a herbalist cures with plant and tree medicines a marabout evokes or writes passages from the Qur’an using a blend of religious and traditional methods. Samir put it thus: his father was a generalist and a herbalist, whereas the marabout was a specialist, although, like all healers, he had to know which trees cure which diseases, whether to use bark or root mixtures and when to use unscented or scented remedies, since some bad spirits apparently responded to good ‘odours’.
Baraka, the marabout’s speciality, is a blessing regarded with reverence. Like many people, my new friends believe that God is eternal and powerful, but that He is capable of destruction and punishment. Baraka is His grace – a benediction or holiness coming directly from Him. It can be possessed by a person, or located in places and objects, such as date palms, milk and good grazing pasture. It is ruined by impurity, that evil caused by the Kel Essuf lit spirits of the wild and djinn, those invisible beings who live and die like humans, but who are essentially wicked. The desert, according to the Tuareg, is haunted by these beings.
Baraka is regarded as a blessing so deep that it permeates every cell, an act so intense that it brings good fortune for a lifetime. Such is its power that it is said to heal afflictions and bring prosperity, granting forgiveness to the most wretched of sinners. In Samir’s eyes it could even restore milk to the breasts of a dry woman.
Who was I to argue?