A Yemeni Passage

by Derek Franck

Copyright 1997 by Azimuth Press (NY and Beirut), ISBN 0-9656570-0-0

[The following excerpt is posted on Yemen Webdate by special arrangement with the publisher. Mr. Franck's book (440 pages, 30 illustrations) is available for $24.95 (Canada$28.25) from Alexander Distribution, 65 Macedonia Road, Alexander, NC28701 (1-800-472-0438), e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


For some time I wandered about the Yemen in search of a dawshan, a man as rare and swift as a white oryx and ever moving like a stream. Ranging the tip of Arabia, I tracked him across his ancient habitat, along the coast of the Red Sea, across a desert,through a land that was scored like the soles of a plowman, along paths that gradually rose above steaming valleys to peaks that pierced the clouds, past terraced fields, across gravel plains days distant from the closest settlement. Once, owing to the lack of a clear route, I had to return to the sea to reach the mountaintop where one had been spotted, but he was gone by the time I got there,for the dawshan took trails that I, a stranger, did not see and obeyed instincts that I could only presume.

For a while I considered abandoning my search, until I recalled the years I had waited to enter the Yemen,whose doors had opened briefly to admit me but might shut again soon. Then on 2 Rajab, after another month of wandering through the maze of riverbeds by which I penetrated deeper into the mountains that hung like layers of curtains between the Empty Quarter and the sea, I reached a castaway hamlet, where I determined to rest for a day There, at that hour of a winter morning when the sun stirs the mist in a highland village, I saw him perched upon a low wall, which raised him to a height not much above the tallest man in that gathering

Someone nearby beat a drum. The market, at dawn, that had commenced to mill and mend and chant and spend and bake and barter suddenly paused. Even the mist and the sun ceased their morning frolic as the dawshan cried out in a shrill voice that pierced all the words of description I had gathered over the year sand linked that moment with the cries of his ancestors:

"As the cauldron boils over the potatoes acclaim
the wielder of the paddle and the quencher of the flame."

Announcing a truce between two tribes that morning, he came to that market as a herald. On other days, in other villages in which I would later visit with him, the dawshan delivered an oral obituary, belittled a tribal foe, introduced the guests at a wedding party, uttered war boasts, and once, spotting a nobleman with a pedigree longer than his unwrapped turban, recited his genealogy until the lord's eyes relaxed like a petted cat's.

Protected by the tribes, he moves unchallenged between enemies. Dependant upon the largess of others,he crosses the land in search of a linguistic opportunity: a battle,an armistice, a birth, a death, a bountiful harvest. He relies upon his prodigious memory, his tongue, and his strong legs. His bed is temporary Occasionally he sleeps on the roof of a patron's house or burrows among some discarded sacks in a caravansary, but more often he pauses between destinations, finding shelter in a brush arbor,beneath a shelf rock, or in the embrace of a dune where he hears and smells with the fennec the approaching sandstorm.

He is everywhere, it seems, and nowhere, aman included by tradition yet socially disparaged, performing a function growing obsolete by the rise of government over tribe and by the illusions cast by more modern means of communication. He is the descendant of dawashin. If he sires a male child, that child too will be called a dawshan. Some say his title is a corruption of dhushan (keeper of the matter); others find noise (dawsha) in his name.

As I stood there listening, some of his audience began to turn aside, annoyed by his sharp voice, amused at first, then bored by his tedious delivery, confused by his oral gymnastics in which syllables leapfrogged over one another while meaning vanished and reappeared, either not understanding or notcaring that the handles of a pot are adhan (ears), that wordsare daughters of our lips. Some, though, continued to listen, perhaps feeling, as I, like a witness to the past, as when one ponders just how many years water has been tumbling off yonder mountain. He spoke as the medieval grammarians intended us to, in an Arabic of standard equations and infinite variables, leading those of us who struggled to keep up past bursting mountains, through a devastated village,into a battle we were unprepared for, and at last to a tranquil valley and the feast of the truce.

For some time after he finished, he squatted upon that wall, feeling the warmth of many gazes, wanting to prolong his hour of attention. But when he reopened his eyes, he saw that only the drummer and I remained.

After noon prayers I accompanied the dawshan out of the village. He gathered sticks for the supper fire as we moved down the thousands of steps toward a wadi that, after the great heights of the day, seemed like the bottom of the earth. His speech varied with the terrain: gusts of words that had gathered during his solitary climb were now released by our descent, followed by long pauses as we labored toward the next rise. We never conversed, for he would not answer a question directly and rarely asked one himself, though he would respond by stories that in his rambling manner touched upon the subject that I had broached. Whereas before I had passed through an anonymous land, I learned by his tales that most every knob, stream, spring, and hollow had a name, that here a temple once stood through whose columns the wind sounded a somber tone, that there, by that path, in the days of the Himyar,camels laden with incense marched from Zafar. Occasionally he used words in different senses, broadening my definitions of certain familiar terms so that, by his speech, I came to know that a sword has a shoe, and a buckle has a tongue.

Our linguistic excursions within that journey continued over several seasons: through changes in climate,elevation, hunger, and terrain; from one mountain outpost to the next; through provinces seized by drought; and besideaudiyathat bore floods.

One morning as we helped beat, with our shirts, the locusts out of a farmer's crop, I sensed the dawshan's growing interest in what seemed to me an isolated event. Suddenly the insects rose, swarming with those from other fields and flying on before us, darkening the horizon like a cloud's shadow. And so he had filled his stories with local incidents that gathered into broader themes: the cook who added too much bisbas to the soup, which aroused an imam's temper and provoked a war; the storm that began with a few clouds over the Red Sea and resulted in a flood that breached a dam, prompting the collapse of a city-state.

From that day forward I began to record the obscure history of his thoughts, which meandered like an underground stream beneath the official histories that I had read. Guided by his attention I began to examine common affairs of life that I might have overlooked: the seeds that dropped from a bird's beak into the crevice between two boulders, the water that dripped like sweat down a cliff's face, the current carrying a piece of driftwood to the Yemeni shore, the desert dwellers who, for no apparent reason,excavated a dune.

Then one day as we traveled east and he was unusually quiet, it occurred to me that he had been leading me all along, in his roundabout way, to a particular spot. That evening we continued walking through a terrific storm. Like two great armies,bolts of lightning clashed repeatedly on a distant ridge. Rivulets appeared around us, converging as they flowed downhill. After a while the rain fell so hard and steadily that it seemed to produce no sound at all. But the dawshan kept moving through that weather, using his cooking pot for a rain shield, glancing behind, from time to time, to see that I still followed.

Finally we halted upon a promontory where,by the lightning, I saw waves of mountains advancing beneath the clouds toward our narrow ledge. By a twisting path he led me to shelter beneath that rock we had stood upon. There he began to build a fire with wood that he or another pilgrim had stowed beneath the stone roof.

As the flames illuminated the ground before us, I suddenly noticed a rock structure no higher than my chin, no wider than my outstretched arms, of the kind that Yacoub and Ibrahim raised to the Lord. Following him upon my knees through an opening on one side, he pointed to a stone tablet that had been built into one wall By the firelight, through the doorway and the gaps between the rocks, I began to quietly study the words before us. But the dawshan,who could not write the first letter of his name, wanted me to read aloud

"'In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,'" I began in the Arabic, which I translate here. When my voice faltered, he added sticks to the fire.

"PECKING upon this stone in the year 1167 Hegira, I, Qadhi Ayub bin Saif al-Kolani, the most abject of God's scribes, have by His grace survived plagues and wars and [illegible] and exile among a pagan tribe so that I might record this memorial before I die.

"BEHOLD from this ledge the city of at-Taufiq, a torch raised by Governor Mutahhar bin Tra'ad al-Hawlaani (peace be upon him) by whose light men streamed out of a dark and perilous countryside to find security within the walls he thickened, salvation in the four mosques he endowed, justice before his majlis, occupation in the city lanes and shops, virtue and hope in their lives.

"FOR during his reign he raised a great army and secured the trade routes about at-Taufiq so that all honorable men might pass through the town gate and find within his walls a fair and thriving market, buyers for their products, true scales, standard measures, shelter for their livestock, and wide lanes.

"THOUGH all earthly kingdoms are fleeting, all men, as I, pass, Mutahhar cast his brilliance over this land of many shadows and a few remote lights. For years I have tended his memory, a single flame others have attempted to snuff out, until this hour when, by God's favor, I relight Mutahhar's torch. Now I, an old man, weary but content, lay down my hammer and chisel for my final rest.

"MAY God have mercy upon my soul."

Had I faced the dawshan as well as the tablet, I might have read slower, or paused, but it was not until I turned from the memorial that I noticed the peculiar effect these words had upon him. For some time he stared vacantly into the distance, like a mystic absorbed by a single word. Then his mouth began to twitch as if he were speaking rapidly. But I heard no sound

Returning to the fire, he began to pass a bare sole over the coals. As I took up his hand and drew him away he suddenly began to talk, though for some time his speech was a stew of confused syntax, obscure and archaic terms, and plain nonsense

As I sat there listening, too exhausted by our journey to stir, I realized that he was yet leading me, causing me to leap with him, back and forth over the boundary between meaning and sound. Then, as the fire burned out and darkness swallowed the altar and the dawshan, the Yemen began to speak clearly in his ancient idiom and I commenced my service as one of the scribes of this land. Only now&emdash;years, several dictionaries, and many marches later&emdash;have I, who once so self-assuredly led him away from the fire, felt confident enough to share the curious history I believed I heard that night.

Chapter 30

Everyone called him himar Saqaf (Saqaf's donkey) except Saqaf, who knew that the animal belonged to no one. Long ago they had commenced a struggle marked by slinging of head and slapping of reins, by kicking of trough and withholding of grain. Gradually they had reached an understanding by which one would do a limited amount of work for the other's provision of feed, water, and pasture The terms of that treaty were inscribed in their memories and, with the exception of a few days over the years during which one party tested the other's recollection, they had honored their agreement for over two decades.

As Saqaf left behind him a flight of plowed terraces upon which tribesmen and exiled townsfolk might lay aside fear and distrust and pick up hoes and rakes, Safir stepped soundlessly toward himar Saqaf. He doubted what Saqaf had confidently stated: that he would be an amendment to the two-party agreement. With a small brown cup of grain mixed with molasses in one hand as compensation for Saqaf's absence, Safir hitched the jack to a bundle of branches and commenced to lead him back and forth across the terrace

About the time the village women passed on their way to fetch water, he relaxed his grip upon the reins. There,through the steam rising from the donkey's back, Safir saw himself as the farmer Saqaf, harrowing his way to the mountaintop. The jack,though, figured otherwise. Suddenly he halted and shook his head anybody, producing a sound not unlike an overheated man hurriedly removing his coat. By the time the first woman returned from the well, the donkey had revoked the treaty, one clause at a time. He brayed, then stepped back into the branches and scraped his side against the wall until the harness broke. In a final comment regarding compensation, he kicked the empty cup down two terraces

By then Saqaf, who had been watching from the field above, returned to answer the donkey himself. He unhooked the harrow, hoisted Safir atop the jack, and peered for some moments into the animal's eyes. Facing the donkey toward the village, Saqaf started him forward with a slap upon his rump.

As they climbed together, the field of battle grew smaller as first one, then many, peaks appeared through the donkey's eyes. Safir felt the jack's warmth as the animal's muscles shifted beneath him. From that height the ground seemed more treacherous than before, with its many rocks and depressions for four small hooves to avoid. He watched the donkey's ears pivot toward the sound it produced when its legs brushed some sedge growing out over the trail. He inhaled too as the donkey sniffed the ground before stepping over a rock.

At the same time the donkey felt the warmth of his burden as it stiffened and relaxed with each sudden movement. Weighing no more than a couple of sacks, it smelled of smoke and hay like the one who each evening dropped feed in his trough. He felt it too as strokes upon his neck. This burden too produced little noise

"To this animal thou appearest larger than thou truly art," Saqaf explained. "With a bit of metal, some rope,and a few belts of leather, a man advanceth the delusion and tilleth his field." In contrast to his plodding speech, Saqaf worked rapidly,first ducking under the donkey's neck, then reaching over its back and under its belly, all the time buckling, tying, and pulling fast. Before the animal shifted his weight from his left legs to his right ones, Saqaf repaired the harness, hitched the donkey to a plow, and handed the reins to Safir.

"I suppose it matters not what thou sayest .. . 'tis the sounds, I suppose . . ." Walking faster than he was inclined to talk, Saqaf disappeared around the curve of the terrace with the end of his sentence.

Figuring he might speak through the reins,Safir jerked one hand, sending a slowly cresting wave through the length of the left rope. The donkey stayed put. He sent the same message down the other rein, and then through both at the same time. Except for a slight quivering of his chin in response to a fly that landed in his whiskers, the donkey remained still.

As Safir stood there, wondering what to do next, the donkey grew impatient and began to step back into the beam of the plow.

"La (no)!" Safir cried out. The word startled the speaker as much as the jack. Both of them grew as stiff as the plow. "Uqdam (forward with thee)," he said, reinforcing his instructions with two surging waves through the ropes. His voice,which sounded odd, hurt his ears.

The donkey started forward a little too quickly Safir fumbled for the plow handle while trying to hold the reins By the time they crossed a third of the field, he held the plow upright and its point bit into the soil.

As the earth flopped over in an unbroken curl, it sounded like a mother hushing her frightened children,prompting the plow boy to relax his grip on the handle and the donkey to slow his gait.

When they reached the boulders at the end of that terrace, they rested before the arena of fields over which distant sounds passed like cloud shadows. Safir stood there for sometime before that land, behind a donkey that just then demanded no replies, breathing deeply as he had not in some time. As the sun rose before him it seemed to fill his lungs. He gazed upon the unbroken furrow and felt the handle of the plow that had broken the surface of his thoughts.

The donkey turned on his own-not too narrowly-daintily avoiding the slack reins, and commenced the next pass parallel to the first, for it knew that the sooner they finished the sooner he would be fed.

"Uqdam," Safir repeated, instructing himself this time as he snatched the departing reins and raised the plow. By then the donkey had grown accustomed to the trailing voice

Later that morning the sun pierced the lingering mist, drawing steam again from the back of the donkey. Stumbling occasionally as he continued to cross that rocky field,Safir recalled his unsteady footing aboard the Tipoo. Back and forth he retraced his path in the same circles that had brought those of the city back into his life: the treasurer, several terraces below,methodically dropping his rake as if to beat his words back into the ground; Yunis, with the tinsmith, at the edge of that field, throwing a rock up a bank, then watching as it rolled back down to their feet;the upholsterer, who still wore a feather in his head cloth; Tabassum, examining a rock he had struck with his hoe, touching it as he hadthe clerk's face on the day he had walked through the Great Ear; theqadhi, kneeling as if in prayer as he worked his hoe; the dawshan,climbing atop an arbor on the terrace above from which he mightlighten the task with words. As Safir watched the soil break in a continuous wave, as he smelled the earth's fragrances like memories released, the sounds of the herald joined the sigh of the plow. He listened to the voice to which he felt bound:

"Beside a rock-strewn plot where a wadi turned, amid the sounds of moving water and browsing goats, I, the son of a dawshan, minded my sister, who lay in a head cloth stretched between two trees. As my people grubbed and planted the abandoned field, I felt the warm breath of a goat upon my neck as we watched my sister sucking her fingers.

"Before we pulled the first radish that season, the clear ribbon of water that meandered through the wadi suddenly changed to a brown torrent that broke over the banks, sweeping away our tools and tents and depositing more rocks in their place.

"As we had done in seasons past, we gathered those things not washed away, packed them on our donkey, and moved upstream behind out goats. As we walked, we searched the banks for nuts and berries to eat with our milk.

"Sometime after we camped for the night, my father continued to move us, by firelight, in a cadence that recalled the donkey's gait. As the women, weaving a tent of goat hair for a higher camp, followed with their hands, my father turned a rabbit hunt into a war and showed us a donkey's face when it snagged its tail in the crevice of a stump. That day we had stumbled through a nameless land, cut by an impassable gorge that required us to double back over a field of gray rock that vexed the donkey and cut our feet. But that evening we made the journey again, leaping over the canyon now no wider than a whisker, recrossing the rock field my father named at-Tasfiq for the racket the goats raised there with their hooves, plunging into a dark hollow he called al-Gallaya al-Aswad for the blackened kettle hanging over our fire. In that copse he uncovered a spring beside a field of soil so loose that it swallowed our plow. There, he unburdened the donkey for a permanent camp where we journeyed no farther than the length of a crop row. Soon my father was driving the donkey in circles, threshing the sorghum on which we were growing strong, while the women made baskets from the leaves. In our garden we grew melons we had to harvest with levers, swollen cauliflowers as white as clouds, peppers so plump they rested on the ground, carrots we had to yank up with the ass, chilies so hot we had to sit in the wadi to eat them, beets and parsnips and-

"Suddenly my father stopped, interrupted by the wind moaning over the empty pot. He looked over to where his hungry daughter lay, beneath a cloth vibrating like a locust wing. True, he could not feed her words, but by words he might find her food.

"We recommenced climbing a mountain early the next day, well ahead of the sun. About the time the goats began to stray from the trail in search of water, we reached a level place. There we came upon a woodcutter sitting on a rock. His face and hands were covered with soot and his clothing was singed. On the path before him stood a donkey trailing pieces of rope hitched to a pair of charred rails. The animal's ears pointed to the smoldering wood.

"In words that cleaved in his throat by which my father guessed he was of the region of Buhays, the woodcutter waved a trembling finger at the donkey as he shielded his eyes. 'Beware of ash-Shaitana (the she-devil),' he said, 'for whatever she looks upon bursts into flames.' As we rested, the woodcutter explained his warning.

"That morning he had loaded his sled with a pile of sticks that rose toward the treetops. After taking a few difficult steps the jenny refused to pull the overloaded sled. The woodcutter yanked the animal by her bit and poked her with a pointed stick. Gradually the sled grew lighter as he removed limbs from the load and beat her until broken wood littered the trail. Still the jenny refused to budge. So the woodcutter gathered some dry grass and built a fire beneath her belly, stoking it with sticks from the diminishing load. When the donkey felt the heat, she finally moved . . . but only a few feet. As the fire rose between the runners, the wood gatherer tried to extinguish the blaze with his coat. But by then flames licked the top of the load. While the woodcutter danced helplessly at the edge of the path, his sled and timber changed to ember and ash.

"As the woodcutter beat the soot from his coat, my father offered to lead ash-Shaitana away. 'Take her,' he replied. 'Remove her from my sight lest the bushes and trees she ignite.' Before the wood gatherer dared to glance at the donkey again, my father cut loose the runners and tied the jenny to our jack. We slipped off into the wilderness around Buhays.

"In the clatter of donkey hooves suddenly doubled, my father heard our changing fortunes. Half a day's march from the woodcutter's path our lead goat found a jujuba tree. We picked the fruits and mixed them with the flour that we had hoarded like snuff in a leather pouch.

"That night the milk slopped over our bowls. As we filled our bellies, we chatted like lords. We ignored the dough that fell into the fire. We fed the donkeys what we couldn't eat. As our fire shot sparks toward the stars, we bathed in the flood that had followed our drought.

"The next day, after an easy climb, we reached a plateau where clouds and caravans formed. There, fog that had risen from the Valley of the Jujuba hung like bunting amid the gathering fair.

"That plain was the junction of four important routes. To the north was Sa'da and the pilgrimage trail. Sanaa lay four marches to the south. Some prepared to descend by the trail to the west where, by the fifth sunset, they would watch the sea turn red. To the east crouched camels anxious to leave those jagged heights for the soft sands beyond Marib, the cradle of the sun. Before each of the routes, the caravans gathered. Travelers retied cargo for the third and fourth times. Donkeys stomped protests mixing dust with the fog. Pilgrims prayed aloud, soothsayers foretold the weather. Guides and drivers exchanged warnings of the hazards they faced. Roaming among the crowds, vendors hawked their wares, adding to the beasts' burdens and to the trade in words.

"From the knoll where we had emerged from the wilderness, my father admired the noisy groups. Choosing a spot toward the confluence of the routes, he sent my cousin and me forward, beating our drums. When suddenly the travelers ceased their swarming and quiet prevailed, my father flew into the field of ears.

"'Hark, O travelers, draw near, press close, and hear the tale of two wayfarers like us, slung years ago from this, the Potter's Wheel, who chanced to meet on al-Mahwit trail: a stout perfumer in lavender gown with a cinnamon-colored collar and ruffled cuffs and a dung collector wearing a hempen smock and canvas breeches, whose hair lay like a sheep's matted coat. Each carried a sack of samples of their trades when they commenced walking into the wind, perfumer in the lead.

"'Before long the scent overwhelmed the dung man accustomed to stables and privy cellars. His toes drew inward, his hair gathered in an arch as he smelled a dead bull in a pansy field. When the perfumer reached into the satchel that rested on the shelf of his belly and dabbed drops of oleander on the nape of his neck, the dung man nearly fainted from the scent and determined to pass the two-legged flower cart. But the trail was too narrow, the cart too wide. He failed to pass the perfumer on either side. At last the dung man ducked through the perfumer's legs and rose gulping air, full face to the wind.

"'The flustered perfumer clutched his sack to his chest. When he saw the dung man slick his hair down, he slipped in his own sweat. Sniffing the odor the wind now carried, his nostrils so flared that swooping birds inspected them for nesting sites. As he felt his collar wilting, his cuffs losing their pleats, the perfumer bellowed, "'Tis rhinoceros signs, methinks!" As the excited dung man unsheathed his shovel, the perfumer, like a snorting bull, lowered his head and charged past.

"'From that point the perfumer commanded the wind until they reached a rope bridge that vanished in the fog. As the cautious perfumer tiptoed over the creek, the dung man sighed, "Oh, for a floor on this bridge," whereupon the perfumer fell into the stream as the dung man, who knew better, strode into the lead.

"'When they reached the base of the mountain and the path grew wide, the perfumer panted, "Brother, can't we walk side by side?" to which the exhausted dung man promptly agreed; thereafter they shared the trail and the breeze.

"'"How came you, squire," the dung man asked, "to deal in pe-o-ny and other trifling scents?"

"'"Trifling, you think?" the perfumer sniffed. "Why I have a scent that will run a dog in a ring until he bores a trench so deep in the ground that you'd swear the poor pup had been dropped in a well."

"'"Hah!" scoffed the dung man through banana mush as he chewed the fruit the perfumer had left for him on a rock. "Why, a field of millet will sprout overnight by a seasoning of a certain dung I keep in this sack." Wiping his hands on his muddy smock, he folded the peel and put it in his pocket.

"'"May I be so bold as to inquire," the perfumer said as his yawn changed to a smile, "if tiny noses are a mark of your guild? Like voles whose stubby extremities serve them in the cold, are all dung men protected like you against offensive smells?"

"'"You mean like perfumers with padded bottoms? No, brother, we have noses of many sizes, as keen as the scents in my bag . . ."

"'The perfumer snickered.

"'". . . scents more alluring than any in yer posy sack."

"'By the time the sun dropped beneath a distant peak, the travelers reached that place where their paths diverged. There they lingered around a fire they built, each oddly transfixed by the other's odors.

"'"Were you serious about the power of your scents?" the perfumer asked.

"'The dung man nodded.

"'For some time neither man spoke as each cautiously sniffed his antithesis. Finally the dung man opened his sack and, with pincers, extracted the soil of a mouse. With great care he placed it upon a splint, which he had pounded into the knothole of a tree. Retreating to the waning fire, he poked the perfumer and whispered, "Now watch!"

"'Soon an owl landed on the perch, its fluffy plumage muffling its descent. After sniffing the bait and examining the limb, it hooted several times and flew off.

"'The perfumer, not to be outdone, uncorked a vial of spikenard. Applying several drops to a swatch of moss, he placed his lure in a hollow log. Sometime after the moon appeared, a fox poked its head into the fallen tree. Then the animal, sensing a trap, ran halfway over the log before doubling back. Moments later the fox vanished down a ravine.

"'In reply, the dung man reached so deep inside his sack that for some time the perfumer saw only his legs. When the dung man reappeared, he cupped an essence with both hands that, despite the perfumer's probing, he declined to name. Spreading the soil upon a boulder, he promptly withdrew.

"'As the moon slipped behind the clouds the perfumer's eyes gradually closed. His mouth slowly opened as his chin sank to his chest.

"'"Behold," whispered the dung man as he poked the perfumer. There amid the shadows they discerned the floating outline of a leopard.

"'For some time, the leopard crouched as it sniffed the bait, until a shifting breeze took up the travelers' fate and carried to the beast more intriguing scents: of sweat, fruit, smoke, and wilting flowers.

"'As the leopard bounded from the boulder of the bait, there arose from the camp a commotion of scents-stirred by flailing arms, shouts, kicks, and breaths-that lingered in that woods that day and the next.

"'O fellow travelers, how our lives are shaped by the whims of the weather and the trails we take, how fast we walk, where we stop to rest, whom we choose to speak to, how we are dressed. Hail, ye citizens of the moving nation, shapers of journeys beyond destination.

"'Well into the morning the leopard stood in damp grass, cooling the paws it had scorched when it landed in the fire as the dung man and the perfumer, forever changed by their encounter, dashed toward their homes-each carrying the other's sack.

"'Someday, O travelers of al-Mahwit trail, you may come upon a boulder at a fork in the road. By the left prong you will arrive at a tidy dwelling of dung blocks that hold the faint smell of bergamot. There you will be pressed to step inside for a supper prepared by a bride in her immaculate kitchen as the freshly scrubbed dung man, in a spotless smock, shows you his new daughter, whom he cradles in his arms.

"'Or should you choose the trail to the right, you will come to the village where the perfumer lives. His knees are muddy and his sense of smell is sharp from tending the herbs and flowers he now raises himself. Each day he grows slimmer and his plants grow strong as he dresses them with the dung he gathers from his new barn. Having traveled some himself, he will invite you inside to warm yourself by the dung fire over which he dries his plants.'

"When my father finished, my cousin and I passed through the crowd with our drums turned upside down. A few listeners reached into their purses and gave us coins, but most rushed off to rejoin their groups.

"After the last caravan departed, we camped upon the cold and deserted plateau. The next morning we walked over the grounds, collecting the treasures the departing travelers had dropped: a tin bezel minus its stone, a copper coin from al-Habasha, some hame straps, a woodpecker's bill, a quarter of a sack of frost-bitten onions, a broken rasp, an ostrich feather, and a pot rest missing a leg.

"We commenced moving again before noon behind an onion-collared jack and a jenny with a plume. After fashioning a leg from the broken rasp, my father left the heavy pot rest hanging from a tree. With only a few coins and some trinkets to carry, we soared over the mountains, repeating our tales to passing travelers who scattered our words like birds carrying seed.

"Two days later we approached a city surrounded by a circular wall the height of four men. Like smoke billowing from a forge, noise arose from the town and fell into the valley out of which we had climbed. Within that wall was warmth, food, shelter, snuff, henna, and other things that we might purchase with our coins. As my father recalled the bounty of that market with its great trays of sticky sweet cakes and temples of fruit, how cats grew fat on fallen scraps, he rapped on the gate with his stick where others seeking entry had beaten a crater in the wood.

"After a while he knocked again, this time with the knot end of his stick. Finally someone slid back a board, opening a space no longer or wider than the pair of eyes that stared at us from the other side of the wall.

"'State your business,' a voice demanded.

"'To deliver important news of neighboring lands, of a battle near ash-Shatib and the conditions of crops, to br--'

"'Idhab (be gone)!' the voice interrupted. 'We need not your tales or the diseases that you bear.' The eyes vanished as the board clapped shut.

"'But thy hakim will remember me,' my father pleaded. ''Twas the year the earth shook when I recited a nasl that stretched from here to al-Hufuf.'

"The gate remained shut.

"'He descended from Husain Salim 'Abdulla Koraim, the steadfast,' my father screamed, his pitch like fingernails scraping the door, 'who at the Battle of Shibam survived a sword blow to his thighs, to sire five sons of which the first two died, and the third, Khalid bin Husain, preserved the honor of his father's name by helping to drive the Abyssinian trespassers from the land, who begat two heirs, the first called . . .'

"My father paused, either from shortage of breath or a lapse in memory. He glanced at us behind him, huddled against the donkeys for warmth, hungry as he after our march. Rummaging through memory for the names upon which our next meal might depend, he continued.

"'. . . the first called Wathiq bin Khalid 'Abdulla Koraim,' he shrilled louder than before, so that his voice pierced walls and doors, 'who was stabbed by a cobbler who had poisoned the tip of his awl, but not before he fathered one son and three daughters. The eldest daughter named Shumayla was seized by-'

"I, the son of a dawshan, learned that night never to shut my eyes when I recite. From atop the wall someone emptied a bucket of slops, which drenched my father and splashed upon us. As he withdrew to where we waited, others pelted him with rotting mangoes culled from the temples of fruit.

"With no moon to travel by, we camped near the city that night. We found no trees or bushes to cut for fuel. Covering ourselves with the half-finished tent, we gathered our animals around us and used them as a windbreak. The next morning my father was so stiff from sitting upon the frozen ground that he could barely raise himself. That day his chest ached whenever he sneezed.

"Six weeks later, outside a wall not unlike that one, as winter hurled a last icy blast into spring, I, a dawshan, inherited all that my father owned: two donkeys, a tin bezel, and a headful of poems."

As Safir steadied the plow while gripping the reins, his thoughts advanced as the herald's voice trailed off. Studying his friend against the sweep of those mountains, it seemed as if all words were once the notes of a dawshan's song.

In that land where threads of water suddenly changed to rivers, where the wind blew so hard and constantly that trees grew at an angle, where blossoms are brilliant flashes in the brief growing season and more soil is made but as much is washed off,the dawshan's language, like those mountains, tended to extremes

Since the day he wriggled free from swaddling clothes and slipped down his mother's back, struck the field she was hoeing, and struggled to his feet, the dawshan had been moving, fearing stillness like death. Sweating in the clothes that others doffed, by winter he was shivering in a threadbare shirt. Tramping between settlements, down gullies, and up hills, he shared in a feast one day and went hungry the next three. Purified by movement like water running, he survived by memory of paths,histories, and trees.

For decades he had borne word burdens for others, fled one dispute and flown into another. One day he recited pedigrees revealing enemies as cousins; the next he inflamed warriors with battle slogans. News of births and truces he carried like feathers as he rushed to the feast that would follow his words. But in these days of threat, war, drought, and fear, he dawdles like one sent to announce his own death. To recipients of bad news he is the nearest object to pummel, for the power of his words makes him seem like the cause.

For all the genealogies he had recited, the dawshan had no surviving kin of his own, no child or cousin to care for the jenny, to wear the tin bezel, or to repeat his poems

When the donkey drew up sharply, Safir raised his head and beheld a field tilled as fine as a lettuce bed. At some point the townsfolk had joined him upon that terrace and had begun following behind him with their rakes and hoes. Inhaling the odor of freshly turned earth, he felt the sun's warmth upon his back. Hearing its bray rise toward the ridge, he felt the donkey tugging him toward the barn.

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