Excerpt from the novel Ce pays qui te ressemble by Tobie Nathan, translated from the French by Joyce Zonana.
From the very first night they spent together in the same bed, Esther loved Motty, the mysterious one. In the darkness, equally blind, they explored each other with their fingers, lost in the scents of their bodies. From the first night, Motty loved Esther, the wild one. They spoke little, whispering each other’s names. He exhaled onto her neck; she inhaled from his mouth, each depositing a fragment of breath on the frontiers of the other. She called him “my eyes,” she who was his eyes. He called her “my soul,” he who was her name. At daybreak, she kissed his hands, thanking God for having made her a woman. At night, she lay down first. Reciting a verse from the Song of Songs, he approached the bed and took her face in his hands; he always ended by declaiming her name, “Esther, Queen Esther . . . Esther, the divine Ishtar . . . Esther, the Astarte of my nights.” In the morning, they rejoiced at the prospect of a day won from darkness. When the sun set, their bodies thrilled at the prospect of lying beside each other.
While Motty worked on the jewelers’ accounts, Esther, her chores completed, sat on their doorstep. Why did women come to talk to her? Most likely they sensed the strange calm that emanated from her since her marriage—perhaps they sensed the earthly force that underlies everything. They brought cones of grilled watermelon or sunflower seeds with them, sat down, and told Esther, who’d barely left childhood, their female problems. Without using their hands, they split the seeds with their teeth and spit the shells out between their lips, like parakeets. Esther smiled to herself, for the same questions always recurred: “How to restore desire when it was eroded by revulsion at pregnancies, everyday anxieties, morning cares.” She always answered methodically. “First touch it,” she’d say, “touch it!” In Arabic, the word means “touch,” “sensation,” and also “emotion”; the language knows that the person who touches is also touched, that you cannot touch without love. “You have to take his bird in your hand,” she’d say. “All men are children. They all had a mother who washed them, didn’t they?” And the women would giggle, their noses in their zinc pots, which they called “zingo.”
One morning, one of the neighbors, looking at Esther defiantly, retorted: “You think I don’t know how to transform the chicken’s neck into a rod, the way our father Moses once did with the serpents before Pharaoh?” Everyone laughed. Esther went further: “And do you know how to put the red spice in the sauce that moistens the rice on Shabbat eve?” “The red spice?” “What spice are you talking about?” “The red spice, obviously!” “You mean saffron? Or turmeric?” “Or maybe red pepper?” another added. One woman, suddenly understanding: “No! She means the spice that flows from women when the moon is full, right?” Another, the eldest, voiced her disgust: “Ugh. Stop talking about such filth.” And they burst out laughing again. It was then that Esther revealed her recipe.
“On the last of those five days, you have to take the final drops, when the blood is darkest, and expose them to the first light of morning.”
“On a plate?”
“But how can you talk about such things?”
“Yes of course, on a plate. You need to collect as much as the mark left at the bottom of a cup after you’ve drunk your coffee.”
They drew closer to Esther, in low voices asking her to go on.
“You let it dry until you can reduce the blood into a powder, as fine as turmeric. One day is enough. Then you store the powder in a dark place. It must not see the light. And then, there you are!”
“What do you mean, ‘there you are’? What do you mean?”
Esther let herself be begged. It wasn’t enough to tell them that they knew what came next, that all you had to do was include the powder thus obtained—which was called, she said, “moon powder”—in the sauce. The others demanded a detailed description. What sauce? With what ingredients? Did you first have to fry onions?
She agreed to add a few more specifics. You had to spice up the sauce, so your husband would suspect nothing. Along with onions, tomatoes of course, some red pepper, some saffron.
“And then?” they asked again.
“Just when you add the moon powder, you have to recite a sentence.”
“A sentence? What sentence, my dear?”
She was silent. The women drew even closer to Esther, who finally breathed in a low voice, “The sentence from the Torah: ‘You are a blood-groom to me.’”
She repeated it in Hebrew. Respectful, deathly silence. A woman who quoted the Torah—she must be either a man or a sorceress.
And the women tried Esther’s recipe, of course. On Friday, they prepared the dish without anyone’s help, hiding from daughters and mothers-in-law. Then, they went to the hammam, where they spent more time than usual. Slowly, they epilated themselves with caramel, rubbed their skin with a rough loofah sponge, made their hair sleek with henna, then perfumed themselves in even the most intimate recesses of their bodies with myrrh, frankincense, and oud. When they heard the afternoon call to prayer of the Muslims, they donned their blue dresses and burned incense throughout their homes. It is said that, on that night, the serpents proudly lifted their heads beneath the galabeyas of their husbands. The experiment, frequently repeated, earned Esther a solid reputation as a sorceress. Soon, many were the women who came to chatter on the steps of her house at the hour when the lizards stirred. They brought her the most difficult problems. Cousin Tayeba, who’d brought five girls into the world, one after another, feared her next pregnancy. If another daughter were to be born, her husband would most certainly repudiate her.
“But no!” one of the women exclaimed. “He wouldn’t dare. He’s too afraid of his uncle.”
His uncle was also his father-in-law.
“Of course he would,” another replied. “Haven’t you seen how he ogles the little Narguess? She’s told me several times how he’s tried to corner her in the hallway that leads to the kitchen. The hallway, can you believe it? Under his wife’s nose. Of course he’s already thinking about remarrying.”
And, turning to Esther, her youngest aunt, Tofa’ha, “the apple,” asked if she could make a son come into Tayeba’s womb. What a question! The others acted shocked. How could she? If she’d asked for such a miracle from a man of God, like one of those you sometimes met on Yom Kippur, who spent the whole day and night praying and lamenting . . . Perhaps to one of those men, God could grant such a favor. But to women, who knew of religion only the stench breathed by the old stones, and whose actions, if Rabbi Mourad was to be believed, were nothing but idolatry and offerings to Baal . . . “It’s haram!” said the first, meaning, “sinful, forbidden.” “Haram, totally haram,” added the other. And Tofa’ha concluded: “It’s because it’s haram that it might work, right?”
They no longer knew whether to laugh or to be frightened. And so the women drew closer to Esther. She pulled back her hair and breathed deeply. What emerged from her was a feeling of physical power. To impose a sex on an infant, she explained, you had to summon the strength of animals and of the dead.
The dead? You didn’t utter such words. You didn’t say, “the dead,” even less, “death”; it wasn’t done. And when you spoke the name of someone who’d died, you always added some protection. For example, you said, “My grandfather Soli, may God protect his soul,” or even, “Our-father-Soli-may-God-protect-us,” as if, after death, his name had been modified, recomposed, augmented, transformed into a formula. It took some sort of demon like Esther to unleash such wild sentences, containing death and the dead, without worry, without fearing the wrath of God. To ask for help from the dead? To use the power of animals? And, what’s more, how the devil did she know this, she who’d never studied anything? It’s that the earth thinks; the neighborhood, the hara, the Alley of the Jews, thinks; the ancestors think and there are sensitive souls that perceive all these thoughts. That’s what was going through Tofa’ha’s mind.
“I’m not sure I can succeed,” Esther replied. “You’ll have to help me.”
The women grew frightened. She was asking them to be her accomplices in sorcery. They sought other solutions.
“People say you should change the placement of the bed.”
“Yes! I heard that the head of the bed should face the first star.”
Tayeba shrugged. “Really? Dozens of times, my dear, dozens of times, I’ve heard that tale about the head of the bed. At my house, the bed faces the star, my husband looks at the star, and me, I’m still searching for a son.”
“They say you should make love on your side.”
“Yes! On the right sight if you want a son, on the left for a daughter.”
“To make love on your side . . . what nonsense. When you move in bed”—that’s how they described the act of love— “you roll on all sides. And you always end by getting up, don’t you? So, everything gets all mixed, don’t you agree? The hot, the cold, the blood, the milk, everything. It’s nothing but nonsense.”
“I heard you need to get the foreskin of a boy just after circumcision.”
“Yes! I heard that too. A boy from your family. You dip it in hot water and make a broth. You add nothing, neither salt nor spices. And you drink that broth right before welcoming your husband.”
The women affirmed this new proposal with a nod of their heads. Such a recipe, they didn’t quite know why, must be effective. But it imposed certain conditions; above all, acquiring the primary substance.
“So how do you get that foreskin?” Tayeba asked. “Perhaps I should steal it? Have you seen how the grandmothers surround a baby after circumcision? You might as well try to steal the sacred carpet destined for the Prophet’s tomb on the day of his feast. Perhaps that way of having a child is effective, I’m not saying it isn’t, daughter of I don’t know what—but it’s impossible to accomplish, more difficult than obtaining the penis of a wolf or a hyena. No, the child’s mother would have to give me the foreskin as a gift. And I don’t know anyone who would do that.”
“She’d be too afraid her son would never marry.”
“Or that he’d become a ‘follower of Lot’”—she meant a homosexual.
The women turned again to Esther. “You, Sett Blila.”
That’s what they called her when they wanted a favor from her. Sett Blila, “Lady Boiled Wheat,” because, they said, her wheat soup was the best in the neighborhood.
“Sett Blila, you must have a solution.”
“Yes,” Esther answered, “but I’m not sure how it’ll turn out. I’ve never done it before.”
“And so? Even if you’ve never done it. Does that mean you never will?”
“You’re right, by my eyes! What does it hurt to try?”
On a Thursday, a little before noon, at the hour when they knew the men were assembled in the synagogue for the Torah reading, they left for the cemetery. Esther was in the lead, walking with a sure step, followed by her Aunt Tofa’ha and Tayeba, the suppliant. They’d also brought along Mahmoud, the ragman, who followed them, walking some steps behind. It’s not acceptable for women to walk alone through the city. On their heads, they carried large pots of water to wash the tombs. Esther seemed to know the area. The other two whispered to each other.
“It’s definitely not the first time she’s been here . . . You see how she never once hesitated.”
“They say she comes here at night.”
“Do you think so? As for me, I’d never come here alone in the middle of the night.”
Dark-skinned children were everywhere, darkened even more by running around barefoot on the burning sand. Women emerged from the tombs that were their homes. They spread their laundry out on the graves, holding it down with heavy stones. The area was inhabited by as many living as dead. Oddly, no one spoke. Despite all the activity, an unusual silence reigned.
“Here,” Esther said.
“Right where you’re standing. It’s an unmarked grave.”
“Is it at least a Jewish one?”
“Of course,” Esther replied, “it’s the grave of your grandfather’s maternal uncle, Saad the Long. He was skinny and stiff as a reed. I hear he died standing up, leaning against a wall, and that he stayed there until night. Everyone thought he was dreaming, lost in his hashish haze. And when they finally realized he was dead and they wanted to carry him, they saw he’d been transformed into a wooden statue, truly stiff as a bone. So here’s someone who died without living; his life was useless, as he didn’t leave a child.”
The two women looked around. They sensed dozens of eyes following their slightest moves. Even if the tomb were not Saad the Long’s, this was surely a Jewish section. They could make out Hebrew writing on the few scattered stones.
“All right ladies, get to work!”
They began to scrub the slab covered with earth and sand. And Esther began to sing in a Judeo-Arabic lingua franca, “You who sustain the lame, who open the doors of the prisons, who give life and death, who can resuscitate.”
An hour went by like this. Little by little, the slab regained some of its chalky color. They poured the water from the bottom of their pots and stood, immobile under the sun, watching the stains evaporate. Tayeba was thinking there are many more people below the earth than on it. Tofa’ha was turning over in her mind this phrase from the Bible, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” Most assuredly, God must know Egypt, this land where it was hard to distinguish men from dust. Esther was staring fixedly at the hole beneath the stone. She pointed to it. “Look,” she said, “There! You can see his tongue.”
The two others drew closer. She pulled them back. “No. Wait. You’ll frighten him.”
Indeed, you could see a tongue coming out of the hole. It was long and agile, perhaps the tongue of a snake, flicking forward as if to taste the terrain before venturing out.
“I’m afraid,” Tayeba said.
But Tofa’ha couldn’t help joking. “What are you afraid of? A child also comes out of a hole, doesn’t it?”
“And he too comes from the dead,” Esther added solemnly. “That’s why we give him a grandfather’s name.”
They saw a head appear, a heavy, helmeted head, as big as a fist.
“It’s a warrior!” Esther cried as she grabbed the pot.
Drawn by the water, the chameleon emerged slowly, one step after another. He was exactly the color of the stone, even including stains and blotches. His eyes, mounted on turrets like cannons on an assault tank, explored the four directions.
“Your son will be a warrior, that’s for sure.”
You need to know that “warrior” is the Arabic word for chameleon, and the one emerging from the tomb fit the word well, with his helmet so much larger than his head. When he reached the center of the slab, Esther stepped forward and covered him with her pot. Tofa’ha helped her wrap the prey in a rag, and there they were, all three, heading back to the Mouski. Along the way, they were thrilled to have conquered their fears of the dead and of snakes. They sang a sort of ballad, a love song, and the chameleon leapt in the pot, like a fetus in its mother’s womb. That very night, Esther gave the tip of the tail to Tayeba and advised her to swallow it raw. The two women were not surprised by the prescription; they only wondered how Esther had managed to kill the chameleon. Had she slit its throat, the way it’s done with a lamb, or had she cut off its head, like a dove?
“In one month you’ll be pregnant,” she told Tayeba, “and it’ll be a boy. Don’t forget, you must name him Saad, like your grandfather’s uncle.”
Afterward, the two women often questioned Esther, asking her what she’d done with the rest of the chameleon. Esther always answered the same way. “A chameleon is like a woman. It hunts with its tongue. You’d be better off holding yours!”