After hiding in a hallow log, in the morning I walked on, at a more frantic pace. I had to leave the trail, and cut through the dense growth; the slow going only made me more frenetic, more desirous to move.
Then I reached a broad clearing. Reaching such a place was both the promise and great danger of the tropical forest: the unexpected was upon you before you had time to react. There were several women collecting twigs. I screamed to them in the little dialect I knew. They saw me and their blank expressions congealed to horror. The white skin, disheveled hair, the eyeglasses covered by sweat and grim, it was the very image of the forest devil, or perhaps less supernatural: a simple intruder, a natural enough phenomenon, but to be feared as much as any specter. Strangers brought great peril.
And for these people, the Muslims of the mountains, the stranger required protection, and the succor he demanded was a curse. They scattered and I chased them. At first, I could not tell which one I would be upon first, but then I had one by the arm. I began to speak rapidly to her in English and French. Her face was contorted. I squeezed her arm too tightly. Here, I held a Muslim woman in my arms, and I broke two taboos, one from Islam, touching a woman who is not family and one from Africa, a lack of civility.
She rightly began to scream, saying something in dialect with great effort, as if squeezing an object out of her lungs, through her mouth, beyond her teeth; then she began to say, in French, with great breaths in between, “He, marabout… He, marabout,” and I felt a flutter of movement behind me and let her go, and she fled into the shield of high scrub which surrounded us.
Behind me was a man out of one of Charles’ childhood photos. Small, brown, dressed in a tan robe shiny from over washing, he had a small round head shaped like a dumpling, a face composed of alternating lines and creases, and a long, tangled white beard which framed his face like a border of snow around a fissured brown stone.
Around his shoulder hung a dry leather bag, bulging with herbs, collected recently, damp with dew. This was a Muslim marabout, the heroes of Charles’ youth, the mediator between this world and the next. But for the Muslim lack of adornment, and the prayer beads, he was indistinguishable from the native version of the same functionary. This was Islam’s foray into the jungle and here stood in front of me the results. Islam had been extruded through a unique African cipher and the “witch doctor” had emerged with these distinctive Muslim markings. If you removed this man from this forest and flew him to Mecca, he would wilt and die.
I took a few steps toward him and began to speak in Arabic. He listened to me without betraying whether he understood Arabic in the Cairo dialect. His fingers began to nervously race around the round, wooden, prayer beads. He opened his mouth once, to lick at his lips, revealing a smattering of blackened teeth.
Now I could see that this white man speaking the tongue of the Prophet disturbed him immensely. His small frame quaked with tremors; five hundred years of contact with the white man had instilled, even in these remote, upland people, a trembling mistrust. White men brought grief, illness, dislocation, slavery. Here, the very trails to the coast were trodden by the slavers, their minions and captives. Along the coast, fringed with palms and studded with fishing dhows, were the dark hulks of slave forts: the last foothold of the slave in Africa.
So, as I stood before the marabout, his eyes fixed on mine, it was apparent that he wanted to disengage himself from me. But I continued to speak my mangled form of Cairo Arabic and the gist of my plea emerged to him from the confused grammar. I sought sanctuary from my enemies. I sought his hospitality and protection. His face then slackened, and he walked quickly toward me.
He took both my hands and pressed them to his. An African gesture; my hands were being pressed from the capital all the way to the mountains, with varying levels of intensity, with different shades of truth or subterfuge. He began to mumble softy in the northern language, and then he began to intone something from the Qu’ran. He stepped back, he stooped, he raised himself up, he pressed his eyes up to the overhanging trees (since he could not see the sky) and reveled in some trance, as if he was communing with the spirit of this vast, nearly silent forest.
But no, this was not an African gesture. What the marabout was invoking was a foreign rubric of conduct, brought down with the Arabs and Magrebis came south through the northern mountains or the rivers from the coast – to give sanctuary and hospitality to the stranger in need, no matter what danger it brought. And it was just in time. Down the logging road, we heard the rumble of trucks. The marabout grasped me by the wrist and whisked me silently into the forest.