As I said in my column on the Ouled Nail, the tribe’s origins are lost to history, but we can be certain their dancers were already entertaining travelers by the time the Arabs appeared in the 7th century CE. And since the antecedents of the Berbers were painting on the rocks at Tassili some 2000 years before the last glaciers retreated from Europe, it may be that their customs are very ancient indeed and could perhaps be related to the myth that North Africa was ruled by the Amazons in the time of Atlantis. I will not ask you to imagine a period so remote; for the purpose of this story, I ask that you grant me only that the dancing harlots of Algeria were already practicing their customs as I described them roughly 1000 years before the advent of the Arabs.
“Grandmother, what are they like, the men from the sea? Mother says they are different from our men and even from the nomads and merchants.”
“And so they are; they have great wealth and learning, but they are filled with a restlessness which drives them to change the world, so that they are often ill at ease with even their own customs, much less those of others.”
The girl’s face clearly registered her confusion, so her grandmother said “I shall tell you a story of one such man, a regular patron of mine for many years, and then perhaps you will understand.
“The Wheel of the Year had turned all the way ‘round once again, and the sun had come to the place in his dance which signaled it was time for us to go down to the city. And so my husband and brother loaded our camels and we bade them goodbye and rode down to seek our fortunes as I had fourteen times before, and as my mother and her mother before her had ridden in their turns. I was married by that time and so no longer danced or allowed men to come in to my room, but my two younger sisters needed my guidance and that year my own eldest daughter, your mother, was at last old enough to begin working for her own fortune.
“I knew the way well and there were no mishaps, and this well pleased your mother, for she was full of the fire of youth and would have chafed at any delay in her debut. It was all I could do to restrain her enthusiasm sufficiently to enforce rest upon our arrival; given her way she would have been dancing for her first coins ere the sun set! But the next day was soon enough; as I told her there was no need for haste, and she would not be any the poorer at season’s end for having rested from her journey.
“The next night we laughed, her aunts and I, as I had known we would; all the years of lessons could not have prepared her for the exhaustion of body and mind one feels after one’s first day of dancing for strangers. But she had done well, and the men had been kind, and I knew that by the time the merchants from Carthage started to appear in a few weeks she would be ready to impress them as I had done at her age. And this was important, as it will be for you, for in addition to their gold they bring pearls, incense, perfumes, raisin wine and fine purple cloth, and other precious things from across the sea. But to gain these treasures one must employ all of her charms to stand out from the other girls, for Carthage is a great city and her men have seen wonders and lain with the beauties of many nations.
“Soon they came as they always did, few in number but with sufficient guards to protect the expensive goods they brought to our land to trade; they were met by nomads bringing gold, ivory and precious stones and sometimes even the elephants the Carthaginians prize for their army. And when the trading was done for the day they wanted entertainment, and I am proud to say your mother won their money with as much skill as some girls who had been dancing for years. I knew that they were led by a man who was very fond of me, Mago by name, because he had already sent one of his servants to ask if he might visit me that evening as had been his custom for fourteen years.”
“But surely you did not lie with him!”
“No, child; when I found a husband I gave up earning money thus, as you will when your turn comes. But he still enjoyed dining with me and talking to me, and as the needs of his body could be satisfied by my younger sisters he was content to respect my vows. But I found my old friend in a strange humor that evening; he was strangely silent at dinner, and ate little of the fine food I had prepared for him. He seemed overwhelmed with melancholy, and asked me strange questions he had never asked before; ‘Why do you live in this way?’ he asked, and ‘Do you not want better for your daughter?’ It quickly became clear to me that it was the presence of your mother which had affected him so; he knew of our customs, and indeed had met my own mother in the days when she travelled to town with me. But because he had come to know me, it seemed to him a different thing for me to train my own daughter as a harlot than for others to do so.
“‘This is the way of our people,’ I told him, ‘and it has ever been so since the days when antelope grazed on the grasses of this land which is now a desert. I learned the craft from my mother, as she learned from hers, and so on back to the Great Mothers of the beginning. And as I have taught my daughter so she shall teach hers, and each shall dance and work and love in her season until the end of the world.’ But my words only agitated him; he spoke of ‘progress’, and ‘sacrifice’, and the latter word came with great bitterness and eyes shining with unshed tears. I told him I did not understand, and he said that it was our job to build a better world for our children, one which was kinder to them; I replied, ‘any changes we make to the world are mortal, just as the things of the world itself. Did you not yourself tell me long years ago that Carthage is the daughter of an older empire, now since fallen into ruin? And no doubt that empire was built on the bones of another, and one day great Carthage herself must die as we all die. Each learns from those that have come before, as we learn our trade from our mothers; each dances in her youth, and accumulates wealth and stature, and brings forth offspring and then moves on. Summer gives way to autumn, and autumn to winter; we can teach and advise the young, but they must earn their own rewards. We cannot do it for them, nor force them to live in a way appropriate to the mature or old.’
“But it was no use; he heard my words but there was a secret pain in him, something of which he would not speak, and he looked upon your mother and sighed with profound sadness. Then he took from his satchel a great treasure, a jar of the purple dye worth twenty times its weight in gold, and presented it to me in trust for your mother, ‘To hasten the day when she can buy a house and have daughters of her own,’ he said. Then he embraced us both and left, and never again did I see him after that night, though she and I returned every season, always staying in the same house, until she married.”
Dihya sat quietly for a moment, and then shook her head and said, “Strange indeed.” And then, “Thank you, grandmother,” and excused herself to join a group of her friends she had espied through the window.
Her mother had remained quiet throughout the story, but after the girl had quit the room she spoke. “Though almost twenty years have passed I well remember that night, and often have I thought upon the man who endowed me with such a valuable gift, yet asked for nothing in return. Was it merely a token of his love for you?”
“No, it was more than that,” the older woman said. “He and I were both reasonably certain that he was your father.”
One Year Ago Today
The second part of my very first Q & A column.