The Neighbourhood of the House of Wealth
In this short story brimming with life, Leila Aboulela animates the history of Bait Al-Mal, the childhood neighbourhood of Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.
Serpentine’s current exhibition, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness, includes one of the pioneering artist’s recent works: a large canvas called Bait Al-Mal (2019), which holds the sprawling and networked shape of the artist’s childhood neighbourhood in Omdurman, Sudan. Following her memory, Ishag has mapped the area through the roots of trees which bind the households and form the pathways between them.
When invited to respond creatively to the exhibition, award-winning Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela was drawn to this painting, recognising its characteristic web of relationships and remembering other dimensions of Bait Al-Mal’s history. Her work of short fiction explores this layered place through the alert senses and inquisitive mind of a young girl, and the stories told by her grandmother. Here, Aboulela links different eras and perspectives, while weaving elements of Ishag’s distinctive visual language into her young protagonist’s awareness of the interconnection between people and plants, landscapes and spirits.
To access this piece in Arabic, translated by Badreldin Hamid Hashimi, click the button below.
The Neighbourhood of the House of Wealth
Our girl has no mouth, no teeth, her lips are sealed, stitched up. As if. There is her hair, thick and strong to protect her head; there are her eyes, watchful; her ears, prickly and wide. She watches tadpoles, green in the slimy water, swimming with their moving tails, their oblong bodies, and dark brittle specks within the larvae softness. The tadpoles are graceful and compact, making their way unafraid of the change that will twist and distort them, the shape they will ultimately become; in the translucence she sees the outline of future heads. The girl is the listening type. While others hear the breeze through the bushes, carrying the sounds of a drum from the river’s shore, she hears spirits. A jinn trapped in the big acacia tree, fidgeting and querulous, who is only silent when the azan is called from the mosque. Or when the Qur’an is recited. Everything then becomes a peaceful green.
The girl runs in circles around the hoash, she is not the type to sit still. She doesn’t sing but her eyes blink, her fingers grasp the tobes of older women, touch the braids of younger girls, stroke the tail of a cat; her hands cradle a pot of warm stew, an empty gourd. She tugs at a sack of dates and puts one in her mouth; she is critical of sweetness. She does have teeth, a tongue. It is the voice that is waiting deep down to emerge and when it does, she will roar.
The Bait al-Mal neighbourhood is alleys branching out, houses made of rammed earth, the tinkle of water poured, vapour rising under the hot sun, shimmering. She stares at the outdoor wall of the houses, the flakes of colours embedded: yellow, baked red, henna that is not henna. Why is the river blue but not the water she drinks? Why are the lines on her palm darker than the rest of her palm? Why are her mother’s tattooed lips a dry black and mud glistening wet? She does not ask these questions out loud. She must discover the answers by herself, or wait for them to formulate, fully fledged, the way newly married women start to carry boys and girls in the wide, flexible place under their hearts.
A slab of ice. Inside it, the girl sees crystals and it does not matter what delicious drink the ice had been bought for, it is not important who is celebrating what. The cold light beams out at her, penetrates her pupils. She sees each crystal as a separate space, a square cell with transparent walls. Inside each crystal is a secret, a hidden shape. Bang, an axe strikes the ice, splinters fly. Girl, get out of the way! Danger in the icy stab, she closes her eyes and tears mingle with water, newly melted. In the ice, she had glimpsed a hidden world, a mystery held tight like all that pulses inside the living bodies of creatures, those that walk on two legs and those that walk on four and those that slither on their bellies.
The women dance. There is the drum and the voice of the singer, whose eyes are ringed with kohl, her lips stretched wide as if in anguish, her forehead damp with sweat. In the hoash, a gathering circle heaves, moves, intoxicated by the beat, emotions rise from the song’s lyrics. Seeing her mother dancing, our girl bursts into tears. She is awash with jealousy, feels abandoned as if her mother had left her far away. Indeed, her mother has surrendered herself to the rhythm, is no longer present, seized by a trance, caught in herself, her own free world; she is no longer at the beck and call of the man of the house, nor of his guests, nor of his children. The girl squeezes her way through the sturdy legs of the women. She seeks her mother, and her mother is oblivious to her. Her mother’s breasts swell and sweat pours down her face; her eyelids droop and every cell in her body is aroused, she is no longer a mother, and this is precisely why the girl cries. No sympathy today from an aunt or a grandmother. The women have turned. Stirred, they are erupting, contorting, finding ecstasy in a deeper ache. Menstruating, lactating, fecund. Hormonal, menopausal. Adoring themselves and each other, wanting to stamp, to sob, rejecting every responsibility under the sun. And a child is such a responsibility, a burden that must be carried and sheltered and fed. She tugs at her mother’s dress and there is no response, not even a smack or a reproach. A little girl, small inside the circle of dancing women, looking up, their bellies and chins looming over her, dark patches under their arms, beads swinging over their torsos, out of her reach. The beat of the drum, the haze of incense and bodies twisting in this ceremony of healing and release.
At night, looking up at the stars, a shadow of yellow and the moon. There is so much to watch, the hush of clouds, an endless canvas and she is tiny beneath it. She is soft, not like the stars, she is small, not like the moon, she is like a bud with only her family keeping her safe. She wakes in the middle of the night to the disruption of rain, the wind whipping up sheets and pots clattering in the kitchen. In the bolt of lightning, she glimpses her grandmother, her Haboba, gathering up the bedding, her voice issuing orders. At the clap of thunder, a baby screams. The rain changes the colour of dawn, dilutes it, the ground becomes darker, the grass becomes lighter. All day, the sun takes a nap.
The girl’s hands are strong, she can grip anything. Her fingers always do what she wants them to do. She watches her Haboba weave baskets and stitch leather; she learns from her. She watches her Haboba embroider the skullcaps that men wear, orange thread, light green, blue, a tight pattern all around: even young boys need a tagiya. The colour clustering at the top of the head, or all one colour, nothing too fancy, too ornate, the material soft in her hand, total absorption in the task. Haboba, a close comforting bulk, grunts praise or occasionally talks about the old days. Of course, her grandmother is faster, but she will catch up. She hurries and Haboba kisses her teeth, you’ve messed up. Better not to rush, always calm, always regal; for a woman to have gravitas is better than to be feather-light.
Haboba speaks about her childhood. The time long ago when she first learnt how to stir aseeda and stich leather markoobs. She says, ‘‘In 1884, Omdurman was under siege by the armies of the Mahdi. They were in small boats swirling around, their sails like wings of white vultures, firing at Omdurman Fort as if they had endless supplies of ammunition. Thousands of rounds were fired. On and on. People were asking, ‘How long can they continue. Sooner or later, they will have no ammunition to fight with.’ It was government steamers that were protecting Omdurman and they were the target. The Mahdists fired and Omdurman fort retaliated by Krupp. What’s Krupp? It’s German artillery and rockets. Then their leader, Hamdan Abu Anja, advanced and cut off Omdurman from the Nile. But he couldn’t go forward and capture it. Because of the buried mines. So what did he do? He sent out a herd of bulls! The bulls trampled the mines, and catastrophe! They were blown up!’’
A monstrous display of fireworks. This is what the girl sees, her eyes wide. She sees flesh and bones that burn orange and singe black, then sink down in the earth of the neighbourhood.
Haboba goes on, ‘‘The army that entered Omdurman was made up of families. Wives, children and their livestock; they looked like refugees. People from the west of the country, from places that depended on rainfall and clouds. They had never seen a river in their life.’’
‘‘Or a crocodile?’’
Haboba laughs. ‘‘Where would they have seen a crocodile? Desert nomads. Little by little they started to build homes for themselves but first, poor things, they stretched out bits of cloths on sticks for a bit of shade. Then they entered the marketplace, and it swelled up with them and what they had carried across the country. Omdurman became bigger.
‘‘A few months later the Mahdi also took Khartoum, and he ordered its citizens to evacuate the city and move to Omdurman. The new capital would be Omdurman, he said, a place for the government that was authentically Sudanese, built without foreign influence. And they built a Treasury too, Bait al-Mal. It was here, across the big road. Six one-storey buildings, with bureaucrats and clerks inside. People signed contracts and took out loans. Administrators and accountants distributed confiscated land. There was a scheme – my father took part – in which the government went into partnership with famers and shared the crop. In one area of the Bait al-Mal were stores of gum that had arrived by boats. Sacks of sesame, heaps of ostrich feathers, piles of rock salt.
‘‘Deep inside Bait al-Mal, there was a clearing surrounded by walls made of clusters of thorns, stacked together tight. This zariba was not for cattle or horses, but for women. They were the property of the Treasury, enslaved women who had been taken as captives during the wars. Women who did not have families to ransom them or whose families could not afford to ransom them. Slave auctions were held. People came to barter for a wet-nurse or for a maid or for the cheapest wife a man could find. In those days, a Marie Theresa dollar was worth two-thousand local riyals and for every budget there was a fit.’’
Haboba shows off a Marie Theresa dollar she had kept even when the currency changed. It stays precious in a leather purse that hangs around her neck, under her clothes. The purse is a beautiful red, a leather red, not the red of cayenne pepper nor the red of blood. In the girl’s palm, the silver coin glints. She runs her finger over the coin, smoothness and bumps, ridges along the side. Letters she is learning at school. A woman’s face in a circle, her bosom, and her double chin, her hair and her nose – although it would have been better if she were looking straight and not in profile. All the coins, everywhere, would have shown the face of this very same woman. Circles with faces again and again, a circle with a face, another circle and a face. Haboba allows her granddaughter to play with the coin for as long as she wants. She will not lose or mislay it.
She is not a clumsy child. She does not drop plates, nor water jugs. She does not scatter beads or gooseberries. What is in her hands stays safe, looked after, unharmed. So, she is asked to run errands between the houses. She walks down alleys carrying precious perfume, a brand new tobe for a bride. On the way she does not stop to watch boys playing marbles, she does not giggle. When she passes the big tree, the trapped jinn hisses out at her, menacing and hoarse. Startled, blood running cold, she nearly spills the dish she is carrying. Nearly, but not quite. She calms herself down, marking the shades of dust under her feet, sand that is different than sunsets and sunrise. She notes the colour of bougainvillea rising over the neighbour’s wall. The branches nod at her and, no longer afraid, she smiles back.
When she speaks, she speaks to the plants in their language. She tells them what they want to hear, need to know to flourish. Their roots are deep in the ground, under her feet, down and spread out all the way to the cemetery where the dead lie, roots and bones, roots and teeth, roots that are strong but not straight, wild but held down tight under her feet. Roots are worthy of respect, when boiled they treat diarrhoea and fever. Roots are majestic, she is in awe of them, understands their pull. She knows that if she ever goes away, she will return to this neighbourhood, that has such a grand name. Bait al-Mal, the House of Wealth, in the old city of Omdurman.
Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese writer living in Scotland. Her new novel River Spirit, forthcoming in March, is about a young woman’s coming of age during the Mahdist War in 19th Century Sudan.