I met the Imam of the village and Khamees the Rat at about the same time. I don’t exactly remember now – it happened more than six years ago – but I think I met the Imam first.
But this is not quite accurate. I didn’t really ‘meet’ the Imam: I inflicted myself upon him. Perhaps that explains what happened.
Still, there was nothing else I could have done. As the man who led the daily prayers in the mosque, he was a leading figure in the village, and since I, a foreigner, had come to live there, he may well for all I knew have been offended had I neglected to pay him a call. Besides, I wanted to meet him; I was intrigued by what I’d heard about him.
People didn’t often talk about the Imam in the village, but when they did, they usually spoke of him somewhat dismissively, but also a little wistfully, as they might of some old, half-forgotten thing, like the annual flooding of the Nile. Listening to my friends speak of him, I had an inkling, long before I actually met him, that he already belonged, in a way, to the village’s past. I thought I knew this for certain when I heard that apart from being an imam he was also, by profession, a barber and a healer. People said he knew a great deal about herbs and poultices and the old kind of medicine. This interested me. This was Tradition: I knew that in rural Egypt imams and other religious figures are often by custom associated with those two professions.
The trouble was that these accomplishments bought the Imam very little credit in the village. The villagers didn’t any longer want an Imam who was also a barber and a healer. The older people wanted someone who had studied at al-Azhar and could quote from Jamal ad-Din Afghani and Mohammad Abduh as fluently as he could from the Hadith, and the younger men wanted a fierce, black-bearded orator, someone whose voice would thunder from the mimbar and reveal to them their destiny. No one had time for old-fashioned imams who made themselves ridiculous by boiling herbs and cutting hair.
Yet Ustad Ahmed, who taught in the village’s secondary school and was as well-read a man as I have ever met, often said – and this was not something he said of many people – that the old Imam read a lot. A lot of what? Politics, theology, even popular science . . . that kind of thing.
This made me all the more determined to meet him, and one evening, a few months after I first came to the village, I found my way to his house. He lived in the centre of the village, on the edge of the dusty open square which had the mosque in its middle. This was the oldest part of the village: a maze of low mud huts huddled together like confectionery on a tray, each hut crowned with a billowing, tousled head of straw.
When I knocked on the door the Imam opened it himself. He was a big man, with very bright brown eyes, set deep in a wrinkled, weather-beaten face. Like the room behind him, he was distinctly untidy: his blue jallabeyya was mud-stained and unwashed and his turban had been knotted anyhow around his head. But his beard, short and white and neatly trimmed, was everything a barber’s beard should be. Age had been harsh on his face, but there was a certain energy in the way he arched his shoulders, in the clarity of his eyes and in the way he fidgeted constantly, was never still: it was plain that he was a vigorous, restive kind of person.
‘Welcome,’ he said, courteous but unsmiling, and stood aside and waved me in. It was a long dark room, with sloping walls and a very low ceiling. There was a bed in it and a couple of mats but little else, apart from a few, scattered books: everything bore that dull patina of grime which speaks of years of neglect. Later, I learned that the Imam had divorced his first wife and his second had left him, so that now he lived quite alone and had his meals with his son’s family who lived across the square.
‘Welcome,’ he said again, formally.
‘Welcome to you,’ I said, giving him the formal response, and then we began on the long, reassuring litany of Arabic phrases of greeting.
‘How are you?’
‘How are you?’
‘You have brought blessings?’
‘May God bless you.’
‘Welcome to you.’
‘You have brought light.’
‘The light is yours.’
‘How are you?’
‘How are you?’
He was very polite, very proper. In a moment he produced a kerosene stove and began to brew tea. But even in the performance of that little ritual there was something about him that was guarded, watchful.
‘You’re the doktor al-Hindi,’ he said to me at last, ‘aren’t you? The Indian doctor?’
I nodded, for that was the name the village had given me. Then I told him that I wanted to talk to him about the methods of his system of medicine.
He looked very surprised and for a while he was silent. Then he put his right hand to his heart and began again on the ritual of greetings and responses, but in a markedly different way this time; one that I had learned to recognise as a means of changing the subject.
‘Welcome to you.’
‘You have brought light.’
‘The light is yours.’
And so on.
At the end of it I repeated what I had said.
‘Why do you want to hear about my herbs?’ he retorted. ‘Why don’t you go back to your country and find out about your own?’
‘I will,’ I said. ‘Soon. But right now . . .’
‘No, no,’ he said restlessly. ‘Forget about all that; I’m trying to forget about it myself.’
And then I knew that he would never talk to me about his craft, not just because he had taken a dislike to me for some reason of his own, but because his medicines were as discredited in his own eyes as they were in his clients’; because he knew as well as anybody else that the people who came to him now did so only because of old habits; because he bitterly regretted his inherited association with these relics of the past.
‘Instead,’ he said, ‘let me tell you about what I have been learning over the last few years. Then you can go back to your country and tell them all about it.’
He jumped up, his eyes shining, reached under his bed and brought out a glistening new biscuit tin.
‘Here!’ he said, opening it. ‘Look!’
Inside the box was a hypodermic syringe and a couple of glass phials. This is what he had been learning, he told me: the art of mixing and giving injections. And there was a huge market for it too, in the village: everybody wanted injections, for coughs, colds, fevers, whatever. There was a good living in it. He wanted to demonstrate his skill to me right there, on my arm, and when I protested that I wasn’t ill, that I didn’t need an injection just then, he was offended. ‘All right,’ he said curtly, standing up. ‘I have to go to the mosque right now. Perhaps we can talk about this some other day.’
That was the end of my interview. I walked with him to the mosque and there, with an air of calculated finality, he took my hand in his, gave it a perfunctory shake and vanished up the stairs.
Khamees the Rat I met one morning when I was walking through the rice fields that lay behind the village, watching people transplant their seedlings. Everybody I met was cheerful and busy and the flooded rice fields were sparkling in the clear sunlight. If I shut my ears to the language, I thought, and stretch the date palms a bit and give them a few coconuts, I could easily be back somewhere in Bengal.
I was a long way from the village and not quite sure of my bearings, when I spotted a group of people who had finished their work and were sitting on the path, passing around a hookah.
‘Ahlan!’ a man in a brown jallabeyya called out to me. ‘Hullo! Aren’t you the Indian doktor?’
‘Yes,’ I called back. ‘And who’re you?’
‘He’s a rat,’ someone answered, raising a gale of laughter. ‘Don’t go anywhere near him.’
‘Tell me, ya doktor,’ the Rat said, ‘if I get onto my donkey and ride steadily for thirty days will I make it to India?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t make it in thirty months.’
‘Thirty months!’ he said. ‘You must have come a long way.’
‘As for me,’ he declared, ‘I’ve never even been as far as Alexandria and if I can help it I never will.’
I laughed: it did not occur to me to believe him.
When I first came to that quiet corner of the Nile Delta I had expected to find on that most ancient and most settled of soils a settled and restful people. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The men of the village had all the busy restlessness of airline passengers in a transit lounge. Many of them had worked and travelled in the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, others had been in Libya and Jordan and Syria, some had been to the Yemen as soldiers, others to Saudi Arabia as pilgrims, a few had visited Europe: some of them had passports so thick they opened out like ink-blackened concertinas. And none of this was new: their grandparents and ancestors and relatives had travelled and migrated too, in much the same way as mine had, in the Indian subcontinent – because of wars, or for money and jobs, or perhaps simply because they got tired of living always in one place. You could read the history of this restlessness in the villagers’ surnames: they had names which derived from cities in the Levant, from Turkey, from faraway towns in Nubia; it was as though people had drifted here from every corner of the Middle East. The wanderlust of its founders had been ploughed into the soil of the village: it seemed to me sometimes that every man in it was a traveller. Everyone, that is, except Khamees the Rat, and even his surname, as I discovered later, meant ‘of Sudan’.
‘Well, never mind, ya doktor,’ Khamees said to me now, ‘since you’re not going to make it back to your country by sundown anyway, why don’t you come and sit with us for a while?’
He smiled and moved up to make room for me.
I liked him at once. He was about my age, in the early twenties, scrawny, with a thin, mobile face deeply scorched by the sun. He had that brightness of eye and the quick, slightly sardonic turn to his mouth that I associated with faces in the coffee houses of universities in Delhi and Calcutta; he seemed to belong to a world of late-night rehearsals and black coffee and lecture rooms, even though, in fact, unlike most people in the village, he was completely illiterate. Later I learned that he was called the Rat – Khamees the Rat – because he was said to gnaw away at things with his tongue, like a rat did with its teeth. He laughed at everything, people said – at his father, the village’s patron saint, the village elders, the Imam, everything.
That day he decided to laugh at me.
‘All right, ya doktor,’ he said to me as soon as I had seated myself. ‘Tell me, is it true what they say, that in your country you burn your dead?’
No sooner had he said it than the women of the group clasped their hands to their hearts and muttered in breathless horror: ‘Haram! Haram!’
My heart sank. This was a conversation I usually went through at least once a day and I was desperately tired of it. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it’s true; some people in my country burn their dead.’
‘You mean,’ said Khamees in mock horror, ‘that you put them on heaps of wood and just light them up?’
‘Yes,’ I said, hoping that he would tire of this sport if I humoured him.
‘Why?’ he said. ‘Is there a shortage of kindling in your country?’
‘No,’ I said helplessly, ‘you don’t understand.’ Somewhere in the limitless riches of the Arabic language a word such as ‘cremate’ must exist, but if it does, I never succeeded in finding it. Instead, for lack of any other, I had to use the word ‘burn’. That was unfortunate, for ‘burn’ was the word for what happened to wood and straw and the eternally damned.
Khamees the Rat turned to his spellbound listeners. ‘I’ll tell you why they do it,’ he said. ‘They do it so that their bodies can’t be punished after the Day of Judgement.’
Everybody burst into wonderstruck laughter. ‘Why, how clever,’ cried one of the younger girls. ‘What a good idea! We ought to start doing it ourselves. That way we can do exactly what we like and when we die and the Day of Judgement comes, there’ll be nothing there to judge.’
Khamees had got his laugh. Now he gestured to them to be quiet again.
‘All right then, ya doktor,’ he said. ‘Tell me something else: is it true that you are a Magian? That in your country everybody worships cows? Is it true that the other day when you were walking through the fields you saw a man beating a cow and you were so upset that you burst into tears and ran back to your room?’
‘No, it’s not true,’ I said, but without much hope: I had heard this story before and knew that there was nothing I could say which would effectively give it the lie. ‘You’re wrong. In my country people beat their cows all the time; I promise you.’
I could see that no one believed me.
‘Everything’s upside down in their country,’ said a dark, aquiline young woman who, I was told later, was Khamees’s wife. ‘Tell us, ya doktor: in your country, do you have crops and fields and canals like we do?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘we have crops and fields, but we don’t always have canals. In some parts of my country they aren’t needed because it rains all the year round.’
‘Ya salám,’ she cried, striking her forehead with the heel of her palm. ‘Do you hear that, oh you people? Oh, the Protector, oh, the Lord! It rains all the year round in his country.’
She had gone pale with amazement. ‘So tell us then,’ she demanded, ‘do you have night and day like we do?’
‘Shut up, woman,’ said Khamees. ‘Of course they don’t. It’s day all the time over there, didn’t you know? They arranged it like that so that they wouldn’t have to spend any money on lamps.’
We all laughed, and then someone pointed to a baby lying in the shade of a tree swaddled in a sheet of cloth. ‘That’s Khamees’s baby,’ I was told. ‘He was born last month.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ I said. ‘Khamees must be very happy.’
Khamees gave a cry of delight. ‘The Indian knows I’m happy because I’ve had a son,’ he said to the others. ‘He understands that people are happy when they have children: he’s not as upside down as we thought.’
He slapped me on the knee and lit up the hookah and from that moment we were friends.
One evening, perhaps a month or so after I first met Khamees, he and his brothers and I were walking back to the village from the fields when he spotted the old Imam sitting on the steps that led to the mosque.
‘Listen,’ he said to me, ‘you know the old Imam, don’t you? I saw you talking to him once.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I talked to him once.’
‘My wife’s ill,’ Khamees said. ‘I want the Imam to come to my house to give her an injection. He won’t come if I ask him, he doesn’t like me. You go and ask.’
‘He doesn’t like me either,’ I said.
‘Never mind,’ Khamees insisted. ‘He’ll come if you ask him – he knows you’re a foreigner. He’ll listen to you.’
While Khamees waited on the edge of the square with his brothers I went across to the Imam. I could tell that he had seen me – and Khamees – from a long way off, that he knew I was crossing the square to talk to him. But he would not look in my direction. Instead, he pretended to be deep in conversation with a man who was sitting beside him, an elderly and pious shopkeeper whom I knew slightly.
When I reached them I said ‘Good evening’ very pointedly to the Imam. He could not ignore me any longer then, but his response was short and curt, and he turned back at once to resume his conversation.
The old shopkeeper was embarrassed now, for he was a courteous, gracious man in the way that seemed to come so naturally to the elders of the village. ‘Please sit down,’ he said to me. ‘Do sit. Shall we get you a chair?’
Then he turned to the Imam and said, slightly puzzled: ‘You know the Indian doktor, don’t you? He’s come all the way from India to be a student at the University of Alexandria.’
‘I know him,’ said the Imam. ‘He came around to ask me questions. But as for this student business, I don’t know. What’s he going to study? He doesn’t even write in Arabic.’
‘Well,’ said the shopkeeper judiciously, ‘that’s true; but after all he writes his own languages and he knows English.’
‘Oh, those,’ said the Imam. ‘What’s the use of those languages? They’re the easiest languages in the world. Anyone can write those.’
He turned to face me for the first time. His eyes were very bright and his mouth was twitching with anger. ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘why do you worship cows?’
I was so taken aback that I began to stammer. The Imam ignored me. He turned to the old shopkeeper and said: ‘That’s what they do in his country – did you know? – they worship cows.’
He shot me a glance from the corner of his eyes. ‘And shall I tell you what else they do?’ he said to the shopkeeper.
He let the question hang for a moment. And then, very loudly, he hissed: ‘They burn their dead.’
The shopkeeper recoiled as though he had been slapped. His hands flew to his mouth. ‘Oh God!’ he muttered. ‘Ya Allah.’
‘That’s what they do,’ said the Imam. ‘They burn their dead.’
Then suddenly he turned to me and said, very rapidly: ‘Why do you allow it? Can’t you see that it’s a primitive and backward custom? Are you savages that you permit something like that? Look at you: you’ve had some kind of education; you should know better. How will your country ever progress if you carry on doing these things? You’ve even been to the West; you’ve seen how advanced they are. Now tell me: have you ever seen them burning their dead?’
The Imam was shouting now and a circle of young men and boys had gathered around us. Under the pressure of their interested eyes my tongue began to trip, even on syllables I thought I had mastered. I found myself growing angry – as much with my own incompetence as the Imam.
‘Yes, they do burn their dead in the West,’ I managed to say somehow. I raised my voice too now. ‘They have special electric furnaces meant just for that.’
The Imam could see that he had stung me. He turned away and laughed. ‘He’s lying,’ he said to the crowd. ‘They don’t burn their dead in the West. They’re not an ignorant people. They’re advanced, they’re educated, they have science, they have guns and tanks and bombs.’
‘We have them too!’ I shouted back at him. I was as confused now as I was angry. ‘In my country we have all those things too,’ I said to the crowd. ‘We have guns and tanks and bombs. And they’re better than anything you have – we’re way ahead of you.’
The Imam could no longer disguise his anger. ‘I tell you, he’s lying,’ he said. ‘Our guns and bombs are much better than theirs. Ours are second only to the West’s.’
‘It’s you who’s lying,’ I said. ‘You know nothing about this. Ours are much better. Why, in my country we’ve even had a nuclear explosion. You won’t be able to match that in a hundred years.’
So there we were, the Imam and I, delegates from two superseded civilisations vying with each other to lay claim to the violence of the West.
At that moment, despite the vast gap that lay between us, we understood each other perfectly. We were both travelling, he and I: we were travelling in the West. The only difference was that I had actually been there, in person: I could have told him about the ancient English university I had won a scholarship to, about punk dons with safety pins in their mortarboards, about superhighways and sex shops and Picasso. But none of it would have mattered. We would have known, both of us, that all that was mere fluff: at the bottom, for him as for me and millions and millions of people on the land masses around us, the West meant only this – science and tanks and guns and bombs.
And we recognised too the inescapability of these things, their strength, their power – evident in nothing so much as this: that even for him, a man of God, and for me, a student of the ‘humane’ sciences, they had usurped the place of all other languages of argument. He knew, just as I did, that he could no longer say to me, as Ibn Battuta might have when he travelled to India in the fourteenth century: ‘You should do this or that because it is right or good or because God wills it so.’ He could not have said it because that language is dead: those things are no longer sayable; they sound absurd. Instead he had had, of necessity, to use that other language, so universal that it extended equally to him, an old-fashioned village imam, and great leaders at SALT conferences: he had had to say to me: ‘You ought not to do this because otherwise you will not have guns and tanks and bombs.’
Since he was a man of God his was the greater defeat.
For a moment then I was desperately envious. The Imam would not have said any of those things to me had I been a Westerner. He would not have dared. Whether I wanted it or not, I would have had around me the protective aura of an inherited expertise in the technology of violence. That aura would have surrounded me, I thought, with a sheet of clear glass, like a bulletproof screen; or perhaps it would have worked as a talisman, like a press card, armed with which I could have gone off to what were said to be the most terrible places in the world that month, to gaze and wonder. And then perhaps I too would one day have had enough material for a book which would have had for its epigraph the line, The horror! The horror! – for the virtue of a sheet of glass is that it does not require one to look within.
But that still leaves Khamees the Rat waiting on the edge of the square.
In the end it was he and his brothers who led me away from the Imam. They took me home with them, and there, while Khamees’s wife cooked dinner for us – she was not so ill after all – Khamees said to me: ‘Do not be upset, ya doktor. Forget about all those guns and things. I’ll tell you what: I’ll come to visit you in your country, even though I’ve never been anywhere. I’ll come all the way.’
He slipped a finger under his skullcap and scratched his head, thinking hard.
Then he added: ‘But if I die, you must bury me.’
‘The Imam and the Indian’, by Amitav Ghosh. © Amitav Ghosh, 1986. Reproduced by permission of The Wylie Agency (UK) Ltd.
Photograph © Harry Gruyaert / Magnum Photos, New Gourna, Egypt, 1987