Dhofar for Memory
The following text belongs to the first part of a book still being written, conceived as an extension of my film The Hour of Liberation. This passage appears after my crew and I had already walked four hundred kilometres. Earlier, I would have explained that we had arrived at the famous “Red Line” combat zone. Just when we were filming the bombing of the English base protecting the Sultan’s capital, our camera broke down. The one promised by the Yemeni Minister of Culture, a hand-winding Bolex, has in the meantime arrived with a local cameraman, Is’hac. It is outmoded though useful but not synchronous. We have to walk four hundred kilometres to go back to Yemen and try to find a screwdriver to repair ours, a synchronous Coutant. If it can be repaired, it will be necessary to go back to Dhofar to start filming again in Dhofar. Apart from the physical exhaustion, the morale of the French crew is very low. Cameraman Michel Humeau and sound engineer Jean-Louis Ughetto had a one-month contract. Most of this month has been spent walking rather than filming. Essential scenes are still missing from the film. I’m afraid the French crew will break down and drop everything.
With their usual delicacy, the People’s Army soldiers placed Al Nachita [“The Dynamic One”] in the vanguard of the caravan. Everyone knows that after three hours of walking, “the journalist” invariably finds herself at the rear of the caravan. The guerrillas are experts in the art of sparing my self-esteem. Against all odds, they keep showering me with bravos. Well, I will eventually live up to my nickname. A nickname that I refrain from translating to the French crew to avoid mockery. I have to admit that “turtle” would be more appropriate. I had hoped that all those grueling walks would inject some steel into my muscles. But the wings so desired refuse to bud. “It will come, it will come ... We had the same problems as you, at the start of the Revolution,” the combatants assure. I have no choice but to believe them.
Tonight’s caravan is made up of more camels than I have ever seen in Dhofar. Camels loaded with weapons. Camels loaded with ammunition. Camels loaded with other material. Camels loaded with provisions. Camels that spontaneously disperse in good order when the Royal Air Force drops its bombs. Camels that listen religiously to those in charge before shaking at night. Camels synchronized with the military leader’s wishes. “The seventy camels make less noise than one,” the sound engineer notes. Camels even more disciplined than their guerrilla masters, who are already terribly disciplined for “The Dynamic One”.
Night briefing before departure, in a very low voice. The deep tone hints at a difficult expedition. The caravan takes note of instructions for absolute silence, I take note of the magnetic attraction of the military leader, his physique radiates an overwhelming force. The combatants think of the pitfalls of the dangerous zone to be crossed tonight. Me, I think of the risk of depriving the film of this attractive local Guevara. “As beautiful as the moon,” Arabs say. They must be talking about full, shining moons. Here, a poor quarter moon illuminates the perfect oval face of our commander. How to film him with this damn 16mm film insensitive to his charm? How to avoid the risk of being taken for an irresponsible person slowing down the convoy for a film? For “revolutionary duty first, journalism second”.1 But also, how to avoid the fury of an exhausted team that keeps repeating: “Either we film or we walk.” Okay, another heartbreak...
Bewitched by the military commander, the sound engineer seems to be going through a heartbreak of a different kind. “When there is tenderness, everything is justified,” Jean-Louis sometimes says at the stops, explaining male homosexuality to me. “Absolutely,” Michel adds, who, thirty years later, still calls me “Bécassine in Dhofar”.2 That’s when I understand that they would not have refused an affair with a military-escort Apollo. Together, they discuss the coquetry of the soldiers. “They shave at dawn, very carefully.” But tenderness or not, emotions most often remain unfulfilled in the life of guerrilla warfare.
Frightened by the gap between the sexual revolution of the West and the tribal reserve, I repeat like a mantra: “The Dhofaris are very austere.” “I trust the masses to meet behind the rocks for a date,” Michel invariably retorts to me. “The masses!” This fetish word of Mao’s is definitely in fashion, even at Dior. Nevertheless, Jean-Louis has broadened my moral horizon: in love with a French actress, married to another woman, and father of two children, this blond man with blue eyes knows how to look at men. We are totally synchronized in spotting male beauties. My heart started to beat more intensely when my troubling Guevara gave me a bewitching look and said: “I want to have human relations with you.” What does he mean by that? Another fantasy, because as soon as the camels set off, there’s only one obsession for the convoy: to arrive at their destination “in one piece”.
Once again, the guerrillas did not tell me about the difficulties of the coming ordeal. This strategy increasingly infuriates me. It’s secrecy plain and simple. Yet an intellectual had warned me: “They say it’s a two-hour walk. It takes me five or six hours.” Yet the Yemeni cameraman exclaims when they go to fetch us water: “But these men are like goats. They don’t walk. They are jumping on the rocks.” I still get angry when their “few hours of walking” become ten or fourteen.
Be gallant, my muscles. Do like the carabinieri in the song. Ah, you don’t know that song? Well, I’ll sing it to you, my darling muscles: “The best way to walk is to put one foot in front of the other, then start again.” Easy, isn’t it?
My muscles, please have mercy... But what had to happen, did happen. Slowly but surely, “The Dynamic One” turned into a turtle.
They insist on hoisting me on a camel. I comply and let myself be tied up. Half an hour passes. Who is the charlatan who said, “The camel is the vessel of the desert”? To make you seasick as hell, sure. To tear your bowels apart with nausea, sure. To make you want to smash your skull on the rocks, sure. But to cross the desert, no! Lies. I ask to get off the camel. Nothing can be worse than this machine to foment overwhelming vertigo. My muscles will obey me. Come what may.
Ah, it’s good to be back on the ground. To feel the ground. Solid or not, it’s ground. No vomiting sullies the satisfaction of moving forward. I’m walking, I’m still walking. Beloved muscles, thank you for your loyalty.
The caravan is further and further away. A tiny stop, worried whispers in the Himyarite language.3 I soon find myself with a special escort for myself alone, me the dynamic rearguard of the rearguard. My troop is made up of ten hardened guerrillas. They give me breaks from time to time in an ever softer, more embarrassed tone. They are more and more considerate, more and more concerned. The stops are getting shorter and shorter. I am dreaded to discover that the breaks only serve to make the feeling of exhaustion more intense.
My muscles, please take a pledge of allegiance... An hour later, they stab me in the calves, the heart and the head! The fateful moment has arrived. For the first time in Dhofar, my muscles categorically refuse to move! They will no longer obey. They belong to someone else. To whom? Collapsed on the sand, I ask to sleep.
– “Impossible comrade, look over there at the enemy base. The shadows of the mercenaries are moving. Can’t you see? We’re very close to them.”
– “But I can’t walk anymore, I swear”.
– “Don’t worry comrade, I’ll carry you. Otherwise everyone’s life is in danger”.
The one who spoke is a heavy-set, stocky combatant. He has the rough face of a man who had no childhood. Who has known only suffering in life. He’s the one carrying the 30-kilo goatskin of water, and I don’t know what bulky weapon, much bigger than a Kalashnikov. Like many soldiers in the People’s Army, he has no shoes and walks barefoot. His soles are terribly cracked. Stones get into the notches. Like so many others, he spends his stops digging brambles and pebbles from his bloody feet. And me, I have boots, good 100%-cotton socks. I only wear a light cashmere shawl as a blanket. Not even my own food.
And he also wants to carry me? I have reached the depths of indignity.
Desperate, I stare at the ground. The ground must help me indeed. The ground must be able to produce quicksand. Sands capable of swallowing the infamous person that I am. Why doesn’t it swallow this scatterbrain who relied only on her will to make this film? This frivolous woman who didn’t even have the right mind to practice cross-country or bodybuilding like Michel? This reckless woman who insisted so much on going to the Red Line. Ah, Talal Saad!4 You weren’t kidding when you said: “One month of Heiny Srour gave me more white hair than all the British paratroopers.”
Quicksand, help me! My legs, my own legs are agents of imperialism. Sands! But they remain frozen, and leave me there, alone with my decay. I hear myself say calmly:
– “Please, let me die.”
Death! That place of bliss where torture, dishonour and abjection no longer exist.
– “Let you die? Never comrade! Out of the question!” The tone is final.
– “Let us carry you,” begs another.
The third one is the worst:
– “In an hour and a half the sun will rise. Look, the horizon is already getting pale around there. And we’re out in the open. They will destroy us all, you see. Allow yourself to be carried.”
What? Let me be carried on their poor battered feet which are already carrying both food, water, arms and ammunition? And they want to carry me too? Me? Let myself be carried by foreign men? By men I don’t even know? All the conservatism of my oriental education is protesting. I find the strength to beg:
– “I’m begging you, let me die.”
Stunned silence. Whispers in Himyarite. Sighs. Dismayed silence ... Finally, a voice drops death into the soul:
– “Okay. Sleep a little, comrade.”
I collapse on the sand.
Nawm’ al’atil! I now know what this Arabic expression means. Yes, the sleep of the deceased, I have experienced it. A sleep of indelible ignominy. A thick, colourless sleep. Not even black. A sleep without the slightest dream. You don’t even dream that you’re dead. A sleep of the deceased. Deceased, but not dead.
– “Get up quickly comrade.”
A purple sky opens my eyes to a supernatural landscape. Huge pink, yellow and orange flowers adorn cacti separated by giant pebbles. The enchantment transported me to a magical planet..
– “Hurry, hurry, before the Balouches5 wake up.”
This time, a rough hand grabs mine firmly and pulls me away. The splendour nevertheless grips my gaze. The fighters drag along a disembodied filmmaker. I walk in a fantastic universe. I hurry, while looking behind me at the panorama which disappears at a gallop:
– “Hurry, hurry, comrade. I’m begging you.”
Here we are, sheltered in a precipice. By grabbing me at the last minute, dragging me along, they almost fell into the abyss more than once. They redouble their attention. I arrive alive and well in a rocky valley. Pause. When I meet their eyes, I see no anger or resentment. Only the relief of a mission accomplished. I’m alive. So are all the comrades. Eventually, we join the caravan. The blazing sun has brought me to my senses. My pride, my fuss and my oriental modesty almost cost the lives of a dozen remarkable fighters. But it will take me seventeen years of Lebanese Civil War to fully appreciate their sensitivity. In the ranks of the Lebanese left, rudeness and brutality towards women activists was common. On a Beirut barricade, I would quickly have been knocked out with a punch preceded by: “Your mother’s an idiot and your sister’s a whore.” Barefoot guerillas, I still haven’t met more distinguished, more refined gentlemen than you. If one of you is dead, I could not flower his grave. Because I haven’t even tried to get to know your names.
Thirty years later, in an interview with an American-Arab essayist, I call this episode of my life “the shame of the shame”.
- 1Elsewhere, I explain that the guerrillas treat us as guests of honour and make immense sacrifices for our well-being, but have no media awareness whatsoever.
- 2Bécassine is a French cartoon character, a young naive peasant girl from the province of Brittany.
- 3This very old language – which I don’t understand – is in danger of disappearing in Yemen and Dhofar.
- 4Talal Saad is the member of the Central Committee who welcomed me as soon as I arrived at the Yemeni border. He’s a great champion of women’s liberation. I found him bright, but he did not trust me: “You are a bourgeois woman, you only suffer from your oppression as a woman. And on that you abdicate so quickly. How can I trust you to be sent to the Liberated Zone?”
- 5The British use Balouche mercenaries.
This chapter won the Draft of Dream of Writing Prize of The French Multi Media Civil Society (La SCAM).