Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

The Outskirts of Benslimane by Josie Gleave

I am called brave for leaving my home and moving to the other side of the world, but I know that any bravery I might have comes from my sister. She is the one who can effortlessly introduce herself to a crowd of new acquaintances or play the peacemaker in an argument. She climbs back on the horse that just bucked her off. I wanted to be her.

I have not seen my sister for over a year since I moved. It feels like ages to us who are often mistaken for twins. I stand on the edge of Paris at the Levallois-Perret train station where we are meeting for only a few short days. I arrived early, and she will fly in from her summer job in Morocco where she has been training horses for a family she claims is one of the wealthiest next to the King.

As I pace the platform, I pose the question: how does a twenty-something, female, Arizonan horse trainer end up in Morocco? There is a blank space in my mind when I think of that country. Instead I imagine a desert of sand and a solitary tiled palace with extensive stables full of black horses. I think of our parents in Arizona who I know have been uneasy for her safety. My own feelings of concern were that she would not be taken seriously or treated fairly. Americans feel loved within their homeland, but that warmth is not always reciprocated when abroad.

Like bees flitting out of the hive, Parisians flood the station. They are a swarm of blue suits and black dresses. I scan the faces of each traveller finding none that resemble my own. When the flight calms and I anticipate waiting for the next train, a statuesque female with long, straight hair rises on the escalator. She is zipped in a black jacket with an embroidered Arabian horse head over the heart, tired blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a rhinestone belt with a horseshoe buckle. We squeal each other’s names and hug. Together we weave through the streets, passing her lumpy duffle bag back and forth to rest our shoulders. My mind is teeming with questions and so I begin.

 

‘How did you end up in Morocco?’

 

It started with Riley’s phone call. He used to shoe for the same stables I worked for in Arizona, and so we would see each other from time to time at the show circuit. He rang me one day saying he had a job for me body clipping some horses for a photo shoot. He said the guy would pay well, three grand for the lot. I said I could get it done and asked for the location of the stable. He said Morocco, and I thought, like the country?

He called me on Monday, and I was on a flight that Wednesday. I only stayed a week that trip so I could get back for the second half of the university semester, but I got to know the owner, Anas, and his situation. His three main properties: the Villa, the Centre, and Comagree are all on the same road on the outskirts of Benslimane. His racing stable is on the coast of Mohammedia, a half hour away. Most of the show horses were stabled at the Villa while the Centre and Comagree had a mixture of agriculture fields, olive and citrus groves, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, and miniature horses. Anas tries to make money out of his work, but his dad is content keeping him out of the city. See, Anas does everything extreme. He took partying to the extreme. Now he has over 500 head of horses. That is extreme. But it keeps him out of the city. That week, I just body clipped. Anas found out that I can ride and asked me to come back.

One month later, I was back on a plane to Morocco for the summer. To show me the land, Anas took me on his daily rounds. Every night he drove to each property to check up on the horses. He had pastures upon pastures of foals, yearlings, two year olds, three year olds, and pregnant mares. He didn’t remember all of their names, but somehow he knew every pedigree. He would point to a horse and say, ‘This horse was by this and sired by this horse and its grandfather was by this.’ Sometimes he sat up all night long researching pedigrees, and if you weren’t careful and didn’t go to bed on time you would be stuck there with him. Anas wanted to bring back the pure and traditional Barb. If you look them up, Barbs look like fat little ponies, but when you see them they are big boned with huge necks. According to Anas, a few years ago the Moroccan government was lax about accurate breed records. The Barb was disappearing and so anything that looked like a Barb was listed as a Barb to build the registry. While looking for a true bloodline, Anas was also breeding pure Egyptian Arabians and racehorses. He had more than a couple of projects in motion.

Anas set me up in the Villa. I had a room to myself with hot and cold running water and even occasional air conditioning. I was taken care of. The only problem I had was a rat that paid me a visit one night. Already I had a little mouse and two big geckos sharing my accommodation. There was no room for a rat. I locked it in the bathroom, but struggled to sleep. Every time I started to doze, I heard it scurry and bang into a wall or I dreamed that it was nibbling on my toes. In the morning it had left through the same hole it entered. I duct taped it tight.

From six in the morning to five at night, I worked with the horses. Anas had unrealistic expectations for the stallions’ progress, but I still tried to please him. He wanted them prancing and doing tricks, but most couldn’t ride in a straight line. Half of them weren’t even broke before I arrived. I split my horses into two groups. The first I turned out to pasture to let them run and play in open space. The others I lunged in a round pen and the next day I rotated. I schooled the halter Arabs by training them to position their necks high and back legs outstretched and then I worked on breaking the stallions. Some of those studs were raunchy. I mean, I would take them out of their stalls and they would try to bite my head. They would strike at me, rear up, and come at me. When I was breaking Markmoul under saddle, all he would do was buck. What I found to work with Markmoul seemed to ring true for stallions in general. The more consistently I worked them and rode them, the better they became. They were easier to handle and weren’t retarded. Let a stud sit for a bit, and they turn into mischief-makers. So I give them a job and it makes them happy. I think men are the same way.

My two years of high school Spanish were obviously of no use that summer. The people spoke a concoction of Arabic and French. A couple of guys at the stable took it upon themselves to educate me, which started as pointing at an object and stating its name. I kept a vocabulary list on my phone and botched the spelling of every word so I could read it later. Ayoub and I became friends through this process. He worked at Comagree, but was close to my age so we went riding together and explored old ruins and roads. I don’t know what language we spoke, but we could understand one another. We carried on full conversations in this odd foreign dialect that probably wasn’t really a language.

One of my favourite evenings was when Ayoub and I drove to Mohammedia. I had been before to see the racehorses, but never at night. That is when the city comes alive. Whenever we were unsure of directions, we pulled over on the side of the road and Ayoub would call out to a lone vendor selling snail soup or cactus fruit. The people were helpful and friendly, almost too friendly with a tendency to jump in your car and take you to the place you are trying to go. We arrived at Mohammedia, walked along the boardwalk and watched a little carnival on the beach where there were horse rides and camel rides for children. Somehow Ayoub convinced me to ride the Ferris wheel. Terrible idea. It went around and around for what felt like an hour and it went fast! I am not great with heights, but that was hardly my primary concern. First of all, it was a carnival ride. Second of all, it was a carnival ride in Morocco. The hinges looked shabby with ropes and knots holding things together. My nervousness only encouraged Ayoub. He tried to shake the carriage so it would rattle and swing and then he would laugh and laugh.

Early in the month, Anas asked me to show some of the Arabs in halter. I told him I would if he really wanted me to, but I didn’t think it was a good idea. The horses wouldn’t have a fair show with me. Women aren’t exactly repressed in Morocco, but they don’t show horses. Even if I trotted out with the best Arab gelding, I would still be a woman. Anas knew the risk, but still thought that I deserved to flaunt my work. I told Anas his horses would have a better shot with me training and a man showing.

Morocco has its own politics and rules around horse shows. I let that be. In no other way was it a problem that I was a woman. The guys treated me a bit differently, but that was because I am a white American, and as a trainer I was a little bit higher than them. After they saw me manhandle a couple of the studs and bust my butt working and getting dirty just like them, they accepted me.

One day, all the guys and me were at Comagree looking at the Barbs used in Fantasia. We had just gone to the festival and seen the main competition where twenty men on Barb horses, dressed in traditional garb, gallop towards the audience and shoot their rifles into the air one time. The goal is to fire in unison so it sounds like one single shot ringing out, not popcorn. These Barb horses are a fiery breed. They are taught to dance and rear upon hearing certain Arabic words. One of the guys brought out this grey Barb and jumped on bareback. The horse took off down the road, reared on command like The Man from Snowy River, sprinted back toward us, and skidded to a halt. The man jumped off and said to me, ‘You?’

‘Yeah!’ I swung up on the grey without a thought of possible dangers. It was my chance to prove my riding ability. We galloped to the end of the road, and I repeated the Arabic commands. The Barb pranced and then reared, pawing the air. We shot off again and slid to a stop. The guys clapped and cheered for me. I slid off the Barb’s back and couldn’t stop smiling. Amongst the commotion, Said asked me something in Arabic. I was used to nodding and agreeing with what was asked of me even when I didn’t understand. Next thing I knew, he was kissing me! I guess you can’t say yes to everything.

As much as I loved Morocco, I did miss speaking English. What a relief when Enda arrived from Ireland. At least I had one person I could talk with easily. Enda was hired as a farrier, but he also helped exercise the horses with me. He loved to ride. But he had one problem; he had a massive appetite. Hajiba was our amazing cook who sourced most of our food from the properties. Everything she made was saucy and delicious, but Enda still said he couldn’t survive on three meals a day and no alcohol. He was pleased when the guys at Comagree invited both of us to another Fantasia festival. It turned out to be more of a post-wedding, bachelor’s party for some guy from the next town over, but it meant Enda’s belly would be full after the feast. I sat next to Enda and Ayoub and tried to not feel out of place as the only chick in the tent.

The people aren’t that big on plates or forks in Morocco, but they do have a strong sense of community. The men passed around a community bowl of water to dip your hands, community towel to dry your hands, and then one community glass of water to drink. I started with the cup, but turned my back for a second and it was gone. By the time I noticed, it was halfway around the table. I didn’t want it back. The one thing I did get to myself was bread because it is eaten at every meal and used as utensils. When the banquet was laid before us, everyone dove in fingers first and used the round khobz to shovel lamb, potatoes, and carrots into their mouths.

After we ate, four girls entered the tent and danced. Everyone clapped along as the dancers waved their arms and flicked their hands as if flinging off water. One of the girls continued to sway as she climbed on top of the table. Then she turned to me and tried to pull me up alongside her. Um, no. But she didn’t give up. She urged me to join her until the guys hollered for my submission. So I thought, when in Rome…. There was a lot of hair whipping and hip shaking, but I can’t deny that it was fun. Once I jumped off of the table, everyone in the tent was on their feet dancing, clapping, and flicking their hands. I found Ayoub in the crowd and stayed close to him. He showed me some steps he knew, and I tried to teach him country dancing spins and dips. Enda was beside himself. ‘How can a people act like this without a drop of alcohol?’

What I loved most was making friends. There was this one guy who lived down a road where I often went riding. I don’t know his name, but we called him Avocado because he had green eyes. Whenever he saw me passing, he came out of his house to give me a piece of fruit. I loved that. People didn’t have a whole lot, but they didn’t need a whole lot. From what I saw, most of the people were happy. They were religious. They believed in a God. They believed in helping each other and doing what is right and being kind.

Oh, I almost forgot. Anas told me this joke. Why is the donkey’s nose white? It’s because his enemy is the children who pull his ears. When he went to Heaven he peeked his nose in, saw all of the children, and ran off.

 

Download the PDF of ‘The Outskirts of Benslimane’ here

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The Sideboard, Patrick Pearson

 

The past is not gone. We carry it about with us, in our genes, or in our characters, or in our faces, or in those secret places within our souls where the present is denied access. And sometimes we carry the past quite literally as baggage. In the corner of my lounge, or lounge-room as it’s called here in Australia, an old item of furniture stands eloquently mute, taunting me to unravel even a little of its knotted and unwritten history, to decipher some of the code which has been willed into my life. It should really be in the dining-room, because it’s a sideboard, but it’s been pretty banged about in the one hundred years it’s been around, and I’ve decided to give it a break from its dining-room duties.

For all the dents and scars on its surface, it’s a remarkable piece nonetheless. It stands almost a metre high, its dimensions cut deliberately to the golden mean, so that it’s over a metre and a half wide and half a metre deep, drawn in simple lines, with no showiness or flourishes at all. The polished wood on the outside is a deep walnut colour, and there are lighter reddish shades visible in the grain even after years of either vigorous polishing or benign neglect. Inside, the wood has never been polished or varnished, and it’s lighter than its outside flank. This is where the wood of the sideboard can be coaxed to reveal its identity, its provenance.

Scratch it just a little, sand it briefly in a hidden spot, and its scent rises rich to one’s nostrils and throat, so that a wine merchant would say it was redolent of cinnamon, with low notes of black pepper and subtle tones of dark cherry. This sideboard, on light duties in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, is made of a distinctive African wood from a tree which has become rare. Ocotea bullata is a tree species which thrived for hundreds of millions of years in the high Afromontane forests, but now it’s officially endangered and seems destined for extinction. Its English name is ‘black stinkwood’, because when the timber is new-felled and raw, its scent is headily rich – so strong that the first Dutch settlers into the southern African interior called the trees stinkhout – ‘smelly wood’.

In a convoluted way, it’s partly because of these Dutch settlers that I have this sideboard at all. The Dutch settlers didn’t call themselves, ‘settlers’ – they called themselves trekboers, which means literally, ‘itinerant farmers’. The British called them trouble, and were glad to see them leaving the Cape Colony, round about 1830. One of the regions they moved to was where my sideboard grew, or rather where the stinkwood tree which became my sideboard grew, before it was felled. When the trekboers started arriving, the reigning great chief of the Basotho people was named Moshoeshoe, pronounced ‘Mo-shwee-shwee’. Initially he believed the trekboers that they were itinerant. They weren’t, really, and he spent the rest of his life preventing their complete appropriation of his territory. Once they had been allowed to grow a crop to feed their stock, which Moshoeshoe argued was natural hospitality, the trekboers argued that the land was now theirs, and they were willing to fight and die – and kill – for it. And if they did uproot themselves to move further into the interior, they sold their farm to new arrivals and then hastily whipped up their oxen to draw their wagons northwards, leaving the newcomers nastily surprised when the Basotho wanted the land back. Land is like time: it’s a tricky thing to own. Perhaps it even possesses us for a while, until we move off or are pushed off, or are lowered under it. In fact, the land the trekboers wanted and claimed hadn’t always been Basotho territory, either. It had belonged to the San Bushmen, hunter-gatherers who had wandered the region for at least forty thousand years, making their strange clicking sounds and telling their Creation myths to each other as they followed the game from water-hole to water-hole, owning almost nothing but the instant of their being.

Then, probably round the time Macbeth was killing his cousin in Scotland, the Basotho people started moving in, and the Bushmen were killed or assimilated – or else driven westward into drier lands. Land is only yours for as long as you are able to defend it, unless your society is unusually prosperous and peaceful – and that’s always an aberration in history. Land is a resource rather than a possession, and in the brutal war for resources, you can’t always will the rights to your land to your children. Sideboards are a different matter: they can be owned, sold, given away – or willed to the next generation.

 

After my mother died, three pain-wracked years after my father’s sudden death by heart-attack, our family sat reading their will. My father’s flowing hand divested them in death of their possessions, item by item. The sideboard was to come to me, and my first thought was that my father must have written the will before I’d emigrated with my wife and children to Australia. Surely he wouldn’t have left me a

sideboard to take halfway across the world? There were no manufacturer’s marks on it as clues to where it had been made, though my mother had told me once that the sideboard had been her father’s, and that it had travelled by ox-wagon to her parents‟ home.

I was puzzling how to transport the sideboard in my Honda when my eldest brother offered to help me move it. ‘It folds up,’ he said. ‘Look.’ He opened one of its doors wide, and lifted the door gently. It popped out of its hinges and came away in

his hands. ‘Try the other one,’ he said. I opened it so that it was at right angles to the sideboard’s length, pulled it upwards and it slid up to meet me.

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Will we need a screwdriver?’ I hadn’t ever helped my parents move house; I’d been the first child to move away from our home town at twenty-one.

Before that we’d lived in the same house for ten years, so it was a revelation to me that the sideboard came apart.

‘No screwdriver – just hands.’ My brother pulled out one of the draws. ‘Look at this,’ he said, and he slid the bottom of a draw carefully out of its grooves, then folded the draw’s hinged sides inwards so that it tucked flat. I did the same for the other draw, compressing it gently together like the sides of a wooden accordion.

The shelves inside the sideboard lifted out easily, and were stacked in the little pile next to us. The rest of it looked pretty solid still. ‘What now?’ I asked.

‘Hold that side,’ he said, and he unhooked two diagonal iron strips which crossed the back of the sideboard, then he used finger and thumb to pluck out four small hand-carved pegs which had been hidden along the back. ‘Now pull,’ he instructed, and I did. The backplate fell away, but the sideboard stayed upright. ‘It was designed so that one person could take it apart, or put it together,’ he said. ‘Tug the bit in front.’

I did, and it glided easily toward me. As it came away in my hand, the whole superstructure of the sideboard swayed, unmoored from its rigidity but not collapsing under its own weight. ‘Now we just lift it,’ said my brother. We flipped it onto its top, and its two sides folded softly into each other so that its bulk had disappeared. What a moment before had reached to my waist was now stacked flat, its entirety about twenty centimetres high. ‘There,’ said my brother. ‘I moved that a few times.’

 

I believe that my sideboard started life on a mountainside in what was one day to become the kingdom of Lesotho. It may already have been a sapling when Columbus sailed westwards, and it certainly would have been a magnificent and mature tree by the Napoleonic wars – a green force towering thirty to forty metres tall in its mountain fortress in ‘Basutoland’ as the British had begun calling the area. Perhaps its bubbled leaves were fluttering in the wind in 1833, when Moshoeshoe realised that he needed to fight trekboer fire with gunfire rather than spears. In that year he requested a white missionary for his territory, suspecting correctly that missionaries would gain him access to guns, and he got three missionaries instead of one. One of those was to become a lifelong friend of his, passionate about protecting Basotho lands from both trekboer and rapacious British officials. That friend was the French missionary Eugene Casalis, and his connection to my sideboard and to me runs in an almost straight line: Casalis’s daughter Adéle would be born in Basutoland, and she would marry the young Swiss missionary Adolphe Mabille – and he was a close friend of my great-great-grandfather Paul Germond.

 

It wasn’t my great-great-grandfather who felled the five-hundred-year-old tree that became the sideboard. If my detective work is right, it was his grandson, Theodore. Yet indirectly and genetically, I suppose, he had a hand in it. Where does any chain of responsibility or causation begin, I wonder? In this matter of the tree, Mabille was also a link in the chain, and of course his wife Adéle: as missionaries they moved to Basutoland because she spoke fluent SeSotho as well as French and English – and it was their enthusiasm which persuaded my great-great-grandfather to go too. By his calling on the missionaries in the first place, even Moshoeshoe himself is linked to the felling of the tree and the building of the sideboard. And of course the trekboers, for invading Basotho lands and precipitating Moshoeshoe’s need for guns. The roots of causality run deep, like those of responsibility, and they’re hidden in the tunnels of their subterraneality, so who’s to know? At that time the black stinkwood trees were as plentiful on the mountainsides as passenger pigeons had been on the North American plains; the result of a connected series of events, though, is that here in my lounge is a stinkwood sideboard, cut, dried and polished, while its few still- surviving cousins reel under an ongoing arboreal genocide.

 

My great-great-grandfather Paul and his wife Lucie launched their mission school at Thabana Morena in Basutoland in 1861; by this time they had two sons, a two-year-old and an infant who’d been born on the way. That infant, Louis Germond, was my great-grandfather – who almost didn’t make it to fatherhood. On a visit

‘home’ to Switzerland it was discovered he had consumption and wasn’t expected to survive. Louis returned to Basutoland with his parents in the hope that a drier climate would keep him alive a few more years; had he stayed in Switzerland, I suppose there would be no sideboard in my lounge and perhaps no me at all, only a Swiss grave marked ‘Jacques-Louis Germond, n. 1861, m. 1885’ – or thereabout.

Louis did survive, and married when he turned thirty. Between 1891 and 1906 he and his wife Nelly poured out nine children. I surmise that it was one of those – Theodore – who cut the black stinkwood and sawed its planks, then planed and sanded them into the sideboard I have now. My grandfather Paul Germond was born in 1894, a year after Theo, but my grandpa Paul wouldn’t have been the one to cut down the great stinkwood tree and fashion the sideboard. When I was a boy I used to visit Grandpa on the occasional trip with my parents, and in his shed were spades and ploughshares and harrows, and seed-fiddles and barley-hummellers and potato- shovels and corn flails and scythes – but no great saws or planes, no wood-clamps or spokeshaves. My grandpa wasn’t a woodworker; he was a sower and a planter of seeds, crops, berries, vines, fruit trees – anything edible. His chief aim was to teach people how to farm and feed themselves.

 

I have a photo of the second generation Germond family in front of a grass- roofed building on their mission in 1906. Louis is standing proudly to the side of his brood of children, and my grandpa Paul is squatting solidly on the ground right at the front, earthy and open and looking at twelve much like he did at eighty. On his right is his gentle brother Theodore, ‘Gift of God’, the child family journals say was sensitive and kind and obedient. He is slim compared to my grandpa, his eyes are darker, and even at thirteen he looks like a saint. Everyone knew Theo was going to be a missionary, even then. The other Germonds are scattered about in the photograph, my mother’s paternal uncles and aunts whom I never met, not one of them, and my adult self wonders why not.

 

I’m certain it was Theo who cut down the tree and built the sideboard. It would be impossible to prove in a court of law, but logic dictates that it must have been Theo. He was intent on becoming a missionary, but his younger brother Roby dreamed of becoming a doctor, and Theo realised that their father wouldn’t be able to afford Roby’s medical studies in Europe. So, because he was clever with his hands and loved carpentry, self-sacrificing Theo became a woodwork teacher and saved all his salary for Roby’s studies. In 1917, he and Roby headed to Europe, where Roby qualified as a doctor before returning to practise in Basutoland. Theo, the sensitive carpenter who went to Paris to study missionary work, the young man who worshipped both God and wood, was felled at the age of twenty-five by the great flu epidemic in 1918.

In that same year my grandpa was appointed to the faculty of agriculture at a startup college, a college which became Nelson Mandela’s first university. Grandpa’s appointment involved a five-hundred kilometre journey to the tiny town of Alice, where he would live until he died at eighty-two. From Basutoland went all his worldly goods and he travelled the mountainous roads the only way he could – by ox-wagon.

Grandpa Paul would have needed furniture for his new home, and I know, just know, that his dead brother Theo would have wanted him to have the sideboard, so lovingly crafted from the rich, dark, fragranced wood of the black stinkwood tree, crafted so that a tiny spark of Theo lives again each time the disparate parts of the golden mean glide and slide and fold outwards for travel. Here the sideboard stands, in my lounge in the mountains of Australia, or my lounge room as I’m learning to say.

 

References:

  • de Clark, S. G. ‘The Encounter between the Basotho and the Missionaries of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society, 1833–1933: Some Perspectives.’ Kleio 32, no. 1 (2000/01/01 2000): 5-22.
  • du Plessis, S. A. C. ‘Moshweshwe of the Basotho.’ Kleio 8, no. 1-2 (1976/06/01 1976): 68-72.
  • Germond, Robert C., ed. Chronicles of Basutoland: a Running Commentary on the Events of the Years 1830-1902. Morija: Sesuto Book Depot, 1967.
  • Rorke, Fleur. The Call. Westville: Osborne Porter Literary Services, 2011.
  • Rosenberg, Scott. ‘The Justice of Queen Victoria’: Boer Oppression, and the Emergence of a National Identity in Lesotho.’ National Identities 3, no. 2 (2001): 133-153.
  • Thompson, Leonard Monteath. Survival in two worlds: Moshoeshoe of Lesotho, 1786-1870. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

 

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