Blame Muhammad Wardi: the magic of his songs and the heat of the dancing inflame the passions of the young and old. A recent short story by Haggag Hassan Oddoul explores the passions of the dance in old Nubia and is now available full text, for free, on the Web.
The setting for the story “Flirting with the Moon” is a Nubian village on an island “in the middle of the wide Nile,” where a wedding is about to take place. The characters, introduced one by one, are variously bitter and sweet, tense and relaxed, pleasant and nasty.
The action focuses on the people who are gathered for the festivities, and particularly on the singing and dancing led by Wardi and his band. Night quickly falls as the villagers rehearse old problems, converse with their former lovers, try to make time with others, and get in the spirit of the wedding festivities. The bride and groom are not identified—they are peripheral to the story. Instead we read about others: Karami and Najmiya, for instance, a boy and girl who meet just before the dance near the flooding waters of the Nile. Their brief conversation hints of their love but it also resurrects animosities between their families.
The band arrives and the dancing begins. Dafa’ullah, already getting drunk from his aragi, confronts other members of the community: “Island elders, aren’t you Nubians like the rest of us? Are you really dancing? Do you think yourselves superior…”
Oddoul develops the story without much of a plot—but with an amazing cast of characters. Each has loves, hates, and family histories of anguish and petty jealousies. It quickly gets difficult to keep straight who jilted whom many decades ago—in fact, who is related to whom? It’s tempting to read on quickly, to not worry about keeping all the connections clear, to just let the story wash past like the Nile in flood at night. The actors are the primary focus.
Like many good writers, Oddoul gives enough fascinating details about his characters to make them believable. Take Salim Nafisa, for instance, a mean-spirited, nasty sort of man whom everyone vaguely dislikes because he is constantly slandering others. Salim’s constant companion, Diyab, is a sycophantic individual who showers praise on Salim, so he can get return favors and small gifts from him. “Diyab was addicted to smoking marijuana, as long as it was at Salim Nafisa’s expense,” Addoul writes.
Another character is Samha, a young woman who is desperate to get to the party, but she refuses to go until she can persuade her elderly grandmother to go along too. The girl’s mother—the old lady’s daughter—had died years ago and the grandmother has not led a normal social life since. Ultimately the girl convinces grandmother to give her the special necklace from her mother that will signify that she is now a young woman, someone the boys can admire on the dance floor and perhaps even court. They go off to the wedding celebration together.
The dancing focuses the story, producing magical effects on the villagers. While they dance, the villagers stare at each other, resurrecting old troubles and trying wordlessly to find ways of making new alliances. Wardi, the lead musician, and Samha, the girl sporting the heirloom necklace, “separated from the others on the dance floor, responding fluidly to each other with quick steps. They flirted with each other by their gestures, facing each other joyfully…”
Other members of the community also make wordless contact on the dance floor. People are scandalized when a middle-aged man and woman, who had courted each other many decades before, danced together tonight. Even though they don’t say anything on the dance floor, the way they perform is obviously courting behavior.
But the dancing also brings together enemies. Nuri and Husayn have disliked each other for months, ever since they had a quarrel. They find themselves dancing shoulder to shoulder this evening. They can only look at one another contemptuously and move apart.
Oddoul frequently makes his readers aware of the conflicts in the Nubian village, but we also sense that the villagers need to resolve them amicably. The author reflects on the shine of the moon on the water, which is broken into pieces when a rock is thrown in. “The Nile River flowed around them in two channels, its waters bringing peace to peaceful people, flowing with determination as it gushed toward the North.”
Just as with his book of short stories Nights of Musk, he loves to intersperse sounds into his story. He also describes the complexions of the islanders. The unnamed bridegroom is date colored, his nameless bride is olive-skinned. Other member of the family are dark, gleaming copper, wheat colored, “black as night,” and “reddish, like the dum palm’s fruit.”
As dawn approaches, the dancing has done its work, releasing the stresses and tensions built up for many months, “sucking it out by the roots and dissolving it.” Grudges and problems are dissipated, contamination expelled. “A feeling of brotherhood and of participation in a common destiny enveloped all of them. Everyone was smiling and laughing, placing a hand on the shoulder of the person beside him, guffawing at the slightest jest.” Nuri and Husayn discover that, once more, they are dancing shoulder to shoulder, but instead of moving away from one another, each is only grateful that, at least in that dance, they don’t have to hold hands with the person on each side.
A few minutes later, however, just as things were about to end, “the men were clapping: tirak tirak. The drums were resonating buum buum. For the third time in this constant exchange of positions Nuri found himself rubbing shoulders with Husayn. He glanced at him quickly. Then Husayn looked at him and smiled. So Nuri smiled.”
Oddoul, Haggag Hassan. 2006. “Flirting with the Moon,” a short story published in Words Without Borders: The Online Magazine for International Literature, January 2006. Available for free on their website