SalamBy Gaston PAUL EFFA Sofitel Abidjan Hotel Ivoire
Whale calf…Yes, decidedly, those words. Those very words, those very words and none other. We were walking along the water’s edge.
I had distinctly heard a voice in the warm air: “it’s a whale calf!” Between the jellyfish, the algae and other waste, it had washed up at our feet like a lone pebble that the sea licked but did not cover. Its eyes were rolled back and were staring at me. They had given up the fight, as they had now turned toward the horizon and were already pursuing the voyage to other estuaries, other lulls, other oceans.
Whale calves are much closer to us than ourselves. They recognize each other by their white bellies, like a cotton cloud pinned into the firmament.
Desire rose in me to lie beside the small cetacean as dogs lie on the tombs of their masters, waiting, in their turn, to sink into the same night.
That fear prevailed, I could not doubt, but that, at the deepest and densest part of that fright, the embryo of an entirely different feeling was enclosed, which remained hidden and impenetrable, I could not be more certain today.
At that moment that needed no words, the light had transformed, becoming more liquid – an uncanny glow which erased every face, every color, every shape. There was another world hidden in that one, I perceived it through a mysterious chant, an ethereal voice, which reminded us that nature loves through us.
You must write…
And there I was, now quickening my pace past this body where I had first tarried with such tender or melancholic complacency, if I hurried in this way to the Sofitel, if I felt so impatient to return there, it was the event itself that I wanted to tear myself from.
I had gone to Abidjan to write a short story. Like a novice writer, my head was full of ideas, and I filled it each day with anxiety and each day I also fed my impatience. How I already loathed myself; I was shaking at not being up to my mission. What if I backed off at the last minute? I felt a deep discrete and abstruse confusion.
One sentence had been engraved in me with a single stroke: “You must write” ; sometimes, during the day, at the market, at the Sofitel bar, in the evening in this palace suite, facing the ocean, which I did not deserve, in that moment of drift which imperceptibly moves us and drags us, carried away as if floating, into sleep, this sentence came back to me, like a cryptic chorus of individual sounds.
“You must write”. Within me rose a troubling noise, as though a voice that was out of this world – maybe the voice of the writer who had invited me here – had whispered in my ear, which every time aroused the same obscure emotion.
Or, maybe, but without being aware of it, it is because I had sensed – rather than understood – that these words were a call from the land of my childhood, this African land, that was urging me to write, worried, distraught by some sort of peril, that this association of syllables triggered in me some shivers of fear.
I was not a beginner writer. I had written ten books or so, I taught Philosophy and since my childhood I had had my eyes opened to the mysteries of tradition; I was thus capable of grasping certain signs from Nature, certain situations, certain reasoning, to analyze even, some of my feelings. But for me, this sentence remained as arcane as on the first day.
Despite all my efforts of imagination, I found nothing that measured up to what I needed, that was worthy of what I would have liked to offer to the man who had invited me.
And then those other sentences that crossed my mind like a pure flow of words different from any known words: “Stop searching, the world is in you”, or “Seeing is closing your eyes”.
Those were Tala’s words, an old Pygmy woman whom I had met in the African forest and who had helped me find the right note in me, like a violin maker who reinvents the body and soul of a damaged instrument.
It is at the moment when our feet no longer carry the burden of days, when we give up seeing things at a distance, that they show themselves, in all their depth, to those who know how to close their eyes, like Homer, who, according to the legend and despite his excellent eyesight, became blind only at Colophon; in order to see things unhindered, to look straight into his heart.
The trip was coming to an end, and the Sofitel manager invited us to spend the day at the beach. Whether they were shivers of fear or excitement, this feeling seizes those who cannot swim. I had seen so many lifeless bodies dragged out of the ocean in the cities of my childhood. Today, I remained, as if suspended out of time, before this continuous silent swell which for immeasurable, full, dilated and yet so brief and fleeting moments, was carrying me. I came to feel that I was participating in a truly religious mystery. The ocean twisted and turned like an animal, both wild and pure, which gives and takes, carries away and comes back.
Stop searching…Tala whispered in her airy otherworldly voice whose sounds, endlessly repeated or held, as if steeped in the bracing aromatic ocean air, refusing to be pent up in the crippling limits of my senses. I had followed my host to go for a swim in the ocean. The word END was spread out in each crashing wave, like a tombstone into which, no matter what I did, I kept stumbling on.
All our shallow conversations by the water’s edge, and yet they still bonded us in ordinary days or under their careless surfacing, partially concealed us from each other, like these streams so slow in the sand that you cannot tell which way the water flows.
Was it possible? Could I be mistaken? Was it really Tala who had come to me? Was I asleep or awake? If I had recognized her, it was not by her moon-colored or day-colored bandanna that she wore, but in fact by her language, irreducible to any other, and that irradiated my whole being. “Stop thinking, resurrect the whale calf”. Her voice was weakening and fading, as if, instead of projecting itself out she was inviting me, in a way, to look for her in a more secret place. It was quite a different part of me that she was addressing.
To bridge the gap between dream and reality, so that the former insinuated itself wholly into the latter until it covered it exactly, I only had to hold out my hand, take my pencil and write.
Write to meticulously preserve that moment when ordinary time was abolished. At last. I thought I had found it – the means. Thank you, Tala. I was not quite sure and, anyway it was not Tala’s apparition that was causing my disarray. No, but the words she whispered, that injunction which was at once engraved in me. Stop thinking…
The word think itself resonated like an echo, a secret and troubling allusion to her teachings when Tala would encourage me to be more in tune with nature than with reason, as by contemplating oneself, reason estranged itself from itself and reality.
Up until the morning, I was overcome by panic. I had worked at holding back, at containing this outpour of words in me whose redemption I nonetheless awaited. At breakfast, I surprised myself by yelling Tala’s demand at the Sofitel manager: you must resurrect the whale calf. Within me arose the feeling that the tables had just been turned. I had taken the place of the whale calf, the manager was staring at me fixedly. And then rose the obvious – a quote by Angelus Silesius, whom I had discovered a few months earlier – which from my eyes was imparted to his, like an angel of goodness: “Go where you cannot go, see where you cannot see, hear where there is no sound, so you are where God speaks”.
Had he read it? “Everything has been taken care of”, he then told me, “everything. I had the beach cleaned up and I, and the Sofitel staff picked up several tons of plastic bags. Here, people use water balls, they’re more easily transported and less expensive.”
Plastic bags…In the hot sun I had seen Abidjanians, a water bubble in their mouths, like an ice bubble with an evocative name: Salam!
Each bag drunk, thrown and tossed around by the wind adds a tear to the ocean and makes a vast deathbed. The whales are its first occupants, then the humans. The mother whale who had undoubtedly been followed by its calf must have swallowed a large number of plastic bags… Without a guide any longer, the whale calf had surely lost all sense of direction and had washed up on the beach. Chance only exists for those who do not know how to read Nature. I had to undertake this voyage.
I listened to the manager, I listened to his words that sprung out by themselves, almost against his will, surprising me, annoying me, for they were tearing me from that din of deafening silence where I retreated.
Write to the Abidjanians…write to the world…And to think that the whale calves are closer to us than humans who resemble us. You too, your stomach is full of plastic and you fill it every day with the dead.
I had the feeling that my sentences were ready to break off, to come apart under a surge that I feared I soon would not be able to control and that had nothing, I told myself, to do with writing anymore. It wasn’t aggression that I was expecting, but peace, Salam, or at least a truce, since, you know, you now have no other haven to turn to. Back to Nature…Everything will be easy straight away. Otherwise, you will be diverted in turn, carried away by more torrential waters, out of this time. Of this today. Of those yesterdays.
To awaken, in your turn, from the nightmare of the story, if it is possible, if for at least a precarious second, it may be possible, it can only be by devising another water ball to save the whale calf, to push away the seventh Continent of plastic.
Earth Lovers’ Day. I am on the plane back home. Forever marked in the sky, in my body and soul, the evidence of a line now crossed by humanity. You must step away from things for them to reclaim their rights. As the airplane gains altitude, memories flicker in my mind like a field of violets. All those oceans, seas, rivers and streams, I think that I perceive, in some of their names, some promise, some tender and melancholic call, and I would be annoyed with the plane for continuing to take me still higher in the cotton clouds, far from my African land, without even slowing down to let me hear it better and to answer.