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Charlotte Mandell

Translations from the French 




White Traverses

by Abdelwahab Meddeb

The washerwomen came to the house every Wednesday, the day of the week for the big wash, Bedouins from the plains and Berbers from the mountains, women with brown chins or with tattooed foreheads, crosses or brooches as if drawn with a stick of graphite, marks that didn't fade, didn't even trickle in the dewy flush of sweat: indelible, they folded into the tics and wrinkles that work inscribed on their skin, taut or flabby depending on age and the structure of the face.

Facing huge copper vats arranged on the paved area bordering the garden, between the wash house and the shed, the washerwomen let themselves fall with all their weight, throwing their arms forward, then pulling them back: repeating their motions till they were in a trance, they kneaded the wash, beat it, rubbed it, twisted it, pulled it out, plunged it back into the sudsy liquid activated by the dissolution of a royal blue cube, foaming azure water that ran towards the drain later, after the rinsing and drying, when the vats were emptied.

Like boas curled at the bottom of these vessels with their tinned interiors, the pieces of laundry were brought out to dry in the area behind the house, the patio as adapted to the modern villa. Sheets, veils, shirts, jebbas were spread, stretched before being fastened with wooden clothespins, hung from a wire: expanses of white that the wind billowed out, made float, clatter: immaculate white, in the bright sunlight, where the spectrum made rainbows, evanescence of yellow and red flames, haunted by blue and green sparkles, immaterial debris where the mind could get lost.

Such visions I'm left with of all this white that came from the hands of the laundresses to dress up the characters who peopled the scene of rituals in the city, like silhouettes of the veiled women on their way Fridays to visit the dead, scattering among the white patches of the tombs, punctuating as they moved, south out of Tunis, the many-colored hill in springtime, among the overgrown grasses and the sheaves of flowers, a dialogue that brings together the moving white of the veils and the fixed white of the tombs: intimate invocations, wordy confessions, women talking and singing, chased by the winged white of gulls escaped from the harbor, from the canal or from the lake to perch on the crenellations of the Spanish fort that interrupts the harmony of white, an ocher crown where grey sparkles, set firmly on the crest of the hill, between sky and earth.

Or again in summer, at Mahdia, after twilight, on the esplanade that stretches past the quays, when there appeared to me as if by accident a troupe of men crowding out of the upper-class club, all dressed in jebbas blazing with whiteness, colony of seagulls, swarm of giant wood doves, moon banners bellied out by a favorable wind, sails scudding towards fresh watering holes, without hindrance or constraint, luminaries that lit up the night whose rule was just beginning, ample whitenesses that let the air circulate in the intimacy of the body, ventilation that reverberated on the white of walls, white on white that softened the stay during the dog days' heat.

Should I add the hospitable whiteness of sheets that welcomed lovers during summer in the alcove of siesta? Salty bodies tanned by the sun and the sea, burrowed beneath the profound penumbra of the white cave, delight sharpened in the multiplication of white: from top to bottom, from the curve to the right angle, from rigidity to suppleness, from the rough to the smooth, from the stucco to the weft, from stone to cloth.

Evening, between the visible and the tactile, between the eye and the touch, the smell of jasmine has insinuated itself, flowers gathered when the sun was starting its decline, in the last quarter of its course, closed petals whose undersides, Indian pink, tint of a fingernail, sealed the secret whiteness which illuminated the night by the addition of drunkenness which it offered to lovers carried very high, towards their port of call on the moon.

In other seasons, other flowers carried the fragrance towards the opiated frontiers of the absolute, perhaps because of their whiteness, I think of orange blossoms, the flowers of citron, lemon trees, which diffused through the spring garden the mute nighttime sonorities which I caught and translated in my adolescent sleep into a psalm that drove my dream towards transgression, imagining myself in the act of violating my family's prohibition by manipulating the alembic which collected drop by drop the volatile spirit of the flowers in their evaporated whiteness, before I had to pass through anguish, expecting that family superstition would be confirmed and that death would pierce the walls of the house and come to inhale the soul of one of its residents.

Translation copyright Charlotte Mandell