It is 1872. Lislei is a young French woman escaping from the bloody turmoil of the Paris commune; Kader is an Arab prince fleeing from the revolt of the Saharan tribesmen in Algeria. Together they succeed in boarding an old sailing ship bound for Australia. With them, on board ship, is Tridarir, an orphan, who is the last representative of his people, the Tasmanian Aboriginals. Set against the backdrop of British colonial expansion, Benmalek masterfully reveals the international upheavals of the nineteenth-century.

From disorder in France to the bright open shores of Australia this is an epic novel of passion and high adventure culminating in a deeply moving and extraordinary love story.


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The Child Of An Ancient People

The Child Of An Ancient People

by Anouar Benmalek



High plateau, the south of Algeria, the month of Rajabin they ear 1288 after the Hegira (April 1871)

     The ostrich is no more than forty paces away. He could fire already, but his galloping mount is leaping around so much that he is  afraid of missing his target. And besides, he has hardly any illusions about his skill as a marksman. The horse, despite its fatigue, increases its pace. It sensed that the huge bird was slowing down little by little. They have been rushing like mad for too long. At this rate, the ostrich is going to collapse, its tiny heart choked by the incredible exertion. This is, for the man, his first ostrich hunt; he is astonished by the contrast between the animal’s grotesque lop-sided gait and the speed of its course.

“Blasted bird,” he mutters, filled with admiration, “you certainly are the offspring of a camel and a stork!”

At present, he can almost touch the magnificent silky, swaying white feathers, the very object of a chase that seems to him more and more inane. The cock, reeling from exhaustion, can no longer manage to weave around. Besides, that would be of little use; beyond the pond next to the pink laurels, there extends, in front of the hunter and his prey, the unpitying flatness of the plain, spiked with thorny bushes and tufts of Spanish grass.

The ostrich comes to an abrupt halt. It hesitates, trying to conceal its rear behind a ridiculously small bush. The horseman is hard put to control the chestnut steed rearing in fright. The ostrich turns towards them. It raises a leg, lowers it and scratches the ground. Is it going to leap at them? The two talons on its elongated claws look as if they could disembowel a wild beast.

He makes his mount circle around the animal, keeping a respectful distance all the while. This is the perfect moment for firing, but he cannot make up his mind. A hoarse sound, interrupted by a series of splutters, emerges from the bird’s beak. The large eyes above its obscene-looking neck stare at the pursuers through eyelashes which strike him as almost feminine. Does the fowl know that this two-headed monster is about to take its life? Is the frenzied jerking of the eyes in their sockets void of all expression a kind of supplication, perhaps? The man realises that for the ostrich he has cornered he must represent the Ozrin of feathered creatures, or another equally merciless deity.

“Great ass-arsed cockerel,” he shouts, “you were about to rut; as for me, not only am I frustrating you, but I am here to teach you the filthy secret of what it is to die!”

He would like to savour his witticism. It is a fine day, and he has managed to thwart the females’ ruses to protect their male – in full mating cry. He recognised them, despite the dust, thanks to their black plumage bordered with white on wings and neck. With its slender sex hanging between its legs and its first panic-stricken jerks, the bird brought to mind a lover, taken by surprise, fleeing without his undergarments. The man laughed and felt an odd sense of fraternity with the hapless male robbed of its delightful intimacy.

“You, at least, have managed to make love once or twice before dying. As for me, with the one I love there’s nothing but gazing at her shoulders. I cannot make any sense of this. All I want is dallying, caressing and making love with this wretched Nour. And I’ve done none of that. Perhaps I never shall, what do you think?”

The heat of the chase has made the hunter forget, for the moment, the anxiety which has been tormenting him for several weeks, an anxiety shared, in all likelihood, by all the tribes, allies or enemies, from the coast of Kabylie to the Chaambas desert.Will they too be obliged to take part in this new war? How many of them will lose their lives? And he himself, his family, Nour, will they manage to escape if the place where their tents are pitched is laid waste?

The bird falters, then sinks heavily on its breast. A wave-like motion ripples along its neck from bottom to top, as if it were going to vomit. It is probably in its death throes: red-stained froth seeps from the slits in its beak.

“Damn” – the hunter is getting annoyed – “you are not going to start weeping?”

Its blood vessels must have burst. The bird blinks furiously, trying to throw off death as if it were a persistent mosquito.

The hunter’s ardour has cooled. This creature, striving desperately not to sink into nothingness, has become far too human for him. The panting bundle of feathers reminds him of a baby whimpering because he is too exhausted to wail. The man is ashamed of his cowardice, he knows he will not pull the trigger. Disheartened, he muses: And with me, will my soul depart in an equally ridiculous fashion through the holes in my nose?

He spurs his horse, which, taken by surprise, shows resistance: the thoroughbred, although a grass-grazer, has found a liking for the game, not understanding that it could come to an end without a death-blow. The horseman gives the reins a fierce tug and turns his mount around. When he reaches the crest, he catches sight of the dust raised by Hassan’s horse. He will have to submit himself to his raillery: he was the one to discover where the ostriches were, and he will not hide his fury when he sees his cousin coming back empty-handed!

His cousin is already hailing him from the foot of the hill. The rider clears his throat, then spits the dust out of his mouth.He shrugs, disgusted with himself:

“You’re out of luck, ostrich. I am much more afraid of how this idiot cousin of mine will mock me than of your curses!”

He strikes the horse with his crop; the animals neighs in pain. When he finds the ostrich again, it is not dead. It is on its feet, but tottering. The man dismounts: he strides ostentatiously towards the bird, hoping that it will still have time to escape. But its eyes are shut and it does not react to the hunter’s approach. Its neck is stained red by the foam seeping from its beak. The man would almost like to prop up the animal, which had narrowly missed crashing against a rock.

“A hyena would have chomped away at you anyway, little brother.”

As the shot rings out, Hassan is already at his side. The animal’s legs are still twitching.With a disagreeable smile at the corner of his mouth, Hassan exclaims:

“I couldn’t understand at first why you were coming towards me. But the important thing is, Kader, that you’ve finally got it, your redoubtable chicken . . .”

Kader shrugs. He gazes at the mass of feathers half entangled in thorny scrub. In spite of himself, he had aimed correctly: the head, though it was hit point-blank, has not been damaged: only the right eye is missing. The cousin, astride his horse, adds, with a click of the tongue like an insult:?

“I hope that you will show less hesitation in front of the French soldiers. They won’t miss you, you can be sure.”

Kader, in the grip of a vague feeling that he needs to vomit, makes no reply.He does not know whether this is caused by the death of the ostrich or the prospect of having to go to war soon.

“Do you really believe that we are going to make war, Hassan?”

The young man on horseback curls his lips, annoyed by his companion’s sudden ill-humour. His heart is also heavy with apprehension, and he is filled with resentment because his cousin has shattered their tacit pact of heroism. He dismounts, holding two long strands of rope. He hands one to Kader. In a cutting voice, he grumbles:

“To the north, there’s war already. I don’t see how we can avoid it. Still less you and I! Perhaps you’ve forgotten, but remember: we are the eldest son in each of our families and the sons of chiefs . . .”

“You trust El Mokrani?”

“Yes . . . in so far as we have no other choice. The important thing is that he has managed to stir up all the northern tribes against the Christians. No-one else could have achieved that.”

Hassan has started binding the ostrich’s legs. The knot slips. He ties it again, then, in a flash of anger, kicks the dead animal.

“Kader, I know that you are going to tell me again that El Mokrani was appointed bashagha after he helped the Duke of Orleans defeat your kinsman, the Emir Abd El Kader in the campaign of the Iron Gates. But all that, it happened so long ago, before you and I were even born.”

Kader, his eyes lowered, snorts contemptuously:

“Son of a noble family, I remind you that our mothers are sisters. And the Emir, if he is my kinsman, he is also yours!”

Hassan turns to his cousin. He is shaking with exasperation:

“He might have betrayed the Emir thirty years ago, but now he’s a hero. There is famine everywhere. El Mokrani has gone into debt to feed the peasants in his district. Everything he owns has been put up as surety. In vain did he implore the French army – his allies what’s more – to lower taxes and distribute food among those who no longer had anything to eat. They treated him with contempt. In the end, he decided that there was nothing left for him but to raise a rebellion. In any case, we no longer have the choice: people are starving in our villages and even God doesn’t acknowledge us, despite our five daily prayers! At the least sign of discontent, the army just cuts down all the palms and all the olive trees, it arrests the agitators and raises taxes. If they are not paid, they confiscate our lands to make room for their Alsatians or their Maltese. Oh, they know well enough what they are doing, these accursed soldiers! Soon, we won’t have anywhere but ravines and mountain peaks to hide our backsides . . .”

Hassan’s voice has cracked. He pretends to be absorbed in trussing the bird. Then he gulps, overcome by a child-like sadness:

“We haven’t lived through all this only to be treated like dogs.”

Kader, with a lump in his throat, taps his cousin on the shoulder. The other, a strapping fellow, all muscles and tendons, lowers his head to hide his moist eyes. Kader remembers the two inseparable scallywags they were during their marvellous years in the oasis of Biskra. Hassan, his elder by two years, taught him how to climb as high as the crowns of date palms. They came to spend entire afternoons there, each perched at the top, exchanging secrets across huge fronds heavy with dates.Hassan said over and over again that, when he grew up, he would become a great traveller, the equal of Ibn Battuta, and go sailing in great ships in search of ambergris spawned by the ocean foam. “I don’t want any more of this desert that dries you up, what I want is water – the sea, immense and endless!” he bawled, stuffing himself with green dates. He did not worry about the stomach ache that would follow, because, according to him, a future explorer had to make himself tough and train himself to eat anything. Once he waxed so lyrical that he slipped from his branch and came close to losing his life in a headlong fall.How many times did Kader envy his aunt’s son for his intrepid nature: when he hurled gobs of spit at the legs of grown-ups he disliked and his knack of dreaming up the most glorious destinies for himself and his cousin . . .

His voice growing husky, Kader tries to jest:

“Give me the other rope, shepherd.You are going to see how you parcel up a fowl the size of this!”

They laugh, embarrassed because they are experiencing the same emotion. Hassan sighs:

“We’ll never have a better opportunity. They have just been beaten by their worst enemies, the Prussians. Their country has been occupied, their army exhausted and, as if that weren’t enough, the French have decided to disembowel each other in their capital. The story goes that they are eating rats and cats and that there have been thousands of deaths. Just think, they train their cannons on their own brothers. These Christians are madmen, believe me, son of my aunt.”

He adjusts his tarboosh with fastidious care, then combs his fingers through his short beard. Always so careful of your person, Kader remarks in silence, with a pang of envy.

“Tomorrow we’ll know everything. After the midday prayers in the market-place on Friday, the Elders will declare whether they will resolve to join El Mokrani.Until then, pull yourself together, and don’t piss yourself in fear, poet.”

“Idiot,” Kader says, without managing to smile.

By the time they finish slinging the carcass of the ostrich between the saddles of the two horses, they are running with sweat. Their prize turns out to be so heavy that the horses have trouble remaining upright.Hassan tests the weight of the bird’s thighs. He winks:

“For me the meat, for you the plumes: that’s what we’ve agreed on, isn’t it? What are you going to do with them? They are so delicate and beautiful that only a woman of taste can appreciate . . .”

Kader blushes at the thinly veiled sarcasm.Hassan bursts out laughing.

“Since you’ve become infatuated with that . . . that . . . what is she called, now? Nour, is that it? You think that no-one around you knows about it?”

Despite the handful of dust Kader has flung at his eyes, Hassan laughs even more uproariously.

“The women around here are terrors, you little prick, as you’ll quickly realise. They’ll tear your heart out and keep it for themselves.”

“Tomorrow, you say?”

At last, the two exhausted horses, the blood-stained ostrich swinging lazily between them, reach the stony little path. The peculiar coupling makes its way along the narrow strip of water leading to the seguia. The palm grove with its countless green sails swaying gently in the setting sun spreads out in front of them. The two can already make out, at a short distance from the oasis, the multicoloured hills and dales of the tents of the tribes who have assembled from the four corners of the Sahara to consult with one another.

“Yes, tomorrow our fate will be sealed: to die quickly or to be snuffed out little by little.”

“And you, my cousin, which do you prefer?”

“What do you imagine? To live, of course, and in a blaze! But do you think we have any choice left, Kader?”

He adds, a hand in front of his face:

“My God, I am as worn out as an old nag. This is not what I dreamt about when I was a lad . . .”

His voice is bitter and filled with rage. Kader is astonished at how exhausted his cousin looks. Coming back from the hunt had certainly taken a long time, but the rider guesses that his childhood companion has experienced a sudden urge not to go on feigning constant bravado and to reveal something of the anguish which is also goring him.

“Hassan, do you think there’s any chance of victory?”

“None. To win a battle or two, to raze a few farms, to cut off the heads and purses of a dozen or so colonists to show that we are not slaves, yes. To chase them out of our land, no. Their cannons, their rifles are too powerful for us. What could we put up against them: starving warriors, peasants in tatters, a few clapped-out muskets, the interminable disputes among the tribes and many, many prayers, far less effective than goat-fart. Ah, but we are strong for religion! Go to the Imam, he’ll even find out for you how many pebbles the Prophet recommended for wiping your arse.”

Kader is suddenly overcome by rage against the inevitable:

“Are we then going to saddle, with our own hands, the black camel of death so that it may kneel in front of each of our tents? Is there no other way out? Perhaps those devils could be persuaded to change their mind? We have eloquent men amongst us, and with them there’s only the bloodthirsty military.”

Hassan’s reaction is unexpected. His uncontrollable laughter almost makes him choke. His mount, taken by surprise, steps to one side. The ostrich’s head slips out of the knots and bumps violently against the other horse’s hoofs. Kader is almost thrown from the saddle. While struggling to control his terror-stricken horse, he hears Hassan shouting at him:

“By the houris of Paradise, cousin, your love for that Nour makes you as timid as a hare. Since when has a conqueror paid heed to the conquered? Have you ever heard of a mouse begging a cat for mercy?”

His voice burning with rage, Kader hurls insults at his companion:

“Blast your mouth, I forbid you to speak of Nour! And what’s more, imbecile, gelded ass, help me instead of making speeches. This damned carcass is going to pitch me into the wadi!”

“Gelding yourself! Even a nag would refuse to obey someone as lilylivered as you are. When we overran Spain, did we pay any heed to the tears of the Spaniards we’d crushed ? We held them in thrall for seven centuries and left Andalusia only when bayonets were prodding our backsides. No-one ever feels pity for someone on his knees, do you hear?”

Lips curled in disgust, Hassan observes his cousin’s efforts to avoid sliding off his mount. Hands placed ostentatiously on the pommel of the saddle, he rails:

“Your family, just like mine, are the owners of slaves they had bought or abducted. Have you ever thought of them with compassion or to free them? That would seem absurd to you, worse, ridiculous!”