Her Arabic was Shabby
Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits and then
Remold it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
She was conscious, incipiently, of the pesky noises like mosquitoes from
somewhere in the house. "She" was the mother who, being Southern, had been stuck
with the sluttish-sounding name of Annabelle.
The air this time of day was heavy with gardenias. A raucous bird let out
a caw. A breeze turned her book page over, blew hair in her eyes, and brought what sounded
like the rain. She looked up out the window. It wasn't rain it was pods hitting
grass. The sun had dropped, but she could see the hornbills grip a limb against the wind.
They were a prehistoric set of silhouettes. They stared in opposite directions.
The birds disturbed her. She couldn't think why.
She let her book fall back against her knees.
The wind changed its mind. The hornbills started on their dance. One
hop-bounced up the limb closer toward his mate. That was overstepping bounds. The other
pounded her wings to get away. She stopped at the small end of the limb.
The birds made Annabelle feel bleak, useless.
The mother hornbill didn't like it by herself. There she went, like her
good mate had done, hopping up close along the limb.
It hit Annabelle she didn't like these hornbills because Helen
Bonham-Coffin painted hornbills. Yesterday she'd seen the woman's hornbill painting
celebrated. Dominating the Senior Common Room. Wrecking her own coffee time. She was more
the artist than Helen Bonham-Coffin, only she happened at the moment to be absorbed in
A crash from the direction of the shouts.
The hornbill made it to her mate, pressed into his side, looked away
indifferently. Annabelle waited. She expected the first hornbill to lumber off the limb.
She wouldn't watch. She tossed the cotton blanket off her knees and swung
her legs down off the bed. Blindly she swished her feet around the cold cement of the
floor, feeling for her slipslops. Only one showed up. Nevermind. She forced the single
thong between one toe, pushed up, and headed toward the wailing down the hall.
Leah was getting supper. Leah was cook and pinch-hitting ayah though not
officially ayah because Annabelle took care of her own children. Already Leah had her arms
stuck down in a scrum of children. A high-pitched hollering suggested the one-year-old had
done harm to the four-year-old who in turn had inflicted an injury on the three-year-old.
The one-year-old alone was happy, was toddling around to bang the table with a shovel.
Leah was managing. She needn't have rushed out but here she was, so she
sat down in the chintz armchair which was wet from something. Two or three of the children
buried in her lap. Over their heads, on the coffee table, she caught sight of the book she
wanted to forget sorry Uganda stories by a one-time friend. It was full of trite
phrases, hackneyed situations, rusty African truisms. But published. The woman famous.
When it was her own self who'd been here long enough to earn the insight into things. She
hadn't yet forced herself to get down to what she meant to do, the writing OR the
painting, but when or if she ever did she had more to say than this woman. While it was
this woman's book that was hot.
She kissed a wet cheek stuck in her face. She rubbed an egg-shaped lump
through gummy hair and said it was okay. Her eyes were on the tacky orange cover of the
book. Her own hair now was gooed and poking up in patches from the sticky baby fingers and
now her tall, clean husband Alec black-bearded, good-looking even with his glasses
flew in the door with his satchel and said why weren't the children in bed yet when
they were supposed to be at the art opening in half an hour and that rush of his was
deadly suspicious because why was he so interested in her art all of a sudden when she had
entered the identical bedraggled painting in every art show for the last five years and he
had never shown such chirpy eagerness before.
Zach Mutyaba had the painting prize for three years now. If you strained
to see his painting, there behind where Helen Bonham-Coffin had dragged her train of men
(which meant her own sweet husband Alec), you knew what had to win. His was gobs of
inch-thick oily pigment. It was meant to be the insides of a chicken, oozing blood and
flies and worms and all in the middle of a sea of thick brown mud. See that and you
understood: Ugandans had exploded into painting. They'd stabbed to the gushing arteries of
things. And it showed right here on the equator, in Kampala, in the black-railed Nommo
Gallery on this windy night in the l960s with the drumming and the Babel-snatches in your
ears: Luganda and Swahili and Gujarati and yes Russian and Hungarian and Luo and French
French because the French owned art exhibits and left music to the Germans and
sewage to the British all curled around the edges of foreign-lilted English
peppered with its bwanas and memsahibs. People here were thinking they'd been tossed down
not in some forgotten midget of a country but in the center of the world. And if a
person were left out of this headiness they had to be jealous, they had to come get in on
it: like the Pope had had to come, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Gloria Steinem
and V.S. Naipaul and Victor Turner and Paul Theroux and Terry Waite and you could see why
when you saw this art which actually you might not see much of because the press of
bodies was making it not just difficult but dead impossible if it weren't that the
paintings were bursting from the walls.
The crazy mixed-up crowd was good all except for Helen
Bonham-Coffin of Beacon Hill who got up to paint at four o'clock in the morning and who
made her weary. Still, one day she would catch up with this mood. One day she too would
pry her fanny up off her bed and join these busy people and do something, but in the
meantime she craned to see paintings, like the one of the deep-sienna goat across the
room, between her husband's head and Helen Bonham-Coffin's head.
The art was in an upstairs room. The floor was wobbly, but the building
was like it ought to be. It was rough and living mud and not dead cinder block. It was a
bypassed sort of structure, humanized with black-railed second-floor verandas, its walls
soaked through with White Nile generations of adventurers. The air right now was sweet
with spice and incense, and the crowd was red and green and orange and black because it
swirled kitenges (that was the cotton cloth sold, cleverly, only in Africa though it was
made in Holland out of Indonesian patterns). Gold was stirred in gold bangles and
gold saris and gold teeth. Red teardrops marked brown foreheads, and there were
Nyerere-Chinese-style men's outfits and Arab-African kanzus and white linen suits and
summer frocks and one purple-turbaned Sikh.
Christopher Bonham-Coffin was bringing her a drink. He'd let himself get
gridlocked. She wiped back strands of hair that got knocked in her face. She said things
to the chiseled-featured Indian (or some such race) who at the moment was pressed rather
violently into her chest. She wanted to ease the young Indian's embarrassment the
mishap had not at all been the boy's fault: some California hippie's children
("paintings speak to children louder than to grownups") were barreling between
their legs. No, he didn't paint, the young man said. He was reading English at Makerere
and yes on his own he'd read some Asian poets (he was Ismaili, his name was Zulfikar, and
his black hair curled over his white shirt collar). He wanted to know:
"You have read the Sufis? I do not believe that English people . .
"I'm American," she said, and registered: across the room Helen
Bonham-Coffin was making an attempt to catch her eye. She wouldn't play, wouldn't notice
Mrs. Bonham-Coffin. It was only glancingly she'd taken in the woman was dangling six-inch
strands of cowry shells (tourist consumption stuff) for earrings and had four strands of
shells around her neck designed to show off white against the silky blue the woman managed
to let slip casually back and forth across her little hiney. And of course the woman was
letting her hair float free half over her face which happened to be the only
similarity between the two of them, that hair (light brown, straight, long), only she
herself possessed the natural modesty to catch a few strands up at the crown of her head,
where she was now mortified to think she'd hung strands of the cowry shells.
"I do not hear American," the Indian was saying, while she was
struck with envy for Ismailis because their lips were formed so perfectly.
"Southerners sound funny," she said.
He said, "You will say again that word?"
"Sou . . . ," he began.
"Southunuhs," she helped him.
A faint charge shot through her hand. Without seeming to turn her head she checked for
what she'd caught, out of the corner of her eye. Yes: Helen Bonham-Coffin had laid her
fingertips on her own sweet husband's arm. Now she saw the woman pirouette, burn the
identical touch onto Zach Mutyaba's wrist. And it just happened to be the same gesture
that woman had used on herself. So so the woman wasn't picky about who she seduced
male or female, black or white, artist or psychologist (the psychologist, that tall
man with the dusky red cravat folded with just the right self-conscious looseness at the
neck, the one with just the right-cocked angle to his charming head that was her
own husband Alec).
"Oh I did not know that one can talk in such a manner," said the Ismaili with
the up-and-down music in his voice. "It is beautiful in such a manner. Your sound is
very beautiful. It is not American."
"It's just that Southerners have lost their 'R's and don't know where to look for
them. They don't have gumption, Southerners they don't look too hard. They don't
even get around to doing what they want to do." She knew the boy couldn't hear her
and even if he could he would think he hadn't, or he would decide Southern women were
mysteriously philosophical and anyway she didn't feel like censoring herself.
The boy looked puzzled. He laughed anyway she noticed his eyes had a rather nice
way of crinkling up. He said "You Westerners do not read Sufi poets. You Westerners
cannot know the beauty of Islam. You cannot know the mysticism of Islam. Until you read
the Sufis you cannot comprehend how women live in our tradition."
Off in the center of the room some bodies were shifting around. It made her squeeze
further to the side, where she could keep her eye on the little happenings across the
gallery, see Helen Bonham-Coffin sidling up to the painting she'd done. On that canvas of
hers the woman had spotlighted, next to a hump-backed cow, what looked suspiciously like
her pregnant Bonham-Coffin self and the woman was acting now as if she were lecturing on
that murky conception. Of course she herself wasn't worthy at the moment of being listened
to like Helen Bonham-Coffin was: her production had been slight and she honestly didn't
expect to be noticed for her own clump-of-breadfruit painting. But she did know she had
that thing in her (an authentic grasp of texture, for instance) that Helen Bonham-Coffin
did not have and anyone with eyes would recognize that truth and see straight through this
She said, "Where will I find Sufi poets?"
"I have a book that I will give to you," he said. "Where do I get to
"Kasubi View," she told him, "the house where Naipaul lived. But my
Arabic is shabby."
"I will . . . "
They couldn't hear a word each other shouted. She was shoved against the wall when a
man in a kanzu lost his balance. Christopher Bonham-Coffin got to her and sloshed the
drinks on her olive green kitenge wrap-around with its paisley swirls of black and gold
that reached down almost to the gold thongs on her feet. A thin Munyoruanda she had had a
crush on once was battling to get to her and Christopher was brushing at her skirt and
breathing whiskey in her face. She laid her fingers lightly on the young Ismaili's arm.
She meant to comment on the painting she was betting on but he couldn't hear her and then
the place went quiet and at first she didn't catch on why. An official-looking African was
waving his arms and drums were rolling and the Acholi Minister for Cultural Affairs yelled
that this was a grand and noble occasion for the arts in Africa. He spelled out long
indebtedness before he turned things over to the French ambassador. The ambassador listed
more indebtedness before he got around to honorable mentions Henry Lubega and Abdul
Ali. Zulfikar was happy and the crinkles flamed around his eyes Abdul Ali was his
artist friend and by this time the place was hushed to hear the third place winner, Helen
She twisted her hair with her fingers and fixed her gaze on the geckos suctioned to the
wall behind the door. She was glad she wasn't part of this charade. She was glad she'd
kept her own identity distinct from this mangy rush of whites who'd come lickety-splitting
it to Africa to paint their own selves on new scenery. She was glad she'd been here long
enough to see through this self-serving snatching at fame, what these Helen Bonham-Coffins
all were doing.
They had just pulled up from the weekly Saturday outing, the Lake Victoria picnic at
"Don't move. Wait in the car." Her dark-bearded husband Alec was hooking the
burglar rod to the steering wheel. In his rage his motions were so jerky he couldn't make
She opened the car door on her side.
The one-year-old and the three-year-old were wailing and jabbing at her bosom and hair
and the four-year-old had vanished up the jacaranda tree. The Mukiga who wanted her to
bake his wedding cake was pushing himself up from under the frangipani and Hezekiah the
egg man and a couple of unknown seekers-after-work were lurking by the rangy
bougainvilleas. The garden boy stood in the middle of the grass, wordless, patient,
waiting on his pay. His shoulder poked through the rip in his white shirt.
Her unhappy husband threatened: "You heard me. Stay where you are. I'm getting
She unwrapped juicy fingers till she could climb out of the car. She said to the
three-year-old, "Stop crying. I will find your mongoose. I will get you another
mongoose. I will get you ten mongeese." She snatched one child by the arm and yanked
the other one up to her hip and started to the door.
Her husband came at her. He was big and strong. He had never hit her but he had bruised
her arm in "leading" her. The babies let out piercing shrieks and kicked and
buried faces in her shoulder.
She said to her husband, "There are a few people watching. Would you please move
so I can go inside?"
Forcibly, red-faced, he pried the babies from her, yelled for Leah, transferred the
howling creatures, thought better of the car as place for confrontation, and led her to
the bedroom. He latched the door on them and then he noticed through the bedroom window
the Mukiga and garden boy and Hezekiah and seekers-after-work displaying some degree of
curiosity about how Western marriage operated. Rudely Alec jerked the curtains closed and
said "I am going to get things straight with you. Right now. Sit down."
She complied, her arms folded on her chest, her face blankly statuesque.
He said, "Look. I don't like to get angry like this. But I can't go on this
She stared down at the rose-orange Indian bedspread, caught sight of an unexpected
tendril-swirl twisting through the pattern. Script the tendril was Arabic script!
He waited. "Will you say something?"
"Well I'm telling you my nerves can't stand another week of this. Driving
thirty-five miles without one word from you except "Peter Peter pumpkin eater"
and "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall" and not one sound to either me OR the
Bonham-Coffins except "Yes, no, okay, maybe." I am so humiliated I will not be
able to face them."
Once more he waited.
She noticed the window behind his head. It gaped four inches where the curtain had
bounced back he'd jerked it so and now the Mukiga and the garden boy and
Hezekiah the egg man and seekers-after-work could keep on with their learning. The
observers were polite. They didn't interrupt like babies interrupt. The babies were, at
the moment, kicking in the bedroom door. She looked down again, at the odd rose-orange
tendrils, curled and intertwined. Pure Arabic and right here on her bed.
He sighed. He waited her out in silence for so long she stole a glance at him. His
shoulders were slumped. It struck her: he looked genuinely sad and baffled. She felt a
movement of chagrin because he was extremely good-looking. No she couldn't talk to him
because she couldn't bear his schemes for her redemption, but his face and body moved her
his size, his beard, his dark longish hair, his bright blue eyes even with his
glasses. He affected her, like he affected all the women, and she didn't want, not at the
moment, to lose him. She said, "I'm sorry. I don't seem to be able to help it."
He sighed deeper. "That's what worries me."
"I'll be better when the children are bigger."
"That doesn't make sense. Here you are where you've got all the help in the world
and if you need more all you have to do is say so. It isn't that. I think . . ."
He paused. She was genuinely curious what textbook formula he'd find for her perversity
"I think I've said this I don't think, I know you're the kind of
person who needs some sort of a creative outlet. Before we were married you were
enterprising and creative and don't say it I know you had to type and I studied,
and I know the babies came too quickly. But you've had time out here. It's been perfect
for you out here. And still it's like you're paralyzed and you resent me for it."
"It's not just time," she mumbled. "There's something, when you have
little children, that overwhelms your feelings like don't you hear what's at the
"You're changing the subject. And what you say is indefensible. Helen has a child
and see what she's done with herself. Though I would even go so far as saying you are
almost as good a painter . . ."
"Get out of here."
His eyes stretched at her inappropriate reaction. He said, "Get a hold on
yourself. I happen to know that Helen wants to be your friend. She likes you, sincerely
likes you, and she is the kind of friend you need to get you out of this malaise and yet
you act like . . ."
She threw herself across the bed. She split his ears with screams. He tried to touch
her shoulder but her arm flew up and hit his glasses off. He gave a few more pieces of
advice, but she wouldn't stop her yelling, and he got the idea he should leave. The door
was stuck. He yanked and cursed and when it opened he popped back and barked at howling
babies. He slammed the door. Outside she could hear him snap Swahili at the window gang
and then careen the car off down the drive.
She was dry-eyed. She flipped over, onto her back. She stared at hornbills out the
curtain crack, conscious, incipiently, of pesky noises like mosquitoes from somewhere in
But she was otherwise absorbed this time. Lines of swirling script were flowing in her
head. Arabic script curving, twirling, fattening and thinning into fine sleek
disappearing curls. She intended to forget the crass-bright colored paint, the
self-indulgent Helen-Bonham-Coffin paint. Sufi poetry held the key. She would touch the
secret of the sweet dark words of Zulfikar. They would meet in some thatched cabin in the
jungle, near the lake, where he would trace the fat ink flowing in her Arabic. She'd stare
down at long brown fingers susceptible, compassionate. And they would hear lake
water, and the shriek and plunge of a distant wild fish eagle.
She closed her eyes at shrieks and pesky noises, just outside her