War in the Desert

You will forgive me that I speak not well your language. Perhaps, after such a sentence, some Editor will be kind enough to correct what I write. But I write in English because it was an Englishman...

Myself, I am Italian. I am from the South, where we have sun and dryness and very little education. When the English first came to the desert I was wounded in the calf of my right leg, here. There is some bone missing, and I have a weakness in it still. My company took me along in that retreat, until the truck broke down and carrying me made them even slower. They left me in a village, you will not find it on the map. A hundred miles from somewhere, two hundred from another; it was a very litttle village, a village of no significance. It was four months before I saw another European.

They were kind to me, those sand Arabs. They fed me, they cleaned my wound, I suppose they kept me alive. Yes, I owe them my life. I had never looked at it like that before. At the time, it seemed so natural. What else could they have done? And yet, I have heard stories. I know what else they could have done. Well, they didn’t. Gradually, I got to know their ways, and, lying in the shade by the well, came gradually to understand their language.

It was mostly the women who dealt with me. I think, as a foreigner, I had for them much the same value as a woman. As individuals, they hardly existed. From all the time I was there, I cannot remember a single woman’s name. The only significance a woman had came from the man she belonged to. Most of them, faces half-covered, eyes cast down, heads enveloped in the veil, had no individuality at all. Here and there, an unusual shape of eye, and extra tilt to the chin, marked one out. Even their age was difficult to tell. The only one I could recognize with any certainty was a little bright-eyed girl, always dressed in brown, whose father was my host, one of the elders. I think he had been given me to look after because he was one of the richest men in the village. On his daughter’s forehead hung a little ornament, a geometrical design cut from a sheet of beaten gold. She was thirteen, his only child, and would certainly make a good marriage soon. She reminded me of my own daughter, back in Italy, whom I had not seen since I left for Abyssinia when she was eight. In my mind’s eye, this girl came to represent what my daughter must have grown into by now.

One day, they told me there were bad men coming. I knew this meant soldiers, and I knew that by now they could hardly be Italian soldiers. I told my hosts that I would go and hide in the desert, and they agreed that was the best thing. They were going to hide the women, as well. So out I went to a patch of scrub a few hundred yards from the village, where a few hobbled camels took a patchy shade, and found myself overlooking the tent on the very edge of it where all the women were huddled in a frightened mass. The sides of the tent facing away from the road were lifted, so I could see them in there. They sat very still, and very quiet.

The men who came gliding into my scrub patch were very quiet, too. The sight of them filled me with such terror that I could not move. That is probably why they did not see me. How often, at home, have I missed a hare lying still in the brown grass, until a dog flushed it out and it ran and was shot. I thought of the hare tumbling end over end in a small and personal cloud of dust, and I lay still. I can tell you now, lest you feel any apprehension on my behalf, that they never saw me.

They were watching the village, of course. It was hard, at first, to see what sort of soldiers they were. They seemed to have no consistent uniform. One would wear a military cap, another a beret, another an Arab head-cloth. Most wore sand-coloured clothes, but some had camouflage smocks or dark shirts. It was this lack of uniformity, at first, that persuaded me they were English, even before I saw their knees. I became more certain when an unmistakably German armoured car came grinding down the road and stopped in the centre of the village. Three Germans got out and began shouting at the village elders. I was too far away to hear what they said, but it developed into a regular pow-wow in the shade by the well. In the nature of the country, it went on for some time.

After a while, the Englishmen on my hillside began talking, not in whispers but in soft voices which carried hardly any distance. I could not then understand their language. It was later that I learned my little English, because a man should always understand his jailers. At first they spoke in urgent tones, then they became more calm, and as the afternoon wore on they relaxed until from the tone of their voices it was plain that they were talking about the women.

Even in this conversation there came at last a pause, and the biggest and most ferocious of the men laughed softly, tapped the palm of the man next to him, handed his rifle to a third, and began to crawl softly down the hill towards the village. He moved so silently that he reached the women’s tent before any of them had seen him, and once there he reached in a massive hand and pulled one of the girls out bodily by an iron grip on her upper arm, and another hand across her mouth. As she fell backwards, I caught the glint of her head-ornament and knew which girl it was.

At the time, I thought none of the other women had noticed. But I suppose they continued silent for fear of the Germans with their machine-guns, and also for fear of their own menfolk. The big fellow was smiling at the girl, gesturing her to keep silent. She nodded, dumbly. Slowly, he took the hand from her mouth and, still smiling, unbuckled his belt.

I suppose it was three minutes, no more, from the man’s setting off down the hill, to the moment when he was back with his comrades, tapping the same palm once again and regaining his rifle. The girl crawled back to the tent, where the others made a space for her, and around her. They, too, remained silent. From first to last, it was like a film I saw once in some North African brothel, all expressed in gestures, silent but obscene.

After a couple of hours, the Germans in the village went back to their armoured car and drove out the way they had come. The Englishmen melted away from my hiding place, and from behind the dune I heard an engine starting. An hour later, far behind me, a little column of smoke rose against the setting sun. By that time, I was back in the village.

The girl with the golden ormnament did not come down to the well that evening. I asked where she was, but was met with the blank stare which tells you that an Arab does not wish to discuss a subject, and in the face of that stare there is no point insisting. Soon, anyway, I was busy with the elders. They told me that the main German force was not far away, and I agreed reluctantly that it was probably my duty to join it. It was a couple of weeks, nevertheless, before my leg was ready for sustained exercise, and I suppose the best part of a month had passed before I set off down the track early one morning, to get my journey in before the heat of the day.

I never reached the German headquarters. I had hardly gone three miles down the track before it became clear that those Englishmen had not been alone. The front lines – always fluid and tenuous in the desert – were in the process of moving. After five miles, I had to leave the track and lie up while English armour, coming not from my village but from South of the road, poured across it in an unending stream. When night had fallen, I set off back to the village, travelling over the dunes and navigating by the moon.

The desert by moonlight is like the moon itself. What is not light, is shade; what is not white, is black; thick, inky, impenetrable black. When I was still about four miles from my destination, it was in the deep shadow at the foot of a dune that I tripped and fell heavily over something sticking out of the sand. Cursing – I had jarred the wounded shin-bone – I felt around in the darkness to discover what had caused my fall. At length, my searching hand encountered the obstacle. It was another hand. A dry hand, cold, desiccated, mummified, a small hand, a dead hand.

I felt my way in that perfect darkness along the arm, which was out of the sand only from the elbow, and then into the sand down a smooth upper arm to a shoulder and along the shoulder to an emaciated neck. The head was not far below the sand which had dried its skin to dry parchment, crisp leather like the skin of a polecat left nailed to a fence in the sun as a warning to its kind. But no polecat’s head ever bore an ornament cut from a flat sheet of beaten gold.

By the time I had carried that little dried body back to the village through the soft sand away from the track, the sun was high in the sky and I was running a little mad. I laid her down in the square by the well and went to quench my thirst. Behind me, I heard rustlings and a single long sigh. But when I turned back, the place was deserted. I sat with my back against the parapet of the well, in the little shade it offered, and waited. Sooner or later, they would have to fetch water.

The evening was well advanced , the shadow longer, cooler, before there was a movement across the square. I might have known they would send the girl’s father. By that time I had worked the whole thing out. They must have treated her, alive, as they were now treating her dead. She was dishonoured, useless as a bride and therefore of no account. They would not have needed to drive her out. Not allowed even to pollute the well, she had no choice but the desert.

I was angry; but I was tired too, and I had no weapon but questions. How was she at fault? What should she have done? Of what was she guilty? I threw them all at the old man, and he squatted in the dust at my side and listened to them patiently. When at last I was silent, he looked up and spread his hands. It was a gesture of resignation.

My friend, he said, you must rid yourself of these Christian prejudices. There is no guilt or innocence. There is only the will of God.

This is a simple country. The world is sand, with here and there the rare and occasional water. From horizon to horizon a man can cover in an hour. And above, the heaven is vast, so that one of your aeroplanes takes also an hour from one side to the other. What is a man? What is a woman? A grain of sand. Does the sand choose where it shall blow? I have lost my daughter. She could have died an infant. She could have died of the fever, last year when so many died. She could have been killed by the Germans, by you Italians, by robbers, by a cruel husband. There are many ways to die, and all must die of one of them. Guilt or innocence or purity or taint, they have nothing to do with the matter. She was born to die, and now she is dead. Blessed be God, the great, the merciful.

I left the next day, walking straight up the track until I met the English soldiers. I hoped at the time that they would kill me, but they were both merciful and kind. I think they were surprised to see an Italian in the desert by that stage of the war. I was something of a curiosity. I asked after the men who worked behind the German lines, but they were long gone. The story, however, of the girl at the oasis, was known to everybody. The way they told it, the girl had been willing; and I can see how her behaviour could have been so interpreted. Here, too, it seemed, there was neither guilt nor innocence; only misunderstanding and the fog of war. What was the use of anger? I put it aside and began to heal. Blessed be God, the merciful, the compassionate.