After an endless grinding road through a thousand denuded mountains, we came to Andasibe, where a group of villagers called Association Mitsinjo (“Forethought”) strives to protect a remnant of the forest.
We had first seen these thousand denuded mountains when flying northeast from the capital, Antananarivo. Looking down, I thought yet again of the cartoon that shows planet Earth as a patient in a doctor’s office: the doctor shakes his head and says, “You’ve got humans.” Yellow-orange dirt roads winding around brown hills, each top thinly dusted with trees; the rest, low scrub or bare ground. Madagascar, two and a half times the size of Great Britain, has lost ninety percent of its rich forests in only the last fifty years. Our host in the capital, Mohib, told me: “When I was fifteen, we went along that road to Tamatave, and I was amazed at all that forest; I thought it so beautiful. I went that way again last year, and — it’s all gone.”
In the mountains between capital and port there is a cluster of official nature reserves, and amid them the village of Andasibe, also Frenchly called Périnet. The twenty or so members of Association Mitsinjo try to spread the message of conservation. They divide a marsh between a half for intensive cultivation and a half that is to be undisturbed, they grow seedlings, they sell handicrafts to gain funding from the tourists who come to see lemurs. There’s also Lionel Lagermette, with his small enterprise that he calls Mad’arbres. We had heard of him because, a few weeks earlier, I had twisted my left ankle; so I happened to remark to Mohib: “I’m ashamed to be so inactive, I’m usually the sort of person who walks everywhere, climbs trees—”
“Ah,” he said, “if you like to climb trees, I know someone who tries to make a living from what he calls arboritourisme. I don’t think he has many customers.”
I imagined rope ladders up to the forest canopy and rope walkways along the treetops, rather like the convenient boardwalks made through wetland national parks in places like South Carolina. I remembered reading of something of the sort, set up by ecologists in the cloud forest of Costa Rica. It wasn’t quite like that.
When we found Lionel, he was kick-boxing with one of his Mitsinjo friends, while others stood around grinning. He later told me: “If I get two customers a day in the good season, it’s enough to make my living; if I get more I can help Mitsinjo.”
He and his small friend (who was called by the English nickname Play) led us a quarter mile up slippery forest paths, pausing to show us some nursery beds and a mantella frog and a giraffe scarab beetle, and to map with a stick, on a sandy slope, the layout of the nature reserves. We came to a carnarium tree from which a doubled rope hung ready, and Lionel showed me how to climb it by a method called footlock (developed in England), which was feasible using only my unsprained right foot. It consisted of a seat-harness slung between a knot above and another knot, including a loop for the foot below, each knot clamping in place when it bent the main rope but slidable-up when the pressure was off and the rope through it straight.
I went slowly up; Lionel, coming up his parallel rope at a tolerant pace, occasionally suggested that I tie a “magic knot” below me in the main rope for safety, or warned me that the buckle in the harness was about to give me a “surprise” by turning over and dropping me an inch. I passed the understory of little bamboos, the levels of tree ferns, palms, greater deciduous trees, the levels where the indri and sifaka lemurs find their respective kinds of food. The earth has down-feathers as well as wing-feathers. Each time I stood up (reinserting my foot in the loop and straightening my leg and hauling with my arms) the view widened, until I seemed level with the mountain range, and near the top I scrambled into a black hammock, slung to another treetop, near the stars of the Southern Fish.
I didn’t really spend the night up there, but Lionel has done so. And at this season, nineteen degrees south of the equator, the lonely bright star overhead in the evening was Fomal#=haut, “Mouth of the Fish,” lucida of Piscis Austrinus, the southern fish, a constellation whose outline is rather like that of Madagascar except for lying east-west. And, come to think of it, the angular extents of Madagascar on the map of the earth and the Southern Fish on the map of the sky are similar; so I wondered about a picture showing one printed over the other — the stars of Piscis Austrinus printed among the cities of Madagascar, or the tropical Earth viewed through the constellation on a celestial globe — to show how the stars are native to their latitudes. Afterwards I found that Fomalhaut is ten degrees farther south, but anything that near to the zenith seems overhead.
(What really filled the zenith was the midday sun of the southern tropics. Only by figuring afterwards could I tell that it was a little north of us. It passes southward over this latitude in mid November; returns northward over it in late January.)
The carnarium tree was over fifty feet high, but “climbing forty feet” sounds somehow better. Lionel and I swung and spun and turned upside down (didn’t kick-box) while conversing about what he also calls “spéléologie aérienne.” He has other ways of climbing (some of which he later showed me) for those with experience of caves or rocks, and “ateliers” such as the Monkey’s Bridge and the Tyrolean Glide. His T-shirt says “Réveillez le lémurien qui sommeille en vous” (“Awaken the lemur that slumbers in you” — neater in English, for once) and certainly I’m a brachiating lemur in the happier of my dreams. (This T-shirt, the only one I’ve ever liked wearing, later got lost on a bus in England; I wrote to Lionel but got no reply, so that my hope of bringing him other help was also dashed.) I asked: “What’s this, is it a liana?” Of course not; it was the red wire by which the rope had been lofted into the tree. You throw a small bag of lead pellets, it pulls the wire, the wire pulls the rope, though it may take several stages of throwing from lower branches to get the rope over a branch this high. And the wire stays in place because the rope is taken down each day: leaving it there would be good for neither rope nor tree. The trees are to be treated gently.
When we came down and returned to his wooden office, Lionel proudly showed me his livre d’or, visitor book. Every entry was a fulsome paragraph covering half of a small page; one was in Hebrew, another in Arabic, another in Cambodian script. Left alone for ten minutes with the duty of writing something in this book, I saw that the only way I could come up to expectation was to come up with a short poem. I had often thought
It is hard to believe in the blindness of trees
—but that’s only a one-line poem. Ralph Waldo Emerson came to my rescue: I had read somewhere a sentence that was something like
Any fool can chop down a tree.
—though the paragraph went down from there: the tree can’t run away, and so on — after all, what more can you say? I wrote:
Any fool can fell a tree.
The tree can neither weep nor flee.
Better, if the tree agrees,
To climb the tree and be her eyes.
Why does she rise to such a size?
Only from there
High in the air
Will you see, as the tree can see,
The feathered earth as it should fully be.
The simplicity of these syllables resurrected my faith in the English language. I came back an hour later, after we had visited the shop of Association Mitsinjo, to tighten a few words. I could have subjunctivized “agrees” to “agree,” but stuck to my invention of the transitional rhyme. I offered to translate into French for Lionel, but he said that his wife, a teacher of English in Tana, could do that.
Poems and pictures need their stories. Could a Shakespeare sonnet be yet richer than it is? Yes, it would be, if we knew what in Shakespeare’s day led up to it.
The hut is a simple rectangular frame of beams, with a pitched roof and a few diagonals to strengthen corners. Over the rafters lie horizontal poles of a wood called fitoroko (pronounced fitúrk). Almost every other part is made from the ravinala, traveler’s tree. This is the palm that, on the skyline, reminds you of a windmill, with the huge fronds as its vanes. These fronds (ravinpontsy), which botanically are single leaves, curve out from the plant’s base in strict alternation, left and right, so that the plant is in one plane.
The fronds’ long stout stems are used to fill in the walls: they are joined — using needles of another wood, tsiriky, stuck through them — into large panels, which are in turn joined to make the surface of the wall, sometimes two surfaces with an air-space between. The outer part of the frond, with the comb-like arrays of pointed leaflets on either side, is folded along its central nerve to make a mat — a sort of giant tile, or unit of thatch. These mats, with the leaflets draped downward, cover the roof, lapping over each other, the lowest having their fringe of leaflets trimmed off just over the roof’s overhanging edge. Even the strings with which all are tied together are nerves of the ravinala fronds, supple when still green. The materials weather to gray. The one-room hut stands on four short stilts. And in it lives the family of four or more.
Everyone in the countryside we passed through lives in these huts. Villages are lines or clusters of huts, sometimes very many. A highway cleaves through a mountain, leaving between tarmac and cliff a strip of clay that would be hardly enough for the shoulder of an American road: but eight huts stand shoulder to shoulder along it. If the place becomes a small town, there is the occasional house of French-colonial type, with garden wall and steel gates against the envious. Our ferry — itself hut-size and dangerously overcrowded with shamefully overcharged passengers — came into the port of Soanierana-Ivongo (which one is allowed to call Ivongo). The quay, no longer than the boat, was lined with touts or friends, and behind it the little town consisted of huts.
We lived for four days in such a hut. That is, it was the same, except for standing on a concrete slab instead of stilts, and having varnished timbers, bathroom stuck on at the rear, hot water, electric light for some hours, and a massive mosquito net suspended from the ceiling, to be unrolled and tucked in around the bed. It was one of the “bungalows” forming a small resort called La Crique on Ile Sainte Marie. From our door we could cross a palm-dotted lawn into the sea, which I did before dawn, several times a day, and at night to tire myself to sleep. The sand of the beach was not perfect, containing some sharp little stones — how soft can you get? — so that I hobbled, my soles being not as they were at stages of life when I went barefoot. The servile dogs of La Crique were called
and Carton the puppy.
The greenery threaded by the road that passes along this coast would make you think there was no environmental problem. Occasionally you cross a winding rice-paddy-floored valley that gives a glimpse of burnt fields in the interior. Two botanists who came surveying told us that four years ago only a dozen of the endemic tree species were left; now, only two, and it will be impossible for them to recover. For Madagascar it’s too late.
We rode this road, or sequence of ruts in sandy rock, on rented bicycles (the left pedal of mine came off and I had to walk it the last three kilometers home in the dusk). We were looking for a waterfall into the sea. Rémy, who had told us about it, had perhaps not been there in some years: he said to cross a bridge, a path goes off to the left, take that, don’t take the right fork — but nothing corresponded. We went too far, through two hamlets, before turning back, and wouldn’t have found it but for a passer-by on a motor bike, bumping along slowly enough for us to ask him. He dismounted (his passenger, a blond tourist, appeared impassive about the delay) and pointed us along the way, into a wood. This couldn’t be right, there was no path at all, but we pulled our bikes on over the curve of the ground through the wood — did find a thread of a path, that could have been made by feet a month ago — until down ahead between the trees I glimpsed a sheet of water, seeming to kiss the sea through a rock gate.
The stream ends its journey through several strata of hard black-brown rock, which stand almost vertical, leaning slightly inland. So the stream forms a long pool, at first folding from side to side as it writhes through the breaks it has made in the reefs. The last part of the pool is huge, roughly square, bottomless, plunging into limpid brown darkness from the rocks on all sides; almost motionless because so deep, glassy unless the forest admits a breeze. I found myself hesitating to swim into it in case it hid crocodiles. The pool’s level is set by the notch it has made in the last reef. Through this notch the pool spills directly into the sea. “Waterfall” — when this word is used you don’t know which kind to imagine: a tall white thread, or a wide low slump across a river, or the many forms between. This one is a splashy cascade splitting into a few parts over rocks, a fathom high and a bit wider. For describing scenes I keep hankering for the word “fathom” because it is the human measure that you can immediately picture: the height of a man.
When we arrived, hoisting our borrowed bicycles as far as we could get them down over ledges and roots to the left of the cascade, the sea was lapping immediately against the rock. And about a handspan under the water could be seen the yellow sand. This was bliss. I could float with outstretched fingers touching the rock, soft sand almost brushing my belly, the mild ends of waves swaying me in and out. Later the tide went down (though it doesn’t here have much amplitude) and exposed a triangle of perfect sand, where Tilly could lie under a natural parasol of wide overhanging palm fronds. (There is a two-mile beach at the north end of Ile Sainte Marie pronounced by the Superlative Police to be “the world’s most beautiful.”) The miniature beach was closed to the left by a house-sized white boulder that looked like a flower vase: standing on its point, it had a grove on its top. Swimming out, I could see the one or two tall trees that made our bit of forest vertical. No one else was here.
Across the strait we could see the low shore of the mainland, and the hazy line of the mountains. Madagascar is a thousand-mile fish lying off the east coast of Africa; Ile Sainte Marie is a thirty-five-mile fish lying off the east coast of Madagascar. (According to geology, Madagascar calved from Africa more than a hundred million years ago.) And if we had come a week or two earlier the scene would have included at least one smaller Madagascar and Ile: a whale swimming beside her three-ton newborn. For it is to this sheltered strait that the humpback whales of the Indian Ocean come to calve in September.
We had come to Madagascar for the June 2001 eclipse of the sun but arrived too late, by four and a half years. That is, I had a friend there by correspondence, and he invited us. He said he would fly us in his own plane to Morombe in the south of the island where the track of totality would pass; he even had a friend at Morombe whose house we could use.
When the time came I couldn’t go. Mohib wrote: “Yes, marrying is more important than any eclipse. Consider my invitation to come here for your honeymoon!” Then came the troubles of 2002. The old President, Ratsiraka, did not accept the election victory of the new President, Ravalomanana. (It was on the French system, where if no one gets more than fifty percent there should be a run-off; Ravalomanana probably got more votes but not fifty percent as he claimed.) Ratsiraka withdrew to the port of Tamatave and blockaded Ravalomanana in the capital, Antananarivo. My friend wrote: “The situation here is terrible: it is 2 months now that all the roads to the ports are closed, we have no more fuel, factories are all closing one after the other, and I think within 10 days at most all economical activity will be shut down. There are thousands of jobs lost which increases criminality . . . ” Then, “more than 50000 jobs lost in the last 2 months for Antananarivo only, all industries closed, shortage of all basic products (food, medecines, petrol), huge inflation, rising criminality and our 2 ‘presidents’ who are playing the whole country as a personal game . . . ” And “There is no indication of the rapprochement you have read of. On the contrary they are fighting with armed forces now and there are people killed almost everyday.” He afterwards told me that he kept going when the cost of powering the machines in his factory rose above the value of the products; could not have gone much longer.
Ratsiraka the “socialist” retired to Paris, Ravalomanana the businessman ruled, not least to the advantage of his own businesses. (According to the CIA website, President Marc Ravalomanana had won the election by 50.5 percent to 37.7. The president appointed the prime minister; in the assembly, his party called Tiako I Madagasikara, “I Love Madagascar,” had a hundred and three seats, the old president’s Association for the Rebirth of Madagascar, three.) Things perhaps improved, but as an indication Mohib told us: “They had a program with international funding to rebuild roads — Madagascar has very few roads — and what they managed was to bring them up to the state they were in sixty years before.”
(Seven years later, March 2009, the chaos repeated. Ravalomanana had been re-elected, and had presented himself as champion of the environment, tripling the size of the protected areas and strengthening laws against slash-and-burn — without, however, enforcing them, but instead raking off profits from oil exploitation and illegal timber. The military ousted him in favor of Rajoelina, a disc-jockey who (like Ravalomanana) had become mayor of Antananarivo. Mohib wrote: “The situation is worse than in 2002: we had shootings yesterday and 30 people died with about 300 casualties. But you are right: we are hostages of 2 people’s personal ambition for power.”) Foreign aid, on which eighty percent of beneficial work in Madagascar depended, was cut off. Rajoelina encouraged foreign mining operations, and ended the protected areas; apace went the illegal cutting of Madagascar’s precious rosewood trees, sold to China for making furniture.
On the east African coast more than a thousand years ago, Arabs started a trading post with a name that must have been Maqdis or Muqaddis, “holy”; it is now Mogadishu, the city of the Somalis. Marco Polo during his years in China, or on the way there, heard of Mogdaxo or (in other variants of his manuscript, with reshuffling of consonants) Madeigascar, but he or his source applied it to a great island “a thousand miles south of Socotra”; he heard that no one sailed farther south than that because the increasing southward current allowed no return. (This is the Agulhas Current that bathes the southern extreme of Africa and, according to an article I later read — Curtis Marean, “When the Sea Saved Humanity,” Scientific American, August 2010 — nurtured the tiny population to which Homo Sapiens was reduced a hundred thousand years ago.) Marco’s description of the Muslims, elephants, and trees of the island fits better the African mainland. The name that thus seems to trace back to him has become on modern banknotes Madagasikara. The people are Malagasy (pronounced and by the French written Malgache), or just Gasy, and so is their language. (From Maqdis to Gasy: quite a long linguistic progression.) And their other language is French.
Mohib spoke both these and also Gujrati, Italian, and English, in which he was quicker at choosing the right words than I. His wife, from Pescara in Italy, shared two of these with him (Italian and French), his children four and they were working on English.
He was a member of a minority, Shi’i Muslims from around Jamnagar in the Indian state of Gujarat. His first name was Arabic (muhibb, active participle of the fourth or causative form of the root hbb, “love”), his second a compound of Persian (pîr, “old,” equivalent of the Arabic sheikh) and general-Indian (bai, “brother”). The Shi’a is the tendency of continual splitting; this particular sect descends from the medieval Isma’ilis and Assassins, and its Indian members call themselves Khoja (apparently the Persian title that is also the name of the wise fool of Middle Eastern stories).
Mohib himself was less interested than I in such points. “I’m the black sheep of the family; I don’t go to the mosque. It’s Ramadan and my mother is fasting during the day — I’m not, as you can see.” His tall sister came in and stood orating over him in Gujrati for five minutes while he smiled patiently up at her. He explained to me: “I’m afraid I tease them. I told her that according to their scripture Adam only had two sons, Cain and Abel, so we must all be descended from a murderer, and by incest. She went to her imam and she came to tell me all his explanations.”
These Indians appeared an enterprising class, but they had started as poor refugees from a dry region. They had been drawn to the great entrepôt of Zanzibar, filled vacant niches as merchants, spread to Madagascar a century ago. Mohib’s father had had a business in Fianarantsoa, a hundred miles to the south. “That’s a sad place. It used to be flourishing, it has fine agricultural land around it, they grew amazing fruit and vegetables, but the value of those has crashed, so the city is hopeless, broken-down, dirty.”
It was when Tilly half-jokingly asked Mohib whether he was invited to the receptions in the presidential palace that he came out with this memorable formulation. “We are the Jews of Madagascar. This is my country, I was born here, I will die here, but to the Malagasys I’m a foreigner. I can’t become a citizen — well, perhaps I could if I cared to pay someone enough. We all scrape various other citizenships; I have a friend who has none, he’s in a dangerous position. We can’t own houses. I rent this house; when we had children and it became too small for us I built that wing where we are sleeping. You might think, Why build a wing onto a house that belongs to someone else? But labor here is cheap, other people buy a car which they use for two years, this cost me no more than their car.”
“So it’s racial? — only people who are Malagasy by descent can be citizens or own houses?”
“It’s race-based but it isn’t racist. To them it would be like giving away the soil of their ancestors. You must have heard something about the ancestor-cult?” The Malagasy ancestor is not just buried, he is festively buried and reburied; moved up from shelf to shelf in the family tomb until he is nothing but powder.
Four Alsatian dogs lived in large pens in the yard. (And there was a small white scruff who had more freedom and yapped all night; possibly our hosts, on the other side of the house, didn’t hear.) Tilly asked: “Are they let out at night?”
“Yes. But they aren’t much use as guard dogs, they’re too friendly.”
“And have you had any break-ins?” she inquired, possibly expecting something like the time amateurs entered her unlocked house and fled (scared by an approaching car) with her bicycle and Billie Holiday records.
“Yes,” Mohib replied, as he ushered us in through the hallway, “nine of them broke in one night. They held knives to the children’s throats, held a gun to Carmelita’s head while they beat me in front of her; they were trying to make us tell them where our safe was, but we don’t have a safe. They took everything in the house. Everything. They cut our telephones and drove away with our cars. I even had to borrow a shirt and pants next day from my brother.”
“Good God! Did the police do anything?”
“Usually nobody is caught, but these ones, actually, were caught, because they happened to attack a French diplomat, so the French police came and made sure the gang was caught. There was a call for witnesses, I wondered why nobody else went, I thought I’d better go and help identify the thieves. I thought it would be like those identity parades you see on television, where the witness looks through a two-way mirror. But I was just sent into a room together with these men! I recognized the fellow who seemed to be the boss; naturally I was afraid of what might happen if I said anything, but he said: ‘It’s all right, you can identify me.’ They were sent to prison for a while.”
“Before bribing their way out?”
“Yes, probably. But, you know, on the whole, Malagasys are not violent. When people have nothing, when seventy percent of them live on less than a dollar a day, you can’t be surprised that some of them do things like this.”
It had happened six years ago, ten years after Mohib started up his business. No wonder there was a nine-foot wall around the garden, iron gates topped with spikes and barbed wire, and a man whose sole job was to open these gates when the car tooted. (Actually, three men on shifts. “Do they live nearby?” “Not far away. A bus-ride.”) When the car delivered us through the gates and the driver pressed the buzzer by the door, one of the cooking women hurried to open the outer door electronically and then the inner. There were steel grilles over all windows, precluding what otherwise would have been the pleasure of strolling out from the lounge into the garden.
When Mohib, in his pajamas, was having his next-morning conversation with me, I said: “Considering that experience, you all seem remarkably calm.”
“No, actually Leila still has bad dreams about it. Karim was only five, so he doesn’t remember so much. Carmelita wanted to go back to Italy, and we had long talks about it; she had to see that I had to carry on my business. Then she had a plan to go and live in Réunion or another of the French islands, taking the children, and I would visit. But that would be like living divorced, and we aren’t divorced. Eventually she settled down again — she had already started her boutique and now she’s started its other branch — she’s got plenty to do here.“
Tilly asked a question about the medical system, and Mohib smiled wryly.
“Well, you know, it’s like everything else. A few years ago one of my employees fell from a high machine onto the floor and broke his spine. I rushed him to the hospital. He was just put in a ward, on a dirty bed. I asked the doctor whether he could do an operation, and he said yes, he could. I went back next day and nothing had happened. I asked, What’s going on, what’s happening? Oh, we’ll operate soon. The man was in bad pain. I went back next day and nothing had happened. Eventually the doctor told me, We can’t operate because we don’t have certain parts for the equipment. I called a friend in Réunion and he asked a doctor he knew, and this doctor managed to find these parts, and he actually stole them from that hospital. He gave them to my friend, who got them sent here, and I rushed them to the hospital. ‘Now you’ll operate?’ — ‘Yes, yes.’ I kept going back, and still nothing happened. Eventually the poor man died. Well, I had to get those stolen parts back and return them to the hospital they’d come from in Réunion. They couldn’t find these parts, they didn’t have them. ‘Of course you have them, I gave them to you, you must find them’ — ‘We can’t find them.’ At last I found out that the doctor had sold them to another doctor, who had used them to operate on a rich man who had paid him more.“
In Soanierana-Ivongo we were pushed to the side of the street by a procession of medical vehicles followed by at least a dozen contingents of schoolchildren, some gaily beating drums, older ones in colored uniforms, some with an informational sticker on their chests, of which they gave us a copy. It explained in Malgache that the occasion was the arrival of tetanus vaccines from the World Health Organization. (Unfortunately you can’t vaccinate against malaria.)
Yet elsewhere, children were among the crowds along the roadsides, walking, working, begging.
“The problem,” Mohib explained, “is that to be accepted in school they have to be registered. The government has to know they exist. But when people have a baby they don’t think of going to get a birth certificate. So the child goes without education for life. May become one of the children who live on trash heaps. So the European Union put a large amount of money into a pilot project to see whether it would be possible to register children. The volunteers worked for a year, and their target was to register ten thousand children. Guess how many children they registered?”
I cynically guessed six hundred.
“He’ll send a car to meet us at the airport!”
But when we arrived, late at night, after a ten-hour flight over the Sahara, we were met not by a driver but by the family, and so I first got to hug my friend, as well as his vigorously hospitable wife and his children who looked like young idols of Kali and Krishna. (At one of the times when I had intended to come and hadn’t, Mohib wrote: “Guy, This is really bad news as I was very happy to meet you and also let my children meet the author of the ‘mini universe’ as they call it.” They were eagerly nice, but I wondered what they were thinking when they were gazing at me.)
I had never before been a guest in a palace. Tilly had to remind me that it was not a palace: in a well-to-do Greenville suburb it would have been above the average in taste but not in extent. When we feared we were staying too long, Mohib said: “You haven’t stayed long. We have cousins here for much longer.” But in the West the art of being a guest has declined since the age of Jane Austen. We stretched our faces in gratitude and were not at ease. If we opened the door of our chambre d’amis we stumbled over shy servants giving the floor its daily vacuuming. The old woman who waited at table — “She’s a bit of a problem: her family has abandoned her,” she might have to die in the little house her benefactor had given her in the courtyard.
Since Mohib had given his son an Arabic name meaning “generous,” it occurred to me as an elaborate compliment to recite (and afterwards to inscribe, so that Mohib could show it on his wall to any Arabic-reading visitor he might get) one of the scraps of poetry that I remember better than how to speak a language:
Qaalat liya n-nafsu “Ataaka r-radaa
wa-anta fii daari l-ma‘aasii muqiim;
tazawwadi t-taqwaa” — fa-qultu “Qsurii!
Laa yuhmalu z-zaadu li-Daari l-Kariim.“
My conscience reprehended me,
“Look out, your life will ended be
And here you idle drunkenly, irreverent and venerous!
Provide yourself with piety“—
But I replied, “Be quiet, please!
One does not take provisions to the house of the Most Generous!“
Mohib translated it for his wife:
L’Ame me dit “Ton destin est proche,
et tu es encore dans la maison du péché;
te devrais d’approvisionner de piété,”
Mais je répondis: “On ne prend pas de provision pour aller chez Le Plus Généreux.“
I told him it was by Abu Nuwâs. “I remember hearing of that poet,” said Mohib — “wasn’t he homosexual?”
My gift of my Questar telescope (given to me long ago, and compact enough to carry on the plane) was more of a success than I expected. Mohib, who had everything, and had my astronomy book, did not have this (unless his hospitality went to excess of politeness) and after one evening of viewing the moon he had a stand built for it and talked of piercing an observatory through his roof.
A driver, Rávaka (“necklace”), was at our service all day. Until we needed him he waited in the car; after putting us into our quarters at one of the places he had been told to drive us to he slept we knew not where; when our boat came into the harbor of Ivongo we were relieved to see his broad beaming face in the crowd on the quay. We were as anxious to show our gratitude and admiration to him as to his employer (he could use his mobile phone with one hand while steering around potholes with the other and changing gear with the third). But Mohib emphasized: “Ravaka is a rich man. He has a much better job than working in the factory. People envy him. Of course he doesn’t mind waiting.” Picking up that Tilly liked hearing of the chamaeleons in his house, Ravaka took us there. The chamaeleons — a tánala and a small specimen of a larger kind called tarondoro (pronounced tarúntr) — did not live in the house, along with mother, wife, and children, but in the garden they were lucky to have, toward the edge of the village of Miadampónina (“prosperous people”). We were honored. But wondered whether Mohib would say “Oh yes, he’s taken others there”; or whether on the contrary Ravaka might be in trouble. But Mohib asked what Ravaka’s house was like.
Mohib’s house was in Ivandry, a chosen neighborhood (around which however one did not walk), and the middle of Antananarivo was ten urban kilometers away. If we wanted to do something there we were driven. That was the way it had to be. In any case, the city did not appear to have a middle of the kind where you hang out. Perhaps that was what Mohib meant when he said that “Antananarivo is not an interesting part of Madagascar, in my opinion.” In my opinion, it was.
Imagine a lot of little cups, or at any rate saucers, placed upside down on a flat surface. The mountains ramble down into hills and these become separated by winding lanes of flatland covered with rice paddies. The cups are the little hills, touching each other or separated by the rice flats. Each round hill is covered by a village, with a name such as Ambohibao. They are the tanána-arívo, “villages thousand.” Each in the past had its feudal clan lord; their descendants are now the rich class. Each village has its jumble of roofs pierced by the small spires of two churches, Protestant and Catholic, because the British and French took turns turning the Malagasy into Christians. On Sunday even the poorest walk to church in good clothes, washed on Saturday in Lake Anosy. There are no direct highways through this wide-scattered tangle, across which Ravaka kept taking us by one long traverse or another.
The road crosses a flat rice-paddy corridor on a straight causeway; hits a village, twists left around the base of its hill and curves up and twists through the center. Here the village is densest; people and chickens swarm beside and vaguely across the road, stepping perhaps a little faster toward the sides as Ravaka mildly toots his horn. Traffic isn’t ferocious as in Tehran; it might not be particularly dense if there weren’t the chickens and lorries to hold it up. Stalls encrust the street, selling tomatoes, roasts, radios. Where do the people get money to buy them? They buy cooking oil, fetched up from the vat with a long dipper in the small quantity that a family can afford per day. The road twists down again, off the hill onto another causeway that lances it at its next entanglement with a village.
The lanes of rice-paddies that were once swamps gradually merge into the plain of the Digue, which joins many other rivers to come out on the west coast at Majunga, where at the end of the rainy season the sea for hundreds of miles around is red with topsoil washed off Madagascar.
The rice paddies grow two crops a year. Most of them are on the level (not in fantastically terraced hillsides as in Indonesia), so the system of moving the limited supply of water from field to field, until all the rice has enough at its roots, is social: the families toil together all day, lifting the water over the bank with buckets.
Among the bright-green-bladed fields are some that are a mass of gray chunks, not sown this time. And others, and whole valley lengths, have gone over to more profitable brick-making. The yellowish-gray clay that once grew rice is cut into blocks (rather lighter and handier than our bricks) and stacked to form enormous structures, hollow like houses but larger than most houses. They are kilns. The furnace is lighted inside, the bricks bake, and bricks from the inner layers of the kiln, baked harder, sell for more. Along highways, or the embankment beside the “artisanal market,” are stacks of bricks for sale. Some scenes contain maybe thirty rectangular piles like ancient mastabas, some smoking and several with a man on top catching bricks tossed up to him. The winding course of the river itself has spread into extensive hollows excavated by brick-making. So many bricks, because the population of the city is still growing. “And that gives us yet another problem,” Mohib said. “There’s a water table under Tana, and as we press it down with a new building in one place it comes up in another. It will happen with the piece of land I’ve just bought for extending my factory. I don’t know how long it can go on.“
Outside the window in the Antananarivo night there is a pleasant sound made by a cricket, as if someone drops a steel bearing onto a marble bank counter. Then the dropper’s flat hand presses down, repressing the bounce, so that the impacts get closer together. K, k kkkkk. The phrase and the silence each last perhaps a second. Once I counted ninety-seven phrases before it stopped at a random k in a phrase, resumed farther off.
I lay drowsing in the garden on the balançoire, broad upholstered swing. What had seemed to be the movement of a brown leaf was a huge turtle, coming toward me with a dry rustle. He had made the day’s expedition to a thin puddle left on the driveway from the sprinkling of the garden, was now returning to cover in a flower bed. How could a living thing bear this painfully slow crawl across concrete on weak feet like the points of fingers, and then an existence of eternal waiting? I can’t bear my own hours of sleeplessness.
“People can get used to anything,” Mohib had said. Yes, there was a time when we were used to doing without broadband, a time before that when we were used to doing without e-mail! — there was even a time when I was used to writing and printing without computers! But we can “get used” only upward, not downward. We can’t get used to bad luck after good, or to the decline toward dying. The human poor cannot remain “used to” their poverty, if they ever were, because they can see Mohib, and because they have the power of projection — of imagining things other than as they are. Not that Mohib stands out. He is nearly as inconspicuous as he can be. And once when the word “rich” was used, he said “There are no rich people in Madagascar!”
Madagascans, according to Mohib, don’t have the idea of a job: they may just choose not to show up. Fortunately for us, this did not apply to Ravaka. Nor to the controllers who sat at computer consoles, monitoring the flow of orders through the score of roaring machines, each the size of a steam train, lined up along Mohib’s factory floor. “Just here,” he said, “was the shed where I started it. It was just me, cutting the cardboard with a knife.”
What do you do when you sympathize with the poor but can do nothing to change society because corruption is absolute and you belong to a precarious minority? There’s no reason not to do your best for your family. He employed four hundred people. His cardboard cartons were a useful product that enabled trade around Madagascar, hence growth, hence ultimately I suppose more food. (Madagascar, once an exporter of food, had become an importer.)
It appeared to me a huge operation. “No, we sell them only to Madagascar.” “Are you the only maker of cardboard containers in Madagascar?” “No — I wish!”
He was diversifying into other products — “Look, there’s a sign for our Softi!” — and starting a company for telecommunications, perhaps a call center; good idea! “We’re not far south of the equator, where the geostationary satellites are, but the problem for us is that they are pointed northward, to the Middle East . . . I’m afraid I have to work most of Saturday”: there were days of conference with salesmen of technology from Israel and Hong Kong. “Mohib has a flu,” his wife told us; I wouldn’t have known it from his demeanor. “Are you feeling any better?” “Not really!” “You must wish you didn’t have to sit through those presentations.” “Yes, it’s been hard to concentrate on what they’re telling me. But I have to, because I have to make decisions based on it.”
I said I had once bought a book on Assembly Language but had never taken the time to go into it — “Oh, I love Assembly Language! — I’ve written hundreds of programs in it.” To explain why he had my astronomy book yet was asking questions (one, naive-profound, gave me a book idea), he said: “I’m passionate! I get interested in something, I buy books, but I don’t have time to get the most from them.” Was there anything Mohib couldn’t do? Yes: “I know nothing about music!” Mohib might have been unbearable, even with his mild demeanor, if he had been large, physically imposing. In my early correspondence with him, he would mention that “we will be going for ski holiday next month in the french alps.” He was about to go, just after we left (unless indeed he had super-politely postponed it from just before we left), to Réunion, for a family holiday and some business appointments as usual and for paragliding. “I love paragliding!” He told us the difference between conical volcanic Réunion — not much room around its coast, attracts the hardier tourist, fine launching-pad for the paraglider — and low humid lagooned Mauritius, well developed for hotels and shopping. (Earlier he had given a similarly memorable characterization of the island of Mayotte (the Malagasy-speaking island) versus the other Comoros: the others voted to become an independent republic, the Mahorais voted to stay part of France; sad result, Mayotte flourishes and desperate Comorians drown trying to swim to it. Mayotte went on to become the 101st département of France in 2009.) Mohib took his wife for her two months in Italy every year, himself returning earlier, and getting bronchitis every time from the bacteria that are in planes’ air supply.
(When, later, I called Mohib on his birthday I learned that a month after our visit he had a terrible paragliding accident. He tried it in Madagascar, off a mountain not far from Tana; there were such strong thermals that he lost control, fell fifteen meters to the ground, broke several vertebrae but not his spinal cord; the sail continued to be pulled along by the gust of hot air, dragging him fifty meters across a rice field till he struck the next bank up the terrace, which broke many ribs and punctured his lung, “which caused a quite spectacular spitting of blood. The trainer was on top of the mountain, it took her fifteen minutes to get down to where I was, and then she spent the next fifteen minutes yelling at me what a fool I was; I couldn’t even answer because I was in so much pain. It took two hours for doctors to arrive, they gave morphine and took me to the hospital.” He was in hospital for a month, now had to live with bandages around his chest, could drive but couldn’t get up stairs. “You won’t paraglide any more!” “Well, Carmelita said if I do she will divorce me, but gradually she’s calmer, now she says I may have a birthday present of one more paraglide. Maybe next year.”)
We were at the end of the cool dry southern winter; perhaps most of the burning had been done. I saw smoke on a hillside, but it was from charcoal-making. Not only is wood burnt to get rid of it; it is heated (by burning other wood) to reduce it to charcoal, everybody’s fuel. The process takes a lot of wood, but the product burns more efficiently than wood itself.
As I understood it, the tavy, the burning, is done to clear vegetation that from a human point of view is useless, in the hope that grass will grow for grazing by the zebu cattle; then in as little as a year the topsoil becomes infertile and is washed off in the rains, leaving bare hard ground on which grows nothing much.
Yet I was looking at the spur of a hill, like a paw, curving over more steeply as it descended; it had a sharp boundary with the somewhat more vegetated mountain, had evidently been cleared; yet surely it could not be used by cattle, it was too steep. And there were other such areas, some still blackened.
“When a man wants to clear a bit of land,” explained Mohib, “he just starts a fire. He doesn’t care how far the fire goes. He may want to clear a tenth of a hectare, the fire burns ten hectares, a hundred.”
“Don’t his neighbors care?”
“The land in between doesn’t belong to anybody; the population is sparse.”
So that, roughly, is how only eighteen million people (there were only two and a half million in 1900) have been able to denude an island two and a half times the size of Great Britain.
The population is not small, it has exploded, but it has drained from the countryside to the cities — mostly to Antananarivo.
“In their culture,” Mohib explained, “cattle are very highly valued; they count cattle as their wealth.” And I thought he was going to say more about grazing. “So, unfortunately, there have been many killings, people killing other people for their cattle. People have no protection, so they have fled to the towns.”
Mohib was somewhat given to categorical statements — “You cannot stopmy mother from putting too much food on the table” — “Carmelita cannot livewithout swimming in her club’s pool every day” — and so I wondered whether some of the more sweeping of his statements about his country might have benefited from percentages, or from reconciliation with each other. But I like the successive-approximations method of teaching, indeed of thinking.
We like to think that the indigenous peoples of the Americas tread soundlessly on their forest floor; they love and understand their mother Earth and would have taken tenderer care of her than the industrial European overwhelmers. But now we realize that without knowing what they were doing they hunted many large creatures to extinction, as the Malagasys did the elephant-birds, pygmy hippos, giant lemurs, and many others; and it is hard to avoid guessing that they might have done to their land like the Malagasy if left like the Malagasy to multiply over it.
Some of the fady, the taboos, are environmentally beneficial. Some, not all, of the tribes abstain from killing some of their kinds of lemurs.
Mohib smiled at me: “You still have your illusions. I don’t. I don’t think there is any hope for humanity. The planet would be better off without us. We ravage the planet, and we destroy each other. That’s what history is: wars, massacres. Rwanda, Darfur . . . Great men, famous for what? — for killing people. Alexander the Great, Jengiz Khan, Napoleon . . . Now Iraq. Suicide bombers . . . A friend was talking with me, he asked me, ‘What should I do if I want my name to live after I’m dead?’ and I told him he should either write books” (a nod to me) “or kill people. In sufficiently large numbers.”
Madagascar itself was almost an exception — “It doesn’t have much history. Malagasy people didn’t do much fighting.” I had read the encyclopaedia article before coming. Malagasys did some fighting at times. “At the end of the 18th century the Merina kingdom was unified by the great king Andriampoinimerina . . . He bequeathed to his son Radama a single political ambition: ‘The sea will be the boundary of my ricefield.’” What the hell can this mean? Names and narratives we like, they distract us. Reality consists of the hundreds of thousands of people. They are trying to keep their children fed, trying to get through the twelve hours of dark, fighting illness alone, walking the roads in search of luck; and a “king” or a “president” arises, or rather sits, in some far place, he sends armies, which pile chaos and destruction on top of the anxieties of waiting for the rice to grow. What is he but another brown speck? And how long did it take even to receive a report from Tamatave to Tana, let alone to send an army from Tana to Tamatave? This small fraction of the country, the journey across it in a car driven by a driver, racing around potholes and belching lorries, seemed as if it would never end and made me sick: how many days did it take those armies to walk it? Did the Great King have a map?
While in the midst they issue orders
Who can be sure they still have borders?
Mohib would return from his office, looking larger in his impeccable business suit, take off his tie, sit down to converse with me. One of the six telephones in the house would ring and he would have to deal with it in French or Gujrati. Then at the table, after receiving long volleys from several directions in several languages, he said to me with a smile: “You see how it is. I work twelve or fourteen hours, and then when I come home everyone has their story of the day to tell me.” Despite his twelve to fourteen hours of work, he also had something to tell me that would keep me awake, from the day’s news or something he had seen on television.
“Three point three million people are without shelter” (in the mountains of Kashmir, as result of the October 8 earthquake); “scenes of forty people fighting over one blanket. The rains are starting, so that helicopters can’t take off, and in a few weeks the snow will be starting.” Who needs war on top of that? Having lost my undershirt during a bike ride, I had been ashamed to feel (here in spring within the southern tropics) a little cold in the evening — wearing only a shirt was like wearing a piece of paper; Mohib lent me a cashmere sweater, more comfortable and stylish than any I had owned. To think of a child shivering toward rigid death in the inaccessible gorges of Hunza or Ladakh was unbearable. Or: “I saw a film about the Chinese exporting skins of cats and dogs to Europe. They skin them alive, two million a year, in the most cruel possible way; what the film showed was horrible, but they said that the worst scenes couldn’t be shown. It’s a huge trade, they make them into toys and linings for boots, export them to Europe.” (At this point I went over to his pessimism.) “It’s as I told you, the planet would be better off without us.”
But: music; articles in Natural History magazine about some further wonder of the way evolution plays out (such as female dominance among the lemurs of Ranomafana National Park). Our species that, like a slightly larger ant, is turning the world into its anthill is also the only species that can turn appreciative consciousness upon the others.
In a corner of our bedroom stood a valiha, which could be called a bamboo harp or a circular harp. It was an open cylinder of strong wood about three feet long and four inches wide; had been hardened by heating, and varnished glossy brown; and was encircled by eighteen longitudinal wire strings.
The player (daughter Leila was learning it) sits with it projecting forward from her lap, the longest string on top. The other strings are arranged in alternating order: next shorter to the left, next shorter to the right, next shorter to the left . . . Thus the player plucks doh, the longest string and lowest tone, with her right hand, then re with her left, then mi with her right, and so on up the scale — somewhat like an African thumb piano. The music (she was learning Ny Lanitra Manga-Manga, “The Blue-Blue Sky,” a national pop-melody that is played on Air Madagascar as the plane comes in) was written on the usual kind of stave, and I thought: It must be hard to read and do the fingering! But she pointed out that the left-hand notes are on lines and the right-hand on spaces. Of course!
The strings are stopped toward each end by frets (small up-standing squares of white wood). Thus the frets at the end nearer to the player (just clear of her knees) are approximately in a circle around the tube (actually a rippled circle), almost touching each other; but the farther frets are at different distances along the tube: doh (the central string) farthest, re, mi, and so on progressively nearer.
While feeling my way around the valiha to count the strings, I contemplated this arrangement. Looked at from either end, these distal frets of course stand in a circle, like stubby rays around a sun. Looked at from left or right, they lie in a straight line, crossing the tube at a finely oblique angle. But looked at by the musician, in her position of command over them, they form a long, narrow ellipse: the fret of the longest string at the top, that of the shortest string (and highest tone) at the bottom, out of sight around the back of the tube. Indeed in solid space they do lie in an ellipse; which is no mystery — any plane cutting across a cylinder forms an ellipse — but this is a rather magical ellipse, since it is made of sounds.
At least that is the idealized arrangement, but in fact the array of the distal frets is irregular. The side-view lines and the player’s-eye-view ellipse are not clear, they are jumbled. In particular, one of the frets, the second on the right, stood out of order: it was not, as I expected it to be, slightly less distant than the first, but slightly more so. I struggled to ask what must have seemed my stupid question of why this was so. The explanation was only that “My teacher tuned it.”
At length I realized that I was indeed stupid in expecting the frets to be placed with high regularity. The tuner moves the fret to and fro until the string sounds its correct tone. The strings are probably at differing tensions and perhaps of differing density. And so are the parts of the natural bamboo tube, with its joints and stresses.
And valiha may be of many different sizes. No two are alike. But they may be tuned to play in concert.
We were driven to dinner, a cosmopolitan party of twelve in an Italian restaurant. My innards were uncomfortable, I didn’t much want to eat. I was unwillingly at the head of the table. A flashbulb at the other end kept dazzling me and recording my haggardness. The music was too loud (if I had realized earlier that it was live — at any rate from an electric keyboard at the other end of the restaurant — I would have resented it less). I struggled to talk in French with my charming neighbor (she flies to Dubai to import Iranian carpets, also exports soie naturelle and soie sauvage, natural silk and wild silk, I failed to understand the difference); I was relieved when ignored, still had to pretend to pay laughing attention right and left. A long-haired architect ordered a plate of duck, took two bites, dismissed it. More drinks — some fruit now? — cheese? — cigarettes — oh God let it end. At last our kind host suavely handled the bill and we sauntered out into the street. The lights from behind us, as we descended a step or two, fell on a fence of beggars, their faces upturned in the faint cringing hope that is almost always disappointed; one of them was a liquescently sick child.
We walked through the prostitutes to the car, Mohib gave a hundred-ariary bill to the fellow standing by it (“Has he been guarding it all this time?” “He pretends”), and on the way home we were flagged down three times by shambling policemen; Mohib rolled down the window, exchanged a few words, handed over some coins out of his store in the dashboard. “They could make difficulty if they feel like it, ask to see your passports — which you don’t have with you — keep us here twenty minutes or all night, it’s not worth it. But it’s only a few pennies.” It was a microcosm of higher things. There would be no point in not giving the minister a bribe for the permit you need; someone else would do so.
On the next and last afternoon we were taken to a pleasant spot among the small hilltops of the Haute Ville, looking down on the dustier spread of the town and graced by buildings such as the house of that prime minister of the late nineteenth century #=(Rainilaiarivony) who married three successive queens. From the road a pretty path slanted down to a terrace, where we were lucky to get a table under the awning, looking out over Antananarivo and the rice plain beyond, misty under the westering sun. “Now I understand how they can afford their attitude,” said Mohib (they had made “stupid” difficulties about producing vegetarian food for us): “with this place, they’ve got it made!” The musicians were on the terrace with us. They were performing as toward the folk at the tables inside, but we were within touching distance of their left elbows.
They were of the Androy (“bramble”) people from the extreme south of Madagascar. Mohib told me: “These people, the Androy, come from the southern region where it’s very dry and poor, so a lot of them leave to find work all over the island. They have a reputation for being warlike, so people hire them as guards. Unfortunately they’ve formed a sort of Mafia, there have been crimes.”
“Are they singing in their dialect? —Can you understand it?” “Yes, a little. —No, I can’t.”
In Indonesia I had been tempted to say that I was among the most beautiful of populations. Here Tilly, who had seen no other third-world country since the Brazil of her childhood, was tempted into saying that people everywhere are beautiful, it’s only people in England and America that are white and ugly. Let’s live where all are ugly, then our ugliness won’t show. The Malagasy speak dialects of a language which is Indonesian (it is found to be an offshoot of Maanyan, one of the languages of Borneo; the coastal members of the Maanyan of two thousand years ago must have set off on trading journeys to India, and on to Africa — an odyssey around the Indian Ocean as seemingly improbable as that of Homo floresiensis in the opposite direction thousands of years earlier). Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) had seemed to me the easiest of all natural languages; if I expected Malagasy to be easy I was far wrong. (Words have so many syllables, few of them are for us mnemonic, and word order is, to say the least, interesting — this is one of the very few Verb-Object-Subject languages, “Love her I.”) Malagasy people are a varying blend of Indonesian and African — more Indonesian, we are told, in the capital region of the plateau and among the upper classes, more African on the coasts; but if we had landed, without this rather surprising knowledge, among the masses of the city, I think we would have thought ourselves in Africa. Every figure walking beside the road made a trim outline; however poor, they appeared healthy, none fat. “Yes,” said Mohib, “it’s because they work so hard. I have one employee who comes at seven-thirty; he gets up at four, and when he arrives at work he’s been walking three hours.”
The musicians, seven of them, were beautiful. Their skin was healthy chocolate-black, and much of it was visible: bare feet, the men wore tight white wraps around their middles, there were scarves over left shoulders, conical straw hats on top of black curls. And whistles on strings around some necks. There was a native violin bowed or plucked; a drum standing on the back of a trestle, on the front of which sat a woman shaking a rattle or picking up other percussion pieces; another hand-drum sometimes served as a stool. White teeth, some irregular or missing, lit up black skin: they were always nearer to laughing than smiling. You can’t fake florid enjoyment for five straight hours. The dance was a relaxed shimmying, from which background grew crescendoes of action, plunging, clattering of the bare feet; yells to punctuate the singing, whistle-blasts to punctuate the music, and the manifestation of a tall spear in a right hand to punctuate — what? — perhaps our benevolence. There was no break; between songs they eased off, conversed or moved around, but almost too soon, someone was starting the rhythm of the next song. The only rest they needed was the alternation with soft songs, some a cappella, that could have been lullabyes. Players sometimes changed places with dancers, or plucked instruments as they danced, but most of the time three danced in front: a large heavy girl (there are exceptions to everything) who blocked my view of the black skirt sheathing the bouncing hips of a merrier girl; and a young man, the kind of performer of whom one can only think, If only I could be that sort of person. If I had been, I would have accepted the invitation to join in the dance that they began to press on me for my obvious enthusiasm. Mohib said: “That fellow is so physically fit! Look at the muscles in his calves.” A lifetime of aerobic exercise. The movements I made with my fingers were only in aid of my effort to fix in my head that African-sounding shape at the end of so many phrases — “aa-a-a” over a minor third downward — and whether those were triplets or eighth-plus-two-sixteenths within the regular four or three beats of the measures. All I could really say about this music was that it was very far from the hierarchic gamelan of Indonesia. The dancers were silhouetted against the sunlight outside the awning. Only after I don’t know how many hours did I realize, from a dagger of light on a stretched cheek, that the exuberant dancer was not a young man but an old one.
When we left, people were outside the gate, humbly crowded on the slanting path from the road, to listen. Through the upper town, others were crowded along the tops of walls, trying to see the game of rugby football far away down in the stadium.