Editors' Choice

Meeting the Marabout

by Gwen Hopkins

Surprising revelations come in a meeting with an Islamic holy man in Senegal.

The man in orange wasn’t the marabout.

I’d been staring at him, barely breathing, as he sat calmly and majestically with his legs folded underneath his boubou. My professor explained who he really was, some assistant, and I took a big breath. The cool air shocked my lungs and I tried to exhale slowly and unknot my stomach. I was surprised how tense my body felt, considering I don’t believe in Islam or animism. Or any religion, really. But maybe doubt only added to my discomfort, making the coming conversation with the holy man more mysterious and unpredictable. The unknown is unnerving. Sometimes at night the breeze would pull at the mosquito netting on my bed, and I could tell myself that I was safe in my host mom’s house but I still felt my eyes dilate in the dark, still felt my stomach drop.

Our education professor was the buoyant type of old man who looks like a little boy. He gesticulated with his entire five-foot-five body while presenting facts or quotes without context and yelling, “So what do you think of THAT?” I think it was this exuberance for detail that distracted him from ever quite giving us the bottom line. He was short and graying, with energy that overloaded his tiny frame and had to be expelled in little explosive grunts, “Hm!”, as he wrote frantically on the chalkboard. His first language was Fulani, and our notes were full of his Fulani pride, tinting all our lessons. Next he had learned Wolof, then French and who knows what else before English. He was always reminding us that French is the clearest remnant of colonization that remains in Senegal; in his opinion, the language continues to colonize the people. He grunted the most when he talked about colonization, “Hm!”, as splintering chalk bits shot like sparks in all directions. He wrote too vigorously for the chalk, going through a full box every class.

He was in his element at the marabout’s house. The marabout and all his assistants were Fulani too, including the man in the orange boubou who sat in front of us. Our class of 10 silently watched their animated Fulani conversation. Normally we knew when we were being talked about because we could hear people call us toubabs, but that term is Wolof, not Fulani. We didn’t know any Fulani. We had no language clues and few cultural clues.

Adding irony to disorientation, the marabout’s house seemed more American than any we had seen in Senegal. It was enormous, full of big rooms with high ceilings. There was a shiny marble-tiled staircase and a furnished second floor. The room where we sat could have been in the house of someone’s wealthy American grandparents. It was huge and lined with tan, plushy couches that wrapped around the perimeter. There was wall-to-wall carpeting and bookcases built into the walls, filled with thick dusty books best described as ‘volumes’ or ‘tomes.’ Upon closer inspection they were in Arabic, a whole alphabet unknown to us. Yasmeen had studied it for a semester and tried to make out some of the letters, squinting her eyes. Framed photos of men in traditional Senegalese boubous with men in Western suits filled the blank spaces on the walls. The ceiling was high and white, and had square patterns cast into it. The 10 of us sat awkwardly on the plushy couches, feeling whiter than the doilies draped on the cushions behind our heads and wondering how we were supposed to behave with a marabout. Our professor hadn’t told us.

He had told us only background, like that many of the marabout were corrupt now. They forced their youngest students to beg all day, instead of in shifts, and beat them brutally if they didn’t bring enough home. In theory, the students are supposed to only beg for part of the day, if at all, and spend the rest of their time learning to recite the Koran, the marabout’s specialty. We knew, too, that the Senegalese paid homage to their animist roots by consulting marabouts for soothsaying, following their advice exactly in order to ward off bad luck or evil spirits. Marabout have only one foot in our world, my host mom had told me. She didn’t say where their other foot is: somewhere metaphysical I guess.

I was sitting next to the doorway, and suddenly a tall man in a light blue boubou breezed through it. Our professor jumped to his feet; we pulled ourselves out of the couch as he yelled, “This is the marabout! It is him!” The marabout turned to me and extended a hand, and as I shook it he grabbed my shoulder with his other hand and pulled me very close. I was confronted by his graying beard and he said something I didn’t understand. “He is greeting you in Fulani!” My professor exclaimed ecstatically. “Oh…salut? ” I offered weakly into his chin. French for ‘hi.’

I had another slow-motion second or two of wondering about the social protocol for a young American girl in the grip of an Islamic holy man. Then the marabout let me go and moved on to shake hands all around the room. He seated himself regally on the couch, with attendants sitting on the floor to either side, and looked out at us expectantly.

“Go on!” My professor yelled, trying to impart to us the rarity of this moment. “He is meeting you! You are being received in private! Ask him anything! I will be here! I will be quiet!” He pulled himself back into the couch cushion, eyes dancing with anticipation. We found out later the lengths he’d gone through to get us in this room: he’d had to bribe several of the marabout’s advisors to book the meeting, and then call the house almost every night to remind the marabout about it. I’m not sure if these were tests to prove his devotion or if the marabout was simply busy and averse to writing anything down. Either way, we were in the middle of a rare opportunity and we were at a total loss for what to do with it.

We stared at the holy man. I wondered if he was corrupt, if he beat his young students, if he exploited them, if he really thought he could foresee people’s futures or if he played along for the money. How does one ask these things?

Molly spoke up first. She asked the translator to inquire about the marabout’s daily routine. Our professor had brought along a translator because, he confided later, he wanted us to ask personal questions but he didn’t want to be the one to have to explain them. The marabout reflected and began to talk about his schedule in Fulani. He reminded me of a rabbi; I couldn’t figure out why. He gave that same sense of presence, an aura of wisdom and humility, that I have felt with priests, pastors, and other holy figures. He had his head covered; the Muslim kufi is like a yamakah with sides. I watched him punctuate his Fulani words with gestures and facial expressions. Then I placed it – he reminded me of the rabbis at my friends’ b’nai mitzvah. Sitting in the synagogue with my fellow Gentile seventh-graders, we always ended up giggling and gossiping, so I never had a good rapport with the poor rabbis who would glare at us from the bimah. But I remember feeling that the rabbis got angrier with us than was reasonable, as though with every desperate reprimand they were fighting for the dignity of the Jewish faith. I read it in the forced smiles they put on at the beginning: a strain that showed our presence represented something greater at stake.

The marabout never got visibly annoyed with us, but he did change countenance from serene to agitated. He was never angry, but his defensiveness seemed odd considering the unequal power dynamic: we were undergraduates outside of our country, language, and social norms. We were in his house, the house of a grand marabout who had many marabout beneath him, and many students under them. But he defended himself like our judgment was important: like we spoke for our entire country, for the whole Western world.

His defensiveness appeared after the second question. I have no idea how the translator put the question to him, but he didn’t seem angry that she asked. “Yes, they hit the children.” The answer came easily, but then was quickly followed by a stream of Fulani from the marabout. Maybe he realized that we wouldn’t approve. “He wants to know if adults are beaten in your country,” the translator told us. We were puzzled. Adults? Beaten? By whom? Systematically or randomly? How was this relevant? “He is asking,” our professor offered, “is there brutality in the United States?! He is all the time reading newspapers! He is watching the TV! He is hearing about adults beating adults in your country. Tell him, is it true?”

The class cohesion fell apart into a spectrum of impatience, indignation, and confusion. Cross-cultural barriers are very individual, and we all reacted in different ways. “Yes, it is true,” I offered immediately. I was just trying to tell him what he wanted to hear in the simplest way possible. I couldn’t understand this roundabout questioning, and I wanted to hear the bottom line. Others felt differently. “No,” Molly scoffed, “not systematically, it’s illegal. We don’t allow that.” There was a general chorus of weak yes’s and no’s. I heard Yasmeen try to get back to the point: “I mean, we’re not talking about adults. We want to know why children here get beaten.” We waited uncomfortably during the exchange of Fulani.

“He says first and foremost that Islam stands against child abuse. But yes, the children are hit. They are hit lightly, it never makes a mark. Just slapped, see.” The translator mimed a slap and all the Senegalese in the room laughed as though we were discussing something cute. “It is necessary,” she continued, “to teach them right and wrong. The adults in your country who are doing this beating, they must have not been taught right from wrong.” She sat back and we stared at the marabout. We need to beat the children so they don’t beat people as adults?

“These people bringing bombs, the terrorists?” Our attention snapped back to the translator. “He says the terrorists must not have been hit as children either. They must have been allowed to do as they pleased.” My mind reeled. Americans students, Islamic scholars and teachers hosting American students, and the marabout had referenced terrorism in the second question. Was this really happening? How was I supposed to respond?

Adding to my mental disorientation was the class dynamic – or lack thereof. Everyone was trying to figure out how to play along: what we were supposed to say and how we were supposed to act. It was isolating to see each other reacting differently. I wished I could call time out for a group huddle. When Yasmeen asked the marabout’s opinion of Wahhabism, the conservative Islamic sect that Saudi Arabia was founded on, the marabout countered by asking us if we had a political allegiance. His eyes were sparkling with intensity and we had no idea what he was talking about. “Oh,” Yasmeen guessed, “no, no, I’m not with a politician. I won’t tell anyone your answers, I promise!” She added “I promise you” in French for emphasis. I wasn’t sure if the marabout spoke French.

The translator wasn’t deterred. She asked again, “Do any of you have a political allegiance? He wants to know who you are going to vote for in the next election.” The first primary for the next Presidential election was over a year and a half away. We hesitated and looked at each other for help. “No,” I guessed. “He wants us to say no!” Everyone on my couch shook her head. But sitting next to the translator, Andrew spoke up. He was the only boy in our class. “Look,” drawled Andrew earnestly to the translater beside him, “I’m a moderate.”

Next to me, Yasmeen groaned. “Can I just get him to answer my question, Andrew?” I silently agreed. I wanted to find out where he was going with this. I didn’t like guessing about it. I wanted the bottom line. Andrew flushed pink. “Look, Yasmeen, I don’t think you understand the tack that we have to take on these questions! We have to treat them in a certain way!” I held my breath again and eyed the man in orange, who I was pretty sure spoke English. I wanted to gauge a reaction to our confusion and outbursts. I had seen how he and his attendants moved perfectly together according to their social choreography. I didn’t know how we should act with a marabout, but I was pretty sure this wasn’t it. Yasmeen sat back, rolling her eyes. Andrew continued explaining that he liked to vote for a candidate because of the platform, not because of the party; he was not a Democrat or a Republican. He sat back, looking proud and solemn. His speech was immediately ignored.

“The marabout is asking about your political allegiance,” the translator began, “because it is like a religion. Everyone has his or her own ideology, but no one can explain exactly why he or she prefers it. The marabout says it is this way with religion. He does not agree with Wahhabists, but he understands that it is their ideology.” So he had not really cared what our answers were at all. He was just inquiring so he could make this rather unsatisfying metaphor. We stared at him again, completely unused to this roundabout style of conversation.

My professor, perhaps recognizing that we were floundering, jumped in and asked the marabout in Fulani about his social role. The marabout explained that people come to him for advice, and he can tell them what job to take, what woman to marry, or what major to choose, because he can see their future and their past. My ears perked up. This was the metaphysical part – something no one understood, so hopefully something my classmates and I could come back together over. I hate dysfunctional social dynamics. I wanted to at least understand where we stood, together, so that we could anchor each other and not be totally adrift in cultural confusion. I leaned forward.

“So,” I asked the professor, “could he advise one of us on our futures?” He asked the marabout, who nodded proudly. “Yes he could!” Our professor verified. “But for that, you will have to come back another time! You are interested in having your future revealed, eh?” The room was quiet but felt intense, and everyone looked at me with curiosity. The Americans were no longer at odds. I relaxed. “Sure, why not?”

“Hm! Good! But you will have to come back!” our professor reiterated. “Time is running! We have time for only one more question!” At ease now, I asked a question we’d wondered about in class. “How many wives does the marabout have? What does he think of polygamy?” Later, when I told my host mom I’d asked this question, she was shocked. “No one asks this of a marabout!” She chided me in French. “They send you out but they do not teach you manners?” But the marabout merely laughed. “He has two wives,” the interpreter told us, having reclaimed her job from my professor. She explained that Islam teaches a need for family, and that celibacy was unnatural. We mentally noted the jab at Catholic priests. “The prophet said that when you call believers, you must call upon your family first. And so every marabout must have a family.” She didn’t elaborate on why making a family necessitated multiple wives.

The marabout interrupted the English explanation and leaned forward, pointing at me. My professor was beside himself. “He is addressing you!” he yelled to me. “He says that you, you are the asker! He will take you as his third wife, if you are interested!” Heads whipped around to look at me, and I responded instantly as I would have to a flirtatious joke in the States. “Sure, why not?” I smiled, put my palms face-up and shrugged to emphasize that I had nothing better to do, I might as well get married. Everyone laughed.

Only when the professor brought it up in class the next day did I realize that I had actually been proposed to by a grand marabout, and I was only pretty sure he was joking. If I had been Senegalese, that would not have been taken as a joke. Senegalese courtships take place after weddings. Proposals are offered instantly, upon meeting. Now to reproach me, when I wear my jeans with holes in them or accidentally expose my knees, my host mom tells me I am not acting as the wife of a marabout should.

We left exhausted. Culture shock expresses itself in fatigue, and we had been culturally stretched and tested. We all shook hands with everyone in the room, then filed down the stairs and past all the students studying on the first floor. We walked outside, squinting into the African sun, and piled onto the bus again. We drove back to our campus, holding our breath in the streets that smelled of sewage and bracing each other on the streets under construction. We got out and walked our different ways to our host families, passing dozens of children begging, probably at the mercy of a marabout of their own. They are called talibe: the students, the street children. We were students too, but as we crossed our doorsteps to be greeted by host families, we left the children with their torn clothing and tin cans, begging for change on the street.


Gwen Hopkins is a writer from Rochester, New York. This story won the Gold Award for Women's Travel in the Third Annual Solas Awards.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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