In 2006 we published a note about the museum which had been established in France in 1990 to celebrate de Monfreid’s remarkable life (1879-1974), not least his exploits in the Red Sea and Ethiopia during the early decades of the last century. We also published an article about his turbulent relations with British officialdom in Aden during the First World War. De Monfreid’s many talents included his skill as a narrator. His books, first published in the 1930s, attracted international acclaim for their epic appeal and anthropological interest. His ‘Sea Adventures’ , published in English translation in 1937, chronicling his career as smuggler and entrepreneur between Djibouti and Yemen, contains this poignant story of ‘The Blind Nakhudha’ (or dhow captain) which, slightly adapted and abridged, we reproduce below.
The North winds had brought me down into the latitude of Kamaran. Then, after a night of calm, a heavy swell rolling up from the south heralded the return of the south-west winds. We had already spent three sleepless nights, and the crew was worn out, so at all costs we had to find an anchorage before nightfall. The great chain of the Jebel Zukur and Hanish islands had been confronting us since the day before. Tacking continuously, we came slowly nearer. At last, barely a mile from the reef that forms the coast of Jebel Zukur, we slipped through calm water towards a small anchorage wedged between the big island and an islet shaped like a half-moon, formed from an extinct crater.
Finally, we emerged into the little natural harbour, where a ravine formed by an upheaval of rocks ended in a tiny white beach. A fair-sized boutre was anchored right inshore amid a tangle of reefs. I dropped anchor offshore, not daring to venture into this dangerous labyrinth. The men belonging to the boutre already there were mother-of-pearl fishers. They had made their usual small encampment on the beach, and I could see them in the distance coming ashore in houris. They were Somalis, and at the sight of fellow-countrymen, half a dozen of the canoes instantly surrounded us, and they swarmed on board. They had been there for three months already and wanted tobacco. In exchange, they gave us the fish that each one had caught with the harba, the pointed iron lance with which they harpoon the rock-dwelling fish.
We recounted to each other the thousand petty incidents of our wandering sailors’ lives as if they had been the most thrilling news, so delighted were we to hear new voices. In the wild solitudes of these volcanic archipelagos, in this lonely sea unceasingly swept by the fury of the monsoon, it is a comfort to meet another ship.
We feel for each other a touching brotherhood, born of the consciousness of our common helplessness in face of the eternal and pitiless elements. It appeared that there was a water-hole near the beach still full from the last rains, and we went to fetch water from it. The beach was littered with fish drying in the sun, heaps of oyster shells, and the dorsal shells of turtles.
Two naked boys, sturdy as young fauns, crouched over the embers of a fire, cooking enormous sea-snails which slavered and hissed as they stewed in their own muddy juice. The nakhudha was sitting a little higher up against the hill-side, in the shade of a rock. I went up to greet him. He was reclining on a piece of matting, smoking his water pipe with an air of blissful contentment. He looked as if he had been there in the hollow of his rock since time began.
He returned my greeting without turning his head. I was surprised by this discourteous attitude, and was on the point of withdrawing when the Somali who accompanied me smiled and said very simply, ‘He is blind’.
A blind nakhudha ... I was thunderstruck. He invited me to sit down beside him, and passed me the mouthpiece of his narghile. Then he called to one of the cabin-boys bending over the fire, and bade him make tea. All this he did with his head tilted at the angle peculiar to blind men, which gives them the air of gazing into some distant sphere over the heads of ordinary mortals. This nakhudha was on the threshold of old age. His prominently boned face was as still as that of a bronze statue, but his eyelids fluttered slowly over the sightless pupils. They seemed to be trying with dogged persistence to brush aside the veil which covered his eyes, from which the light had gone for ever. This nervous twitching dated from the beginning of the malady, ten years before. First there had been just a tenuous mist, then everything seemed to get darker, and by the twilight hour black night had already come.
He was loath to admit his infirmity for fear of losing command of his boutre, so he took his son, who was still a child, to sea with him. This boy kept by his father’s side and told him what he saw, and that was enough. He knew every rock on the coast so well that no one could steer a ship to her anchorage more surely than he, and for a long time nobody had guessed that he was gradually going blind.
But one morning the sun did not rise for him; he had been abruptly plunged into impenetrable darkness. He landed with his seaman’s chest and shut himself up in his house. Then in the black abyss into which he had just sunk, where he might have been overtaken by despair, a new light had dawned, that of memory. The slightest sound, the faintest perfume, called up from the depths of his recollection images palpitating with colour and life. His boutre put to sea again without him, and part of his heart was torn from his breast that day. He wandered along the shore, blown upon by the wind coming in from the open sea, the same wind which was swelling the boat’s sails, and a vision of what he could not see would form in his mind.
He passed his days on the beach, inhaling the odour of the seaweed, and listening to the voices of the sea which spoke to him as never before. One day a boutre came in from the high seas. Motionless, he listened to the casting of the anchor, judging the distance out. The rattling of the chain in the hawse-hole told him the depth, then the sail was lowered, and the blocks uttered a long harmonious cry. It was the voice of his ship, and the blind old man burst into sobs. The boat on which for twenty years he had steered his men to the distant fishing-banks on the great green reefs was back after three months’ absence.
On the day the boutre departed on her next voyage, he was found crouching in the hold, hiding under a heap of sails. Instinctively these simple fishermen understood. They went ashore and fetched his seaman’s chest, and he resumed his place as nakhudha on the quarter-deck beside the helm.
For the last ten years he has steered his ship with astounding sureness towards those distant banks known to him alone. The mention of a single detail is enough to enable him to recognize an island or a rock. He is revered as if God had put a supernatural light into him. It is the light of memory. Like the undying flame of a sanctuary light, it lights up in him changeless images of things that have disappeared for ever. There, under the rock, this sightless old man hears the waves break on the sand. Over his bronzed body passes the warmth of the wind like a caress out of space. The smell of drying fish, the smoke from the wood fires, and the voices of all these seamen as they pull their pirogues up on the beach – all these things enter into him, and he sees.
I left him in his trance and went away, deeply moved by the tender solic- itude shown by all these rough and primitive men towards their aged and disabled chief. I felt absolutely certain they would keep him with them in the midst of these coral islands, until the day should come when, on one of them, they would bury his remains.
Vol 20. 2012