Among the Faithful
Among the Faithful
Dahris Martin, a young American in search of sun, arrived in the holy city of Kairouan in the late 1920s. Befriended by the roguish Kalipha, she becomes part of his circle of friends and family.
Among the Faithful is a unique portrait of traditional Tunisian society. It tells of the deflowering of virgin brides, spirit possession and dances held for djinn. It sings the praises of the unsung: of Eltifa the blind musician, Zinibe who had a heart for all the world and the entrancing, dancing Aisha.
Dahris Martin witnessed domestic life in Tunisia from within, a privilege she shares without pretension, with affection and with a sure lightness of touch.
‘... a vivid account of life behind the veil.’ - Katie Hickman
‘... it opens a fascinating window onto Tunisia before the crowds.’ - Sunday Times
Among the Faithful: Tunisia in the 1920s
Format: 192pp demi pb
Dahris Martin was born in New York state around the turn of the century. She studied at Columbia University and worked for Doubleday before setting off for Europe to concentrate on her own writing. Among the Faithful was first published in London in 1937, but with the arrival of American troops in Tunisia during the Second World War, it was taken up and republished in New York as I Know Tunisia (1943). Dahris Martin wrote a number of Tunisian tales for children, including Awisha’s Carpet and The Wonder Cat. She met her future husband, the New England printmaker Harry Shokler, while living in Tunisia.
Extract from Chapter One
THE PERFECT RETREAT from winter weather and worries! That is how the posters described the south of France. They mentioned hyacinths and pomegranates. ‘Escape the winter!’ ‘Luxuriate in tropical sunshine!’ The Riviera enthusiasts – almost everybody I met – spoke about the sun, the beach and winter bathing. The Côte d’Azur, they said, was just one continuous summer. I decided to try it.
October there fulfilled every promise. I knocked pleasantly along the Mediterranean and finally settled in Cavalaire, a village between Saint Raphael and Toulon. The Normandy pension was brand new; I was, in fact, the first to sign a name in the virgin ledger. Although the season was scarcely under way, Madame was getting a little anxious and made me a rate warranted to guarantee her at least one winter resident.
The trip south had diminished my funds alarmingly. I found, after paying a month’s pension in advance, that I had almost nothing left. But, like Micawber, I persuaded myself that something was bound to turn up. There were royalties due me, the cheque would certainly come before the last of the month, and there was simply no end to two hundred dollars!
I was idiotically happy and as carefree as a dog. My letters of this period sound a little cracked. Sea, hill-towns, fishermen in striped sweaters and jaunty red pom-poms, ruined castles,bouillabaise – I doted on them all, and I simply couldn’t say enough about the climate. ‘This pension boasts of a central heating system,’ I wrote ‘I can’t imagine why because this is “typical winter weather”. Of course the evenings are a little cool.’
About the middle of November the mistral sprang upon this idyll. It came from the Alpine snow-fields – an Old Testament wind that called to mind Jeremiah’s stern prophecy. For two weeks ‘the voice of the Lord roared from on high’, the sea thundered, the sleet and the rain came down. During the first few days I waited, from hour to hour, for the reassuring knock of the radiator. Gradually the realization was forced upon me that Madame had no intention of wasting her vaunted central heating on one unprofitable guest. Bereft of hope, I crawled into bed. I could not work, I could not read – I had purposely brought no books with me – so I crawled into bed with a French grammar,
the most deluded wretch that had ever been decoyed to the sunny south of France.
I began to entertain serious doubts as to whether I had had any substantial reason for feeling so carefree. My purse contained something less than ten dollars (as a matter of fact I was afraid to count them), there was no certainty that the cheque was on its way and my month would soon be up. What then? I was trying to dismiss all this as a dark surmise to be dissipated by the first hot sun – when the letter arrived. There was no enclosure. The cheque was not on its way. Furthermore, I could not expect it until February! I lived through the rest of the mistral in a state of complete stupefaction.
The wind blew itself out at last; it remained cold, but the sky had cleared and a watery sun tried its best to shine. The incorrigible optimist in me was beginning to revive when I received word that an acquaintance, an American painter, whom I had met on the boat the year before, had likewise fallen victim to the Riviera myth and, in Saint Tropez a few miles away, was as miserable as I. Her blasphemous harangue against the weather – in letters two inches high – completely restored my soul. A crowded postscript proposed that I join her in a Thanksgiving feast ‘Not that I have any sentimental regard for Thanksgiving’, she gave me to understand. ‘The fact is, I have a primitive passion for savoury food which has been suppressed for a whole year, and mashed sweet potatoes, giblet gravy and turkey with sausage dressing are things I couldn’t possibly forget. I can’t cook anything, can you? To-night my meal was spaghetti and potatoes. I didn’t know much about spaghetti so I cooked the whole pound. Well, I’ll be eating it until you get here – and there may be some left for you. We might get a piece of ham – I don’t think we can hurt that – and potatoes boil themselves. That will be about our limit on a two-burner oil-stove, and I know money means as much to you as it does to me.’
I decided that I wouldn’t worry about money until after Thanksgiving. Madame agreed to roast a modest chicken as my contribution to the feast and, on Thursday, I set off for Saint Tropez. I found Beatrice at the top of an ancient building overlooking the harbour. Her studio was a dismal loft, as bleak and bare as a barn. There was a huge fireplace, but with wood at fifty centimes the stick, fires were not to be thought of, while the heat of the little oil-stove in a room of that size was negligible. The place was a tumultuous litter of shoes, palettes, books,
canvases, clothes, paint-rags, luggage, fine prints, turpentine, food, brushes, and tubes of colour. An easel stood in the window, but I knew better than to ask about her work. It was said of Monet: ‘He looks, he eats, he smokes, he walks, he drinks, and he listens – the rest of the time he works.’ That was Beatrice. If she could not work she was sunk.
I located the cooking utensils (a misshapen saucepan, a frying-pan, one cup, two plates, a knife, three forks, and a spoon), and set to work on the dinner. It was, as I look back, a pathetic mockery of the traditional feast – canned peas, sweet potatoes, a little hard toward the centre, and a chicken that was indeed so ‘modest’ that Beatrice mistook it for a pigeon. Ravenous appetites plus a bottle of wine, however, redeemed all deficiencies. We lit our cigarettes, at last, more nearly warm than we had felt for weeks.
Presently Beatrice announced that we were going to have a fire. I cried out against such extravagance, but she had already bought the wood. ‘Hell, this is an occasion!’ she said, savagely dumping the wood on the hearth. Tonight, at least, we’re going to be comfortable!
The fire was laid and lit, it seemed we could not get close enough to that first beneficent blaze. Then it started smoking. No matter what we did we couldn’t stop it. We struggled until our eyes streamed and we could scarcely see across the room. At the sound of excited voices and running footsteps below we gave up. Beatrice flung open the window in bitter disgust and from the landing I shouted down reassurance.
‘Damn it, I’m through!’ cried Beatrice. Her fingers trembled as she lit a cigarette. ‘I’m going south!’
I stared at her, bamboo huts and headhunters flashing through my mind. ‘But that’s Africa!’
‘Well?’ Her square jaw was resolute. ‘Maybe you enjoyfreezing. I’m going to take the next boat for Tunisia. And,’ she eyed me belligerently, ‘you’d better come along.’
‘But I tell you I haven’t any money!’
‘Don’t be an ass. I’ve enough to carry us both until you get your cheque. Living’s cheap down there and we’ll ship steerage. Kairouan should be marvellous!’ Beatrice was pacing up and down, the collar of her cape turned up about her ears. ‘A chaste white city – miles out upon the plain. Talk about your “Mediterranean blue” – they say the sky is pure cobalt squeezed from the tube! And the sun! God, to be able to hold a brush again!