Act I: The Night of the Elephant

Zahia Rahmani

Illustration by Cody Cobb

One night, I lost my language. My mother tongue. I was hardly five years old, and I'd lived in France for only a few weeks. I no longer spoke my language, a spoken language, a language of fairy tales, of ogres and legends. One night, a night of dreams and nightmares, gave me over to another language, that of Europe. I became hers one night, that night when, sleeping, I met an army of elephants.

Dream elephants lumber through the half light.
They're one inside the other, and the other inside the one, and me inside them all.
Inside I'm suffocating.
They walk through me and over me. I push out.
Inside the stomachs of the elephants, I push out, I escape.
I'm taken in again, and I push out. And again inside another, and I push out.
I swim inside their stomachs, using my arms and legs, and I escape. And I enter again inside. I push out, swimming, I escape.
And then inside another.
I push out, I escape, I'm taken inside another.
I push out, I escape,
I reach out,
I touch the door,
I open it.
Swimming, I pull open the door, I pass inside, I close the door.
Behind the door, elephants.
Behind the door, no words.
I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.
Without words, no language.
Without words, no dreams. No words.
They're behind me. I'm outside. Alone . . .
A voice says to me, "Drive the black and solemn horses . . . "
I fall.

I fell, speechless, into the day.

"What are you doing out in the hallway?" my mother asked in a language that I refused to speak. No longer. No, not any longer. I was sitting in front of my bedroom door. I knew that there was something dangerous on the other side. I thought I had locked it. The sun was just about up. I was sweating, trembling. I remember saying to her, "Elephants." I said, "Elephants," but it wasn't in her language. I was scared. I couldn't tell her. I had nothing to say. Algeria was behind us. I'd just got to France. There were elephants in my room, and my brother and sister were still inside. I'd left them with the elephants. I'd fled the elephants, I'd left everything behind. My brother, my sister. My mother, my language. Everything was upside down. I no longer had a name.

I'd forgotten this dream. Were it not for the new terror that threatens the world, I would never have remembered it.


For Muslims, the Night of the Elephant marks the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. It was, the tradition says, when the army of Abraha, King of the Abyssinians, attacked Mecca. It is said that they were mounted on elephants procured from unknown parts, and upon these animals they set out to destroy the town. Seeing the animals, the city's people became scared. The elephants chased them into the mountains. But it was due to divine grace that thousands upon thousands of birds arrived to pelt the elephants with stones. The army fell into disarray. It was a debacle. The soldiers died of infections. And the town, now holy, was saved. That night, there, the first Muslim was born.

I can't deny what lies behind me. I can't forget the difficult journey. It was suffocating. It was elephants upon elephants. It was one inside another, I went from one stomach to another. I pushed out from inside, and I escaped. Who had taught me about them, the elephants? And when and where? Who put them in my room? How did they find me? Were they at war with me? I couldn't breathe. They were squashing me, but I didn't know why. Why me? They were infinite, there was no end to them, one inside the next, invading my space. I fought them. I went out to fight them.

"Do you see what your Lord did to the Elephant Men?" says the Quran. "Did he not shred to pieces their plan? He sent wave after wave of birds against them, He cast stones against them as a sign. He laid waste to them."

Could I defeat such an army? I survived. I left. I left them behind. Hadn't I heard my mother's stories about the birth of the baby Muhammad? I was young, I heard the stories in her language. But I'd left this story behind. Why hadn't I followed history? If the people of Mecca had fled the elephants, why had I entered inside them?

I was born into the world in a minor language. A language that was passed on orally, a language that was never read. We called it Tamazight. A Berber language that throughout the incursions of history was guarded tightly by its people for what it knew. For the people of the Atlas Mountains, in the regions of Kabylie, in the Aures Mountains, where the Mozabites and Tuareg lived, it was in their language and in their spoken traditions that Islam was introduced.

"Speak the word, speak the word, speak the word," the Archangel Gabriel said to Muhammad. "Speak what I tell you, and people will come to you." And it is said that the voice that came from on high spoke in Arabic to Muhammad in poetry. It is said that anyone who hears it will be moved. And was it for this reason that his wife and his nearest friends understood that he was no ordinary man? They listened to him, and they spread the word. And so the people came to Muhammad. They came and came, and more came after that. He told them, "We're all the children of Abraham." His every word was like a world unto itself. His presence was radiant. He was the Prophet. So he had to leave Mecca. The vendors of idols hated him, and they chased him out. He had to decide on a place. It was Yathrib in Medina, a town where the memory of the tribes of Israel and their rituals was still fresh. His disciples went before him, one by one. Then it was his turn. Whether out of affection or necessity, Muhammad liked to listen to the stories of the Jewish people, a community that modeled faithfulness to God, which he respected. He wanted to listen to all of the stories—about Noah and his sons, about Loth and his brothers, about Isaac, Sarah, and Ishmael, about Pharaoh, Moses, and Aaron, about Job and his miseries, about Elijah, about Salomon, about Jacob and David. He wanted to hear about their rules for daily life, which he would use to make his own. And they translated these from Hebrew into his language. It was said that Zayd, the youngest of his scribes, had been Jewish. He still went to Jewish school. And, as for the second, Ubayy, it is said that he was a rabbi before his conversion. Upon the death of the Prophet, it was up to them to keep alive his memory, his grandeur, and his glory. They knew his verses by heart. A little while later, they passed the knowledge on to Uthman, the Caliph and the new guide of the community. With the gift of their manuscripts, with the writing out of the Book, they became bound to it. To this word, they added other stories, which they had heard or which had come to them by other means. Perhaps they omitted some stories as well. What exactly constitutes the divine word will be argued over forever, it is said, beneath the watchful eye of God and his Prophet. They made the Quran, the holy book of "Muslims." And Arabic, as a language, was reborn. It would be the language of this adventure. The language of Islam.

Reading the Quran, reading this book that defies comprehension, you will understand that it came to us through foreign languages, those of the Old and New Testament. By taking up the spoken word of others, by taking up its stories, replacing certain versions with others, and in passing them on to people who were ignorant of them, to people who didn't speak Arabic, to people who had never learned to read, Islam opened up the world for them for a while. An endless story. Those who didn't speak Arabic, and those Arabs unfamiliar with the history of monotheism, should they have refused this story? Those who told the stories of the Quran to the illiterate were intermediaries, translators. And, since then, it was not in Arabic at all that millions of men and women heard the message of the Prophet. Islam wasn't limited to just one language. And so long as time remains, mothers indoctrinated by the one true word will continue to raise their children through the grace of words. The book of history has been opened wider.

The stories from Arabic enriched my language as well as many others. And it was for this gift, this gift of history, and its connection to languages, that Arabic was for a long time revered. To reprise a book, to speak of its origins, to speak of what it contains, to speak of its language and its varieties, that is to define that book. And not to read the Quran like that is to admit that it has won. The ignorance of our times is unbridled, but languages had known how to find instruction in Islam. In its linguistic tradition, they had a treasure.

I couldn't tell this to anyone in France, I was a child. I lived inside a language that I couldn't pass on. It was like in the story of Miriam where the storyteller can't stop until all of the listeners have fallen asleep. I didn't know how to control it. If I approached it a thousand times, it would unravel each time. On the Night of the Elephant I didn't run away, I entered them. Into their stomachs. What could I have believed in? That I could defeat them by myself? Defeat whom? Could I make them retreat? Change the course of history? I left everything behind—Muhammad, the elephants, and my family. The elephants were still there, approaching the city, tramping toward a battle that would kill them all. The Night of the Elephants was the birth of Muslims. I didn't want to be one. And in France, I was taken to be an Arab, even though I wasn't, even though their language and ways were foreign to me. I left them, left them behind in my cube-like room. I separated myself from them.


I remember how one time when I was a teenager I looked at a poster advertising a circus and its special elephant act. And when they came into the ring, I wasn't disappointed. Their imposing size impressed me. There were quite a few of them, one following closely upon the next, with their children behind them. But as soon as the trainer had arranged them in a circle and made them sit on their haunches, I grew overwhelmed by anger and disgust. Seeing them sitting on their rear ends with their front feet raised to greet the audience made me sad. I was ashamed. I became emotional. I know this confession is ridiculous. I left the elephants, and I left the circus. It was humiliating what they were doing to them. For these marvelous beasts that had brought so much to the world, that had worn the world on their shoulders, was there nothing left other than this as a means to live?


When I was a child, I was told I was a child of Adam and Eve. That I was sister to Cain and Abel. That I was the daughter of the son of Abraham. But as for the sons of Abraham, both of them circumcised, I didn't know which he had taken to Mount Moriah—his son born of Hagar, the slave, or his son Isaac, born of Sarah. I didn't know which son had been elected. The first text said Isaac. But the Quran, meant to overturn everything that preceded it, corrected this history by omitting the name of the sacrificed. So which lineage was mine?

I guarded this enigma as though it were a treasure. So they had erased a name. Perhaps they didn't dare to put another in its place. Was it from the one, or the other, or perhaps from both, that a great nation came into being?

Sarah told Abraham to get rid of Hagar and her son. Abraham was upset, but he did what she said. He gave Hagar some bread and water. She put her son on her shoulders and set out for the desert. Just as she was about to collapse, she happened upon a spring. She put her son down. And then history tells us nothing about her. Nothing. Her life stops. The boy finds himself without a father, and Hagar disappears into the shadows of legend. So perhaps I was a child of Ishmael, the abandoned child, the child born of a castoff slave. Of a mother expunged from the record. Forgotten. Of a mother cut off from her progeny. I take this to be my lineage. And even if they want to pen me in by calling me what they do, it's only through the life of Ishmael, the abandoned child, that I escaped the harsh hand of the father. "Abraham, Abraham," the Angel of the Lord could have said, "Why did you abandon him?" The record never mentions him again. I come from a fatherless family. Where should I go?

I come from a line of wounded innocence. Like so many others, it was war that chased me from my country. The generals know that hope that inspires soldiers. Knowing that, they set fear against hope. And it's enough to pretend to be an executioner to actually become one. So they live on. Since then, men have ruled through contempt, lies, and terror in the land where I was born. I would have to have lived there. There was no hope there. When there's no more hope, you have to flee. And France, which was the partial cause of this horror, couldn't turn me away.

Coming to France was my father's fault. He'd been banished from Algeria. Banished like so many others had been, and like so many more would be. Banished, stripped of a name, a soldier of the colonial army, a traitor to his country. They were the banished, the silent participants of the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Algeria, Iraq and elsewhere, the comrades of the losers of these wars, waiting to drag their shame home. That was my father. He was one. Otherwise, he wasn't my father. He was only the man who had impregnated my mother. I never knew what to call him. I never had a father. The war had stolen mine. I know I'm alive. Not him. He never seemed alive. You could say that he was the living dead. He had never had his own life. He was born dead. A man whose human dignity had been stolen from him when just a child. It was never given back. But like all those who are dead but live on, he never became anything. He couldn't. Stricken by the memory of the crimes that had been forced upon him, he became nothing. He didn't want to be anything. He was nothing. Nothing. He committed suicide. It was in this act that he'd expressed his protest. I didn't have a father, or a country, or a religion. I thought that these struggles, made newly mine upon his death, would have been enough to justify, and serve as bond for, my life on this new continent—Europe—that was now my own. But, no. The very smallest thing drew their suspicions. They remade me as they wished. They gave me a father, a religion, and a way of life. And a Name. "Muslim"— a name without end. I had a way out. I was given the Name. Ever watchful, confused, I fled in front of them.


I knew about the name from the age of ten. It was late, and, as usual, I wanted to watch television. But it was forbidden for many reasons, and so it was in secret, at night, that I gave myself over to it, to its images and its voices. The film Night and Fog said, "There were nine million men and women killed. Killed because they were . . . " Here, in this country. For the first time I realized the extent of the horror. For me, it wasn't just Germany but France, where I was living, as well. I thought about what this place was, and I listened, and I understood that in the vast expanse of Europe, some people took others and led them to the slaughterhouse and, here, where I was living, they took others and led them to their deaths, and behind this I heard one phrase, "We don't want them, we don't want others, not
them . . . "

They had just one Name. One Name. And no one suspected the evil inside them, no one bore witness to this evil, the thing that they were referring to when they said, "We don't want them, we don't want others, not him, not her, not them." And this always brought to mind the scenes of trains leaving for Poland.

"Of all the excuses that intellectuals have found for executioners—and during the past ten years they have not been idle in the matter—the most pitiable of all is that the victim's thought—for which he was murdered—was fallacious."

In that, there was one phrase that struck me. One phrase that I seized upon in order to live, "the victim's thought—for which he was murdered—was fallacious." Since then, I've been wary. I've been wary of the pack and its lies. And when the pack begins to hunt men again, when it's you that they debase and degrade, then you have to flee. Flee the pack and its preoccupations. So I left.

I wanted only one thing. That I would have time. I found time. I knew that I would never go back. I would have liked the life that others spoke of. But it was denied me. I came from nowhere. Neither fish nor fowl. But from nowhere, anyhow. I'm nothing special. A thing who came here, never got what she wanted, but who lived on. So I left, I wanted to live elsewhere, and to hold up my humble head with dignity. I wanted a life. Another life. They wouldn't be able to hunt me down, if I was alone. And I found that life. It lasted only a few years. Then they found me again. They stopped me. They questioned me. And my identity was again at stake. "What are you doing here?" they asked. "Where're you from?" "A country where I couldn't remain."

Since then, I've been waiting in this camp.


How have I lived these past days? Everyone wants me, everyone condemns me. "Are you one of theirs?" "No." "Are you one of ours?" "No." Then you're a Muslim!

Those who used this Name against me have got what they wanted. From the age of ten, I knew what the Name meant. And when Muslim is used, as it often is, as though in order to eradicate an odor, I feel like I have a tooth infection. This way of talking, I tell myself, is like a toothless man who longs for dentures. It's a bad way of thinking, and it's in bad faith. He thinks that if he can have my skin, his smile will return. A little patching up, and everything will be all right. He'll have his old nasty attitude, and his mouth will be like new. Until then, he still has the infection. I'm the source of the evil. I can exist as "Muslim." But the toothless man wouldn't have that. He refused to give me that life. You're Muslim. That's your Name. He knows how he had made this word, and why he insists on calling me that. And, if need be, he'll dig up my father's grave. He'll say to me, "He knew he was a dead man." How many times have countries, under the guise of important principles, played this game? They name, they denounce, kill, and destroy. They kill, they destroy, and they leave. Contempt, violence, lies. Murder, forgetting, and the future. Who can believe in miracles any longer? In promises?

When you've seen a people subjugated, you don't return to the scene. It's like a murder without an alibi, a farce. The body is already cold on the floor, and the actors are without roles. The curtain is drawn. It's over. And I have to live with this unhappiness. It may be that others live what I'm living. I'm not what they say I am, and yet they call me what they want. More than anything, I know how hate lies hidden in the Name they have given me. It leads to murder. This Name that I inherited, that I can't avoid but that makes me a murderer, they try to simplify it again and again. But why? We've done away with the sacred. We misprize rituals. Now we kill God. For what purpose, if by the overwhelming noise of fury, we've destroyed the memory of our last voiceless hymn?

I became "Muslim." I couldn't get rid of it. From the mire of the capitalist world, the muddy oil flats, came the merchants of death, the Manipulators of the planet. Men with faces like pit bulls, whose machinery perverts and enrages, met men in black balaclavas full of their own violence and stupidity. They made me their prey. These two types want me dead. Just me, dead. The death of my world to profit them. They destroyed what had been my world. And I couldn't protect it. They made a suit to fit me into. They call me "Muslim." They call me this over and over again. I'm their hostage, their witness to the revenge they enacted always in my Name. And because I'm the enemy for one, and the witness for the other, I'm tortured, mistreated, scorned, and maligned. How can I walk confidently through the world now? I never had the life I should have had. I left Europe. But where on earth, other than the desert, would still have welcomed me?

On the open road, should the capitalist god of money meet the one true God of the children of Hagar, the slave, it will be a practical and spiritless meeting. He will pretend to choose for these children the least bad option. "They must be like me," he will say, "and yet I've made them mortal. Look at where they come from. They say they're part of our family! Look at how they live! But we can't kill them all. They're useful to us. We should just humiliate them. Humiliate them more."

When you take from people all of their possessions and all of their land, when you starve them down to the bone, when you take from them their dignity, when you denounce them, when you strip them naked, it's because you don't want to see them as human but as rats. And there are many places in the world where plague and cholera are at home. And nothing is done about it and conditions get worse. The mythological telos has lost its way in plasma screens, and, in the name of good, the iron dragons chase down the bodiless demons that terrorize people in the name of evil. Humanity is again in crisis. And the dream of solidarity is dead. The god of the Dollar has won the first battle. And if this god thinks he's the lone master of the oil tanker, he doesn't understand what he's encouraging. Those who ignore plague ignore rats. And rats adapt quickly. And so the species gave birth to a hybrid race. Some of these rodents already eat iron. They'll turn the ship into flotsam.

I am "Muslim." I couldn't escape this.

translated from the French by Matt Reeck