Finding myself in the Middle of Nowhere
When my mind rolls across this memory it snaps not first to the Mosque or the pilgrimage or the followers, but to an intersection.
It’s dark now and we have spent the day in 100+ degree heat visiting Marabouts, Khalifs and family, digging our car out of the sand, stirring pots of meat, passing the gauntlets of blasting speakers in the market place and trying to glean oxygen from the air in sweltering stagnant rooms.
Dust is rising off the sandy city road and flood lights from market stalls feature the dust kicked up by thousands of footsteps that temporarily blinds us. We are stalled in the most fantastic of grid locks.
Its not Paris or LA or Mexico City, it’s Touba on the Magal.
We are stalled on a two lane track packed with vendors, pedestrians, automobiles and horse drawn carriages. Everything, except for the masses on foot who move in swarms around our car, is at a stand still.
Our car is a borrowed manual transmission Mercedes with a dead battery. Every single time Ass Modou pops the clutch or we park the car, we have to push it to get it going again. Until now, it’s been a regular thing in the 110 degree heat and deep sand, and he has just popped the clutch. Again. Now surrounded by masses it’s not the searing heat or sand that worries me. It’s the possibility that we could run someone over when the engines catches. If we can even find the room to get a good push going.
Once again the ngewel tells me to stay in the car. He has told me this before. But before he gets out I ask him to tell the horse cart driver over there, to back it up, to make it possible for that car over there to turn, so that the bus over there can move through, releasing the grid lock because right now everyone is just sitting there, looking at each other. The ngewel gets out and approaches the horse drawn cart. The cart driver co-hearses his horse to back up, and the ngewel starts to direct the other drivers. Unbelievably, it actually works, and once the traffic starts to move again he begins to wave people away from the front of our car. I can tell Ass Modou our driver is nervous, we are going to have to jump start this thing in a crowd.
Eventually there is a swath big enough and the other guys get out and start pushing. I’m so nervous that the car is going to lurch into the crowd and kill someone when the engine kicks in. It kicks in and miraculously we don’t kill anyone. All the guys stay in front of the car directing traffic here and there so we can move through. It’s all going very well until Ass clips a vendors cart of lemons and knocks it over. Vendors are in the road. I apologize to her out the window and the guys run around to help her. We feel bad. Her demeanor is serene and unaffected. I take note of her peacefulness and tolerance. I mean, she didn’t say a word.
A few more inches up the road and people begin to hassle the ngewel for directing too much traffic in his favor. Tolerance disappears. Suddenly, out of nowhere a Baye Fall appears. In niaxass and long dreads he enters the scene with his staff and begins to lead our car through the traffic like a pied piper, singing and dancing, flashing his white smile into the night.
For me, it wasn’t until his appearance on this long long day, that the gist of the Magal befell my exhausted soul and it’s blessing began to fill the void. In that moment I returned to myself. The spirit had entered. Perhaps it was God, or perhaps it is when all of your ‘points’ align and you are happy. You are happy no matter how hard the journey is. You savor it’s difficulty. Your perspective shifts and you remember that it’s the dusty journey that makes you tick.
The grid locked crowd though, was not so touched. They become weary of the happily spinning Baye Fall as he is impeding their way. And as he has come to rescue of the ngewel, it is now the ngewel that comes to his by speaking the praises of the Baye Fall. The Baye Fall, the disciple of Amadou Bamba and Chiekh Ibra Fall. Barke Serigne Touba Khadim Rassoul Allah aren’t we here at the Magal ?
These words had great affect on the crowd and you could see them collectively nodding; yes this is right, let’s not loose our heads. So we continued on our way with the help of the Baye Fall until the crowds thinned out and he waved and danced his way into the night.
Suddenly alone we turned onto another sandy track finally away from the throngs of pilgrims. A quiet street. A sigh of relief through the fabric we held over our mouths and noses in an attempt to keep the sand and dust out of our lungs.
It was outside a shop that Ass Modou popped the clutch again, killing our engine. This time everyone got out of the car because the sand here was deep.
In that moment I have a flash back to 95’. On a surf trip down Baja Sur myself and crew had spent 2 and half weeks digging our surf van out of sand pits. So, looking at our car now, buried half way up on all four wheels to the axles, in deep soft sand I knew we’d be lucky to get it out. Empty streets now, just the boys trying to pop it out onto a plane. As you can imagine it just dug itself a deeper hole.
I closed my eyes (partly because I couldn’t watch anymore) and decided to see if praying it out of the hole would help. It was all I could do at this point.
I gathered up the spirit of the Magal into my center, and prayed. I put all of the love and devotion of our day in Touba into our predicament and visualized the car becoming light, lifting out of the sand, and starting. As I gave thanks for ‘everything’ and visualized in my minds eye our success, I heard the engine start and my eyes popped open.
Wow. We ran after the car and jumped in. I leaned up between the front seats and told the ngewel to tell Ass to ‘keep his foot on the clutch while he gave it gas and GO! Go fast and stay to the side along the houses where the sand is more compact. Keep playing the clutch and the gas’. I knew this from Baja. I knew how to drive in sand but what surprised me now about myself was that I knew where we were. I mean, we were lost by now but somehow I knew where we were in relationship to the Mosque. After only 10 hours in Touba I knew where the house was from the Mosque. So I continued, ‘Go 5 blocks to the main road and turn right’. I have no idea how I knew this. The ngewel translated and we flew fishtailing through the night, one block, 2, 3, 4, 5 and bam there was a main road. We made a hard right onto the solid track and continued 3 more blocks until I asked them to pull over and stop. ‘We’re near the house’ I said. He dialed the Marabouts number. We were only 2 blocks from the house, he sent a car for us to follow.
I don’t know about everyone else but I was exhausted; to the bone. By now it was 11pm and the house was still hot. The Marabout led us to the roof where they had set out foam mats and sheets for us to relax on. We laid down on the beds in the cool night. Pape Modou made tea. Ahhh to lie in the cool. It was heaven. As I lay there I began listening to the most incredible sound; a symphony. Muezzins calling from the Mosques all over the city mixed with the drumming and singing of the Baye Falls, creating music I had never heard. Sometimes clashing, sometimes in perfect sync, the sounds of devotion rose out of the dust, the lights, up past the Grand Mosque and the Lamp Fall, up into the clear dark blue night past the Sub Saharan stars to God’s ears.
Diadieuff Yalla sunu borom, diadieuff Bamba borom Touba.
~the Magal 2007