Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Gabbeh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996)

(written in 2009 and previously unpublished)
I am wrapped in a still, moonlit night. The moon is bright, its silver-blue sky vast above the desert plain. Beneath the scratchy dark shapes of thorn trees the sand is red even now, glowing with the heat of the day. It reddens the whitewashed walls of the village bar, now shadowed and quiet, whose tin roof takes the moonlight for its own. The moon above is as white as a bleached bone; the smell of warmed sand is a promise I have not yet betrayed.

The scene, night in the village of Mmathubudukwane, is from Botswana in 1994. I had just arrived, my senses alive to the unfamiliarity of my surroundings. At a local weavers I had the colours of this night made into a blanket for me, under which I slept for many years. At some point I put it out of sight, folded up in a cupboard. It smells of old wood now, pleasant but impersonal. I cover myself completely and inhale, trying to find the smell of desert sand, or a thatched roof, the smell of dust storms, of walking home under Scorpio through a sleeping village, or of air tired with heat before sunrise, but I try too hard and these images are invaded by other thoughts; of afternoon excess, of so much time wasted, of broken trust and withered friendships.

How can I now take its weight again? To earn its warmth, what earth can I offer, what rocks at dawn? You need offer nothing, says the eddying breeze, nothing but yourself; nurture what you have. Let yourself be loved. And is it this simple, and this hard? I ask, but the breeze has blown on, leaving me to find that which I thought lost, which was only unclaimed, leaving me to pick up the weft of my own life. Ah, were life but straight, how we’d live it then!


Gabbeh. Gabbeh is the landscape through which an ageing couple walk. Let me wash the gabbeh, says he when they reach their resting place by a stream. I’ll wash the gabbeh, she says, your feet are sore. You are like the full moon, says the man, as Gabbeh comes alive to his pleased laughter and birdsong.

The rug is immersed in the water’s flow. In its threads, a couple ride a single white horse. Its colours are those of their lives together: the brown blue of a river that needs to be crossed on rafts, the violet blue of distant mountains at dusk, the turquoise of a reed pond, the green blue of the reeds’ reflection in this water, the grey blue of woodsmoke from a camp fire; the indigo of a sky before a journey, the milky blue of a sky before a death, the sage blue of mountain scrub in the day’s fading light.

Gabbeh is the sparrow that becomes a canary; Gabbeh is the wind that silvers the grasses as they sway. I was looking for water, and I found singing, says the uncle, who dreamed he would meet his wife near a spring, who dreamed of a girl who could sing like a canary. I am thirsty, you are pure water, he tells her; I am weary, you are energy.

Gabbeh is the tree upon which a new branch sprouts with each child, from which a branch is removed with each death.

With belled beaters, their sound a compression of the water’s flow across pebbles on the riverbed, weaving women tighten the weft. Nearby, piles of tawny wool, and rose madder wool, and saffron wool, prefigure the silhouetted burial of a child at sunset. The gabbeh pictures a goat on a green hill, the sky orange, vermilion, violet, indigo.

Life is colour, says Gabbeh’s uncle. Gabbeh is the red of poppies, the yellow of wheatfield weeds, the blue of heaven and the shimmering sea, the gold of the sun which lights up the world. Over a fire, the dye pot gives birth to a skein of red fibres, slapped into life on a rock at the water’s edge. Life is colour, shouts the uncle in the fog; love is colour, responds Gabbeh; man is colour, woman is colour, child is colour add the children; love is colour … love is pain, says Gabbeh, who has been told that she can marry when the mother gives birth: when we’ve broken camp, when we’ve walked a while, when we’ve worked a while, when we’ve crossed the river.

Gabbeh is this waiting. The old man howls in his frustration, howls like a wolf as he beats the rug that is hung over a branch, its dust drifting away on the breeze. Why will you not leave with me?, he cries. Why do you hurt me? You do not love me. You do not love me.

Gabbeh is the tears of frustration, the shy smile, the faint nod, and the longing for the lover who trails her with the call of a wolf. Gabbeh is the sleeping on wool by a fire, the longing to ride away.

Gabbeh is the fog, and Gabbeh is the snow, upon which she leaves her scarves for the horseman to follow, her scarves of citrus yellow, magenta, and cyan. Life is colour, says Gabbeh’s uncle.

Gabbeh is the water that reflects the moon after the couple have  ridden away through the reeds. Gabbeh is the mountains across which the lovers ride. Gabbeh is the moon.

Poems quoted in first section:
Accept who you are.
don’t drown the poem in plane trees;
nurture it with what earth and rock you have.

George Seferis, Summer Solstice in Three Secret Poems (1966)

Ah, were life but straight, how we’d live it then!
George Seferis, Fog (from Turning Point, 1931) in Complete Poems, translated and edited by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, Anvil Press Poetry, London, 1995.

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