Water is Life - Tahar Ben Jelloun
In the past we went to war over frontiers. Today and tomorrow we will be fighting over water.
Land that is not irrigated is a dead skin, a word not spoken, not heard, a desire stunted in the womb, an ever-present delirium, a meadow without flowers, colours or spirit, a forest without a breath of wind or mystery, a disquieting silence, boundless anguish.
The course of a river determines the sense of time. It also designates the direction of space.
The beauty of a city is inscribed in the course of the water that flows through its centre. It is love and tenderness rendered to the stones and asphalt. We say left bank, right bank to the point that it becomes a vision of the world.
The first Arab sociologist, historian and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) remarked in his great book: “The earth is like a grape floating on water”. If the water ever disappeared, the grape would be carried away to oblivion.
Water lies to us, or, more precisely, we believe it is always the same, like a mirror that remembers. It flows, it moves, it travels, it lives and it is never the same.
This quality is what made Heraclitus say, “no man ever steps in the same river twice”. We are in perpetual movement, we change because we are alive and water that flows neither turns back on its tracks nor comes to a halt.
Someone once came up with a lovely expression, “the memory of water”. On that subject, water cannot have a memory since it flows and does not return on itself as though it could see its past. Water is eternally in the present.
Water is Time. The Earth turns and all around it water flows. Time is not measured; it is not static; water is its expression, its image, its symbol. Whether it comes from the sky or rises from the belly of the world, water is everywhere, including the air that we breathe. It mounts to the sky and rejoins the blue where it forms clouds of varying consistency. And then it dissolves and falls in torrents, in sheets, like vertical, transversal, transparent and penetrating hachures.
A cliché: Water is Life. As it’s true, it’s no longer a cliché.
Deprived of air and light, water deteriorates, changes colour, becomes pale, greenish, glossy, an opaque, heavy, stinking, dangerous mass.
It is water deprived of life that gives birth to monsters, executioners, torturers and dictators. They use the dirty water that they forcefully pour into the mouths of their chained prisoners.
It is man who turns water dark and murky. It is man who pollutes and contaminates it with his waste and selfishness.
When he is not polluting, through his arrogance and lack of compassion, he violates the intimacy of Amazonia to build a dam there, committing an act of aggression against both nature and water.
Dams are useful and necessary but not when they are built just anywhere or without regard for a sound and respected environment.
A dam can bring a halt to drought. Whether it is filled with water from the sky or other sources, it remains an essential resource in countries where rainwater is scarce or sometimes follows the pattern of deluge and subjection.
Holding water back with the strength of concrete, checking its power by constraining it in a fortified space, is like making the earth pregnant with promises, and protecting it till the day the waters are liberated to irrigate the fields and bring life back to parched roots, thirsty trees, soil battered by too much sun.
What purpose does a dam serve?
To reflect the sky on its surface. To sketch the clouds on their journey elsewhere.
To produce mirages that make children dream.
A dam serves above all to give light and produce electricity. It is also one element of the dream that every dam is beseeched to offer us.
A dam is a dam provided that it is sited in the right place and that it is used to serve mankind humanly. The water that it will allow to pass will be generous particularly when it is stored in suitable conditions. It is not that water is fragile but it is precious, that is to say that it should not be maltreated even if it needs to be handled like a substance swathed in impurities. Thus, surface water, the water of dams, is not to be drunk because its source is not boreholes or springs – unless it is treated to become potable.
The underground water of a city like Bordeaux penetrated the ground to a depth of up to 200 metres some thirty thousand years ago! That is the water that we drink today. It is absolutely pure.
"The fountain of marvels unites all the virtues of other sources" (Elisée Reclus).
The large houses of the city of Fez, founded in 808 by Moulay Idriss, a descendant of the Prophet Mahomet, all have a fountain in the middle of their internal court. It is a tradition. A well-designed and well-lived house has to have even a small fountain. It is used for ablutions and also to create pleasant music for the ear. This is what Gaston Bachelard calls “the puerile language of nature” as, in a fountain or a spring, it is the childhood of nature that speaks to and enchants us. The sound is fluid, like that of a breeze or the song of a bird giving a discourse in the tangled branches of a beech tree while sparrows search for a home for the night. They are notes of great simplicity but which no musician could reproduce with the same precision.
A house where the fountain is dry is a house visited by some misfortune. It is better not to linger there. It is a clear indication of a curse or a miscarriage of destiny. When the fountain no longer sings, it is because the people in the house are no longer in a state of grace: perhaps they have mistreated a cat or humiliated a beggar.
I remember our little fountain and the noise it made, which helped me to fall asleep. It was a simple, modest, repetitive melody. My father used to kneel before it to perform his ablutions before praying. In summer we could fill our buckets and hurl the water at each other. It was one way to render the heat less brutal. Summer in Fez is very hot and winter icy. When it was cold my pet hate was to have to perform my ablutions in almost freezing water. I would cry as I washed. One day, my father approached me and said the following words, which I can still hear and which liberated me forever: “Islam is simple; you mustn’t lie, you mustn’t steal, you mustn’t do harm and you must respect your family and teachers who teach you to read and write. There you are, the rest, like the five prayers, you can do them when you want. There, that’s Islam!”
Performing one’s ablutions is like a sort of purification for the believer who prepares to address God. Washing away one’s sins and bad thoughts. When water passes below the skin, it removes what man has accumulated, whether knowingly or unwittingly, all those things that are incompatible with prayer.
The verse “God has created every living creature from water” is found in different terms four times in the Quran. Water is what gives life par excellence – to humans, to animals, to plants, and to all that lives and breathes.
There is no paradise without water, without gardens where water flows continually, nourishing and enchanting the living. God also said: “The righteous will be in gardens and pleasure” (Sura 52, verse 17).
A symbol of the mercy of God, water is the most evident sign of life. It is synonymous with maternity as it propagates and nourishes, is indispensable and comforting. This is the water that accompanies life which is not always “a tranquil river”. Even the religious texts remind us how water can become an element of destruction, devastation and death. All the holy books tell the story of the flood, when the earth is angered, trembles and demolishes what she carries on her back, when the sea reacts and rises violently, carrying away everything in its path.
Water – the source of the creation of the world (Quran), the other face of the sky, with its apparent gentleness, flat calm and mysteries, and which fascinates us and fills us with fear.
It does not always have this marvellous presence, the one that creates oases in the desert. It has other forms, and other intentions. It does not murmur gently, like it does in the houses in Fez, it roars, cries and becomes terribly angry. It tramples roughshod over childhood, and doubles its fierceness simply because the full moon also has its moods, caprices and secrets.
With floods and tempests, water rages and brings calamity to man. It is a shifting and unpredictable force that arrives growing in size and power, till it is higher than the houses and swallows them up without pity or respite.
Dams are built with the aim of one day controlling water so it can be used to compensate a lack of rain, for clouds that have migrated elsewhere and left peoples shedding tears, without a drop of water.
It is the hand of man at work. Whether the water issues from the ground or the sky, dams are filled so that water will never become a deluge – unless their construction is poor and they give way under the pressure of the water held back. Dams are also built so that we can love water without facing any risk.
We admire it and hope it will be gentle with us.
In one story, it was said that the flower of immortality would be found at the bottom of the sea. Those searching for it made a mistake and brought back a starfish instead, as fluid as it is difficult to grasp. It was said that it would be poisonous and dangerous. It’s just a superstition.
The noise of water this morning. The light after the rain. The clear sky after the rainfall in a park shaped by erosion of the clay, by the weather that never ceases to pass and pass again.
Traces, signs and memories inscribed in the earth as it loses its sand.
Books open above inundated cities. We can recognize them from the cross on the spire of a church, a star at the pinnacle of a minaret.
A river run dry. A river that has lost its soul, its water. A river whose bed is nothing but dry stones, cracked by heat, wounded by drought, a curse on a country.
A look of sadness and bereavement. Impotency in the face of imponderables.
Scouring the sky, it is white, violently, glaringly so, it forces you to lower your head and your eyes.
The absence of water is the prospect that strikes fear into all farmers. It seems that even cows get depressed when they are attacked by drought. A depressed animal is a creature that resembles us when its animal nature is made to suffer.
Listen to the dry season. Detect the shrieks of the wind as it turns uselessly on itself: not a cloud to move, not a storm to orchestrate, nothing in prospect.
The khamsin, the strong wind that blows into the Middle East, is ineffectual. It blows in gusts while waiting to push the rains towards other lands.
In Islam there are prayers, aside from the daily ones, whose purpose is to implore the arrival of rain. Often after Friday prayers the Imam will ask the faithful to beseech God’s mercy and pity. Words invoking divine will are pronounced or chanted. As they leave the mosque, the men express their feelings by holding their arms up to the sky.
Will God respond to these prayers?
The weather forecast does not venture onto the paths of faith.
Rivers are entities with their own temperament, moods and history – a history that may be tragic.
For example, the Jordan is more than a river, it is a border, a strategic line, a source of increasingly inextricable and violent conflicts. This is because it borders two territories over which two peoples are fighting – the Golan Heights and Cisjordania – both occupied by Israel.
The river has been a border between Israel and Jordan since 1948. Its tributary, the Yarmouk, separates Syria from Jordan.
It irrigates the Negev Desert.
We learn that the dam upstream of the Sea of Galilee feeds an electric power station and regulates the course of this precious river. It is not the Nile, nor is it the Tiber. It does not have their majesty, nor the Nile’s famous devastating floods. It’s a small river that flows for 360 km, whose presence is fundamental to the entire region, which has suffered from time immemorial from conflict.
Even the stones grieve.
Mentioned several times in the Bible, the Jordan is a blessing from God. It flows from Mount Hermon to the Dead Sea, passing through the Sea of Galilee and Lake Hula to Lebanon, watering Jericho on its way and arousing passions.
Because whoever controls the river and its course dominates the region.
1992. Itzak Rabin declared: “If we settle all the problems of the Middle East but not that of the sharing of water, our region will explode. Peace will not be possible”.
“We burn our rings in water, we set fire to water as far as the shore and burst the immense waves; water gathers in the districts, beneath the flies of the vast pools. It sleeps beneath the houses and wells, immobile. It enters our bed chambers and spreads among us, the prisoner of its nets and scales.” (Abbas Beydoun, Lebanese poet).
This poet has made water the metaphor of the pain suffered by his homeland.
So many dreams left in ruin, so many nights riddled with bullets and so many injustices have rained down on this country that has the misfortune to find itself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Water is needed to wash bodies, for the cleansing of the dead, to remove the blood dried on the asphalt.
Water is needed to rescind the tears on a face. To plunge a face in a bucket of water to hide its many tears.
Water is needed to welcome the new day, to take leave of the dreams that linger in the sheets.
Water is needed to relieve the living who wait by the roadside.
Water, much water is needed to fill a star-shaped dam erected in the desert.
Faith is needed in justice, that of men and that of God
Justice and law
But so many peoples have been dispossessed in the name of a corrupt law.
A land burning
Thirsting for justice and water
An entire river poured into its cracks
Even its tributaries have joined its bed
But God does not touch rivers
It is men who divert their course
It is men who steal and starve
Despite the writings and the prayers
Despite the weapons and the blood.
Die for water.
Give your life so that your children will not lack water.
So many men have died for a patch of land
But what is this plot of sand worth without water?
All love is born under the sign of water
Around a spring
At the threshold of a rock eroded by tributaries
Each child has his part of water through inheritance
When it’s a girl, she has a half-share
That’s also the religion.
Water’s fiancée rebels
The revolution begins by demanding its part of water
The madman is the one who no longer washes
He is afraid of water, of life, of others
In certain regions he is tied and plunged in the bottom of a well
When he is pulled up, his reason returns to the surface
He lost consciousness, became unreachable
Now he is himself again, as though recovered from a faint
It is by throwing water on a man who loses consciousness
That we attempt to bring him back to life.
Such is water
A miracle as ancient as time
As old as humanity
It is water that created the world, the land, life
Water is the only God we have to believe in
If not, we die of dehydration, emptied of ourselves
Returned to the envelope of the soul
A contemptible skin destined to dissolve into dust.