Ibrahim Ishaq’s ‘The Opening in Kaltooma’s Fence’

Last week, the great Sudanese novelist Ibrahim Ishaq died at 75. With permission from Africa World Press and Adil Babikir, we share “The Opening in Kaltooma’s Fence,” which originally appeared in the collection Literary Sudans, ed. Bhakti Shringarpure :

By Ibrahim Ishaq

Translated by Adil Babikir

The last time I returned from the city, I found the fair-skinned, moderately tall, handsome man inside Kaltooma’s courtyard, issuing orders. On her part, Kaltooma seemed to have abandoned all the bad temper she had been known for and looked pleasant and courteous like I had never seen her before.

I was curious to know who the man was.

“Who’s he?” I asked Sittana.

“Fekki al-Baseer…”

“And what’s he doing in Kaltooma’s house?”

“What’s he doing! What do you mean, boy?” she said, with a curious look on her face.

“He’s a man in his own house!”

It was my turn to gaze curiously at Sittana. Then Om al-Fadul interrupted:

“Hey listen to me,” she said in a slow, relaxed tone. “This man is Kaltooma’s husband. They got married two months ago. A decent man – knowledgeable, very tough…”

“Kaltooma got married again? After all that!”

It was Sittana who interrupted me this time.

“Why not yakhi?”[1] she asked nervously. “What’s wrong with that?”

I kept glancing back and forth between the two women in disbelief until Om al-Fadul said:

“Call him father Abdal Mawla. And if you called him Seedna al Baseer2[2] that’s fine too.”

I kept looking at them, still astonished, but started to accept the reality. But I still felt the need to find out what exactly he had done to win Kaltooma in marriage. I must ask questions, no matter how hard that might be since I belonged to the Kabbashi family as well and I must know. Who else had the right?

To me, Kaltooma had always been a very tough person. It was as if I had placed her in a category different from that of Sittana and Om al-Fadul, and put her in the same rank as my uncles Abdelqadir and Omer. But it was silly of me to think she had been born tough. Some of us claimed that she had been born with a heart of stone and most of the Kabbashis believed that she had inherited that toughness from my grandfather al-Nu’man, a cousin of her father who married her when she was very young. 

Grandfather al-Nu’man was one of the most famous figures in the Kabbashi line of descent. He was as famous as my grandfather, Fidailo, though he was particularly known for his wisdom and intellect. When grandfather al- Nu’man died in al-Kharrobat, Kaltooma moved with Abdelqadir. They were later joined by Omer and they resettled in al-Dakka so that their cattle could find enough water. Sheikh Adam Mihaireeqa asked for her hand in marriage and some women in the village called her crazy for turning down his offer. Om al-Fadul responded by insulting them in public. Both she and Sittana told the women that grandfather al-Nu’man was better than ten Sheikh Adams or even the Shartai[3] himself. They said all the Shartais, assembled from all parts of the land would weigh little more than the earth on which grandfather al-Nu’man would sit.

That was one of the famous rows that had taken place long before we were born. The Shartai was so offended by their remarks that he complained to the men in the family, as represented by Omer and Abdelqadir, who only responded by saying that the women were right. The Shartai foamed with rage that lasted with him for a full year during which the sons of Kabbashi had to bear the brunt of it.

“This Fekki al-Baseer,” I asked Om-Agab as I sat with her at her house, “Where did he come from?”

She gave me a full account of the story. “What a woman!” she said of Kaltooma. I couldn’t agree more, pointing out that not only did she have a strong character but she was mature too, as if she had soaked up all the wealth of knowledge about people from grandfather al-Nu’man. 

That man, Om-Agab asserted, was both highly knowledgeable and courageous. She said she told Kaltooma that the courtyard of a young lady like her shouldn’t remain without a man or else, it would look like a punctured cane reed fence. “That opinion was shared by everyone,” she assured her. “All those people just couldn’t be wrong.”

Kaltooma’s first husband and protector had unfortunately died, leaving her alone to try her luck and find another man to live in his shelter. But perhaps she couldn’t find in the men around her someone who could come anywhere near grandfather al-Nu’man and so she got fed up.

I thought I should gather my courage and go ask Kaltooma herself but Sittana discouraged me noting that the man was now in full command. “You heard his commanding voice coming from the courtyard,” she reminded me. “He’s won the respect of Omer and Abdelqadir and indeed all our uncles and neighbors,” she said.

Sittana laughed as she recalled that morning when he stood by the outer door and clapped his hands. Omer went up to him and Sittana could overhear their conversation as Omer led him to the rakuba.[4] She was so alarmed by the short words and serious tone of their conversation that once the two men left, she rushed to Kaltooma asking for an explanation but Kaltooma only put a relaxed smile and patted her gently on the shoulder. Listening to the voices now coming down from Abdelqadir’s house, Sittana could discern the voices of Omer and the guest exchanging firm, slowly articulated words. Her heart throbbed with fear but Kaltooma showed no reaction other than that same ambiguous smile. Sittana feared that she might have lost her emotional sensitivity and grown totally indifferent to whatever happened.

From Abdelqadir’s house, the voices of Hajj Ahmed, Fekki Mahmoud, uncle Wad Om-Agab, and Basous came down to them. Sittana’s heart kept shivering like a feather and Kaltooma kept wearing that same smile. By noon, they heard joyous ululations coming from Abdelqadir’s courtyard. Only then could Sittana regain herself. Laughing, she said to me: “What an evil person Kaltooma is! As evil as a foe! She wouldn’t tell me. She just sat there, glancing at me and then lowering her head to conceal her laughter! It was until I went back home that Omer came in to tell me: ‘We’ve just given Kaltooma in marriage to that Fekki sitting in Ahmed’s house.’”

I got further details from uncle Abdelqadir. On that day, I was sitting with Mon’em at Hajj Ahmed’s house. He took me to the part of the courtyard that separated their house from Kaltooma’s. We then returned to the rakuba and he started his account:

Near that fence, Mon’em explained, the Fekki used to sit every morning and evening to write Quranic recipes for Hanoona. The women had discovered an opening in the fence separating the two courtyards during the days of the wedding celebrations and they used it as a shortcut for getting in and out. It had remained open ever since. One day, the Fekki was busy inscribing as usual when Kaltooma appeared. When she was in the middle of the opening, she saw the Fekki right in front of her. She stood there, perplexed, moving her steps back and forth, unable to decide whether to retreat or to continue into Hajj Ahmed’s courtyard. The Fekki was busy writing on his tablets but he could still feel that she was perplexed and undecided, so he turned his eyes away from her while she stood there motionless, as if nailed to the opening.

Hearing that, I was sure of myself – but didn’t share that opinion with Mon’em – that she must have been deliberating over the proper action to take: shyly run back home like a young girl or behave like a mature woman and continue her way even though she was not properly covered up, to pass in front of strangers. The Fekki was still trying to avoid looking at her but by now he got confused since he couldn’t figure out why she was still waiting there, unable to go back or come forward. At that point he completely forgot about his writings and tablets. After all, no one has two hearts and, as our religious master says, the mind starts to function only when it concentrates, free from external distractors.

Kaltooma, Mon’em continued, remained there, motionless. The Fekki was still confused, keeping his head down and Kaltooma didn’t want to appear as if she was taking particular note of his presence. At the same time, it would be unchaste to call out loudly to another woman for help. Luckily, Hanoona’s mother came out of the kitchen and saw Kaltooma. She rushed to her and after a brief whisper she ran back into the house and brought a tobe[5]which Kaltooma put on and the two of them went in.

Early in the morning the next day, Kaltooma closed up that opening with a cane reed and the patch was so perfect that it looked as if no opening had been there before. Hanoona told Mon’em that when the Fekki sat in the forenoon, he didn’t start writing right away as usual but paused for a while looking at the new structure that sealed the opening. He then bent down and started writing until sometime before noon when he put down the tablets and went to the souk. Hanoona could overhear him murmuring at the door “Praise be to You, my Lord. You are the one Who controls the changes of hearts.”

On returning at noon, he wrote again for a short period and then called in Hanoona’s mother and asked her if that woman had a husband, and why Hajj Ahmed would allow her to make a hole into his house. The mother told him that she was a lonely woman whose husband had died long time ago. After a brief silence, he asked her what Kaltooma had been waiting for by the opening. She said she had been waiting for the thobe. The mother didn’t fail to mention that Kaltooma couldn’t decide whether to behave like a mature, menopausal woman or to run awkwardly like a young girl while being the old woman she was.

“But she is by no means old,” the Fekki interrupted. “If she said so, she must be lying. No, she’s a good mannered woman from a decent family.”

Hanoona’s mother laughed at the Fekki’s words and in the afternoon she told Kaltooma, who swelled with anger. Hanoona’s mother laughed at her and accused her of getting so scared of men she would feel irritated when it was said that she was still in the prime of her youth and had every right to look after herself and to have fun and live her life.

Om-Agab gave me further explanations. She said Kaltooma was seriously thinking of rebuking the Fekki or telling Omer about him. She felt she needed to do something about him, and she kept herself at home thinking about it.

Another day, Hanoona’s mother asked her why she needed to close the opening between the two courtyards. She stuttered and was lost for words but when her neighbor laughed at her, she was prompted by anger to speak up.

“Those men,” she finally spoke up, “we can’t be safe from their eyes. All the evil is in their gaze. But I did my part. I am the daughter of the late sheikh and the widow of the late al-Nu’man. I will keep myself within my home. This man may have devilish intentions. If he’s a real man, he won’t peek at me through rear fence openings. If he has good intentions, sister, let him do the right thing. Let him come straight through the main door and make his intentions public to everyone. But if he keeps circulating comments like these, I swear by the soul of my grandfather that he will hear insults in every corner of the village. And my brothers are very much here: if they rise against him, he will find no escape on earth.”

Apparently Kaltooma’s words were communicated to the Fekki by the Hajj’s wife. (May God bless Hanoona’s mother, says Sittana). For on that day too, he made no inscriptions for Hanoona. He went to the souk where he had a conversation with Abdelrahim Basous and Hajj Ahmed and explained to them his tribal background, revealing his line of descent as an Arab from the Sulaimani tribe and his mother from Kenana. He also made solemn promises to maintain good manners and behave well.

In the evening, Basous and Hajj Ahmed met with my uncles Omer and Abdelqadir and informed them of their conversation with the man. They said the man looked decent. “Knowledgeable, kind and has a clear line of descent. What else would you need?”

They suggested that it might be high time Kaltooma listened to her guardians and take what they had to offer her. Their guardians should now refrain from heeding her opinion on all matters, big and small, because it only meant that she would remain a lonely woman and if any sort of trouble descended on the village, no one with a beard would come out from her courtyard to join the men in combatting that evil. Of course, no one would want to see her carrying an axe and joining the ranks of men.

After hearing the reprimanding words of Basous and Hajj Ahmed, Omer and Abdelqadir apparently felt guilty for the first time for having long ignored the best interests of the arrogant, strong-headed Kaltooma. They asked Hajj Ahmed to ask the Fekki to visit them at home in the early morning.

That was it. They didn’t bother to consult Kaltooma or ask her opinion on the matter as Hajj Ahmed had already communicated to them her conversation with his wife. The men gathered at Abdelqadir’s house, and in that very morning, ululations were heard announcing Kaltooma and the Fekki husband and wife. By the evening, the beaming, tough Fekki was well inside Kaltooma’s courtyard, issuing orders.

I expressed to uncle Abdelqadir how astonished I was, almost unable to believe that Kaltooma could again become genial and amenable like Sittana, Om al-Fadul and the other women. Perhaps that transformation was possible only because Fekki al-Baseer miraculously managed to reduce grandfather al-Nu’man to no more than just another one in the Kabbishis line of descent, one who was markedly knowledgeable and smart, who married and died, leaving behind nothing more than some memories.


[1] Yakhi literally translates as ‘brother’ but in this particular context it is used as an interjection expressing frustration

[2] Seedna and fekki are expressions of respect for a man well-versed in Quran

[3] A local mayor or chief

[4] A wooden thatch that usually serves as the living area of homes

[5] An ankle-length wrap dress that Sudanese women wear in public or at home in the presence of guests.

Ibrahim Ishaq Ibrahim is a renowned Sudanese novelist, short story writer and researcher. Most of his narrative and non-narrative works are set in the Darfur region of western Sudan. He has published six novels and three anthologies of short stories. These include It Happened in the Village (1969), The Works of Night and the Town (1971), The Old School Festival (1976), The Traditions of Dame Miyakaya (1980-2001), Turmoil in Kilaymendo (1999-2002) and The Nourains Scandal (2004). His scholarly publications include “The Emigrations of the Hilali Tribes from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa and Bilad As-Sudan” (1996) and “The Folktale in Africa” (1977) among others. The late Tayeb Saleh described him as “a great writer indeed, who has achieved fame with only a few beautiful novels such as It Happened in the Village, The Old School Festival and The Traditions of Dame Miyakaya. These works depicted the Sudanese literary scene for the first time with truly captivating artistic images of the environment of western Sudan, a world which is barely known to the people of central and northern Sudan.” Ibrahim is a Literature and Art Award winner in Khartoum, 1979 and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Al-Fasher.

Adil Babikir is a translator and an Arabic content manager at Mubadala Investment Company in Abu Dhabi. He has translated several works, including Mansi: A Rare Man in His Own Way by Tayeb Salih and two novels by Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin.