African Short Stories
Below is a short story called A Handful of Dates by Sudanese author El Tayeb Salih. Click here to locate Sudan on a map of Africa. A short story is a narrative that is shorter than a novel. In this story, a young boy describes an incident he had with his grandfather. You will see that the young boy loves and admires his grandfather very much, but near the end of the story sees some qualities in his grandfather that he does not like. Read the story carefully and slowly. Jot down any words or phrases that you don’t understand and ask your teacher about them.
A Handful of Dates
I must have been very young at the time. While I don’t remember exactly how old I was, I do remember that when people saw me with my grandfather they would pat me on the head and give my cheek a pinch – things they didn’t do to my grandfather. The strange thing was that I never used to go out with my father, rather it was my grandfather who would take me with him wherever he went, except for the mornings, when I would go to the mosque to learn the Koran. The mosque, the river, and the fields – these were the landmarks in our life. While most of the children of my age grumbled at having to go to the mosque to learn the Koran, I used to love it. The reason was, no doubt, that I was quick at learning by heart and the Sheik always asked me to stand up and recite the Chapter of the Merciful whenever we had visitors, who would pat me on my head and cheek just as people did when they saw me with my grandfather.
Yes, I used to love the mosque, and I loved the river, too. Directly we finished our Koran reading in the morning I would throw down my wooden slate and dart off, quick as a genie, to my mother, hurriedly swallow down my breakfast, and run off for a plunge in the river. When tired of swimming about, I would sit on the bank and gaze at the strip of water that wound away eastwards, and hid behind a thick wood of acacia trees. I loved to give rein to my imagination and picture myself a tribe of giants living behind that wood, a people tall and thin with white beards and sharp noses, like my grandfather. Before my grandfather ever replied to my many questions, he would rub the tip of his nose with his forefinger; as for his beard, it was soft and luxuriant and as white as cotton wool – never in my life have I seen anything of a purer whiteness or greater beauty. My grandfather must also have been extremely tall, for I never saw anyone in the whole area address him without having him look up at him, nor did I see him enter a house without having to bend so low that I was put in mind of the way the river wound round behind the wood of acacia trees. I loved him and would imagine myself, when I grew to be a man, tall and slender like him, walking along with great strides.
I believe I was his favorite grandchild: no wonder, for my cousins were a stupid bunch and I – so they say – was an intelligent child. I used to know when my grandfather wanted me to laugh, when to be silent; also I would remember the times for his prayers and would bring him his prayer rug and fill the ewer for his ablutions without his having to ask me. When he had nothing else to do he enjoyed listening to me reciting to him from the Koran in a lilting voice, and I could tell from his face that he was moved.
One day I asked him about our neighbor Masood. I said to my grandfather: I fancy you don’t like our neighbor Masood?
To which he answered, having rubbed the tip of his nose: He’s an indolent man and I don’t like such people.
I said to him: What’s an indolent man?
My grandfather lowered his head for a moment; then, looking across the wide expanse of field, he said: Do you see it stretching out from the edge of the desert up to the Nile bank? A hundred feddans. Do you see all those date palms? And those trees – sant, acacia, and sayal? All this fell into Masood’s lap, was inherited by him from his father.
Taking advantage of the silence that had descended on my grandfather, I turned my gaze from him to the vast area defined by words. I don’t care, I told myself, who owns those date palms, those trees or this black, cracked earth – all I know is that it’s the arena for my dreams and my playground.
My grandfather then continued: Yes, my boy, forty years ago all this belonged to Masood – two-thirds of it is now mine.
This was news for me, for I had imagined that the land had belonged to my grandfather ever since God’s Creation.
I didn’t own a single feddan when I first set foot in this village. Masood was then the owner of all these riches. The position had changed now, though, and I think that before Allah calls me to Him I shall have bought the remaining third as well.”
I do not know why it was I felt fear at my grandfather’s words – and pity for our neighbor Masood. How I wished my grandfather wouldn’t do what he’d said! I remembered Masood’s singing, his beautiful voice and powerful laugh that resembled the gurgling of water. My grandfather never laughed.
I asked my grandfather why Masood had sold his land.
Women, and from the way my grandfather pronounced the word I felt that women was something terrible. AMasood, my boy, was a much-married man. Each time he married he sold me a feddan or two. I made the quick calculation that Masood must have married some ninety women. Then I remembered his three wives, his shabby appearance, his lame donkey and its dilapidated saddle, his galabia with the torn sleeves. I had all but rid my mind of the thoughts that jostled in it when I saw the man approaching us, and my grandfather and I exchanged glances.
We’ll be harvesting the dates today, said Masood. Don’t you want to be there?
I felt, though, that he did not really want my grandfather to attend. My grandfather, however, jumped to his feet and I saw that his eyes sparkled momentarily with an intense brightness. He pulled me by the hand and we went off to the harvesting of Masood’s dates.
Someone brought my grandfather a stool covered with an oxhide, while I remained standing. There was a vast number of people there, but though I knew them all, I found myself for some reason watching Masood: aloof from that great gathering of people he stood as though it were no concern of his, despite the fact that the date palms to be harvested were his own. Sometimes his attention would be caught by the sound of a huge clump of dates crashing down from on high. Once he shouted up at the boy perched on the very summit of the date palm who had begun hacking at a clump with his long, sharp sickle: Be careful you don’t cut the heart of the palm.
No one paid any attention to what he said and the boy seated at the very summit of the date palm continued, quickly and energetically, to work away at the branch with his sickle till the clump of dates began to drop like something descending from the heavens.
I, however, had begun to think about Masood’s phrase, the heart of the palm. I pictured the palm tree as something with feeling, something possessed of a heart that throbbed. I remembered Masood’s remark to me when he had once seen me playing with the branch of a young palm tree: Palm trees, my boy, like humans, experience joy and suffering. And I had felt an inward and unreasoned embarrassment.
When I again looked at the expanse of ground stretching before me I saw my young companions swarming like ants around the trunks of the palm trees, gathering up dates and eating most of them. The dates were collected into high mounds. I saw people coming along and weighing them into measuring bins and pouring them into sacks, of which I counted thirty. The crowd of people broke up, except for Hussein the merchant, Mousa the owner of the field next to ours on the east, and two men I’d never seen before.
I heard a low whistling sound and saw that my grandfather had fallen asleep. Then I noticed that Masood had not changed his stance, except that he had placed a stalk in his mouth and was munching at it like someone sated with food who doesn’t know what to do with the mouthful he still has.
Suddenly my grandfather woke up, jumped to his feet, and walked toward the sacks of dates. He was followed by Hussein the merchant, Mousa the owner of the field next to ours and two strangers. I glanced at Masood and saw that he was making his way toward us with extreme slowness, like a man who wants to retreat but whose feet insist on going forward. They formed a circle around the sacks of dates and began examining them, some taking a date or two to eat. My grandfather gave me a fistful, which I began munching. I saw Masood filling the palms of both hands with dates and bringing them up close to his nose, then returning them.
Then I saw them dividing up the sacks between them. Hussein the merchant took ten; each of the strangers took five. Mousa the owner of the field next to ours on the on the eastern side took five, and my grandfather took five. Understanding nothing, I looked at Masood and saw that his eyes were darting to left and right like two mice that have lost their way home.
You’re still fifty pounds in debt to me, said my grandfather to Masood. We’ll talk about it later.
Hussein called his assistants and they brought along the donkeys, the two strangers produced camels, and the sacks of dates were loaded onto them. One of the donkeys let out a braying which set the camels frothing at the mouth and complaining noisily. I felt myself drawing close to Masood, felt my hand stretch out toward him as though I wanted to touch the hem of his garment. I heard him make a noise in his throat like the rasping of a sheep being slaughtered. For some unknown reason, I experienced a sharp sensation of pain in my chest.
I ran off into the distance. Hearing my grandfather call after me, I hesitated a little, then continued on my way. I felt at that moment that I hated him. Quickening my pace, it was as though I carried within me a secret I wanted to rid myself of. I reached the riverbank near the bend it made behind the wood of acacia trees. Then, without knowing why, I put my finger into my throat and spewed up the dates I’d eaten.
This story, and the one that follows in the next activity, makes reference to Islam. For a short and general introduction to Islam, see Fazlur Rahman’s book Islam, published by the University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Read the questions. Write your answers on a sheet of paper. You may need to go back and re-read the story to answer some of the questions.
- Who is telling us this story (which character is the narrator)?
- What events take place in the story?
- How does the young boy feel about his grandfather at the beginning of the story?
- At the end of story, how does he feel about his grandfather? Why have his feelings changed?
- What five words best describe the grandfather?
- What five words best describe the narrator?
- What five words best describe Masood?
Go on to Activity Five or select from the list of module activities.