In the Face of History


By Ousmane Sembene

‘If you see that film, you’ll never in your life be able to trust a woman again,’ said one of the three men.

They were standing outside the Mali Cinema in the teeming district of Rebeuse. All three looked along the queue of men, women and children which was growing every minute; beyond the cinema lights, darkness came down like a curtain. On the fringe of the bright halo was a row of food-stalls; prostitutes were strolling up and down in the cool air, for it was not so stifling as the evening before. Now and again a breeze wafted a sickening stench of rotting garbage from the houses.

The smallest man of the three, the one in the middle, looked thoughtfully at the cinema poster again and then announced, ‘I’ve seen that film,’ and he read out syllable by syllable, ‘Sam-son and De-li-lah.’

‘Well, shall we go home or what? I’ve seen it, too,’ added the third, automatically lifting his tunic and putting his hand into the pocket of his baggy trousers. He gazed at the crowd again.

Just then a taxi drew up at the entrance to the cinema. The man nudged the other two and nodded towards the new arrivals. A couple dressed in European clothes had got out of the taxi. The man was wearing a Terylene suit with a sharp crease to the trousers; his shoes shone in the darkness, his nylon shirt had lost its creamy color, and he had a dark tie. He looked all round him like someone used to weighing up a crowd, and his eyes were gloomy. He gave a sniff of distaste, paid the taxi-driver and turned round again. The woman seemed young but her face gave no clue to her age; she had bare shoulders—shoulders of distinction, like her whole appearance—and a white silk-and-wool shawl was draped carelessly round them. The crinkle had been taken out of her hair, which she wore in a bouffant style; rings dangled from her ears, and her bell-shaped skirt was knee-length.

‘I know that fellow—it’s Abdoulaye,’ said one of the three. ‘He’s a primary school teacher. And the girl’s his wife. She’s called Sakinetou. She’s got a Technical College certificate. For their wedding, eight oxen and sixteen sheep were killed, and no end of money was given away. They come from round our way—at least, the man grew up in the same district as I did’.

He ended his commentary as the couple drew near.

When they had passed, the delicate, pleasing fragrance of the woman lingered in the air. The three turned to look at her.

‘What’s showing?’ the man said in French, in a reluctant tone, and he read out, ‘Samson and Delilah’.

‘Yes,’ she answered, and half-turned towards the crowd. Her eyes met those of the man who had spoken, and he gave her a broad beam of recognition. Sakinetou’s face hardened.

‘It’s a silly film,’ Abdoulaye was saying. ‘I’ve seen it. We’d do better to go somewhere else.’

‘Where else?’ the woman put in. Her eyes were glittering with anger.

A man whose clothes gave him a stately appearance, one large boubou over another, stalked between the couple, followed by his two wives and five small boys.

‘What’s the film, dear?’ asked the wife immediately behind him.

‘I don’t know. We shall find out when we get inside. Be careful not to lose the children.’

‘I hope there’s some singing in it,’ said the second wife just as she came abreast of the Technical College certificate-holder.

‘In this cinema they only put on Arab or Indian films,’ said the man in the voluminous garments.

‘Well?’ asked Abdoulaye when the family procession had passed.

‘Well, I’m not going anywhere else. It’s been like this for months. You don’t like going to dances, and I want to see this film. And you make yourself out to be a teacher. This Saturday I don’t want to waste my time with your pals who do nothing but talk about their game of cards,’ said the woman aggressively.

‘We might go and see the African Ballet at the Youth Club. It isn’t far from here.’

‘Oh, you and your passion for the theater! That’s for the whites,’ she retorted (and again her eyes caught the look of the one of the three who knew them and who was losing nothing of their argument). ‘Shall we get the tickets?’

‘Me, do you mean? No,’ said Abdoulaye, looking stern. Then he quickly asked, ‘What shall we do?’

From somewhere came an uproar that continued, booming over all their heads, to which was added the shrilling of whistles. People in the queue began pushing and jostling. Two shafts of light swept the black night above the sea.

‘Samson and Delilah,’ Abdoulaye read it again, wavering. Then he added, ‘But you’ve already seen it.’

‘Yes, I know. But I don’t want to stay at home on a Saturday. I want to go out and enjoy myself.’

‘We could go to the Ballet...’

‘Oh, the Ballet!’ she exclaimed markedly, with a slight tone of defiance. ‘I want to see “Samson and Delilah”.’

‘And I don’t...’

‘I do.’

They glared at each other again, and she went on in the same defiant tone: ‘I’m not an illiterate fatou. I can pay for myself.’ She swung round, and saw the three men staring at her. ‘Stupid lot,’ she muttered, and walked briskly towards the ticket-office; then changed her mind and came back. Abdoulaye had not moved; but he too was getting angry.

‘I’m off. I’m going to see my father,’ she said.

‘Anyway, you’ve got to queue for tickets. We’d miss the start of the film.’ He was beginning to have enough of this struggle.

‘I’m not going there now...' She stepped towards the roadway and hailed a passing taxi. The sound of its engine faded into the distance.

Left to himself, Abdoulaye stared again at the poster with its large lettering: ‘Tonight, Samson and Delilah. An historical film.’ Then he lit a cigarette and made off into the night.

‘What was all that about?’ said one of the three wonderingly.

‘What was it about? Oh, it’s all over between them. They’ve lost their sense of balance.’

‘Just like this country . . . No balance left . . . Shall we go and see the film?’

‘Suppose we went to see the Toucoleur kora-player? It would be a bit of a change.’

‘Changing your country or your wife doesn’t solve any problems. If everyone thought like that ... I wonder what Abdoulaye will do?’

‘Well, shall we go home or not?’ the other asked again.

They all looked at the poster. Then with one accord all three started to whistle the Soundiata tune, and walked away.