The Bilal's Fourth Wife


By Ousmane Sembene

He was past middle-age, but despite his years he still had the vigorous bearing of a healthy man. It could hardly be otherwise, for Suliman was the bilal of the mosque. He looked after everything - the cleaning, the repairs and maintenance, and the collections in aid of this holy building. As the mosque was timber-built, he had plenty to occupy him. All the faithful admired him and were inclined in his favour; everyone gave alms willingly. Suliman did not expend much energy, so his body became flabby and his face pleasant to look upon. He stifled his laughter, out of piety, and instead smiled at everyone who spoke to him. To sum up, he was an exemplary person, pious and humble - to all appearances at least. A discreet man, certainly . . .

But in private life he was a very different character. He already had three wives, whom he bullied unmercifully because of his vices - and he had quite a few vices, the old humbug! When a young man, Suliman had been in the Sixth Senegalese Rifles, a regiment which served in all the colonial campaigns of the ’twenties - and everyone knows the reputation of that regiment! Sometimes he made two of his wives share his bed. But he never missed the fleeting Holy Hour. He wished to crown his later years with a fourth wife, a young one, about the age of his eldest daughter.

The door of the mosque faced the public fountain, a meeting-place for all the women and girls. After Suliman had whisked round with his broom, he would go and sit outside on his sheepskin and sum up the women. Some of the girls had holes in their bodice, or the low neck was torn, and certain of their movements caused breasts as firm as unripe fruit to slip into view, the shining flesh streaked with sweat; at which the other women burst out laughing.

Suliman was on the look-out for such a treat; he sat there like a sportsman after wild fowl, his eyes reduced to narrow slits and the tip of his tongue protruding between his lips. He would put a hand to his throat, stretch his neck and swallow his saliva. His thoughts ran on the idea of possessing one of these gazelles; and the sight of all this young flesh made him harsher and more intolerant towards his old, worn-out wives. The result of it all was that he made their lives impossible, often beating them.

People (the men) said to them: ‘A man like Suliman! There’s no one else so gentle, so calm, so religious as him. You must have done something, for him to beat you.’

While the wives consoled the one who had been beaten: ‘It’s a woman’s lot! We have to be patient. Men are our masters under God. Is there a wife anywhere whose husband has never laid hands on her?’

Every evening now, the cries of one or other of them could be heard. But Suliman’s taciturn nature acted in his favour.

‘They’ve banded together to make his life intolerable,’ men said between themselves.

‘It must be that! Such a good man. Never a word too much and never a wrong word. If it weren’t for him our mosque would be in ruins.’

‘And you never hear him complain,’ added another.

To all appearances, Suliman was a martyr to polygamy. This only served to make men pity and respect him the more. As for him, he said nothing. But when the women and girls gathered at the fountain, he was in his usual place, sitting on his sheepskin and eyeing them all. In the evening, after the last prayer, he went round visiting people. But it was only a pretext, an opportunity to cast an eye over the girls with their circle of young bloods. In the course of the day he would call one of the girls and ask her to sweep the courtyard of the mosque or to fetch water for the ablutions. When they were alone he would talk a lot of humbug. ‘What do the young men say to you?’ he would ask, fastening his eyes on the girl’s bosom. ‘Be careful of young men ... my child.’

Sometimes, while pretending to help them, he fumbled at their clothing and pawed them. The youngsters paid no attention, knowing he was old enough to be their father. At such times, at the height of his perverse pleasure, his mouth fell open, his eyes turned upwards and he broke into a sweat. Becoming more emboldened, he fell upon one of them .. .

The girls dared not complain to anyone. Who would believe them? Such a pious man! And who had three wives ... The victims had to say nothing or defend themselves. Meanwhile Suliman knocked his wives about for anything and everything. Having whetted his appetite with some of the girls, he began to neglect his duties as bilal; all except one - taking the collections. For that, he never missed an opportunity, not a single prayer. But the mosque began to fall into disrepair.

In the space of a year, Suliman had become a different man; with increasing age, he was consumed with an insatiable lust. He was like a camel on heat, except that he did not foam at the mouth. But he was still neatly dressed, and was even more polite than usual. There was a lot of talk about him, for the change in him affected all the faithful.

‘His wives make his life a misery. We must do something about it,’ said one man.

‘Ought we to find him a fourth wife?’

‘That’s it. We must find him another wife, one who’ll make up for all the beastliness of the others.’

‘Yes, for if it weren’t for Suliman, we shouldn’t have a mosque at all. The other districts all have fine mosques. A year ago, ours used to be the best kept and the cleanest. Suliman isn’t that old - he can still keep a girl satisfied all night.’

‘But where shall we find her? A girl who will show up the other three wives and who doesn’t live around here. For they’re all of one mind here, the women all stick together.’

‘Then let each of us look around among his acquaintances.’

The weeks went by. The bilal got wind of the elders’ deliberations, but made no attempt to limit his indulgences; every morning he sent for a girl and satisfied himself.

Eventually they found Yacine N’Doye. She came of a fisherman’s family and was not like other girls. She was almost twenty - and what a tongue she had! No man had come to ask for her; she was a tomboy, a hard worker, and joined in the young men’s games and competitions, challenging them. And when her father told her that he had found her a husband, she did not quibble, although she would have liked to ask a few questions.

One evening Suliman was seen to go into the house. Yacine’s father was very flattered. It was a great honour to know that his daughter could please the bilal. And Suliman, a prey to his desires, was not niggardly. ‘If you want the heifer you must take care of the cow.’ He was generous in helping his future father-in-law; and at the mosque he pretended not to see him at collection time, or else he gave him his coins back when they were alone.

One Friday, Yacine was betrothed to him. There was a great feast; a sheep was slaughtered, and all the faithful took part in the festivities. Suliman promised in front of everyone that he would slaughter two bulls for Yacine’s virginity.

During the months which elapsed between the betrothal and the wedding night, Suliman seemed a new man. Everyone was sure that Yacine was ‘intact’, as pure as spring water. The sole subject of gossip was the coming celebrations. Yacine’s father, her mother and all her relations, near and distant, plied her with questions.

‘But how do you expect me to get on with that old man?’ she asked them.

‘That old man? He’s giving you what the young ones haven’t got. Honour, rank, esteem - to say nothing of two bulls on your wedding day! Even your mother didn’t have that.’

Then there were the little presents of toiletry, fibre trunks, head-scarves, waist-cloths and bracelets. And despite his age, Suliman decided to build a new hut for Yacine. ‘Everything must be new for a virgin!’ he told the other men.

The date for her ‘induction’ was postponed. Suliman controlled his impatience. The hut was not quite ready. ‘Everything in it is Yacine’s. I give it all to her,’ he said boastfully.

‘Suliman, there’s no one like you,’ said the men.

The day came when Yacine entered into her new home. The following day, a white waist-cloth stained with blood was passed round by the women, from compound to compound, to general rejoicing. This made the bride’s parents very proud; their honour was safe. For the whole of that week, everyone ate nothing but meat. Drums beat, and the girls organized dances in the evenings.

Everything gradually returned to normal. Yacine was the favoured wife. But at the end of three years, when Yacine was only twenty-three, she had had just one child. She had become a woman, with all a woman’s qualities and faults. (In this climate of perpetual spring, passions run deep and fast. A man on the decline cannot hope to satisfy a woman in her prime.) While Yacine’s vigour was mounting, Suliman’s was diminishing. Night after night, as nothing was forthcoming, Yacine stayed awake. She regretted having had her sensuality aroused. Suliman was still granting three days of his presence to each of his wives. The old ones, broad in the beam and worn out from successive pregnancies, were not particularly interested in ‘that’. Once a month was quite enough for them. But Yacine had only the one child; and she ought to be breeding.

One day Yacine went to see her parents. She had this serious problem on her mind.

‘Father, I want to come back home.’


‘Well, I’m afraid I’m not getting on with my husband.’

‘And why not?’ he asked again, looking straight at her.

Modesty prevented her from entering into explanations. She dropped her eyes and turned to leave again.

‘Just remember, daughter, that Suliman has spent an enormous amount, and if you leave him for no reason - that is, for no valid reason - I shall have to pay him back . .. and I can’t.’

Yacine, unable to bear the frustration any longer, took a lover, none other than Suliman’s nephew. One morning, having spent three nights with his third wife, Suliman went to Yacine’s hut. He found his nephew in bed with her. He said nothing. The lovers had seen him too. ‘You get sick of what is disagreeable; what is agreeable makes you enterprising.’

In the days that followed, Suliman said nothing about it to anybody; nor did Yacine or the nephew. It was a secret between them. ‘If you repudiate your wife, you lose the dowry. And for such a reason, witnesses are necessary.’ Keeping the secret was even worse! It poisoned his thoughts. The mere knowledge that another man had taken his place was enough to age Suliman; and in the space of six weeks he lost his fine bearing and became consumed with jealousy.

‘Are you ill, bilal?' the faithful asked him, seeing him wasting away.

‘What, me? Good heavens, no! Nothing serious, it’ll soon go.’

In Suliman’s house a tragic-comedy was being enacted by three silent players, with no spectators but themselves. Yacine could not quit Suliman without refunding all the expense he had gone to on her account. Her father was in no position to return the money if she were declared the guilty party in a divorce. Both husband and wife stuck to their respective positions. Suliman thought ‘If she returns to her father’s house, I shall get my money back and be able to keep my son.’ While Yacine said to herself ‘If I go back home, I shall have to return everything to him.’ Then she thought ‘But why should I? I didn’t ask him for anything. If I leave him, it’s because he isn’t a man any more.’

Yacine, meanwhile, had no embarrassment over spending her time pleasantly with her lover. While Suliman, ailing from a disorder that was undermining his prestige and his dignity, quarreled with his other wives. Once again the men said, ‘Poor fellow, he’s venting his wrath on dead donkeys.’

Another year went by, and Yacine was pregnant again. When the baby was born, the elders, acting through loyalty or hypocrisy, made preparations to baptize the child. But Suliman, with a final spark of honesty, objected.

‘I’m not going to baptize a child which isn’t mine,’ he said.

‘Well, we know that. It is the will of God. This child is yours because Yacine is your wife.’

‘What will of God? God has nothing to do with it.’

Yacine had not waited for the outcome; she had returned to her parents’ taking everything with her, even the broom. She had just appropriated everything Suliman had ever given her. (It must be remembered that in a case like this, the wife in fact has to return everything.) The bilal was to some extent pleased by Yacine’s action, for he thought that he could start divorce proceedings and get all his property back. In fact he was very cheerful about it. But he made no move to see his parents-in-law. On the contrary, it was Yacine’s father who approached the bilal at the mosque, after prayers, hoping that the latter would raise the matter. But the cunning Suliman diverted the conversation to religious subjects.

The couple apparently had no intention of taking their case for dispute before the elders. However, people gossiped, and eventually there was a meeting to discuss it. Suliman finally made up his mind to plead his case before the gathering of elders.

‘I will grant her the divorce, but first she must pay back all my expenses and return my child to me.’

(He had right on his side, by local law and custom.)

‘There are two children,’ was the reply. ‘Both are yours. Besides, you haven’t told us why she left you.’

‘Oh, she can tell you that.’

‘Well, that’s very true. She was the one who went away. She must have her reasons, which you may know nothing about.’

They questioned Yacine’s father. ‘So she wants to divorce him?’

‘She says not.’

The elders were astonished. ‘She says not?’

This confused the whole affair beyond comprehension. When the dust had blown away, they would see more clearly, said the elders philosophically. That evening they sent for Yacine.

‘Yacine, you must go back to your husband.’

‘I tell you I will not.’

‘Very well, so you are bringing a suit for divorce. The sole fact that you are no longer happy with your husband means that you will be granted a divorce. Then you will have to pay back —’

‘In the first place,’ retorted Yacine, ‘I am not asking for a divorce. In the second place, I just can’t go on living with him. Thirdly, I’ve nothing to give back - and the child is not his.’

The elders, wise men though they were, had to admit that they were baffled by this. Suliman was evidently right; the matter could not be settled among themselves. It was taken to the Cadi.

The most learned men from all around were called in. A delegation was even sent to ask the great Froh-Toll to attend, the man whose truths smarted like a squirt of lemon-juice in the eye. The court-house could hold only fifty people, so it was decided that the case should be heard in the open air. Many idlers took up places on the village square the day before the case was due to start. The marabouts consulted the Holy Book of Koranic laws and reviewed the Farata and the Sounna, the rules and customs governing the union and separation of man and wife.

The time came, the case was opened by the Hali, the judge, who called upon ‘anyone who can throw light on this matter’ to do so. Then he addressed the contestants.

‘Suliman, will you agree to take back your wife and your children? And you, Yacine, are you prepared to go back to your husband with his children? We will hear what you have to say.’

‘Yacine left me,’ replied Suliman. ‘I want her to pay back all my expenses and give me my child.’

‘So you don’t want your wife, Suliman?’ said the Hali.

‘If a wife leaves her husband’s house and takes everything with her, it means that she has no intention of returning.’

‘To all appearances, that is true,’ put in Froh-Toll. ‘What do you say to that, Yacine?’

‘I say that I have not divorced Suliman. He was my husband, but later he was no longer capable of being my husband. That is why I left him.’

‘That is what you say. But only Suliman can set you free,’ said the Hali.

‘It is not the same thing as leaving her husband’s home,’ commented Froh-Toll.

‘She left me and she must pay me back,’ said Suliman.

‘I have nothing to pay back,’ retorted Yacine.

‘Yacine, according to the rules and customs which united the two of you, you must give back the dowry.’

‘Very well, if you think that’s fair. But I will only agree on condition that Suliman gives me back my virginity.’

That was not written in the rules and customs, but it aroused much controversy. Some, especially the young ones, supported Yacine. But the elders failed to see the logic of it and took a different view of her case. Realizing that here was a moot point, the Hali called for silence and went on to consider the question of the children.

‘There are two children, and as Yacine has broken the marriage contract, as we now know, the custody of the children devolves on their father, Suliman.’

‘I should like to add ... or rather clear up a small matter. The second child is not mine,’ Suliman stated for all to hear.

‘I shan’t give him or anything up,’ retorted Yacine.

Until then, most of those present had supported Yacine, but they did not agree with her about the custody of the child. Everyone recognized the father’s sacred right to have possession of his offspring - everyone except Froh-Toll.

‘I should like to put a few questions to you, the wise men,’ began Froh-Toll. ‘It appears that the child should be returned to the father. But are we sure that a child should be returned to its father by right of birth?’

‘Oh yes. It says so in the Holy Book.’

Froh-Toll was thoughtful for a few moments, then he said composedly: ‘I myself, here before you, I lost my father when I had been in my mother’s womb for only two months. The death of my father did not prevent me from coming into the world ...’

‘The death of a husband will never prevent his pregnant wife from giving birth,’ stated the Hali.

‘But now consider that the contrary had happened, that my mother had died when two months’ pregnant. Should I be alive now?’

‘No, no,’ shouted the crowd.

‘So by what right does Suliman demand the custody of the child? There can always be doubt as to who is the father of a child. But never as to who is the mother.’