John Berger's latest books are Hold Everything Dear (Verso, 2007), The Red Tenda of Bologna (Drawbridge Books, 2007) and From A to X: A Story in Letters (Verso, longlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize).

The Red Tenda of Bologna is available to Drawbridge readers for the special price of 12.

Order here

Across prison walls

Ya Nour,

You asked me to send some soap – the nearest we can get to swimming, you say. It came this morning, your letter. So I'm sending twelve soaps in the hope you'll get four.

There's the widow called Tamara who comes to the pharmacy from time to time. In her seventies. She came in with a cut on the forefinger of her right hand this morning. Very slight but somewhat infected – it had happened two or three days before, with a knife when she was slicing potatoes.

She shows it to me. She has shown it to nobody else, and by now the two of them – she and the cut – are getting on each other's nerves. I go and fetch some ointment and a little packet of adhesive dressings.

I explain to Tamara how to put one of the dressings on. She imitates my gestures with her left hand and laughs.

Once more, she pleads.

So I show her again, and she imitates me with the concentration of a little girl learning to dress a doll. Her right hand has become her doll, and now she can return alone to her tiny room, with a doll and not a cut.

Thank you, she says after paying, you're an angel.

I shake my head. The angels have gone, I tell her.

Today there's confirmation that our application for a marriage has been turned down. Statute IBEC-27 Clause: F.

There's no larger mistake possible than to believe that an absence is a nothingness. The difference between the two is a question of timing. (About which they can do nothing.) Nothingness is before and absence afterwards. At times it's easy to confuse the two: hence some of our griefs.


Almost all promises are broken. The poor's acceptance of adversity is neither passive nor resigned. It's an acceptance which peers behind the adversity, and discovers there something nameless. Not a promise, for (almost) all promises are broken; something like a bracket, a parenthesis in the otherwise remorseless flow of time. And the sum total of these parentheses is perhaps eternity.

Ya Nour,
Last week I saw Alexis. We played several hands. He was my partner and straightaway we merged three melds because we had only two wild cards. He brought me almonds that I can't stop eating. We've been cut off from supplies. Listen, I'll bite one, hear my tooth crack it?

As a child I thought almonds were like no other nut or fruit because I was convinced they were handmade. Today I know they contain soluble protein and that the bitter, as distinct from the sweet variety contains hydro-cyanic acid, the catalyst used for extracting gold and other pure metals from their ores, and, sometimes, for filling the little phial which can save us, when captured, from fates worse than death.

I knew, of course, about almond trees with their white blossoms. Bridal white, and I dreamt of being married with those flowers in my hair. Today I dream of being married in the parlour of Suse prison!

I knew about the trees, yet when I arranged the nuts in circles on the tabletop, I told myself that, long ago, it was a woman who had thought them up as a sweetmeat. Very long ago. She was a goddess, not a woman. A sweetmeat for her sweetheart. She concocted the first almond, tasted it, reduced the sugar, added oil, tasted it again, nodded, added a touch of cumin, and decided almonds were what she would make for her lover's return.

So, she gave instructions to a tree. It was the first graft, made with words, not with a cutting and rags. The next spring the tree flowered and produced in June abundant almonds with the same taste as the one I'm biting now. Later the goddess's lover sailed away, never to return, and she grafted on to a second tree instructions for the bitter almond whose blossom is pinker, for it is mixed with drops of blood from a broken heart.

Hydro-cyanic acid is also an antispasmodic. Used for injections to lower high blood pressure in extremis.

And Alexis told me a story. Now I've heard the story from four men all of whom were there in the brig. When the other three tell it, they say it was you who started to bark, as a protest against insults being hurled at a new arrival, an old man, by a herder who was banging him up in the slot next to yours. When you told it, I remember well, you said it was the old man who started to bark.

Knowing what it's like being transferred to an unfamiliar prison, I think you invented the barking for him! I'm almost sure you did. It takes an hour or two to get your breath, after the unfamiliar door is dubbed up in the familiar way, whilst you stand there facing it! Facing it! Tongue behind the teeth.

In any case, the compañeros on the other side of the old man's slot picked it up and barked and the bark went to the next slot and the next and the next, one after another, not hurrying, until the whole tier was barking.

And it wasn't any bark, Alexis insists. It was the bark of a hunting dog. Hunting dogs bark as they run, they bark to give news to the rest of the pack. They don't just announce their presence and yap like terriers. They listen to one another, they respond, they imitate, they close in.

The herders started to shout, to threaten, to bang on the doors. They took out their shit-sticks. They set off alarms. To no effect. The barking continued and unlike the racket the herders were making, the barking was sure of itself and calm. It passed from tier to tier until the whole brig was barking.

Then at a certain moment the barking changed and became deeper and more intimate, it became a chuckling bark because everybody recognized the herders were scared.

They had all the usual controls at their fingertips, and yet fear was touching them, along their backs, down their spines. They were being brought up short by the extent of what they could not control. And as soon as this was evident, they saw the unchanging fact of being outnumbered as a threat. They began to count and recount the bodies. They glanced swiftly at one another for reassurance.

And how long did it go on? I asked you. You shrugged your shoulders. And I knew why you did so. You did so because you wanted to say: All night! And to say so would have been a gross exaggeration and, at the same time, God's truth. He often exaggerates!

Eventually you all decided – at the same moment – to stop barking, not one of you, not even the most inveterate loner was tempted to break the ensuing silence. You all knew that for once the silence belonged, not to them, the herders, but to you, the barkers. And this is why the barking lasted all night!

Telling it again, I love you all, and I send you what I send you.

You can put it wherever you like.




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