Xala narrates several weeks in the life of an African businessman, Abdou Kader Beyè, called “El Hadji.” The brief novel traces his rapid decline from affluence to total humiliation and ruin.
As the novel begins, El Hadji is at the peak of his career, a rich man respected and even envied by his fellow businessmen. He is about to be married to his third wife, N’Gone, a pretty young woman who has flattered him with her attentions. Taking a third wife marks him as a “captain,” a leader in West African culture, in which a man’s success is measured by the number of wives he can support. Each of El Hadji’s wives has her own villa and well-appointed household, complete with cars, a chauffeur, and many money-hungry children.
El Hadji collects his two wives and takes them (as custom dictates) to his wedding party, where they are to meet the new wife and welcome her without jealousy. The first two wives—Adja Awa Astou and Oumi N’Doye, respectively—leave, and as the party descends into raucous ribaldry, El Hadji is taken away by Yay Bineta, his new wife’s officious aunt, who has functioned as the matchmaker. It is Yay Bineta’s responsibility to prepare the husband and wife for their wedding night, and she therefore encourages El Hadji to perform certain tribal rituals to ensure his potency. He refuses, dismissing the acts as foolish superstition.
Alone with his new bride, El Hadji is filled with desire, but the unthinkable happens: He is impotent. Never before has such a thing happened to him. When he admits his failure to Yay Bineta, she tells him that someone must have put a curse of impotence, a xala (pronounced “hala”), upon him.
For days El Hadji agonizes over his problem, consulting countless marabouts (healers) and paying exorbitant fees to them, with no result. He neglects his business, and his financial affairs, already under pressure as a result of his lavish life-style, begin to crumble. Worse, all of his colleagues have heard of his xala, and El Hadji alternately seeks their advice and runs from them, humiliated.
Finally, El Hadji’s faithful chauffeur takes him far into the countryside, to a healer famous for his success with the xala. In an area so remote that El Hadji’s Mercedes must be abandoned in favor of a cart, the two men finally locate the healer, who promises to cure El Hadji for a very high fee. El Hadji writes a check and the treatment begins. Suddenly, El Hadji realizes that the curse has indeed been lifted.
He rushes back to the city, to his new bride, only to discover that she is having her menstrual period. Yay Bineta advises him to take comfort with another wife and return to N’Gone in a few days. Yet after a night of love with his second wife, El Hadji realizes that his troubles are not over. Preoccupation with the xala has taken his attention away from his financial affairs, which require constant supervision; El Hadji discovers that his business is about to fail. His colleagues, envious of his previous success, now see an opening for themselves in his misfortune, and they vote to cast him out of their powerful association. His banker refuses to lend him money. The next day, movers repossess his cars and furniture. Worst of all, the check that El Hadji gave to the marabout bounces, and the marabout, in spite, restores the xala. Yay Bineta decides that her niece can do better than remain married to an impotent, now-impoverished fifty-year-old man, so she has the unconsummated marriage annulled. El Hadji’s second wife returns to her parents.
Only his first wife stands by him. On the day of his ruin, El Hadji goes to her house to seek refuge from creditors. The next morning, he is shocked to find a beggar outside, the same beggar who has haunted his office building for years. Other infirm and diseased beggars slowly fill the house as El Hadji listens in amazement to the beggar, who tells him that El Hadji ruined his family and reduced him to beggary many years before. The xala was the...
(The entire section is 1,745 words.)