Monday, 27 June 2016
It was noon of the third Tuesday of Ramadan when the Qadi fetched up at the southern bank of the wadi. All five young men flocked round him as he slowly made his way towards the terebinth-tree. The tree gave little shade at this time of day, but the young men seemed so filled with concern they would not shy away from sitting on a brazier.
Within moments of their sitting there, the Qadi looked up at one of the young men. Innocent as his look was, it only sparked envy, suspicion and anxiety. But that man the Qadi had looked at just now exuded a charm which would captivate even cats and dogs, let alone a thoughtful, sixty-year-old Qadi. Besides, at that very moment, that very young man had just winked a tear back.
“You look sad,” said the Qadi to that young man, grinning at the other four.
“We are all sad, Qadi,” protested one of those rather quaveringly.
“I know. I know,” said the Qadi, looking as if he had made a blunder. “I know. That’s why I am here. I want to help you. I don’t want you to be sad. I want you to be happy. But, you know, it’s hard –if not impossible–to make you happy all of you. Because you all want the same thing. You all want the same woman, but only one of you can marry her. Each of you says he loves her. Each of you says he deserves her. No one of you is prepared to choose another woman. You said you’d lay down your lives if you don’t get her. Her father has threatened to marry her off on the same day as all the other village girls, and that day is only months away. I have thought and thought about your problem. I have spoken to so many sensible people and they all repeat that I should not have agreed to help you. I agreed and I’m not sorry I did so, but please help me to help you.”
“How can we help you?” said one of the young men ungraciously.
“You can help me by being a little bit more sensible. I’m going to make a suggestion, right? Think about it. If you agree to it, we’ll go ahead. Otherwise, I shall not be able to help.”
Nobody spoke, but all eyes were on the Qadi’s lips.
“My suggestion,” said the Qadi, stroking his white beard, “is this. I will give the woman you all covet to the one amongst you who resembles her most in her goodness or wickedness. If she is a good woman she will get a good man; if she is a wicked woman she will get a wicked man.”
There was a chuckle, after which one of the young men asked, raising his eyebrows:
“Who would decide who of us is good and who’s wicked?”
“I’ll find four men who’ll be spying on you,” said the Qadi gravely. “They’ll be watching each of you without your knowledge. And they’ll be monitoring the woman at the same time. It’s they who’ll decide who should marry the woman. They’ll make their decision within the next few months. Now let me hear from you. What do you say to that?”
“And what about our weekly meetings with the girls down the valley?” said the charming man. “Shall we be allowed to meet up with Zina during that period of time?”
The Qadi could not help sighing as he turned to that man, and said with a knowing smile:
“You can see her, no problem. But, remember, Tahar, only one man will marry that woman.”
“And that man might not be me,” said Tahar in a muffled voice. “I’ve got it!”
“So let me leave you now,” said the Qadi, rising to his feet. “See you soon!”
The five young men looked at one another. Each seemed to use the other’s eyes as a mirror to find out whether he was “good” or “wicked”.
Suddenly, Tahar turned his gaze to the opposite bank. He sighed. Then he looked down and moved away.
“Where are you going?” said one of the other four.
“I’m going home,” said Tahar simply.
At home, Tahar’s mother was preparing a tajeen, and a little way from her, on the right side of the courtyard, her twenty-year-old daughter-in-law was baking bread in an earthen oven. Between them stood a huge tree that shaded the whole place. The mud hut that served as a kitchen in the rainy season stood further away and no smoke was coming from it now. So the chickens roaming about the house could pop in and out of the kitchen without fear of being scared away. The only nuisance to the chickens, though, was Tahar’s three-year-old nephew, who was after the hen with chicks. So Tahar, who was sitting on a wooden stool on the other side of the courtyard, hailed him gently and the little boy ran to him and swung round and stood between his knees.
“What were you doing?” said Tahar, throwing his voice.
“I was playing with the chicks,” said the little boy.
“No, Salem, don’t do that! You are a kid, not a chick. And kids play with kids, and chicks play with chicks…”
Tahar talked on and on, first with his nephew, then with his elder brother, then with his father, and at foutour, with everybody. But only his tongue was talking with all those. His true talk was with himself, and it was in silence.
His heart was full of questions and his mind could not afford answers, or rather answers that would quench the fire that was raging in his heart.
“Am I good?” the questions went on endlessly. “How much of a good man am I? Am I wicked? How much of a wicked man am I? I have not put these questions before. But now I must know. The problem is that I don’t know what I should know. Should I go around and ask people what they think of me? Please tell me: Am I good? Please tell me: Am I wicked? Or should I sit back and count all the good deeds and misdeeds I did in the past? I might count the good deeds, but the misdeeds– there’s no counting them! I don’t say my prayers, to begin with. From time to time I drink with the boys. I spend hours and hours playing on my utar, and I keep on playing on it even when I hear the muezzin call for prayer.
“But is Zina any different? I don’t think she drinks, but I don’t think she says her prayers, either. I can’t say she’s a woman of easy virtue, but I can’t say she’s any more pious than her mates, either.
“But, Tahar, why are you thinking of Zina now? No, no, no. I love Zina. I can’t bear seeing her go to someone else. I was the first to talk to her, and she liked me so much– although she’s never told me she loves me. But I could see it in her eyes, on her lips, on her shivering hands. All those boys came down us simply because they were jealous of me. They know that Zina is the most beautiful girl. They just don’t want me to marry her, and that’s it!... But now, Tahar, just tell me: suppose Zina is a wicked woman, would you–No, no, no. I can’t–I can’t think of that. I love Zina. Stop this folly! Get out of here!...”
It was dark when Tahar left the house. He did not go to the berraka, where the village boys would meet up to have tea and play cards or listen to the utar. He went to the riverbank instead. He sat down under the terebinth-tree and went on musing until it was time for souhour.
Two days after Ramadan two strange men came up to Tahar while he was working on his family fields.
“Hi, kid!” said one of the strangers.
Surprised at the sudden warmth of the greeting, Tahar dropped the sickle, and mumbled:
All three men shook hands and bandied words, then, all of a sudden, the strangers introduced themselves:
“I am Issa. This is Mussa. We want a word with you about Zina.”
“Zina?” Tahar muttered, his eyes sparkling suddenly.
“Yes,” Issa hastened to add. “But not here and not now. We don’t want anybody else to know.”
“If not here, where? If not now, when?”
“Look here,” said Mussa, clutching Tahar’s hands, “we’ll be waiting for you at the Sidi Ali Crossroads just after dawn tomorrow. Don’t tell anybody. Now, goodbye!”
The next dawn found Tahar at the Sidi Ali Crossroads. Issa and Mussa joined him presently. They took him into a nearby vineyard and served him dates and boiled eggs.
“Now, what’s the matter?” said Tahar eagerly.
Issa and Mussa exchanged glances as if both waited for the other to speak first. Tahar was about to repeat his question when Mussa said:
“Calm down, man! And listen well. Qadi Allal (You know him?)– well, he has asked us to be his eyes and ears. Now, I think you know the rest of the story. What you don’t know, however, is that this meeting might prove very decisive indeed, and we hope earnestly you’ll not miss out on this golden opportunity.”
“Am I to understand that I should do something or other so that you’ll be saying something in my favour?”
“You’ve guessed it!” said Issa enthusiastically.
“Something such as what, I wonder?” said Tahar, whose face was beginning to tense up.
Once again Issa and Mussa looked at one another, before the latter said with a little smile:
“Well, we know you love Zina, but we also know that love alone is not enough. Yet, we can help you. But first you have to pay us.”
“Pay you? Pay you what?”
“Yes, you must pay us. Give us a yearling calf or three sheep or seven goats. It’s up to you to choose!”
Tahar sprang to his feet and shouted, tossing away the egg he had been peeling:
“You brought me over here to bribe you!”
“Shhh! Calm down! Lower your voice! Shut up! Get out of here!...”
But Tahar gave free rein to his anger so that the two men had to use a big stick to chase him out of the vineyard.
On his way back home, Tahar was more confused than angry.
“Was this part of a scheme?” he thought perplexedly. “Or were they actually trying to swindle money out of me? What should I do now? Should I go and tell the Qadi? Would the Qadi believe me if he trusted these men? And what would be the result? Would he give me Zina? What about the other boys, then? No. I should wait. I must wait and see how they’ll behave in the coming days.
“And what if those men were genuine? What if I had to bribe them in order to get Zina? Bribe them? I, bribe somebody? And especially those two men? Should I bribe them in order to get Zina? And what about the love that has kindled my heart? Should I love her and, on top of that, bribe people in order to marry her? If her father asked me for a big dowry, I wouldn’t hesitate to sell everything I have to please him. But bribe, no! No, no, this would be a humiliation. I love Zina and I want to marry her. But if– No, no, no. I can’t think of this. Please stop this. Wait! Wait!...”
Wednesday came and the boys and girls from both villages met again, after five weeks of separation, because of Ramadan. Now they were down there humming, shrieking with laughter, clapping their hands, singing. There was no kissing, no necking– never. Nonetheless, some parents and coltish young men and women, who had not yet met partners from the opposite village–all were there, sitting on the higher parts of the slopes. They were up there sitting and watching in silence. Tahar, too, remained seated under the terebinth-tree, just a few yards from the southern bank. And from there he could see Zina and the other four lovers.
Zina was smiling to everybody. Tahar sighed again and again. Zina was listening to the boys, who were speaking all at a time. Tahar watched in silence. Suddenly, there was a cough and then a shadow. Tahar turned round in surprise and was on his feet.
“Oh, what a surprise, Qadi!” he yelled with a fetching smile.
The Qadi smiled too, and said in a kindly voice:
“You look sad, my son! Why all this gloom? Take it easy! Don’t worry!”
“What! Do you mean–”
“I just said don’t worry,” said the Qadi, moving away.
“Where are you going, Qadi?” Tahar panted out.
“I’m going down,” said the Qadi without glancing back. “Won’t you come along?”
“No, sir, I’ll stay here.”
And there he stayed, sitting under the terebinth-tree and watching in silence.
In the evening he was with the boys at the berraka. He had not brought with him his own utar, but someone served him a cup of tea and egged on him to play on the utar that was lying on the mat. Tahar put the cup of tea aside and picked up the utar and began to play on it. And while he played he now and then stole glances at his four rivals, those who vied with him for Zina’s heart.
Surprisingly enough, all those looked at him with gleaming eyes. They all broke into song and clapped their hands and rocked, and encored the utar player. But the utar player, having seen how gleeful his rivals were, was now beginning to feel a pang of anguish. He began to lose his grip on the utar. And before tears gathered in his eyes he dropped the instrument suddenly and left the berraka.
"Oh, my God!" he cried, flinging his arms up in exasperation. Above him was a sky studded with stars, in front of him a dark, winding pathway.
"What's the matter, Tahar?" asked an unseen passer-by.
Tahar composed himself, and said:
"There's nothing the matter with me!"
"But I heard you say 'Oh, my God!'?" said the voice, which turned out to be that of a close neighbour of Tahar's.
"Yes, that's right!" Tahar conceded with an embarrassed smile. "You know, we all go mad sometimes! Where were you going?"
"I was going to the berraka."
"Alright. See you! Good night!"
That night was long, long, and horrendous. "Why, why didn't I agree to bribe them?" Tahar thought ruefully. "All those guys were cheerful tonight. At least one of them must have done it. Maybe they all gave generous gifts. And perhaps each thought he had paid the biggest price for Zina. Zina, my love. But how can she be your love when you were mean to her? Instead of jettisoning just one principle just one time, what you did was chuck out your love. It's too late now! It's a caddish thing to do what you did, my poor Tahar! Yes, sigh again and again, and weep! Your sighs and tears won't help you now…"
It was prize-day now. Tahar and his four rivals sat in a half circle in front of the Qadi under the terebinth-tree. All eyes were on the Qadi's lips. The Qadi spoke for some length of time of friendship and brotherhood, of fate, and of marriage. Then, he said:
"I am sorry to say that at this stage, at this point in time, one of you is going to be weeded out. The other four will have to be subjected to more tests."
Then the Qadi dropped his eyes and fell silent. Tahar's heart throbbed. But no one dared speak to the Qadi now. The silence was unbearably long. And then there was a murmur. Tahar's rivals were looking to their right. Dumbfounded, they looked at a flock of camels, cattle, sheep, and goats– all led by four men, two of whom were easily recognizable to Tahar. They were the ones that had called themselves Issa and Mussa.
When the cortège came to a halt just a few feet from where the uncomprehending young men were sitting, the Qadi looked up at Tahar, and said:
"Tahar, you gave us nothing, so you'll get nothing. Your time is up!"
Tahar cast a puzzled look at his hitherto rivals and at the cortège and took his leave. His legs took him down the valley, through which flowed a brook unsteadily as it sometimes would at this time of year. He trudged along the pebbly edge of the brook. "…So I'm not going to marry Zina," he went on speaking to himself like a madman. "Zina's going to marry one of the bunch… one of the wicked." (He burst into laughter.) "So Zina is a wicked woman? All those are wicked men? So I was the only good man? If Zina is a wicked woman, who is a good woman and where could I find her?" (Suddenly, Tahar went berserk.) "No! I must go back and tell the Qadi that I am just as wicked as those, and that only I and nobody else love Zina, and that I must marry Zina, otherwise I will actually kill someone or kill myself…"
Just at that moment a voice called out to him:
"Tahar! Tahar! Wait!"
Tahar turned round. His pulse began to beat quicker.
"Wait!" Issa panted out. "The Qadi has sent me to you. He wants to speak to you."
Tahar just looked on speechless while Issa pointed at a palm-tree up the southern back of the wadi.
"Qadi Allal will be there in a moment," Issa said. "Go and await him there!"
Both Tahar and the Qadi were panting when they sat down under the palm-tree. It was the Qadi who spoke first.
"I thought you were a good man," he said. "I knew you were really hooked on that girl. But I had a feeling that you were good, though. Now, I am disillusioned."
"What more do you want of me now after having torn my love from me?"
"Would you marry a woman who loves someone else?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Zina liked your good looks, but she loved another man, I'm afraid."
"What do you mean?"
"Zina hated shy men."
"That's no news to me! I know I am a shy person, but why don't you want to tell me her lover's name?"
"Tahar, you were not her man, and she was not your woman."
"But my heart is full of her!"
"She did not deserve you. She does not deserve you."
"Who then deserves me? Just tell me!"
"How old are you, Tahar?"
Tahar sighed and cooled down a bit, then mumbled:
"I'm twenty-one years old. Why?"
"Well, you asked me a question, didn't you? You said: who deserves me? So–"
Their eyes met. The Qadi smiled. Tahar shivered.
"Tahar," said the Qadi suddenly, "there's a woman who, I think, deserves to be your wife."
"Where is she?"
"There!" The Qadi pointed towards the opposite village.
"Are you mocking at me?"
"So who is she?"
"I can't tell you who she is."
"Qadi, you know I got such a shock when you weeded me out, and now you're yet tormenting me–"
The Qadi laughed, then said:
"Listen, Tahar. I am not mocking at you. There's actually a woman who, I think, deserves to be your wife. She lives in that village. I'm afraid I can't tell you who she is. But if you know some religious songs, do sing them and the woman who deserves your love will come into view!"
"But where will this woman spring from?"
"I said just come here and sit down and sing religious songs and your true love will spring into view! This time I am in earnest."
"But I know all the girls, all the young women who live in that village. I saw them all, and I never lost my heart but to the one you've snatched from me with your ruling!"
"That's right," said the Qadi. "You know them all but one!"
"Are you sure this one lives in that village?"
"Yes! Sing religious songs and she'll spring into view and you'll see her with your own eyes!"
"Alright!" said Tahar. "We will see. I don't know religious songs right now, but I'll go and learn some and I'll come back to sing them."
"That's good!" said the Qadi, tapping Tahar on the shoulder. "But if you want your love to hear you, come to this tree and sing. But, tell me, Tahar, where are you going to learn religious songs?"
"I don't know, really. Do you have any idea?"
"Yes, go to Marrakesh. There is a man in Djemaâ-el-Fna called Saeed El-Bahi. He keeps a bookstore there…"
A week later, Saeed El-Bahi was unraveling to Tahar the mysteries of Marrakesh. Their trip started at Djemaâ-el-Fna, where they roamed amongst snake charmers, monkey masters, story-tellers, musicians, acrobat dancers. And from there they went to the Koutoubia Mosque.
"Do you pray?" said El Bahi suddenly.
But Tahar knew that he was quite new to this world. He had never performed a prayer in a mosque.
The prayers were over, and El Bahi said they had yet more to see of the city. They went down Agnaou Street, they had a look at Bab-Agnaou, then went on south to Kasba Street, which took them to the Agdal Garden. And there Tahar lost his tongue for a moment. At a glance he could see olive-trees, fig-trees, pear-trees, pomegranate-trees, apple-trees, vines; and other trees he saw for the first time in his life. Never before had he seen orange-trees or peach-trees. Now he saw them, and burst out:
"This is Heaven, isn't it?"
"No, my son," said El Bahi. "This is a beautiful garden. But Heaven is quite another matter. Now, come! Let's move on!"
"Let's move on to another garden!"
That other garden was a long way away. "Now, we're going to see the Menara," said El Bahi on the way. "But tell me, what led you to Marrakesh?"
"I think I told you," said Tahar in surprise.
"Oh, yes, you told me. I'm sorry. You said you wanted to learn some religious songs. Is that right?"
"Yes, that's right."
"Are you a singer?"
"No, I'm not. But I like singing."
"What kind of songs do you sing?"
"Well, you know, I sing of love– that sort of thing."
"And now you want to sing religious songs. I'm not going to ask you why, but tell me: do you know something of the Koran?"
"Very little, to be honest."
"Can you recite what you know of the Koran?"
"No, not really."
"Then, I'm afraid, I can't teach you any religious songs or lyrics unless you have learned by heart some Suras of the Koran."
"I wish I could! But I can't read and write, you know."
"That's not a problem. I'll teach you how to read and write. And I'll teach you Suras and songs, right?"
"Thank you! That's why I came to you. But I'm here only for two weeks, no more."
"You're welcome. Look, now we're heading straight to the Menara. I think you'll like it…"
When he went to bed that night, Tahar did not think of the Agdal Garden or the Menara or the Koutoubia mosque, but of the young women who, from behind their veils, had devoured him with their eyes.
Now, he was back to his village. He told his family that he had learnt to write his name and read Souras from the Koran. Like a school-boy, he recited all the Suras he had learned by heart. And his mother served him a memorable tajeen.
Then he went to mosque. He performed his prayers and had a chat with the Imam. Then he went back home, fetched his utar and made for the palm-tree by the river-bank.
He sat down, facing towards the river. He tuned up his utar and soon the music stroke.
Tahar went from tune to tune, now raising now lowering his voice. He looked as if he were singing to a spirit, hoping it would spring into view and fulfil his most cherished dream. But what he saw now blurred his eyes. It was beyond belief. The young woman the Qadi had told him about seemed to have been spirited out into the open. She seemed to have heard some spirited music throbbing in the distance. She seemed to have heard Tahar's stirring songs– songs that glorified the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). She was now sitting up there, on the trunk of a tree lying across the lane. Tahar could not see her face, because she was veiled. But he had seen her shape and graceful gait before she sat down. He felt like crying, "Oh, you sitting over there, come and stand by me!" But all he could do was sing more songs and raise his voice high enough for her to feel his heartbeat.
But now she stood up and began to go away. Tahar was taken aback. He dropped the utar and struggled to his feet. The muezzin was calling for Dusk prayers. The birds were returning to their roosts. The young woman vanished behind a cluster of houses. Three young men came over, and one of them said:
"Tahar, what's the matter?"
Tahar gave no reply, so another voice said:
"Is this another love-story?"
"You could say that," said the third. "I saw him gazing at the young woman in white who had been sitting up there."
"Is that right, Tahar?"
"I don't know," said Tahar, looking down. "I'm sorry, I have to go."
"No, not before you sing us something!" said one of the three.
"Some other time!" said Tahar, picking up his utar. "I must go to mosque."
Tahar did not wait to explain himself. He hurried up towards the mosque. He hung his utar on a tree on the way, and joined the few worshippers.
Night fell, but, to Tahar, it was just a continuation of the day. The only difference was that he was now in bed in a dark room. Now again he was going to have a sleepless night. He could not sleep because he could not stop thinking. This had happened to him before. What was new –and hard to grasp– was that he now thought of a featureless woman.
The next day Tahar did a whole day's work in just a few hours so that he could go in the mid-afternoon to the palm-tree and sing his new songs to spirit his new beloved out of her home. He went there and sang soulfully but his beloved did not seem to have heard him this time round. He came back at the same time the next day and the day after and belted out his best new songs, but the woman he was after did not turn up again.
"So was the Qadi beguiling me with promises when he spoke to me about that ghost of a woman?" Tahar thought gloomily at the end of that day. "The Qadi himself has simply departed from our land! But when he comes back, I'll make it clear to him that I don't want this ghost of a woman anymore!..."
When Tahar learned that the Qadi was somewhere around, he left everything behind and ran to him.
"Oh, Tahar, how are you?" said the Qadi.
"A lot you care!" said Tahar with a nasty look in his eye.
"Oh, Tahar, is this the right way to speak to a Qadi? Last time I said nothing, but try to be a little more polite. Now then, what's the problem?"
"The problem," said Tahar in a broken voice, "is that you beguiled me with vague promises."
"You love her, then!" said the Qadi, rubbing his neck. "I expected that, and maybe she'll soon be all in all to you!"
"I don't want her to be all in all to me."
"Because I don't know her. I can't love a ghost."
"So what do you want now?"
"I want to see her and meet up with her every week as I used to do with Zina."
"I don't think that would be possible," said the Qadi, shaking his head. "This young woman is not like Zina, nor like anyone you have seen before. But if you have something to say to her, I will be pleased to be your carrier pigeon. That's all I can do for you."
Tahar mellowed suddenly.
"Yes, Qadi," he said sheepishly. "I have something to say to her. If you, Qadi, think she deserves my love, then I want to marry her."
"Alright," said the Qadi with a merry smile. "I shall tell her and bring you the news as soon as I can."
"Thank you, Qadi!" said Tahar, leaning forward to kiss the Qadi's hand. "
Hours later, Tahar appeared to have come in from the cold. His beloved turned up again. She sat down in her usual place and listened patiently while Tahar sang to her with all his heart.
At sunset the young woman returned home and Tahar went to mosque. The mystery remained whole. To unlock it, Tahar mounted his horse two days later and rode to the Qadi. He found him in a tearoom in a nearby market.
"Qadi," he said coyly, "I am troubled about something. I didn't get a wink of sleep last night."
"What's the problem?" said the Qadi, pouring tea in green cups beautifully arranged on a silver tray.
"Qadi, before you tell me whether she agreed or not, I would like to know two things."
"Well, I want to know her name."
"I also want to know whether she's beautiful, because, you know, it would be hard for me to marry a woman with a plain face."
The Qadi sighed. Tahar's heart throbbed.
"Tahar," said the Qadi suddenly, "by coming to me now you've relieved me of a burden, because, you know, I couldn't come to you. I'm sorry, but I only have depressing news for you."
"What do you mean?"
The Qadi sighed again, and said:
"The woman is not going to marry you unless you meet certain demands."
"Of course her father won't give her to me for free, but first answer my questions. Tell me her name."
"I can't tell you her name."
"Is she beautiful?"
"I can't tell you that, either."
"Well, I doubt whether you'll be able to meet her demands. In fact, I was going to ask you to forget all about her."
Now Tahar had a wild look in his eyes. He swallowed hard.
"You let me down last time," he muttered, "and now again–"
The Qadi cut him short.
"Can you satisfy her conditions?" he said defiantly.
Tahar sobered down, then said in a mumble:
"What on earth does she want?"
"Well, she says to you: make me two dresses: a dfina and a tahtiya. Make them with your own hands and send them to me. I will try them on, and if they suit me beautifully, I will yet ask you to make me seven more dresses, so that I can have a dress to wear everyday of the week. If you do that, then that would be my dowry, and I'll marry you then."
The Qadi's words had the effect of a spell on Tahar. His eyes now glittered. Having noticed that, the Qadi went on charming away Tahar's cares:
"Let me tell you something, Tahar. You know, with all your goods and chattel, you will never marry this woman unless she believes that you are the right man for her!"
For a moment, Tahar had his head in the clouds. Then, he came round, and said:
"Why shan't I buy her as many good dresses as she would like? I could order for her the best dresses from the best tailors in the country! I am not a tailor, you know. It would take me years and years to become a dressmaker. Would she be willing and able to wait until I have learnt all about sewing and dressmaking?"
"I'll put that question to her and bring you her answer," said the Qadi, lifting another cup of tea to his mouth.
Tahar saw his beloved twice after that meeting with the Qadi, for she came to her usual place by the riverbank and listened patiently to his singing. But all Tahar could see of her was a white piece of cloth wrapped round a human body. She was still a featureless woman.
"Would the Qadi choose her for me if she hadn't a pleasant face?" Tahar asked himself yet again when he was having dinner with his family at home that night. "But whatever her face is like, does she think of me? Does she think of me as much as I think of her now? I saw her yesterday and today. Does it mean that she cares?..."
"Tahar," said the Qadi on his return to the village two days later, "I put your questions to your beloved."
"Really?" said Tahar, sitting up in front of the Qadi in the shade of the terebinth-tree.
"Well, she says to you: Make the first dresses as I told you. If you can't make a dfina and a tahtiya at this stage, then make me two dresses of your own choice, but then these must be ravishing dresses. I'll be waiting for you to finish them. I give you this pledge. The Qadi, who is a very special person to me, bears witness to this. As to my name, I am called Ezzahiya. I am only eighteen years old. So I can wait until you have made all the dresses. But don't try to look for me before then. If you do try to look for me before I send for you, then make sure you'll never see me again. That's what she said."
Tahar bowed his head, lost in thought.
"How does it sound to you?" said the Qadi suddenly.
"Honestly," said Tahar, raising his eyes, "I am intrigued. I am bewitched."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know, really."
"Tahar, you have no choice but to make dresses for your beloved. You see, she has already tried to help you by giving you a pledge. And she says if you can't make a dfina and a tahtiya, just make me good dresses of your own choice. What more could you expect of her?"
"What if someone else came in my absence and asked for her hand from her father, would she resist?"
"Look here, don't worry about that! As long as I live no one but you will marry her if you remain faithful to her and make all the dresses she's asked for."
"I'll make them!" said Tahar, rising to his feet. "So help me God! Do say a prayer for me, Qadi!"
The Qadi prayed for him, and both walked slowly along the riverbank, from the terebinth-tree to the palm-tree.
Tahar had yet to wait until the next Wednesday. He wanted to meet his twenty-year-old cousin Fatima.
Now Fatima was walking slowly towards the riverbank, where her lover, a young man from the opposite village, was waiting for her. The place was already full of lovers from both villages.
"Good morning," said Tahar a bit shyly.
"Good morning," replied Fatima, who had been trying to avoid him.
"I'm sorry to stop you, but I have something to say to you."
"Yes?" said Fatima, unveiling her face.
"Could you do me a favour?"
"Well, please tell my mother that I am leaving the village this afternoon. I am going to Mogador. I will stay there until Zina has got married. Tell my mother that I'm not going to marry Zina. The Qadi will meet my father and explain everything to him."
"What are you going to do in Mogador?"
"I don't know, really. Just tell my mother what I've told you. I couldn't tell her myself because I know she would assail me with questions. I don't want to talk about Zina anymore, right?"
"Alright! I'll tell her. Have a good journey!"
On the way to Mogador, Tahar came across Laâbeed, the black nomads who sometimes spent a month or two in his home area. Tahar was relieved to see them, because he knew that some of them would help his father and brother during his absence. Laâbeed would be only too glad to work in his family fields.
Tahar left Laâbeed's camp and rode on to Mogador. As soon as he arrived there, he booked a room in a funduq, a cheap inn. The room had no bed, no table, no chair. There was only a mat partly covered with a thin mattress with a low pillow and a woolen sheet. But there was no other place where Tahar could be accommodated with his mount under the same roof.
That was not the problem, though. The problem was that once he had booked that room, Tahar felt the urge to go back to his village, and especially to that palm-tree by the river-bank, from where he had been able to see his beloved Ezzahiya, or at least something of her.
Now he left the funduq and headed for the mosque, guided by the voice of the muezzin, who was calling for mid-afternoon-prayers. On the way there Tahar saw two young women clad in white and his longing for Ezzahiya became more painful.
Even while at prayer he thought of her. But he did not think of her alone. He also thought of Zina. He pictured himself sitting with Ezzahiya within hailing distance from Zina.
“Yes, I did think of her,” he thought, speaking to Ezzahiya, “but now she no longer means anything to me. I am not impressed by her beauty, you know. You are by far more beautiful than her. No, believe me! I’m telling the truth!...”
As he was leaving the mosque, Tahar mistakenly took someone else’s shoes.
“Excuse me, brother,” said a handsome young man with Berber features, “those are my shoes. Here are yours!”
“Ah, sorry! You’re right. Those are mine indeed!”
Outside the mosque, Tahar found himself walking in the same alleyway as the young man. His heart pounded as he turned round and said:
“Are you going my way, brother?”
“Where are you going?”
“I am looking for a tailor’s shop.”
“You aren’t from this town, are you?”
“No, I’m not. I’m from…”
An hour later the two were friends. They had tea together at the funduq.
“I was happy to meet you, Smaïl,” said Tahar. “I hope to see you again and again.”
“You too!” said Smaïl. “But now let’s go! I’ll show you a tailor who, I think, will soon take a liking to you.”
“Oh, thank you!”
The tailor’s shop opened into a busy street. The tailor himself was a little fat man in his fifties dressed in a beige djellaba. He was sitting at the back of the tiny shop, working on a garment while a teenage boy, standing at the edge of the street, pulled threads that he crossed in synchronization with the tailor’s sewing. The tailor did not move from his place when Smaïl stood at the door and said:
“Hi, H’sein! How are you? Can I have a few quick words with you?”
“You’re welcome!” replied H’sein. “Come in!”
“There’s a friend with me,” said Smaïl, glancing round at Tahar.
“You’re welcome both! Come and sit by me.”
“Thank you! Well, I came to place this man as an apprentice to you,” said Smaïl, sitting down on the right of H’sein, while Tahar sat on his left.
H’sein looked up at Tahar, and said:
“I have never had an apprentice his age!”
“Yes, but this man is willing to learn and pay for his apprenticeship.”
“Well,” said H’sein at length, “I’ll do my best.”
“Thank you!” said Tahar shyly.
“Now let me show you what I do, right?” said H’sein, rising to his feet and waving to his apprentice to take a seat inside the shop. He then stood by a garment hung on the wall, and said, looking at Tahar:
“This is a takchita, you know. It’s an expensive one.” He unhooked the takchita and began to display its inner and outer parts, naming each part and saying how long it took to make. Tahar’s heart beat fast as the tailor sat down and went on, “Look, I am the mâallam, or chief tailor, if you will. This means that I don’t do all the work all by myself. That’s why I have several people working for me. Each of them has something to do. One, for example, is the berram. He twists silk thread to make trassen, or braid, which are used with sfifa. Sfifa is this thing you see here on this dfina. It’s here round the neck and it also runs down along the middle of the front of the dfina. Trassen are this thing you see on the fringe of sfifa. Trassen are also used here, pretty in the middle of sfifa, to fix the âkadi, you know. These buttons here are the âkadi, see? Sfifa and trassen and âkadi are made by two different people. The one who makes âkadi also makes dfira, which is this thing you see right in the middle of trassen. And then there’s me; I sew together all parts of the takchita. And, last, in comes the one who puts the finished touches to it. As you may probably know, a takchita is made up of two pieces: a tahtiya, which is the part beneath, and a dfina, which is the outer garment. You could also add the m’demma, or belt, which is in itself special work. I forgot to tell you that the boy over here helps me with berchmane. My primary job as mâallam is this: After a client is measured for a dress, I note down her wishes for her dress. Then I design the dress, I cut it out, and then I share out the work with my partners and apprentices, who are scattered all over the quarter. There are also women who do embroidery for me in their own homes. Now, how do you find that?”
Tahar did not open his mouth. He was bamboozled. He longed to go out for a breath of air. “I have to go back home,” he thought. “It would take me a whole lifetime to do this!”
“How do you find that?” the tailor repeated.
“Sorry?” said Tahar in a mumble. “Oh, thank you! I shall try. I shall try. Now, I think, we have to leave you. Thank you once again!”
On leaving the shop, Tahar took a deep breath.
“Don’t be so pessimistic!” said Smaïl, patting him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry! I see the tailor has made you dizzy by showing you all that stuff. But you shouldn’t be put off so easily.”
“Honestly,” said Tahar, finding his tongue at last. “I was befuddled.”
“That’s quite normal, brother. Now look, go and rest for an hour or two. And don’t leave your room except for mosque. As to me, I have to go home. My wife doesn’t know where I am. I will see to her needs, and then I’ll try to fetch you, right? You’ll dine with me tonight, because I can’t see you again before next Thursday.”
“You know, I now work as a teacher with a family outside the town. I teach their children at home. I am also a physician. So I have very little time left to spend with you.”
“I am happy to meet you, anyway. I don’t know what I could have done without you.”
“You know what, you remind me of my early youth!”
“How old are you?”
“I am forty-one. And you?”
“I am twenty-one.”
“That’s what I guessed! I know this is a special age. Alright! This is the way to the funduq. Have a nice time! See you!”
Tahar bought a big cake at a shop on his way to the funduq. Inside the funduq, the eating-room was packed with people who seemed to have come more to talk than eat. Only a little way from them, on the other side of the wall, two donkeys filled the air with their bray. Tahar looked round for a place to sit, but then whispered to the waiter that he would prefer to have a cup of tea in his room. “I’ll bring it to you at once,” said the waiter.
Tahar ate the cake and drank the tea and lay on his back, but then suddenly he jumped to his bag that was lying at his feet, and took out his utar and pressed it to him.
He laid down his utar only for as long as he said his dusk and then, an hour or so later, evening prayers. So when Smaïl came back and stood at the room door, Tahar was still plucking his utar.
“That’s a good surprise to me!” said Smaïl, squatting down in front of Tahar.
“You liked it?” said Tahar, laying down his utar.
“Sure! But now get up! As I told you, you’ll dine with me tonight. I’m going to have another man for dinner!”
“Please, I’m a shy person, you know! I don’t feel at home with strangers.”
“I said get up!” said Smaïl, plucking at Tahar’s sleeve. “This man who’s going to dine with us is unlike any other you have ever seen in your life. Be quick! Look alive!”
That special guest was an old man in his seventies, but he could still walk without a stick. He lived not far from the mosque where Tahar and Smaïl had first met. On their way to Smaïl’s home, Tahar did not speak a word. At first he thought about the old man, wondering in what respect he would be special to him. But then his thoughts shifted to a woman who had just caught sight of him and then hastened to half-close her window so that she could steal glances at him from behind the shutters. In another moonlit alleyway it was a much younger woman who peered at him from behind the door of her home. Tahar was enraptured, but embarrassed.
His embarrassment all but doubled when he stepped into Smaïl’s house. It was a large house, beautifully painted and tiled. Tahar looked straight ahead, but his eyes rolled right and left looking for Smaïl’s wife. He wanted to see her face. He wanted to see whether she was beautiful. “Make yourself at home!” Smaïl was saying to him. “You needn’t be shy in my home…”
In the guest room, Smaïl told the old man Tahar’s story. Every now and then the old man glanced at Tahar while Smaïl was speaking.
“Don’t tell me more!” said the old man suddenly. “You want me to pray for him? That’s what I’ll be doing when we have eaten, Insha Allah. I smell the tajeen, if I’m not mistaken?”
“That’s right,” said Smaïl with a big smile. “It’s a tajeen. It was especially made for you!”
“Oh, thank you!”
While they ate Tahar thought of the little hands which had prepared such an appetizing tajeen. But once they had eaten, the old man faced him, and said:
“Before I pray for you, my son, let us recite some Koran!”
To Tahar’s great relief, the old man started with the shortest Souras which Tahar had learned in Marrakesh.
“And now, what is your wish?” said the old man.
“I wish to become a dressmaker, sir,” said Tahar.
The old man prayed ungrudgingly for Tahar. But Tahar was a bit sceptical. He whispered to his friend Smaïl that he wished to know when these prayers would be answered. Smaïl reported that to the old man, who smiled, and said to him:
“When did I pray for you?”
“You prayed for me when I was thirty,” said Smaïl with a smile.
(Tahar was staggered.)
“And when was my prayer for you fulfilled?”
“Moneywise, it was fulfilled two years ago.”
“That is, when you were thirty-nine!”
“Yes, Âmmy Abderrahman, but Tahar is only twenty-one years old. He can’t wait as long as I did.”
“Let me ask him, can you wait?”
“I hope so,” said Tahar dolefully. “What’s–what’s–what’s important for me is–is whether the prayer will be fulfilled at all!”
“There is no room for doubt about that,” said Smaïl. “If Âmmy Abderrahman prays for anybody, then you can be sure that prayer will be fulfilled sooner or later. It’s only a question of time!”
“Your friend doesn’t seem to understand yet,” said the old man. “Look, my son,” he went on, looking at Tahar, “God doesn’t look at you alone. God looks beyond you. He looks at the whole world around you. If God gives you something now, He may be giving it to one of your unborn children through you. If God wants your child to grow up in a smart house, then He will provide you with the means to get a smart house, even if you don’t deserve it yourself. If God wants your child to be beautiful, then He will make you marry a beautiful woman, even if you don’t deserve her yourself. If God gives you something good now and you don’t deserve it, then He may have something bad in store for you. And you won’t know when nor how that bad thing will happen to you. If you don’t worship God and yet have a large workshop or vast fertile lands, then He may be giving you that because He knows that a good faithful who worships Him always will be very happy to find work, humble as it may be, in your workshop or in your fields and he will thank God for that and devote his life to Him. Don’t imagine that God behaves at random!”
“How do I know I deserve that?” said Tahar shyly.
“You will know by looking at your own behaviour,” said the old man. “Look at this man here. He was no less handsome than you, if not more. I know of women who had a terrific desire to marry him. Those women married other men years ago, but Smaïl stayed single until a little more than a year ago. He could not marry in his twenties or even in his thirties simply because he was penniless.
“What I liked most about him is that he was aware of what was happening to him. You might be surprised, given your age, but this man has always been clear with himself. He sinned, yes, but he was brave to admit he was a sinner. He always owned up to his past sins and asked God’s forgiveness. And that helped him endure his hardships. So, if you, Tahar, want to marry while you are so young, so handsome, be careful! Think of God as being constantly on your right and of Satan as being constantly on your left. I know you youngsters hate being preached, but I know also that you love to be happy. ”
That night Tahar returned to the funduq deeply frustrated. He had wished to see Smaïl’s wife, but he had only heard her voice.
The next morning he was at H’sein’s shop.
“Have you had breakfast?” asked H’sein.
“Yes, and you?”
“I have, too, but a cup of tea now would only do me good, don’t you think?”
“I pay for it!” said Tahar, plunging his hand deep in his pocket.
Before tea came, H’sein started teaching Tahar what a master tailor would teach a very young apprentice. To Tahar’s surprise, H’sein’s words were music to his ears. It all looked as if he were only learning by heart one of Saeed El-Bahi’s religious songs. H’sein too was surprised when Tahar said to him:
“I would like to make a gandoura like this one. I think it’s easier for me.”
“Alright!” said H’sein. “I’ll give you all the materials you need. But now we have tea first!”
And so that first morning passed off peacefully. In the afternoon, a man speaking Arabic with a Berber accent came in and greeted H’sein, and said, “I want this and this and this.” He was all smiles as he said that. But when it came to the point of paying, his last smile froze on his lips.
“That was a Jew,” said H’sein slyly. “He’s always like this. But he’s a good client.”
“Does he come very often?” said Tahar, affecting interest.
“Yes, he’s been a client of mine for more than five years now. He lives in Mogador. He comes to me once a week.”
“He’s a merchant, you mean?”
“Yes, he is. He is a travelling salesman. He roams all the region around. He sells from door to door. Sometimes he goes as far as Marrakesh.”
“I know two Jewish men who do quite the same thing. They often come to our village. But I had never seen this one before.”
“Now forget all about him and keep your mind on your work. Be careful, that piece of cloth is delicate. But I see you’re doing well! Carry on!”
And well he did indeed. His first dress ever was ready seven days later.
“Well done!” exclaimed H’sein, handling the dress carefully. “It’s a stunning dress! Very good!”
“Now I want to make a takchita,” said Tahar, heartened by H’sein’s comments.
“No, friend. It’s too early for you to start on a takchita.”
“But just let me try!”
“Do me three more dresses like this one and I’ll let you do a takchita, right?”
“Alright!” said Tahar reluctantly.
Now, with more and more women appearing here and there, Tahar could not but think more of women than anything else. And the woman he thought of now was Zina. He tried to forget all about her. He tried to think more seriously of Ezzahiya. But Zina was there, still in his heart. He had seen Zina. He had talked with Zina. He had laughed with Zina. He had dreamed of Zina. And now Zina was going to marry soon, maybe in the next few weeks or soon after Eed El-Kebeer.
Even when he returned to the funduq at sunset, he would pick up his utar and sing his old songs, those he had sung to Zina.
Now he was no longer eager to make dresses for Ezzahiya. For him dressmaking had now become so easy –as easy as winking–, so dull, that he no longer thought about it. All his work had now become jejune, all his life insipid.
So one evening he ran to the old man who had prayed for him.
“Âmmy Abderrahman,” he said, “I came to tell you that your prayer for me appears to have been fulfilled. I have succeeded in making good dresses which pleased the master tailor.”
“That’s a good thing!” said Abderrahman, who was sitting on a stool with other old men near the mosque. “Now, what’s the problem?”
“Well, sir, I’ve begun to feel homesick. I feel lonesome.”
“So what can I do for you?”
“I wonder whether you know of a school or any other place where I could spend the evening and learn something good.”
“Would you like to join a zaouia?”
“That would make me glad!”
“Alright! Come along!”
Tahar joined the zaouia. He was thrilled to sit with dozens of men of all ages in a large house scented with musk and ambergris. It took him very little to overcome his timidness. He was given a book, and so he joined in the chanting as best he could.
But once back to his room in the funduq he found himself thinking of Zina once again. The next morning he thought of her still. He waited for her to fall ill because of him and refuse all treatment until he, Tahar, came back to her and said to her that he loved her still and that he would marry her.
Thursday came. Smaïl came. But the story remained the same. Zina just refused to get out of his head.
Days went on like this until one evening when a stranger came up to Tahar as he was ordering for his dinner in the funduq eating-room.
“May I have a word with you?” said the stranger.
Both sat down on the mat and talked over tea.
“Believe me,” said the stranger, “you needn’t learn more than you have learned already. Just by making dresses like those you made you’ll certainly make a fortune! That master you’re working for will only exploit you. Come and work with me. I’ll pay you good wages. You’ll become rich in a matter of months…”
The stranger left and Tahar spent that night thinking. In the morning he went back to H’sein’s shop.
“Master H’sein,” he said within moments of his arrival, “I must learn more. I must make a dfina and a tahtiya now. It’s a must.”
“No, no, friend! You needn’t learn all that. Just keep making the same dresses you’ve been doing.”
“I have done more than enough, and it was I who paid you. You never paid me a penny!”
“I shall pay you this time. I promise.”
“No, master! I must make a dfina and a tahtiya. I’ll take them to my family on the eve of eed, and then I’ll be back and I’ll work for you. I’ll make any dresses you like.”
The master gave in in the end and Tahar started work on a dfina. And little by little, he found himself thinking of Ezzahiya again. And he thought more of her when he sat with the good men in the zaouia. And he sang for her when he was alone in the funduq.
A month later he was on his horse, riding back to his village.
“These are two of the dresses I’ve made,” he said to his family boastfully.
“Oh, how lovely they are!” said his mother. “But have you earned any money?”
“Not yet, mother. I was only an apprentice, you know. But next time I’ll bring some money with me.”
“We don’t need your money, you know,” his mother said. “But if you want to marry and start a family you’ll have to earn your living somehow.”
“I know, mother. If I don’t earn enough money making dresses I’ll come back to work in the fields.”
“Fortunately for me,” said his father, “Lâabeed were here during your absence. I wonder what I’ll do when they go.”
“I’ll find you a jobber or two,” said Tahar. “Don’t worry!”
“What’s in your bag?” said his mother.
“Only the utar and clothes for me,” said Tahar with a blush. “I have to leave you now. I’m going to Kremat to wish the Qadi a good eed.”
“Wait! Wait a moment!”
But Tahar picked up his bag and scuttled out of the house. He swung himself into the saddle and set out for the Qadi’s village.
The Qadi did not show up until late in the evening.
“What are you doing here?” he said, looking suspiciously at Tahar, who was standing against the trunk of a tree just outside the Qadi’s home.
“I came to tell you that the dresses are now ready.”
“What dresses do you mean?”
“Well, look!” said Tahar, opening his bag with trembling hands, “Here are the dresses. I made them. I made them myself, with the help of the master tailor. This is the dfina, and here’s the tahtiya.”
“Where did you get them?”
“I said I made them! I swear it!”
“You made them in less than forty days?”
“Let me explain, Qadi! On my arrival in Mogador I happened upon a young man who introduced me to an old man who prayed for me. I myself was surprised when I felt that I was learning very quickly.”
“Who’s that man who prayed for you?”
“All I know is that he’s called Âmmy Abderrahman. I can take you to him, if you like.”
“When did you come back from Mogador?”
“I came earlier on today.”
“Did you see Ezzahiya?”
“Do you want to see her?”
“Tomorrow will be eed.”
“I know. But I can’t wait.”
“Alright! I’ll try to come to your village tomorrow afternoon and I’ll take you to her home. Would that suit you?”
“No, sir! I can’t go to her home now. I am a shy person, you know. I don’t want to look ridiculous in front of her.”
“Alright!” the Qadi grinned. “We’ll meet somewhere around her home, then.”
“Thank you! May I leave these dresses with you? I don’t want my family to see them.”
“Alright!” said the Qadi, bursting into laughter.
Tahar was so happy he could not sleep that night.
The next morning he shunned everybody until his mother began doing a roast in the courtyard of their home some time around noon. But even then the other members of his family, who were sitting around, had so much to talk about that he needed not talk with them at all. He retreated within himself, and waited patiently for the afternoon.
The Qadi came late in the afternoon and found Tahar dressed not in an everyday jellaba, but in a beautiful white tchameer shimmering at the neck beneath a conspicuous white djellaba, itself laid with a black, thin selham. A yellow âssaba adorned Tahar’s head, and his yellow slippers were a delight to the eyes. In a word, he looked his best and his natural good looks gave him the aura of a prince.
On the opposite side of the river Ezzahiya was waiting with her father in an olive grove. She was dressed not in an everyday heïk, but in a blue takchita and a yellow-and-white thick headscarf fringed with jingling old coins. And she was shod in a very beautiful green sherbeel.
The Qadi was the first to speak to her. He seemed to have met her before fetching Tahar, but even now Tahar hung on her lips.
“Come!” she said suddenly.
Tahar took quick steps towards her.
“Peace be with you!” he said in a wavering voice.
“Peace be with you too!” she replied, running her blue eyes on every feature of his reddish face.
“Did you like the dresses?” Tahar said, glancing at the Qadi and Ezzahiya’s father, who were shuffling off towards another olive-tree.
“Yes, I did.”
“Can I marry you now?”
“You can’t enter my life before I enter your heart.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I was not interested in any of the dresses you made, to be honest. I only wanted you to go and stay away from these lands for some time. I wanted you to cleanse your heart and mind of Zina.” More blood rushed to Tahar’s face as Ezzahiya went on, “I didn’t expect you to return so early. Now go back to Mogador and stay there until you have made more dresses for me. Don’t go back to that old man to pray for you so that you can make the dresses in three days. I’m not in a hurry. M’barek Eedak! Good bye!”
“Wait a moment!”
Ezzahiya did not wait a moment. She ambled up to her father. And, on the way, she exchanged a few words with a passing young man. The Qadi came towards Tahar, and whispered to him:
“Now, please, go! Don’t get us into trouble here!”
“Who’s that man she’s spoken to?”
“I said go!” said the Qadi, moving away from him.
Tahar spent that night in the open, speaking to himself and to the moon and stars. In the morning, he was galloping back to Mogador.
Once again, he booked a room in the funduq, and went to work in H’sein’s shop.
The next Thursday he begged H’sein for a break so that he could spend some time with Smaïl. Smaïl took him to the Skala. They sat on one of the cannons facing towards the sea.
“Do you trust your wife?” said Tahar suddenly.
“We were talking about the sea, weren’t we? Why are you now asking me about my wife?”
“Something in my heart pushes me to. Please tell me, do you trust your wife?”
“Well, I make as if.”
“You mean you don’t worry?”
“Look, Âmmy Abderrahman said you should be careful, if you remember. He meant by that that you should pay attention to your own behaviour. If you behave well; if you’re a good man; if you say your prayers regularly; if you don’t take bribes; if you don’t take away people’s money; if you don’t flirt with women other than your own wife; if you always feel that God is watching you, then you needn’t worry! And then if your wife did something wrong, that would be 'a bad thing for you', as Âmmy Abderrahman put it, meaning a punishment for you– for something you did in the past and forgot all about it. But even then, if you don't change for the worse God would certainly give you something better."
"You mean a better wife?"
"Why not? Look, let me tell you one thing. You can't get your wife to be faithful to you by just beating her or imprisoning her or by spying on her all the time or by subjecting her to test after test. That won't help. Love her and keep faithful to her and bring her only food and goods which you bought with clean money– money that you earned by the sweat of your brow. Do that and then entrust your wife to God's care. If she is a good wife she will stay with you, by the grace of God. If she turns out to be a wicked woman, God will find you a solution. And then, let me conclude with this. You know what, I myself was a sinner. Many people trusted in me while I was anything but trustworthy. I hope that my sufferings in the past were a punishment for that. Now, to tell you the truth, I don't worry about my wife, because I have a strong feeling that God chose her for me. Thank God!"
"Did you love your wife before you married her?"
"Now, that's enough! Please, forget all about my wife. Let's move from here!"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean…"
Tahar was deeply hurt by the way Smaïl had rebuked him. Smaïl had scowled at him.
Now he was back to the funduq. He crammed himself with a big cake and three bunches of grapes. Then he lay on his back and closed his eyes. Ezzahiya's face came in flying. Her blue eyes and fair face were inviting, her whispers soothing.
The next morning Tahar left the funduq later than usual. H'sein greeted him with, "Where have you been all this time, you son of bitch?" Tahar gave him a scathing look and spat in his face and made his way back to the funduq. He collected his belongings, fetched his horse and rode back home.
His family talked and talked and he did not care twopence. He went to mosque. He said his prayers and chatted with the Imam. Then he went back home, fetched his utar and trotted up to the palm-tree by the riverbank.
He sang. Ezzahiya came out. She stood away from the bank and looked on as Tahar strummed on his utar. A young man came up to Ezzahiya and spoke to her. Tahar stopped singing. Before he could do anything else, Ezzahiya vanished behind the houses. The young man who had spoken to her went in another direction. Tahar panted and his heart pounded.
An hour later, he was in Kremat, the Qadi’s village.
“What are you doing here?” said the Qadi, looking askance at Tahar.
“Qadi, I saw a man with Ezzahiya!”
“Where and when?” said the Qadi, lifting up his voice.
“In her village. Today.”
“Listen! I tried to help you because I thought you were mature and sane. Now, never come back to me again! Stay away from the girl! If you ever harass her, then that’ll be the end of you. I’ll lodge a complaint against you with the Qaïd!”
The word ‘qaïd’ sent shivers down Tahar’s spine. So he just bowed his head and led his horse away from the Qadi’s home.
He then spent two days roaming the place, not knowing what to do with himself. The next day was Wednesday, so he took his utar and sat in the shade of the terebinth-tree and sang to himself while lovers from both villages enjoyed themselves down the valley.
“Hey you over there!” said a voice unexpectedly.
Tahar turned round and gaped. It was one of the Jewish hawkers.
“Tahar? Why are you sitting here alone?” said the Jew, approaching the terebinth-tree.
“Hi, Âmmy Dawud!” said Tahar, laughing nervously. He then picked himself up, and said, “I was longing to see you!”
“To see me?”
“I want to work with you.”
“To work with me? How?”
“I make dresses and you sell them and give me my share of the profits.”
“But I only sell good dresses, like those you bought from me for your mother. How could you make good dresses yourself?”
“I was an apprentice to Mâallem H’sein, the master tailor in Mogador, do you know him?”
“O course, I know him! Now, what do you expect of me?”
“Well, I’ll give you some money to buy me the necessary materials. I’ll make the dresses and I’ll give them to you to sell them, right?”
“Alright! That’s a good idea!”
Tahar built himself a shed a little way from his parents’ home. He found an apprentice. And he set to work.
The news spread that he had now become a tailor. People –men and women– came to him asking for a hem to be let down or a tear to be sewn up or a button to be sewn on. But he turned them away kindly saying he only made new dresses to be sold elsewhere by Âmmy Dawud. Birds twittered over his head as he worked. His mother brought him his lunch at midday. And everything was alright.
But then came the day when the village became infested with horses, when women filled the air with trilling cries of joy, when children pranced about in clothes they had been denied even on the day of eed.
That was the Wedding Day. Lovers from both villages would now marry, to their families’ delight. Tahar’s family would join the folks. They would join in the festivities, but they would not share in the joy. They had no groom or bride to have a celebration for.
Both Tahar’s father and brother would take part in the fantasia parades. They had been preparing their horses for some time now. His brother had even changed his rifle and bought new gunpowder.
Tahar himself had always enjoyed fantasia. He would love to stand his horse with the other horses assembling at the start and then wait impatiently for the starting signal so that he could rush his horse forward, abreast of the other horses, until the Mqaddem gave them the signal to fire, while the women standing on either side of the field filled the air with trilling cries of joy.
But today was different. Tahar had not the heart to do that on the day someone else would marry Zina.
Tahar did not leave the village, though. He only went to the palm-tree by the river-bank. He sat down there and sang to himself in a low voice. He had not brought with him his utar. He had only brought a basketful of grapes.
And while he was eating and singing, a shape appeared on the other side of the river. “It’s her!” Tahar cried within himself. “It’s Ezzahiya! I swear by God it’s her! But–” He could not believe his eyes. Ezzahiya walked slowly to the river. She looked as if she were heading for Tahar’s village. But she stopped at the water’s edge. She stooped down and splashed her face with water, then she stood up, glanced at Tahar and turned to go. Tahar watched her with beating heart. As soon as she had disappeared he turned round and ran to the mosque, his face aglow with pleasure. He sat down in the mosque and performed the tayammum, but then he remembered that it was un-islamic to say prayers at this time of day. So he left the mosque and returned to the palm-tree by the riverbank. He stayed there until the muezzin called for dusk prayers.
The next day Tahar returned to his work. And two weeks later, new potential lovers began to show themselves down the valley. At first Tahar just stayed seated in the shade of the terebinth-tree, watching. But then he saw a shape quite like that he had seen before. It was the same shape, the same gait. But now? Here? Could it be her?
Tahar got up and, in no time, he was on the other side. Many girls looked at him, making him blush. He looked as if he were looking for someone, and then plonked himself into a pile of dry bush a little way from the farthest group to the right. Several girls looked in his direction, but his eyes were somewhere else. He was striving to look indifferent, even to Ezzahiya, who was sitting alone, aloof from everybody. Tahar was fired with the desire to go and speak to her. His feet could hardly touch the ground. He now felt lighter than the air. But he simply could not do anything. The Qadi had threatened to lodge a complaint against him with the Qaïd. But then, all of a sudden, Ezzahiya stood up. Tahar had his heart in his mouth. He wondered what to do. But then, to his great surprise, he saw Ezzahiya working her way round towards him. He saw her approaching him, but then suddenly he cut her dead. Ezzahiya did not look his way, either. She just walked past him with head erect.
And every night thereafter Tahar lulled himself to sleep with dreams that Ezzahiya would do again what she did on that day. But Ezzahiya never reappeared again, and Tahar began to kick himself.
He got fed up with going to the palm-tree by the riverbank in the hope of catching a glimpse of her.
People started to plough their lands. The sky was becoming cloudier with each passing day. And it soon started to rain. There was no place left to sit by the riverbank. All places were wet, or so they seemed to Tahar. And there was more and more water in the wadi. The brook was gradually swelling into a running stream, making it impossible for lovers to meet for months to come.
That was Tahar’s only comfort. But for how long?