Monday, 6 July 2015

What Is the Best Culture in the World ?

As a student I found very funny the antagonistic idiomatic expressions: filer à l’anglaise and to make French leave (Brit), both meaning to run off/away. If there’s no smoke without fire, as the proverb goes, then this suggests that in the sight of the French there’s something wrong with the English, and vice versa. For one who has a certain knowledge of European history, it is somewhat easy to understand such antagonism. 

The French refer to themselves as the French; that is, they are different from the English, different from Germans, etc. That’s why French history books would laud French victories over the English, over Germans, etc. Idem for the English. The fact is, Germans (the Germanic people) are, in a way, the forefathers of many European peoples, including the French, the English, the Spanish, etc. The French and the Spanish, for example, adopted Latin-based languages. Even English is more Latinized than Germanized. So does this mean that there’s something wrong with the German language? Or it is just a normal process that each people has to distinguish itself from other peoples by its own language, its own culture, etc. ? Does a people knowingly and deliberately change its language and culture to look different from other peoples ? Or is it part of human nature –kind of natural, historical development that occurs spontaneously over time? The Koran, for example, suggests that this change is part of God’s work: 

49.13. O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.

30.22. And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colours. Lo! herein indeed are portents for men of knowledge.

How does this change occur, historically speaking? The Germanic people, from whom derived so many other ‘sub-peoples’ in Europe, did not sprout or spring up from the land called Prussia, Germania or Germany. They came from Asia. Other people who, at one time, shared with them that part of Central Asia, moved southwards to populate present-day India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan… You understand I’m talking of migration. This migration phenomenon has always been caused by famine, war, military expansion… We Arabs and, before us, Berbers came to this part of North Africa, for quite the same reasons, from the Arabian Peninsula. The United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Latin & Central America are all obvious examples of how migration makes peoples what they are. Americans and Australians, for example, don’t speak with the same accent and they have different constitutions, etc., although they originally came from the same places. Many peoples have the same origins and yet you will hear talk of Moroccan culture, American culture, Australian culture, Belgian culture…. Is there anything wrong with that? Shouldn’t an American boast his culture is much more important than Moroccan culture, for example? How can a Moroccan convince an American that, no, it’s Moroccan culture that is more important? I don’t know, honestly. Even before agreeing on what culture means, it goes without saying that many more Moroccan youths would love to live in the U.S.A. than Americans would love to live in Morocco? Statistics speak for themselves. There are tens of thousands of Moroccans who became naturalized American citizens and thousands more of Moroccan immigrants in the US. The total number of legal immigrants in Morocco (according to a 2014 census) is about 96,000 and the number of illegal immigrants is between 20,000 and 40,000 –in a population of 34,000 000. How can one explain this? Why do Moroccans go to America? Do they go for bread and honey or for American culture?

Now we ask, what is culture? I once asked an American student in Morocco: “What’s life for you?” He said: “Sex and food”. What should someone like me, who has never been to America, understand from such a statement? What could this tell me about American culture? Surely, Moroccans don’t go to America only for sex and food. Many Moroccans who have been to America talk about American democracy, American sense of organisation, American sense of initiative and enterprise, American sense of risk-taking… In my home city, Mohammedia, there’s a big MacDonald’s and several pizza huts. 25 miles away, in Casablanca, there’s a (white) American woman, married with a Moroccan man, who writes a famous blog on Moroccan food. I have had among my tutors Americans who spoke Moroccan Arabic fluently. If many Moroccans in the USA went there for money, what Americans (whatever their number) come to Morocco for?   Yes, some of them come for work (in American schools, etc.), but do they all come for money? I don’t know.

What I know is that the thousands of sub-Saharan boat people who make it into Europe, each year, risking their lives, do not do it for European culture. I know that the few thousands of sub-Saharan people (men, women and children) living in my home city for less than 15 years now did not come here for Moroccan culture, and they are not all students who came here for study. I’ve seen some of them beg in the streets. I’ve seen a few Syrian beggars too. Questions on culture lead us to questions on us, as human beings. What makes (German) PEGIDA demonstrators take to the streets and what makes (German) anti-PEGIDA people take to the streets too? What makes me write in English and French and what makes some English and French people learn Arabic? Why should a Russian come onto this blog? Aren’t there good Russian writers who write in Russian? Aren’t there good German writers who write in German? Why shouldn’t I write in Arabic? A famous American revert and religious scholar (that I don’t want to name) once said in an interview that an Arab Muslim writer should not write in a foreign language because he can’t help being influenced by the culture of the language he is writing in.

There are apparently two kinds of writers. Some writers are more important than their writings. Sometimes writings are more important than the authors. Some people (readers) are interested in gags, so they’ll buy and read work with lots of gags in it, whoever the author. For similar reasons, other people will prefer suspense, romance, avant-garde, thrillers, historical, juvenile, adventure, spiritual, inspirational… Other people will rather focus on the person of the author; they will look on him/her as a virtual teacher or friend. They want to be inspired by him/her. That’s why literary translation is very important. When someone reads a piece of work in translation or written by a writer from another place, it’s not because he feels that his country’s literature or culture is inferior to others, but simply because he is looking for something with which he can feel at home. I have experienced unemployment, and when I write about unemployment I know what it’s like. But would visitors be interested in my writings only if they are unemployed? Recently in Germany 5,000 employees at recruitment agencies lost their jobs because there were so many job opportunities in Germany that everybody else had found work, leaving those (poor) recruitment agencies with little work to do! And yet several Germans continue to visit my blog  regularly. A Russian/German/Moroccan person would be seen buying and listening to a piece of American music, for example, because everybody is doing so. But privately this same person would feel more at home, when left alone, with a piece of music from his own country or region.

Basketball is good, and I would enjoy watching a basketball game. But I would enjoy more a show of Fantasia. (Go to Youtube to see what it is.) Not because Fantasia is more beautiful than basketball, but it’s something closer to me as a moroccan. Here come in all sorts of customs and traditions that make us feel at home, as belonging to where we are or where we came from. Maybe I don’t like some aspects of our traditions, but whether I like it or not, these traditions speak to me more than something I’m not accustomed to. I am an Arab, not a Berber; but a Berber wedding (with all that goes into it: the music, the dancing, the food, the clothes, the colours, the décor…) would appeal to me more than a Kurdish wedding. There are not Kurds in my country. But  I have always seen Berbers everyday everywhere. At least a third of Morocco’s population is Berber. They have been in this land for thousands of years. We Arabs came here some 1,380 years ago. So Berber things are part of my identity. But this identity thing is a personal thing. If Arab and Berber Moroccans make up an essential part of my identity, this does not mean that I will feel at home with just any Moroccan, Arab or Berber. I love Morocco, I love Moroccan people, but I am not obliged to have Moroccan friends, for example, or to marry a Moroccan woman. In other words, my identity is more of a psychological than social necessity. I need my way of thinking when I have a problem. I need the feeling of belonging somewhere, to something, even when I don’t have a problem. If I don’t feel that I belong where I am, that’s a big problem. That’s when I will need my way of thinking to help me overcome this problem. These identity aspects are all parts of my culture, or rather my general culture that I share with millions of people in my country. But there’s a more specific part of my culture (say, my individual culture) which I share with far less people in my country and with far more elsewhere.     appeal to me more than a Kurdish dding (with all that goes into it: the music, the dancing, the food, the clothes, the c

Personally, I eat with my hand and would never be comfortable with a knife and fork. But I would not impose my way of eating on people used to the knife-and-fork way of eating. I have to make this concession. Being a modern person is not necessarily eating in a certain way or dressing according to fashion or speaking this way or that, but rather being able to make mutual concessions when necessary. I accept that, even if my way is the best, others are free to have their own way within a general legal framework accepted by all for the sake of a peaceful society. As long as I can go to mosque, wear a beard or go out in a jellaba, without being threatened or harassed, you are free to go wherever you like and do whatever you like that is not against the Law. The Law does not belong to you or to me. It’s made for us all. If you or I don’t like it, there should be legal ways to change it. This is what I meant by mutual concessions. I eat what I want as I want when I am alone or with people like myself. I wear what I want as I want without provoking or hurting anybody. I speak as best I can without aping anybody or pretending what I am not. This is my culture. My way of life is a conspicuous representation of my culture. If I liked a piece of American music, that would be part of my culture. If I liked a French radio station or magazine, that would be  part of my culture. I am a Moroccan and I like a lot of Moroccan things. But I also like a lot of things that are not Moroccan. I like Americans’ sense of duty. I like Germans’ love for reading. I like nineteenth-century French literature. I like pre-1990 Egyptian music. I like Italian suits and shoes. And I am absolutely comfortable with what I like.

If I can afford what I like, that’s great. If not, no problem. I needn’t have a car or even a laptop to be a modern person. I can very well work in cybercafés and travel in a taxi or take a bus. No problem. If other people think I’m not a modern person or that I’ve failed socially or professionally, that’s not a big problem to me. But I can’t be a modern person if I don’t speak French or English. Not because they are the best languages of the world, but because my culture would be very limited without them. I wish I could speak German, Russian and Spanish too! To be modern I need to know and understand what’s going on in the world. I need to understand History to see what was possible in past times that is no longer today and what can yet change in the future for the better or for the worst. I need to understand other people’s ways of thinking. I need to learn about other peoples’ traditions and ways of life. I can’t know all that if I spoke only one language. If I know how other people think and behave I will improve my own way of thinking.              

Many people from Europe, America, South-East Asia, Russia… visited in the past such nice places as Yemen, 
Libya, Iraq and Syria. They took pictures of themselves in nice historical monuments, etc. Those nice sites and sights are gone. War destroyed them. Yet, such nice sites can be considered as part of one’s culture –just as music, food, clothes, history, language, religion, customs and traditions, etc… But if all this does not help the people who produced them in the first place, how can they help me ? The Tour Eiffel is nice. But should I go to France just to see it? Should I go to France only to see what French people are like? No, I can do it without leaving my home city. What’s more important to me is to know how French people became what they are, how they think, how they solve their problems, what their dreams and aspirations are... I can know that at school, by reading, through the media. When I know much about that, I push the borders of my culture a bit further. French authors will become my authors, my teachers, and so will American authors, Egyptian journalists, Arab poets… My culture will be as large as my knowledge. This is what I meant by ‘specific culture’ or ‘individual culture’. I will not then make a difference between culture and civilisation. But I will make a difference between my culture as an Arab and Western culture, for example. They are not the same. And that’s very normal. And I will not start comparing which is best. My culture is good as long as it suits me well, as long as I feel comfortable with it. I would not expect a German or anybody else to dress the way I do, or to eat the way I do (even if he were a Muslim)… I would only expect him to understand me –not even to accept me as I am. We are all human beings; we have more or less the same problems and different ways of dealing with those problems. When I write in English or in French I am exposing my way of thinking, my way of solving my problems –based on my own culture, which is neither worse nor better than any other culture. It might be confusing if I said that what I write translates my religion rather than my ‘culture’. But, as I said above, religion is part of culture. My novels are set in Morocco, but the ideas expressed in the novels refer more to my religion than to my country or to the people I belong to. Religion (being finite) is more reliable than culture (which can be updated). In other words, religion (being shared by so many people) is more objective than culture (which may differ from one person to another). However, my reading of my religion can only be subjective.


I am not a philosopher and Muhammad, the main character in my novel THE PHILOSOPHER, is not a philosopher, either. He and I only try as best we can to philosophize about life in order to make our problems seem easier to us as a first step towards solving them. In a way, my writings have been kind of self-coaching to me. That worked for me: so far at least, I have managed to keep my dream alive against all odds. I imagine my thoughts can inspire others as well.

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER

Friday, 1 March 2013

The Philosopher : Chapter One



He saw the children coming. But he drew water from the well and watered his mule. Then he drank straight from the bucket and washed his face. The children were soon standing in a half circle in front of him. He met their gaze and his face creased into a broad smile.       
      “Are you from Azlu?” he said suddenly, glancing back at his mule.  
      All the children raised their eyebrows.     
      “I am hungry. Are you from Azlu?” he said again.    
  The children looked at each other and exchanged smiles.        
    “Who does that vineyard belong to?” he said, plunging his hand deep in his pockets, from which he took out a handful of coins.    
      The children beamed at the sight of the coins.      
      “Who can bring me grapes from that vineyard?” he said, jingling the coins in his hand. “I am hungry!”    
     “Tell us who you are and we’ll bring you grapes,” said one of the children.      
     “I am a hungry man,” said the man. The children burst out laughing as he went on, “My father is my mouth and my mother is my stomach.”       
     “And your children?” said another child, whose eyes were still riveted on the coins.      
      “All Azlu children are my children!” said the man.
      “That’s why I am giving you this. Here!”       
      The children held out their hands as the man pressed a coin in each hand.
    “Now, let’s sit down!” he said. And all the children sat down at once as if they had been told by their own fathers.       
    “I said I’m hungry,” the man said. “You haven’t brought me grapes, so I’ll start eating your hands!”       
    The children laughed again, but one of them sprang up and charged towards the vineyard. A moment later, he was back, holding a goodly bunch of grapes in both hands.
    “Here!” he said to the man, who snatched the grapes and started eating them with great zest. “You know,” he said, chewing. “I’ve gone so many places, but when I saw Azlu, I said to myself there’s no prettier place under the sun.”       
    “Are you from Azlu?” said one child in a hesitant voice.    
    “What do you think?” replied the man, betrayed by the hot blush that spread up into his face.          
    "I have never seen you,” said the child. “But you speak like us.”      
   I do speak like you,” replied the man, “but I’m not dressed liked you, am I? You are wearing white jellabas; I am wearing a yellow turban and a sky-blue gown and white slippers.”       
    “Yes,” said another child. “And you have a thick beard and a shaven moustache.”  
     “And you are a hungry man,” said a third child.    
   “So I look strange, don’t I?” said the man, handing the remainder of the grapes to one of the children.    
    The children nodded, and some of them chuckled. The man, whose eyes had been roving from face to face, as if looking for something, suddenly fixed his eyes on one of the children and asked him:   
      “What’s your name, boy?”   
      “My name is Hussein,” said the child bashfully.     
      “Who is your father?”     
      “My father is H’mad Amgoon.”     
     The man was startled. He looked as if he had come upon something he had been looking for. Amazed, the children just looked on as he suddenly sighed and said in a rather tremulous voice:              
      “Tell me, Hussein, do you know me?”       
      “No, sir.”       
      “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”        
      “Yes, sir.”       
      “Tell me their names!”        
      “Ahmed, Brahim, Hassan, Yezza and Fatma.”        
      “That’s all?”      
      The children let out a timid chuckle, but Hussein then said:      
      “I also have another brother who is absent.”       
      “Where has he gone?”       
      “I don’t know. I have never seen him.”       
      “What’s his name?”      
      “Muhammad.”     
      A sudden smile illuminated the man’s face. And all the children listened in wide-eyed amazement as the man said, almost tearfully:      
      “I am your brother Muhammad!”       
      Hussein looked incredulous, though.      
      “Really?” he said with a blush.
    “My brother Muhammad has got a nickname. Do you have a nickname?”      
      “Yes. My nickname is 'The Philosopher'.     
   Hardly had Muhammad uttered those words when Hussein sprang to his feet and broke into a run in the direction of his home, shouting:   
       “The Philosopher’s back! The Philosopher’s back!”     
     And in no time the whole village –men and women and children– emerged from behind the nearest houses and surged forward, with the little children chanting: “The Philosopher’s back! The Philosopher’s back!” Muhammad let himself go as he embraced his tearful relatives one by one. He even sobbed when his weeping father took him in his arms.     
      And they led him back home as they would lead a bride to her new home. His father’s house was larger than the local mosque, but there just was not enough room for all the people who came to give their best wishes for Muhammad’s return. Muhammad was then seated among the most important village men in the most beautiful room in his father’s home.       
     And he answered question after question even before tea was served.    
  “Where have you been all this time?” was one question.      
  “I was everywhere and nowhere,” was Muhammad’s answer.      
    “Didn’t I tell you?” said the first speaker, looking around the crowded room. “This man can’t give clear answers. That’s why Sheik Himi called him ‘The Philosopher’. He really is a philosopher, isn’t he? But–” He turned back to Muhammad and said, “tell us, Philosopher, what did you bring with you after all these years of absence?”      
     “Everything and nothing,” said Muhammad, without any note of malice in his voice.     
      “We understand ‘nothing’,” said the same speaker amid the audience’s laughter, “but what do you mean by ‘everything’?”                                   
    “I can show you ‘nothing’ by letting you look into my pockets and my bag, because you’ll find nothing in my pockets or in my bag; but I can’t show you ‘everything’, because everything is in my mind, and my mind is in my head, and I have only one head, so I can’t cut or break my head just for the sake of showing you that ‘everything’ is in my head indeed!”     
      “Please! Please!” said another speaker. “Let him be! He is free. If he has everything, that’s what we wish for him; if he has nothing, that’s his own problem. Now let’s drop the subject!”
      Muhammad glanced at his father and sighed. He knew from his father’s glum face that he was not happy. So he just hung his head and prayed within himself. Soon after, the first dishes began to be set on the low tables at the men’s feet. Muhammad looked at the dish in front of him and wondered when he had last eaten such thing: chicken with rice and raisins. He sat close to the table and began eating in silence, trying his best not to comment on what the men around him were saying.  

      As evening fell, the last visitors left, and so Muhammad found himself sitting alone in this large room. He could not leave the room. He felt ashamed. He knew that only his mother and two sisters and some little children –who most probably were his nephews and nieces– were in the adjoining rooms. He could hear their voices. But he could not go and sit with them. He dreaded embarrassing questions. So he just stayed with eyes riveted on the door and waited to see whether anyone would come to him and sit with him and talk to him. He waited and waited, while the noise of the few women and their children went on unabated in the rooms around. And suddenly a young woman of twenty appeared fleetingly at the door and flashed him a look of wonder. As if struck by lightening, Muhammad shuddered at the young woman’s look. A moment later, his sister came in smiling and said:     
     “Muhammad, why are you sitting there alone? Come! Come and sit with us!”   
      But Muhammad was too weak to stand on his feet. He opened his lips as if to speak, but remained silent.      
      “Oh, what’s the matter?” his sister grinned.    
      “I–I–I am sorry,” he said at length, “a young woman didn’t know I was here and she looked in and saw me. I’m sorry.”      
     “Don’t worry!” said his sister with a yapping laugh. “That’s only Itto, my aunt Khadija’s daughter. She told me. Don’t worry about that. Come! Come and sit with us.”      
    Muhammad struggled to his feet and followed his sister out of the room. She led him into a much smaller room, and she had almost to guide him like a blind man when he stumbled over the doorsill. His mother and sisters and three other women laughed quietly as they saw his eyes glued to the young woman in orange and green. He could hardly take his eyes off her when his mother called to him to sit by her side. And as he sat down, his mother said:     
   “I thought you would never be back. You were only twenty-four when you left us. Now you are getting on for thirty-nine. Your younger brothers have all got married. Even Hassan, whom you left as a child, got married three months ago. Only Hussein is not married yet, because he’s still too young. Look! Those are the wives of your brothers. And your sisters too are married now, and they have children… Now, tell us something about you. Where have you been? What have you been doing with yourself? Tell us, we are eager to hear from you!”    
    “What shall I tell you, Mother?” said Muhammad in a quavering voice. “You know, I was always keen on learning. I felt as if I were ill. Or mad, if you will. And I felt that the only way I could cure myself was through learning. So I learned everything I could learn here, and when I had nothing more to learn here, I went away, like a madman. I went from place to place looking for knowledge. I went after knowledge wherever I thought I could find it. I was always hungry for more and more knowledge. And day by day, month by month, year after year, I found myself going farther and farther away.”    
     “And where did your journey end?” said Yezza with a mocking smile. 
      Muhammad looked at her tenderly and said:     
      “My journey ended when I could go no further. I missed you. I missed the village. I missed its people. I missed my mother’s rice. I missed you all. And recently a friend of mine, who liked me so much, wanted to give me his daughter in marriage. And when I was about to say yes, because I liked that friend, and I knew that his daughter was young and beautiful and virgin– when I was about to accept his offer, I realized that Mother would be very cross with me if I married a girl from outside of the village. So, one day, I rose very early in the morning and I left that place without my friend knowing. And here I am now again.”        
     “But you have come back empty-handed, I see,” said Yezza. “How can you marry while you have no money?”   
     Muhammad just hung his head in shame and fell silent.  
     “Have you said your prayers?” asked his mother.  
     “No,” he replied with a blush, rising to go out.    
    And he shuffled out of the room. As he got outside, he cast his eyes up and saw the three-day-old crescent standing alone on one corner of the sky, south of the village. He sighed, and cursed Satan. But Itto’s face would not leave his mind. Her dark eyes and eyebrows and little red mouth were there: inside his mind, before his eyes, and they were becoming clearer and clearer the longer he went into the darkness. They forced him to think of her.    
     Here was the mosque. Six men were lounging by its door. They were chatting, but now that Muhammad said peace be with you they all fell silent. Muhammad went into the mosque and found one man sitting in a corner and reading the Koran. Muhammad greeted him and started his prayers. And as he was praying, he found himself thinking of Itto still. Itto’s face would just not leave his mind.    
   He finished his prayers and went back to his father’s home. He asked his sister Yezza for a place to sleep. She told him to sleep on the carpet in the guest-room, the very room where he had first seen Itto’s dark eyes and eyebrows. He went in there and lay on his side and tried to sleep. But sleep would just not come.    
     In the morning, Muhammad was sitting with legs crossed when Yezza kicked the door open and came in holding a tray in both hands.   
     “Here’s your breakfast,” she said with a little smile.     
     As she put down the tray on the carpet and began to go out, Muhammad hailed her in a shaky voice:      
      “Yezza!”      
      Yezza stopped and turned round.      
      “Yes?” she said.  
      “Come closer, please. I want to talk to you.”      
     Yezza sat down in front of him and said:      
   “Here I am! What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”      
      “Is Itto married?”       
      “Itto? Why?”       
      “Is she married?”       
      “She isn’t. But why are you asking me about her?”       
      “I want to marry her– that’s why.”       
      “What! Are you crazy? Maybe you don’t know that Itto is the most beautiful girl anyone has ever seen anywhere. Men have come from miles and miles away and offered her father gold and silver and pearls and camels and all sorts of wealth and yet he has refused to give her to any of them. Maybe you don’t know that any man from this village who dared to voice his wish for her hand would immediately be turned into the village idiot. Itto is a woman only a fool would dream of. And tell me, suppose her father were willing to give her to you, what would you give her as a dowry?”      
      “My mule, that’s all I have!”    
      Yezza broke into derisive laughter. Then she said, rising to go:      
      “I thought you were serious. Have a nice breakfast!”     
      As soon as he had had breakfast, his mother came in and said:     
      “Good morning! All the village men have gone to market, why haven’t you?”  
      “I shall go to market next week, Insha Allah.”  
      “Alright. But please don’t leave this room until the men have come back from market! Don’t get us into trouble with the village girls!”      
      “I can’t stay here in this room!”        
      “Go to the backyard, then!”       
      “Alright.”       
      And he went to the backyard and sat on a bale of straw and leant against the trunk of an olive-tree and faced the plain rolling down to the wadi. Soon he pictured himself leaving the house with Itto walking at his side, with her orange robe fluttering in the slight wind– walking slowly and talking in whispers as they went down to the wadi, and then making their way through that thick line of reed that almost hid the wadibed…     

    He remained there musing about his Itto, until his younger brother Hussein came to him and said that there was a man outside asking for him.      
   “Go and ask Mother if I could go outside and meet the man,” said Muhammad, rising to his feet.       
    Hussein disappeared for a moment and then came back with his mother’s answer.        
     “She says you can meet with him in the guest-room,” he said.        
      “Alright.”      
    Muhammad did not know the visitor, but he instantly knew that he was from somewhere nearby, because he spoke the same Berber and he was wearing a white jellaba.      
    “I just came to ask you whether you have any knowledge of Arithmetic,” said the visitor, sitting down close to Muhammad in the guest-room. “I was at the market this morning and I heard about you, and I was desperately looking for someone to teach me basic Arithmetic.”        
  “Why do you want to learn Arithmetic?” said Muhammad.      
    “Well, to be honest with you, I have heard of an interesting job, and I can’t get that job if I don’t know Arithmetic.”        
      “Is it a job offered by a ruler?”        
      “Yes, if you wish,” said the visitor hesitantly.      
      “Where do you live?”        
      “I live in Tushki.”      
     “That’s not very far from here. But how much will you pay me?”       
     “Well, as I said, I only need to learn basic Arithmetic. And I am under pressure of time. All my efforts will have been in vain if I don’t get the job within two weeks. So I will only need you for two weeks.”        
     “Alright! But still how much will you pay me?”      
    “I’ll give you five dirhams a day and a chicken per week, as a bonus.”         
     “Done!” said Muhammad with a smile.       
     The visitor smiled blissfully and rose to go.     
    “I shall come to you as soon as the village men have come back from market,” said Muhammad in a satisfied voice.       
      “See you then!”        
      “Wait! Before you go remind me of your name…”    
    Muhammad showed his visitor out, and as he turned round and stepped back into the house his mother hailed him from a little way to his right, and when he stood in front of her, she said:          
      “Who was that man and what did he want?”      
     “That was a man from Tushki. He wanted me to teach him how to do calculations so that he could get a job, as he said.”        
      “How much will he pay you?”        
  “Five dirhams a day, plus a chicken per week, he said.”        
     “And you’ll take the job?”        
     “Why not?”      
     “Alright! You can go to him, but, take it from me, don’t tell your brothers about your pay, otherwise they’ll hold you up to ridicule!”        
    Muhammad smiled shyly, and moved on to the backyard. And there he stayed, thinking and dreaming, until his father and brothers came back from market. Then he joined them in the dining-room and greeted them with peace be with you and sat by his father’s side. His father smiled at him a forced smile, and said:         
     “Are you still tired?”         
     “I am fine, Father.”     
  “Tell me, Father,” said Hassan, one of Muhammad’s siblings. “Are you really going to sell the camel to H’ssein?”        
    “I’m still thinking about it,” his father began. “I’ve heard that–”             
      At that moment, Yezza brought in a dish of fish and set it on the table, saying:       
      “Now eat and talk afterwards!”     
     Muhammad moved close to the table and began eating in silence, while his father and brother resumed their talk about the camel.   
    Immediately after lunch, Muhammad rose and left the dining-room. He performed his ablutions in the backyard and then said his prayers in the guest-room and went out. He knew that Itto’s home was to the east and Tushki was to the southwest, but he did not know what way to take. He led his mule out of the stable and walked a short way as slowly as he could, just to make up his mind. In the end, he mounted the mule and headed southwest, to Tushki. The sun was in his eyes. The children who had first seen him the previous day waved to him now as he rode past the vineyard. The grapes in the vineyard were dark purple, almost the colour of Itto’s eyes. Those eyes were leading him now. They were teaching him new things; they were opening up a whole new world before him. But Itto herself was there: back, behind him, hidden from him– waiting for a ‘fool’ to take her away from her father…    
      These thoughts accompanied Muhammad all the way to Tushki. The man who wanted him was waiting for him in the doorway of his home. He greeted him with the warmest words and took his mule into the stable and came back to conduct him into a large room carpeted with a black-and-orange carpet. Tea was already there, and also cakes and almonds. And so Muhammad sat down and began his first lesson.    
     The birds were flying back to their nests and night was beginning to fall hen Muhammad’s mule headed back to Azlu, the village where Itto would soon go to sleep.    
     Would she think of him when she went to sleep? And why him? Didn’t she know anyone before him? They had seen each other only twice, twice on the same day. And then she was gone. Why had she stayed late that day? Why she of all other women?…    
     These thoughts accompanied Muhammad all the way back to Azlu.    
      Not a single human figure was around when he entered Azlu. Only a few late-roosting birds squealed overhead and a few roaming dogs barked here and there.    
      Muhammad’s family were asleep. And none of them rose when the chained dog by the front door shook the night with its wild barks. The door was closed. Muhammad did not dare open it, not from fear; but simply, he did not want to disturb anybody. He tied up his mule to a tree and took down the saddle and propped it up against the trunk of another tree and sat down on it. He looked up at the luminous crescent, then east– towards Itto’s home.     
     And there he stayed until dawn, when he rose and headed for the mosque. “Oh, if only the mosque was near her home!” he thought sadly.     
        
      On his return from mosque, Muhammad found his father sitting under one of the trees in front of the house. He greeted him politely and squatted by his side, and said:      
    “Father, I am free all morning. If you need me for any work in the fields, I can help you.”       
   “No, my son,” said his father, “I don’t need your help. Don’t help me! Help yourself! That’s what I want of you. You lost so many years on nothing, my son. You wasted your youth on nothing. You’ve been leading a wasted life. Now you are almost forty, with no home, no wife, no children, no lands, no money, with nothing. How long will you live on, my son? When will you start your life? Were you happy the other day when the village men made fun of you? They were right in asking what you had brought with you after all these years of absence. Is it reasonable what you did?”        
      “Father, I want to say something.”
      His father said nothing, but listened expectantly.        
      “I want to marry Itto. That’s what I wanted to say.”     
    “What! Do you want me to become the village idiot? Listen and listen well! I warn you! Don’t mention that name again! Or else go back where you came from!”

 Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER