Monday, 27 June 2016
The woods ran in a half-circle a little way round the hamlet Kafr-Hanoon –and beyond was the lake. Several people had their cattle, sheep or goats pasture there. These people sent either their little boys or girls, or the elderly, to look after the herds. Sufian had made the Poet’s flesh creep with stories about wolves eating people’s stray sheep around the woods. But this first day there rolled by peacefully. The Poet returned with no sheep or lamb missing. Little by little, he grew accustomed to this piece of work. And right from the start he chose not to mingle with the herd-boys or -girls or even the elderly. He would keep his herd away from those and sit somewhere on a small rock or nestle against the trunk of a tree and read a book.
At sunset the Poet would herd the animals back to their shed, and after dinner he would recline in bed and read for some time before sleeping. And days went on in this way until one night when he could not sleep because of the thought of Sultana. He thought and wept all through the night. And as dawn came he decided to repent of his past sins. He determined to say his daily prayers regularly and, simultaneously, make up for all those prayers he had missed. So instead of five it would be ten prayers daily. He started this at dawn. And after breakfast he led the herd to the woods. He spent much of the next five nights in worship and penitence. And he read religious books and the Quran more than anything else. Soon he gave up reading in the woods. Instead, he fashioned out a flute and began a habit of playing on it while he was with the herd. This habit soon drove him far away from books and nightly prayers. It made him think of women more than anything else. And the ‘woman’ who had just attracted him now was but a girl of twelve…the daughter of Boutros. This girl pastured her father’s sheep in the woods, not far from the Poet..
The Poet did not know the girl’s name. But he named her, though, ‘Hasnaa’, Arabic for ‘beautiful’. Sufian was not at Kafr-Hanoon these days, and the Poet only wished Sufian had been there. For had it been the case, the Poet would have used him as a messenger. Sufian spoke Coptic, the language which Hasnaa spoke. The Poet understood little, and evidently could not reply in Coptic. But lovers –all lovers– do not always need –at least at the beginning– to speak the language of the beloved…
So the Poet did not wait for Sufian’s return from his father’s home. He decided to make his first endeavours. He began by bringing his herd closer and closer to Hasnaa’s, but without approaching her in person. Each day, he himself got closer. And now he began to eye the girl up. And sometimes he fastened his eyes on hers. She did not react, though. But her looks purported that she was well aware of the Poet’s satanic endeavours. Sufian’s absence lasted more than the Poet could bear. He could no longer read. By day he played on the flute in the woods. By night he thought of Hasnaa, and sometimes of Yamna. Even when he prayed he could not concentrate on his prayers…
One day he resolved to go into action. He waved to the girl from a short distance. She stared at him. He smiled. She did not smile. He babbled out words. She did not reply. He rose to his feet and took steps towards her, smiling. She too rose, uttered a low cry and scurried away. “I’ve done it!” the Poet muttered, his heart throbbing. And he started to count the hours to the trial…
At sunset he hurried the herd back to the shed and returned to his tent. His apprehension had now reached its peak. He knew he had exposed himself to the full fury of Assem. At dusk he prayed with tears in the eyes and a fire in the heart. Immediately afterwards two well-set young men darted into the tent and each gripped the Poet by an arm and they dragged him out. The Poet did not protest. He only whimpered. Assem was waiting beside a wooden cross. Without awaiting a signal from him, the two men stripped the Poet to his trousers and tied him up to the cross. “You can go now,” said Assem to the two men. “And come back to me early in the morning.” The two men saluted and moved away. When they had gone out of sight, Assem turned to the Poet and slapped him twice in the face. The Poet burst into bitter tears.
“Now you have done this to my friend’s daughter,” Assem growled, his eyes blazing with rage, “next time you’ll do it to my maid or –who knows?– to my grand-son!”
As the Poet began to beg for mercy, making mad excuses, Assem slapped him once again, harder than the first time, and glared at him contemptuously, and turned round to go back to his compound.
The Poet spent that night on the cross, weeping and cursing himself and praying to God to deliver him from this ordeal. Early in the morning the two young men came back with whips in their hands. Assem stayed aloof and watched as the two men set to thrash the Poet. When the Poet’s voice had gone hoarse from crying, Assem walked over to the two men and made them a sign to withdraw and go away. When they had gone, Assem turned to the Poet and said:
“From the cross you’ll go straight to the grave!”
The Poet was already breathless. His head hung on his chest. The naked part of his body clearly bore the red marks of the whip. Assem moved away and did not return until the sun was most painful on the body. He did not come alone. Boutros and the girl were with him. The Poet had glanced at them all, without moving his head. Boutros and his daughter stood a little way to the Poet’s left and Assem on the right. Now the Poet raised his eyes and nearly went mad at the sight of a knife in Assem’s right hand. Tears gushed from his eyes, and he trembled all over. Assem laid his left hand on the Poet’s right shoulder and turned his eyes toward Boutros, waving the knife.
“Shall I cut off his head?” he asked Boutros.
The Poet was terrified out of his wits. And he begged breathlessly for mercy. Boutros gazed at him for a while then he answered firmly:
And as Assem raised the knife to fulfill his friend’s wish the
girl cried, “No! No! No!”, and buried her face in her father’s gown. Boutros signed to his friend to wait. Assem moved the knife away from the Poet’s throat and turned toward the girl. In the meantime the Poet went on beseeching pardon. The girl uncovered her face and glanced at the Poet, then flung herself again at her father, blubbering, “No, dad, don’t kill him!” Boutros cast an affectionate look at her and turned to Assem and said, “That’s enough! Set him free!” Assem glanced at the Poet and turned his steps toward Boutros and said:
“Boutros, I’m sorry for what’s happened. Let’s go!”
And the three moved away, leaving the Poet on the cross.
In the afternoon the Poet was in bed, alone. It was not until the next morning that a physician came to see him. And all the while he whimpered and moaned. But three days later, he got much better, and he began to yearn to return to the pastures to see his beloved –Hasnaa. She was such a charming girl; and it simply was hard to resist her. The next evening Assem came into the tent and sat quietly by the Poet on the mattress.
“How are you?” Assem asked, displaying some sympathy.
“Quite well, Sir.”
After a momentary silence Assem said, looking away from the Poet:
“Whom do you blame for this?”
“None but myself. I avow my guilt.”
“I nearly thought you’d got a heart quite attuned to worship. But –alas!– you’ve disappointed me. Why did you do it? And with such a young girl –a child even? What has happened to you, Salman?”
The Poet’s eyes filled with tears. Assem looked at him.
“I want to repent,” the Poet burst out.
“That’s enough,” replied Assem, after a pause.
“No. I want to heal the wound in the girl’s heart. I still have to make amends to her.”
“How?” Assem smiled.
The Poet hesitated for a moment, and then replied in a shaky voice:
“I want to give her the lamb you gave me.”
Assem roared with laughter. And after a moment’s reflection he said:
“Tomorrow I shall take you there to give her the lamb. Right?”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Assem and the Poet were well received by Boutros. Hasnaa accepted the gift with what looked like avidity. She was indeed surprised and happy. She was even happier when she learned that Assem would give her father three sheep in compensation for the loss of three of Boutros’ sheep when she had scurried away home.
That same day Assem told the Poet to put the animals out to pasture. And the Poet was happy with this. For he would be able to see his beloved from time to time. But his happiness ended the week after. It was utterly dark outside when Assem sailed into the tent with a lamp in one hand and a basket, a sword and a knife in the other.
“Get up!” he said as he entered.
The Poet sprang from his bed and gaped.
“Take,” said Assem, as he laid on the carpet what he was carrying in his hands. “I want you to go to the woods now and bring me, in this basket, the head of the wolf who ate Boutros’ sheep. You know I’ve paid three of mine for that! Now get up and be quick!”
The Poet stared at the master, then at the materials on the carpet, and then vacantly into space, before he looked up at Assem and said:
“Are you sure there’s going to be only one wolf in the woods? This very night?”
“Yes! Now get up! At once! What are you waiting for?”
For the Poet this meant the end, the end of him. But he stood up, picked up the basket and the weapons and put on his shoes and left the tent. The farther he went from the tent the weaker he felt at the knees. And he thought… What to do now? Go away? Where? How? Go to the woods?… to kill the wolf and bring its head– how? Him kill a wolf? But that’s madness! Utter madness! In the desert around Lehreem he had always shirked going where he suspected there to be a wolf or a lion. And on the Poet trudged, looking left and right. The nearer he drew to the woods the faster his heart beat. He stopped a few yards away from the woods to take breath. So far, he could not believe that Assem had actually meant what he said…It was very cold now. And the Poet shivered with cold and terror. Although Assem’s wolf was nowhere to be seen the Poet could not yet venture to enter the woods. The first thing he thought suitable to do was to have a walk round the woods. And he set off at a slow trot, looking in every direction and holding the sword at the ready. And suddenly he was totally aware of what he was doing. He awoke to his opportunities. He now took Assem seriously. And consequently he had to chase the wolf and kill it and bring its head in the basket. Hadn’t he, the Poet, said that he should avail himself of every opportunity to acquire a manly heart? This was the best of all opportunities. All people had stigmatized him as a coward. Now, he had to avenge this insult… And while the Poet was busy steeling his heart, a wolf, somewhere on the other side of the woods, howled. The Poet nearly wetted his pants. He was immediately gripped by an impulse to run away. But where? How? He stood rooted to the spot, and tried to overcome his terror. And he thought all the while… Assem had meant what he said. There was now a wolf. Maybe it was this very wolf that had eaten Boutros’ sheep… But what to do? Chase the wolf? The Poet’s heart throbbed fit to burst. The wolf –or the wolves– howled again. The Poet plucked up courage and raised his eyes up to the sky and jabbered out prayers, and then moved off hesitantly…in the direction of the howl. He went along the edge of the woods, being still unable to go through the trees. Soon his sham courage faded away. And yet he plodded on his way, looking in every direction with a sharp eye and listening with a sharp ear. And now and then he stopped to get his breath back. The wolves –now the Poet was sure there was a herd of them– howled again and again. The Poet slowed down and almost went on tiptoe…And now he stopped. He could move no farther. He had already reached quite the middle of the second side of the woods. He was panting and, despite the cold, he was in a sweat. He faced the trees, but every moment he turned this way and that to make sure he had not trapped himself. His hands trembled, the sword now felt heavier. His eyes were rolling. “Where are they now?” he thought. “Here we are!” the wolves seemed to reply at once. For they now howled just a little way from him. Startled out of his wits, the Poet just raised his eyes to the sky and mumbled prayers. He waved his unwieldy sword and strained his eyes to see what was coming towards him. A wolf appeared between the trees and glared at him. The Poet nearly went mad at the grisly spectacle. He ran even farther backward while he kept facing the wolf’s eyes and teeth. And here was the dreadful moment at last! The wolf gave a short jump and slowly headed straight at the Poet. Another wolf appeared behind, and a third. And the Poet was nearer and nearer to madness. And no sooner had the first wolf given the first real jump in the direction of the Poet than a long arrow shot through its sides. The two other wolves let out a mad howl and flew away through the trees. The one which was hit lay on the ground growling and moaning and wriggling in convulsions, just a few yards from the Poet. The Poet’s terror had not abated, though. And while he stood gazing at the dying creature on the ground, a thin, short arrow zipped just a few inches past his nose. Aghast, he turned quickly toward where the shot had come from. He could descry nobody, and real terror gripped him. He stood there petrified until a human voice broke this jungle silence. The Poet recognized the voice at once. It was Assem. The Poet could not believe his ears, nor his eyes, when he saw Assem coming towards him from the place where the wolves had first appeared to him.
“You’re still a babe, poor boy!” Assem said smilingly as he rested his hand on the Poet’s shoulder. With the other hand alone he carried a sword, a bow and arrows. The Poet could not speak. He felt ashamed.
“This is another step on a long way you have to go,” said Assem softly. “Shall we walk back home?”
The Poet turned his steps to the compound. Assem wound his arm round the Poet’s back and they moved off unhurriedly.
“Tell me, Master,” said the Poet suddenly. “How did you know that the wolves would be in the woods this very night? When I saw Mr Boutros home I heard them howl only three or four times?”
“I wasn’t quite sure of that, but I had made up my mind to send you tonight. Now, just forget all about this, and think of the future. What about your readings? It seems the girl has absorbed all your attention, eh?”
“No, no, Sir. I’ll be reading more and more.”
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.