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?”
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Tell me their names!”
“Ahmed, Brahim, Hassan, Yezza and Fatma.”
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?”
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 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?”
“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!”
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.
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?”
“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 say that name again! Or else go back where you came from!”