Friday, 1 March 2013

The Philosopher : Chapter Three


It was getting increasingly hot as the morning wore on, but Muhammad and Hassan went on walking and talking until they reached the place where Hassan had left his mule on Saturday. The mule was tied up to a shrub. As Hassan squatted down to untie it, he said, pointing to the dry pebbles to his right:      
      “You know what? Three years ago, I remember, I was coming by here and I found the wadi swollen by rain, and I had to wait a solid month on the other bank before I could cross over to this side and continue on my way back home.”       
      “Yes, that happens sometimes,” said Muhammad, looking about.       
      “So you may have to move soon!” said Hassan, rising to his feet.       
      “It depends. Anyway, this is just the beginning of Autumn. The sun is still painful on the body, you see. In the afternoon it will be even hotter, and, by the way, you’ll have to be patient with the boy.”      
      “I’ll try! Now, let’s move!”      
      They went back to the shack, and there they stayed, talking about everything and nothing, until they heard the muezzin’s call. Then Muhammad took his mule and waved to Hassan to walk at his side up to the mosque.      
      The Imam met them on the northern side of the mosque.       
      “Will you do me a favour, Sheïkh?” said Muhammad to the Imam.      
      “I’ll do it provided you give me another chicken! By the way, the chicken you gave me last time was good!”         
      “You’ll have what you want, Sheïkh, but not now,” replied Muhammad with a smile.       
      “I was just joking,” said the Imam. “What’s the problem?”       
      “Well, you know my shack. I can’t entertain guests in it. Would you please give Hassan a home for tonight?”         
      “Gladly!” said the Imam.       
      “Thank you, Sheïkh!” said Hassan. “But I will either spend the night in your shack, Muhammad, or go.”      
      “Alright!” said Muhammad. “But you know when I come back from Tushki!”      
      “Don’t worry!” said the Imam. “Hassan will dine with me and then go and wait for you in the shack. Now, let’s pray!”       
        
      After the prayers, Muhammad went along with Hassan to the pasture where Issa was waiting in the shade of a tree. Hassan stayed there with the boy, and Muhammad mounted his mule and rode on. He stopped at Dami’s door. Dami came out and said she had no problem with Hassan staying with her son for that afternoon. Then she handed Muhammad a bunch of grapes and wished him good day.       
      Muhammad thanked her and moved off. He cast his eyes up to thank God as he put the first grape in his mouth. And then his heart jumped when he saw Itto’s father standing in the doorway of his home. And as Muhammad rode past that home, Itto’s father hailed him. Muhammad turned pink when Itto’s father stood in front of him.      
      “Why do you always come this way, Muhammad?” Itto’s father asked in a grave tone.         
      “That’s because I have something to do in Tushki,” Muhammad replied in a shaky voice. “And I sometimes come to Dami’s; and, as you know, this is the shortest way to Tushki.”        
      “Alright!” said Itto’s father with a sly smile. “I feared you took this path for another reason. I’ll see what happens next! Have a nice day!”      
      Muhammad tapped the mule and slipped the remainder of the grapes into his jellaba’s hood, and laid his hand on his heart.     
      “What’s the matter with you?” said the Tushki man as Muhammad alighted from the mule. “Why is your face so dark? Are you ill?”      
      “A little bit, yes,” Muhammad panted.       
      And in the course of the lesson, Muhammad hesitated and floundered and sighed and gasped for breath. And he left as soon as the lesson was over.     
      “You have always dined with us,” said the Tushki man. “What happened to you today?”               
      “Thanks! I’ll dine at home,” Muhammad replied, mounting the mule.       
      The sky was dark––no moon, no stars.     
      But there was light in the shack. Muhammad looked in and saw Hassan lying face downwards, sound asleep. A small lantern lay a little way from his feet. Muhammad turned round and looked down, thinking. Then he sat down just beside the door. Soon he dozed off. But only for a short while. His eyes opened and fell on a very dark space between the reeds. He kept gazing vacantly into space. Then he heard a light noise. Hassan rose and came up to the door. He looked down at Muhammad and said in a somnolent voice:
      “You look sad tonight!”
      Muhammad sighed, and said:
      “Did you dine with the Imam?”
      “Yes, I did,” said Hassan, taking a step forward  to sit  beside Muhammad.
      Muhammad sighed and held his head in his hands and sighed again.
      “What’s the matter?” said Hassan with a worried frown.
      Muhammad sighed once more, and said:
      “The Tushki man invited me to dinner and I said I would dine at home.”
      “Are you sad because you didn’t dine or because you lied to the Tushki man?”
      “I dined on grapes on my way back.”
      “So you are sad because of the lie.”
      “That’s absolutely it! I have become a liar!”
      “You lied because you couldn’t stay in Tushki.”
      “That’s right.”
      “You couldn’t stay there because you wanted to come back as early as possible.”
      “No. I came early because I couldn’t eat. Even the grapes I couldn’t finish them off.”    
      Hassan laughed, and said:
      “I’m sorry I can’t help laughing, but what happened?”
      This is what happened: the young woman’s father warned me against taking any path close to their home.”
      “Now, I see! You are sad because of love, then!”
      “Yes, I am sad, but I am happy.”
      “What! Sad and happy? Explain!”
      “I am sad because I can’t get what I want. I am happy because I can cope with my sadness.”          
      “Excuse me, but you’re talking like a philosopher. Would you please clarify that in my mind?”
      Muhammad himself laughed now, then said:
      “Well, it’s quite simple. I am sad because I can’t marry the woman I love. But despite my sadness I can laugh, I can walk, I can talk, and I can think. And when I think, I feel ashamed of myself, because I would then realize that I am thinking of someone who hasn’t given me anything. I think of the girl night and day, but she doesn’t give me anything. What about God, Who gave me life, Who gave me eyesight, Who gave me speech, Who gave me all the means to learn and think, etc, etc? The truth is that I am now thinking more of the girl than of God! Isn’t this reason enough for me to be ashamed of myself? And when I realize this and try as best I can to think of God –again– I just can’t do it. I would only find myself torn between the girl and God. I can’t help it. I wish I could forget all about the girl and think of God only, but I can’t. Every single day now I am becoming more and more aware of my contradictions. Every single day now I am learning more and more about myself. I’m becoming more and more aware of the world around me. Now, I not only see the world or hear it– I feel it. Now, I am more sensitive to beauty. Now, more than ever before, I would love to see the bright moon in the heart of a starry sky; I would love to see and hear birds twittering over my head; I would love to see water flowing in a river, with the green trees swaying gently in the wind on the banks; I would love to see trees in full blossom; I would love to see kids playing merrily on the ground around their homes; I would love to see late-roosting birds fluttering away to their nests.
      “And again, I realize that those things are just what God wants me to pay attention to. You’ve read the Quran, haven’t you, and you know that God speaks about the earth and the skies, about the rivers and the seas, about palm-trees and grapes and olives and figs and birds and beasts, and all sorts of things. God wants us to think of those things. He wants us to think about them as a means to remind ourselves of Him. And so I find myself thinking once again of Him, although for a short while. Now, I think of God in a different way– say, in a better way. Still, I’m ashamed of myself. I know that my thoughts should go to God first. But what can I do? I am torn between God and my love.”
      “You didn’t answer my question, though,” said Hassan in a tremulous voice.” How can you be sad and happy at the same time?”
      “It seems you haven’t got my meaning,” Muhammad replied with a smile. “Let me put it this way. What’s my problem? My problem is that I can’t marry the one I love. Is that correct? I then ask myself: why? Well, when I think about it over and over again, I say to myself, ‘You can’t marry her because you don’t deserve her!’ But then I ask: ‘But she, does she deserve me?’” Muhammad laughed as he went on, “I know why I don’t deserve her; it’s because I think of her more than of God. And that’s what I shouldn’t be doing as a good Muslim. It’s God Who gave me everything. The girl hasn’t given me anything at all. And immediately, I start saying within myself:         
      Khalaqany, razaqany, âllammany, hadany.’ ((God) made me; (God) provided me with the means of subsistence; (God) taught me; (God) showed me the right path.)
 And as I say this again and again, my sighs cease, my heartbeat abates, and my whole body relaxes. And then I feel happy. I move from sadness to happiness. Is that now clear?”
      Hassan, who was listening closely, lost in silent wonder, now let out a laugh and said:
      “Yours is a really funny story!”
      “And let me add one thing,” said Muhammad zealously. “I am not in a hurry to get married. I would suffer a great deal more if someone else came overnight and took my love away from me. As long as she is unmarried, I will do everything I possibly can to reach her. But I would never win her and lose myself. I heard people say that lovers sometimes do crazy things and some go crazy altogether. And that is scaring me. I fear I may make a crazy mistake. But then there’s something I always hold in mind. I want to live for myself, but also for others. Meanness is the worst feature of human character, and selfishness is the worst form of meanness. Mean people don’t want to suffer for others. I am just as willing to suffer for others as for my own sake. That’s why I’ll try not to make a crazy mistake!”
      “Oh!” Hassan burst out. “I thought I had become something of a scholar; I thought I was learned enough to start teaching others. But now that I have met you, I think I should go back north to learn more.”
      “And what about marriage?” Muhammad joked.
      “I’ll wait like you waited!”
      In the morning, Hassan was about to mount his mule and go when he said:
      "Before I go, tell me, Muhammad, I've heard that someone called you 'The Philosopher'. Can you tell me why?"
      Muhammad laughed heartily and said:
      "It was such a long time ago! I was fourteen years old then. A man in his sixties used to go from village to village telling people what they should and what they shouldn't do according to the Quran and the Haddith, he said. He sort of issued fatwas, you know. And one day, I stood among the crowd who were asking him questions. And suddenly I waved to him and said I had a question.
      "What's your question?" he said.
      "What do you do with the money you collect from our village?" I asked.
      "Well," he said, "I add it to the money I collect from other villages!"
      "And what do you do with the money you collect from all the villages?" I asked.
      "Well," he said, "I buy the things I need to live."
      "And why do you live?" I asked.
      "That's enough!" he said. "You are a philosopher. May God curse all philosophers!"
      Everybody answered, "Amen!"
      "And that's all the story!"
      Hassan burst out laughing as he mounted his mule, and moved off. Muhammad kept watching him ride across the riverbed, then up the other bank. Soon Hassan went out of sight. Muhammad sighed. He stayed standing up there, wondering what to do. Should he go to Issa and risk a "scandal", now that Itto's father had warned him? Or should he go back to his shack and sleep?
      He went to his shack. He lay on his side. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. But then he opened his eyes. Itto was too big for his eyes to contain. Itto had filled his eyes to bursting point. That's why he opened his eyes. But Itto was not only inside his eyes. She was before his eyes, everywhere he looked. The shack was full of her. So full of her that he could not stay there any longer. He picked himself up and put on his scandals and shuffled up to the pasture where he would meet up with Issa.
      Issa was there, waiting patiently. Muhammad sat by his side and joked with him before he began a new lesson. He talked and Issa listened, while the animals shuffled around, until someone stood just behind them. Muhammad flung up his head and saw two eyes full of hate.
      "What are you doing here?" Itto's father said.
      "I am teaching the boy," Muhammad replied in a broken voice.
      "Teaching him?" Itto's father snorted. "Is this a school?"
      Muhammad turned back to Issa and said in a low voice:
      "Issa, please tell your mother I can't meet up with you here any longer."
      Issa just watched in silence as Muhammad struggled to his feet and trudged away back to his shack.
      At siesta-time, Muhammad mounted his mule and set out for Tushki, taking the farthest path possible from Itto's home.
      He dined with the Tushki man, and joined him in prayer, then took his mule and rode back to Azlu. And he smiled as he rode on. He smiled because there was a full moon that night, and the moon was hanging motionless in the sky, just over Itto's home, in the northeast. It looked as if the moon was standing there on the watch lest anyone should come and take Itto away from him, Muhammad.
      But Muhammad sighed. He knew he was only dreaming.
      And on he rode. He went past the vineyard, and took a path from which he could see Itto's home. He peered at the home; he looked up at the moon, and smiled again, and rode on. And as he was halfway between the mosque and the graveyard, the smile faded at the sight of a fire just on the spot where stood his shack. The shack that once stood there was now in flames. Muhammad cursed Satan and jumped off and hastened to put out the flames.
      The flames were put out, and the shack was now reduced to a heap of rubble.
      Muhammad took his mule and rode away from the place, looking for a sandy spot to spend the night.
      At dawn he went to mosque. He greeted the Imam, who returned the greeting coldly. As soon as the prayers were over, the Imam sprang to his feet and left, saying his wife was ill.
      Muhammad went from place to place along the reed edge, thinking. "Why don't I go back to Ighmizen and marry my friend's daughter?" he thought ruefully. "Go!" Itto's eyes challenged him. "What's stopping you?" But go he could not. He was now glued to this land. It looked as if someone had cast a spell on him.
      At midday he went back to where his shack once stood. He sighed twice: firstly because he thought that Itto's father might have been behind this; secondly, because he saw his saddle lying beside the rubble. That meant that his family too were not willing to see him again.
      After midday prayers, he fitted the saddle on the mule and set out for Tushki, taking a path from which he could not see Itto's home.
      Three days later, he said farewell to the Turkish man and took his money and the chicken and rode back to Azlu. He glanced at Itto's home and rode on towards the heap of rubble, then rode away to where he could find a safe place to sleep.
      At dawn he went to mosque again. He greeted the Imam and handed him the chicken. "No, I don't want it!" muttered the Imam, rising to go into the mosque. Muhammad put the cackling chicken down by the door and hastened to join the Imam in prayer. The Imam left as soon as he had said his prayers. "Alright!" Muhammad thought. "You are all against me. I will turn God against you! I'm not going to leave because you want me to!" And he burst into prayer till his beard was wet with tears.

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER

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