Muhammad bowed his head and sighed, then he rose to his feet and moved on to where his mule was still tied up to the tree. He untied and mounted it diffidently and rode in the direction of the wadi.
“Where are you going?” his father said aloud.
But Muhammad just rode on, trying his best to hold back his tears. He went past the mosque and nodded to the Imam, who was sitting alone by its door. And on he rode till he reached the reed, then he alighted and let his mule graze on the little yellowish grass along the reed edge. He himself walked a short way along the edge, thinking. He stopped and turned towards the mule. For a moment, his gaze came to rest on the mosque, then he looked down and walked slowly back towards the mule. And there he sat down with his back to the reed and ran his eye over the rolling landscape before him. “I can’t find a better place to live for the moment,” he thought. “I should build a small home here. But where exactly?” He stood up and began to walk back and forth, passing the mule in each trip. Then he stopped and faced Itto’s home, which he could hardly see from there. He stayed standing up there until he felt tired. Then he shuffled up to the mule and pulled it gently towards a palm-tree, to which he tied it up. Then he moved a little way from the tree and lay on his back on a sandy spot. But it was not long before he rose, because the sun was becoming too painful for his face to bear. He untied his mule and dragged it along towards the mosque. As he approached the northern side of the mosque, the Imam rose and faced him.
“You look a little bit nervous,” the Imam said. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I just wanted to sit with you awhile,” Muhammad panted.
“Oh, you’re welcome! Tie the beast up to that tree and come to sit by me.”
And they sat side by side with their backs against the wall.
“It’s hot, isn’t it?” Muhammad began.
“Yes, it is.”
“Tell me, Sheikh, when I came back I found out that many children had been born during my absence. I wonder whether anybody from the village has passed away since I left fourteen or fifteen years ago?”
“Yes, a handful of them,” the Imam sighed.
“Who?” Muhammad gasped.
The Imam named the dead in chronological order, and Muhammad held his breath up to the last name. And he could not help heaving a sigh of relief when the name he feared to hear was not among those enumerated by the Imam.
“To be honest with you,” he said at length, “I wanted to ask you about Dami.”
“Well, I know that she was about your age now when I left. So she must be old today. And I know that she was a childless widow, and she was a good woman, and she had a few plots of land and animals also. I was going to ask you about her because, honestly, I would like to have a small home of my own; but, as you see, I’m short of money, and I need a small spot to build a small shack on. I was there by the reed edge, and I thought of building a shack with pieces of that reed. But the problem is that I need a place. That’s why I thought of Dami.”
“I can now understand why you thought of Dami. You’re right in saying that she’s a good woman and she can help you. But why don’t you stay with your family? Your father’s home is one of the largest in the village!” “I know. I know. But I don’t feel comfortable living under their roof. I would prefer a shack of my own close to the wadi. So, please, if you can, come along with me to Dami’s home to see whether she can give me a place to build my shack on, at least for one month or to, and, in return, I’ll be at her service. I’ll help her as much as I can with the field work and so on. Will you please come with me?
And they left the mule by the mosque and walked slowly to Dami’s. Dami lived next door to Itto. Only a field stood between the two homes. But Itto was nowhere to be seen when Muhammad and the Imam stood at Dami’s door.
It was the Imam who knocked. Dami, a tall woman in her late sixties, came out to open the door.
“Welcome!” she said. “Come in!”
“Thanks!” replied the Imam, without stirring from his place. “We won’t bother you much. We only came to you because this man, Muhammad Bin H’mad Amgoon, has got a problem and he needs your help.”
“Right! But come in!”
Muhammad and the Imam followed her across the small courtyard into a large room with a thatched roof.
“Now, what’s the problem?” said Dami, sitting down on the blue carpet.
“The problem,” said the Imam, “is that Muhammad wants to build a small reed shack close to the wadi, but he can’t afford a plot of ground to build the shack on.”
“Why do you want to have a shack by the wadi?” said Dami, looking at Muhammad. “Do you want to live with the djinns?”
“Oh, no, Mum!” said Muhammad with a smile. “I’m no less afraid of the djinns than you are. I only wish to be alone for some time. I came back only a few days ago, and I’ve found it quite difficult to get along with the village people. I need to be alone for some time.”
“Alright. Don’t worry! I’ll give you a plot of ground very close to the reed and not far from the mosque. But who will build the shack for you?”
“I’ll try to do it all by myself, or perhaps with the help of the Imam.”
“Right. That’s a good idea. If the Imam helps you I’ll pay him. Is there any other problem?”
“No,” said the Imam, who looked delighted with Dami’s offer. “That’s the only problem.”
“Yes, Mum!” said Muhammad happily. “That’s the only problem. And I’ll never forget your help!”
Dami smiled at him, and said:
“Now go and come back at lunchtime. You and the Imam will lunch with us. My adopted son, who is now out in the pastures, will lunch with you.”
“Thanks!” said Muhammad and the Imam in unison.
At midday, the Imam –who was also the muezzin– called to prayer. But nobody answered his call. “They only come for dusk prayers, when they have finished all their work,” he commented, waving to Muhammad to join him in prayer.
Immediately after midday prayers, Muhammad untied his mule and dragged it along, while the Imam walked at his side towards Dami’s home.
“Where’s the saddle?” the Imam asked as they started off.
“I left it at home.”
“And why are you bringing the mule with you– we’re only going to Dami’s?”
“I’ll go from there to Tushki. A man is waiting for me there…”
Dami, too, saw the mule and asked:
“Why did you bring the mule?”
“I need it, because after lunch I’m going to Tushki.”
“What do you have to do in Tushki?”
“Well, a Tushki man has hired me to teach him how to make calculations.”
“Really?” said Dami with a smile. “Can you then teach my son?”
“Of course, I can!”
“I’m pleased to hear that! Now let your mule graze over there and come in. You too, Sheikh! Come in! You’re welcome!”
As Muhammad, the Imam and Dami’s son began eating, Dami suddenly emerged from a side room and came towards them, smiling. She sat down close to Muhammad and said, holding out her hand to pick a grain of olive from the dish:
“Muhammad, I just came to see what you would be teaching my son. Will you please teach him something now, just for me to see?”
“Alright, Mum!” replied Muhammad affably. Then he looked at the boy and said, “How old are you, Issa?”
“Twelve,” said Issa timidly.
“Who told you?”
“My mother told me.”
“When were you born?”
“I don’t know.”
“Say: I was born twelve years ago,” Dami put in, looking gently at the boy.
“I was born twelve years ago,” Issa repeated after his mother.
“Now, Issa, suppose you had a cow that gives birth to a new calf every other year, how many calves would she give you in twelve years?”
Issa stopped eating and started counting within himself, using his fingers.
“Five. No– six,” he said at length.
“Good! Very good!” Muhammad exclaimed happily.
Dami smiled a merry smile, and said:
“I think he can learn. I’ll give him one dirham a day as long as he learns well. But tell me, Muhammad, you said you had that man in Tushki to teach, when will you be teaching my son then?”
“I’m free all morning, Mum; I’ll meet Issa every morning when he’s out with the herd in the pasture. Or maybe we could meet up at the mosque?”
“I think it’s better to meet up with him in the pasture. Please see to it that he learns well!”
“Don’t worry, Mum! I’ll do my best!”
After lunch, Muhammad took his mule and set out for Tushki. He took the path that ran only a few yards from Itto’s home. He glanced through the first, then the second window, but nothing was there to be seen. Neither Itto nor anyone from her family. All he could see was her white abode, with its tall trees and cackling chickens and silent dog.
And on he rode, under a blazing sun. As he neared Tushki, a light wind began blowing from the west, and from there, too, light clouds began sailing across the sky.
Muhammad was happy to dine with his client in Tushki, but he politely declined the invitation to spend the night there. So he took his mule and rode back to Azlu. He knew he had no home to spend the night in Azlu. But he could not spend the night anywhere but in Azlu.
And again he rode along a path from which he could see Itto’s home, looking dark– although the crescent above was luminous. So he rode on and on till he got to the reed edge. And there he tied up the mule to a palm-tree and looked for a spot to sleep.
At dawn, he was at mosque. The Imam, too, was there. And no one else joined them for dawn prayers. Nobody was stirring yet when Muhammad and the Imam walked down to the reed edge with the Imam carrying in a reed basket the knives, the saws and a can of milk. As they went past the plot of ground which Dami had given Muhammad, and which stood between the reed and the village graveyard, the Imam said, “I don’t think it’s a good place for you.” “I think it is indeed,” was Muhammad’s reply.
The sun was out when Issa appeared through the swaying reed, holding a small reed basket in one hand. Muhammad dropped the reeds he was cutting down and walked slowly up to Issa, who greeted him and handed him the basket, saying:
“My mother has sent you these grapes for breakfast, and she invites you and the Imam to lunch today.”
“Thanks! But where did you leave the animals?”
“My mother is looking after them; I’m going back now.”
“Alright! Thanks a lot. Tell your mother we’re coming for lunch.”
At lunchtime Muhammad and the Imam performed midday prayers at the mosque and then went to lunch at Dami’s. After lunch, the Imam returned to the wadi to continue work on the reed, while Muhammad set out for Tushki, taking the path from which he could glance into Itto’s home. Again, as he neared Tushki, a light wind began blowing from the west and light clouds began to appear across the sky.
The next day the light wind and clouds did not wait until the afternoon. They lasted all morning while Muhammad and the Imam were busy constructing the shack.
But when Muhammad and the Imam were heading for Dami’s for lunch, the sky was clear and the light wind was gone and it was getting increasingly hot.
While they were eating, Dami came to them and said, looking gently at Muhammad:
“Here are two blankets for you, Muhammad. They are a bit old, but they can do you well, I hope.”
“Oh, thanks, Mum!” Muhammad replied almost tearfully.
On the way back from Tushki, the wind was strong– so strong that the mule could hardly move on. And the sky was dark, with no crescent, no star. And yet, when he was entering Azlu, Muhammad could not but take the nearest path to Itto’s home. He saw her abode, and rode on to his shack.
The strong wind moaned round the shack all night, and so Muhammad could not sleep.
In the morning there was yet another problem, this time with the sun. On his way to the pasture where he was due to meet up with Issa, Muhammad saw three adults and five youngsters, and they were all blinking and sweating. He himself was sweating like a bull when he sat by Issa’s side on a sandy spot under an argan-tree. Muhammad was there to give his first lesson to Issa, and also to have a chance to look more closely at Itto’s home.
Despite the stifling heat, he stayed out there until lunchtime, but Itto was nowhere to be seen. He saw her father, he saw her mother, he saw her brother, but not her.
Even when he took his mule and set out for Tushki and went past her home, he did not see her.
“Enough’s enough!” he yelled at himself when he was back to his shack late at night. “It’s enough to drive you crazy! I left this land to learn more about the world, about life and about God. But now I look as though I don’t know anything at all!”
Sleep carried him away for a few hours, then he stirred and sat up. And he started thinking. He thought and sighed and thought and sighed until he suddenly burst out, “Do I love God or do I love Itto? I just want to know!”
The morning found him sitting again with Issa in a pasture not far from Itto’s home. He talked and Issa listened to him closely. But then Issa suddenly said:
“Why do you always sit like this, facing that home, and each time you look up over there you sigh? Why?”
“I like sitting this way,” said Muhammad with a blush.
Issa looked at him incredulously, but remained silent. Muhammad took a rather long look at the boy, then said in a hesitant tone:
“What’s special about that home, Issa?”
“A young woman lives in there,” Issa grinned.
“And what’s special about this young woman?”
“They say she’s very beautiful!”
“Who told you?”
“I heard some boys talk about her.”
“Have you ever seen her yourself?”
“She’s a neighbour of yours, though?”
“She appears to women only.”
“Alright! Now that you’ve told me all this, Issa, I think I should be sitting like this!”
And he turned his back on Itto’s home, which made the boy let out a loud laugh.
Both the Imam and Muhammad looked curiously at the man who had joined them in prayer.
“I am from Souss,” the young man explained in standard Berber.
“You’re welcome,” said the Imam.
“Thank you,” said the Soussi man.
“What took you to this land?” said Muhammad.
“Well, that’s a funny story!” the Soussi man replied with a smile.
“Let’s go out and then tell us your story,” said Muhammad.
All three sat down in something of a triangle on the northern side of the mosque. Then the Soussi began his story:
“Yesterday morning, I was waiting my turn in the barbershop at the market when you (he pointed at Muhammad) came and sat in front of me. I don’t think you remember me because you didn’t look at me in the first place. And that’s the first thing that struck me about you. Then I noticed that all those who were in the shop had something or other to say. Only you and I did not speak. If I didn’t speak, that was because I don’t quite master this land’s dialect. But I was amazed at the way you were sitting up there, silent and motionless as a dead body, sitting with downcast eyes, and waiting your turn patiently. I also noticed that you were dressed in a sky-blue gown, while all the others, including myself, were in jellabas. And as I was waiting, it occurred to me to give up my turn to you. And that’s what I did, but even then you didn’t look up at me. You only said thank you as you rose from your chair. At first I didn’t know why I did that, but then my surprise was great when I heard you say to the barber, “My moustache only.” At that moment, I made up my mind to leave the shop and lurk somewhere nearby to see where you would go and what you’d do next. My heart leapt when I saw you leave the barbershop. And then I followed you. You went to buy this jellaba you’re wearing now.”
“And then?” said Muhammad with a smile.
“And then I followed you as you left the market and walked rather quickly back to your shack. I stopped a good way from your shack and hid in the reed and waited to see what you would do next.”
“This is a really funny story!” said the Imam, looking once at Muhammad then back at the Soussi.
“Go on!” said Muhammad.
“Yes, and then I kept hiding and watching until you left your shack for the mosque. I didn’t want to join you then, because I wanted to know more about you. But then you came back to the shack only to take the mule and ride away. And I decided to stay in my hiding place until you returned. And during your absence I took my own mule to a place down the valley, and then I went up and picked my way through the reed, trying not to leave any tracks. Then I stood as close to your shack as I could; the door was open and I could see through it; and once again I was just as amazed at your shack as at you personally. I wondered why you had chosen to have that small shack out there. And I wondered why you had gone to the market on foot while you had a mule! And I said to myself that you must be either a fool or a good scholar. So I decided to wait and see, saying to myself, “If he’s a fool, I’ll leave him right away; if he’s a scholar, I’ll stay with him a day or two to learn something from him and then continue on my way.”
“Where were you going,” said the Imam curiously.
“Let him finish!” said Muhammad gently.
“Yes, and I waited and waited until you returned in the middle of the night. At that time I was shivering with cold, and I was horrified at the thought of being stung by a scorpion or bitten by a snake, and so I was about to come to you, but then I checked myself and decided to stay out there and wait until the morning.”
“Oh!” Muhammad exclaimed thoughtfully, bending forward and taking the Soussi in his arms.
Then both stood up and shook hands. Then Muhammad said:
“You wanted to know whether I’m a fool or a scholar, is that right? Well, believe it or not, I myself don’t know whether I’m a fool or a scholar. It’s you who’ll tell me what I am! But tell me, where were you going?”
“Well, I am a student. I was studying in schools in Fez. And I was going back home. I’m from Souss, as I said.”
“Great! What’s your name, brother?”
“My name is Hassan Tikiwin, and you?”
“And I am Muhammad Amgoon. You’re welcome, Hassan! But I’m sorry to say that I may not be able to stay with you all day. You know, I have a small boy to teach in the morning and an adult man to teach in the afternoon.”
“What do you teach the boy?” said Hassan impatiently.
“I teach him how to make simple calculations.”
“Alright! Leave that to me! You and I stay together in the morning, right? And when you leave, I’ll stay with the boy all afternoon. Would that suit you?”
“Let’s go and ask the boy first!” replied Muhammad with a broad smile.
And as they started off, Muhammad said:
“How old are you, Hassan?”
“I am twenty-four years old.”
“Are you married?”
“If fact, I was going back home to get married and start my life as a teacher in one of the few Quranic schools near home.”
“Who’s going to be your wife?”
“I don’t know, really. My mother will choose one for me.”
“When did you leave Fez?”
“About four months ago.”
“How long did you stay there?”
“I stayed there for about four years.”
“What did you study there?”
“Well, I studied the Quran, the Haddith, the Tafsir, the Arabic language, History, Arithmetic– everything!”
“And what about you?” said Hassan hesitantly.
Muhammad sighed, and said:
“I too was in Fez. I too studied the things you mentioned.”
“Are you married?”
“How old are you?”
“I am almost thirty-nine years old.”
“Were you married in the past?”
“Have you been here for a long time?”
“No. I came back only ten days ago.”
“From Fez, you mean?”
“No, from a place called Tamassna, do you know?”
“Yes, I have heard about it.”
“In fact, I didn’t come straight over here. I went further south to Ighmizen, where I spent more than six months. I left Ighmizen a little more than two months ago. Now, tell me, Hassan. You said you were going back home to marry and teach. What would you like to teach?”
“The same things I was taught!”
“So why did you stop here and wished to meet me?”
“I wanted to learn something from you.”
“And what if I said I’m sorry I don’t have anything more to teach you than what you know already?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I have no books with me.”
“Maybe you don’t have them on paper, but you certainly have books in your mind, don’t you? You have certainly memorized things from the time you were in Fez or anywhere else, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I have. But the thing is that I hate to recite books.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is this: I can discuss with you, but I can’t teach you.”
“Alright! Let’s have a discussion!”
“Not before we ask the boy! Hey, Issa!”
They talked to Issa, and walked back towards the shack. And they talked as they went along.
“Let me ask you one question, Muhammad. Why did you choose to live in that small shack? Don’t you belong to this village?”
“I am from the village. My family lives over there.”
“So why do you live in a shack?”
Muhammad laughed, then said:
“Tell me, Hassan, when you go to sleep, and you fall asleep, and start dreaming, do you know where you are sleeping? Suppose you were sleeping in a nice bed in a nice room in that nice house over there, and then someone came and moved your bed, without awakening you, and placed it gently in my shack, would you then feel any difference, before you woke?”
“Well, I don’t think I would,” said Hassan with a little smile. “But the problem is that you don’t have a nice bed in your shack, do you?”
Muhammad laughed again, and gripped Hassan’s arm, and said:
“Let’s stop awhile! Look here: imagine yourself in love with a young woman living in that house over there; imagine that the only time you could see your beloved is just after dawn, but still you can’t meet her or talk to her or even wave to her from a place as far as this; what would you do?”
“I would most probably come before dawn and sit somewhere around here and wait for her to show up.”
“Would you then bring with you a nice bed or armchair and ensconce yourself comfortably while you’re waiting?”
“Oh, no!” Hassan laughed.
“Suppose you had to do that––I mean, to come and sit down here, and wait––everyday, every week, every month– would you complain about that?”
“I might complain, but I would just have to grin and bear it.”
“For whose sake would you bear all that suffering?”
“For my beloved’s sake, of course!”
“So what if I chose to live in a mean shack and sleep on a rugged floor and bear my suffering patiently for the sake of He Who made me?”
Hassan kept quiet for a moment, then burst out:
“But why should you suffer while you can be better off?”
“I was longing to see my family again,” Muhammad sighed. “And, like you, I came back here in the hope of getting married with a woman from the village. I didn’t want to marry a woman unknown to my family, because I didn’t want to displease my mother. But on my return, my family were unhappy, because I had no money on me. I asked them to help me marry a young woman from the village, but they refused on the grounds that I had no money.”
Hassan looked curiously at Muhammad, then said:
“Then, why did you stay here? Why didn’t you go to another place where you could marry? I know that many men have got married even though they had no money?”
Muhammad sighed, then looked back at Hassan, and said with a sad smile:
“I wish I could!”
“What’s stopping you?”
Muhammad sighed once again, and said:
“Are you in love?”
Hassan gaped and then fell silent.