Friday, 1 March 2013

The Philosopher : Chapter Six

The next morning five boats were ready. The students, the children, the boys and many men from the village fixed their eyes on Muhammad as he stood up and faced them all.
      “Now,” said Muhammad, looking right and left, “we shall put our lives in God’s hands and try to cross the wadi. For this I need volunteers. I need brave men or boys who are ready to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of the others. I shall be the first to volunteer. I'll be in the vanguard.
      “Here are five boats. I'll go aboard one boat. This boat will go first. It will pull along another boat with a rope that ties all the boats up to each other. The second boat will be tied up with a rope to a boat from every side. The boats on the four sides will help the boat in the middle to stay steady as it moves on.
      “On our first trip, only one man will go in each boat. But if all goes well, Insha Allah, there will be five men on each boat on the four sides and one woman and two to three children on the boat in the liddle. The women and children will not have to row. But on each of the other boats, two men will sit on either side of the boat and the fifth will sit in front, and they all have to row and see to it that all boats are steady and moving straight ahead.
      “So –as I said– I will go first. Then three will follow me simultaneously. And the fifth will move along at my signal.
      “Now, who’s going with me?”
      “Me!” said Ismaïl, raising his hand.
      “And me!” said Sêed zealously.
      And three more students rushed forward and lowered the boats, while the other students filled the air with their chanting, “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…” At that moment, Ismaïl took Muhammad aside and said:
      “I don’t think the women and children would be safe on the boat in the middle without at least two boys rowing the boat for them.”
      “We’ll try that out right now and see what happens. And thanks for your advice!”

      With a beating heart, Muhammad stepped into the boat and started rowing. The boat swayed a little, but it soon righted itself and moved on. Now it jerked. For a moment, it even stopped. Muhammad felt the weight of the boat that had just started off behind him. But then, little by little, his boat started moving again. And without glancing back, he raised his hand as a signal for the fifth boat to follow.
      And soon after, the tip of Muhammad’s boat brushed the reed on the other bank. But he kept on rowing until he got to a solid rock, on which he set foot. Then he started towing the boat in the middle until he clutched Sêed’s hand. At that moment, shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” nearly deafened him.
      “Now, tell me, Sêed,” said Muhammad suddenly, “did you have to row your boat?”
      “Yes, I did!”
      “Can you row back now?”
      “Yes, if you want!”
      “Good! Now, please, go back and tell the village men to join us. Tell them to help us with making the boats, the ropes and the oars. And tell them that we’ll carry the women and children first, then the elderly, then people’s belongings, then the men and the boys, right?”
      “Right, sir!”
      “Then go in God’s name! Wait a minute! Go back in this boat, the one which I came in.”  
      Muhammad did not wait there to watch Sêed step back into the boat and go over. He was on the verge of tears, and he did not want Sêed to see his tears, although they were tears of joy. So he slipped through the reed and hid himself and wept to his heart’s content.
      Then, suddenly, there was Ismaïl’s voice resounding through the reed. Astounded, Muhammad rushed to him.
      “What’s the matter?” he said.
      “I just wanted to know where you were.”
      “Here I am! So?”
      “What are we going to do now?”
      “Well, listen! Go back to the other side! Send me four students to help me clear narrow paths through the reed so that people could move out of here. Then split up the men into small groups and show them how to make the boats, and so on. Let Sêed organize the villagers, especially the women and children. If they ask about their belongings, tell them that we’ll carry as much as we can later on. Now go!”
      “Before I go, teacher! I have an idea!”
      “Yes?”
      “I think we can make bigger boats that could hold more than five. And I think we don’t necessarily need five boats on each trip to carry three or four people. And what if we made boats of palm-trunks instead of reed?”
      “Alright! Do what you can! Now go!”
 
      Muhammad was busy cutting down the reed when one of the four students with him suddenly stood up and said:
      “Look over there! The women are coming!”
      Muhammad dropped the reed and the saw and looked on as the women straggled down towards the men who were busy working on the boats. Then he tripped up to the water's edge and signed to the students to send him a boat immediately.

      The boat came and he jumped into it and rowed to the other bank. All eyes were on him, but his eyes were fixed on the women. Sêed rushed to him.
      “What are we going to do now, sir?” he said.
      “We’ll start evacuating the women and children,” said Muhammad. “But tell me, where’s Itto?”
      “I don’t know,” said Sêed in surprise.
      “Will you please look for her and keep an eye on her for me? I am worried about her.”
      “Don’t worry about her, sir!”
      Then Muhammad turned to the men, and sighed. He saw his own father among them. He rushed to his side and squatted down, and said:
      “Father, please try to persuade all reluctant men to cross with us. Everything’s going to be alright, Insha Allah!”
      His father went on with his work and said nothing.
      At that moment, someone cried:
      “Hassan is back! Hassan is back!”
      Muhammad started to his feet and looked round. His eyes met Hassan’s. Muhammad smiled and opened his arms. Hassan rushed to him like a child.
      “I am sorry,” said Hassan in a low voice as Muhammad let go of him. “I–I–”
      “Skip it!” replied Muhammad. “Now get down to work! Ismaïl will show you what to do. But tell me, where are the others who were with you?”
      “They’re hiding out there!”
      “Oh! Sêed, go and tell them to come at once!”

      A little later, a woman and two small children went down to the wadi. Ismaïl and Hassan helped them into one of the five boats that were rigged up for them. And then two teenage boys jumped into the boat, and each sat on one side and grasped the oar. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” blended with trilling cries of joy as the five boats sailed smoothly across the wadi.

      The boat  in the middle arrived safely, and so Muhammad turned to the students and said:  
      "Thank God everything's gone well. Now, please, I want most of the women and children carried across before dusk."
      "Right, teacher!"
      Muhammad moved on along the edge, thinking. Then, suddenly, Ismaïl caught up on him, and said in a tremulous voice.
      "Teacher!"
      "Yes?" said Muhammad, startled.
      "Do you trust Hassan?"
      "Why, he's a great leader!"
      "But he's from Aït Mimoon!"
      "So?"
      "I am worried."
      "I have a plan. Don't worry!"
      Ismaïl turned to go. Muhammad looked on in silence. Then his gaze shifted to Hassan, who was helping the women and children crowding round for a lift to safety. Muhammad moved on. Hassan saw him approaching. Their eyes met. Muhammad waved to him.
      "You want me?" cried Hassan in surprise.
      Muhammad nodded. Hassan shuffled up to him.
      "What's the matter, teacher?" he said.
      "I want you to cross to the other side," said Muhammad in a rather shaky voice.
      "Don't you trust me, Muhammad?"
      "Are you going to cross or not?"
      Muhammad was trembling all over.
      "No!" said Hassan, moving away towards the women.
      Muhammad cursed himself for what looked like a gaffe on his part, and moved on towards Ismaïl. Heartbroken, Muhammad put his arm round Ismaïl and led him towards a grassy spot. 
      "Now, let's sit down!" said Muhammad, his face ablaze with embarrassment.
      "Right, teacher!" said Ismaïl reassuringly as both sat down.
      "Now, what I'm going to tell you is for your eyes only. Listen well!..." And so Muhammad told Ismaïl all he had to do once he got to the other bank, then said, "Now go in God's name! And don't care about Hassan or anybody else! If I'm gone, it's you who'll lead the people!"
      Ismaïl crossed the wadi. Hassan rushed to Muhammad and said:
      "I'm sorry, teacher!"
      "Never mind!" said Muhammad, moving away.
      Sêed hailed him.
      "What's the matter?" said Muhammad, his heart beating fit to burst.
      "Itto doesn't want to cross with us!"
      "Where is she?" Muhammad gasped.
      "She's up there!"
      Muhammad trotted over to her. She was standing aloof from the other women, who were busy cooking.
      "S–S–S–Sêed told me y–y–y–you're not going to cross with us. Is that true?" Muhammad stammered.
      "Yes."
      "Why?"
      "I am scared."
      "Oh, Itto! Don't be afraid! I'll cross with you in the same boat. Come along!"
      Itto picked up her bundle and walked behind Muhammad, who turned to Sêed and said:
      "Go and get Hassan's boat ready for us!"
      "Right!"
      As Sêed moved off, Muhammad turned to Itto and said in a shaky voice:
      "We'll take a large boat, Itto. Don't fear anything! But what's that you're holding in your arms?"
      “It’s my personal belongings.”
      “Oh, no, Itto! Leave that bundle over here! We’ll carry all the belongings later on.”
      “I can’t. I must take it with me!”
      “But–”
      Muhammad was too weak to finish his sentence. For at that moment Itto lowered her veil and looked him straight in the eye.


      Muhammad held the boat while Sêed helped Itto into it. Then Muhammad stepped into the boat and sat close to Itto and started rowing. Now, Itto had removed most of the veil, and so Muhammad could see more of her face again. And he searched that face for some sign of affection. That sign did not come out until he stood on the solid rock to help her out of the boat. She then smiled a smile that sent his heart fluttering, and said, “Thank you! My bundle, please!” Sêed handed him the bundle and he passed it on to her with trembling hands.

      Muhammad felt on top of the world as he walked slowly between Itto and her brother along the empty path. But hardly had they reached the place where the evacuated women and children were lounging when an angry crowd flew to them, cutting across the ploughed fields. Ismaïl too and the other four students joined the lot of them.
      “What are you doing here on our lands?” said one voice.
      “We fled an imminent invasion by Aït Mimoon,” said Ismaïl, panting.
      “Where are Aït Mimoon?” said the voice in an angry tone. “We only see Azlu people!”
      Muhammad raised his hand and waited until the uproar subsided. Then he said:
      “O Men! Please give us a chance! Try to wait two weeks, no more! If Aït Mimoon come, then help us until they go. If they don’t come, then we shall go back to our village and make it up to you, all the damage we’re doing to your lands now. So please be patient with us!”
      “Alright!” said one voice. “Let’s wait and see!”

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER