After less than half an hour’s ride, they came in view of a secluded house up the road. “The party’s going to be held there, in that house,” said Balîd suddenly.
When they arrived there, Balîd alighted and opened his arms to embrace two men who had rushed forward to welcome him. Other men, young and old, came towards him and kissed his hand. Then he glanced round and said to Tahar, “Stay there!” Tahar remained standing up beside the donkey and looked on as Balîd, flanked by the other men, walked into the house. The sound of music could be heard all around.
For some time Tahar remained out alone; he remained standing up beside the donkey. And that position enraged him. He thought of running away. He thought of revenge. But how?
And here was Balîd coming out of the house, flanked by two young women. A feeling of jealousy made Tahar’s heart ache for a moment, although none of the two women was singularly good-looking.
“This is my tailor,” said Balîd with a shade of pride in his voice.
“Really?” said the women, who were conspicuously mesmerized by Tahar’s beauty. But Balîd, seeing himself suddenly ignored by the two women whom he himself had brought out from the house, could not stand that. “Now, you know him,” he said huffily. “So if you want him to make you any kind of dress, come to me. Now, go back! See you!” Then he turned to Tahar, and said, “Let’s go!”
On their way back, Balîd did not say anything that could hurt Tahar’s feelings. But Tahar was now aware that God only knew what the future held for him.
So once he was back to the douar, he performed his ablutions and said his prayers, and went on praying and reciting the suras he had learned in Marrakesh until he could no more fight sleep off.
But he slept no more than an hour or two. He then stayed awake for the rest of the night, brooding on his days in Marrakesh, in the zaouia in Mogador, in his village. He chewed over all he had heard from the Qadi, from Smaïl, from Abderrahman, from Zahiya. He pondered over life. He puzzled over luck. He wondered why of all women the son of a qaïd (!) should marry a swarthy fatty with not a single good feature. He wondered why the son of another qaïd (!) should marry a ravishing young woman for six long years and yet fail to beget a child. He thought and sighed and thought and sighed until he heard voices in the courtyard.
Mweina came back three weeks later and took her takchita. Tahar did not ask her how she found it. But she expatiated upon its beauty, its virtues, its wonders. She dwelled upon that for a good while as if she were trying to sell that takchita to Tahar, who had made it. But Tahar said no more than, “Good!”, which he kept on repeating almost maliciously until Mweina rose and wiggled out of the room.
A moment later, Tahar visualized Zahiya’s pinkish face. Zahiya smiled at him. Her blue eyes were crystal clear and her mouth more tempting than Mweina’s, which he had failed to kiss. Once again he gave a gurgle of delight, to the boy’s stupefaction. The boy did not know that every cackle, every crow he heard that afternoon carried Tahar to his village, miles and miles away. Every bray, every moo catapulted Tahar into Zahiya’s village.
At night Tahar reverted to his Koranic recitations and prayed on and on till he burst out, “O God I know I sinned! I now repent. O God help me turn from sin. Lead me not into temptation…” And then Tahar went to sleep, free from worry or fear.
The next morning Balîd popped up unexpectedly in Tahar’s room and said he would take him to another party later in the day.
Tahar looked forwardto that party with some kind of hankering, as if he believed that his salvation could only come through an encounter with someone at one of such parties. He flattered himself he had everything that would attract anybody’s attention.
Those hopes crumbled at noon, when Balîd burst in on him, and said, “Get up! We’ll go hunting.”
They went on foot under a threatening sky. They were caught in a shower. They got soaked to the skin. And yet they plodded on, with Tahar carrying a leather haversack over his shoulder.
They arrived at a valley. The land was becoming verdant again. Birds tweeted overhead. “Wait!” Balîd said suddenly. “Look yonder! It’s a hare!” The hare was hopping around a shrub. Balîd lurked behind a bush. He filled his quiver and then picked an arrow, which he quickly feathered and levelled at the rabbit. Then he shot. A moment later he was up, hugging himself over his prey.
Tahar held his breath as Balîd pulled out a knife and slit the hare’s throat. The hare weltered in its blood for a moment, then lay still. “Now, we can rest,” said Balîd, sitting on a rock, facing the hare. “Let the rain give it a wash! Raise your eyes! Look, it’s not raining right now, but the sky is threatening, isn’t it? Now hand me that jug in the haversack. Quickly!”
Tahar, who remained standing up just a yard off Balîd, looked warily as the latter unsealed the jug.
“How did you find this outing?” said Balîd suddenly.
“I feel very good about it, nâamass,” said Tahar, bending over so that Balîd could hear him clearly.
“Right. Would you like something to drink?”
“That’s very kind of you, nâamass! But I have a stomach ache.”
“Alright! That’s your problem,” said Balîd, sniffing the jug. “This is my wine, anyway.” And then he giggled as he went on, “It’s not like Mweina’s wine. Hers was old and smelly. It was made of unripe grapes. Mine is new and fragrant. It’s only last year’s vintage. It was made in Doukkala! This kind of wine travels well, I can assure you.” Then he fell silent and started drinking. Tahar remained standing up, although he was fagged out. After a while, Balîd began to speak again. Tahar’s ears pricked up. He listened intently, as if he were trying to penetrate the mind of the man sitting just a yard off him. Tahar himself squatted down when he heard Balîd say, “None but you is in my heart. You have to know this. Don’t mention my wife, please! My wife has been a blight on my life. You alone can make me happy.” “What’s he drivelling about?” Tahar muttered to himself. “Why is he speaking to himself in this way? Has he had one or two drinks more than he can carry?” “What the hell would happen if she didn’t fall into my grip?” Balîd said dismally. “She’s not the only pebble on the beach!” “It’s clear he’s wagering on something,” Tahar thought. “It seems as if some woman or other is bringing him to the verge of insanity. Listen: he’s hailing down curses on himself! This is mad, really! What’s this? Is he going to pass out on me? Oh my God! He came over faint! What should I do, oh my God?”
Tahar did nothing at all. He only waited for Balîd to sober up. And Balîd did sober up hours later. He willed himself to stand up, but sank down on his knees, and yowled with pain. Mercifully, nobody seemed to have heard him. Tahar was going to help him back to his feet when he finally stood up, and, to Tahar’s horror, said, “Now, we’ll go wenching. Let’s go!”
And what a gruelling journey it was! At every step there was something to dread: if it was not the weather, then it was the mere thought of being seen trekking along like two tramps going nowhere special.
But who could be out in this weather but a wretched beggar or a roaming dog? So no one saw them on their way, first to the Qaïd’s home, where Balîd handed over the hare to his flabbergasted wife and changed his clothes, and then to the house on which Balîd seemed to have pinned his hopes. They arrived there just before it started to drizzle. The dogs barked to announce their arrival. In the twinkling of an eye a woman appeared at the front door. Balîd waved to her. But instead of coming towards him she went back into the house. And then a houseful of women swarmed out of the house and bunched together in front of Tahar, some of them repeating unflaggingly, “It’s the Tailor! It’s the Tailor!” And then Balîd was swamped with pleas. “Let him sit with us just this once!” they said. But Balîd stubbornly refused, so the women thronged round Tahar and hustled him into the house. They took him further into a large room, where a young woman was sitting alone. Once Tahar had clapped eyes on that woman he forgot all about the other women, he forgot all about Balîd, he forgot all about the world. That woman was a moon without scores. She was a rose without thorns. She was a body set with jewels. Her face was a diamond flashing fire. No artist could depict her beauty neither in words nor in picture. Even a mirror, one would say, could hardly reflect her image in all its beauty. But that woman too just watched in mute admiration as the women seated Tahar just opposite her. Tahar had first learned eye language when he used to sit with Zina. That language served him now again. But there were other women there, and all of them watched him. They all sat down in a half circle in front of him, making it hard for him to look beyond them at the beautiful woman, who had not moved from her place.
“What’s your name?” said one voice.
“My name is Tahar.”
“Where are you from?”
“I am from Shiadma.”
“How old are you?”
“I am twenty-two.”
“Where did you learn dress-making?”
“Are you married?”
“Are you in love?”
“Yes.” The women shrieked with laughter.
The other women gave a screech of laughter. Tahar was bathed in sweat.
“Will you make me a dress, then?” said the woman who had been questioning him.
“What kind of dress do you want?”
“Well, I want a robe with short sleeves and open at the neck. Can you do it?”
“I too want an open-necked frock which leaves my arms free,” said another woman.
At that moment, a brown woman, one of those sitting at Tahar’s feet, glanced round and met the beautiful woman’s eye. Tahar squinted at the beautiful woman and caught her winking at the brunette. His heart then pounded. He suddenly got the feeling that something awful was being prepared right under his nose. He felt as if he were a bait, although he had no idea who the angler was. Was it Balîd? Or was it the beautiful woman? But the women left him no time to mull over all that. The women were speaking to him. They were describing the kind of dresses they wanted him to make them. And he listened attentively. And then he decided to take three clients, including the brunette at whom the beautiful woman had winked. And he rose to go. The women wrapped up pieces of cloth in a small bundle and gave it to him. They also gave him a reed basket brimming with dates and dry figs, and then they saw him out.
Balîd saw the gift and yet did not utter a word. “I’m sorry to be late,” said Tahar, facing Balîd. “They gave me pieces of cloth and asked me to make them dresses.” “Right,” said Balîd. “Let’s go back!”
So Balîd took Tahar back to the douar and locked the front door behind him. Tahar went straight to bed. But he could not sleep. Not only because he went to bed shivering with cold, but also because he went to bed infatuated. Had he not seen a face like a diamond flashing fire? Tahar was not yet sure whether that woman was the one Balîd had been gabbling about in the valley. But what if that was so? And why should it not be so? Was he not a man and she a woman? Could it not be because of her that he was so unhappy? How could he not be so unhappy when such a woman was not his own? He had married another woman. Comparing that beautiful woman with Balîd’s wife was like comparing honey with colocynth.
That might be Balîd’s own problem, anyway. But it could soon be Tahar’s as well. What if both fell in love with the same woman? All the signs were that the beautiful woman was going to get Tahar into trouble with the Qaïd’s son, enamoured Balîd.
It was mid-afternoon the next day when Balîd stood at Tahar’s room door. There was nothing horrible about his look or voice, but Tahar’s heart jumped.
“Whose dress is this you’re working on?” said Balîd, squatting down in front of Tahar.
“It’s your mother’s takchita, nâamass.”
“Oh, no!” said Balîd grumpily, snatching the dress from Tahar and throwing it aside. “Put this off till later on. Where’s the purple cloth?”
“Here it is, nâamass! Wait a moment! Here you are!”
“Great! That’s what you should have started on today, Tahar! Listen: forget all about other dresses. Do this first. I’ll pick it up in two days’ time, right?”
“That is impossible, nâamass!” Tahar said stuffily. “I’ll try to make it in four weeks.”
“Alright. But start on it now! Do you want anything?”
“Yes, nâamass! I want a book or two to read in the evening. I feel lonesome.”
“A book? You read books? Well, I’ll see. May God help you!”
“Another thing, nâamass!”
“I think Mweina will tell you about the other materials I’ll need to make this dress. The cloth in itself is not enough.”
Balîd made Tahar a present of two books, but Tahar could not read them. His head was full already. Now he was sure that Balîd loved the beautiful woman. It was the brunette who had ordered the purple robe –just after the beautiful woman had winked at her. So the purple robe was for the beautiful woman.
Tahar had already started on that robe. He could not afford not to. Balîd had given him orders. So he had no choice but to obey those orders.
But what about God? What would God say? Was this work allowable? Why not? What if Balîd wanted to make that woman his wife, his second wife? That would be all too normal. But what if he wanted to make her his mistress?
Tahar feared he might abet Balîd in such a crime. But what could he do? “I could have killed him when he was drunk in the valley,” Tahar thought. “I could have left him there with a stone or even his own dagger embedded in his skull and then run away. But I don’t want to be a murderer. Human life is dear to God, as the saying goes. I once heard El-Habib say, ‘A good end does not justify a bad means.’ Balîd is virtually an enemy of mine, but I can’t kill him out of revenge. Let God deal with him! O God You know who I am, where I am; You know how much I suffer; O God deliver me of this!...”
The following morning Mweina came and enquired after the takchitas of Balîd’s mother and wife. Mweina was wearing scent and makeup. Tahar’s instincts stirred. He struggled to hold out against temptation. Mweina’s bewitching smiles and honeyed words did not help him.
“Is this Shama’s dress?” said Mweina suddenly, pointing at the purple dress.
“Who is Shama?” said Tahar curiously, glancing at Mweina’s gleaming lips.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry. What about the takchitas? You said you haven’t done them yet, have you? So what shall I say to Balîd’s mother and wife?”
“Say they aren’t ready yet.”
“Alright. See you!”
“Before you go, please! Who is Shama?”
“Shama? Well, she’s the daughter of a rich landed proprietor. Why?”
“I love that name. That’s why!”
“You love the name or the woman?”
Tahar smiled. Mweina looked fondly at him, but only for a fleeting moment. The boy was watching both with sharp eyes and listening with sharp ears.
So it was Shama then. Tahar worked on her robe with great devotion as if it were her dowry.
And that night he was in the mood for reading. So he opened one of the two books and endeavoured to peruse a page. The book was called, “Asseera Annabawiya” (The life History of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)). As he ran his eye over a page of the book, Tahar remembered Zahiya, to whom he had sung religious songs, songs that glorified the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
But once he put out the light and went to bed Mweina was on his mind again. Zahiya was far, too far away. Shama was not made for him. So only Mweina could raise his hopes. True, Mweina was expecting a man to return from Haj to marry her, maybe her former husband –as Saleh had said. But she could still come to him and sit with him in his room and speak to him and smile at him and wear scent and makeup for him. Who could do that but her?
Some time the next morning Tahar wondered why he was working so scrupulously, so meticulously, so fastidiously, on a robe that would not fetch much. What would he gain by this work? By all the odds Balîd would never be grateful to him for anything. “But why should I do this for him?” Tahar thought, looking as if he were challenging somebody. “I’m not acting on his behalf. I am doing this to make my presence known to everybody around. So if I succeeded in becoming friends with my enemy’s enemy, it would only do me good. Yet, why should you do all this? Why didn’t you run away the other day when he was drunk? No. That wasn’t so sure. Why don’t I rather make Shama a jolly good dress that she would boast wherever she was? Shama might be grateful to me for that. The least she could do for me is help me escape unhurt, without having to run away or kill anybody. If Balîd loves her and cannot meet up with her, then he’s certainly in her bad books. Why don’t I try to be in her good books by making her a dress she has never dreamt of? This might be the way I can escape with head erect. If Balîd thinks the universe revolves around him, I’ll prove him wrong. If he wields a lot of clout, I have a lot of skill and a lot of charm. I can gain mastery over him. Yes, it’s true I fell into his power, but I can always find a way to end this subservience and go back home. My life is not in Balîd’s hands. It’s the other way about; it’s his life that lies in my hands. If he has got the power of gun, I have the power of love and the power of thought. Shama must have caused him so much heartache. Now I can either aggravate or allay his pain. How? By doing what I am doing now! So I should be working uncomplainingly. I should be full of vim. I should not let anybody whomsoever lacerate me. I was lucky enough to have this opportunity of making a dress for the daughter of a rich landed proprietor who might have some power over Balîd himself. I have no chance of marrying that woman. All I want is go back home and marry Zahiya. Who knows? All I have to do now is act in good faith. Even Balîd, who is my enemy, is no less unhappy than I am. As a Muslim I should help somebody in his extremity. And Balîd is in his extremity. But how could I help him? By doing what I am doing now! I can’t see into his heart to know whether he’ll be grateful. But I’ll see what I can winkle out of him. If I can charm something out of him and escape unhurt eventually, that would be a good deal better than killing him and risking being killed myself.” Tahar stopped to sneeze and blow his nose, then went on kidding himself, “Poor Balîd! He must have messed up his life by marrying that swarthy fatty. It’s horrible to think of a husband and wife as mismatched people. This could be conducive to crime and death. It makes me dizzy to think of marrying a woman I don’t like. Qadi Allal knew that perhaps. He’s a man who has been around. That’s perhaps why he chose Zahiya for me. But where’s Zahiya now, shall I ever see her again? I narrowly missed being killed the other day when Balîd dragged me out of the room and beat me up in the courtyard. Who knows what happens next? May Allah help us! All I can do now is try to win Shama’s friendship.”
Tahar suddenly realized that the boy was watching him curiously. So he drew the basket towards him and helped himself to dates, and said to the boy, “Help yourself!”
Tahar had a bit of cough when Balîd came into his room three weeks later.
“Have you finished the dress?” Balîd said in a mild voice.
“Show it me!”
“Here you are, nâamass!”
Balîd danced for joy. He kissed Tahar’s forehead and promised him a roasted chicken.
So Tahar lunched on that roasted chicken. But he did not feel happy, though. “What if anything went wrong?” he thought apprehensively.
Mweina came the next day and enquired once again after the takchitas of Balîd’s mother and wife.
“When are you going to make them?” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Tahar was shamed into silence.
“Do you know that your friend Balîd is ill?” Mweina said in a rather provocative tone.
“No. What made him ill?”
“That accursed purple robe made him ill.”
“That’s what I dreaded!” Tahar thought. But then he looked despondently at Mweina, and said:
“Are you sure he is ill?”
“I am a liar, then!” she said, staring him out. “Do you wonder at it?”
“Please leave me alone!” said Tahar, his eyes downcast.
“This is what I dreaded,” Tahar thought once Mweina had stepped out of the room. “God only knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. This is dangerous, no doubt. But should I laugh or cry? Should I crow over him? Should I gloat over his misfortunes? No. I should feel pity for him. Yes, he is my enemy. But he is a lover, too. I know what it’s like to be a man crossed in love.” Tahar sighed as he went on thinking, “What I fear is what happens next. How would Balîd behave towards me in the next days? That’s what matters to me now!”
Four days later, Tahar was still thinking apprehensively of the fallout of Balîd’s miscarriage when he heard the voices of people coming towards him. His heart gave a jump when he heard the voice of his father. He then dropped everything and rushed out. The courtyard was full of men from his village. They were all in their travelling suits. With them were Balîd and his father, the Qaïd.
“What are you doing here?” said Tahar’s father as Tahar went round embracing his fellow village men. Tahar heard the question but no answer flashed into his mind. His father walked further on and peered into Tahar’s room. Other men followed him at different paces. So Tahar found himself standing up beside Balîd and his father, aloof from all the others. And while Tahar avoided Balîd’s eye, the latter said in a despondent voice, “Don’t go!” Tahar then looked him full in the face and said, "I will!" "Let him go!" said Balîd's father. "We've got nothing to do with him." "But, father, I need him! He must stay!" said Balîd desperately.
"I am your father and I am the Qaïd of the tribe too; if you don't want to listen to me for one reason, then listen to me for the other. Then I don't see what you need him for."
"Father! I said I need him. He must stay. No, Tahar, don't go!"
Tahar waited until all his fellow village men had gathered round him, and opened his lips to speak but said nothing. His father spoke for him. He said:
"We came here because we believed and still believe today that our son's home is in our village and tribe, not here."
"I don't disagree with you," said the Qaïd. "Your son should go back with you. We don't need him here. And I'm sorry for the trouble we've made for you."
Balîd saw red. He barked:
"No, father, I won't let him go! He won't go now. I need him for some time."
"Just tell me what you need him for!" his father shouted back.
Balîd turned away from his father and faced Tahar.
"Please stay just one more month!" he beseeched.
"Give me back my horse and pay me for the work I've done and then I'll stay one more month," said Tahar in a trembling voice.
"Were you a bondsman here?" said Tahar's father in surprise.
"I've never thought of taking away your horse from you," said Balîd, looking apologetically at Tahar. "I'll bring it to you at once. And I've never looked on you as a bondsman. I'll pay you in full. Now!"
Balîd took out gold and silver coins from his pocket and handed them to Tahar, who, in turn, passed them on to his father.
"Now come along everybody!" said Balîd, facing the men. "You are my guests for three days. You're welcome! Come, Tahar! I'll show you your horse. You can send it back home with your father, if you like. We are friends, aren't we?"
"The mind boggles!" Tahar thought. "Why all this?"
Tahar had yet to wait fifteen more days to know why Balîd had been so generous. Meanwhile, he enjoyed three days in company with his father and fellow village men, all staying in two well-furnished tents and served good food.
During those three days only Balîd was around. His father was nowhere to be seen. So Balîd was there when Tahar bade his father goodbye and asked him to take care of the horse (which Balîd had restored to him). And once Tahar's father and the rest of the company went out of sight, Balîd turned to Tahar, and said, "Now go back to your work." "Right, nâamass!" said Tahar, moving away.
But when Tahar returned to his room in the douar he did not know what to do. "What dress should I be working on now?" he muttered. "Should I work on the takchitas of Balîd's wife and mother or on the dresses of Shama's mates?" Nobody told him. Neither Balîd nor Mweina turned up again until one night when Balîd aroused Tahar from sleep.
"Don't be afraid, Tahar!" said Balîd, stepping into the room. "I am Sy Balîd. I came to speak to you about an important matter." Tahar was too confused to speak. "I'll just say a few words to you and I'll go," Balîd went on. "Listen: there will be a fantasia parade this afternoon. A lot of people will be there. To be honest with you, I'm interested in just one person of all those who'll be there. I think you can guess who. It's Shama, the woman you made the purple dress for. Well, I love that woman. And I think you can feel what it's like for a man to be in love with a beautiful woman like Shama. At present we don't speak to each other. We haven't had the opportunity. All eyes are on us. So to elude surveillance I have thought up an idea, for which I'll need your help. Well, I'll disguise myself in an old man. Your role will be to lure Shama into view. You'll keep going round the place until Shama in person or one of her mates sees you. They'll certainly come to you. At that time I'll try to approach Shama to speak to her. If you see me speaking to Shama then try to lure the other women away from us. And don't let yourself be impressed by Shama! You'll gain nothing by speaking to her. Now, let me hear from you. Can I count on you?"
"You can count on me," said Tahar in a mumble, wondering what else he had left to say.
"Thank you! I'll come back at noon. I'll bring you your lunch. And you'll help me with the disguise, right?"
As promised, Balîd brought Tahar his lunch at noon. Nobody was in the courtyard. So Tahar ate his lunch and then helped Balîd disguise himself in an old man dressed in rags and walking with a stick. They bade each other goodbye and each went by a different way towards the field where the fantasia parade was going to be held.
Tahar was an eye-catcher. "So now I am a bait, definitely," he muttered to himself with a smile. "This time the angler is Balîd. And the fish is Shama. Should I help him? Or should I show him up? Could I? Of course I can! I can easily unmask him. Should I? I don't know, really. Balîd stirred me to pity when I saw him struggling to disguise himself. It would be churlish for me to let him down now. At least he gave me back my horse and paid me. But still I don't know what I should do."