The servants then took Tahar into a large room with a bed and said they would come back at lunchtime. Tahar sat on the bed and looked up at the chandelier that hung from the plastered ceiling. His thoughts soon wandered back to the Koutoubia mosque. “I haven’t said a prayer for days,” he thought with a sigh. He then looked at the blue tiles that made the walls look like four beautiful tapestries and his mind flew to Mogador. “Would I get in a few months what Smaïl got in more than ten years?” he thought. He looked at the red carpet under his feet and at the vase at the side of the bed and then his mind flew to the wadi, and on to Zahiya. “What would Zahiya say if she knew I am here?” he thought proudly. “Would Zina know? And Mweina? And Shama? I will not forget Shama. I thought she had failed me, but no, she kept her word. But you, did you keep your word? Didn’t Qadi Allal say that you had to remain true to Zahiya? What would you call what you did with Mweina? Is that faithfulness? How would you feel if any of those two men you saw with Zahiya laid his hand on her thigh or on her lips? O God forgive me! O God help me turn from sin!...” Tahar’s eyes fell on a rosary hung on a nail. He rushed forward and unhooked it. And he kept saying his beads quietly until he heard a knock at the door. He then hid the rosary under the pillow and jumped out of bed. He pushed the door open. Two servants brought in a table stacked with dishes and left.
Tahar sat down cross-legged close to the table, which the servants had placed right in the middle of the room. Tahar, who had been used to one-course meals, was in a muddle now that he faced a table with no less than seven different dishes on it, some steaming hot, some cold. “What should I begin with?” he thought with a smile. But as he started eating, noticing that all the plates and cutlery were made either of silver or high-quality glass, he felt a searing pain in the heart. It was not poison, or anything like that, but just a feeling. He felt he did not deserve all that. “What did I do to deserve all this care and all these attentions?” he thought, his eyes beginning to water. “Is this a good thing that would be followed by a bad thing? God forbid this might be true! I should resume my prayers today. I’ll ask them to let me go and pray in the mosque. I should be good if I want God to be good towards me. O God help me!...” Tahar wiped his eyes and his heart calmed down. So he ate with relish. When he had eaten he sat on the bed and burst into song. In a low voice he sang songs he had sung for Zahiya, there under the palm-tree by the riverbank, while Zahiya would sit on the other side and listen quietly.
An hour later, the servants returned to clear the table. And as they stepped out of the room in came a man in his forties holding a number of books under his arm, and said, “I am the Writer of the Prince.” The Writer made Tahar sit opposite him and explained how they would work together. “You’ll be like a teacher giving a lecture and I’ll ghost everything you say,” said the Writer, “then I’ll rewrite your version and read it out to you so that you can add in anything you might have forgotten to mention in your first version, right? But now let me give you an example of the kind of story the Prince wants. The Prince wants a story like one of these stories in this book, which is called, “The Arabian Nights”. These are similar books: this one is called “Al Hilaliya” and this one is “Al Ântariya”. Tahar listened in wonder as the Writer started a tale from The Arabian Nights. At that moment he felt something he had never felt before, not even when he had first seen Zina or Zahiya or even Shama! He simply fell in love with the story, but that was a different love––a love which made no tear in the heart, a love which brought no cares to the mind. It was a beautiful love. It was a peaceful love. As the Writer was reading out the story, Tahar’s mind wandered around Marrakesh, Mogador and all the places in between.
“This is the kind of story the Prince would be happy with,” said the Writer suddenly, looking gently at Tahar.
“It’s a really good story,” Tahar replied with an engaging smile. “I envy you! It’s a pity I can hardly read and write. But I’ll certainly do everything I possibly can to learn how to read a book like this.”
“Now that you have met the Prince you’ll certainly have enough money to do whatever you please. It’ll remain only a question of will.”
“I have the will! I pledge myself to do everything I possibly can to learn all that a man my age could learn.”
“Good! But now let’s start! Tell me your story!”
“What if you asked the people here to grant me a visit round the town this afternoon? Such a visit would certainly help me relate the story in the best possible way!”
“I can’t promise you that. But I’ll see what to do about it.”
The Writer absented himself for a while, then came back to tell Tahar that they could go out to see the town.
“What do you want to see?” asked the Writer, steering Tahar out of the Prince’s house.
“Well,” said Tahar shyly, “I was born in a village by Oued Tensift. I had never been to a town until months ago. I saw only Marrakesh and then Mogador.”
“Well, Safi isn’t that different. It’s quite like Mogador. It’s a walled town, and it faces the sea. Look, here we are in the main thoroughfare. It runs from here to Bab Chaâba. We call it Zenkat Socco. Those are the main souks. Here’s the northern wall of the town. That’s Bab Chaâba, it’s the main gate, as you see. And here’s the Potters’ Quarter.”
“Where’s the mosque?”
“It’s just over yonder, just off the street.”
“I want to pray in there.”
“Alright. We’ll go there when we hear the muezzin. Now let’s move on.”
The Writer showed Tahar round other parts of the town. He showed him the ruins of the church, which, the Writer said, had been built by the Portuguese, who, the Writer said, could not stay in town more than thirty-three years. Tahar, who had never heard of any such thing as the Portuguese, wondered what they were like and what they had been doing here. The Writer also told him about the Kechla, which he said, had been built by the Saâdians. “Who were these Saâdians?” Tahar asked shyly. “They were kings who ruled Morocco in the past,” said the Writer, sensing Tahar’s embarrassment. “Look at those towers and green-tiled roofs! There’s a riyad in there, it’s called Riyad El Bahia. Now we’ll move out of town. I’ll show you another place, just outside these ramparts.”
That other place was Qasr El Bahr, which the Writer said, was built by the Moors, and not by the Portuguese. And from there Tahar could have a wonderful view of the sea, which reminded him of the Skala in Mogador, and then the funduq, and then the palm-tree by the riverbank, where he used to sit and play on his utar and wait for Zahiya to turn up. “I wish she were with me,” he thought with a sigh, while the Writer went on drawing his attention to everything that could be seen from there. “Do you know why these fortified walls were built?” asked the Writer suddenly. “No,” said Tahar shamefacedly. “I’ll tell you why,” said the Writer kindly. “These walls were built to keep the Christians out of the country.” “I see,” said Tahar, feeling small. “I have seen enough. Let’s go back!”
And they went back to town, whence came the same noises of people and donkeys wandering around the Potters’ Quarter or vanishing into the surrounding labyrinth of narrow alleyways. It was the same smells again, the same colours. What was new this time was a piece of music the kind of which Tahar had never heard before. The music was coming out of a white house with blue windows.
“What’s this?” Tahar asked in the same timid voice.
The Writer laughed, and said:
“This is our music! We call it Al-Âyta. I tell you what– the Prince is fond of this kind of music!”
“Oh, I see! I have heard tell of Al-Âyta, but this is the first time I hear the music. What do they say in their songs?”
“Well, they sing of love, that sort of thing.”
“Here’s the muezzin, I think!”
“Yes. Let’s go to mosque!”
Tahar performed his ablutions and ran to take a Koran from a small shelf near the minbar. But he had read only a little when the imam rose to lead the faithful in prayer.
Once out of the mosque, Tahar said to his guide:
“Can you lend me a Koran while I am in the Prince’s house?”
“Of course! But now forget all about that! Now is the time for you to tell me your story.”
On their return to the Prince’s house, a woman-servant came up to Tahar, and said:
“Can you tell me your woman’s age and size?”
“You mean the woman in my village?”
“Well, she is between eighteen and twenty. She’s neither short nor tall. She’s neither thin nor fat. Is that enough?”
“Yes, I can now visualize her!”
At the same moment the Writer waved to a manservant to bring him tea.
And so Tahar and the Writer sat opposite one another in that luxurious room and talked over tea. Tahar related his story while the Writer scribbled it down. But Tahar could not help digressing every now and then. The Writer seemed to tolerate that. He even responded affably to Tahar’s comments and questions, helping himself to tea after each answer. Tahar commented on the tea itself, which, he said, was a bit different from that he used to drink at home. He commented on the inkwell, on the quill, on the yellow paper (which the Writer was writing on), on the chandelier above his head, on the Potters’ Quarter… “I like curious people,” said the Writer at one time, “but curiosity in not always good.” Only then did Tahar stop commenting.
The Writer and Tahar said their dusk- and then evening-prayers together, they dined together, they read the Koran together and resumed their story-telling by candlelight until Tahar said, “I’m sorry I am tired now.” The Writer then picked up his writing materials and left without raising an eyebrow.
But even when Tahar put out the light and fell into bed exhausted he just could not sleep. He thought for a while of the world of books. He thought of how he could one day become as learned as the Writer, as wise as Qadi Allal, as intelligent as Smaïl. His mind travelled round Marrakesh, Mogador, Kremat, but then landed at Zahiya’s village. “Why not?” he thought. “Why couldn’t I have a beautiful house like Smaïl’s? The Prince could give me or at least lend me some money to open up a shop in Mogador, and then I could make enough money to buy or build a beautiful house or two and then maybe purchase twenty khaddams or so of fertile land, and then many of the village youths could work on my lands and pasture my cattle and sheep. I could even marry one or two women besides Zahiya. Why not Shama?”
The Writer finished Tahar’s story and read parts of it to the Prince in the presence of a select party of men, among whom was Tahar himself.
“Your story is a great delight,” said the Prince, looking kindly at Tahar. “I hope my reward will be as delightful.”
“God Save the Prince!” Tahar replied in a quavering voice.
The Prince’s reward was a small sum of money and no less than seven dresses, two necklaces and a burnus. Tahar returned to that sumptuous room and tears flowed down his cheeks as he saw the dresses one by one. “Zahiya must be a blessed woman, really,” he thought ruefully. “I should be equally blessed if I married her. Only Satan would make me think of marrying another woman besides her. But does Zahiya think of me still?”
The next morning Tahar was riding back home under the wing of the Prince. On his arrival, he fell into his mother’s arms and then the whole village came out to welcome him back. His father put up two large tents for the guests. He slaughtered a large cow for them and served them the best food he could afford.
Among those present were the village youths. Tahar joined them and joked with them, then one of them said:
“Âouissa now delights in Zina. It’s a pity, isn’t it?
“Looks aren’t everything,” Tahar replied with a gulp, looking away from that one. Then, Tahar felt as if something was going to burst his bosom, he felt it pushing him out. He held out for a moment against that overwhelming desire to just go out and then see what to do, but then he did get up, and after looking right and left like a villager lost in a strange town, he just got out of the tent. He went into his father’s home and changed his clothes and fetched his utar and took it stealthily into the backyard and put it on the back wall. Then he left the house by the front door and worked his way round towards where he had placed the utar. He then looked in every direction and picked up the utar and stole away towards the riverbank. He sat down under the palm-tree by the riverbank and tuned up his utar and then began playing on it. And while he played he thought, “I love her, so I have every right to see her, do I not? I don’t care if they leave the tents and come up to me.” But then Zahiya came out running. She stood out there, watching in surprise. Tahar dropped the utar and shucked his jellaba and tightened his belt, then tore down the slope, and plunged into the water and swam across to the other side. Zahiya stayed still until Tahar stood up in front of her. She looked longingly at him as he dried his face.
“Where have you been all this time?” she said.
“I was far, far away!” Tahar replied with a smile.
“What were you doing there?”
“I was cleansing my heart and mind of Zina.”
Zahiya blushed scarlet.
“Let’s sit down!” she said, pointing at the trunk of a fallen tree.
As they sat down there, Tahar said:
“I tell you what– I met a prince!”
“Yes! And this prince has sent you a present!”
“Where is it?”
“I’ll give it to you when the Qadi and I come to your home.”
“You still haven’t told me where you were, have you?”
“Well, I was in Âbda. I worked for the son of a qaïd there. Then I met a prince!”
“And what are you going to do now?”
“I think I’ll go back to Mogador. I’ll try to set up shop as a tailor there. And when I marry you, I’ll teach you embroidery so that you and I can work together and dream together.”
“Do you really want to marry me?”
“Then give me a pledge as I gave you a pledge!”
“I give you my word for it. Don’t worry!”
“Now,” said Zahiya, rising to her feet, “I must leave. See you soon!”
Tahar did not speak a word. He only looked on as Zahiya walked away. He then realized that some people were watching him from afar. His heart pounded. “Why should I care?” he thought with a shrug. “The Qadi and I will be in their home tomorrow or the day after, Insha Allah. The problem now is with those people I left at home. What would they think if they saw me in such a state? Oh! What a mess your clothes are in, Tahar! What do you care? Just get up and go straight home and let them say what they will!”
Some of those people were awaiting him just on the other side of the river. “Where have you been?” they asked, raising their eyebrows. “What were you doing out there?” But Tahar just gave smile after smile as he moved on to pick up his jellaba, which he slung across his shoulder. Then he took up his utar and pressed it to him and began to play on it. He played a tune that some of those round him knew by heart. They all burst out singing; they sang a song Tahar used to sing for Zina. And they went on singing and clapping their hands as they walked on towards the tents. All the people who had been sitting inside the tents rushed out and gathered round Tahar as he went on playing on his utar while his fellow village youths sang and clapped their hands.
The next evening Tahar was in Kremat, the Qadi’s village.
“I’m glad you came back safe and sound,” said the Qadi with a broad smile. “But come in and tell me what happened!”
It gave Tahar a big thrill to enter the Qadi’s home; it was a thrill he had not felt even on entering the Prince’s house in Safi. He also felt a peace he had only felt at mosque.
And there Tahar told the Qadi what had happened to him. When he had finished speaking, the Qadi said in his usual kindly voice:
“Didn’t I say that Zahiya would be a good deal better for you? Now you have got a new profession. You know a prince who might help you make good use of your skills and thus improve your situation. And on top of that you have got a girl who thinks of you only. But still I fear for you. I fear you may become full of yourself. I fear you may forget all about God.”
“Why do you say that, Qadi?”
“Listen, my son. I’ll tell you something. I have always been uneasy about what the youths of your two villages have been doing. I know you do that under the watchful eyes of your mothers. I know you just talk. I know you meet up there because you love each other. I’m not against love. Far from it! And Islam is not against love. But I fear that what you do might anger God, though. You know what? God would very likely punish you each time you do something wrong. The punishment might not be immediate. But that doesn’t mean it won’t come. And what’s good about this, is that punishment can be a good sign sometimes. And a good Muslim is often punished soon after the sin so that he’d be absolved from that sin on Judgement Day and then go straight to Heaven. So when you got shocked because of my ruling the other day, I got the right feeling that you had a faithful’s heart in your chest. To tell you the truth, I saw in your shock sort of God’s immediate retribution for any wrongdoing you might have committed by then, knowing that, as I said, God could give you something good afterwards. But then you had to fear God and be patient and never despair of God’s mercy. You know, the fear of God is the surest way to success in both lives, if you do want to be happy in both lives.”
The Qadi seemed to have much more to say although Tahar was anything but ready for preaching, but the Qadi’s son came in holding a tajeen in both hands.
“You’re welcome, Tahar!” said the Qadi’s son, sitting down to table.
“Thank you!” replied Tahar shyly.
“You look distinctly better than when I last saw you,” said the Qadi’s son, dipping a crumb of bread into the tajeen sauce. “What’s the secret?”
Tahar gave no more than a timid smile in response, but the Qadi said in a rather sarcastic tone:
“The secret is that he nearly fell in love with a woman whose beauty has not yet been known to poets!”
Tahar’s mind immediately went to Shama, but he could not see the link. He looked up at the Qadi’s son, who was looking at him incredulously.
“Speak!” said the Qadi suddenly, nudging Tahar. “Tell him where you were and what you saw and whom you saw!”
Tahar was at a loss. The Qadi’s son looked at him expectantly.
“Where?” said the Qadi’s son impatiently.
“In Âbda,” replied Tahar in a mumble, wondering why the Qadi’s son looked so eager to hear from him.
“Let the man eat in peace!” said the Qadi, scowling at his son. “He’ll tell you more when you meet up outside. You’ll never change! You’ll always remain obsessed by beauty– as if looks are everything in this world! What a pity!”
Embarrassed, Tahar tried to change the topic.
“Qadi,” he said hesitantly, “I would like to visit Zahiya in her home to give her the dresses.”
“Right,” said the Qadi laconically.
“You know, Qadi,” said Tahar cautiously, “we’ll have to go over the bridge, so I think I’ll have to come here first.”
“Yes,” said the Qadi listlessly.
The next afternoon the Qadi was another man. His face was bright. Tahar too was all smiles. He could hardly believe his eyes as Zahiya sat opposite him. Beside her was her father, wearing a brown jellaba. The Qadi, who was sitting on Tahar’s right, spared no good words to sell him as the best groom in the world. Then came Tahar’s turn to speak. He spoke to Zahiya direct. He showed her the things he had brought her from the land where he had met the Prince.
“These are seven fine lebsat,” he said. “This is a silk mansouria to be worn over a beige muslin kmiss. This is a taffeta mansouria to be worn over a white muslin kmiss. This is a golden satin kmiss to be worn beneath a gold lace tahtiya embroidered with flowers. And here’s another kmiss. It’s a blue muslin kmiss to be worn beneath a taffeta dfina. And this is a purple velvet gandoura wholly embroidered with gold thread. This is a mlifa selham sfifa and berchmane style. And this one is for townswomen. It’s a silk jabador and seroual with belt to be worn beneath a muslin dfina. And these are three m’demmat. And this thing you see here is a burnous. I saw the Prince’s wife wearing one like it. She wore it on her head like this. And these are two necklaces. I hope you’ll like them!”
Tahar wished he could remain in that position speaking dreamily and looking at Zahiya’s blue eyes and glowing face, but he had nothing left to say. He had described all the things he had brought with him. And Zahiya’s father seemed to have been waiting for him to finish speaking.
“Is that my daughter’s dowry?” he said, looking once at Tahar then at the Qadi.
“This is the Prince’s gift, isn’t it?” said the Qadi, glancing at Tahar.
“Yes, it is,” said Tahar, wondering what else he could add.
“We came today,” said the Qadi, “to show you our interest in your daughter.” Zahiya looked down as the Qadi went on, “Tahar wishes to marry Zahiya. I know it’s his parents who should be here today to say this to you. But I’m sure his parents will do so one day. I am not speaking for them. I am speaking for Tahar only. And as I said before today and repeat now, Tahar really wishes to marry your daughter. So will you give him your daughter in marriage?”
Tahar’s heart throbbed as he heard those words.
“I shall marry my daughter off to a man who I think will make her happy,” said Zahiya’s father. “I have turned away many a man who have proposed to her. But I do trust you, Qadi. And I know that you are a very special person to my daughter. So I’ll take that into account.”
Tahar wished he could speak. He wished he could say to Zahiya’s father, “Say yes or no, don’t hedge!” But strangely enough, that elusive answer suddenly turned Zahiya into something much more precious, something priceless, something to give one’s life for. Her blue eyes became larger than the sea, her face brighter than sunshine, her smile more glittering than gold. In the twinkle of an eye she had turned into a princess.
And it was a wrench when he saw her suddenly rise and get out of the room. The room then became an oven. Tahar could no more stay in there. “I think we have stayed enough,” he mumbled, looking at the Qadi.