He stood on top of a rise and watched as the enemy streamed through the narrow paths on the reed edge. Then their commander waved them on, and so they urged their neighing horses on while Muhammad's troops seemed to be fleeing and abandoning their positions. But then, all of a sudden, Ismaïl pulled himself up and shouted, "Allahu Akbar!", his troops shouting behind him. He then made as if to advance on the enemy, but as they were trying to meet him with their force, they found themselves falling one by one in the ditch. Hassan's and H'mad's troops were soon encircling them and pushing them further towards the ditch; and the reed was catching fire at a speed that sent those of the enemy who had not crossed yet running for their lives. But then Mussa and M'hamed set their troops on the fleeing horsemen. At that point Muhammad rode down and mingled with his troops, shouting, "Make way! Make way!" And he rode on till he got to the reed edge. Then he sent two of his men off to Mussa and M'hamed ordering them to come back immediately and crack down on the troops that were already trapped by the ditch. Then he rode back towards the sixth company. "Âbbad!" he said to its leader. "Move your troops down. If you see Mussa and M'hamed coming back, then just help them tackle the besieged enemy troops. If you find them chasing the fleeing enemy troops, then back them up and don't let the enemy attack us in the rear! And try to go four or five abreast so that the horrified enemy would think more and more of you are coming down to them! Now go in God's name!"
Âbbad saluted and shouted, "Allahu Akbar!", and waved his troops on. Muhammad stood watching until the dust swallowed them up. Then he rode on to the women's camp. Sêed dashed forward and grabbed the halter as Muhammad alighted.
"What's the news, sir?" said Sêed eagerly.
"So far so good. All our troops have rushed to the attack. Now, where's Itto?"
"Call her out to me!"
Itto came out to him.
"How are you?" he said with a smile.
"I am fine. But I am afraid!"
"Don't be afraid, Itto! We're crushing the enemy like clothes into a bag! We had dug a large hole for them and they are now falling into it!"
"Now, what are you doing here?" she said.
"Didn't you tell me not to fight?"
"I did, but I wasn't expecting you to leave your troops and come to chat with me!"
Muhammad blushed up to the ears. His smile faded. He sprang into the saddle and rode away, fuming that he had made a fool of himself. "Why the devil did I go to her?" he howled. "Now, Muhammad, you've done a stupid thing! Your troops are dying out there, and here you're going to chat with a girl! This is a great blunder, Muhammad!" But then, suddenly, he cast his eyes up and burst out: "Khalaqany, razaqany…"
When he at long last rode back towards the front-line, there was hardly any more fighting to do. One man met him on the way and broke the news:
"Good news, teacher! Congratulations, teacher! The ditch is now cram-full of Aït Mimoon men! And thousands of them are now in captivity!"
"What about Hassan and Ismaïl and the others?"
"They're all alive, teacher, but Hassan has injured one arm."
"Where is he?"
"I don't know, teacher."
"Are there any other casualties?"
"Unfortunately, yes, teacher."
"What? Tell me!"
"So far I know of seven Azlu men who died and also three students. The wounded are more than a hundred. Most of them are not from Azlu. Also most of the dead are from outside of Azlu."
Muhammad's knees turned to water as he alighted, but then he trudged on towards the jubilant crowd surrounding the ditch.
"Make way! Make way!" one voice said.
And Muhammad thrust through the crowd. He stood at the edge of the ditch and looked down at the dead. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Then he suddenly wiped his face and looked round. He stepped up to his men and said bleakly:
"Those are Muslims like yourselves. Dig them out of the ditch and prepare them for burial. We'll pray for them as we will pray for ours. Thank God the war is over!"
"Where shall we bury them?" said one voice.
"We'll settle that later in the day," said Muhammad, moving away towards his fustat.
And there, in the fustat, Muhammad locked himself in and wept his eyes out. But then there was a tumult outside. So he wiped his eyes and walked out to see what was happening.
"We must send them back on foot!" one voice was saying.
"We must take their women and children away from them!" said another voice.
"What's the matter?" said Muhammad.
"We're talking about the prisoners, sir," said an Azlu man.
"What about the prisoners?" said Muhammad.
"We want to send them back on foot," said the first speaker. "They came to invade us. They came to take our houses and women and children and lands and all our belongings away from us. Now it's our right to take their horses and women and children and all their belongings away from them!"
"Where's Hassan?" said Muhammad.
"He's gone over to the women's camp, teacher!" said a student.
"So wait until he comes back!" said Muhammad.
And soon came Hassan, and with him Itto.
"What are you doing here?" said Muhammad, looking askance at Itto.
"I am a messenger," she said.
"Who sent you?" said Muhammad in surprise.
"What do they want?"
"They want you to take pity on the prisoners."
"If I take pity on them and let them go now, then they'll invade us again and they'll take you away from me!"
"Who told you I am yours?"
"They'll take you away from your family, then!"
"I wasn't sure I'd escape in the first place."
"Those are dangerous people!"
"Maybe. But they're poor people also. They fled starvation. Their lands were ravaged by locusts."
"So should we be starving in their place?"
"God helped you prevail over them, so now have mercy on them!"
"If you want me to have mercy on them, so stay here close to me!"
"I am a woman; I stay with the women."
"So why did you come? Go then!"
"Not before you have mercy on the prisoners!"
"Prisoners! Prisoners! Oh! What have you got to do with the prisoners? Do you love them?"
"I love peace."
"You love peace," he said. "And I love you. So I'll have mercy on them!"
"And what about us?" said an Azlu man. "What about our good men who died? What about our crops? What about our animals? What about our lands? What about our houses?"
"Answer him, Itto!" said Muhammad, looking at her tenderly.
"My answer is this: take their money and their weapons and horses and leave the donkeys and the mules to their women and children. And give that money and the weapons and the horses to those who lost their loved ones, be they from Azlu or from anywhere else! That's my answer!"
Muhammad then turned to the men, and said:
"What do you say to that, men?"
"I for one accept her ruling!" said one Azlu man.
Then suddenly all the students started chanting:
"God bless Itto! God bless Itto!"
And they raised their voices until nothing else could be heard. Even Hassan, who moved about with his arm in a sling, shouted himself hoarse. Only Itto was standing aloof and listening in silence. Muhammad was all smiles.
An hour later, Muhammad summoned the lieutenants to his presence.
"The war is over," he said gravely, "but a lot of problems remain. To be honest with you, I can't face these problems. Itto is driving me mad. I'm getting wild about her. I just can't concentrate on anything. I don't want to look silly in front of people. So please help me!"
"What should we do?" said Ismaïl with a frown.
"Well, there's the problem of the prisoners. There's the problem of the dead. There's the problem of the volunteers. There's the problem of the people of this land. There's the problem of the refugees. You see, there are a lot of problems."
"Don't worry, teacher!" said Ismaïl reassuringly. "We can handle all this."
"That's good of you!" said Muhammad. "And really I'm counting on both of you: you and Hassan. I want Hassan to deal with the problems on the south bank, and I want you, Ismaïl, to handle the situation on this side of the wadi. Mussa and H'mad will assist Hassan, and M'hamed and Âbbad will assist you, Ismaïl. Now, please, the first thing I expect you to do is to prepare the dead for burial."
"Alright, teacher!" said the lieutenants in unison.
"Now let's go out to pray!"
The dead were buried. The prisoners and their women and children were sent back home. The volunteers dispersed. The people of Azlu returned to their village. And the whole village plunged into mourning.
And Muhammad started numbering the days and nights till the village came out of mourning.
And as he was waiting, an awful lot of people crowded round him one day.
"What's the matter?" he said, rolling his eyes.
"We want you to be our Sultan!" the crowd said.
"Yes! We want you to reign over us!"
Astounded, Muhammad turned to Hassan, and said:
"Heard that? It fell to my lot to be acclaimed King! Oh, what a funny day!"
Then, he turned to the crowd, and said:
"I don't think I could fulfil your hopes. I can't be king or sultan. Your King is the one in the Capital. All I can do for you is plead with His Majesty to appoint two students of mine as governors of both banks of Igri. I would be glad to see my student Hassan Tikiwin running the affairs of the people of this side of Igri. I would be equally glad to see my student Ismaïl governing the affairs of the other bank. This is all I could do for you, gentlemen!"
"But we want to reward you for saving us from Aït Mimoon!" said one voice.
"That's very kind of you!" said Muhammad. "There's another way you could reward me. I want to marry, but I don't have a house. Could you build a house for me, here in Azlu?"
"Oh, yes!" said the crowd.
"And I want a school," said Muhammad with a merry smile. "Could you build me a school?"
"Oh yes!" said the crowd.
"Then that would make me glad!" said Muhammad happily. "You can go now! May God bless you!"
The next day dozens of men set to work on Muhammad's house. Twenty-three days later, the house was the envy of everyone. And the students were happy with their new school and mosque.
But for Muhammad, the happy day had not come yet. The village was still in mourning.
On the last day of mourning, the King's Envoy came with the news that Hassan and Ismaïl would become governors. He also brought over two presents: one for Muhammad, the other for his students. Muhammad's present consisted of two camels, three bridesmaid dresses and a gold necklace.
As soon as the King's Envoy left, Muhammad sent for his father and sister Yezza. His father came over and saw the camels and said, "Ma Sha Allah! Ma Sha Allah! I have never dreamt of such camels!" He then saw the house and said, "Oh! It's a little gem of a house! Ma Sha Allah! Ma Sha Allah!"
Yezza saw the dresses and said, "Ma Sha Allah! Ma Sha Allah! Only a princess could wear this!" She then saw the gold necklace and said, "Only a queen could wear this! Ma Sha Allah! Ma Sha Allah!"
Then both his father and Yezza looked up at him and said:
"Now you can ask for Itto's hand!"
"That's what I'll be doing tomorrow morning, Insha Allah!" said Muhammad with a broad smile.
"I shall go along with you!" said his father, his face sparkling with joy.
But Itto's father was not impressed, though. The whole village had come out, chanting behind the students:
"We want Itto for Muhammad! Give Itto to Muhammad!"
But Itto's father was far from impressed.
"How could I give my daughter to a madman?" he cried. "This lunatic can't make a good husband!"
"Who told you he's mad?" said Muhammad's father. "Look at these camels he's brought you! Do you know of a lunatic who has got such fine camels?"
"What would you call one who refused to be acclaimed king?" Itto's father retorted. "Would a sensible person refuse to be king?"
"Give me your daughter and I'll be king!" said Muhammad, raising a laugh from all those who heard him.
"No!" said Yetto's father. "I won't give her to you!"
"Please!" said Muhammad.
"No!" said Itto's father.
"Then I'll denounce you to the King!" said Muhammad, turning to the crowd. "Didn't he say I should be king?"
"Oh yes he did!" said the crowd.
"See?" said Muhammad to Itto's father. "You put yourself in danger!"
"It's you who put me in danger!"
"Give me your daughter and I'll save you!"
"No! I won't give her to you!"
"Then I'll take her away by force!"
"Dare you do it?"
"Itto!" Muhammad cried at the top of his voice. "I am Muhammad! Come out now!"
Itto came out running and met Muhammad's eye.
"Go on then, Itto, run to my father's home!" Muhammad cried.
And she did just that.
Itto's father finally gave in. And all Azlu people banded together to smarten their village up with Muhammad's and Itto's marriage in mind.
And so one night Muhammad and Itto were left alone together.
"Are you happy now?" Itto said.
"Tonight, yes! I am more than happy!"
"But tomorrow morning you won't be happy– is that what you mean?"
"I don't know, really. Tell me something, you don't feel good –do you?– when you're hungry. But once you've filled up this little stomach of yours you begin to feel alright again, don't you? It's the same with happiness: you can't be happy or unhappy all the time!"
"This means I'm not so important to you."
"Oh, no, darling! Don't say that!"
And he pressed her to him.
Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER
Many thanks for your precious time.