And then he picked up the chicken and mounted his mule and rode to market. As he set off, he wondered what to do with the sixty-five dirhams that warmed up his pocket. But as he neared the market, he found himself thinking of Hassan.
When he entered the market, a beggar in ragged clothes accosted him. "Here!" Muhammad said to him. The beggar gaped at the chicken which Muhammad was handing to him. "This for me?" the beggar exclaimed. "Yes!" said Muhammad with a smile. The beggar snatched the chicken and kept his fingers crossed for Muhammad, then moved away. Another beggar tripped up to Muhammad, holding out his hand. Muhammad smiled and handed him five dirhams. Then he lowered his eyes and moved on to the place where he had been heading.
He stood there, holding the mule and waiting patiently for someone to come and buy it.
He sold the mule and walked back to Azlu. "I am now free," he thought on the way. "I can sleep wherever I want. I won't be going to their no-go areas. But I won't go away from Azlu, either. Here I am and here I stay. I won't be begging anyone for food. The money in my pocket can carry me all through winter."
And he sighed. Itto's eyes had just broken in on his thoughts. So he thought of her until he suddenly burst out: ‘Khalaqany, razaqany, âllammany, hadany….’
One Monday morning Muhammad was walking slowly along the reed edge. Suddenly, he stopped and pricked up his ears. “What’s this?” he thought while he listened in amazement. “Who could it be?” He walked on a little and stopped again. Strange sounds were coming from the place where his shack once stood. He immediately thought of Hassan. “But one man’s voice can’t make all this noise,” he thought. “These are the voices of many men, if I’m any judge.” And he walked on, quickening his pace as he proceeded. And the voices became clearer and clearer: they were men chanting: "Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…” And they were all sitting in a circle, with legs crossed and heads down, just beside the heap of rubble, and Hassan was among them. Muhammad’s eyes glistened with tears as he sat down with them and joined in the chanting. And all of a sudden, Hassan fell silent and raised his hand. All the others looked at him and kept quiet. Muhammad too looked at him, and when their eyes met, both smiled. “Here I am again!” Hassan began. “You’re welcome!” Muhammad replied in a broken voice, not knowing what to say next. Hassan took a long look at him, then said:
“What happened to your shack, Muhammad?”
“I came one night from Tushki and found the shack in flames.”
“Where did you go then?”
“I went from place to place along the reed edge, sleeping at a different place each night.”
“How often do you come this way?”
“We came yesterday and the day before, but we didn’t find you.”
“You know, it has rained recently. My jellaba was then covered with dirt, so I took it off and washed it in the river, and I had to wait until it dried. The last couple of days were sunny, you know.”
“Why haven’t you built a new shack?”
“Why didn’t you leave the village altogether?”
“You know why!”
“Yes, I know. And that’s what I told these men. Some of them said you would never be back. But I was quite sure you were only somewhere around. Now I am happy to see you again. And I have brought you these nine students. I told them about you, and they all wanted to see you. And others are coming. I hope you are ready for us.”
“I am pleased to meet you. But the problem is that I have no shelter.”
“These two men over here have money.” Hassan pointed at two men on his right. “They can pay for us all. We’ll see how we can settle that. Now, tell us, Muhammad, why do you say: “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”?
Muhammad smiled and said:
“Well, when I say Khalaqany I remind myself that I actually exist, and that I do matter in some way, otherwise God wouldn’t have bothered to make me in the first place, and since God made me as a person, as a human being, then I have to behave in the way God had meant me to behave, that is as a human being, not as an animal. When I say razaqany I remind myself that I needn’t worry too much about the future, because God who made me also provided me with the means of subsistence even before I was aware that people should work to be able to keep themselves or their loved ones. And since God did this for me in the past, then He can also do it for me at present and in the future. So I shouldn’t worry too much about the future. When I say âllamany I remind myself that this in itself is a great gift, because not all people are literate, and not all literate people put their knowledge to good use. So I keep reminding myself that God wants me to learn more and more about Him, about myself, about life and about the world. And as I think of this, I find myself reminiscing about the past: I recall what I was like and how I got to be what I am today. I remember the hardships I went through; I remember the happy moments I lived in the past; I remember the hundreds of people I got to know throughout my life; I think of those people: how they were happy or unhappy; I think about all these things over and over again, and try to soothe myself. And when I say hadany I remind myself that I have a path to follow; I have things to do and things not to do, and I wonder whether I am on the right path. And as I think this way, I blend past and present and future and try to see how I can best live the present, hoping that the future will be brighter. And that’s it!”
“And what about love, Muhammad?”
Muhammad sighed and said:
“You know the story of Yusuf (Joseph), don’t you? Yusuf was the most handsome man in his time. He lived a good part of his life in a palace. For you and me, that’s happiness. But then Yusuf had the misfortune to do many years in prison. He lost maybe the best years of his youth in prison. For you and me, that’s unhappiness. But then Yusuf was released and became almost king. For you and me, that’s happiness, isn’t it? Yusuf did suffer a great deal, but in the end he died a happy man. What more could you or I ask for in his place? All you and I want is to live a happy life. God says, Nay! There’s yet a much happier life, an everlasting happy life. Suleiman (King Solomon) had everything he wanted, everything a human being would ever dream of. So that’s happiness. What more could Suleiman have sought for since he had everything he wanted? Nay! There’s yet a much happier life, an everlasting happy life. And this life was not made for Yusuf or Suleiman only. It’s made for us all. Why should God give us another good life if we had a good life already? You know why? It’s because He is a loving God. It’s because He is a great God. It’s because He is a forgiving God. God doesn’t owe us anything. It’s we who owe God everything. We don’t give God anything. It’s God Who gives us everything.
“Unfortunately, we are quick to forget God. Maybe because we don’t see God. But we do see God’s creation, don’t we? When you see a beautiful woman, all you see is that beautiful woman. If you fall in love with her, all you think of is her. She’ll become everything to you. You’ll think of her; you’ll worry about her; you’ll wish her all the best in the world– and in the end she mightn’t even think of you. She might be thinking of someone else. You love her, you give her everything, and yet she thinks of someone else. Just like God: He loves you, He gives you everything, and yet you think of someone else. But when you say, as I do, “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”, you realize that you have been burning your heart for the wrong one. And as your realization gets greater so will be your love of God. You may forget your beloved, and maybe love someone else, –who knows?– but then your love of God gets stronger with the years. One day you’ll get married, and your wife will be by your side, and then there will be ample room in your heart for God. You’ll love God more than anyone else.”
“What do you think?” said Hassan, looking at the other students, who were listening intently.
“I think we were right to come!” said one of the students.
“I think we should go and bring our mules and horses from the funduq”, said another. “We have to build a school or at least a classroom here.”
“That’s right!” said Hassan, looking at Muhammad. “We will fight, if need be, but we must build shacks or even a big house to live in while we are here.”
Muhammad frowned. Hassan looked at him, and said:
“Don’t you agree, Muhammad?”
“I think it’s not easy to fight people here. I don’t know what happens next.”
“Leave it to us!” said Hassan, rising to his feet. “You can stay here, Muhammad. The students and I will go and meet the village people and see how we can fix the problem.”
Muhammad just watched agape as the students went in two rows behind Hassan, towards the mosque.
About an hour later, the students came down, chanting : “khalaqany, razaqany…”
Muhammad sprang to his feet and met them. They were all smiles.
“Your shack will be built again,” said Hassan with a smile. “And we’ll build our own shacks beside yours. And we’ll build a large classroom and a mosque.”
“But where will you build all this?” Muhammad asked, raising his eyebrows.
“Here!” said Hassan happily. “Didn’t I say we had two rich men among us? Then, let me say that the village people took us for fools. They don’t think we’ll be able to stay here for a long time, because it has already started raining, and if we don’t go soon, the rain or the flood will drive us away! That’s what they think.”
“So let’s start!” said Muhammad with a broad smile, turning towards the reed.
“We’ll fetch our animals first!” said Hassan. “Come along with us.”
And they all set off, with Hassan and Muhammad leading, chanting: “khalaqany, razaqany…”
A few days later, the number of students more than doubled and the shacks filled all the place between the reed and the graveyard. And so Muhammad began to worry.
One day, the Tushki man came and stood at the door of the large classroom (which the students called school) and said he wanted to sit with them awhile. Muhammad waved him in. As the Tushki man sat down, Hassan raised his hand and said:
“What do you think of rulers nowadays, teacher?”
Muhammad took the hint and smiled, then said:
"Look, brother! Rulers are just weak people like you and me. Rulers, too, suffer like you and me. They suffer because they do not always get what they want. We all –with a few exceptions– dream of wealth and fame and power and glory. And that's what most rulers are after. But then that's their own problem. I don't want to be a wealthy man; I don't want to be a famous man. I don't want to rule anybody. But I respect them because they have the courage to do things I can't do. It's not easy to rule a population. And I pity them, because most rulers stand to lose more than they gain. Rulers often change like the weather, and many lose their lives in the process.
"And this is what fascinates me about it all. You see powers emerging, and others falling down. A kingdom rising here and a kingdom falling there. And each kingdom –be it small or big– has something to give, and once it has given that something it ceases to be. And I have noticed that the thing that all kingdoms share is –believe it or not!– knowledge. One nation or kingdom produces knowledge, and when it has no more knowledge to give, it falls down. And then comes another nation or kingdom and picks up that knowledge and takes it to other parts of the world, so that other nations would add to that knowledge. And you see nation after nation contribute to enriching our knowledge: of the world, of ourselves, and, most importantly, of God. And this is what will keep happening in the future: nation after nation will either produce more knowledge or spread it over the world through conquest, occupation or trade. And so there'll come a day when people all over the world will know God. Now, I feel that I know God already. So I needn't be a ruler, or go through all the process just to reach the same conclusion! All I hope is that our present kingdom will yield as much knowledge as possible or take it to the largest lands as possible. May God let it be so!"
Everybody said, "Amen!" Then Muhammad looked at Hassan and said with a smile:
"Do you have another question?" "No, teacher– not for now. It's lunchtime!"
At this there were gales of laughter. Then, Muhammad started saying, “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…” A moment later, the Tushki man picked himself up and left, saying in a low voice: “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”
Late that night, Muhammad was lying on his side and thinking of Itto when he heard footsteps approaching the shack door. He looked up and saw Hassan smiling merrily. He glanced at the lantern, then back at Hassan, who stayed standing up at the door, his face aglow with pleasure.
"What's the matter?" said Muhammad.
"Abdelaziz and Ismaïl want to speak to you."
"Let them come in!" said Muhammad, sitting up.
"Peace be with you!" said the two students in unison as they sat down between Muhammad and Hassan.
"Peace be with you too! What's the matter?" said Muhammad.
"We want to help you," said Ismaïl.
"With what?" said Muhammad.
"With marriage," said Abdelaziz.
"Thank you!" said Muhammad.
Then there was silence.
"They will give you some money so that you can marry," said Hassan suddenly.
"That would make me glad!" said Muhammad with a smile. He was about to add something when a sudden thunder roared across the sky.
"Will you marry, then?" said Hassan eagerly.
"I would like to marry the one I told you about," said Muhammad, looking Hassan straight in the eye.
"And what if her father refused?"
"I don't know. It depends on my heart."
"Do you reason with your heart?" said Ismaïl causiously.
"I reason with my head, but my head gets at fault sometimes. My heart is not always right, but sometimes it is."
"So you have only one choice, I suppose," said Abdelaziz.
"So far, yes."
"You are our teacher," said Ismaïl. "And, normally, a teacher of your age should be married. Honestly, many students here have talked about this."
"I am not surprised, brother Ismaïl," said Muhammad gently. "But I have a problem. At present, I love a woman, and this woman is not married. And as long as she is not married yet, I just can't get her out of my head. Otherwise, I wouldn't have stayed here long after my shack had been burned down. I can understand you feelings. Please, try to understand my own!"
"So all we can do for you," said Abdelaziz, "is go to your beloved's father and see what he says."
"Go to my father first," said Muhammad with a smile. "And don't go all of you! Just one man or two would be enough. If my father grants you permission, then go on to the woman's father. And thanks in advance!"
"That's the least we can do for you, teacher!" said Abdelaziz, rising to go.
A light rain had begun to fall when Hassan put out the light and wished Muhammad good night.
In the morning, Muhammad was sitting alone in the reed mosque and reading the Quran in a low voice. He kept reading until tears welled up in his eyes. Then he closed the Quran and slipped it back on the shelf and went out. There were puddles here and there between the shacks. Muhammad stood looking down at those puddles, and wondered what would happen if the next days brought more rain or if the wadi brought over more water from far lands. What would happen to him and his students if there were a flood? He went on thinking as he shuffled around between the shacks. Then his thoughts shifted to Itto. His father had told Hassan and Ismaïl that he would be awaiting them at siesta-time. All the twenty-three students and himself would be there, in his father's home, and they would talk about Itto. Now the students were away at the market; he had stayed behind to keep an eye on the shacks during their absence.
On their return from market, the students were not only twenty-three, but forty! And they were chanting: “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…” Muhammad was astounded. His hands trembled as he embraced the new comers. And suddenly, Hassan faced all the students and said: “We have an important appointment today.” (He suddenly raised his voice over the neighing of the horses and the roars of the thunder.) “It’s nearly siesta-time. Let two of you stay in here to look after the shacks and the animals. The rest of us will go and meet the man, I mean our teacher’s father. So be prepared, May God bless you!”
Muhammad looked at Hassan with glistening eyes, and said:
“I am proud of you, Hassan!”
Hassan rewarded him with a smile and ran to help with clearing up the mess caused by the mules, the donkeys and the horses that the new comers had brought with them.
And then the procession of students started off towards Muhammad’s family home, while heavy drops of rain were falling steadily and the thunder was threatening big rains.
The procession was quiet: no talking, no chanting.
And then the guest-room in Muhammad’s family home was packed with students, many of whom had no idea why they were there.
Tea was served, and Muhammad’s father faced Hassan, and said:
“It’s you who came to me earlier in the day, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am!” said Hassan politely.
And now all the students listened intently as Muhammad’s father said:
“You came to me and said that my son Muhammad wished to marry a young woman from the village. You didn’t know whom you were talking about. This village is cram-full of young women and girls. And I would be happy to gladden my son by enabling him to marry any one of these village women and girls. But there’s one –and only one– that neither my son nor any man like him should dream of. And that’s the one you said my son Muhammad wished to marry.”
Hassan had just opened his mouth to say something when Muhammad’s father rose to his feet and left the room for a while. All the students turned their eyes to Muhammad, who was looking down. Then, all of a sudden, all eyes turned towards the door, through which came in a young woman with dark eyes and eyebrows. Some of the students gaped, then muttered, “Subhana Allah! Maasha Allah!” (Praise God!) The others were simply struck dumb. “This is the woman my son wants to marry!” said Muhammad’s father, standing beside Itto in the middle of the room, and signed to her to turn and face all the rows of students. Muhammad looked up at her, and their eyes met, and he kept his eyes glued to her as she turned this way and that, while Muhammad’s father went on, “This is the woman my son can never marry. Not that I don’t want him to marry her. But it’s her father who would never accept to give her to my son. Her father is free. This is his daughter; he is free to marry her off to a man of his own choosing. Nobody should blame him for that. It’s not because my son loves her that he deserves her. Love is something, marriage is something else. You can leave now, daughter!”
Itto shuffled out of the room while Muhammad’s father returned to his seat, facing towards Hassan.
“What do you say now, man?” said Muhammad’s father, looking at Hassan, who seemed to have lost his tongue. It was some time before he could speak.
“We don’t blame you, sir,” he mumbled. “All we want is that you grant us permission to go to the woman’s father.”
“I warned him first,” said Muhammad’s father sadly. “Today I have warned you all. You will only suffer if you go to her father. I won’t go along with you. I won’t grant you any permission. I will be very unhappy if you go to her father. I will become the village idiot if people know that my son is struck on Itto. But what can I do? My son wants me to become the village idiot for the rest of my life! Go if you want! I’m not stopping you!” And he burst into tears. Muhammad himself burst into tears as he rose to his feet and signed to the students to leave.