Tahar arrived at the place. The horses were already there. Every now and again rifles fired into the air. Tahar looked for Shama, but you could hardly see her with so many people crowding around the field. People cast inquisitive looks at Tahar, who went on shuffling around the field. He came across Balîd but made as if he did not recognize him. And then suddenly a woman’s voice cried, “The Tailor! It’s the Tailor!” Strangely enough, a host of women broke away from the crowd just where Balîd, the Old Man, was standing.
Shama was soon standing in front of Tahar, smiling bewitchingly. “What are you doing here?” she said.
“Where’s your master?” said another.
“I have no master,” said Tahar with a smile. “I am the master of myself. I am not a slave.”
“But still you work for him!” said Shama, screwing up her face.
“That’s right,” said Tahar, feeling something strange about Shama’s breath. He could smell wine on her breath, but nothing on her face suggested that she was drunk. At that moment the Old Man edged up to Shama, who glanced round at him. Tahar turned his eyes away from them and took steps towards the crowd. The women pressed round him as he walked on.
“Have you finished my dress?” one of the women said.
“No, I’m sorry. In fact, I have only started on it. I had been working on takchitas for Sy Balîd’s wife and mother. So your dress had to suffer.”
“Now that you have started on my dress when could I have it?” said the woman, raising her voice above the crowd’s noise.
“What’s the matter, Shama?” said another woman before Tahar could speak.
“I don’t know!” said Shama angrily. “That old man over yonder dogs my foot. I don’t know what he wants with me!”
“Maybe he’s fallen in love with you!” grinned a woman. “Go back and speak to him! Or I tell you what– let’s go all of us and pull his leg!”
Tahar had hard work to hold his tongue.
“Leave the old man alone!” he said in one breath.
“Do you know him?” said Shama suddenly.
“No, I don’t!” said Tahar with a blush, trudging away from her.
“Where are you going?” said the other women.
“I’m going to move to the front of the crowd so I can see well,” he said in a wavering voice.
“Why don’t you just stay with us? You can see very well from here as well!”
Tahar gave them no answer but an uncertain smile. He walked slowly to where the Old Man was standing. “Stay there!” the Old Man whispered to him unobtrusively. And Tahar stayed there at the rear of the crowd and made as if watching the parade. He waited and waited for new orders from the Old Man, who was standing just a yard behind him. And then came a new order. “Now move along! Keep going round the field,” the Old Man whispered in a muffled voice. And so Tahar went on shuffling around the field until he saw a band of women in full cry after the Old Man, who just ran off across the adjoining field. So Tahar felt he had nothing more to do there. He simply stole out of the place.
On his way back to the douar, Tahar bumped into Sêed, the man who had brought him from Shiadma.
“Where have you been?” said Sêed, feigning surprise.
“I went to see the fantasia parade.”
“You went alone? Where’s Sy Balîd?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s a lie! You know where he is!”
Tahar refused to be drawn in. He remained silent while Sêed began a story. “I’ll tell you where you were and why you were out there!” Sêed said. “You were there because Balîd was there and Shama was there. Balîd is using you as a pimp and Shama is using you as a means to quench her thirst for revenge. You know why? Well, it started long ago. Balîd and Shama met at a party. They spoke about marriage the same day they met. Balîd could not believe his ears when she said yes. She asked him for a good dowry and he promised her all the best. But she refused to go out with him. Balîd did everything he possibly could to make her sleep with him even before marriage, because he simply did not believe he could marry her, given the sort of dowry he had promised her. Shama waited and waited, but Balîd could not deliver. He did not keep his promise; he could not, anyway. So poor Shama married a cousin of hers on the rebound. But that marriage soon ended in divorce. Her former husband remarried on the rebound too. But Shama remained single. That’s what set Balîd after her again. His wife knows the story, but cannot or does not want to stop him. She knows that he can never get Shama to marry him. And his wife too is somewhat happy seeing Shama treat him so harshly. Because she too was a victim. Balîd married her only after his family found out that he had knocked her up. She had been his girl-friend for years and she never denied him anything. But he has always looked on her as a moll. No female has ever been safe with that monster. People call him the Rooster. You know why? Because he’s like a coq in a henhouse. He even dared to chat up my own sister! I shall never forgive him for that. I see you aren’t speaking. I see you aren’t asking me questions. But I’ll tell you why I went in search of you the other day. I knew that Balîd had some scheme or other in mind, and I knew he would pay me for anything I did for him, but he would never get his own way. Shama, who has got such a shock that she’s turned to drink, will not let go of him until he is done for. I am saying this to you because I don’t want you to blame me. I know he’s not treating you well. But be patient. God will deliver you from this. Now you can go. And don’t lie to your master! Say you met me on the way. Don’t worry about that! Goodbye!”
Tahar got into a muddle. “Run!” he thought. “Go back to the douar and then think about this!”
So Tahar ran back to the douar. Balîd was waiting for him in the courtyard.
“Where have you been, you perfidious slave?” Balîd barked.
“I am dreadfully sorry, nâamass! I was coming back to the douar but I met Sêed on the way.”
“And so you stayed out there chatting with Sêed? What the hell were you saying to each other?”
“Nothing special, nâamass!”
“And on top of that you lie to me, you donkey?” Balîd rumbled, thwacking Tahar in the face.
Tahar ran his hand over his burning cheek. Balîd spat at him and turned to go away.
“You spit at me, you nasty beetle?” Tahar whimpered once Balîd had moved out of the courtyard. “Is this my requital?”
An hour later, Tahar was stretched out on his bed, thinking. “I helped him twice,” he thought sadly, “first with the dress, then with the disguise. And yet there’s nothing to show for it but a spit in my face! That’s how he repaid my kindness. He called me perfidious. So perfidious I shall be! I can’t restrain myself this time again. I could have hit back at him under provocation. Thank God I didn’t do it! But he can’t provoke me anymore. Since he wants war, then he’ll get war. But in fighting him I shan’t resort to the power of gun. I shall use the power of love and the power of thought!
The next morning Tahar was working again on the dress of one of Shama’s mates. He was all smiles. The boy just looked on, uncomprehending.
But each night thereafter Tahar thought again and again of how he should best avenge himself. “I shall soon be there, Zahiya!” he muttered to himself one night. “I only want to come back safe and sound. I don’t want to kill anybody, and I don’t want to be killed.”
One morning a few days later, Tahar was going out to relieve himself when Sêed hailed him from the other side of the courtyard.
“Hey you there! Where are you for?”
“I’m going to the dung hill. Why?”
“Alright! Go ahead!”
But Tahar had barely got to the dunghill when Sêed joined him. Tahar stared in astonishment as Sêed said in a low voice:
“Tahar, this is your day! It’s now or never! A prince and his wife are spending the night in this land. Shama will take you to the Prince’s wife.”
“But where shall I find Shama?” Tahar puffed out.
“Don’t be disputacious with me! Do as I say! At noon you’ll find Âmmy Saleh’s donkey shuffling around here. You’ll find it fettered and muzzled. Unfetter it without glancing round and ride to the place where you and I met the other day, between the vineyard and the fig grove. Shama will be waiting for you there. And she’ll take you to the Prince’s wife, right?”
“What about Balîd?”
“I said don’t be disputacious! Don’t bother about Balîd. I’ll tackle him! Bye!”
Tahar relieved himself and had a wash. Then he went back to his work. At noon the boy made for the Qaïd’s home to eat and bring Tahar his lunch, as usual. Nor did the usual courtyard workers get out of their habit of gathering in a shady corner of the courtyard to chat over lunch. “It’s now or never!” Tahar thought with beating heart. “Âmmy Saleh is in the courtyard. I can hear him laugh. Get out now! What are you waiting for? They’ll think you’re only going out to the dunghill.” And so Tahar took his life in both hands and walked out of the room, out of the courtyard, on to the dunghill. He unfettered Âmmy Saleh’s donkey, got on it and rode away, without glancing round. He urged the donkey on and on, and prayed to God on and on, till he got to the place where Shama, clad in a white heïk, was waiting for him patiently. “Now be quick!” she said. “There’s not a moment to lose. Leave that donkey alone: it’ll return home unaided. Now mount this mule! I’ll sit behind you. Hold this bundle! Great! Wait a moment!” Shama too leapt into the saddle and leaned against Tahar’s back and threw her arms round his belly, and said, “Now lower your hood and urge the mule on! Don’t be afraid! Everything’s going to be alright, Insha Allah!” Tahar was as in a dream with Shama (!) sitting just behind him, wrapping her arms round him, and whispering in his ear, “Only a little way! Take heart! We’re almost there!”
They stopped at a well a little way from a graveyard. “Let’s alight, Tahar!” said Shama sedately. “Nobody’s going to come our way.” And so they alighted. “Draw some water for me,” said Shama. And as Tahar dropped the pail into the well, Shama said:
“I had a strong feeling you’d come because I knew you’d made sure you’d gain nothing by working for that ungracious lunatic. I know he wasn’t nice to you, so this is your chance to avenge yourself. I know you came with that aim in mind, but let me say that if you don’t leap at the chance you’ll live to rue it. This is your chance to prove your manhood. Don’t be a man with an unsound heart! Don’t be afraid of Balîd! Sêed will deal with him. When you meet with the Princess today show her that you are a gallant man. Just speak softly and you’ll worm your way into the Prince’s heart, I can assure you!”
“Here’s the water!” said Tahar, listening attentively.
“Thank you!” Shama laid the bundle on the wall of the well and took a mouthful of water, then said, “Were you listening to me?”
“Of course!” Tahar said.
“Well, it cut me to the heart to see you a bondsman –let me say a slave! – in that man’s douar. I was enraged. A man like you should be in a palace, not in a douar. Now is your chance! If the Princess says she wants you to go with her, then say yes. Don’t hedge!”
“But who told you she would ask me to go with her or work for her? Where would I go then? Balîd would certainly kill me!”
“Leave that to us! We women know how to deal with each other.”
“Alright! I’ll have a whack at it!”
“I wish you all the best, Tahar. But now take this bundle and go and change your clothes behind that wall. I’ve brought you a tchamir, a jellaba and slippers. Take your time! You’ve got nothing to fear here!”
“How do I look now, Shama?” said Tahar on his return.
“You look great, Tahar! But now mount!”
And so both got on the mule again and rode on to a wooded rise overlooking a large house with a walled garden at the front door of which stood guards in uniform.
“I have to leave you here,” said Shama, alighting first. “Get down!”
And when Tahar had got down, Shama said:
“Stay here! Don’t move from here until you see a woman waving to you from the front door of that house. Good luck to you!”
Those words now sounded like soothing words said to a man in the throes of death. “But this is my day, as they said,” Tahar hastened to remind himself. “I have nowhere to go if I don’t go with the Princess.” Tahar went on bracing himself up while his heart sank at every bray or neigh that fell on his ears, or every further step one of the guards took away from the house, and then suddenly a woman clad in a white heïk waved to him from where the guards were standing. Tahar then stalked down the rise and walked on towards the house like an intrepid soldier. And as he walked on he could see the woman in white speaking to one of the guards. Tahar wondered what he should say to them if they stopped him. But the guards said nothing. They just made way for him as he walked on with no sign of fear on his face. The woman in white received him at the doorstep and ushered him into the house. “Wait a moment!” she said as they reached a big blue door. Then she pushed the door open. Another woman rushed to her. The two spoke in a whisper. Then both vanished behind the door. After a bit, the woman in white reappeared and beckoned Tahar in. She led him into a large room upstairs, where the Princess was seated on a handsome green divan, surrounded by a dozen women.
“Who let this ladykiller in?” said the Princess, running her eye over Tahar’s face.
“He is no ladykiller, Lalla,” said Shama, who looked a marvel in the dress Tahar had made her. “It’s the Tailor!”
“Yes, Lalla!” said another woman with a smile. “This is the Tailor who made Shama’s dress!”
“What’s your name?” the Princess asked, peering into Tahar’s face.
“I am your servant Tahar ben Ahmed Erregragi, Lalla.”
“Are you a regragi yourself?”
“Where are you from?”
“I am from Shiadma, Lalla. From a village by Oued Tensift.”
“What are you doing here, then?”
“I’ve been hired by the son of the Qaïd of a Âbdi tribe, Lalla.”
“What do you do for him?”
“I make women’s dresses for his family, Lalla.”
“But Shama isn’t a relative of his, is she? So why did you make this dress for her?”
“I had no idea whom the dress was meant for, Lalla. I just made it when the Qaïd’s son asked me to do so, Lalla.”
“How much does he pay you?”
“Honestly, Lalla, I am not satisfied with my pay. I cannot tell you, Lalla. It’s laughable!”
“So why didn’t you go to work elsewhere?”
“I wish I could, Lalla. But, for reasons I do not know, the Qaïd’s son has prevented me from leaving these lands.”
“Would you go with me then?”
“But I have tailors of my own! Do you know that? Besides, you’re a dangerously handsome man. You could easily sow trouble in my palace!”
“I am at your service, anyway, Lalla!”
“That’s nice of you! Now you can leave. Thank you!”
Tahar bowed himself out and trudged out of the house. Nobody ran to show him out. The guards saw him come out with a different face, but none of them uttered a word. Tahar cast his eyes up and shuffled off towards the nearest olive grove. “It’s still day,” he thought gloomily, sitting under an olive tree. “What shall I do now? Where should I go? Could I? Shama has let me down. She and Sêed have laid a trap for me. But it’s my fault. It’s I who listened to them. No! This is just what I ought to have done. Was I happy there? Of course not. This is the first time I can run away. But you could have run away the other day when you were in the valley, couldn’t you? It’s all the same to me! I should now look for a place to hide till nightfall, then I’ll run away under the cloack of darkness…”
And so he hid in a deserted well until no bray or crow could be heard around, then he got up and wended his way back home, guided by the moon. Day found him still plodding on his way back to Shiadma. But Shiadma was still too far away when a band of five men on horseback barred his way. Tahar was flabbergasted to see among them Sêed and Âmmy Saleh in the flesh.
“Where were you going, you dandy?” said one of the men, slapping Tahar in the face.
Tahar had no strength left to speak.
Even when he was brought back to the douar at nightfall, he just could not open his mouth to speak. Balîd looked at him with the eyes of a cold-blooded murderer.
“You don’t want to speak?” he said calmly. “Alright!”
“Shall we thrash life out of him?” asked one of Balîd’s men, brandishing his whip.
“No,” said Balîd in the same calm voice. “That would be too merciful to him! He doesn’t even deserve to be buried alive. I’ll give him the right punishment, and I’ll make him speak! Take him to the cowshed! And leave him there!”
Tahar was on the verge of tears. But he just let himself be carried to the cowshed. Balîd’s men flung him inside and locked the door behind him. The cattle mooed and moved around. Tahar, who could hardly breathe with the stinking smell of dung, quickly got up and worked his way towards the wall before he could be trampled or butted by the uncomprehending cattle. Tahar had no doubt that Balîd had put him in there because he wanted him to starve to death. “I know that!” Tahar cried out suddenly, but he could say no more. He was out of breath.
Early in the morning the shepherds came and herded the cattle out and locked the door from the outside. Tahar then shambled up to the tiny window at the back of the shed. He remained standing up there for a few moments, fighting the flies which refused to be whisked away, then he swung round and thrusted himself forward in the midst of the haze caused by the throat-burning dust. He banged at the door, then yelled out:
“You want to starve me to death? I don’t wonder at it! That’s what you rulers do. You selfish rulers are callous people! You only care of yourselves! Curse on you! Cursed be the Qaïds! Cursed be the Princes! Cursed be the Sultans! A curse on Shama! A curse on Sêed! A curse on Saleh!” But Tahar soon went hoarse from shouting.
He had yet to spend another night with the cattle before two black men came to his rescue. They found him lying face downwards, at the back of the cowshed. They gave him water and said soft words to him, and helped him out of the shed. He then blinked in the sun and glanced at his jellaba: it was green with the dung. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t worry!” replied the black men cheerfully. “All this will soon become distant memories. Now come along!”
An hour later, Tahar was incomparably cleaner and smarter than when he had been taken to the Princess. “The Prince wants to see you,” the black men explained. “It’s him who sent us for you.” But Tahar’s only response was a little smile. He showed no sign of merriment even when the black men made him mount a golden horse and led him across the country to a large sumptuous house in the heart of the town. They took him into a room there and gave him some scent to wear, and left. Tahar wondered what to say to the Prince if he mentioned the curses that had come tripping off to his tongue while in jail. He thought and thought but found no way he could talk himself out of such a predicament if the Prince ever hinted at that matter.
It was with great awe that Tahar stood in front of the Prince, who said straight away:
“Tell me your story. But if you tell me anything untruthful I’ll return you to the Qaïd’s son!”
The threat sent shivers down Tahar’s spine, so he stood up straight, and said in an unsteady voice:
“Well, nâamass, I was one of five young men who happened to love a young woman living in the village opposite us. We used to meet up with that young woman every Wednesday when the wadi separating our two villages was passable. But as the wedding season approached the woman’s father threatened to marry her off to a man of his own choice if we five did not settle our problem amongst ourselves. So to avoid fighting, all five of us agreed on leaving it to the Qadi of our neighbourhood to decide. The Qadi ruled that he should give the woman to the one amongst us who resembled her most in her goodness or wickedness. Sadly, I turned out to be “a good man”, which made the Qadi weed me out in the first round of his testing us. In consolation, the Qadi offered to introduce me to a young woman from the same village who, he said, deserved to be my wife. But the Qadi declined to tell me anything about the woman, not even her name. He said to me, ‘Come to this palm-tree and sing religious songs and your beloved will spring into view.’ I was good at singing then; I was a good utar-player, but I had no religious song in my head. So the Qadi sent me off to a man who kept a bookstore at Djemâa-el-Fna in Marrakesh. That man taught me a pocketful of ditties, so I went back home and sang religious songs and the young woman did spring into view, but I could only see her from afar. I then went to the Qadi and asked him to tell me more about the woman. The Qadi said, ‘I can’t tell you anything now, but I’ll meet you soon to tell you more.’ And the next time I met the Qadi he said to me, ‘Well, your beloved says to you, ‘Make me seven dresses so that I can wear a dress everyday of the week; if you do that, then that is my dowry. But don’t try to see me before then, because if you do, you will never see me again!’ And that’s how I went to Mogador with intent to learn dress-making. On my first day there I went to a mosque near the Skala. And as I was leaving the mosque a young man came up to me saying I had mistaken his shoes for mine. Luckily, I quickly made friends with that young man, who took me to one of Mogador tailors. The tailor showed me so many dresses and gave me so much detail on how those dresses were made that I got the feeling I would never make a good tailor. But on leaving that tailor’s shop, my Mogador friend said to me, ‘Don’t worry, brother!’ And so he took me to an old man who prayed for me. And as soon as the next day I found myself working on my first dress. My master tailor was amazed. But when I returned to my village six weeks later, and showed my beloved the dresses I had made for her, she said, ‘I was not interested in the dresses. I only wanted you to go and stay away from these lands for some time. I wanted you to cleanse your heart and mind of Zina.’ So I was soon back to the master tailor’s shop in Mogador. But the master tailor humiliated me, and I could not stand that. So I left Mogador and went back home. A Jewish hawker and I decided to work together. The Jew agreed to buy dresses of my own making and sell them to his clients. And so I put up a shed near our home and made it my shop. I found an apprentice and set to work. But then came a strange man who told me that I would be far better off working for the son of a qaïd in Âbda. Given my frustrations at that time, I did not hesitate to come along with the stranger. But had I known what I know now I would not have agreed to leave the village even if it meant living in poverty for all my life. Such is my story, nâamass!”
“Great! Yours is a fairy-tale, really!” said the Prince, glancing at men sitting on chairs on his right and left. “I’ll get it written down and I’ll send it to the Sultan. He’ll certainly enjoy it! You will stay here in Safi until you have dictated your story to my writer. Then I’ll let you go back home. Now you can leave!”
Tahar kissed the Prince’s hand and bowed himself out, leaving the Prince commenting on the story to the men with him.