So they left Zahiya’s home and rode towards the bridge, where the Qadi took his leave. But Tahar had hardly begun to relish being alone again to dream of Zahiya when a voice hailed him. It was the Qadi’s son.
“Tahar,” he said eagerly, “please tell me everything about that woman my father alluded to!”
“The more the merrier!” Tahar thought, bursting into laughter. But he sat down under a tree by the riverbank and told the Qadi’s son about Shama.
“I want to marry that woman!” the Qadi’s son said suddenly. “Tell me, how do you get there?”
“She’s so far away!” said Tahar amidst laughter. “But let me tell you something. Why don’t you go along with me to Mogador? I’ll show you an old man there. He’s a regragi like us. You know we regraga are blessed with answerable prayers.”
“That’s true indeed!” said the Qadi’s son. “But where do I come in?”
“I said I’d take you to an old man in Mogador. Well, that man prayed for me and the prayer seems to have been answered. Why don’t you go and ask him to pray for you too?”
“I shall go! But please don’t tell my father!”
Tahar laughed again and again as he spoke. At one point he even split his sides with laughter. But behind his seeming joviality hid a feeling of envy.
That feeling stayed with him even when he got back home. “There’s nothing special about him that would make me see him as Shama’s husband,” he thought, feeling envy pricking his heart again. “Then why don’t you marry her yourself if he doesn’t deserve her?”
Three days later Tahar and the Qadi’s son were in Mogador. Each booked a separate room at the same funduq. Then Tahar took the Qadi’s son to the place where he had last seen Âmmy Abderrahman. But they did not find him there. So they roamed the labyrinth alleys till they got to the alley where lived the old man. “This is his home,” Tahar whispered to the Qadi’s son as they went past a wooden door, blue as all other doors. “I am sorry,” Tahar went on, “but I should not appear with you until you have met with him. I think it’s much more difficult to get a meeting with this man than gain a hearing with a prince!”
“But I’ll go only if you come with me!”
“I’m sorry I can’t.”
“So I’ll leave you now. See you later!”
Tahar then left the Qadi’s son and went to mosque. He performed his ablutions and took a Koran from a shelf and began to read in a low voice. “Here I am out of work,” he thought as he read. “I can’t go back to H’sein’s shop. H’sein must have told Smaïl. Where should I go then? Should I go to the Tailors of the Mellah? No, I should wait. I should meet Smaïl first. Smaïl used to be here on Thursdays, and tomorrow will be Thursday.”
But Smaïl turned away from him when their eyes met for a moment in that same mosque. Tahar had been sitting at the back of the mosque when Smaïl entered. But instead of going to Smaïl, Tahar picked up his shoes and slunk out of the mosque and ran to the funduq, where he thought he could find the Qadi’s son. And he did find him there.
“Please, Ali!” Tahar panted out. “Come along quick!”
“What’s the matter?”
“Well, the young chap who introduced me to the old man and the master tailor is at mosque right now.”
Ali leapt to his feet, his face aglow with happiness.
“But wait a moment! Ali! Listen to me! You can speak to him about the old man later on. But now my problem is pressing. You know, I’m at fault with this man because I was unkind to the master tailor. Please come along and speak to him about this first. Tell him that I am sorry. Please speak to him on my behalf. Tell him anything! I just want to be on speaking terms with him again.”
“What about me?”
“Ali! Make haste! Let’s go before he leaves the mosque!”
Tahar stayed aloof while Ali put out his powers of persuasion to placate Smaïl, but even after reconciliation Smaïl seemed to have much more left to say. They were gazing out to sea from the top walkway of the Skala when Smaïl said, without glancing at Tahar:
“Ingratitude is a crime against the whole society, because if you aren’t grateful you’ll neither pay the favour back nor forward, and so you may harden some good people’s hearts and then other people –who could otherwise be thankful– might suffer from that change.”
“I’m sorry,” said Tahar, thinking of Shama. “You know what, I nearly lost my life hadn’t a woman saved me. She spoke to a prince’s wife about me.” Smaïl pricked up his ears as Tahar went on, “I just don’t know how I could pay that woman back. I wish I could find her a suitable husband that would make her happy.”
“I for one am ready to marry her and make her happy!” said Ali.
“I think she would refuse you,” said Tahar distantly.
“Because she’s a woman of great beauty.”
“Where did you see her?” said Smaïl.
“Well, I have to tell you a story, then!”
“Right! Tell me your story! I am all ears!”
Tahar began his story, sitting on one of the cannons pointed towards the sea, but then Smaïl asked him and Ali to tea in his home.
Tahar finished his story on the way to Smaïl’s home.
“Believe it or not, I know that prince!” said Smaïl suddenly.
“How so?” said Tahar in surprise.
“Well, last time I told you –didn’t I? – that I worked as a teacher for a family outside the town. The head of that family is the brother of the Princess you met in Âbda, see? I know her personally!”
“I just can’t believe that!” said Tahar.
“What is unbelievable to me,” said Smaïl, “is that the Prince did not employ you as a tailor in his palace.”
“To tell you the truth, Smaïl, I wish you could do me a favour even now.”
“Please see if the Prince can lend me some money to open up a tailor’s shop in Mogador.”
“Well, I can’t speak to the Prince in person about something like this. But I’ll try with the Princess, right?”
“What about me?” said Ali.
“You?” said Smaïl, raising his eyebrows. “What do you want?”
“I want somebody to pray for me. Could you find me one?”
“He means someone like Âmmy Abderrahman,” said Tahar with a smile.
“Âmmy Abderrahman is ill,” said Smaïl with a sigh.
“He is ill?” said Tahar, showing sympathy. “Can we see him?”
“We’ll go and see him when we’ve had tea.”
Âmmy Abderrahman was not that ill when they saw him. He was surprisingly fit. But he just refused to pray for anybody. To Tahar he said:
“Knowledge is not like a job. You see, you’ve been able to work as a tailor in a matter of months. You can’t acquire knowledge in a matter of months. Ask Smaïl, who has now become a writer. It took him years and years before he became a teacher. And you are still young. You have plenty of time. You have enough money. So all you need is go to a school or hire a teacher or read books at home. You’ve got to rely on yourself, then you can pray to God yourself.”
And to Ali he said:
“Your father is a qadi, isn’t he? He knows you better than I. If your father cannot pray for you, how could I?”
Having heard that, Ali made no bones about it.
“It seems that Âmmy Aberrahmane is tired,” he said, winking at Tahar. “We must leave.”
“You’re right,” said Tahar and Smaïl in unison, feeling Ali’s sudden anguish.
“What are you so upset about?” said Tahar once they got out of the old man’s home. “If this man refused to pray for you, then we can go straight away to the Zaouia Regraga, where you could probably find a good man willing to pray for you.”
“I’ll go back home,” said Ali. “I’ll pray for myself!”
“Alright!” said Tahar. “Tomorrow morning I’ll go back with you!”
“Don’t leave Mogador before you apologize to H’sein!” said Smaïl, resting his hand on Tahar’s shoulder.
“Of course!” said Tahar. “Let’s go to him now!”
“I’m sorry I can’t go with you,” said Ali.
Tahar apologized to H’sein that night and dined in Smaïl’s, and in the morning he was riding back home.
As soon as he arrived he went to the mosque. He asked the Imam whether he could teach him. “I can teach you whatever you please wherever you like whenever you wish,” said the Imam, peeping at Tahar’s pocket. “Great! I want you to teach me here and now how to write a letter,” replied Tahar, dipping his hand into his pocket. “Gladly!” said the Imam, his face beaming with joy.
The next afternoon Tahar and the Imam were together again, sitting in the shade of a tree by the mosque, when Tahar heard the lovely voice of Âmmy Dawud. “Wait a moment!” said Tahar, rising to his feet. “Where are you going?” said the Imam.
“I’m just going to have a few words with Âmmy Dawud and I’ll be back to finish the lesson.”
“Let Âmmy Dawud come to you! Why are you running to him?”
But Tahar ran to Âmmy Dawud, who took him in his arms and spoke to him like an affectionate father.
“I was so sad to learn that you had fallen into the grip of that qaïd’s son,” he said. “When your father asked me about you I didn’t hesitate to tell him the truth. I was convinced you would be somewhere around Safi. And I always inquired after you. How are you now? What do you do?”
“I am fine. Thanks, Âmmy Dawud. You know what– I was longing to see you again!”
“You too! Look, when you start working again, I’ll buy items from you. To tell you the truth, I miss dresses of your making!”
“I’ll make other dresses, Âmmy Dawud. But not now and not here.”
“When and where then?”
“Soon, Insha Allah. In Mogador!”
“Yes, why not? Someone’s going to lend me some money to open up a shop in Mogador. Will you help me?”
“Certainly! Don’t you know that most Mogador tailors are cousins of mine and are in the Mellah?”
“Thank you! Now I’m sorry I have to leave. You know, the Imam has started teaching me things!”
“Oh, great! Good luck to you!”
Tahar spent the rest of that day with the Imam, and the next morning he held his breath as his mother headed for the riverbank. “I want to see this girl with my own eyes,” she said. Tahar hid in a small olive grove and watched as his mother rode slowly along the riverbank towards the bridge. Nearly an hour later her white donkey reappeared on the other side of the river, coming east towards Zahiya’s home. Then Tahar went to the mosque, where the Imam was waiting patiently. The Imam began another lesson while Tahar started waiting for his mother’s return.
His mother returned in the early afternoon, and said, “Isn’t she a dream? Only a blessed man could marry her! May God preserve me until the day I see her in your home!” “Amen!” said Tahar, his face aglow with pleasure.
That night he spent a full hour playing on the utar in the berraka, to his fellow youths’ delight. He also played for them in the next days under that famed terebinth-tree by the riverbank. And he sang only songs he used to sing for Zina, although Zina was now married (and perhaps pregnant) and her husband Âouissa was among the listeners. And while he sang those songs, Tahar had none in mind but Zahiya.
Ali, the Qadi’s son, came one fine evening and found Tahar singing to the boys under the terebinth-tree. So he sat down and waited, his head bowed in thought, until the boys dispersed. Then he took Tahar aside, and said, “I’m just back from Âbda. I saw Shama!” Tahar went green with envy, but he quickly burst out laughing and cracked jokes so that the envy could not show on his face. Ali did not laugh. He only gave a faint smile and waited until Tahar had run dry of jokes, then said:
“I want to go to that old man in Mogador.”
“You mean Âmmy Abderrahman?”
“When are you going?”
Tahar was startled.
“Are you sure you’re going now?”
“But it is getting dark. Why don’t you wait until tomorrow morning?”
“I want to go now.”
“Because I can’t wait.”
“Right. Do you want me to go with you?”
The next hour found Tahar and Ali on the way to Mogador. On their first halt, Tahar was seized with fear. Ali was now saying some very odd things. He spoke of Shama as “my wife Shama”. And as he spoke his face clouded and then cleared and then clouded again.
As soon as they arrived at Mogador, Tahar said:
“Here we are at last! What do you want now, Ali?”
“I want to see Âmmy Abderrahman.”
“Well, just have a rest at the funduq. I’ll bring Âmmy Abderrahman to you, right?”
And so Tahar left Ali at the funduq and went from place to place till he found Âmmy Abderrahman sitting in a vegetable stall in the souk. And he explained to Âmmy Abderrahman that Ali’s mind was going. “For God’s sake come along and pray for him!” said Tahar desperately, careless of passers-by. “Please, Âmmy Abderrahman, do something, I entreat you. Just a few words! Let him hear them from your mouth! Please help me bring him to his senses!” And Tahar went on with his beseeching until Âmmy Abderrahman sighed, and said, “Right! Tell him to go to mosque and attend all prayers and read the Koran day and night. And when Smaïl is back this Thursday we’ll meet all of us and we’ll pray together for your friend, right?”
Tahar leapt for joy and ran to the funduq to announce the good news to Ali, whose eyes sparkled suddenly.
At night Tahar thought more of Shama than Zahiya. “Stop saying he doesn’t deserve her!” he rebuked himself. “Yes, she’s beautiful. But she was ready to marry Balîd, wasn’t she? That’s what Sêed said, anyway. Who’s better: Ali or Balîd? That’s just envy, Tahar! Say: ‘I seek refuge with God from accursed Satan!’ and let me sleep, please!”
And so, for three long days, Tahar and Ali went to mosque together and prayed together and read the Koran together and returned to the funduq together and ate together, but at night each kept himself to himself. Like Ali, Tahar was on pins and needles. Both waited for Smaïl’s return on Thursday.
Smaïl came back and asked everybody to dinner. “I’ve got news for you,” he said to Tahar on greeting him. But he said no more, nor did Tahar ask him anything. At dinner time they dined on baddaz and prayed for Ali. Then Smaïl asked Tahar to spend the rest of the evening at his house. And so Tahar waited impatiently for the others to leave.
They left, and Tahar and Smaïl were alone together.
“What news did you bring?” said Tahar hesitantly.
“Calm down! The news is that the Prince will be here within the next eight days.”
“Can you help me then?”
“Well, I said I’d speak to the Princess. Isn’t that enough?”
“That’s more than enough. Thank you!”
“Tahar, let me tell you something. Royal people are very dangerous and untrustworthy, however kind-hearted they might be. Because it only takes one denunciation or even the smallest thing to turn them against you. I know that this particular prince is an extraordinarily good man. He’s a religious man. And he’s strikingly humble. But you never know. If you are dreaming of working in his palace for ever, then it’s high time you gave up that dream. But if he did ask you to work in his palace don’t say no. He won’t take no for an answer. Just say yes and go and work in his palace and then watch your tongue and keep your eyes down and keep praying to God to let you out of the palace once you feel you’re well-off.”
And Smaïl started telling Tahar tales about royalty; he told him tales in gruesome detail, tales so horrible that Tahar started shivering. And those tales sounded so plausible that Tahar wondered whether he should not forget all about the Prince and his money.
And so when he went to bed that night Tahar just saw nightmare after nightmare.
And yet he stayed there in Mogador until Smaïl brought him the good news.
“The Prince wants to see you tomorrow afternoon,” he said with a smile. “He’ll be in one of his farms, about half a day’s ride from here. You’ll go alone. You’ll find me there because the man I work for will be there too. So be brave and go and be respectful! And don’t be talkative even if you have too much to say!”
Smaïl then gave Tahar all the details of the way and the place, then said:
“Before I leave, let me just add this. Don’t give your mount anything to eat or drink this afternoon! Mind what I say! Starve it until you get back lest it should put its foot in it!”
Tahar took the hint and smiled blissfully.
The next afternoon Tahar was at the edge of the wood along which lay the Prince’s farm, where stood a large house surrounded by almond trees. The house was larger than any Tahar had ever seen and it was at the farm’s main entrance, where ended a long shadowy pathway that ran between fields full of sheep and goats and others covered with olive-trees and vines. Tahar could also see flights of pigeons hovering around. The more Tahar made sure this was the Prince’s farm the more he hesitated to head for the house. But as in Balîd’s douar, it only took him one more effort of courage to move forward. He went down the path and walked on, and his horse walked behind him. And where Tahar stopped the horse stopped, too. Tahar glanced round to see whether the horse had put its foot in it. “He didn’t,” Tahar reassured himself. But the horse neighed, and in no time a servant appeared and asked Tahar who he was and what he was doing there. “I am Tahar ben Ahmed Erregragi,” said Tahar, dripping with sweat. “His Highness the Prince has sent for me.”
“Right,” said the servant. “Wait here! I’ll take your horse into the stable.”
And that was what he did, leaving Tahar standing in the doorway. “I’ve seen no guards, no one’s stopped me,” Tahar thought, gazing at the pigeons. “Is there a prince’s home without guards? There’s calm and peace here. This is strange, really.”
But only a moment later there was a lot of noise. The servant returned and bowed Tahar in. Tahar looked down as he followed the servant across the courtyard but he could feel the presence of dozens of men in uniform.
Tahar was then taken into a large room at the back of which sat the Prince with no one else but Smaïl. Smaïl was sitting on the right of the Prince, and he smiled as he saw Tahar come in and kiss the Prince's hand.
"You're welcome, Tahar!" said the Prince, waving to him to take the chair opposite Smaïl. "We were at prayer when you arrived. How are you?"
"I am fine, nâamass. God bless the Prince!"
"How did your ladylove find the dresses?"
"She was happy with Your generous gift. Thank you, nâamass!"
"Have you got married yet?"
"Not yet, nâamass."
"I need money, nâamass."
"I need a loan, nâamass."
"I would like to open up a tailor's shop, nâamass."
"I'll see what to do about that," said the Prince, turning to Smaïl. Smaïl smiled again. Oh, how beautiful he was! No, that was not beauty! Had Tahar not seen him before to know what he was like? Now it seemed as if Tahar had indeed seen him for the first time ever. Now he was not just a handsome man. He not only had handsome eyes, but everything in him was beautiful. The Prince seemed to have been in a hurry to throw those few words to Tahar so that he could have all the time to speak to Smaïl. And as Smaïl spoke his eyes filled the room with an uncanny power as if he were casting a spell on the Prince. And the Prince spoke to him with such respect that had they been sitting in a field outside and not in this room you could hardly tell the Prince from Smaïl. For Smaïl was no less tidy than the Prince. Tahar was bewitched. "This is the man who should marry Shama!" he thought. "I know he's got his own wife. But this is the man I would love to see with Shama living together as husband and wife, completely wrapped up in each other!" And yet Tahar, for all his beauty, just could not help feeling such a devouring envy that his teeth began to chatter suddenly. He got the feeling that his was the face of a woman, not a man. If only you had been there to see him! Smaïl was a full moon with a halo. And he was a man still. His staidness could only be a man's. His words sounded like those the Writer read from the book. And he had such a pleasant speaking voice that would shame singers into silence. "It's certainly books that made him such a taking man!" Tahar thought sadly. "But how many books do I have to read before I could speak and look like him?"
But then the Prince cast a wandering glance at Tahar, and said:
"What kind of man is your friend Tahar?"
"He is a nice kind of person, nâamass," Smaïl replied with a gulp.
"Did he tell you his story?"
"What did he tell you, for example?"
"Well, nâamass, he looks a bit of an adventurous man. He is a hardworking man. He is successful."
"Hardworking maybe, but successful? I don't know. You know what, behind every human achievement I perceive the might of Almighty God."
"That's true, nâamass!"
"What else do you know about him?"
"He is a shy person, nâamass."
"You think so? Well, he's not as green as he looks. He's not shy with women at all, I can tell you. Chaps like him are dangerous people. Beware of them if they enter your home. But I'm going to take the venom out of him! What else can you tell me about him?"
"Well, nâamass, he would like to open up a shop in Mogador and he needs a loan."
"I'll give him a loan, no problem. But before I give him the loan, I want him to bring me a jeweller from where he lives."
Tahar's mind went to his cousin Tweher, but his heart was beating so fast he could hardly speak.
"Do you know of a good jeweller?" said the Prince, looking fixedly at Tahar.
"Y–e–s, nâamass," Tahar stuttered.
"So let me see him and I'll lend you the money to open up a shop in Mogador, right?"
"I'll stay here until you bring him to me. You can leave now."
"God bless the Prince!"
Smaïl showed Tahar out and wished him good luck.
Back to the village, Tahar went straight to his uncle's. He did not find Tweher there. He waited for him. "Could he be luckier than me?" Tahar thought as he waited. "Will he go straight to the palace? Why not? Isn't he a good jeweller? Isn't he a likeable person? But– like this? Overnight? Without experiencing what I went through? He must be lucky, then! No, I shall tell him! I shall take him to the Prince. I have no choice."
Tweher came and found Tahar waiting for him.
"Tweher," said Tahar in an unsteady voice, "a prince is waiting for you. Keep it under your hat! Prepare yourself and come along with me! Be quick about it!"
"Are you serious?"
"I'm quite serious. Go and titivate yourself and don't tell anybody where we're going."
"But just tell me why the Prince wants me!"
"The Prince wants a jeweller, and you are a jeweller, aren't you?"
"I see! Alright! Wait a moment!"
And Tahar waited patiently while Tweher spruced himself up and groomed and harnessed his horse, and then both set out for the Prince's farm.
The Prince received them as soon as they arrived.
“Have you brought any samples of the jewels you’ve made recently?” said the Prince.
“Yes, nâamass!” said Tweher demurely. “Here you are, nâamass!”
Tahar felt a twinge of pain in his heart as the Prince examined the jewels, then looked up at Tweher and said:
“How much do these jewels cost?”
“I would sell them for two hundred and fifty dinars, nâamass.”
The Prince then called in a servant, and said:
“Give this man five hundred dinars and show him out. Tahar, you too can go. Thank you!”
Tahar was stunned. A servant led him and Tweher out of the Prince’s presence. Tweher faced him as soon as they got out of the Prince’s farm.
“What are you going to do now?” Tahar mumbled, sensing something strange about Tweher’s look.
“You ask me? Is this why you brought me over here? Is this what you promised?”
“I didn’t promise anything. I just said the Prince wanted a jeweller. I had no idea what would happen next.”
“You say this, you little Satan? Why don’t you rather say that you knew but you wished I hadn’t come with you? Why don’t you say that you were envious of me? Why don’t you say that you are selfish? Do you think you can hide your envy? I can see it on your face! Listen, I’m finished with you! Never, never, never call me again! Farewell!”
Tahar spent that night in the open. The next morning found him eating a big cake in the funduq eating-room. He was sad, but two men sitting beside him were happy-go-lucky.
“I said you’re lucky,” one of the two said, sinking his teeth into a steak.
“You too!” replied the other, taking a sip of tea.
“But your wife has got a beautiful face!”
“That’s beyond argument, but yours has got good legs, hasn’t she?”
“Yes, but I would much rather have a wife with a beautiful face than one with good legs!”
“Alright! Let’s meet all four of us at the butcher’s tonight, then!”
“Well, the butcher will cut off my wife’s face and give it to you and he’ll cut off your wife’s legs and give them to me!”
Tahar could not help laughing, but that was not enough to make him happy. He went into his room and played on his utar, but he only grew sadder and sadder. He went to mosque at noon and read the Koran, but that did not do him any good either. “What the heck I’m doing here?” he thought on his return to his room in the funduq.
And yet he stayed in Mogador until Smaïl came three days later and asked him to dinner.
“I really don’t know,” said Smaïl uncomfortably. “I don’t think anybody knows. All I know is that the Prince has now moved on south of Mogador. I have no idea when he’ll be back. But help yourself! You’re welcome!”
“Honestly,” said Tahar, “I’m fond of treed. I just can’t resist the tantalizing smell of onion and fenugreek and lentil. I would have waded into this meal even in the presence of the Prince. But now I’m off my oats. I’m sorry to say so. My heart jumped at the sight of this flower vase. I like flowers like these. But now I have no appetite. I’m going to eat just to please you.”
“I’m not going to blame you, Tahar,” said Smaïl, chewing. And after a bit he stopped eating, and said, “Adversity is hard. To me, patience is a mystery. I have read books and thought years and years and I am still very vague about this thing we call patience. Why does one endure pain where another would burst a blood vessel? Why should one be patient in the first place? Is it because he wants to get something good either in this life or in the Beyond or in both? Or just because he wants to get on with his life in the most ordinary fashion? Personally, I was patient in times harder than you could imagine. But then there were times when I just fell in the abyss of despair, like you now.” Tahar suddenly began to eat heartily as Smaïl went on speaking like a teacher at school, “Man is weak, you know. To tell you the truth, the more I realize that the more I find myself prone to violence. I am not a violent person, but I just can’t stand being provoked. I can hold my own with anybody, but I don’t want to show that off. I hate sham. I don’t want to preen myself on anything. But it’s not easy to be humble, you know. I’ll tell you something. As we speak there’s someone or other somewhere or other praying God in a mosque or in a synagogue or in a church or at his own home. Different people worshipping the same God in different languages. Whenever I realize that, I feel how small I am. I feel that however beautiful I may be, however strong, however endowed with brains, I would still remain one and only one person; that means I would still need others. I can’t live without you just as you can’t live without me. We need to love each other, I mean brotherly love. We need to help each other. We need to respect each other. And should we lose our temper and come to blows we shouldn’t yet go so far as to kill each other. I am telling you this because I went through what you are going through now. I feel that you have your head crammed with big dreams, and if –God forbid! – anyone stood in your way you could go so far as to kill him!”
Tahar left Smaïl’s home livened up. He smiled as the night breeze fondled his face. He visualized Zahiya’s blue eyes. He wished she were with him there, strolling along, going from alley to alley, smelling the Thuya lingering around the closed wood workshops, inhaling the salty spray from the dark sea, and sniffing the curious odour of the unseen fish from the nearby sleeping port.
But when he returned to his room in the funduq he found himself alone again, except for the utar. He picked it up and played on it until an old man from the room next door pleaded with him to let him sleep in peace.