A strange man came to him one day, and said: “I am from a tribe called Lamnasra, near Safi. The son of the Qaïd of our tribe was riding back home when he came across Âmmy Dawud somewhere between Shiadma and Âbda. He found in Âmmy Dawud’s basket three dresses which really dazzled him. Âmmy Dawud was afraid, because he knew that it was the Qaïd’s son. So the Qaïd’s son said: ‘Don’t be afraid, Âmmy Dawud! I’ll pay you for these three dresses. But you must tell me who made them!’ Âmmy Dawud refused. The Qaïd’s son paid for the dresses, though. And he took them to his wife. And so all the women in his family begged him to send somebody up and down the country and bring over the tailor who made those dresses. And so the Qaïd’s son said to me, ‘You have to track down this unknown tailor. I want him by my side and I’ll give him anything he wants.’ It took me a whole month to reach you. Now, if you really want to be happy, to earn more money, and have a beautiful wife, then this is your chance!”
Tahar did not argue. He did not haggle. He only went to his apprentice’s home and apologized to his family. He gave them three hens and a coq and pressed coins in the boy’s hand, and rejoined the stranger.
The Qaïd’s son received them with open arms.
“I’m happy you came!” he said to Tahar, gathering his selham around him.
“Me too!” replied Tahar shyly.
“You’re welcome! Now, Sêed will give you something to eat and show you your room, right?”
“Thank you, nâamass!”
And so Sêed took Tahar to a small room off the courtyard of a large one-level building. “Wait a moment!” said Sêed, signing to Tahar to stand at the room door. “Let me tidy the room for you!” Tahar did not speak a word. He only turned round and glanced at the woman who was swinging a churn in one corner of the courtyard, and at the other woman sitting beside her, who was grinding something in a quern, and at the two men, who, in another corner of the courtyard, were making reed baskets, and then he was looking down at the chickens which filled the place when Sêed came out, and said, “The room is now ready. Have a rest! I’ll bring you something to eat.”
An hour later, Sêed came back and called Tahar out. Tahar gaped as he stepped out of the room. He saw two camels overladen with unhusked maize. “Come and help us unload this!” said Sêed. And then all the women and men who were in the courtyard rushed forward. Tahar joined them as they took down the loads. Sêed then led the camels out of the courtyard and came back to join the husking bee. Tahar was full of questions as to where this maize had come from and why it had not been husked before…, but he strove to keep his mouth shut.
The Qaïd’s son returned some time later and stood behind Tahar, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Come along!” Tahar started to his feet and followed the Qaïd’s son out of the building. Then the Qaïd’s son mounted his horse and rode at a slow pace without glancing round. Not knowing what to do, Tahar ran after him. The Qaïd’s son stopped at the door of a beautiful, large house surrounded by a garden. “Come along!” he said, alighting from the horse. Tahar ran to his side, panting. And then standing in the middle of the courtyard were four women: two white and two brown. The Qaïd’s son grabbed Tahar by the nape of the neck and propelled him along towards the women, who were smiling and looking at Tahar, lost in silent wonder. “This is the tailor,” said the Qaïd’s son, looking at one of the brown women. “Tell him what you want and then send him back to the douar. I am going into town. ” The women did not speak a word. They waited until the Qaïd’s son had left, and then the brown woman whom the Qaïd’s son had spoken to glanced round and said, “Let’s move into the shade!” As they went there the women squabbled amongst themselves over who should sit where. They finally lined up like four chits in front of Tahar.
“I am the wife of the Qaïd’s son,” said one of the two brown women. ” Tahar bowed slightly, and mumbled a greeting while that woman went on, “And this is my mother-in-law.” (She pointed at a tall white woman in her forties.) “And this is my sister.” (She pointed at the other brown woman.) “And this is my husband’s cousin.” (She pointed at the other white woman.) “Now tell us, what kind of dresses do you make?”
“I make gandouras,” said Tahar in a slightly trembling voice.
“Don’t you make takchitas?” said the wife of the Qaïd’s son.
“I can make them. But I need the help of someone else. And I also need a lot of ready-for-use materials. ”
“You need an apprentice, you mean?”
“Maybe I need an apprentice and an adult man as well.”
“Well, I’ll tell my husband about that. Now go back to the douar. We will send you Mweina with our demands, right?”
“Wait a moment!” said the Qaïd’s wife.
“I said go!” retorted her daughter-in-law expeditiously, staring at Tahar.
Tahar bowed himself out and trotted back to the douar. He rejoined the husking bee and did not move from there until he was ordered.
When he was alone in bed at night he thought of Mweina. The wife of the Qaïd’s son had said she wound send Mweina to him. Unlike the brown fatty the Qaïd’s son had made his wife, Mweina had a rather pleasant face. But Tahar was not interested in her face now. Maybe she was married, given her age. She was at least twenty-four. And she was the cousin of the Qaïd’s son. What Tahar wanted now was a person –any person– he could pour out his heart to. He felt deeply humiliated. “I left Mogador because Smaïl had scowled at me,” he thought ruefully. “And H’sein called me names. I got angry. But now the Qaïd’s son has turned me into slave. He made me run after him while he was up on horseback! I wonder what’s awaiting me if that’s what happened to me on my first day here. Was this a ‘bad thing’, as Âmmy Abderrahman put it?” He sighed. “I wish I could go to him to pray for me again. But –alas!– I am now a slave. I can’t do anything. Oh, yes, you can! Why don’t you pray to God to deliver you from this? O God! I have no other God but You, deliver me from this! I implore You!...” Tahar prayed on and on till his eyes filled with tears.
Then, suddenly, he remembered his family. “I didn’t tell them anything,” he thought. “I fondly imagined I could be happy here. What would become of my father and mother if I didn’t return anytime soon?”
The first cockcrow found Tahar awake. But he could not leave his room until he heard voices. Day was breaking. The two men who had been making reed baskets on Tahar’s arrival were now sitting on the fringe of the stack of maize. Tahar walked diffidently towards them and greeted them with a smile. As soon as he sat down one of the two men said to him:
“Won’t you wash your face? ”
“I don’t know where?” said Tahar, feeling a great relief.
“Well, there’s a well just outside the douar.”
“I didn’t see it.”
“I’ll show it to you. You can then draw water and drink and wash as you please. The Qaïd’s son won’t say anything. If you want to relieve yourself you can go to the dunghill. It’s behind the douar.”
“Can I go now?”
“Yes. Come along! I’ll show it to you.”
Tahar relieved himself and quenched his thirst and washed and said his morning prayers. Then he rejoined the husking bee and waited for Mweina.
Mweina came in the late morning. With her was a teenage boy carrying a small basket in either hand.
“Where’s your room?” said Mweina, looking down at Tahar, who was busy husking the maize.
“It’s there!” he said, pointing at the room door.
“Let’s go in there!” said Mweina, a bit shyly.
It was the boy who went in first and put the baskets down and left. Mweina sat on the bed, Tahar on the floor.
“The wife of the Qaïd’s son has sent you boiled eggs and bread in this basket,” said Mweina, devouring Tahar with her black eyes.
“And in this other basket here there are two pieces of cloth. Make a gandoura for the wife of the Qaïd’s son!”
“Insha Allah. But, you know, I need an apprentice.”
“The boy at the door is going to be your apprentice.”
“Alright! But I’d still need some other materials, such as a sewing basket, sewing cotton, sewing silk, a thimble, and so on.”
“I know. You’ll get all that, but now, let me ask you a question, right? Tell me something about you.”
“Something such as what?”
“What’s your name? Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have children? If you aren’t married, are in you in love? Who is your beloved? Why haven’t you married yet?”
Surprised at this sudden avalanche of questions, Tahar glanced round, and said:
“I fear the Qaïd’s son may come in and hear us.”
“The Qaïd’s son is in town right now. Besides, there’s nothing disgraceful about what I asked you.”
“Well, my name is Tahar…” And he answered all questions, then he asked his own.
“And what about you?” he said shyly.
“Well, I only asked you; I didn’t force you to reply. See you!”
Mweina left Tahar boiling with rage. She had made a mockery of him, and he had just to put up with it. He could not show his rage. He had no time to think of himself. The boy was waiting at the door. So Tahar composed his features and called him in.
“What’s your name, kid?” said Tahar with a forced smile.
“My name is Lârbi.”
“Where are you from?”
“I live in a nearby douar.”
“Now you’re going to be my apprentice, aren’t you?”
“Good. But, you see, I only have these pieces of cloth. As I said to Mweina, I need other materials. So you can go now. Mweina will send you back to me later on, right? Good bye!”
The boy left. Tahar stretched out on the bed and started thinking of what he should say to Mweina when she came back.
And so he found himself waiting for her impatiently. He could not forget her first look at him. He could not forget that she had come into his room and sat on his bed and talked to him like a lover and listened to him like a lover and looked at him with the eyes of a woman filled with envy. Maybe that was why she had made a mockery of him. Maybe she became jealous of Ezzahiya.
“I wonder what Ezzahiya would do if she knew you’re here,” said Mweina when she returned three days later.
“Are you jealous of her?” said Tahar, without raising his eyes.
“Yes,” said Mweina, fixing her eyes on Tahar.
Startled, Tahar looked up.
“Why?” he said.
“I don’t like men talking of other women in my presence.”
“But you are married, why should you care?”
“Who told you I’m married?”
Tahar was at a loss for words. He just contemplated Mweina’s jolly face while she looked fondly at him.
“What’s the matter?” Mweina said suddenly.
“I don’t know,” Tahar muttered, looking down.
“Well, I came to you today because I want you to make me a robe. Here’s the cloth.”
“Alright,” said Tahar abstractedly.
At that moment Mweina’s hand touched his and he felt that she was pressing her hand against his.
“The boy’s been out for some time now,” he said in some confusion. “Please leave now! See you soon!”
“Alright! See you!”
This time Mweina left Tahar burning with desire. And from the moment she left he waited for her return, seething with impatience. But the boy could see nothing of that.
When Tahar was alone that night Ezzahiya’s words stirred his heart. ‘I wanted you to cleanse your heart and mind of Zina,’ Ezzahiya said. What would Ezzahiya say now if she knew that he had fallen in love with Mweina?
And so Tahar worked on Mweina’s robe, putting his heart and soul into his work. And if Ezzahiya ever appeared to him and did hazard a remark or a threat he would simply whisk her away as he did the flies that buzzed in his room.
And Mweina came back to inquire after her robe.
“How far have you got with the dresses?” she said, sitting on the bed and signing to the boy to leave the room.
“Well, the gandoura of your cousin’s wife is almost finished,” said Tahar. “But I’m still working on your own robe.”
“Show me the gandoura to see?”
“Yes, here you are!”
Tahar picked up the gandoura and hung it with both hands in such a way that it looked like a curtain hiding him and Mweina from any potential interloper. Mweina seemed to like that. “Look how good it is!” said Tahar, glancing at Mweina’s red lips. She too glanced at his shivering lips, then at his brown eyes, and said, “You’re a coward.” Tahar dropped the gandoura. He glanced round at the door, then looked back at Mweina, and mumbled, “Why so?” “Hold the gandoura as you did a moment ago!” was her reply. With trembling hands, Tahar did just that. Then he moved a bit closer to Mweina, who looked at him temptingly. His mouth was not an inch from her cheeks. He tried to snatch a kiss, but he simply could not. “Move away from me!” said Mweina abruptly. Only then did he throw his arm round her and rest his other hand on her thigh. She smiled. He fondled her back while she still looked fondly at him.
“When is my robe going to be ready?” Mweina said in a rather grave tone now.
Tahar moved his arm off her back and sat upright, then said:
“I think in two or three days’ time it’ll be finished.”
“Right,” she said, rising to her feet. “Now give me the gandoura. I’ll come back in three days’ time.”
“Here you are! But, please, may I ask you a question? Who will pay me for the dresses I make you?”
“I don’t know. Ask Balîd!”
“Who is Balîd?”
“The Qaïd’s son!” said Mweina with a fetching smile.
It rejoiced Tahar’s heart to see Mweina treat him with such undreamt of kindness. Her smiles did not leave him a moment all day. But at night he was perturbed. Ezzahiya had simply refused to let go of him. “I wanted you to cleanse your heart and mind of Zina,” she kept on reminding him even now that Mweina had become his new beloved.
There was thunder in the air when Mweina returned. It was spitting with rain as she stood at the room door. She looked distraught. “What’s the matter?” said Tahar, rushing forward to welcome her. “Balîd is around,” she whispered despondently. Tahar himself was downcast now. “Well, I’ve finished your robe,” he faltered out. “Give it to me,” she said. As Tahar turned round to pick up her robe, Balîd’s voice gave him the horrors.
“What’s going on in here?” Balîd said gruffly.
“Nothing, nâamass,” said Mweina before Tahar could swing round and echo her words.
“Have you made any dresses yet?” said Balîd with a forbidding look.
“I have, nâamass.”
As Balîd turned to go, Tahar took it into his head to say:
“Excuse me, nâamass!”
“What’s the matter?” said Balîd with the same glowering look.
“What about my pay, nâamass?”
“Your pay? What pay do we owe you? We gave you a place to sleep. We give you food to eat. What more do you want?”
Mweina slunk out of the room as Tahar replied in a hardly audible voice:
“Nâamass, I thought you would pay me. But even now there’s no problem.”
“Since there’s no problem, then shut up!”
The blaze in Balîd’s eyes shocked Tahar into silence. He diverted his eyes and hung his head and waited for Balîd to leave. Balîd left and Tahar shuffled up to his bed. He sat down and held his head in his hands. “You don’t know me,” he muttered. “I’m not the one to sleep under an insult. I can’t stand being humbled by a thief like you.”
Tahar thought of how he could avenge himself. He thought day and night, because he had nothing else to do. Mweina had not picked up her robe; it was only the boy who had taken it to her. And she did not come back, because of the rain.
And it so happened that Tahar was lying on his bed, thinking of his family and of Ezzahiya, when Mweina stood at the door. “Good morning,” she said, stifling a sneeze. “Good morning,” Tahar replied, gathering himself up. He sat on the bed and looked up at her. She moved forward and sat by his side.
“Are you angry?” she said, blowing her nose.
“I am not in a good mood, anyway.”
“How could I put you in a good mood?”
“By bringing me some wine.”
“Send me some with the boy.”
“But first I have to see where I get you wine. Then, you’ll have to choose between milk and wine. I can’t send you both in the same basket.”
“Do your best! I need wine urgently.”
“And you’ll make me a takchita?”
“I’ll make you a takchita.”
Now Tahar turned to her. He met her eye. And he caressed her burning lips with his shivering thumb. Then he kissed his thumb.
“I have a streaming cold,” said Mweina.
“Don’t pass your cold on to me!”
“Do you like me?”
“I love you.”
“Now, look here,” Mweina said, turning away from him suddenly. “I’ve brought you pieces of cloth to make us three takchitas: one for Balîd’s wife, one for his mother and one for me.”
Tahar, who had been stroking her thigh while she was speaking, now held the pieces of cloth, examined them, and said:
“But these pieces will barely make one ample takchita for Balîd’s wife. She’s fat, you know!”
“If that isn’t enough, I’ll bring you more next time. No problem.”
“There’s yet another problem, Mweina. To make a takchita, you know, I’d need silk thread, buttons, sfifa and even dfira, if you like. You’ve only brought me the cloth.”
“I’ll bring you all that next time.”
“There’s yet another problem, Mweina. A takchita takes time, you know.”
Now Tahar put the pieces of cloth aside and turned to Mweina again. She too faced him, and said:
“I didn’t know you’re a drinker.”
Tahar smiled nervously while he lifted his hand to Mweina’s right breast, but hesitated to touch it.
“What are you doing?” Mweina said with a smile.
At that moment the boy looked in and gaped, then vanished behind the door.
“It’s all over now, see?” said Mweina, her face aflame with embarrassment.
“I didn’t do anything,” said Tahar apologetically.
“But to the boy you looked as if you’d been fondling my breast!”
“I didn’t touch your breast!”
“See you. Start on the takchitas now!”
“And don’t say anything to the boy! I’ll tackle him.”
An hour later, Tahar was working on Mweina’s takchita. The boy assisted him in silence.
At night Tahar struggled with his own incomprehension. Mweina seemed to have bought the boy off. “She did not argue when I said I wanted wine,” Tahar thought confusedly. “I could have grasped her breast and even kissed her full on her lips hadn’t the boy looked in. What kind of woman is this? Is this the woman you would like to marry?...”
Tahar could not sleep that night, and at cockcrow he felt hemmed in. He could not stay in bed. He left the room and began strolling around the courtyard. One of the few men who usually worked in the courtyard opened the front-door, which was always locked from the outside. That man was appalled to see Tahar strolling around there in the twilight.
“What are you doing here?” he puffed out.
“Don’t worry, Âmmy Saleh!” said Tahar with an uncertain smile. “I was just strolling around.”
“Now see here! Last time I warned you off running away”
“I wasn’t trying to run away. It didn’t enter my head to run away.”
“Well, I’m glad you followed my advice. But before anybody else comes, let me give you another warning.”
“About what this time?”
“What! What about Mweina, then?”
“Listen, that woman had a husband. They were married for six years. But, unfortunately for them, they didn’t have a child. So her husband decided to go to Haj to pray to God to give him a child. And before he went, he had to divorce her, as is the custom. If all goes well, he may be back in the next months and then he’ll remarry her. And let me tell you this, the father of that man was no less a person than the Qaïd of this tribe before Sy Balîd’s father. I warn you once again: don’t trifle with that woman’s affections!”
“Thank you for the warning!” Tahar muttered, shuffling his feet towards his room. His head was reeling. He tumbled into bed. “It’s unbelievable!” he whispered to himself. “This is going to drive me mad, really. I can’t believe this. I don’t want to believe it. Mweina is in my heart. I can’t get her out of my head. But you got Zina out of your head. And you got Ezzahiya out of your head. No, Mweina is different. Mweina is–” (He sat upright.) “But what if it’s true? What is true? I don’t care! Whatever the truth, Mweina is here. She’s in my heart…”
Tahar was still struggling with his thoughts when the boy arrived. “Good morning, master!” the boy said, putting the basket down at Tahar’s feet. Tahar returned the greeting, and then, with trembling hands, picked up the basket and placed it on the bed. He took up the jug and looked into it. It was wine, as Mweina had promised. “What shall I do now?” Tahar thought perplexedly. “I have no chance of escape. I must drink this, otherwise everybody will find out.” He hesitated, though, as if he had never drunk wine before. But then he lifted the jug to his mouth, and in a fit of anger, he suddenly burst out, “What does she take me for?” The boy stared in fear as Tahar fixed him with an angry glare, and barked, “Take this back to her and tell her that I want milk not wine! Get up! Hold! Go!”
Tahar was trembling all over when the boy replaced the jug in the basket and got out of the room. Saleh came in soon afterwards.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
Tahar looked up at him with bleary eyes, and said:
“I don’t know. I was suddenly overcome with anger when I found wine instead of milk in the jug.”
“Where did you send the boy?”
“I sent him back to Mweina.”
“To bring me some milk.”
“You’re wrong if you think anybody here can be bluffed by you. You’re cutting your own throat, boy!”
Hardly had Saleh left when Balîd himself erupted into the room, holding the boy’s hand.
“What have you been doing in this room, you scoundrel?” Balîd snarled.
“Speak!” said Balîd, turning to the boy.
“I saw him fondling Mweina’s breast, nâamass,” said the boy in fear and trembling.
“See? Is this what you call nothing?”
“I swear by God I didn’t do that!”
Tahar saw stars when Balîd flew at him and dragged him out of the room and then flung him to the ground and started kicking him with both feet. Without waiting for a signal, the men and women who were then there in the courtyard joined in. Some slapped poor Tahar on the back, others in the face or on the bottom. When Tahar had got such a battering, Balîd glanced round and shouted, foaming with rage:
“Leave him here! Go back to your work and give him no water, no food. He doesn’t deserve it.”
“Right, nâamass!” everybody replied in unison.
The workers made a bow and returned to their work. Balîd gave Tahar one last kick and left.
For two days Tahar did not get a thing to eat or drink. He was not allowed to go near the well. And he started eating tree leaves.
He did not see the boy during those two days. Nobody spoke to him and he could not bring himself to speak to anybody. He felt such a shame that he could not even speak to himself.
But Mweina came back and found him eating tree leaves. The boy too was with her, and he saw him eating tree leaves.
“Why did you lay yourself open to ridicule?” said Mweina, holding back her tears.
Tahar was too moved to speak. He was out of breath. He looked at the basket which the boy was still holding in his hand. Mweina turned to the boy, and said, “Give your master his breakfast!”
Both looked unbelievingly at Tahar’s face, which had been slightly gnawed by hunger.
Tahar then took a gulp of milk, and said, “Thank you!” “Eat the bread!” said Mweina, handing it to him. He took the bread from her and began eating it in silence. Then, suddenly, he looked Mweina square in the face, and said rather wanly:
“Can I marry you?”
Both Mweina and the boy were astounded.
“Don’t you want me?” said Tahar again, looking as if he had long pondered and resolved to burn his boats.
“I am sorry I can’t marry anybody now,” Mweina said uncomfortably.
“Well, everybody knows that a relative of mine is in Haj right now, or maybe he’s on his way back. I can’t marry in his absence. I must wait until he comes back. My family are waiting, too.”
That answer made Tahar shrivel up. He avoided Mweina’s eye. And then he mumbled in an awed voice:
“You’re awfully nice, Tahar!” said Mweina soothingly. “God will certainly bless you with the woman you dream of.”
“I am thirsty,” said Tahar, turning his gaze back to Mweina.
“Get up! Be quick!” said Mweina to the boy. “Bring your master some water!”
The boy flashed out of the room. Amazingly, Tahar made to embrace Mweina, but she shrank back from him, and said, “No, please! No more of this.”
Tahar was staggered.
“But you know I love you?” he whispered breathlessly.
Mweina made no reply. She looked away from him and gazed vacantly into space. When the boy came in with the water, Mweina faced Tahar, and said:
“Have you finished any takchita yet?”
“No,” he said laconically.
“Right,” she said, rising to her feet. “We’ll give you some more time.”
For a good hour, Tahar remained stretched out on the bed while the boy lay sprawled on the floor.
When Tahar resumed work on Mweina’s takchita he felt like a free man again. A smile suddenly stole across his lips. And he gave a gurgle of delight. The boy watched him apprehensively. “You think I’ve gone mad?” said Tahar, sensing the boy’s bewilderment. “Don’t be afraid! I’m alright.”
Mweina too doubted her own eyes when she came back three days later and found him singing religious songs, songs that he had sung for Ezzahiya.
“Have you finished my takchita yet?” she said with a sultry smile.
“It’ll be finished in three weeks’ time,” Tahar replied in a tentative voice, without raising his eyes.
“Why don’t you look at me?” Mweina said provocatively.
Tahar was seized with the desire to open his heart wide to her again, but he struggled not to lead himself into temptation– now that the truth had burst in upon him. So he said simply:
“I said your takchita will be ready in three weeks’ time, insha Allah.”
“Alright!” she said with a note of frustration in her voice.
She left. Tahar then flung up his head. His heart pounded. The boy watched him curiously.
That afternoon both Tahar and the boy stared, their eyes wide with fear, as Balîd stood at the room door. But Balîd was smiling. He looked like an unhappy lover feigning happiness. Tahar’s fear suddenly turned to self-conceit. Balîd was looking at him with the eyes of a vanquished warrior. “Good morning,” said Balîd at length, taking two steps towards Tahar.
“Good morning, nâamass,” replied Tahar in a shaky voice.
“Come along!” said Balîd in a friendly tone.
Tahar followed Balîd out of the courtyard. They went towards the well.
“Do you have another jellaba?” said Balîd on the way.
“Yes, nâamass,” replied Tahar, trying to puzzle out what Balîd was about.
“Good. I want you to wash and wear that other jellaba of yours, right? This evening you’ll go with me to a party. There will be men and women. Try to be respectful. If all goes well, I’ll restore your horse to you and I’ll pay you for the dresses you’ve made, right?”
“Right, nâamass!” said Tahar, stung by Balîd’s odd promise of restoring his horse to him.
“Now, go back to your work.”
Tahar’s desire for revenge revived, but he fought that desire down. He was afraid. He had noticed that Balîd was not quite himself any more, and that might lead him to commit the worst of crimes.
In the evening, Balîd was a buoyant young man of twenty-seven. To look at his immaculate jellaba and selham and at his golden horse you could say he was going to a King’s reception. And to Tahar he only said honeyed words. He gave him a black donkey, and said jocularly, “Let’s go!”