The child was playing with other children in an open ground. He was the most handsome of them all and the worst-dressed. Some children teased him about his old jellaba that he wore everyday while today was a day of eed. An elder cousin of his rebuked the teasers, saying they were jealous of him because he was more good-looking than them. A young man stood at the edge of the open ground and waved to the handsome child, who went to him hesitantly.
“Hassan ould Muhammad, is it you?” said the young man.
“Yes, it’s me,” replied the child.
“Where’s your father?”
“He’s in the cemetery.”
“What’s he doing in the cemetery?”
“He’s sleeping there.”
“Sleeping? How long has he been sleeping there?”
“I don’t know.”
“My father is dead.”
“I see.” And after a moment, the young man said, “Do you go to market?”
“Yes, sometimes, why?”
“Where do you have tea when you go to market?”
“At El Hashmi’s.”
“Right. Now goodbye!”
Hassan stared as the young man turned and moved away.
The next Tuesday Hassan was sitting with his uncle at El Hashmi’s tea-shop when the young man appeared at the door and greeted everybody.
“Can I have Hassan for a while?” said the young man to Hassan’s uncle.
“I just want to buy him something.”
“Right. But don’t go too far.”
The young man took Hassan to a nearby shop and bought him a nice jellaba and leather slippers. Hassan thanked him with a smile, and said:
“Why are you doing this for me?”
“I am now a teacher, but as a student I used to read books by your late father.”
“Did you know him personally?”
“No, but I knew him through his books and through other people.”
“Where are we going now?”
“Not far. Not far.”
They stood in front of a female calf in the animal market. The young man smiled at Hassan, and said:
“How do you find this?”
“It’s beautiful,” said Hassan with a big smile.
“It’ll be yours in a moment?”
As soon as the young man paid for the calf, Hassan ran to El Hashmi’s, and cried:
“Uncle! Uncle! Look! This gentleman has bought me a calf! It’s beautiful! Look!”
Not only Hassan’s uncle, but everyone in the shop looked at the calf.
“Why all this?” said Hassan’s uncle suspiciously to the young man, who promptly replied:
“Hassan’s father was good to me. I’m doing this for his son in return. May I now take Hassan and the calf home?”
On leaving the market, the young man said a few prayers. Hassan listened, then said:
“I heard you say “the Evil Eye”. What’s the Evil Eye?”
“When people like something that others have and are jealous of them because of that, they look at that thing in a bad way, and their look will often bring some kind of disaster either to the thing itself or to the one who owns it. Also a rich man or a beautiful woman, for example, can attract the Evil Eye.”
“People say my father was very handsome, so was it the Evil Eye that killed him?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that the Evil Eye is very bad indeed.”
“How can I avoid it?”
“I don’t know how one can avoid it when he has things other people don’t have.”
“So what should I do?”
“Well, do something good in your lifetime. Do it as soon as you can!”
“Something such as what?”
“Write books, as your father did.”
“But I can’t.”
“You can’t now, but you can later.”
“What if I couldn’t do it even when I grew up?”
“You’d then do something better if you tried. But now forget all about this. Think of your calf. Take care of it. And avoid children who are jealous of you.”
Hassan’s calf soon became the talk of the hamlet. His uncles came to him one by one and asked him to sell them the calf. “No, no, no!” was Hassan’s reply to all his uncles and all the others who came to him in the hope of buying the beautiful calf. Very soon indeed, the calf was Hassan’s only friend. He gave her a name: Batool.
But where would Batool find food to eat and water to drink and a place to sleep in a hamlet where all the males and many females wanted Batool for themselves?
The most urgent thing was a bed for Batool, and for this Hassan had to beg. He went to the local imam and asked for his help. “Go to Yamna,” said the imam reluctantly. “She’s just lost a child, you know. Maybe she could take pity on you. But why don’t you just sell the animal and save yourself all this trouble?” Hassan didn’t wait a second. He flew to Yamna and shed tears in front of her, “You see, Aunt Yamna, I am an orphan, you know, and everybody wants to rob me of my calf. No one wants to leave me alone. I just want a tiny space for my calf to sleep. I don’t want anything else!” “You’ll have it, my son,” said Yamna thoughtfully. “But you’d still need to bring it food and water. How would you do that?” “I’ll do everything for Batool!” Hassan cried.
Yes, for Batool, Hassan did everything he possible could. He washed her in the river every morning, although the river was miles away. He helped his uncles and others in the fields in return for bush for Batool. He went to mosque to pray and on his return he would take two buckets of water from the mosque-well to Batool, who waited for him on a tiny plot of ground in Yamna’s lands. When he had nothing to do, he would push himself on a tree swing while Batool watched tenderly. Sometimes, he took her to other parts of the hamlet just to show her beautiful flowers or to let her listen to music as hamlet boys played the utar in a nearby orchard.
But then came hard times. The river dried up. His uncles and the others could hardly find any bush for their own animals. Even the water in the mosque-well went deeper and deeper into the ground. There were still a few flowers here and there, but no one had the heart to see them, no one was in the mood for music anymore. The crops were dying away, the animals perishing everyday. And so Hassan looked tearfully at his agonizing Batool, who had just turned three years old. He shared with her the little food he got for his breakfast, he brought her bunches of flowers nobody wanted to see, he brought her bowls of water from the mosque-well, but all to no avail. Batool died, and he cried.
Mohamed Ali Lagouader