In the morning Tahar left the funduq altogether and galloped back home, his heart racing against him. Each olive-tree, each fig-tree, each vine, each donkey– anything he saw or heard on his way made him pine for his family and Zahiya as if he had not seen them for years.
But once he got there, nobody rushed to meet him. Anyone who saw him avoided him like the plague. Even his father and mother, even his brother. Let alone the youths in the berraka and just anybody about! “What’s this?” Tahar thought like a madman. “Why’s everybody avoiding me? The boys just left the berraka altogether on seeing me! Mwessa’s left his steed and rushed into his home as if he had seen a ghost! My father looked at me out of the corner of his eye. My mother just refused to speak to me! Why?”
In a fit of anger, Tahar ran to the riverbank and shucked his jellaba and tore down the slope and swam across the river. And then he went off to Zahiya’s home hell for leather. The dogs barked as he stood at her door. Zahiya herself hung out of the window and gaped, then came running out, but her father appeared the next moment and pushed her back into the courtyard, and said:
“What are you doing here, you sorcerer? Do you think I’d give my daughter to an evil person, a Satan like you?” He then swung round, and shouted at his cowering daughter, “Bring me those rags he gave you! Quickly!” And in a flash, Zahiya fetched a red bundle and handed it with a trembling hand to her father, who just hurled the bundle like a stone at Tahar, who suddenly yelled out:
“It must be him! I shall kill him!”
And then he turned towards the river. But he was too weak to plunge into the river and swim back to the other side. He was trembling all over. He was boiling with rage. And suddenly he heard a voice calling out to him, “Tahar! Tahar! Wait!” It was Eazzahia, running like hell. She stood in front of him, barefooted. Her fair hair shaded her forehead. Her bosom throbbed like a pair of bellows.
“I know,” she panted out, her blue eyes blinking in the sun, “I know it’s Tweher who has blackened your name. I know it’s him who’s spread rumours about you.”
“That’s what I deserved, I who led him into the Prince’s presence!” Tahar shouted madly. “I wouldn’t be a true man if I let him live until tomorrow!”
“Don’t say that, Tahar!” Zahiya beseeched, glancing at the children running towards them. “Don’t kill anybody! Think of me! I don’t want to lose you. Don’t forget that human life is dear to God! Let’s go to the Qadi and speak to him!”
Tahar could say no more now that Zahiya had grabbed hold of his arm and urged patience on him, speaking with great feeling. “Let’s go before anybody comes!” she cried suddenly, lifting up her voice. “Come now!” And both trotted away, heading westward, indifferent to the children who shouted out to them to be back. “Look over there!” Zahiya cried again. “That horse is loose! Be brave and go and take it! Don’t think of anybody now! Just think of you and me!” And before Zahiya finished speaking, Tahar flew to the horse and mounted it and helped Zahiya on it, and said, “Hold yourself straight!”, to which Zahiya replied, “Don’t worry! Go on!” And like Shama before, Zahiya clung to him; she wrapped her arms round his belly and whispered in his ear, “Only a little way! Take heart! We are nearly there!”
In a few moments the fire had turned hail. The hate was washed away by love. Zahiya was all the world to him now that he had seen her mirrored in the river beneath. This image would stick to his mind as long as he lived. That was her image in her moment of unrestrained love, in her moment of unspoiled beauty, such beauty that needed no makeup. What could be more beautiful than her sitting behind him on horseback, whispering to him, ‘Don’t care of anybody! Just think of you and me!’ ? How free he was! How beautiful life was! The river with its verdant banks, the clear blue sky above, the birds, the rustling of tree-leaves, the gaping faces of children all along the way… If only these moments could last for ever and ever!
But –alas!– they soon got to the Qadi’s home. Ali came out, and said, raising his eyebrows:
“We came to see Âmmy Allal,” said Zahiya. “Is he home from work yet?”
“No, not yet. Why are you barefooted?”
“Don’t puzzle too much over our intentions! I’ll explain what happened. Tahar was going to kill someone but –thank God– I restrained him. I feared he might go and do something horrible, so I pleaded with him to come here and speak to the Qadi first. Is that clear now?”
“Right! Sit down! I’ll bring you tea.”
“We can’t stay here, you know; my father may be on our tracks, and, you know, we just swiped this horse, it isn’t ours; and–”
“Don’t worry! Your father won’t come because he knows you’ll return home safe and sound. And the horse owner too won’t bother to follow you because he knows he will get it back sooner or later. So just calm down! I’ll bring you tea. I shan’t be long!”
“You nearly became a murderer!” Zahiya grinned, looking affectionately at Tahar.
“Hold your tongue or else I’ll go and do it!”
“Dare you do it?”
Tahar put out his hand, but Zahiya eluded his grasp, and walked away from him. She went towards a cow grazing around an argan-tree and squatted close to its udder and made as if to milk it. Tahar looked dreamily at her smiling face as she turned round and looked at him. He just stood there and watched as Zahiya rose up and took a few steps towards him and then stopped. She was a picture in her charmingly simple yellow dress. Her bare feet enhanced her natural beauty. Tahar suddenly averted his eyes. The blood mounted to his cheeks as he realized why he and she were there in the first place. “I nearly became a murderer,” he sighed. “She was right! Oh, how beautiful she is!”
Ali came out and found them apart.
“Hey! Come to tea!”
And so they all sat down in the shade of an argan-tree and talked over tea.
“What’s the latest?” Tahar said.
“I have seen something in a dream,” Ali replied with a smile.
“Was it a good dream?”
“Well, I’ve told three different people about my dream and they all said I’d marry a divorced woman with a child from Âbda.”
“Have you seen her lately?”
“Who?” Zahiya said curiously.
“A blond beauty who saved me from the Qaïd’s son in Âbda,” said Tahar tremulously.
“Why didn’t you marry her then?”
“Didn’t you tell me to cleanse my heart and mind of Zina?”
“Did you know her personally?”
“Well, Ali’s going to tell you all the story.”
Ali had not yet finished the story when the Qadi’s horse neighed.
All three sprang to their feet and kissed the Qadi’s hand. Ali tried to explain why the other two were there.
“Is that true?” said the Qadi to Zahiya. “Did he really want to kill someone?”
“Yes, Âmmy Allal!”
“Slap him in the face!”
Without hesitation, Zahiya slapped Tahar in the face.
“Once more!” said the Qadi.
Tahar forced back his tears and turned the other cheek, but Zahiya hesitated.
“I said slap him!” said the Qadi sternly.
And she slapped him.
“How do you feel now?” said the Qadi to Tahar.
“It’s painful, Qadi!” said Tahar prudishly.
“Painful?” the Qadi sneered. “Zahiya, pick up that stone!”
Having no doubt the Qadi would ask Zahiya to knock him on the head with that stone, Tahar simply turned tail.
A little more than an hour later, all four were in Zahiya’s home.
“Today I came as a qadi and family friend,” said the Qadi. “You all know what I do everyday. I listen to people from opposite sides, and I make decisions. That’s why I am called a qadi. A qadi is supposed to be fair, and that’s what I try to do. So today I came, as I said, as a qadi and family friend.”
“You’re welcome,” said Zahiya’s father half-heartedly.
It took the Qadi hours to dissipate Zahiya’s father’s suspicions.
“I hope he is not a sorcerer,” Zahiya’s father said at length, with a faint smile on his lips. “But still, Qadi, you’ll have to do something about the people who believe he is.”
“Leave it to me!” said the Qadi. “Now give us something to eat if there’s any.”
“I’ll bring it at once!”
While Zahiya’s father was out of the room, the Qadi turned to Tahar, and said:
“You’ll have to go back to Mogador as soon as you can. I’ll tackle the people here. And never think of killing anybody. If anybody wrongs you, go to a qadi! That’s what a good Muslim should do.”
“That’s what I’m going to do, Qadi!”
“Say Insha Allah!”
And before Tahar left, in the middle of the night, he demanded to see Zahiya. To his surprise, Zahiya came out to him dressed in the takchita he had made her.
“Is something wrong?” she said, looking fondly at him.
“No, not at all! I just wanted to say: thank you for saving me from myself! I’ll be seeing you!”
“Insha Allah! Goodbye!”
And Tahar went back to Mogador. As soon as he arrived, the funduq-keeper told him that Smaïl had just inquired for him. Tahar then had a quick meal and headed for the mosque. His heart jumped when Smaïl appeared coming from the other end of the alley.
“I thought the funduq-keeper was just fooling, because today isn’t Thursday, is it?” Tahar said.
“That’s right. Today isn’t Thursday, but I am here for you only.”
“Yes, good news, Insha Allah!”
“Tell me quick!”
“Well, the Prince has charged me to give you the money, and he has sent you a letter. So when we meet later today I’ll hand over both the letter and the money to you. Are you happy now?”
By way of reply, Tahar wore a beatific smile.
But when he read the Prince’s letter later that day the happiness went out of his face. “Do not curse Sultans!” the letter said. No more than that one line.
“What should I do now?” Tahar said, alarmed.
“Don’t do anything at all!” Smaïl replied calmly. “Did he ask you to do anything? No. He just asked you not to do something. He said, ‘Do not curse Sultans!’, so do not curse Sultans. That’s the best reply!”
Smaïl stayed in Mogador until Tahar opened up his shop.
“What else could I do for you now?” said Smaïl unassumingly the day Tahar started work in his shop.
“You helped me a lot, Smaïl! I just can’t find words to thank you. The main hurdle was the Lamine. You stayed with me until he gave me the authorization, and then you helped me find this place. I would ask you just one more favour: to go with me home for a day or two. Although the shop is up, you know, I can’t really start work until I have established relations here. You know, it takes a lot of work by a lot of people to make just one lebsa. You can’t do the whole thing under one roof, or all by yourself, unless, of course, you work for a qaïd’s son!”
“Do not curse Sultans!”
“Is a qaïd a sultan?”
“Everyone should be judged by his deeds, whatever his title.”
“When are you going home?”
“I’ll leave it to you.”
“We’ll go tomorrow morning, Insha Allah, right?”
On leaving Mogador, Smaïl asked Tahar to give him a song. Startled, Tahar burst into song immediately.
On their arrival, Smaïl asked Tahar to take him to the Qadi. “Let’s just have a cup of tea and then we’ll go to the Qadi’s village!” said Tahar.
And on their way to the Qadi’s village they came across Âmmy Dawud. “That’s why I came here!” Tahar exclaimed happily. “That’s the man I was looking for!”
Âmmy Dawud too looked happy to hear Tahar’s latest.
“I will certainly help you!” he said. “I’ll find you apprentices. I’ll find you even clients. I’ll find you everything you need. Don’t worry!”
“Thank you, Âmmy Dawud! I’ll be waiting for you in Mogador. See you then!”
As soon as Smaïl and Tahar mounted their horses and took to the road, Smaïl said in a kindly voice:
“Tahar, last time you tried to explain a tailor’s work to me. I knew that before. I knew what it took to make a lebsa. I wasn’t offended. But someone else could have taken that badly!”
“You know why? It’s because my head isn’t as full as yours. I wish I had your head, Smaïl!”
“I wasn’t born like this, Tahar. I went to school, and after school I read so many books and thought of things most people wouldn’t care about, and that has affected my health. It wouldn’t be easy for you to have a head like mine. What you know is good. Just don’t look as if you know everything! Nobody knows everything. We are all learners.”
Smaïl fell silent suddenly. But Tahar, who was not prepared for preaching now, knew that they were heading for the home of another preacher.
And as Tahar had predicted, there was no sleep that night. Smaïl seemed to have quickly forgotten his precious advice against looking as if you know everything. For he actually looked as if he knew everything. And so did the Qadi. Once their battle of big ideas had broken out, Tahar could not help nodding off every now and then, until he heard the Qadi say, “Smaïl, you’re a genius! If you weren’t married, I would give you my youngest and dearest daughter!”
So the Qadi reserved his youngest and dearest daughter for someone else, and Tahar and Smaïl went back to Mogador.
Weeks later, Tahar was a full-fledged tailor. He became Mâallam Tahar. His apprentices called him Mâallam. His clients called him Mâallam. Even Mâallam H’sein called him Mâallam Tahar.
But that soon became humdrum. The job became tedious. There was nothing left Tahar could be keyed up about.
Tahar knew why. He was still a single man. He felt lonely. Dreams were not enough anymore. Memories, green as they may be, were not enough anymore. That was not like a woman by your side, a woman after your own heart.
And so one day Tahar left everything behind and rode back home. He went to that palm-tree by the riverbank and played on his utar. Zahiya turned up again. He waved to her and she waved back. And that was all. Tahar took his horse and returned to his work in Mogador. But he returned with a heart full of love and hope. His work became exciting again. His face became radiant again. And he went to mosque again. This time he would go to mosque five times a day. And the more he went to mosque the more he felt how lucky he had been.
And the days went on like this until one day when Tahar was moved to tears as he saw the Qadi step into the shop. “Stay where you are!” the Qadi said. “I’ll come and sit by your side.” Then the Qadi turned to the apprentices, and said, “Good morning everyone!” “Quick, go and get us tea!” said Tahar to one of the boys.
And then the Qadi and Tahar talked over a cup of tea.
“I didn’t dream you would come!” Tahar said. “Words fail me!”
“So don’t speak!” the Qadi said. “Keep your mind on your work! I’ll tell you why I came today. Well, I came to see the good man who prayed for you. You know what, this man must be a really good man. Fancy that! His prayer for my son Ali has also been answered! It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
The Qadi sighed. Tahar hesitated to ask him why.
“Ali’s going to marry Shama,” the Qadi resumed suddenly, looking vacantly into space. “To tell you the truth, I’m not happy with this marriage.”
“Why?” said Tahar in surprise.
“Why?” the Qadi sighed again. “I’ll tell you why! Ali is my only son, as you know. I would have wanted a young virgin bride for my only son. But he is nevertheless my son. I can only be happy with what makes him happy. I must share in his joy. Well, I have to leave.”
“Wait! I’m coming with you!”
“No, please! Stay where you are! I have something to do now. We’ll meet again this evening and we’ll go together to the good man. Peace be with you!”
Tahar himself gave a heavy sigh now that the Qadi had stepped out of the shop. “Was he telling the truth?” he thought perplexedly. “Or was he only trying to root out envy from my heart? How could he know I would envy his son? But why was he so upset? He should be on top of the world seeing his only son marry such a unique beauty! Would my father be so sad if I married Shama? This is strange, really!”
The evening came, and so Tahar took the Qadi to the old man.
“I just can’t help asking you a question, Qadi!” said Tahar on the way.
“Well, I saw Shama with my own eyes! I imagined you would be glad if Ali married her.”
“This Shama is a curse to her family. How could she be a blessing to mine?”
“So be quiet, please!”
And Tahar kept quiet for the rest of the night. Even when he heard the Qadi and the old man talk about him, he just made as if he had heard nothing.
The next morning, Tahar longed for the Qadi to bid him goodbye. But the Qadi, who was now smiling blissfully, took a long look at Tahar, and said:
“Do you know that Zahiya has heard of Shama?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, Zahiya is now an eager lover. She can’t wait anymore.”
“Did she tell you so?”
“She didn’t say so in so many words.”
“What do you think?”
“I think you should go along with me now and ask for her hand.”
A week later, Tahar’s family were in Zahiya’s home. The Qadi was there, too. It was agreed that Zahiya and Tahar should wed on the same day as the other boys and girls.
“Now you can go wherever you please!” said Zahiya at the end of the gathering, when she and Tahar were alone together. “I shall be waiting for you!”
“I will go, and wherever I go I’ll be carrying you in my heart!”
“You and only you!”
“You and only you!”
“Then so long! Go in peace!”
And peace it was indeed. Every day thereafter was a peaceful day. Now Tahar could keep his mind on his prayers. He could feel what he said while at prayer. He could feel that God was with him. He could now feel that God was constantly on his right and Satan on his left. “O God!” he would say. “If I had a thousand gods to worship I would worship none but You! O God I pray to You to forgive me!”
But Tahar still played on his utar. He would not care who those songs he sang now had been written for. A song is a song. It just tells what’s in the heart. And what could there be in Tahar’s heart now but love?
Gone were the days when Tahar used to sleep on the mat in that funduq room. He now slept in a comfortable bed in a small house near Smaïl’s. He did not own the house, only rented it. But Smaïl said to him, “You’ll have to take what I say on trust. This house will be yours sooner than you think!” These words sounded like a warning, but what could Tahar do but dream and work hard and leave the rest to God?
And then came the day when Smaïl knocked at Tahar’s door in the middle of the night.
“What’s the matter?” said Tahar sleepily.
“May I come in?”
Both sat on stools in the house’s small courtyard.
“I know you’ll say today isn’t Thursday,” said Smaïl. “The thing is, something cropped up and I couldn’t come yesterday.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Oh, no! There isn’t any problem at all! There are only solutions!”
“Good news then?”
“Yes, glad news! I have a letter for you.”
“From the Prince?”
“From the Prince, yes.”
“What does it say?”
“It says this, ‘Now I’ve taken the venom out of you, so you can now work for me in my palace.’!”
“I think I’ll have to speak to my bride about this.”
“Alright! Speak to her, but don’t listen to her if she says no!”
“Tahar, if you say no to the Prince you’ll be just wronging yourself and your wife. I came at this late hour because I thought you would be dreaming. And I imagined you would be pleased to hear the news.”
“Smaïl, last time you warned me against working in the Prince’s palace, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did. But I also warned you against saying no to the Prince, didn’t I?”
“Well, let me discuss the matter with my bride first.”
“I can’t stop you. Good night!”
“Won’t you stay for tea?”
“If it is ready?”
“No, it’s not ready yet.”
“So let me go back to sleep!”
Smaïl might have slept for the rest of that night, but not Tahar.
The morning came at long last, and Tahar left everything behind and rode to his village. He met Zahiya and told her about the Prince’s offer, and then said:
“What do you think?”
“Let’s go to the Qadi and ask him,” Zahiya said.
“Why the Qadi? I came to ask you, not the Qadi!”
“Wasn’t it the Qadi who told you about me?”
“Yes, it was him.”
And so they went to the Qadi and told him about the Prince’s offer, and he said, “No, don’t go!”
Tahar was shattered.
“Zahiya,” he said on their way back to her home, “a man who knows the Prince well said to me, ‘Do accept the offer without hesitation!’ And I trust that man. I am afraid, Zahiya!”
“Don’t be afraid if you’re going to marry me! Because if anything bad happens to you so will it to me. We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we?”
“But that man said–”
“Was it that man who brought us together or was it the Qadi? You trust that man, I trust the Qadi. If you think your life is your own, then do as you like. If you think your life is mine and my life is yours, then listen to me. Hopefully, I’ll be your wife and the mother of your children!”
“I shall listen to you, darling! But then you’ll have to go back to the Qadi and ask him to write a letter in our name explaining why I shouldn’t go to the Prince’s palace!”
“Leave it to me!”
Five days later, Tahar met Smaïl in his home and handed him the Qadi’s letter with a trembling hand. “Right,” was all Smaïl said, although his face gave away his anxiety.
Tahar’s anxiety was much greater. And it did not abate all the more so since Smaïl would not say more than a cold peace be with you whenever they passed each other in the mosque or in a nearby alley.
All that lasted not only days, or weeks, but until nine days before the Wedding Day. Then Smaïl ran to Tahar and grabbed his arm, and said, “Come!” And so Tahar threw a few words to his apprentices and went along with Smaïl to his home.
“Look!” Smaïl said, pointing at a chest in the middle of his guestroom. “This is your bride’s dowry! It’s from the Prince!”
“All this for me?” he exclaimed.
“No! It’s not for you; it’s for your bride! Look! This is for you.” (He gave him a purse.) “This is the money to pay for the house. Didn’t I say it would be yours soon?”
It was like a dream come true. Tahar paid for the house and took the dowry home. His family could hardly believe their eyes. “That girl is a real blessing!” his mother exclaimed, and uttered shrill trilling cries of joy.
And, at long last, came the Wedding Day. There was a drizzle on that day. And there was fantasia.
Two weeks later, Zahiya was learning embroidery in Tahar’s home in Mogador. Lying down beside her, Tahar was reading a book.
“What are you reading?” Zahiya said.
“I’m reading my story,” Tahar said.
“Yes. It’s written by the Prince’s Writer.”