Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Fifteen


Soon after the Dusk Prayer, El-Hussein brought out two mats and spread them on the ground next to the rear wall of his grand-father’s cottage. The Poet, Marqus, Ben Mahmood and the old man sat down there and waited quietly for some men who, the old man said, would arrive very soon. The Poet was quite sure that there would be some kind of trial. His mind tried to anticipate things and his heart jumped at each grim thought. Suddenly, the expected men began to arrive in ones and twos, some on foot, others on donkeys or mules. Most of them were young, about the Poet’s age. At last they were all there, six old men and eleven young men, wearing gowns and turbans of different colours. They all sat in a circle with the elders grouped on one side. An oil-lamp stood in the middle. Some of those men darted prying looks at the Poet and Marqus. The Poet felt like a goldfinch caught in an aerie.

      Our friend the old man –Mr Larbi– cast a fleeting look at the faces around him and began a verbose speech:
      “Gentlemen. For those of you who do not know the story, I’ll tell you. These two men –Mr Salman and Mr Marqus– were slaves in Tlemsen. Mr Marqus, a Christian, served a Muslim and Mr Salman served a Jew. This Jew, May God curse him, seems to have been much afflicted at some bad news from somewhere and he, according to Mr Salman, attempted to kill his own wife and his servant, Mr Salman. But Mr Marqus intervened at the right moment and saved the woman and this man over here.” He indicated the Poet. “The woman has turned out to be a Muslim woman– from Fez, you know. When these men arrived over here with the woman she was still in a coma. Now, thank God, she’s far better than we had expected.
      “What I have said so far sounds like a children’s fairy-tale, or will you say that isn’t news? Well, what I will say right now will strike fear into your hearts. Marqus wants to take the woman away! Heard that?”
      The men present began to murmur to themselves.
      “Yes, gentlemen! Mr Marqus says he wants to take the woman away! So what do you say to that?”
      Marqus looked a bit startled, but kept quiet. One of the elders spoke:
      “But this Marqus, where does he mean to go with the woman?”
      “Ask him!” Larbi said sarcastically.
      Marqus braced himself, coughed slightly and replied:
      “I haven’t meant to do this woman any wrong, gentlemen. Look at me, scan my face: do you see any signs of villainy? I could have left her and Salman to their own destiny.”
      “Wait!” said another elder, holding up his hand. “Who asked you to save them?”
      “Salman!” replied Marqus, waving at his companion. “Ask him and he’ll tell you. He had scurried over to me with a black face.”
      The young men present burst into laughter. Larbi rebuked them brusquely:  
      "This is no time to be laughing like this. We are serious."
      The Poet, now dripping with sweat, made to speak. He wanted to save his companion. He wanted to tell these men around him that he had promised Marqus that if all went well the woman would be his. He wanted to speak. But he could not. He loved Yamna. In short, he could not tell what to do, what to say or how to begin. Finally, he remained silent.
      "But tell me," said Mussa, the elder who had spoken immediately after Larbi, "if you got the woman, where would you go with her and what would you do with her?"
      Marqus seemed at a loss. The Poet waited for him to speak, to say something. But Marqus said nothing. So the Poet swore and then spoke.
      "He wants to marry her," he gulped.
      Far from calming people down, the Poet's remark sounded like a battle-cry. An angry tumult went through the crowd.
      "See?" Larbi burst out, lifting up his voice above the tumult. "Heard that? He says he wants to marry her!" He broke into derisive laughter. The young men gibed at Marqus. The Poet was aghast that he had not picked his words with enough care. He had now trapped his friend. Another elder held up his hand and managed to restore the silence. He spoke.
      "Calm down, please," he said, turning to Marqus. "Let us hear it from his own mouth. Tell us, Marqus, have you really thought of marrying that woman?"
      Marqus nodded his head. The tumult grew wilder. Grimly, the Poet intervened again to salvage what he could, and said in the same thin, tremulous voice:
      "Marqus is a very good man, and he is willing to convert to Islam."
      The tumult died away. The Poet's heart beat fast. All the young faces turned to the elders and waited. One of the elders hastened to put a question to Marqus.
      "Is that true?" he asked.
      Marqus lowered his eyes and kept quiet. Everybody else waited. The world seemed to hang upon Marqus' words.
      "Speak!" said that elder. "Answer 'yes' or 'no'– don't hedge!"
      "No," replied Marqus, raising his eyes.
      The young faces gaped. The Poet was stunned. Marqus looked all around him, without any signs of defiance, and then lowered his eyes. The investigation seemed to be drawing to a close.
      "Mr Marqus," said Mussa piously. "You have left us no chance to help you. You have already played false to a Muslim man who had purchased you with his own money. And now you say you don't want to be Muslim and yet want to marry a Muslim woman. This cannot happen."
      "Oh how could it be?" Larbi snapped. "When has it ever happened and where has it ever happened that a Muslim woman was married to a non-Muslim? No, Mr Marqus, this cannot happen!"
      Marqus kept composed and quiet. Larbi went on:
      "We shall not punish you for the crime you committed against your Muslim master. That's between yourselves. But the woman– you'll have to erase her from your mind, at once! The best thing we can do for you is let you go away safe and sound. I can't see any leniency above this. Isn't it so, Mr Mussa?"
      "Yes," nodded Mussa approvingly. "That's right. We shall not arrogate evil motives to him. We'll simply send him away– on the understanding that if he ever attempted to touch the woman we shall bury him alive!"
      The young spectators hailed this last statement with proud cheers. The Poet was half-happy, half-tormented. Marqus kept quiet. Ben Mahmood smiled. Larbi seemed on top of the world. And, all of a sudden, a faint voice like one of a man in the throes of death vibrated. Larbi and Mussa held up their hands and called for silence. All eyes turned toward the man who had meant to speak. He was conspicuously far more aged than any one present. "Listen, please!" Mussa cried. "Haj Abderrahman would like to speak!" Everybody listened. The Poet's heart throbbed. Haj Abderrahman said:
      "I am old, you see. And I don't want to have a hand in an unjust verdict. Why don't you bring the woman over here and ask her?"
      An awe-inspiring silence fell upon the assembly. Larbi looked bewildered, and Ben Mahmood frowned. The Poet looked as if he had seen a ghost. Marqus waited. Mussa coughed and said thoughtfully:
      "Mr Larbi, I think Haj Abderrahman is right. Bring the woman over here!"
      Larbi opened his lips as if to say something. And after a while, he stood up and signed to Ben Mahmood to come along with him. During the two men's short absence, the other men, young and old, murmured rather quietly. Marqus once raised his eyes and fastened them on the Poet's face. The Poet felt dizzy.
      Yamna finally appeared and stood behind the young men and faced the elders. She was wearing a black haïk that covered all her body save the eyes and one hand. Larbi and Ben Mahmood had gone back to their seats among the men and waited. The Poet too waited breathlessly. It was Mussa who spoke then:
      “Now, who is going to ask her– you, Mr Larbi, or Haj Abderrahman?”
      “Let Haj Abderrahman ask her,” said Larbi in a rather unsteady voice. Signs of gloom were clear on his face.
      “Then ask her!” said Mussa to the aged man.
      Haj Abderrahman raised his eyes and asked in his faint voice:
      “Tell me, woman: if you had to choose from among all the men you’ve seen here so far whom would you accept as a husband?”
      Yamna heard all these words clearly because there was deathly silence. She hesitated but then said in an audible whisper:
      “Excuse me, sir. It’s all one to me. Do as you like!”
      “No, daughter,” Abderrahman urged. “Do choose one!”
      There was a long pause before Yamna gave her answer. And everybody looked up in surprise as she gasped out:
      “Salman!”
      The Poet stared at her, scarcely able to believe his ears. But all eyes turned to him. There was a quiet murmur for a moment, then perfect silence.
      “Hey men,” gasped Haj Abderrahman, “take me back to my shack.”
      “Please, Haj Abderrahman,” Mussa said shakily to the aged man as the young men began to rise up. “What shall we do to this Christian?” 
      “Give him some money and a horse or a mule and let him go away,” replied the aged man.
      And thus ended the meeting. Yamna was taken back into Larbi’s cottage. Marqus was given one of Haroon’s two horses and shown the safest way out of these lands. The hamlet men dispersed. And the Poet was allowed to stay at Larbi’s cottage until further notice.
      Within less than an hour of Marqus’ departure, the Poet’s moderate ecstasy began to turn sour. He and Larbi sat alone in the latter’s sleeping-room. Larbi seemed to have deliberately delayed the serving of dinner that night. For a good while the two men exchanged amenities and looks that spoke of conspicuous adulation. The first thing they talked of was the imposing ‘personality’ of Haj Abderrahman. Actually, the Poet still wondered at the awesome influence which that old man had over his people. Then, they talked of Marqus. Here, the Poet felt as if all his blood would go out of his heart in a second. He was bitterly ashamed that his friend had been turned adrift. He had not even bid him adieu. And then, Larbi talked of the woman– Yamna. Here, the Poet bore one thing in mind– that he had to live in amity with this vulpine-looking, unscrupulous old man. So, at first, the Poet tried to keep his thoughts to himself. And he said nothing provocative until he was astounded to hear the old man talk of Yamna as his ‘beloved’. The Poet was about to say his thoughts aloud when the old man silenced him, saying: “It’s time for dinner. Just eat well so you can sleep well!” 

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER


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