jeudi 21 janvier 2021



At least kings, dignitaries and rich people who lived 3,000 years ago had more wealth and comfort than many smart university graduates of the 21st century. We, people of the 21st century, have fast planes, gigantic ships, fairy-tale communication and transportation systems. Artificial intelligence is being developed every single day. 5 G is no longer a curiosity. Our present is for sure nothing compared to the future. But the Babylonians, who lived 4,000 years ago, were no less smart than us, given the means they had. It’s them who made the minute 60 seconds, the hour 60 minutes, the year 12 months, etc. The Maths of today owes so much to people who lived thousands of years ago. And then you have the Pyramids in Egypt, Petra in Jordan ; you have Pythagore, Aristotle, Avicenne, Galileo and so on. And yet, even today, we still ask questions that people asked 6,000 years ago.

Some birds have very beautiful feathers, very beautiful colours, very beautiful twitters, which other birds don’t. Why ? Some people have all good and beautiful things, which other people don’t. Why ? Where can one find answers to such questions ? Take me. I am a Muslim. I believe in the Quran. So what does the Quran tell me ?


So if I am not a believer I cannot get "a healing and a mercy". But would this be enough for me as a reward if I believe? Wouldn't I really need a healing and a mercy in a time of a crisis like this? Can anyone other than Allah grant me a healing and a mercy in a time when nobody really feels safe? But how can I believe? What should I believe?

First thing I should believe that the Quran is the Word of Allah. Then, I believe that Allah is God. Then, I believe Allah's promises and warnings.

The Quran says it's Allah who created the world. A scientific person may want material proof that it's actually Allah who created the world. Therefore, Allah talks in the Quran about the earth, the sky, the mountains, the sea, the rain, the winds, and so on and so forth. We'll see that in a moment. But why should a non-scientific person believe in all this? Allah created the world, and that's it. No. We are not made like this. We are forgetful. When we go to market to buy fruits and vegetables we think about prices, not about Allah who created them. We look inside our fridge with our stomach, not with our hearts and souls. When we open our wardrobe we don't think about (Allah who created) the wool, the cotton, the silk, etc. We don't think about our vision and hearing until our eyes and ears ache. We don't think about our heart until we are sick. So we need to be reminded again and again, as we'll see in a moment. We need to remember that Allah has something to do with our life and death. Forest fires need water to be put out. Only Allah can help us with rainfall - even though some wildfires are started by humans. Drought, which can also be caused by human activities, kills animals and harvests. Only Allah can give or withhold the rain. Allah is present in every aspect of our individual and collective lives. Our livelihood depends on Allah. So we must listen to what Allah has to say to us about our world and ourselves.

Allah is Creator of all things, and He is Guardian over all things. (39:62)

And verily We created the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them, in six Days, and naught of weariness touched Us. (50:38)

Disbelieve ye verily in Him Who created the earth in two Days, and ascribe ye unto Him rivals? He (and none else) is the Lord of the Worlds.  He placed therein firm hills rising above it, and blessed it and measured therein its sustenance in four Days, alike for (all) who ask;  Then turned He to the heaven when it was smoke, and said unto it and unto the earth: Come both of you, willingly or loth. They said: We come, obedient.  Then He ordained them seven heavens in two Days and inspired in each heaven its mandate; and We decked the nether heaven with lamps, and rendered it inviolable. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Knower. (41: 9-12)


This is serious indeed. Allah is calling on me to believe in Him as the Only God and to express my gratitude towards Him as proof of my belief. I may say I have no problem with that. I believe that Allah is my God. I am grateful to Him for all His gifts and favours. But why should I, for example, perform my prayers every day, repeating myself again and again ? Why don’t I pray only when I am free and focused ? Yes, it’s repetition. But our day is cram full of repetitions, isn’t it ? We eat and drink every day ; we go to the toilet every day ; we sleep every day, we do a lot of things every day, don’t we ? Also we make use of our vision, our hearing, our mind, our hands, our feet and much more every day. People in many countries pay local taxes on their home windows ! They pay taxes to humans for Allah’s air and sun. Wouldn’t it, then, make sense for me to give thanks to the Creator and Provider by remembering Him every day too ?

As a believer I also have to pay Zakat : OK. Zakat is meant to help the poor. But that’s the state’s job, I would say. It’s the state who should take care of the poor. I already pay taxes for that. In return for the taxes we pay every year, our state provides us with services (schools, hospitals, roads, etc) and we need all that only and only as long as we are alright and fit. What about when we begin to become unable to walk alone, unable to sit up or eat unassisted or even hear or recognize our relatives ? What could the state do for us then ? We may be even asked to pay for our funeral and burial after our death. Zakat, when I can afford it, is what I pay for eternal bliss in Heaven, where there are no economic crises, no racial tensions, no wars, no hurricanes, no wildfires, no climate change, no viruses, no fear, no depression, no death. And that does not have a price.

In the same vein, I may ask myself : why should I fast a whole month ? Good question. But, to be honest, I should also ask : how much would it cost me to spend a month in a deluxe hotel in a beautiful country ? What if I had to spend a 30-day holiday in a good hotel every year ? Then I ask myself : how much am I prepared to pay for one day –just one day– in Paradise (after my death) ? Fasting is but a symbolic price for a place in Heaven !

Heaven is no doubt great, I would say. What about my life in this world ? Can’t I be happy here too ?

Happiness means different things to different people. So how can Allah make me happy ? Well, I don’t even need to ask such a question if I believe I can do without Allah. The moment I ask what Allah can do for me to be happy I have to bear in mind what I would have to give in return. There should be some kind of covenant. When the government pays me unemployment benefits in a time of an economic crisis it’s because I, or most people in my country, pay taxes to the state. Can Allah pay me weekly/monthly unemployment benefits in a time of a major economic crisis ? Of course not. Worse, He can make me lose my job and suffer poverty even in a normal time when most people are well off. Why ? Well, it’s not a question of capability, to be sure. Allah «answereth the wronged one when he crieth unto Him and removeth the evil » (27 : 62) , which nobody else can do. And « Allah giveth without stint to whom He will. » (2 : 212) As we’ll see in a moment, it’s rather a question of faith. (…)


So let’s reflect a little bit. Is Allah good and kind and loving only when He grants us joy and happiness ? Do we really believe in Allah and the Hereafter, by the way ? What makes us different from non-believers ? Well, let’s listen to Allah again.


Only now can we ask what we should expect in return for our belief in Allah and the Hereafter. We’ll see what Allah can do for us in the life of the world. But let’s see this first.


In one of his lectures on strong believers (among prospective scholars) Abdelqader Al-Jilani (…-….) said : « (…) They keep their duty to Allah and yet they see no way (out of their hardship) ; they implore Allah and yet their prayers are not answered…as though they are non-believers ! » Unfortunately, that’s very true. It’s scary. But that’s not a problem for strong believers, who are not interested in being among the foremost when happiness is being doled out in this world, nor are they eager to be among the foremost when the heavens are being distributed in the Hereafter. يسابقون إلى الخيرات و هم لها سابقون

لم يدخلوها و هم يطمعون

Strong believers have yaqeen (strong belief) that Allah will not let them down however long and hard their trial may be, so they are willing to endure hardship(s) for decades on length, if necessary. They outdo everybody else in patience ( يصابرون) and they are ready to wait ages (until the very end of their lives) to see salvation. But Allah knows that life in this world cannot be sustained if all believers are deprived and suffering. There should be enough manpower and money to keep the economy going and society at peace. So even in a Muslim society (be it devout or depraved) you’d see that most people lead more or less a normal life. In truth, Allah would not love to see Muslims in a miserable state (يباهي بهم الملائكة ). So most people work, marry, beget children, build homes, do business as normal, etc. And like all societies there’s a small minority who would suffer from some material or immaterial depravations even in normal times –when there’s no war, no economic crisis. So to believers who find themselves caught up in such an unlucky minority the Quran stands as a thoughtful reminder (a rampart) against despair and depression.


Now that we have read all this Quran, what do we know about Allah ? Not as much as He knows about us, anyway.. All we can say is Allah is beyond compare. He does not change : the same power as ever, the same infinite knowledge, the same vigilance, the same readiness, the same Godness. Allah is God. Man is man. Allah is One. Man is too many. Man can’t even be master of the planet earth. And yet Allah remains رحيم ودود

و يجيب المضطر إذا دعاه

Allah even cares about our feelings. لا يسخر قوم من قوم تلمزوا أنفسكم بالألقاب تواب رحيم

So it’s normal if Allah does not like us to be indifferent to Him. No matter what we do, our belief in Allah will remain limited, and so will our gratitude towards Him. We can never pay our parents back for their favours, what about Allah ? But if we don’t try our best to be thankful to Allah, who should we thank ?

Allah is great and wants man to be greate too : by having more virtues than vices, by having great values, by purifying themselves. Gratitude is one great value. Prostration to Allah, for example, is an honour for man, not a belittling, a degradation or a humiliation. Prostration is glorification of Allah and sublimeness of the faithful’s conduct. Do you think Allah waited thousands or millions of years for someone like me to write something like this ? If I believe in Allah that’s a favour from Allah, not from me. If I believe in Allah I only bear witness to an existing truth. I only acknowledge a fact –whether I exist or not, whether I believe or not. Before Galileo (…-…) most people believed the earth was flat. Before Hubble (…-…) most scientists believed there was one galaxy in the world. What should be amazing to us is that this small brain which Allah created in our (small) heads has already known so much about the world. That which we can’t know we have to believe. We should admit that «و ما أوتيتم من العلم إلا قليلا » And yet Allah does not want us to believe in Him blindly. As we saw in the verses above, Allah calls on us to reflect, to meditate, to contemplate the world around us.

Even if we are lazy, or don’t have the time or the means, we don’t necessarily need to go (to) faraway places in order to meditate. Just in the nearest market, we find innumerable varieties of homegrown and imported fruits of all colours, shapes and tastes. But we often take that for granted. A good believer of our times may not be able to dive into the sea and see for himself the incredible life of fish and sea plants. He may not be able to explore the Amazon forest and other jungles or treck the high mountains or the glaciers and see how people, animals and plants live out there. He may not be a neurologist or a cardiologist or a botanist, but when he is in front of his TV screen and the like and watches documentary films or reads books, he just can’t help chanting subhanallah (God be praised) with his heart and tongue. From his safe place at home he can meditate about the vast space above and about those weak creatures living in the wildreness among wild predators and those secluded/isolated people living in extreme weather / climate conditions in uncharted country, or about the cells in his own body… Lessons from these can only strenghten the morale of من كان له قلب أو ٱلقى السمع و هو شهيد A truly good believer, who thus meditates on Allah’s infinite power and knowledge, can only become stronger and stronger. And that’s what’s meant by رحمة و شفاء (a healing and a mercy) ألا بذكر الله تطمئن القلوب

Think this through. How many times did you ever get tired, sick or demoralized/depressed ? Maybe few or several times. But how many times did you ever succeed in stopping your days and nights from being eaten away like an unemployed person’s savings ? Never. We are weak. We are mortal. Allah is God. Allah is not like us. That sounds obvious, but we tend to forget it when we are well off.

I can’t say for sure why Allah calls on His bondmen to pray Him in the watches of the night, when other people are sleeping. Probably night time helps one to focus more on prayers.

إن ناشئة الليل أقوم قيلا

But what would feel if I got up in the middle of the night and thought about the whole picture –not only my daily worries and routine ? Well, first thing I get the feeling that I am juste de passage, a passer-by. I am like a tennis ball thrown back and forth between sunrise and sunset. Sunrise throws me to sunset a,d sunset flings me to sunrise : I can’t stop time. And one day I realize how fast I’m ageing. This may bring about in me the willingness to make the best use of the rest of my life, by doing more and more good and less and less evil if I can. Even if I worship Allah in the watches of the night, He is still occupied with the rest of the world.

لا تاخذه سنة و لا نوم

For Allah it’s all DAY. Even if I make this kind of effort that many others wouldn’t care to make, what would that add to Allah ? It’s all symbolic, and Allah likes that. غفور شكور It’s a sign of love. الغفور الودود Even the best expression of gratitude can’t pay Allah back for the slightest of His favours. I owe everything to Allah, my life plus. If I am beautiful, it’s Allah who, gave me my beauty. If I am strong, it’s Him who gave me my strength. If I am smart, it’s Him who gave me my wits. If I am rich, it’s Him who provided me. If I become famous, it’s Allah makes me so.if I belong to a rich, democratic and powerful state, that’s a favour from Allah too. Whatever I am like, whatever shape I am in, it’s by Allah’s grace. Whatever good I do, it’s thanks to Him. يسابقون إلى الخيرات بإذن الله

To Him I owe my life, so His Hymn I praise , and to Him I prostrate myself. His Words I chant. To Him and of Him I say سبحان الله، و الحمد لله، و لا إلاه إلا الله، و الله أكبر، و لا حول و لا قوة إلا بالله العلي العظيم.

But I don’t stop there. If I can’t pay Allah back for His countless favours, I should pay it forward –to humankind. Allah يأخذ الصدقات , not for Himself, but for His bondmen –believers and non-believers alike. إن الله بالناس لرؤوف رحيم

الله يرزق من يشاء بغير حساب (believers and non-believers alike)

كلا نمد هؤلاء و هؤلاء

and yet He gives me the chance (and the honour) to do good, to give charity, if I can, to His bondmen, out of love for Him, as a sign of gratitude to Him, and I don’t say, like non-believers : أنطعم من لو يشاء الله أطعمه...

I try to be among those who يطعمون الطعام... لا نريد منكم جزاء و لا شكورا

Have you ever seen a nest ? Have you thought about it ? If a man and a woman take care of their offspring, they may hope to benefit from them in their old age. But when a couple of swallows takes pains in making a nest, and then takes pains in feeding and protecting these chiks, they will grow up and become full-fledged and fly away. Who will then pay back the parents for their kindness ? This is but a mercy from Allah.

It's not easy to see people let you down in the hour of need. It's not easy to see all doors closed in your face. It's painful to see yourself like a wingless, tailless bird. It's not easy to feel lonely. but trial is not the same for all. As in the Hadith, أشد الناس بلاء الأنبياء فالأمثل فالأمثلَ

Allah does not try anybody, except for a purpose that He alone knows. Trial (by ordeal) means loss and suffering. But does that happen to strong believers only? What about ordinary people struck by flooding, drought, fires, war...? Allah says: و يرسل الصواعق فيصيب بها من يشاء

Right now millions of souls have been lost to Covid. How many people learn a lesson from that? How many people lose not only an income or a loved one but their lives? In the Quran we read : أحسب الناس أن يتركوا أن يقولوا ٱمنا و هم لا يفتنون

و تلك الأيام نداولها بين الناس

ما يعبأ الله بكم لولا دعاؤكم

و ترجون من الله ما لا يرجون

It's this hope that we should treasure. That's  for believers only. Even if I had everything I wanted my happiness wouldn't or shouldn't be total in a world where I am not alone, where there are millions of homeless people, of orphans, of single mothers without income....

Besides, trial has a prize. When you succeed in a trial you are actually winning both the life of the world and the Hereafter. If I don't care about the Hereafter, if I only want happiness and joy and eternal fun here and now, why should Allah care about me?

You know, some non-believing people make nice prayer rugs for believers to pray or beautiful rosaries to remember Allah or pretty gowns to go to mosque. The makers are happy with the money they get from those rugs and gowns. But good believers will be happy with Paradise too, if they really good believers. خالصة يوم القيامة...


vendredi 16 octobre 2020





He saw the children coming. But he drew water from the well and watered his mule. Then he drank straight from the bucket and washed his face. The children were soon standing in a half circle in front of him. He met their gaze, and his face creased into a broad smile.

  “Are you from Azlu?” he said suddenly, glancing back at his mule.

  All the children raised their eyebrows.

  “I am hungry. Are you from Azlu?” he said again.

  The children looked at each other and exchanged smiles.

  “Who does that vineyard belong to?” he said, plunging his hand deep in his pockets, from which he took out a handful of coins.

  The children beamed at the sight of the coins.

  “Who can bring me grapes from that vineyard?” he said, jingling the coins in his hand. “I am hungry!”

  “Tell us who you are and we’ll bring you grapes,” said one of the children.

  “I am a hungry man,” said the man. The children burst out laughing as he went on, “My father is my mouth and my mother is my stomach.”

  “And your children?” said another child, whose eyes were still riveted on the coins.

  “All Azlu children are my children!” said the man. “That’s why I am giving you this. Here!”

  The children held out their hands each in turn as the man pressed a coin in each hand. “Now, let’s sit down!” he said.   And all the children sat down at once as if they had been told by their own fathers.

  “I said I’m hungry,” the man said. “You haven’t brought me grapes, so I’ll start eating your hands!”

  The children laughed again, but one of them sprang up and charged towards the vineyard. A moment later, he was back, holding a goodly bunch of grapes in both hands. “Here!” he said to the man, who snatched the grapes and started eating them with great zest. “You know,” he said, chewing. “I’ve gone so many places, but when I saw Azlu, I said to myself there’s no prettier place under the sun.”

  “Are you from Azlu?” said one child in a hesitant voice.

  “What do you think?” replied the man, betrayed by the hot blush that spread up into his face.

  “I have never seen you,” said the child. “But you speak like us.”

  “I do speak like you,” replied the man, “but I’m not dressed liked you, am I? You are wearing white jellabas; I am wearing a yellow turban and a sky-blue gown and white slippers.”

  “Yes,” said another child. “And you have a thick beard and a shaven moustache.”

  “And you are a hungry man,” said a third child.

  “So I look strange, don’t I?” said the man, handing the remainder of the grapes to one of the children.

  The children nodded, and some of them chuckled. The man, whose eyes had been roving from face to face, as if looking for something, suddenly fixed his eyes on one of the children and asked him:

  “What’s your name, boy?”

  “My name is Hussein,” said the child bashfully.

  “Who is your father?”

  “My father is H’mad Amgoon.”

  The man was startled. He looked as if he had come upon something he had been looking for. Amazed, the children just looked on as he suddenly sighed and said in a rather tremulous voice:

  “Tell me, Hussein, do you know me?”

  “No, sir.”

  “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Tell me their names!”

  “Ahmed, Brahim, Hassan, Yezza and Fatma.”

  “That’s all?”

  The children let out a timid chuckle, but Hussein then said:

  “I also have another brother who is absent.”

  “Where has he gone?”

  “I don’t know. I have never seen him.”

  “What’s his name?”


  A sudden smile illuminated the man’s face. And all the children listened in wide-eyed amazement as the man said, almost tearfully:

  “I am your brother Muhammad!”

  Hussein looked incredulous, though.

  “Really?” he said with a blush. “My brother Muhammad has got a nickname. Do you have a nickname?”

  “Yes. My nickname is “The Philosopher”.

  Hardly had Muhammad uttered those words than Hussein sprang to his feet and broke into a run in the direction of his home, shouting:

  “The Philosopher’s back! The Philosopher’s back!”

  And in no time the whole village –men and women and children– emerged from behind the nearest houses and surged forward, with the little children chanting: “The Philosopher’s back! The Philosopher’s back!” Muhammad let himself go as he embraced his tearful relatives one by one. He even sobbed when his weeping father took him in his arms.

  And they led him back home as they would lead a bride to her new home. His father’s house was larger than the local mosque, but there just was not enough room for all the people who came to give their best wishes  for Muhammad’s return. Muhammad was then seated among the most important village men in the most beautiful room in his father’s home.

And he answered question after question even before tea was served.

  “Where have you been all this time?” was one question.

  “I was everywhere and nowhere,” was Muhammad’s answer.

  “Didn’t I tell you?” said the first speaker, looking around the crowded room. “This man can’t give clear answers. That’s why Sheik Himi called him ‘The Philosopher’. He really is a philosopher, isn’t he? But–” He turned back to Muhammad and said, “tell us, philosopher, what did you bring with you after all these years of absence?”

  “Everything and nothing,” said Muhammad, without any note of malice in his voice.

  “We understand ‘nothing’,” said the same speaker amid the audience’s laughter, “but what do you mean by ‘everything’?”

  “I can show you ‘nothing’ by letting you look into my pockets and my bag, because you’ll find nothing in my pockets or in my bag; but I can’t show you ‘everything’, because everything is in my mind, and my mind is in my head, and I have only one head, so I can’t cut or break my head just for the sake of showing you that ‘everything’ is in my head indeed!”

  “Please! Please!” said another speaker. “Let him be! He is free. If he has everything, that’s what we wish for him; if he has nothing, that’s his own problem. Now let’s drop the subject!”

  Muhammad glanced at his father and sighed. He knew from his father’s glum face that he was not happy. So he just hung his head and prayed within himself. Soon after, the first dishes began to be set on the low tables at the men’s feet. Muhammad looked at the dish in front of him and wondered when he had last eaten such thing: chicken with rice and raisins. He sat close to the table and began to eat in silence, trying his best not to comment on what the men around him here saying.

  As evening fell, the last visitors left, and so Muhammad found himself sitting alone in this large room. He could not leave the room. He left ashamed. He knew that only his mother and two sisters and some little children –who most probably were his nephews and nieces– were in the adjoining rooms. He could hear their voices. But he could not go and sit with them. He dreaded embarrassing questions. So he just stayed with eyes riveted on the door and waited to see whether anyone would come to him and sit with him and talk to him. He waited and waited, while the noise of the few women and their children went on unabated in the rooms around. And suddenly a young woman of twenty appeared fleetingly at the door and flashed him a look of wonder. As if struck by lightening, Muhammad shuddered at the young woman’s look.   A moment later, his sister came in smiling and said:

  “Muhammad, why are you sitting there alone? Come! Come and sit with us!”

  But Muhammad was too weak to stand on his feet. He opened his lips as if to speak, but remained silent.

  “Oh, what’s the matter?” his sister grinned.

  “I–I–I am sorry,” he said at length, “a young woman didn’t know I was here and she looked in and saw me. I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t worry!” said his sister with a yapping laugh. “That’s only Yetto, my aunt Khadija’s daughter. She told me. Don’t worry about that. Come! Come and sit with us.”

Muhammad struggled to his feet and followed his sister out of the room. She led him into a much smaller room, and she had almost to guide him like a blind man when he stumbled over the doorsill. His mother and sisters and three other women laughed quietly as they saw his eyes glued to the young woman in orange and green. He could hardly take his eyes off her when his mother called to him to sit by her side. And as he sat down, his mother said:

  “I thought you would never be back. You were only twenty-four when you left us. Now you are getting on for thirty-nine. Your younger brothers have all got married. Even Hassan, whom you left as a child, got married three months ago. Only Hussein is not married yet, because he’s still too young. Look! Those are the wives of your brothers. And your sisters too are married now, and they have children…Now, tell us something about you. Where have you been? What have you been doing with yourself? Tell us, we are eager to hear from you!”

  “What shall I tell you, Mother?” said Muhammad in a quavering voice. “You know, I was always keen on learning. I felt as if I were ill. Or mad, if you will. And I felt that the only way I could cure myself was through learning. So I learned everything I could learn here, and when I had nothing more to learn here, I went away, like a madman. I went from place to place looking for knowledge. I went after knowledge wherever I thought I could find it. I was always hungry for more and more knowledge. And day by day, month by month, year after year, I found myself going farther and farther away.”

  “And where did your journey end?” said Yezza with a mocking smile.

  Muhammad looked at her tenderly and said:

  “My journey ended when I could go no further. I missed you. I missed the village. I missed its people. I missed my mother’s rice. I missed you all. And recently a friend of mine, who liked me so much, wanted to give me his daughter in marriage. And when I was about to say yes, because I liked that friend, and I knew that his daughter was young and beautiful and virgin- when I was about to accept his offer, I realized that Mother would be very cross with me if I married a girl from outside of the village. So, one day, I rose very early in the morning and I left that place without my friend’s knowing. And here I am now again.”

  “But you have come back empty-handed, I see,” said Yezza.   “How can you marry while you have no money?”

  Muhammad just hung his head in shame and fell silent.

  “Have you said your prayers?” asked his mother.

  “No,” he replied with a blush, rising to go out.

  And he shuffled out of the room. As he got outside, he cast his eyes up and saw the three-day-old crescent standing alone on one corner of the sky, south of the village. He sighed, and cursed Satan. But Yetto’s face would not leave his mind. Her dark eyes and eye-brows and little red mouth were there: inside his mind, before his eyes, and they were becoming clearer and clearer the longer he went into the darkness. They forced him to think of her.

  Here was the mosque. Six men were lounging by its door.   They were chatting, but now that Muhammad said peace be with you they all fell silent. Muhammad went into the mosque and found one man sitting in a corner and reading the Koran. Muhammad greeted him and started his prayers. And as he was praying, he found himself thinking of Yetto still. Yetto’s face would just not leave his mind.

  He finished his prayers and went back to his father’s home. He asked his sister Yezza for a place to sleep. She told him to sleep on the carpet in the guest-room, the very room where he had first seen Yetto’s dark eyes and eyebrows. He went in there and lay on his side and tried to sleep. But sleep would just not come.

  In the morning, Muhammad was sitting with legs crossed when Yezza kicked the door open and came in holding a tray in both hands.

  “Here’s your breakfast,” she said with a littler smile.

  As she put down the tray on the carpet and began to go out,   Muhammad hailed her in a shaky voice:


  Yezza stopped and turned round.

  “Yes?” she said.

  “Come closer, please. I want to talk to you.”

  Yezza sat down in front of him and said:

  “Here I am! What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

  “Is Yetto married?”

  “Yetto? Why?”

  “Is she married?”

  “She isn’t. But why are you asking me about her?”

  “I want to marry her– that’s why.”

  “What! Are you crazy? Maybe you don’t know that Yetto is the most beautiful girl anyone has ever seen anywhere. Men have come from miles and miles away and offered her father gold and silver and pearls and camels and all sorts of wealth and yet he has refused to give her to any of them. Maybe you don’t know that any man from this village who dared to voice his wish for her hand would immediately be turned into the village idiot. Yetto is a woman only a fool would dream of.   And tell me, suppose her father were willing to give her to you, what would you give her as a dowry?”

  “My mule, that’s all I have!”

  Yezza broke into derisive laughter. Then she said as she rose to go:

  “I thought you were serious. Have a nice breakfast!”

  As soon as he had had breakfast, his mother came in and said:

  “Good morning! All the village men have gone to market, why haven’t you?”

  “I shall go to market next week, Insha Allah.”

  “Alright. But please don’t leave this room until the men have come back from market! Don’t get us into trouble with the village girls!”

  “I can’t stay here in this room!”

  “Go to the backyard, then!”



  And he went to the backyard and sat on a bale of straw and leant against the trunk of an olive-tree and faced the plain rolling down to the wadi. Soon he pictured himself leaving the house with Yetto walking at his side, with her orange robe fluttering in the slight wind– walking slowly and talking in whispers as they went down to the wadi, and then making their way through that thick line of reed that almost hid the wadibed…

  He remained there musing about his Yetto, until his younger brother Hussein came to him and said that there was a man outside asking for him.

  “Go and ask Mother if I could go outside and meet the man,” said Muhammad, rising to his feet.

  Hussein disappeared for a moment and then came back with his mother’s answer.

  “She says you can meet with him in the guest-room,” he said.


  Muhammad did not know the visitor, but he instantly knew that he was from somewhere nearby, because he spoke the same Berber and he was wearing a white jellaba.

  “I just came to ask you whether you have any knowledge of Arithmetic,” said the visitor as he sat down close to Muhammad in the guest-room. “I was at the market this morning and I heard about you, and I was desperately looking for someone to teach me basic Arithmetic.”

  “Why do you want to learn Arithmetic?” said Muhammad.

  “Well, to be honest with you, I have heard of an interesting job, and I can’t get that job if I don’t know Arithmetic.”

  “Is it a job offered by a ruler?”

  “Yes, if you wish,” said the visitor hesitantly.

  “Where do you live?”

  “I live in Tushki.”

  “That’s not very far from here. But how much will you pay me?”

  “Well, as I said, I only need to learn basic Arithmetic. And I am under pressure of time. All my efforts will have been in vain if I don’t get the job within two weeks. So I will only need you for two weeks.”

  “Alright! But still how much will you pay me?”

  “I’ll give you five dirhams a day and a chicken per week, as a bonus.”

  “Done!” said Muhammad with a smile.

  The visitor smiled blissfully and rose to go.

  “I shall come to you as soon as the village men have come back from market,” said Muhammad in a satisfied voice.

  “See you then!”

  “Wait! Before you go remind me of your name…”

Muhammad showed his visitor out, and as he turned round and stepped back into the house his mother hailed him from a little way to his right, and when he stood in front of her, she said:

  “Who was that man and what did he want?”

  “That was a man from Tushki. He wanted me to teach him how to make calculations so that he could get a job, as he said.”

  “How much will he pay you?”

  “Five dirhams a day, plus a chicken per week, he said.”

  “And you’ll take the job?”

  “Why not?”

  “Alright! You can go to him, but, take it from me, don’t tell your brothers about your pay, otherwise they’ll hold you up to ridicule!”

  Muhammad smiled shyly, and moved on to the backyard. And there he stayed, thinking and dreaming, until his father and brothers came back from market. Then he joined them in the dining-room and greeted them with peace be with you and sat by his father’s side. His father smiled at him a forced smile, and said:

  “Are you still tired?”

  “I am fine, Father.”

  “Tell me, Father,” said Hassan, one of Muhammad’s siblings. “Are you really going to sell the camel to H’ssein?”

  “I’m still thinking about that,” his father began. “I’ve heard that–”

  At that moment, Yezza brought in a dish of fish and set in on the table, saying:

  “Now eat and talk afterwards!”

  Muhammad moved close to the table and began to eat in silence, while his father and brother resumed their talk about the camel.

  Immediately after lunch, Muhammad rose and left the dining-room. He performed his ablutions in the backyard and then said his prayers in the guest-room and went out. He knew that Yetto’s home was to the east and Tushki was to the southwest, but he did not know what way to take. He led his mule out of the stable and walked a short way as slowly as he could, just to make up his mind. In the end, he mounted the mule and headed southwest, to Tushki. The sun was in his eyes. The children who had first seen him the previous day waved to him now as he rode past the vineyard. The grapes in the vineyard were dark purple, almost the colour of Yetto’s eyes. Those eyes were leading him no they were teaching him new things now; they were opening up a whole new world before him now. But Yetto herself as there: back, behind him, hidden from him– waiting for a ‘fool’ to take her away from her father…

  These thoughts accompanied Muhammad all the way to Tushki. The man who wanted him was waiting for him in the doorway of his home. He greeted him with the warmest words and took his mule into the stable and came back to conduct him into a large room carpeted with a black-and-orange carpet. Tea was already there, and also cakes and almonds. And so Muhammad sat down and began his first lesson.

  The birds were flying back to their nests and night was beginning to fall hen Muhammad’s mule headed back to Azlu, the village where Yetto would soon go to sleep.

  Would she think of him hen she went to sleep? And why him? Didn’t she know anyone before him? They had seen each other only twice, twice in the same day. And then she was gone. Why had she stayed late that day? Why she of all other women?…

  These thoughts accompanied Muhammad all the way back to Azlu.

  Not a single human figure was around when he entered Azlu. Only a few late-roosting birds squealed overhead and a few roaming dogs barked here and there.

  Muhammad’s family were asleep. And none of them rose when the chained dog by the front door shook the night with its wild barks. The door was close. Muhammad did not dare open it, not from fear; but simply, he did not want to disturb anybody. He tied up his mule to a tree and took don the saddle and propped it up against the trunk of another tree and sat don on it. He looked up at the luminous crescent, then east– towards Yetto’s home.

  And there he stayed until dawn, when he rose and headed for the mosque. “Oh, if only the mosque as near her home!” he thought sadly.


  On his return from mosque, Muhammad found his father sitting under one of the trees in front of the house. He greeted him politely and squatted by his side, and said:

  “Father, I am free all morning. If you need me for any work in the fields, I can help you.”

  “No, my son,” said his father, “I don’t need your help. Don’t help me! Help yourself! That’s what I want of you. You lost so many years on nothing, my son. You wasted you’re your youth on nothing. You’ve been leading a wasted life. Now you are almost forty, with no home, no wife, no children, no lands, no money, with nothing. How long will you live on, my son? When will you start your life? Were you happy the other day when the village men made fun of you? They ere right in asking what you had brought with you after all these years of absence. Is it reasonable what you did?”

  “Father, I want to say something.”

  His father said nothing, but listened expectantly.

  “I want to marry Yetto. That’s what I wanted to say.”

  “What! Do you want me to become the village idiot? Listen and listen well! I warn you! Don’t mention that name again!   Or else go back where you came from!”




Muhammad hung his head and sighed, then he rose to his feet and moved on to where his mule was still tied up to the tree. He untied it and mounted it diffidently and rode in the direction of the wadi.

  “Where are you going?” his father said aloud.

  But Muhammad just rose on, trying his best to hold back his tears. He went past the mosque and nodded to the Imam, who was sitting alone by its door. And on he rode till he reached the reed, then he alighted and let his mule raze on the little yellowish grass along the reed edge. He himself walked a short way along the edge, thinking. He stopped and turned towards the mule. For a moment, his gaze came to rest on the mosque, then he looked down and walked slowly back towards the mule. And there he sat don with his back to the reed and ran his eye over the rolling landscape before him. “I can’t find a better place to live for the moment,” he thought. “I should build a small home here. But here exactly?” He stood up and began to walk back and forth, passing the mule in each trip. Then he stopped and faced Yetto’s home, which he could hardly see from there. He stayed standing up there until he felt tired. Then he shuffled up to the mule and pulled it gently towards a palm-tree, to which he tied it up. Then he moved a little way from the tree and lay on his back on a sandy spot. But it was not long before he rose, because the sun was becoming too painful for his face to bear. He untied his mule and dragged it along towards the mosque. As he approached the northern side of the mosque, the Imam rose and faced him.

  “You look a little bit nervous,” the Imam said. “What’s the matter with you?”

  “I just wanted to sit with you awhile,” Muhammad panted.

  “Oh, you’re welcome! Tie the beast up to that tree and come to sit by me.”

  And they sat side by side with their backs glued to the wall.

  “It’s hot, isn’t it?” Muhammad began.

  “Yes, it is.”

  “Tell me, Sheikh, when I came back I found out that many children had been born during my absence. I wonder whether anybody from the village has passed away since I left fourteen or fifteen years ago?”

  “Yes, a handful of them,” the Imam sighed.

  “Who?” Muhammad gasped.

  The Imam named the dead in chronological order, and Muhammad held his breath up to the last name. And he could not help heaving a sigh of relief when the name he feared to hear was not among those enumerated by the Imam.

  “To be honest with you,” he said at length, “I wanted to ask you about Dami.”

  “Dami? Why?”

  “Well, I know that she was about your age now when I left. So she must be old today. And I know that she was a childless widow, and she was a good woman, and she had a few plots of land and animals also. I was going to ask you about her because, honestly, I would like to have a small home of my own; but, as you see, I’m short of money, and I need a small spot on which to build a small shack. I was there by the reed edge, and I thought of building a shack with pieces of that reed. But the problem is that I need a place. That’s why I thought of Dami.”

  “I can now understand why you thought of Dami. You’re right in saying that she’s a good woman and she can help you. But why don’t you stay with your family? Your father’s home is one of the largest in the village!”

“I know. I know. But I don’t feel comfortable living under their roof. I would prefer a shack of my own close to the wadi. So, please, if you can, come along with me to Dami’s home to see whether she can give me a place to build my shack on, at least for one month or to, and, in return, I’ll be at her service I’ll help her as much as I can with the field work and so on. Will you please come with me?


  And they left the mule by the mosque and walked slowly to Dami’s. Dami lived next door to Yetto. Only a field stood between the to homes. But Yetto was nowhere to be seen when Muhammad and the Imam stood at Dami’s door.

  It was the Imam who knocked. Dami, a tall woman in her late sixties, came out to open the door.

  “Welcome!” she said. “Come in!”

  “Thanks!” replied the Imam, without stirring from his place.   “We won’t bother you much. We only came to you because this man, Muhammad Bin H’mad Amgoon, has got a problem and he needs your help.”

  “Right! But come in!”

  Muhammad and the Imam followed her across the small courtyard into a large room with a thatched roof.

  “Now, what’s the problem?” said Dami, sitting don on the blue carpet.

  “The problem,” said the Imam, “is that Muhammad wants to build a small reed shack close to the wadi, but he can’t afford a plot of ground to build the shack on.”

  “Why do you want to have a shack by the wadi?” said Dami, looking at Muhammad. “Do you want to live with the djinns?”

  “Oh, no, Mum!” said Muhammad with a smile. “I’m no less afraid of the djinns than you are. I only wish to be alone for some time. I came back only a few days ago, and I’ve found it quite difficult to get along with the village men. I need to be alone for some time.”

  “Alright. Don’t worry! I’ll give you a plot of ground very close to the reed and not far from the mosque. But who will build the shack for you?”

  “I’ll try to do it all by myself, or perhaps with the help of the Imam.”

  “Right. That’s a good idea. If the Imam helps you I’ll pay him. Is there any other problem?”

  “No,” said the Imam, who looked delighted with Dami’s offer. “That’s the only problem.”

  “Yes, Mum!” said Muhammad happily. “That’s the only problem. And I’ll never forget your help!”

Dami smiled at him, and said:

  “Now go and come back at lunchtime. You and the Imam will lunch with us. My adopted son, who is now out in the pastures, will lunch with you.”

  “Thanks!” said Muhammad and the Imam in unison.


  At midday, the Imam –who was also the muezzin– called (the village men) to prayer. But nobody answered his call. “They only come for dusk prayers, when they have finished all their work,” he commented, waving to Muhammad to join him in prayer.

  Immediately after midday prayers, Muhammad untied his mule and dragged it along, while the Imam walked at his side towards Dami’s home.

  “Where’s the saddle?” the Imam asked as they started off.

  “I left it at home.”

  “And why are you bringing the mule with you– we’re only going to Dami’s?”

  “I’ll go from there to Tushki. A man is waiting for me there…”

  Dami, too, saw the mule and asked:

  “Why did you bring the mule?”

  “I need it, because after lunch I’m going to Tushki.”

  “What do you have to do in Tushki?”

  “Well, a Tushki man has hired me to teach him how to make calculations.”

  “Really?” said Dami with a smile. “Can you then teach my son?”

  “Of course, I can!”

  “I’m pleased to hear that! Now let your mule graze over there and come in. You too, Sheikh! Come in! You’re welcome!”

  As Muhammad, the Imam and Dami’s son began eating, Dami suddenly emerged from a side-room and came towards them, smiling. She sat down close to Muhammad and said, holding out her hand to pick a grain of olive from the dish:

  “Muhammad, I just came to see what you would be teaching my son. Will you please teach him something now, just for me to see?”

  “Alright, Mum!” replied Muhammad affably. Then he looked at the boy and said, “How old are you, Issa?”

  “Twelve,” said Issa timidly.

  “Who told you?”

  “My mother told me.”

  “When were you born?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Say: I was born twelve years ago,” Dami put in, looking gently at the boy.

  “I was born twelve years ago,” Issa repeated after his mother.

  “Now, Issa, suppose you had a cow that gives birth to a new calf every other year, how many calves would she give you in twelve years?”

  Issa stopped eating and started counting within himself, using his fingers.

  “Five. No– six,” he said at length.

  “Good! Very good!” Muhammad exclaimed happily.

  Dami smiled a merry smile, and said:

  “I think he can learn. I’ll give him one dirham a day as long as he learns well. But tell me, Muhammad, you said you had that man in Tushki to teach, when will you be teaching my son then?”

  “I’m free all morning, Mum; I’ll meet Issa every morning when he’s out with the herd in the pasture. Or maybe we could meet up at the mosque?”

  “I think it’s better to meet up with him in the pasture. Please see to it that he learns well!”

  “Don’t worry, Mum! I’ll do my best!”

  After lunch, Muhammad took his mule and set out for Tushki. He took the path that ran only a few yards from Yetto’s home. He glanced through the first, then the second window, but nothing was there to be seen. Neither Yetto nor anyone from her family. All he could see was her white abode, with its tall trees and cackling chickens and silent dog.

  And on he rode, under a blazing sun. As he neared Tushki, a light wind began to blow from the west, and from there, too, light clouds began to sail across the sky.

  Muhammad was happy to dine with his client in Tushki, but he politely declined the invitation to spend the night there. So he took his mule and rode back to Azlu. He knew he had no home to spend the night in Azlu. But he could not spend the night anywhere but in Azlu.

  And again he rode along a path from which he could see Yetto’s home, looking dark– although the crescent above was luminous. So he rode on and on till he got to the reed edge. And there he tied up the mule to a palm-tree and looked for a spot to sleep.

  At dawn, he was at mosque. The Imam, too, was there. And no one else joined them for dawn prayers. Nobody was stirring yet when Muhammad and the Imam walked down to the reed edge with the Imam carrying in a reed basket the knives, the saws and a can of milk. As they went past the plot of ground which Dami had given Muhammad, and which stood between the reed and the village graveyard, the Imam said, “I don’t think it’s a good place for you.” “I think it is indeed,” was Muhammad’s reply.

  The sun was out when Issa appeared through the swaying reed, holding a small reed basket in one hand. Muhammad dropped the reeds he was cutting down and walked slowly up to Issa, who greeted him and handed his the basket, saying:

  “My mother has sent you these grapes for breakfast, and she invites you and the Imam to lunch today.”

  “Thanks! But where did you leave the animals?”

  “My mother is looking after them; I’m going back now.”

  “Alright! Thanks a lot. Tell your mother we’re coming for lunch.”


  At lunchtime Muhammad and the Imam performed midday prayers at the mosque and then went to lunch at Dami’s. After lunch, the Imam returned to the wadi to continue work on the reed, while Muhammad set out for Tushki, taking the path from which he could glance into Yetto’s home. Again, as he neared Tushki, a light wind began to blow from the west and light clouds began to appear across the sky.

  The next day the light wind and clouds did not wait until the afternoon. They lasted all morning while Muhammad and the Imam were busy constructing the shack.

  But when Muhammad and the Imam were heading for Dami’s for lunch, the sky was clear and the light wind was gone and it was getting increasingly hot.

  While they were eating, Dami came to them and said, looking gently at Muhammad:

  “Here are two blankets for you, Muhammad. They are a bit old, but they can do you well, I hope.”

  “Oh, thanks, Mum!” Muhammad replied almost tearfully.


  On the way back from Tushki, the wind was strong– so strong that the mule could hardly move on. And the sky was dark, with no crescent, no star. And yet, when he was entering Azlu, Muhammad could not but take the nearest path to Yetto’s home. He saw her abode, and rode on to his shack.

  The strong wind moaned round the shack all night, and so Muhammad could not sleep.

  In the morning there was yet another problem, this time with the sun. On his way to the pasture where he was due to meet up with Issa, Muhammad saw three adults and five youngsters, and they were all blinking and sweating. He himself was sweating like a bull when he sat by Issa’s side on a sandy spot under an argan-tree. Muhammad was there to give his first lesson to Issa, and also to have a chance to look more closely at Yetto’s home.

  Despite the stifling heat, he stayed out there until lunchtime, but Yetto was nowhere to be seen. He saw her father, he saw her mother, he saw her brother, but not her.

  Even when he took his mule and set out for Tushki and went past her home, he did not see her.

  “Enough’s enough!” he yelled at himself when he was back to his shack late at night. “It’s enough to drive you crazy! I left this land to learn more about the world, about life and about God. But now I look as though I don’t know anything at all!”

  Sleep carried him away for a few hours, then he stirred and sat up. And he started thinking. He thought and sighed and thought and sighed until he suddenly burst out, “Do I love God or do I love Yetto? I just want to know!”

  The morning found him sitting again with Issa in a pasture not far from Yetto’s home. He talked and Issa listened to him closely. But then Issa suudenly said:

  “Why do you always sit like this, facing that home, and each time you look up over there you sigh? Why?”

  “I like sitting this way,” said Muhammad with a blush.

Issa looked at him incredulously, but remained silent.  Muhammad took a rather long look at the boy, then said in a hesitant tone:

  “What’s special about that home, Issa?”

  “A young woman lives in there,” Issa grinned.

  “And what’s special about this young woman?”

  “They say she’s very beautiful!”

  “Who told you?”

  “I heard some boys talk about her.”

  “Have you ever seen her yourself?”


  “She’s a neighbour of yours, though?”

  “She appears to women only.”

  “Alright! Now that you’ve told me all this, Issa, I think I should be sitting like this!”

  And he turned his back on Yetto’s home, which made the boy let out a loud laugh.


  Both the Imam and Muhammad looked curiously at the man who had joined them in prayer.

  “I am from Souss,” the young man explained in standard Berber.

  “You’re welcome,” said the Imam.

  “Thank you,” said the Soussi man.

  “What took you to this land?” said Muhammad.

  “Well, that’s a funny story!” the Soussi man replied with a smile.

  “Let’s go out and then tell us your story,” said Muhammad.

  All three sat down in something of a triangle on the northern side of the mosque. Then the Soussi began his story:

  “Yesterday morning, I was waiting my turn in the barbershop at the market when you (he pointed at Muhammad) came and sat in front of me. I don’t think you remember me because you didn’t look at me in the first place. And that’s the first thing that struck me about you. Then I noticed that all those who were in the shop had something or other to say. Only you and I did not speak. If I didn’t speak, that was because I don’t quite master this land’s dialect. But I was amazed at the way you were sitting up there, silent and motionless as a dead body, sitting with downcast eyes, and waiting your turn patiently. I also noticed that you were dressed in a sky-blue gown, while all the others, including myself, were in jellabas. And as I was waiting, it occurred to me to give up my turn to you. And that’s what I did, but even then you didn’t look up at me. You only said thank you as you rose from your chair. At first I didn’t know why I did that, but then my surprise was great when I heard you say to the barber, “My moustache only.” At that moment, I made up my mind to leave the shop and lurk somewhere nearby to see where you would go and what you’d do next. My heart leapt when I saw you leave the barbershop. And then I followed you. You went to buy this jellaba you’re wearing now.”

  “And then?” said Muhammad with a smile.

  “And then I followed you as you left the market and walked rather quickly back to your shack. I stopped a good way from your shack and hid in the reed and waited to see what you would do next.”

  “This is a really funny story!” said the Imam, looking once at Muhammad then back at the Soussi.

  “Go on!” said Muhammad.

  “Yes, and then I kept hiding and watching until you left your shack for the mosque. I didn’t want to join you then, because I wanted to know more about you. But then you came back to the shack only to take the mule and ride away. And I decided to stay in my hiding place until you returned. And during your absence I took my own mule to a place down the valley, and then I went up and picked my way through the reed, trying not to leave any tracks. Then I stood as close to your shack as I could; the door was open and I could see through it; and once again I was just as amazed at your shack as at you personally. I wondered why you had chosen to have that small shack out there. And I wondered why you had gone to the market on foot while you had a mule! And I said to myself that you must be either a fool or a good scholar. So I decided to wait and see, saying to myself, “If he’s a fool, I’ll leave him right away; if he’s a scholar, I’ll stay with him a day or two to learn something from him and then continue on my way.”

  “Where were you going,” said the Imam curiously.

  “Let him finish!” said Muhammad gently.

  “Yes, and I waited and waited until you returned in the middle of the night. At that time I was shivering with cold, and I was horrified at the thought of being stung by a scorpion or bitten by a snake, and so I was about to come to you, but then I checked myself and decided to stay out there and wait until the morning.”

  “Oh!” Muhammad exclaimed thoughtfully, bending forward and taking the Soussi in his arms.

  Then both stood up and shook hands. Then Muhammad said:

  “You wanted to know whether I’m a fool or a scholar, is that right? Well, believe it or not, I myself don’t know whether I’m a fool or a scholar. It’s you who’ll tell me what I am! But tell me, where were you going?”

  “Well, I am a student. I was studying in schools in Fez. And I was going back home. I’m from Souss, as I said.”

  “Great! What’s your name, brother?”

  “My name is Hassan Tikiwin, and you?”

  “And I am Muhammad Amgoon. You’re welcome, Hassan! But I’m sorry to say that I may not be able to stay with you all day. You know, I have a small boy to teach in the morning and an adult man to teach in the afternoon.”

  “What do you teach the boy?” said Hassan impatiently.

  “I teach him how to make small calculations.”

  “Alright! Leave that to me! You and I stay together in the morning, right? And when you leave, I’ll stay with the boy all afternoon. Would that suit you?”

  “Let’s go and ask the boy first!” replied Muhammad with a broad smile.

  And as they started off, Muhammad said:

  “How old are you, Hassan?”

  “I am twenty-four years old.”

  “Are you married?”


  “Why not?”

  “In fact, I was going back home to get married and start my life as a teacher in one of the few Quranic schools near home.”

  “Who’s going to be your wife?”

  “I don’t know, really. My mother will choose one for me.”

  “When did you leave Fez?”

  “About four months ago.”

  “How long did you stay there?”

  “I stayed there for about four years.”

  “What did you study there?”


  “Such as?”

  “Well, I studied the Coran, the Haddith, the Tafsir, the Arabic language, History, Arithmetic– everything!”


  “And what about you?” said Hassan hesitantly.

  Muhammad sighed, and said:

  “I too was in Fez. I too studied the things you mentioned.”

  “Are you married?”


  “How old are you?”

  “I am almost thirty-nine years old.”

  “Were you married in the past?”

  “No, never.”

  “Have you been here for a long time?”

  “No. I came back only ten days ago.”

  “From Fez, you mean?”

  “No, from a place called Tamassna, do you know?”

  “Yes, I have heard about it.”

  “In fact, I didn’t come straight over here. I went further south to Ighmizen, where I spent more than six months. I left Ighmizen a little more than two months ago. Now, tell me, Hassan. You said you were going back home to marry and teach. What would you like to teach?”

  “The same things I was taught!”

  “So why did you stop here and wished to meet me?”

  “I wanted to learn something from you.”

  “Such as?”


  “And what if I said I’m sorry I don’t have anything more to teach you than what you know already?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Well, I have no books with me.”

  “Maybe you don’t have them on paper, but you certainly have books in your mind, don’t you? You have certainly memorized things from the time you were in Fez or anywhere else, haven’t you?”

  “Yes, I have. But the thing is that I hate to recite books.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “What I mean is this: I can discuss with you, but I can’t teach you.”

  “Alright! Let’s have a discussion!”

  “Not before we ask the boy! Hey, Issa!”

  They talked to Issa, and walked back towards the shack. And they talked as they went along.

  “Let me ask you one question, Muhammad. Why did you choose to live in that small shack? Don’t you belong to this village?”

  “I am from the village. My family lives over there.”

  “So why do you live in a shack?”

  Muhammad laughed, then said:

  “Tell me, Hassan, when you go to sleep, and you fall asleep, and start dreaming, do you know where you are sleeping? Suppose you were sleeping in a nice bed in a nice room in that nice house over there, and then someone came and moved your bed, without awakening you, and placed in gently in my shack, would you then feel any difference, before you woke?”

  “Well, I don’t think I would,” said Hassan with a little smile.   “But the problem is that you don’t have a nice bed in your shack, do you?”

  Muhammad laughed again, and gripped Hassan’s arm, and said:

  “Let’s stop awhile! Look here: imagine yourself in love with a young woman living in that house over there; imagine that the only time you could see your beloved is just after dawn, but still you can’t meet her or talk to her or even wave to her from a place as far as this; what would you do?”

  “I would most probably come before dawn and sit somewhere around here and wait for her to show up.”

  “Would you then bring with you a nice bed or armchair and ensconce yourself comfortably while you’re waiting?”

  “Oh, no!” Hassan laughed.

  “Suppose you had to do that––I mean, to come and sit down here, and wait––everyday, every week, every month– would you complain about that?”

  “I might complain, but I would just have to grin and bear it.”

  “For the sake of whom would you bear all that suffering?”

  “For my beloved’s sake, of course!”

  “So what if I chose to live in a mean shack and sleep on a rugged floor and bear my suffering patiently for the sake of He Who made me?”

  Hassan kept quiet for a moment, then burst out:

  “But why should you suffer while you can be better off?”

  “I was longing to see my family again,” Muhammad sighed.   “And, like you, I came back here in the hope of getting married with a woman from the village. I didn’t want to marry a woman unknown to my family, because I didn’t want to displease my mother. But on my return, my family were unhappy, because I had no money on me. I asked them to help me marry a young woman from the village, but they refused on the grounds that I had no money.”

Hassan looked curiously at Muhammad, then said:

  “Then, why did you stay here? Why didn’t you go to another place where you could marry? I know that many men have got married even though they had no money?”

  Muhammad sighed, then looked back at Hassan, and said with a sad smile:

  “I wish I could!”

  “What’s stopping you?”

  “Muhammad sighed once again, and said:


  “Are you in love?”


  Hassan gaped, and then fell silent.


               CHAPTER THREE


It was getting increasingly hot as the morning wore on, but Muhammad and Hassan went on walking and talking until they reached the place where Hassan had left his mule on Saturday. The mule was tied up to a shrub. As Hassan squatted down to untie it, he said, pointing to the dry pebbles to his right:

  “You know what? Three years ago, I remember, I was coming by here and I found the wadi swollen by rain, and I had to wait a solid month on the other bank before I could cross over to this side and continue on my way back home.”

  “Yes, that happens sometimes,” said looking about.

  “So you may have to move soon!” said Hassan, rising to his feet.

  “It depends. Anyway, this is just the beginning of Autumn. The sun is still painful on the body, you see. In the afternoon it will be even hotter, and, by the way, you’ll have to be patient with the boy.”

  “I’ll try! Now, let’s move!”

  They went back to the shack, and there they stayed, talking about everything and nothing, until they heard the muezzin’s call. Then Muhammad took his mule and waved to Hassan to walk at his side up to the mosque.

  The Imam met them on the northern side of the mosque.

  “Will you do me a favour, Sheïkh?” said Muhammad to the Imam.

  “I’ll do it provided you give me another chicken! By the way, the chicken you gave me last time was good!”

  “You’ll have what you want, Sheïkh, but not now,” replied Muhammad with a smile.

  “I was just joking,” said the Imam. “What’s the problem?”

  “Well, you know my shack. I can’t entertain guests in it.  Would you please give Hassan a home for tonight?”

  “Gladly!” said the Imam.

  “Thank you, Sheïkh!” said Hassan. “But I will either spend the night in your shack, Muhammad, or go.”

  “Alright!” said Muhammad. “But you know when I come back from Tushki!”

  “Don’t worry!” said theImam. “Hassan will dine with me and then go and wait for you in the shack. Now, let’s pray!”

  And they moved into the mosque.

  After the prayers, Muhammad went along with Hassan to the pasture where Issa was waiting in the shade of a tree. Hassan stayed there with the boy, and Muhammad mounted his mule and rode on. He stopped at Dami’s door. Dami came out and said she had no problem with Hassan staying with her son for that afternoon. Then she handed Muhammad a bunch of grapes and wished him good day.

  Muhammad thanked her and moved off. He cast his eyes up to thank God as he put the first grape in his mouth. And then his heart jumped when he saw Yetto’s father standing in the doorway of his home. And as Muhammad rode past that home, Yetto’s father hailed him. Muhammad turned pink as Yetto’s father stood in front of him.

  “Why do you always come this way, Muhammad?” Yetto’s father asked in a grave tone.

  “That’s because I have something to do in Tushki,” Muhammad replied in a shaky voice. “And I sometimes come to Dami’s; and, as you know, this is the shortest way to Tushki.”

  “Alright!” said Yetto’s father with a sly smile. “I feared you took this path for another reason. I’ll see what happens next! Have a nice day!”

  Muhammad tapped the mule and slipped the remainder of the grapes into his jellaba’s hood, and laid his hand on his heart.

  “What’s the matter with you?” said the Tushki man as Muhammad alighted from the mule. “Why is your face so dark? Are you ill?”

  “A little bet, yes,” Muhammad panted.

  And in the course of the lesson, Muhammad hesitated and floundered and sighed and gasped for breath. And he left as soon as the lesson was over.

  “You have always dined with us,” said the Tushki man.   “What happened to you today?”

  “Thanks! I’ll dine at home,” Muhammad replied, mounting the mule.

  The sky was dark––no moon, no stars.

  But there was light in the shack. Muhammad looked in and saw Hassan lying face downwards, sound asleep. A small lantern lay a little way from his feet. Muhammad turned round and looked down, thinking. Then he sat down just beside the door. Soon he dozed off. But only for a short while. His eyes opened and fell on a very dark space between the reeds. He kept gazing vacantly into space. Then he heard a light noise. Hassan rose and came up to the door. He looked down at Muhammad and said in a somnolent voice:

  “You look sad tonight!”

  Muhammad sighed, and said:

  “Did you dine with the Imam?”

  “Yes, I did,” said Hassan as he took a step forward and sat beside Muhammad.

  Muhammad sighed and held his head in his hands and sighed again.

  “What’s the matter?” said Hassan with a worried frown.

  Muhammad sighed once more, and said:

  “The Tushki man invited me to dinner and I said I would dine at home.”

  “Are you sad because you didn’t dine or because you lied to the Tushki man?”

  “I dined on grapes on my way back.”

  “So you are sad because of the lie.”

  “That’s absolutely it! I have become a liar!”

  “You lied because you couldn’t stay in Tushki.”

  “That’s right.”

  “You couldn’t stay there because you wanted to come back as early as possible.”

  “No. I came early because I couldn’t eat. Even the grapes I couldn’t finish them off.”

  Hassan laughed, and said:

  “I’m sorry I can’t help laughing, but what happened?”

  This is what happened: the young woman’s father warned me against taking any path close to their home.”

  “Now, I see! You are sad because of love, then!”

  “Yes, I am sad, but I am happy.”

  “What! Sad and happy? Explain!”

  “I am sad because I can’t get what I want. I am happy because I can cope with my sadness.”

  “Excuse me, but you’re talking like a philosopher. Would you please clarify that in my mind?”

  Muhammad himself laughed now, then said:

  “Well, it’s quite simple. I am sad because I can’t marry the woman I love. But despite my sadness I can laugh, I can walk, I can talk, and I can think. And when I think, I feel ashamed of myself, because I would then realize that I am thinking of someone who hasn’t given me anything. I think of the girl night and day, but she doesn’t give me anything. What about God, Who gave me life, Who gave me eyesight, Who gave me speech, Who gave me all the means to learn and think, etc, etc? The truth is that I am now thinking more of the girl than of God! Isn’t this reason enough for me to be ashamed of myself? And when I realize this and try as best I can to think of God –again– I just can’t do it. I would only find myself torn between the girl and God. I can’t help it. I wish I could forget all about the girl and think of God only, but I can’t. Every single day now I am becoming more and more aware of my contradictions. Every single day now I am learning more and more about myself. I’m becoming more and more aware of the world around me. Now, I not only see the world or hear it– I feel it. Now, I am more sensitive to beauty. Now, more than ever before, I would love to see the bright moon in the heart of a starry sky: I would love to see and hear birds twittering over my head; I would love to see water flowing in a river, with the green trees swaying gently in the wind on the banks; I would love to see trees in full blossom; I would love to see kids playing merrily on the ground around their homes; I would love to see late-roosting birds fluttering away to their nests.


  “And again, I realize that those things are just what God wants me to pay attention to. You’ve read the Koran, haven’t you, and you know that God speaks about the earth and the skies, about the rivers and the seas, about palm-trees and grapes and olives and figs and birds and beasts, and all sorts of thing. God wants us to think of those things. He wants us to think about them as a means to remind ourselves of Him. And so I find myself thinking once again of Him, although for a short while. Now, I think of God in a different way– say, in a better way. Still, I’m ashamed of myself. I know that my thoughts should go to God first. But what can I do? I am torn between God and my love.”

  “You didn’t answer my question, though,” said Hassan in a tremulous voice.” How can you be sad and happy at the same time?”

  “It seems you haven’t got my meaning,” Muhammad replied with a smile. “Let me put it this way. What’s my problem? My problem is that I can’t marry the one I love. Is that correct? I then ask myself: why? Well, when I think about it over and over again, I say to myself, ‘You can’t marry her because you don’t deserve her!’ But then I ask: ‘But she, does she deserve me?’” Muhammad laughed as he went on, “I know why I don’t deserve her; it’s because I think of her more than of God. And that’s what I shouldn’t be doing as a good Muslim. It’s God Who gave me everything. The girl hasn’t given me anything at all. And immediately, I start saying within myself:

‘Khalaqany, razaqany, âllammany, hadany.’

((God) made me; (God) provided me with the means of subsistence; (God) taught me; (God) showed me the right path.)

And as I say this again and again, my sighs cease, my heartbeat abates, and my whole body relaxes. And then I feel happy. I move from sadness to happiness. Is that now clear?”

  Hassan, who was listening closely, lost in silent wonder, now let out a laugh and said:

  “Yours is a really funny story!”

  “And let me add one thing,” said Muhammad zealously. “I am not in a hurry to get married. I would suffer a great deal more if someone else came overnight and took my love away from me. As long as she is unmarried, I will do everything I possibly can to reach her. But I would never win her and lose myself. I heard people say that lovers sometimes do crazy things and some go crazy altogether. And that is scaring me. I fear I may make a crazy mistake. But then there’s something I always hold in mind. I want to live for myself, but also for others. Meanness is the worst feature of human character, and selfishness is the worst form of meanness. Mean people don’t want to suffer for others. I am just as willing to suffer for others as for my own sake. That’s why I’ll try not to make a crazy mistake!”

  “Oh!” Hassan burst out. “I thought I had become something of a scholar; I thought I was learned enough to start teaching others. But now that I have met you, I think I should go back north to learn more.”

  “And what about marriage?” Muhammad joked.

  “I’ll wait like you waited!”


  In the morning, Hassan was about to mount his mule and go when he said:

  "Before I go, tell me, Muhammad, I've heard that someone called you 'The Philosopher'. Can you tell me why?"

Muhammad laughed heartily and said:

  "It was such a long time ago! I was fourteen years old then.   A man in his sixties used to go from village to village telling people what they should and what they shouldn't do according to the Koran and the Haddith, he said. He sort of issued fatwas, you know. And one day, I stood among the crowd who were asking him questions. And suddenly I waved to him and said I had a question.

  "What's your question?" he said.

  "What do you do with the money you collect from our village?" I asked.

  "Well," he said, "I add it to the money I collect from other villages!"

  "And what do you do with the money you collect from all the villages?" I asked.

  "Well," he said, "I buy the things I need to live."

  "And why do you live?" I asked.

  "That's enough!" he said. "You are a philosopher. May God curse all philosophers!"

  Everybody answered, "Amen!"

  "And that's all the story!"

  Hassan burst out laughing as he mounted his mule, and moved off. Muhammad kept watching him ride across the riverbed, then up the other bank. Soon Hassan went out of sight. Muhammad sighed. He stayed standing up there, wondering what to do. Should he go to Issa and risk a "scandal", now that Yetto's father had warned him? Or should he go back to his shack and sleep?

  He went to his shack. He lay on his side. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. But then he opened his eyes. Yetto was too big for his eyes to contain. Yetto had filled his eyes to bursting point. That's why he opened his eyes. But Yetto was not only inside his eyes. She was before his eyes, everywhere he looked. The shack was full of her. So full of her that he could not stay there any longer. He picked himself up and put on his scandals and shuffled up to the pasture where he would meet up with Issa.

  Issa was there, waiting patiently. Muhammad sat by his side and joked with him before he began a new lesson. He talked and Issa listened, while the animals shuffled around, until someone stood just behind them. Muhammad flung up his head and saw two eyes full of hate.

  "What are you doing here?" Yetto's father said.

  "I am teaching the boy," Muhammad replied in a broken voice.

  "Teaching him?" Yetto's father snorted. "Is this a school?"

  Muhammad turned back to Issa and said in a low voice:

  "Issa, please tell your mother I can't meet up with you here any longer."

  Issa just watched in silence as Muhammad struggled to his feet and trudged away back to his shack.

  At siesta-time, Muhammad mounted his mule and set out for Tushki, taking the farthest path possible from Yetto's home.

  He dined with the Tushki man, and joined him in prayer, then took his mule and rode back to Azlu. And he smiled as he rode on. He smiled because there was a full moon that night, and the moon was hanging motionless in the sky, just over Yetto's home, in the northeast. It all looked as if the moon was standing there on the watch lest anyone should come and take Yetto away from him, Muhammad.

  But Muhammad sighed. He knew he was only dreaming.

  And on he rode. He went past the vineyard, and took a path from which he could see Yetto's home. He peered at the home; he looked up at the moon, and smiled again, and rode on. And as he was halfway between the mosque and the graveyard, the smile faded at the sight of a fire just on the spot where stood his shack. The shack that once stood there was now in flames. Muhammad cursed Satan and jumped off and hastened to put out the flames.

  The flames were put out, and the shack was now reduced to a heap of rubble.

  Muhammad took his mule and rode away from the place, looking for a sandy spot to spend the night.

  At dawn he went to mosque. He greeted the Imam, who returned the greeting coldly. As soon as the prayers were over, the Imam sprang to his feet and left, saying his wife was ill.

  Muhammad went from place to place along the reed edge, thinking. "Why don't I go back to Ighmizen and marry my friend's daughter?" he thought ruefully. "Go!" Yetto's eyes challenged him. "What's stopping you?" But go he could not. He was now glued to this land. It all looked as if someone had cast a spell on him.

  At midday he went back to where his shack once stood. He sighed twice: firstly because he thought that Yetto's father might have been behind this; secondly, because he saw his saddle lying beside the rubble. That meant that his family too was not willing to see him again.

  After midday prayers, he fitted the saddle on the mule and set out for Tushki, taking a path from which he could not see Yetto's home.

  Three days later, he said farewell to the Turkish man and took his money and the chicken and went back to Azlu. He glanced at Yetto's home and rode on towards the heap of rubble, then rode away to where he could find a safe place to sleep.

  At dawn he went to mosque again. He greeted the Imam and handed him the chicken. "No, I don't want it!" muttered the Imam, rising to go into the mosque. Muhammad put the cackling chicken down by the door and hastened to join the Imam in prayer. The Imam left as soon as he had said his prayers. "Alright!" Muhammad thought. "You are all against me. I will turn God against you! I'm not going to leave because you want me to!" And he burst into prayer till his beard was wet with tears.



And then he picked up the chicken and mounted his mule and rode to market. As he set off, he wondered what to do with the sixty-five dirhams that warmed up his pocket. But as he neared the market, he found himself thinking of Hassan.

  As he entered the market, a beggar in ragged clothes accosted him. "Here!" Muhammad said to him. The beggar gaped at the chicken Muhammad was handing to him. "This for me?" the beggar exclaimed. "Yes!" said Muhammad with a smile. The beggar snatched the chicken and kept his fingers crossed for Muhammad, then moved away. Another beggar tripped up to Muhammad, holding out his hand. Muhammad sighed and smiled and handed him five dirhams. Then he lowered his eyes and moved on to the place where he had been heading.

  He stood there, holding the mule, and waiting patiently for someone to come and ask the price for the mule.

  He sold the mule and walked back to Azlu. "I am now free," he thought on the way. "I can sleep wherever I want. I won't be going to their no-go areas. But I won't go away from Azlu, either. Here I am and here I stay. I won't be begging anyone for food. The money in my pocket can carry me through all the winter." And he sighed. Yetto's eyes had just broken in on his thoughts. So he thought of her, until he suddenly burst out:

‘Khalaqany, razaqany, âllammany, hadany….’



  One Monday morning Muhammad was walking slowly along the reed edge. Suddenly, he stopped and his ears pricked up.   “What’s this?” he thought while he listened in amazement.   “Who could it be?” He walked on a little and stopped again. Strange sounds were coming from the place where his shack once stood. He immediately thought of Hassan. “But one man’s voice can’t make all this noise,” he thought. “These are the voices of many men, if I’m any judge.” And he walked on, quickening his pace as he proceeded. And the voices became clearer and clearer: they were men chanting:

Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”

And they were all sitting in a circle, with legs crossed and heads down, just beside the heap of rubble, and Hassan was among them. Muhammad’s eyes glistened with tears as he sat down with them and joined in the chanting. And all of a sudden, Hassan fell silent and raised his hand. All the others looked at him and kept quiet. Muhammad too looked at him, and when their eyes met, both smiled. “Here I am again!” Hassan began. “You’re welcome!” Muhammad replied in a broken voice, not knowing what to say next. Hassan took a long look at him, then said:

  “What happened to your shack, Muhammad?”

  “I came one night from Tushki and found the shack in flames.”

  “Where did you go then?”

  “I went from place to place along the reed edge, sleeping at a different place each night.”

  “How often do you come this way?”

  “Almost daily.”

  “We came yesterday and the day before, but we didn’t find you.”

  “You know, it has rained recently. My jellaba was then covered with dirt, so I took it off and washed it in the river, and I had to wait until it dried. The last couple of days were sunny, you know.”

  “Why haven’t you built a new shack?”

  “I can’t.”

  “Why didn’t you leave the village altogether?”

  “I can’t.”

  “Why not?”

  “You know why!”

  “Yes, I know. And that’s what I told these men. Some of them said you would never be back. But I was quite sure you were only somewhere around. Now I am happy to see you again. And I have brought you these nine students. I told them about you, and they all wanted to see you. And others are coming. I hope you are ready for us.”

  “I am happy to meet you. But the problem is that I have no shelter.”

  “These two men over here,” Hassan pointed at two men on his right, “have money. They can pay for us all. We’ll see how we can settle that. Now, tell us, Muhammad, why do you see:

“Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”?

  Muhammad smiled and said:

  “Well, when I say Khalaqany I remind myself that I actually exist, and that I do matter in some way, otherwise God wouldn’t have bothered to make me in the first place, and since God made me as a person, as a human being, then I have to behave in the way God had meant me to behave, that is as a human being, not as an animal. When I say razaqany I remind myself that I needn’t worry too much about the future, because God who made me also provided me with the means of subsistence even before I was aware that people should work to be able to keep themselves or their loved ones. And since God did this for me in the past, then He can also do it for me at present and in the future. So I shouldn’t worry too much about the future. When I say âllamany I remind myself that this in itself is a great gift, because not all people are literate, and not all literate people put their knowledge to good use. So I keep reminding myself that God wants me to learn more and more about Him, about myself, about life and about the world. And as I think of this, I find myself reminiscing about the past: I remember how I was and how I got to be what I am today. I remember the hardships I went through; I remember the happy moments I lived in the past; I remember the hundreds of people I got to know throughout my life; I think of those people: how they were happy or unhappy; I think about all these things over and over again, and try to soothe myself. And when I say hadany I remind myself that I have a path to follow; I have things to do and things not to do, and I wonder whether I am on the right path. And as I think this way, I blend past and present and future and try to see how I can best live the present, hoping that the future will be brighter. And that’s it!”

  “And what about love, Muhammad?”

  Muhammad sighed and said:

  “You know the story of Yusuf (Joseph), don’t you? Yusuf was the most handsome man in his time. He lived a good part of his life in a palace. For you and me, that’s happiness. But then Yusuf had the misfortune to do many years in prison. He lost maybe the best years of his youth in prison. For you and me, that’s unhappiness. But then Yusuf was released and became almost king. For you and me, that’s happiness, isn’t it? Yusuf did suffer a great deal, but in the end he died a happy man. What more could you or I ask for in his place? All you and I want is to live a happy life. God says, Nay! There’s yet a much happier life, and everlasting happy life. Suliman (King Solomon) had everything he wanted, everything a human being would ever dream of. So that’s happiness. What more could Suliman (pbuh) have sought for since he had everything he wanted? Nay! There’s yet a much happier life, and everlasting happy life. And this life was not made for Yusuf or Suliman only. It’s made for us all. Why should God give us another good life if we had a good life already? You know why? It’s because He is a loving God. It’s because He is a great God. It’s because He is a forgiving God. God doesn’t owe us anything. It’s we who owe God everything. We don’t give God anything. It’s God Who gives us everything.


  “Unfortunately, we are quick to forget God. Maybe because we don’t see God. But we do see God’s creation, don’t we? When you see a beautiful woman, all you see is that beautiful woman. If you fall in love with her, all you think of is she. She’ll become everything to you. You’ll think of her; you’ll worry about her; you’ll wish her all the best in the world– and in the end she mightn’t even think of you. She might be thinking of someone else. You love her, you give her everything, and yet she thinks of someone else. Just like God: He loves you, He gives you everything, and yet you think of someone else. But when you say, as I do, “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”, you realize that you have been burning your heart for the wrong one. And as your realization gets greater so will be your love of God. You may forget your beloved, and maybe love someone else, –who knows?– but then your love of God gets stronger with the years. One day you’ll get married, and your wife will be by your side, and then there will be ample room in your heart for God. You’ll love God more than anyone else.”


  “What do you think?” said Hassan, looking at the other students, who were listening intently.

  “I think we were right to come!” said one of the students.

  “I think we should go and bring our mules and horses from the funduq”, said another. “We have to build a school or at least a classroom here.”

  “That’s right!” said Hassan, looking at Muhammad. “We will fight, if need be, but we must build shacks or even a big house to live in while we are here.”

  Muhammad frowned. Hassan looked at him, and said:

  “Don’t you agree, Muhammad?”

  “I think it’s not easy to fight people here. I don’t know what happens next.”

  “Leave it to us!” said Hassan, rising to his feet. “You can stay here, Muhammad. The students and I will go and meet the village people and see how we can fix the problem.”

  Muhammad just watched agape as the students went in two rows behind Hassan, towards the mosque.

  About an hour later, the students came down, chanting :

“khalaqany, razaqany…”

  Muhammad sprang to his feet and met them. They were all smiles.

  “Your shack will be built again,” said Hassan with a smile.   “And we’ll build our own shacks beside yours. And we’ll build a large classroom and a mosque.”

  “But where will you build all this?” Muhammad asked, raising his eyebrows.

  “Here!” said Hassan happily. “Didn’t I say we had two rich men among us? Then, let me say that the village people took us for fools. They don’t think we’ll be able to stay here for a long time, because it has already started raining, and if we don’t go soon, the rain or the flood will drive us away! That’s what they think.”

  “So let’s start!” said Muhammad with a broad smile, turning towards the reed.

  “We’ll fetch our animals first!” said Hassan. “Come along with us.”

  And they all set off, with Hassan and Muhammad leading, chanting: “khalaqany, razaqany…”

  A few days later, the number of the students more than doubled and the shacks filled all the place between the reed and the graveyard. And so Muhammad began to worry.

  One day, the Tushki man came and stood at the door of the large classroom (which the students called school) and said he wanted to sit with them awhile. Muhammad waved him in. As the Tushki man sat down, Hassan raised his hand and said:

  “What do you think of rulers nowadays, teacher?”

  Muhammad took the hint and smiled, then said:

  "Look, brother! Rulers are just weak people like you and me. Rulers, too, suffer like you and me. They suffer because they do not always get what they want. We all –with a few exceptions– dream of wealth and fame and power and glory. And that's what most rulers are after. But then that's their own problem. I don't want to be a wealthy man; I don't want to be a famous man. I don't want to rule anybody. But I respect them because they have the courage to do things I can't do. It's not easy to rule a population. And I pity them, because most rulers stand to lose more than they gain. Rulers often change like the weather, and many lose their lives in the process.

  "And this is what fascinates me about it all. You see powers emerging, and others falling down. A kingdom rising here and a kingdom falling there. And each kingdom –be it small or big– has something to give, and once it has given that something it ceases to be. And I have noticed that the thing that all kingdoms share is –believe it or not!– knowledge. One nation or kingdom produces knowledge, and when it has no more knowledge to give, it falls down. And then comes another nation or kingdom and picks up that knowledge and takes it to other parts of the world, so that other nations would add to that knowledge. And you see nation after nation contribute to enriching our knowledge: of the world, of ourselves, and, most importantly, of God. And this is what will keep happening in the future: nation after nation will either produce more knowledge or spread it over the world through conquest, occupation or trade. And so there'll come a day when people all over the world will know God. Now, I feel that I know God already. So I needn't be a ruler, or go through all the process just to reach the same conclusion! All I hope is that our present kingdom will yield as much knowledge as possible or take it to the largest lands as possible. May God let it be so!"

  Everybody said, "Amen!" Then Muhammad looked at Hassan and said with a smile:

  "Do you have another question?"

  "No, teacher– not for now. It's lunchtime!"

  At this there were gales of laughter. Then, Muhammad started saying, “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”A moment later, the Tushki man picked himself up and left, saying in a low voice: “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”

  Late that night, Muhammad was lying on his side and thinking of Yetto when he heard footsteps approaching the shack door. He looked up and saw Hassan smiling merrily. He glanced at the lantern, then back at Hassan, who stayed standing up at the door, his face aglow with pleasure.

  "What's the matter?" said Muhammad.

  "Abdelaziz and Ismaïl want to speak to you."

  "Let them come in!" said Muhammad, sitting up.

  "Peace be with you!" said the two students in unison as they sat down between Muhammad and Hassan.

  "Peace be with you too! What's the matter?" said Muhammad.

  "We want to help you," said Ismaïl.

  "With what?" said Muhammad.

  "With marriage," said Abdelaziz.

  "Thank you!" said Muhammad.

  Then there was silence.

  "They will give you some money so that you can marry," said Hassan suddenly.

  "That would make me glad!" said Muhammad with a smile.   He was about to add something when a sudden thunder roared across the sky.

  "Will you marry, then?" said Hassan eagerly.

  "I would like to marry the one I told you about," said Muhammad, looking Hassan straight in the eye.

  "And what if her father refused?"

  "I don't know. It depends on my heart."

  "Do you reason with your heart?" said Ismaïl causiously.

  "I reason with my head, but my head gets at fault sometimes.   My heart is not always right, but sometimes it is."

  "So you have only one choice, I suppose," said Abdelaziz.

  "So far, yes."

  "You are our teacher," said Ismaïl. "And normally, a teacher of your age should be married. Honestly, many students here have talked about this."

  "I am not surprised, brother Ismaïl," said Muhammad gently.   "But I have a problem. At present, I love a woman, and this woman is not married yet. And as long as she is not married yet, I just can't get her out of my head. Otherwise, I wouldn't have stayed here long after my shack had been burned down. I can understand you feelings. Please, try to understand my own!"

  "So all we can do for you," said Abdelaziz, "is go to your beloved's father and see what he says."

  "Go to my father first," said Muhammad with a smile. "And don't go all of you! Just one man or two would be enough. If my father grants you permission, then go on to the woman's father. And thanks in advance!"

  "That's the least we can do for you, teacher!" said Abdelaziz, rising to go.

  A light rain had begun to fall when Hassan put out the light and wished Muhammad good night.

  In the morning, Muhammad was sitting alone in the reed mosque and reading the Koran in a low voice. He kept reading until tears welled up in his eyes. Then he closed the Koran and slipped it back on the shelf and went out. There were puddles here and there between the shacks. Muhammad stood looking down at those puddles, and wondered what would happen if the next days brought more rain or if the wadi brought over more water from far lands. What would happen to him and his students if there were a flood? He went on thinking as he shuffled around between the shacks. Then his thoughts shifted to Yetto. His father had told Hassan and Ismaïl that he would be awaiting them at siesta-time. All the twenty-three students and himself would be there, in his father's home, and they would talk about Yetto. Now the students were away at the market; he had stayed behind to guard the shacks during their absence. Who would be guarding the shacks at siesta-time?

  On their return from market, the students were not only twenty-three, but forty! And they were chanting: “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”

  Muhammad was astounded. His hands trembled as he embraced the new comers one by one. And suddenly, Hassan faced all the students and said:

“We have an important appointment today.” (He suddenly raised his voice over the neighing of the horses and the roars of the thunder.) “It’s nearly siesta-time. Let two of you stay in here to guard the shacks and the animals. The rest of us will go and meet the man, I mean our teacher’s father. So be prepared, May God bless you!”

  Muhammad looked at Hassan with glistening eyes, and said:

“I am proud of you, Hassan!”

  Hassan rewarded him with a smile and ran to help with clearing up the mess caused by the mules, the donkeys and the horses that the new comers had brought with them.

  And then the procession of students started off towards Muhammad’s family home, while heavy drops of rain were falling steadily and the thunder was threatening big rains.

  The procession was quiet: no talk, no chanting.

  And then the guest-room in Muhammad’s family home was packed with students, many of whom had no idea why they were there.

  Tea was served, and Muhammad’s father sat face to face with Hassan, and said:

  “It’s you who came to me earlier in the day, aren’t you?”

  “Yes, it’s me!” said Hassan politely.

  And now all the students listened intently as Muhammad’s father said:

  “You came to me and said that my son Muhammad wished to marry a young woman from the village. You didn’t know whom you were talking about. This village is cram-full of young women and girls. And I would be happy to gladden my son by enabling him to marry any one of these village women and girls. But there’s one –and only one– that neither my son nor any man like him should dream of. And that’s the one you said my son Muhammad wished to marry.”

  Hassan had just opened his mouth to say something, when Muhammad’s father rose to his feet and left the room for a while. All the students turned their eyes to Muhammad, who was looking down. Then, all of a sudden, all eyes turned towards the door, through which came in a young woman with dark eyes and eyebrows. Some of the students gaped, then muttered, “Subhana Allah!” (Praise God!) The others were simply struck dumb. “This is the woman my son wants to marry!” said Muhammad’s father, standing beside Yetto in the middle of the room, and signed to her to turn and face all the rows of. Muhammad looked up at her, and their eyes met, and his eyes kept glued to her as she turned this way and that, while Muhammad’s father went on, “This is the woman my son can never marry. Not that I don’t want him to marry her. But it’s her father who would never accept to give her to my son. Her father is free. This is his daughter; he is free to marry her off to a man of his own choosing. Nobody should blame him for that. It’s not because my son loves her that he deserves her. Love is something, marriage is something else. You can leave now, daughter!”

  Yetto shuffled out of the room while Muhammad’s father returned to his seat, facing Hassan.

  “What do you say now, man?” said Muhammad’s father, looking at Hassan, who seemed to have lost his tongue. It was some time before he could speak.

  “We don’t blame you, sir,” he mumbled. “All we want is that you grant us permission to go to the woman’s father.”

  “I warned him first,” said Muhammad’s father sadly. “Today I have warned you all. You will only suffer if you go to her father. I won’t go along with you. I won’t grant you any permission. I will be very unhappy if you go to her father. I will become the village idiot if people know that my son is struck on Yetto. But what can I do? My son wants me to become the village idiot for the rest of my life! Go if you want! I’m not stopping you!” And he burst into tears. Muhammad himself burst into tears as he rose to his feet and signed to the students to leave.




They left Muhammad’s family home and made for Yetto’s. Yetto’s father was standing in the doorway of his home. As Hassan, Ismaïl and Abdelaziz were approaching him, he unleashed his dog and set it on them.

  “I know what you came for!” Yetto’s father thundered, ablaze with rage, while his dog growled at the students, who were backing away. “But I warn you for the last time: keep away from me or else I’ll drive you away from these lands! Go! Get the hell out of here!”

  The students had already moved away, led by Muhammad.   They stood in the middle of the village. All the men and the children crowed round them. Then Muhammad stood on a rock and began a speech:

  “I am Muhammad Bin H’mad Amgoon, as you all know. I was absent for many years, and when I came back I saw Yetto, my aunt’s daughter. And I loved her without her knowing. And I wanted to marry her. I knew I had no money, but now I have some money. These men around me are my students. They have come over to me because they know I am not a fool. And today they came over with me to Yetto’s home because they knew I was not a fool. Yetto’s father has refused to receive us. We don’t blame him for that. We respect him. And I love him just as much as my father. I respect him just as much as my father. Now let the story end here! Let us respect one another! I don’t want anybody speaking ill of Yetto or of her father or of my father or of me. There is no disgrace for a man in loving a woman. There is no disgrace for a man in being denied a woman he loves. There is no disgrace for a man in refusing to give his daughter to a man he doesn’t like. Love is not a disgrace. And I am not ashamed of what I have done. And my students are not ashamed of coming with me today. That's all I had to say. God bless Azlu!"

  Everyone said, "Amen!"

  Muhammad descended from the rock and led his students out to the shacks.

  As they arrived there, Muhammad faced all the students and said:

  "I am sorry for the trouble I made for you today. As I once told my brother Hassan, when he first came to me, lovers sometimes make crazy mistakes, and some go crazy altogether. I am sure I haven't gone crazy, but I'm not quite sure whether what I did today was a crazy mistake or not. I was not going to ask you for anything. But some of you said I should have got married. And I told them that I couldn't get married as long as the woman I loved was not married yet. This is not only a question of choice. This is a not only a question of love. It's a question of faith. This is something that has to do with hope and despair. If you believe that a good Muslim should not despair, then why should I despair as long as I can hope? I love Yetto, and I hope to marry her. I know she is beautiful. I know her father dreams of a better husband for her. But why should I despair while there is still room for hope? As the Koran has it, only the infidel give up hope. So if I lose hope, then this means that I don't trust God; it means that I don't believe that God can grant my wish. Now, please, let's forget all about this. And let me hope and dream in peace! This will not affect me as a teacher. And let me once again welcome the new comers. I am happy you came to join us. Now, you can have a rest. We'll meet again Immediately after mid-afternoon prayers. God bless you!"

  Two weeks later, Muhammad was lecturing to his students on hope versus despair when water suddenly began to pour through the roof. Some of the students started to their feet. Muhammad too stood up and took slow steps towards the door. His heart throbbed as he saw the rain bucketing down. He was at a loss for words. Suddenly, Hassan walked up to him and whispered:

  "Don't worry, teacher! I'll see how to handle this!"

  “What are you going to do?” said Muhammad in a mumble.

  “We’ll move from here, if need be.”

  Muhammad turned to the bewildered students, and said:

  “I don’t think we could stay here any longer. We have to move to a safe place. Our brother Hassan will handle this.”

  All the students looked at Hassan, who raised a smile, then said:

  “Just say, ‘“Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany” and everything’s going to be alright, insha Allah!”

  Muhammad stepped outside, saying: “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”

  And all the others flowed close on his heels, while the rain went on drumming on their heads.

  A month went peacefully by, and then, one day, there was a thud. Muhammad’s heart went pitapat. A woman’s shriek made his ears prick up. He then started to his feet and hurried to the road.

  “What’s going on?” he asked the first passer-by.

  “You don’t know?” gasped the other, struggling to rein in his horse. “Ait Mimoon are on the way to invading us. Rumour has it that they’ll be here within nine to twelve days! May God help us!”

  The passer-by urged his horse on and Muhammad collapsed to his knees and held his head in his hands.

  A moment later, he struggled to his feet and trudged on. The road reeled before his eyes. “What shall I tell the students when they come back from market?” he thought gloomily.   “What shall I tell Hassan, who is from Ait Mimoon? Now Yetto is gone! Hassan, too, is gone. All Azlu is gone. What can I do? Oh, my God!” He sighed. Then, all of a sudden, he broke into a run. He flew into the reed-mosque and burst into prayer. A little later, he heard a hubbub around the mosque. He wiped his eyes and dressed his jellaba and went out. The students rushed to him, their faces sunk in gloom.

  “What’s the matter?” he said, forcing a smile.

  “A misfortune is about to befall us, teacher!” said one voice.

  “Ait Mimoon tribes are said to be on the way to Tensift, teacher!” said another.

  “Where’s Hassan?” said Muhammad, striving to look calm and composed.

  “We left him back at the market together with three other students,” said Ismaïl rather soberly. “They’re all from Ait Mimoon, you know, and they are fearing for their lives.”

  “They are right,” said Muhammad, looking down. “This is what I feared,” he thought. Then, he looked up and said:

  “Now you are looking to me for help, aren’t you? I am sorry to say I can’t help you. Let’s pray to God to help us!”

  “But, teacher,” interrupted one of the students, “time is running out! We have to do something to save ourselves!”

  “If you are anxious about your own life, then you’ll not be saved!” said Muhammad, fixing the speaker with an angry glare. Then, he turned round and said in a subdued voice,   “Those who want the Hereafter follow me!” And he set off, chanting: “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”

  And as he went along he felt that there was only one man flowing him. And that was Ismaïl, who suddenly interrupted him, “Shall I go and call Hassan back?” Muhammad turned and favoured him with a smile, and said, “No, please! Leave him alone!” Then he looked up. The other students were coming at a trot towards him. And so he had a lovely smile on his face when all the students crowded round him, and said,   “Take us wherever you want, teacher! We shall go with you!”

  “Then, let’s go in God’s name!” said Muhammad. And he set off again, with the students following right behind him, and chanting: “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”

  And there, in the middle of the village, Muhammad stood on the rock, and said:

  “O Students!

  “Now is the hour of truth. Ait Mimoon tribes are on the way to you. They are not coming to teach or preach you, but to take your lives if they can. At best, they’ll take your money and you’ll be reduced to begging. You’ll say you have no money? Alright! But you have knowledge, a lot of knowledge. That knowledge may end here, if you are killed. But if one –at least one of you– managed to escape, then he’ll be able to carry that knowledge to other people; he’ll be able to light the way for others. So now you have to choose for yourselves. As to me, I have made my choice. I shall cross the wadi. The wadi we call Igri and you call Tensift. I shall cross it together with those who are willing and ready to go; otherwise, I’ll go it alone! God Save Azlu!”

  As he stepped down, Ismaïl shouted:

  “We shall go with you, teacher! We shall cross the wadi with you!”

  Then another student shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Great!), and all the others echoed his words, then started chanting: “Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…”

  At that moment, an old man tottered towards Muhammad and said:

  “Do you really mean to cross Igri?”

  “Yes!” said Muhammad.

  “Oh, how funny! Last time I believed you when you said you were not a fool because you loved Yetto. Now I believe you are crazy! You want to cross Igri at this time of year? Go!”

The old man’s words raised a roar of laughter from other village men. Muhammad cast a last glance at them and turned his steps to the wadi, while the students filled the air with their chants. Soon Muhammad began to hear children’s voices: they too joined in the chanting.

  Once they had reached the wadi, Muhammad faced the students and said:

  “Last time you cut down the reed to build your shacks. Now cut them down to make boats. Those who know will show those who don’t. And let me remind you that God helps those who never tire of invoking His help. God Help You!”

  Then he turned to the children and said:

  “And you, dear children!

  “If you want to cross with us, please fetch us as many saws and knives and ropes as you can! I’m waiting for you!”

The children nodded respectfully and skipped up towards their homes.


  Within less than an hour, the students were busy cutting down the reed, the doum and palm-branches.

  At midday, the children lined up in prayer behind the students. And while in prayer, Muhammad heard hurried footsteps. When the prayers were over, he looked up to his right, wondering whether he was in a dream. A dozen teenage boys were standing up patiently and looking at him with almost pleading eyes. Among them was seventeen-year-old   Sêed, Yetto’s brother. Muhammad struggled to his feet and shuffled up to them.

  “Are you going to join us?” he said, his voice shaking with emotion.

  “Yes, if we can be of assistance,” said Sêed in a rather confident voice.

  “We’d be very grateful to you then,” replied Muhammad, looking tenderly at Sêed.

  “What shall we do?” said Sêed eagerly.

  “Well, we need reeds, doum, palm-branches and ropes to make boats. We’ll use these boats to cross the wadi. I know this operation entails a risk. But we have no choice.”

  “Alright!” said Sêed, glancing at the other boys.

  “We also need some food and water,” said Muhammad.

  “No problem!” said Sêed, beckoning the boys to follow him.

  Muhammad watched them with glistening eyes as they trotted away towards the other end of the village.




The next morning five boats were ready. The students, the children, the boys and many men from the village fixed their eyes on Muhammad as he stood up and faced them all.

  “Now,” said Muhammad, looking right and left, “we shall put our lives in God’s hands and try to cross the wadi. For this I need volunteers. I need brave men or boys who are ready to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of the others. I shall be the first to volunteer. I shall be in the vanguard.

  “Here are five boats. I shall go aboard one boat. This boat will go first. It will pull along another boat with a rope that ties all the boats up to each other. In fact, the second boat will be tied up with a rope to a boat from every side. The boats on the four sides will help the boat in the middle to stay steady as it moves on.

  “On our first trip, only one man will go in each boat. But if all goes well, Insha Allah, there will be five men in each boat on the four sides and one woman and two to three children in the middle boat. The women and the children will not have to row. But in each of the other boats, two men will sit on either side of the boat and the fifth will sit in front, and they all have to row and see to it that all boats are steady and moving straight ahead.

  “So –as I said– I will go first. Then three will follow me simultaneously. And the fifth will move along at my signal.

  “Now, who’s going with me?”

  “Me!” said Ismaïl, raising his hand.

  “And me!” said Sêed zealously.

  And three more students rushed forward and lowered the boats, while the other students filled the air with their chanting, ““Khalaqany, razaqany, âllamany; hadany…” At that moment, Ismaïl took Muhammad aside and said:

  “I don’t think the women and the children would be safe in the middle boat without at lease two boys rowing the boat for them.”

  “We’ll try that out right now and see what happens. And thanks for your advice!”

  With a beating heart, Muhammad stepped into the boat and started rowing. The boat swayed a little, but it soon righted itself and moved on. Now it jerked. For a moment, it even stopped. Muhammad felt the weight of the boat that had just started off behind him. But then, little by little, his boat started moving again. And without glancing back, he raised his hand as a signal for the fifth boat to follow.

  And soon after the tip of Muhammad’s boat brushed the reed on the other bank. But he went on rowing until he got to a solid rock, on which he set foot. Then he started towing the middle boat until he clutched Sêed’s hand. At that moment, shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” nearly deafened him.

  “Now, tell me, Sêed,” said Muhammad suddenly, “did you have to row your boat?”

  “Yes, I had!”

  “Can you row back now?”

  “Yes, if you want!”

  “Good! Now, please, go back and tell the village men to join us. Tell them to help us with making the boats, the ropes and the oars. And tell them that we’ll carry the women and the children first, then the elderly, then people’s belongings, then the men and the boys, right?”

  “Right, sir!”

  “Then go in God’s name! Wait a minute! Go back in this boat, the one which I came in.”

  Muhammad did not wait there to watch Sêed step back into the boat and go over. He was on the verge of tears, and he did not want Sêed to see his tears, although they were tears of joy.   So he slipped through the reed and hid himself and wept to his heart’s content.

  Then, suddenly, there was Ismaïl’s voice resounding through the reed. Astounded, Muhammad rushed to him.

  “What’s the matter?” he said.

  “I just wanted to know where you were.”

  “Here I am! So?”

  “What are we going to do now?”

  “Well, listen! Go back to the other side! Send me four students to help me clear narrow paths through the reed so that people could move out of here. Then split up the men into small groups and show them how to make the boats, and so on. Let Sêed organize the villagers, especially the women and the children. If they ask about their belongings, tell them that we’ll carry as much as we can later on. Now go!”

  “Before I go, teacher! I have an idea!”


  “I think we can make bigger boats that could hold more than five. And I think we don’t necessarily need five boats on each trip to carry three or four people. And what if we made boats of palm-trunks instead of reed?”

  “Alright! Do what you can! Now go!”

  Muhammad was busy cutting down the reed when one of the four students with him suddenly stood up and said:

  “Look over there! The women are coming!”

  Muhammad dropped the reed and the saw and looked on as the women straggled down towards the men who were busy working on the boats. Then he tripped up to the water edge and signed to the students to send him a boat immediately.

  The boat came and he jumped into it and rowed to the other bank. All eyes were on him, but his eyes were fixed on the women. Sêed rushed to him.

  “What are we going to do now, sir?” he said.

  “We’ll start evacuating the women and the children,” said Muhammad. “But tell me, where’s Yetto?”

  “I don’t know,” said Sêed in surprise.

  “Will you please look for her and keep an eye on her? I am worried about her.”

  “Don’t worry about her, sir!”

  Then Muhammad turned to the men, and sighed. He saw his own father among them. He rushed to his side and squatted down, and said:

  “Father, please try to persuade all reluctant men to cross with us. Everything’s going to be alright, Insha Allah!”

  His father went on with his work and said nothing.

  At that moment, someone cried:

  “Hassan is back! Hassan is back!”

  Muhammad started to his feet and looked around. His eyes met Hassan’s. Muhammad smiled and opened his arms.  Hassan rushed to him like a child.

  “I am sorry,” said Hassan in a low voice as Muhammad let go of him. “I–I–”

  “Skip it!” replied Muhammad. “Now get down to work! Ismaïl will show you what to do. But tell me, where are the others who were with you?”

  “They’re hiding out there!”

  “Oh! Sêed, go and tell them to come at once!”


  A little later, a woman and two small children went down to the wadi. Ismaïl and Hassan helped them into one of the five boats that were rigged up for them. And then two teenage boys jumped into the boat, and each sat on one side and grasped the oar. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” blended with trilling cries of joy as the five boats sailed smoothly across the wadi.

  The people in the middle boat arrived safely, and so Muhammad turned to the students and said:

  "Thank God everything's gone well. Now, please, I want most of the women and the children carried across before dusk."

  "Right, teacher!"

  Muhammad moved on along the edge, thinking. Then, suddenly, Ismaïl caught up on him, and said in a tremulous voice.


  "Yes?" said Muhammad, startled.

  "Do you trust Hassan?"

  "Why, he's a great leader!"

  "But he's from Aït Mimoon!"


  "I am worried."

  "I have a plan. Don't worry!"

Ismaïl turned to go. Muhammad looked on in silence. Then his gaze shifted to Hassan, who was helping the women and the children crowding round for a lift to safety. Muhammad moved on. Hassan saw him approaching. Their eyes met. Muhammad waved to him.

  "You want me?" cried Hassan in surprise.

  Muhammad nodded. Hassan shuffled up to him.

  "What's the matter, teacher?" he said.

  "I want you to cross to the other side," said Muhammad in a rather shaky voice.

  "Don't you trust me, Muhammad?"

  "Are you going to cross or not?"

  Muhammad was trembling all over.

  "No!" said Hassan, moving away towards the women.

Muhammad cursed himself for what looked like on a gaffe on his part, and moved on towards Ismaïl. Heartbroken, Muhammad put his arm round Ismaïl and led him towards a grassy spot.

  "Now, let's sit down!" said Muhammad, his face ablaze with embarrassment.

  "Right, teacher!" said Ismaïl reassuringly as both sat down.

  "Now, what I'm going to tell you is for your eyes only. Listen well!..." And so Muhammad told Ismaïl all he had to do once he got to the other bank, then said, "Now go in God's name!   And don't care of Hassan or anybody else! If I'm gone, it's you who'll lead the people!"

  Ismaïl crossed the wadi. Hassan rushed to Muhammad and said:

  "I'm sorry, teacher!"

  "Never mind!" said Muhammad, moving away.

  Sêed hailed him.

  "What's the matter?" said Muhammad, his heart beating fit to burst.

  "Yetto doesn't want to cross with us!"

  "Where is she?" Muhammad gasped.

  "She's up there!"

  Muhammad trotted over to her. She was standing aloof from the other women, who were busy cooking.

  "S–S–S–Sêed told me y–y–y–you're not going to cross with us. Is that true?" Muhammad stammered.



  "I am scared."

  "Oh, Yetto! Don't be afraid! I'll cross with you in the same boat. Come along!"

  Yetto picked up her bundle and walked behind Muhammad, who turned to Sêed and said:

  "Go and get Hassan's boat ready for us!"


  As Sêed moved off, Muhammad turned to Yetto and said in a shaky voice:

  "We'll take a large boat, Yetto. Don't fear anything! But what's that you're holding in your arms?"

  “It’s my personal belongings.”

  “Oh, no, Yetto! Leave that bundle over here! We’ll carry all the belongings later on.”

  “I can’t. I must take it with me!”


  Muhammad was too weak to finish his sentence. For at that moment Yetto lowered her veil and looked him straight in the eye.

  Muhammad held the boat while Sêed helped Yetto into it. Then Muhammad stepped into the boat and sat close to Yetto and started rowing. Now, Yetto had removed most of the veil, and so Muhammad could see more of her face again. And he searched that face for some sign of affection. That sign did not come out until he stood on the solid rock to help her out of the boat. She then smiled a smile that sent his heart fluttering, and said, “Thank you! My bundle, please!” Sêed handed him the bundle and he passed it on to her with trembling hands.

  Muhammad felt on top of the world as he walked slowly between Yetto and her brother along the empty path. But hardly had they reached the place where the evacuated women and children were lounging when an angry crowd flew to them, cutting across the ploughed fields. Ismaïl too and the other four students joined the lot of them.

  “What are you doing here on our lands?” said one voice.

  “We fled an imminent invasion by Aït Mimoon,” said Ismaïl, panting.

  “Where are Aït Mimoon?” said the voice in an angry tone.   “We only see Azlu people!”

  Muhammad raised his hand and waited until the uproar subsided. Then he said:

  “O Men! Please give us a chance! Try to wait two weeks, no more! If Aït Mimoon come, then help us until they go. If they don’t come, then we shall go back to our village and make it up to you for all the damage we’re doing to your lands now.  So please be patient with us!”

  “Alright!” said one voice. “Let’s wait and see!”




As the crowd were moving away, one woman rushed to Muhammad and said:

  “Muhammad, we are hungry! The children are hungry. We women can wait, but the children can’t!”

  Muhammad turned to Ismaïl and said:

  “Ismaïl, please go to those men and see what they can do about this!”

  “Right, teacher!”

  Not only Ismaïl, but all the other four students and Sêed hurried after the crowd. Muhammad glanced at Yetto. She had sat with the women. He shuffled up to her. She met his eye as he said in a quivering voice:

  “Yetto, I expect you to look after the women and their children!”

  “Alright!” Yetto smiled. “Bring my mother over and I’ll wait on them hand and foot!”

  Her words drew a laugh from the women around her. Muhammad looked at her tenderly, then glanced at the other women and moved away.


  As he stood on the reed edge and ran his eye over the south bank, his heart throbbed again. He saw more people coming from other places than Azlu, and wondered what to do with them. His gaze shifted to the boats coming in his direction: they were carrying more women and children.

  By sunset the next day all Azlu women and children were on the north side of the wadi, while women and children from the neighbouring villages were still being evacuated.

  Three days later, all that could be moved from Azlu was on the north bank. The women, the children and the elderly were taken to a safe place far from the bank. The village men and boys and the students helped the people from other villages.


  Then, Muhammad ordered all boats but one pulled out.

  And then Muhammad signed to Hassan to set fire to the reed on the south bank. The fire was raging through the reed when Muhammad yelled out:

  “Hey! Hassan! They’re coming! Aït Mimoon are coming! Get out of there! Make haste!”

  Hassan picked his way through the flaming reed and limped over to the only remaining boat and jumped into it and rowed towards Muhammad, who was cheering him on and on till he set foot on the solid rock, and then both slipped along the empty path.

  “What are we going to do with the other people who’re still there?” said Hassan, panting.

  “Nothing. God help them!”

Ismaïl saw Muhammad and Hassan and rushed to them. He looked at Hassan’s face, blackened with smoke, and at his jellaba, which was in holes. Muhammad smiled, then said rather gravely:

  “Look here, brothers! I wish we could help everybody. But given where we are now we must act sensibly. We must burn up all the reed on the other bank. We must put out all floating boats and take them to pieces immediately. I expect you to persuade the people out there. Tell them that we won’t let their loved ones down. We’ll fight for them!”

  As Ismaïl and Hassan moved off each in a different direction,  Muhammad ran towards the people who had come to protest about what was happening to their lands.

  “See now?” he said as they crowded round him. “Those are Aït Mimoon settling in our village! If we don’t drive them away, they’ll wait until the wadi has subsided or dried up and then they’ll thrust forward and invade you as well! Now we’re all in the same boat! You have to join us in fighting them. Tell all the people around to prepare for war. If you don’t want to fight, then just help us and we’ll fight in your place! Just provide us with weapons and horses and feed our women and children!”

  At that moment, Azlu men too rushed to him and one of them jostled through the crowd and said:

  “Are we safe now?”

  "That's what I've been explaining to these men!" said Muhammad, looking right and left. "We are not safe yet. We have to fight. Otherwise, Aït Mimoon won't go. And even if they did go this time around, they could all too well come again and wretch us from our lands. So we have to fight them. We have to teach them a lesson! So now move your women and children out of here. Then try to mobilize all the hamlets and villages you can speak to. We are all in the same boat. Aït Mimoon are a threat to us all! So we must all unite and drive them away!"

  "But how can we–" began one man's voice.

  Muhammad did not wait to answer him. He elbowed through the crowd and ran towards the women. He stood close to Yetto and said:

  "Aït Mimoon have come. We won't let them cross over to us.  So keep calm and don't be afraid!"

  He glanced at Yetto, who was sitting between her mother and his own mother, and ran back towards the reed-edge. Then he pulled himself up short. Through the smoky flames he could see Azlu being infested with Aït Mimoon troops. It all looked as if an army of famished locusts had suddenly landed on Azlu. "Poor Azlu!" Muhammad sighed.

  As evening fell, Muhammad stood in the middle of a sea of worried faces, about a mile from the north bank of Igri.

"Now, look!" he said. "You are all men. The women, the children and the elderly are safe from danger. They are safe as long as we are safe ourselves. And we are safe only as long as Aït Mimoon can't cross over to us. We burnt up the reed on their side so that they can't make boats to cross to us. We kept most of the reed on our side so that our sentries can hide and watch the enemy. And also so that we can prepare a surprise for them. Here, on this very spot, we'll dig a ditch. We'll dig it by night so that we can drill and rest by day.

  "Aït Mimoon must know nothing about this ditch. So we'll put up a screen of reed all along this hedgerow, by which we'll be digging the ditch, which is not going to be very long, anyway. The screen of reed will hide the men while working on the ditch. As I said, the ditch will be here in the middle, so that we could move freely around it. Ismaïl knows all the details and he'll supervise everything.

  "I see you are a large crowd. That's a good thing. But Aït Mimoon have come in their thousands! We need more men; we need more horses; we need more swords and shields and spears; we need more money.

  "But above all, we need God's help. So please pray to God night and day! Trust God and He will lead you unto victory!"

Shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" were followed by chants of "Khalaqany, razaqany…"

  A week later, volunteers from all over the north bank and beyond began to pour in. Each day Muhammad saw more faces and more horses and more swords. Each day he saw the ditch going deeper and longer. Each day he heard more of "Khalaqany, razaqany…"

  But his heart was there, behind his fustat– there, where Yetto stayed with the women.

  His fustat, a large orange tent, had been pitched halfway between the ditch and the women's camp. But now that he had got a horse –just like the six students he had made his lieutenants– he could go near the women's camp as often as he wished.

  And so one day he rode over to the women's camp and called Yetto out. Yetto came up to him with a smile, and said:

  "What's the matter, Muhammad?"

  "Yetto, I think the war is about to break out. I am going to lead our troops. I may die in the battle. So I just came to bid you farewell in case we don't meet again. Now you can go back to your place!"

  Yetto uncovered her face. She opened her lips as if to say something, but then closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands. At that moment tears started to Muhammad's eyes, and so he turned round and rode back to his fustat.


  His six lieutenants joined him shortly afterwards. They sat in a half circle in front of him and looked on as he spread out a map.

  "Now, listen, please!" he said. "Look here! These two companies will stand one behind the other here, to the right. The one in front will be led by Hassan, the other by Mussa. And these two companies will stand to the left. The one in front will be led by H'mad, the other by M'hamed. And this company will stand here between the fustat and the ditch, and it will be led by Ismaïl. And this last one will stand behind us: between the fustat and the women's camp, and it will be led by Abbad.

  "Now, this is what we're going to do–”

  At that point Sêed erupted into the fustat, and said:

  "Sir, Yetto is out! She demands to see you."

  Muhammad sprang up and dashed out.

  "What's the matter?" he said, hurrying forward.

  "The women –all the women– have pleaded with me to come to you. They say please don't fight! We can't afford to lose you." She glanced at the lieutenants, who had rushed out and lined up behind Muhammad, then went on, "Please let somebody else lead the troops and stay as close to us as possible! I beseech you!"

  Muhammad turned to his lieutenants, who remained silent, then looked back at Yetto, and said:

  "Now go back to your camp! We'll settle this amongst ourselves, and I'll let you know our decision. And please don't come over here again! Now mount!"

  And he rushed forward to help her onto the horse. As she rode away, he turned to his lieutenants and said:

  "Now I'm in a real predicament!"


  That night Muhammad reconnoitred all the land that would soon turn into a battlefield. He went as far as, and along, the reed-edge; he inspected the ditch; he went round to the women's camp; then he went back to his fustat and called for the lieutenants. When they came, he made them stand in the cold wind at the entrance to the fustat and asked them the latest news. Then, he said:

  "Now go to your respective companies! You, Abbad, just stay calm and don't do anything until further notice. As to you all five, it's time for you to move. Now start simulating attacks, but don't fire a shot in their direction! Do get on their nerves! Keep them on tenterhooks! Provoke them into crossing to our side! And if they do start crossing to our side, then fall back behind the ditch line and let the enemy advance, then fly at them! Outflank them from right and left! Burn the remaining reed behind them! And drive them into the ditch!

  "Let me remind you once more that the sixth company must not move until further notice. Mind what I say! Don't let anyone go beyond the reed edge without my permission! Now go in God's name!"


  The lieutenants moved off. Muhammad went into the fustat and lay on his side and tried to sleep. But Yetto’s voice came to disturb him, no! to entertain him… He kept dreaming of her until far into the night.

  Dawn was just breaking when Muhammad was torn from his deep sleep.

  "Aït Mimoon are crossing over to us!" said Sêed in a horrified voice.

  "Keep calm!" replied Muhammad, springing to his feet. "Go to the women's camp and tell your sister to stay where she is and keep calm!"

  "Right, sir!"


  Sêed flew away. Muhammad left the fustat and untied his horse and leapt into the saddle and rode to where he could hail Ismaïl. He ordered him to fall back in order to lure the enemy into the ditch. Then he flew over to Hassan and briefed him, and went to brief H'mad, and rode away from the front-line.




He stood on top of a rise and watched as the enemy streamed through the narrow paths on the reed edge. Then their commander waved them on, and so they urged their neighing horses on while Muhammad's troops seemed to be fleeing and abandoning their positions. But then, all of a sudden, Ismaïl pulled himself up and shouted, "Allahu Akbar!", his troops shouting behind him. He then made as if to advance on the enemy, but as they were trying to meet him with their force, they found themselves falling one by one in the ditch. Hassan and H'mad's troops were soon flanking them and pushing them further towards the ditch; and the reed was catching fire at a speed that sent those of the enemy who had not crossed yet running for their lives. But then Mussa and M'hamed set their troops on the fleeing horsemen. At that point Muhammad rode down and mingled with his troops, shouting, "Make way! Make way!" And he rode on till he got to the reed edge. Then he sent two of his men off to Mussa and M'hamed ordering them to come back immediately and crack down on the troops that were already trapped by the ditch. Then he rode back towards the sixth company. "Abbad!" he said to its leader. "Yours is the biggest company, so move your troops down. If you see Mussa and M'hamed coming back, then just help them tackle the besieged enemy troops. If you find them chasing the fleeing enemy troops, then back them up and don't let the enemy attack us in the rear! And try to go four or five abreast so that the horrified enemy would think more and more of you are coming down to them! Now go in God's name!"

  Abbad saluted and shouted, "Allahu Akbar!", and waved his troops on. Muhammad stood watching until the dust swallowed them up. Then he rode on to the women's camp.   Sêed dashed forward and grabbed the halter as Muhammad alighted.

  "What's the news, sir?" said Sêed eagerly.

  "So far so good. All our troops have rushed to the attack.  Now, where's Yetto?"

  "She's inside."

  "Call her out to me!"

  Yetto came out to him.

  "How are you?" he said with a smile.

  "I am fine. But I am afraid!"

  "Don't be afraid, Yetto! We're crushing the enemy like clothes into a bag! We had dug a large hole for them and they are now falling into it!"

  "Now, what are you doing here?" she said.

  "Didn't you tell me not to fight?"

  "I did, but I wasn't expecting you to leave your troops and come to chat with me!"

  Muhammad blushed up to the ears. His smile faded. He sprang into the saddle and rode away, fuming that he had made a fool of himself. "Why the devil did I go to her?" he howled. "Now, Muhammad, you've done a stupid thing! Your troops are dying out there, and here you're going to chat with a girl! This is a great blunder, Muhammad!" But then, suddenly, he cast his eyes up and burst out: "Khalaqany, razaqany…"

  When he at long last rode back towards the front-line, there was hardly any more fighting to do. One man met him on the way and broke the news:

  "Good news, teacher! Congratulations, teacher! The ditch is now cram-full of Aït Mimoon men! And thousands of them are now in captivity!"

  "What about Hassan and Ismaïl and the others?"

  "They're all alive, teacher, but Hassan has injured one arm."

  "Where is he?"

  "I don't know, teacher."

  "Are there any other casualties?"

  "Unfortunately, yes, teacher."

  "What? Tell me!"

  "So far I know of seven Azlu men who died and also three students. The wounded are more than a hundred. Most of them are not from Azlu. Also most of the dead are from outside of Azlu."


  Muhammad's knees turned to water as he alighted, but then he trudged on towards the jubilant crowd surrounding the ditch.

  "Make way! Make way!" one voice said.

  And Muhammad thrust through the crowd. He stood at the edge of the ditch and looked down at the dead. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Then he suddenly wiped his face and looked round. He stepped up to his men and said bleakly:

  "O Men!

  "Those are Muslims like yourselves. Dig them out of the ditch and prepare them for burial. We'll pray for them as we will pray for ours. Thank God the war is over!"

  "Where shall we bury them?" said one voice.

  "We'll settle that later in the day," said Muhammad, moving away towards his fustat.

  And there, in the fustat, Muhammad locked himself in and wept his eyes out. But then there was a tumult outside. So he wiped his eyes and walked out to see what was happening.

  "We must send them back on foot!" one voice was saying.

  "We must take their women and children away from them!" said another voice.

  "What's the matter?" said Muhammad.

  "We're talking about the prisoners, sir," said one Azlu man.

  "What about the prisoners?" said Muhammad.

  "We want to send them back on foot," said the first speaker.   "They came to invade us. They came to take our houses and women and children and lands and all our belongings away from us. Now it's our right to take their horses and women and children and all their belongings away from them!"

  "Where's Hassan?" said Muhammad.

  "He's gone over to the women's camp, teacher!" said one student.

  "So wait until he comes back!" said Muhammad.

  And soon came Hassan, and with him Yetto.

  "What are you doing here?" said Muhammad, looking askance at Yetto.

  "I am a messenger," she said.

  "Who sent you?" said Muhammad in surprise.

  "The women!"

  "What do they want?"

  "They want you to take pity on the prisoners."

  "If I take pity on them and let them go now, then they'll invade us again and they'll take you away from me!"

  "Who told you I am yours?"

  "They'll take you away from your family, then!"

  "I wasn't sure I'd escape in the first place."

  "Those are dangerous people!"

  "Maybe. But they're poor people also. They fled starvation.   Their lands were ravaged by locusts."

  "So should we be starving in their place?"

  "God helped you prevail over them, so now have mercy on them!"

  "If you want me to have mercy on them, so stay here close to me!"

  "I am a woman; I stay with the women."

  "So why did you come? Go then!"

  "Not before you have mercy on the prisoners!"

  "Prisoners! Prisoners! Oh! What have you got to do with the prisoners? Do you love them?"

  "I love peace."

  Muhammad smiled.

  "You love peace," he said. "And I love you. So I'll have mercy on them!"

  "And what about us?" said one Azlu man. "What about our good men who died? What about our crops? What about our animals? What about our lands? What about our houses?"

  "Answer him, Yetto!" said Muhammad, looking tenderly at her.

  "My answer is this: take their money and their weapons and horses and leave the donkeys and the mules to their women and children. And give that money and the weapons and the horses to those who lost their loved ones, be they from Azlu or from anywhere else! That's my answer!"

  Muhammad then turned to the men, and said:

  "What do you say to that, men?"

  "I for one accept her ruling!" said one Azlu man.

  Then suddenly all the students started chanting:

  "God bless Yetto! God bless Yetto!"

  And they raised their voices until nothing else could be heard. Even Hassan, who moved about with his arm in a sling, shouted himself hoarse. Only Yetto was standing aloof and listening in silence. Muhammad was all smiles.

  An hour later, Muhammad summoned the lieutenants to his presence.

  "The war is over," he said gravely, "but a lot of problems remain. To be honest with you, I can't face these problems.  Yetto is driving me mad. I'm getting wild about her. I just can't concentrate on anything. I don't want to look silly in front of people. So please help me!"

  "What should we do?" said Ismaïl with a frown.

  "Well, there's the problem of the prisoners. There's the problem of the dead. There's the problem of the volunteers. There's the problem of the people of this land. There's the problem of the refugees. You see, there are a lot of problems."

  "Don't worry, teacher!" said Ismaïl reassuringly. "We can handle all this."

  "That's good of you!" said Muhammad. "And really I'm counting on both of you: you and Hassan. I want Hassan to deal with the problems on the south bank, and I want you, Ismaïl, to handle the situation on this side of the wadi. Mussa and H'mad will assist Hassan, and M'hamed and Abbad will assist you, Ismaïl. Now, please, the first thing I expect you to do is to prepare the dead for burial."

  "Alright, teacher!" said the lieutenants in unison.

  "Now let's go out to pray!"

  The dead were buried. The prisoners and their women and children were sent back home. The volunteers dispersed. The people of Azlu returned to their villages. And the whole village plunged into mourning.


  And Muhammad started numbering the days and nights till the village came out of mourning.

  And as he was waiting, an awful lot of people crowded round him one day.

  "What's the matter?" he said, rolling his eyes.

  "We want you to be our Sultan!" the crowd said.


  "Yes! We want you to rule over us!"

  Astounded, Muhammad turned to Hassan, and said:

  "Heard that? It fell to my lot to be acclaimed King! Oh, what a funny day!"

  Then, he turned to the crowd, and said:

  "O Men!

  "I don't think I could fulfill your hopes. I can't be king or sultan. Your King is the one in the Capital. All I can do for you is plead with His Majesty to appoint two students of mine as governors of both banks of Igri. I would be glad to see my student Hassan Tikiwin running the affairs of the people of this side of Igri. I would be equally glad to see my student Ismaïl governing the affairs of the other bank. This is all I could do for you, gentlemen!"

  "But we want to reward you for saving us from Aït Mimoon!" said one voice.

  "That's very kind of you!" said Muhammad. "There's another way you could reward me. I want to marry, but I don't have a house. Could you build a house for me, here in Azlu?"

  "Oh, yes!" said the crowd.

  "And I want a school," said Muhammad with a merry smile.   "Could you build me a school?"

  "Oh yes!" said the crowd.

  "Then that would make me glad!" said Muhammad happily.   "You can go now! May God bless you!"


  The next day dozens of men set to work on Muhammad's house. Twenty-three days later, the house was the envy of everyone. And the students were happy with their new school and mosque.

  But for Muhammad, the happy day had not come yet. The village was still in mourning.

  On the last day of mourning, the King's Envoy came with the news that Hassan and Ismaïl would become governors. He also brought over two presents: one for Muhammad, the other for his students. Muhammad's present consisted of two camels, three (bride's) dresses and a gold necklace.

  As soon as the King's Envoy left, Muhammad sent for his father and sister Yezza. His father came over and saw the camels and said, "Ma Sha Allah! Ma Sha Allah! I have never dreamt of such camels!" He then saw the house and said, "Oh! It's a little gem of a house! Ma Sha Allah! Ma Sha Allah!"

  Yezza saw the dresses and said, "Ma Sha Allah! Ma Sha Allah! Only a princess could wear this!" She then saw the gold necklace and said, "Only a queen could wear this! Ma Sha Allah! Ma Sha Allah!"

  Then both his father and Yezza looked up at him and said:

  "Now you can ask for Yetto's hand!"

  "That's what I'll be doing tomorrow morning, Insha Allah!" said Muhammad with a broad smile.

  "I shall go along with you!" said his father, his face sparkling with joy.

  But Yetto's father was not impressed, though. The whole village had come out, chanting behind the students:

  "We want Yetto for Muhammad! Give Yetto to Muhammad!"

  But Yetto's father was far from impressed.

  "How could I give my daughter to a madman?" he cried.   "This lunatic can't make a good husband!"

  "Who told you he's mad?" said Muhammad's father. "Look at these camels he's brought you! Do you know of a lunatic who has got such fine camels?"

  "What would you call one who refused to be acclaimed king?" Yetto's father retorted. "Would a sensible person refuse to be king?"

  "Give me your daughter and I'll be king!" said Muhammad, raising a laugh from all those who heard him.

  "No!" said Yetto's father. "I won't give her to you!"

  "Please!" said Muhammad.

  "No!" said Yetto's father.

  "Then I'll denounce you to the King!" said Muhammad, turning to the crowd. "Didn't he say I should be king?"

  "Oh yes he did!" said the crowd.

  "See?" said Muhammad to Yetto's father. "You put yourself in danger!"

  "It's you who put me in danger!"

  "Give me your daughter and I'll save you!"

  "No! I won't give her to you!"

  "Then I'll take her away by force!"

  "Dare you do it?"

  "Yetto!" Muhammad cried at the top of his voice. "I am Muhammad! Come out now!"

  Yetto came out running and met Muhammad's eye.

  "Go on then, Yetto, run to my father's home!" Muhammad cried.

  And she did just that.

  Yetto's father finally gave in. And all Azlu people banded together to smarten their village up with Muhammad and Yetto's marriage in mind.

  And so one night Muhammad and Yetto were left alone together.

  "Are you happy now?" Yetto said.

  "Tonight, yes! I am more than happy!"

  "But tomorrow morning you won't be happy– is that what you mean?"

  "I don't know, really. Tell me something, you don't feel good –do you?– when you're hungry. But once you've filled this little stomach of yours you begin to feel alright again, don't you? It's the same with happiness: you can't be happy or unhappy all the time!"

  "This means I'm not so important to you."

  "Oh, no, darling! Don't say that!"

  And he pressed her to him.


Mohamed Ali Lagouader (2004)