In Arabian Nights: Part Five
In this eloquent, enthralling book, Tahir Shah recounts his exploits throughout Morocco as he seeks to fulfill a venerable quest: to find the story in his heart. Wandering from teeming Tangier to medieval Marrakech and Fez, Shah weaves contemporary realities, ageless characters, and eternal verities into a poignant and profoundly humanizing portrait of his adopted homeland. In our excerpt, he encounters warmth and wonder on a journey to the Sahara.
By Tahir Shah
That evening, the bus reached Zagora after three punctures and a quick stop to barter chickens at the side of the road. In the countryside of Morocco, there are tokens of modernity — transistor radios, color televisions, and plenty of mobile phones. But the essence of life has not changed in centuries. The man sitting beside me on the bus had five chickens, all trussed up by the feet. Oblivious to their show of discomfort, he pulled them down from the luggage rack and took them onto the road. He bartered them directly for other goods at a line of makeshift stalls.
One was swapped for a jar of honey, another for a bag of clementines, a third was traded for some pomegranates, a fourth for a bottle of olive oil, and a fifth for a rough wicker basket in which to carry his goods.
When I stepped down from the bus at Zagora, I was immediately attended to by a boy of about ten years. He was holding a fishing rod in one hand, and a jar of worms in the other, and he swaggered when he walked.
“I will help you,” he said.
“How do you know I want your help?”
He shook the jar of worms, and peered in to see if they were moving. “I know because you are a tourist,” he said, “and tourists have money but no wisdom.” He tapped his temple. “Nothing in their heads.”
“Who told you that?”
“My father did.”
“What does he do?”
“He sells carpets over there.”
“What’s his name?”
“And what’s yours?”
The boy shook the worms again. “I’m Sami,” he said.
A few minutes later, I was sitting in a cramped carpet emporium, across from Sami’s father. The shop was a concrete box, airless and so dusty that everyone inside coughed almost all the time. Ashraf’s face was hidden by a mask of scruffy beard and dominated by a long, hooked nose.
He poured me a glass of mint tea. “They call me the Eagle,” he said.
“Are you cruel and eagle-like with your clients?”
“No, it’s because of my nose,” he said.
I told him it had been fortunate that I had met Sami at the bus stop.
Ashraf flared his nostrils. “He was fishing,” he said.
“For river fish?”
The carpet-seller coughed hard, and gulped down a lump of phlegm. “For tourists.”
“Oh, yes, he told me that tourists have nothing between their ears. Empty heads.”
Ashraf grinned. “You are different. You are a man of intelligence,” he said. He poured me more tea.
“Well, I am also fishing,” I told him.
“For a story.”
“Then you are in the right place,” Ashraf replied. “You see, each of my carpets is a story, a window which looks into another world.”
Sami started coughing so violently he had to go outside for air. When he was gone, his father stood up and pulled down a fine tribal rug, alternating red and white lines, ivory tassels at the ends.
“Look at this one,” he said, kneeling again. “It’s a story of the desert. The sheep which grew the wool were nourished by the plants that were themselves nourished in the soil, on the banks of the Draa River. The dyes came from berries in the trees, and the knowledge to create this masterpiece came from an ancient wisdom, trapped in the memory of the tribe.”
Ashraf coughed again. “There are stories in all my stock,” he said.
“But I’m looking for another kind of story … something with a beginning, middle, and an end.”
The carpet-dealer lit a cigarette and filled the cubicle with smoke. “They do have a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he said.
“Not in the same way, though.”
Ashraf exhaled, and coughed some more. “Two things can look very different,” he said. “They can be different shapes, different colors, made out of quite different things. But to the heart they are exactly the same.”
Excerpted from In Arabian Nights, by Tahir Shah. Copyright © 2008 by Tahir Shah. Reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher, Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. In Arabian Nights is available at major bookstores and online book-selling sites. To purchase a copy, click here.
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