In Arabian Nights: Part Three
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
Dr. Mehdi had told me to head south from Marrakech, to Ouarzazate, and then on past Zagora, until the small town of M’hamid, the end of the road. Once I got there, he said I was to make contact with his nephew Ibrahim, who would take me to the source of the salt. He gave exact instructions on how much salt to bring back, and how to pack it up.
At Ouarzazate, I found a small hotel where the rooms were little bigger than the beds, and where the owner spent his life in the kitchen, beside a huge cast-iron pot filled with lamb stew. He was called Mustapha. He had scars on his hands from decades of stirring the pot, and a way of talking that was very pleasing to the ear. His sentences flowed like syrup, one pouring into the next.
The walls of the hotel were adorned in paintings of scenes from the High Atlas. I recognized one as the Berber bridal festival of Imilchil. There were no other customers, except for a pair of nervous Swiss tourists, who were traveling with their dog. I went into the dining room, where there was a single table. The Swiss were sitting there, tensely. When they saw me, they got up, apologized politely, and left.
Mustapha stepped out of the kitchen and said the stew was fresh. I ordered a bowl. He brought it to my table and blew the steam off the top.
“It’s very hot tonight,” he said.
I tasted it. “Delicious.”
“I call it Morocco stew.”
“But stew is not typically Moroccan.”
Mustapha licked a fresh scar on his hand. “There are a mixture of fine ingredients,” he said, “prepared with care, over just the right heat. The flavor is subtle, a little delicate, but a delight to the senses.”
Mustapha licked his hand again. “Just like Morocco,” he said.
I pointed to the painting of a Berber girl in the traditional black and white striped robe of the Atlas.
“I come from Imilchil,” he said, “we are a famous Berber family.”
When I had finished the stew, I ordered a second bowl.
He refused to charge me. “Your mouth’s appreciation is payment enough,” he said.
As I ate the stew, I told him about the favor I had been asked to do. I said that I was searching for the story in my heart.
“We are all searching for that,” he said.
“How can I find it?”
Mustapha pressed his palms together and touched them to his nose. “I cannot tell you,” he said. “But I can offer you something.”
“A story that was given to me by my grandfather at Imilchil.”
He pulled up a chair, took off his apron, and said: "There was once an island kingdom far away from here, where all the camels were tall and proud, and the men were skilled in making pottery, from the soft clay near the shore. The king was fair to his people, and a state of harmony prevailed. No one went without delicious fruit, or fine cloth for their clothes.
“Although the kingdom was prosperous, it was cut off from the world beyond, in the middle of the sea. Whenever anyone needed something not found on the island, a boat would be sent to the mainland to bring it back. But the waters all around were so perilous that these boats often sank, drowning all on board.
“Now, there lived in this kingdom a man called Jumar Khan. He was young and he was handsome, and he had a boat that he used to ferry goods from the next kingdom, far away. He would brave the high waves, and travel there often. And on one such journey he spotted a stallion for sale. It was the color of newly fallen snow, with a jetblack mane, and eyes that shone like coals.
“Jumar Khan had no wife or children to support and he had a bag of gold, the profit from many dangerous crossings. He asked the owner the price of the horse. He had just enough money, but the animal’s owner said to him: ‘I will sell it to you on the condition that you promise never to sell it to anyone else.’
“Jumar agreed and paid the money. The animal was loaded up onto the boat and, in rolling seas, carried back to the kingdom.
“A few years passed, and everyone praised the stallion. Jumar Khan himself loved it a little more each day. Then, one winter dawn, he set sail as normal, but a giant wave struck and smashed his boat onto rocks. Jumar and the passengers were saved by the beneficence of God. But with no boat, Jumar lost his livelihood and was ruined.
“He might have sold his horse, but he had made a promise never to do so. In any case, he loved it with all his heart, and could not bear to be parted from it.
“One day an important merchant visited the kingdom. He was known by reputation throughout the East, and his name was Sher Ali. While staying on the island, he heard of Jumar Khan, and the misfortunate circumstances in which he found himself. And he heard of the fabulous stallion, and the promise he had made not to sell it. But in the merchant’s experience, every object had a value.
He sent word to Jumar’s home that he would like to view the animal, as it was said to be very beautiful. The next evening Sher Ali arrived.
“With no money to afford staff, Jumar received his guest himself and prepared a fabulous meal of succulent meat garnished with vegetables which he grew himself. Sher Ali ate until he could eat no more and, after a glass of tea, he asked about the horse.
“Jumar Khan shifted in his seat. ‘Oh, respected guest,’ he said, ‘as you know it is our tradition to provide a feast for a visitor. And the more esteemed the visitor, the finer the meal is required to be. In my state of poverty, I was unable to provide a meal fitting for a distinguished guest such as yourself,’ said Jumar Khan, placing his hand on his heart. ‘the only way I could keep my honor was to serve you my beloved horse.’ "
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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