Four Folktales From Morocco
The tale of the miraculous minstrel: once a Sherif's poor daughter was born blind (no doubt, as a result of her father's many sins) and sat in her garden day after day, lonely and sad, pondering the unfairness of Kismet that afflicted her, an innocent. One day, though, the sound of a passing minstrel's song floated over the garden wall, and enchanted her utterly. She listened with awe; before the singer had ceased his song, she had sent a message to her father, begging her to let the young man come and sing in her garden. After all, she was blind, and could not see his face! And her indulgent father agreed.
The singer was a young man, so handsome that all the slaves cooed at the sight of him. He was admitted into the Sherif's garden, sat down willingly and began to sing of the mercy of Allah. The blind girl's face was transfigured with joy.
But--when the minstrel described the power of Allah, the girl's eyes were miraculously opened--and the first thing she saw was the face of the young man! Now what was to be done? She had seen this stranger's face openly; by Qu'ranic law, she was more or less obliged to marry him! All were in a dither. But--Allah be praised!--love found a way: for the instant the lovely girl set eyes on the young singer, she fell in love, and as for the musician, he instantly confessed that he was no less than the eldest son of the Glawi of Telifet. And the storyteller ends with a traditional phrase: "As for these things, they are quite true, for I learned only last week that one of the descendants of their happy marriage has come to live in our town!"
(From The Voice of Atlas, by Philip Thornton)
A story of moral justice: The army of Morocco was encamped on campaign, when one of the Arab chieftains found that a friend of the Emperor was coming into his black-hair tent at night, and taking liberties with one of his wives. The Arab suspected that the seducer was a sherif--that is, a prince, of the Prophet's own blood--and perhaps more; there was no telling; perhaps it was one of the Emperor's closest friends; perhaps it was the Emperor himself!--and thus, he did not dare to kill the intruder. And yet something had to be done. The crime could not be condoned. He pondered, and at last went to complain to the Emperor himself . . . for the Emperor's virtue (at least in public) was well-known.
The Emperor, hearing this, closed his eyes in pain and sat for a long time, thinking. Who could tell what went through his mind? Finally he asked, "When does the criminal make his visits?"
"At one hour after midnight," replied the Arab, ashamed.
"Then take this guard of mine with you tonight," the Emperor said, "and when your tent is entered, do not make a light. But rest assured justice will be dealt out: give the word to this man, and he will go to me. The rest, is my affair."
Just as upon the nights before, the marauder came after midnight. The Arab had laid awake, listening; when he heard the tent-wall rustle, he rose silently and trod outside, alerting the imperial guard. The guard sped to the Emperor's tent, and the Emperor (who had also laid awake all night) took up his lance, walked through the silent encampment with his guards following in ranks, and entered the chieftain's tent. When he was sure that a man was in the woman's portion of the tent, he ran this intruder through with his lance; all this was done without a single torch being lit.
"Bring him forth!" he commanded, striding out of the tent, shouldering the bloody lance. His guards ran in and dragged the corpse out, flinging it down at the Emperor's feet.
But it was one of their own, an officer of the imperial guard.
When the Emperor saw this, he trembled all over. He prostrated himself in the dust of the camp, and prayed for many hours, while his courtiers and imams gathered round and wondered. At last he rose, leaning on his lance. "I feared," he told the Arab chieftain, "that no one but a prince would have dared to commit this breach of hospitality; therefore I slew him in the dark, lest upon discovering him to be a kinsman, my resolve might be weakened by affection. But I fell down and prayed when I saw his face, thanking Allah a thousand times--that in doing my duty, I had not killed my own son!"
(From Jackson, An Account of Timbuctoo and Housa.)
The Sherif and the saint: once there was a cocksure young Sherif who happened to be the ruler of all Marrakesh. While conversing with a friend--the saint Sidi Ali ben Hamdusa--he boasted of his endurance; then he wagered 1000 gold pieces that the saint could not sit out atop a tower all through one ice-cold winter night, without ever warming himself by a fire. This Sidi Ali did, wrestling with Jnun and bitter, evil winds, and when dawn came he prostrated himself in prayer before the eastern sun and said the Tzalat-l'Fajr (the morning office). Later in the day, the rash Sherif went to see him, saying, "Well, old wise one, did you do as you said?"
"Yes, Bism'ullah," said the saint mildly.
"Without a stove you sat out? Without a blanket, a hot stone wrapped in cloth, a coat?"
"No extra djellabas, no rugs to kneel on, nothing?"
"May God silence me forever if I lie! I had nothing, save my faith in Him."
"Ah," said the Sherif, "and stayed there all night long, till you saw the sun come up?"
"Yes, indeed, and said the morning office as a good man should, the moment I saw the sun rise."
"Aha!" the Sherif crowed, calling his friends to hear his triumph, "then you forfeit the wager, and I keep my thousand gold pieces--for since you saw the sun, you had its fire to warm you in your vigil."
Now the old saint went away saddened, and meditated for several days. At last, he shrugged his shoulders, and gave a private feast for the young Sherif and all his friends. Along they came, with the Sherif in their midst very full of wit and jokes, and at the hour of noon they were received at the Sidi's house and invited to sit on his finest rugs and richest silken pillows. The saint settled them down and went off the check the meal. An hour passed. The guests, a little perturbed, made polite conversation; meanwhile their host hurried in and out with apologies, trays of fruit and sweetmeats (just enough to whet the appetite) and more apologies--and more apologies yet! Another hour. The guests sang songs and told tales to while away the time. Their host muttered excuses for his half-witted servants, and said the kitchen must be infested with Jnun. At last the Sherif leaped to his feet. "What ails your kitchen," he exclaimed, "that the slaves cannot even cook couscous? Let us go and see for ourselves."
So the entire company, headed by the Sherif and Sidi Ali, rose and trooped into the kitchen. There they found a curious sight! There was the couscous, there was the meat, there was the chicken and succulent fish and a pie of spinach and sharp cheese . . . all raw, in the cooking-pots, sitting in the hot sun. "What trick is this!" cried the Sherif. "Are you trying to starve us to death?"
But the old saint shook with laughter. "Remember your wager, O Lord Sherif?" he inquired. "How you said my old bones were warmed by the fire of the sun? Well, you are wiser than I, and so here is your dinner. For six hours now, it has been cooking in the fire of the sun." And while the young Sherif squirmed with embarrassment (and all his friends hid their smiles) Sidi Ali picked up a dish and held it out. "Eat!" he said mildly.
The Sherif hid his shame behind his hands. "God be praised for your wisdom, O my father Sidi Ali ben Hamdusa," he said. "Subhan Allah <thank God!> I have learned my lesson. Tomorrow the wager will be paid twice over."
"You begin to learn," said Sidi Ali, bowing. He drew back a curtain, and disclosed an array of dishes filled with the most exquisite foods, perfectly prepared and steaming hot. "And now, barak'alluhu fik ajarak allah, here is our true dinner. Enjoy it, enjoy it, my guest!"
(Adapted from a story in 'The Voice of Atlas', by Philip Thornton. This version copyright by Sylvia
The tale of Achmed's gold: good Achmed, a devout and honest man, led a life which was good in every way; all that was wanting to crown his days, was the glory of a pilgrimage to Mecca. With this alone, he could die content--knowing that he had lived to the glory of Allah. All his days, he had saved up his gold piece by piece, hiding it away in a little clay pot which he mentioned to no one for fear of robbery. When he had enough to secure his old age, he closed up his business and prepared to go to Mecca.
He had a friend: Ali. To him alone, he entrusted the secret of the pot of gold. "During my absence," he said, "you--who are as my brother--are the only man I trust to tend my possessions, my house and garden. Will you do it?"
"Of course I will," said Ali, "why do you ask?" Then he called a blessing down on Achmed's head.
"Ah, but there's more," said Achmed, "there's gold. Five hundred coins, there are--my life's savings. I have no one else to ask. Will you guard them for me? I'll be gone two years, that is the term of this journey." Ali agreed, pledging his faith to it, and Achmed was overjoyed; he embraced him, brought him the keys of his house, and put the pot of gold into his hands. Ali hid the gold away in a safe hiding-place in his own house, and saw Achmed off to Mecca, saying, "Go with God!"
Achmed rode to the coast, took ship, and came eventually to Mecca, where he kissed the Kaaba and knew his tale was complete . . . but it was not, as events proved. On the voyage home, contrary winds blew his ship off-course, and his return was delayed long beyond the expected time.
In Morocco, meanwhile, Ali waited patiently. Years passed, and more years; Achmed was despaired of, and finally given up for dead. And Ali fell upon evil times. He lost all his own money, had to sell every slave he owned, and wept with sorrow to see his wife reduced to cleaning the house with her own hands, which had never been soiled by such work before. He was miserable, and she was unbearable. And just when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb (and his wife's tongue sharpened to its uttermost) she cleaned in the wrong corner, and discovered the pot of gold.
She brought it to Ali. Their creditors were hammering day and night at his door. Ali tore his hair, walked the floor all night, shushing her while her lamentations rose to the sky. At last he gave in, and opened the pot. "We'll take just a little," he told her, "just enough to pay our debts. When Allah favors me again, I'll put it back."
"Your fool friend is dead anyway," she whined, "and will never return."
Well! Allah failed to favor this unfaithful friend--no surprise, that. Soon enough, the money was all gone, every bit, every last shining coin.
The very next month, Achmed returned.
He was Achmed Hajji now, having been blessed by sight of holy Mecca. Friends and neighbors flocked to see him, marveling. But his very first stop was at the house of his dear friend Ali. Ali hastened to bring Achmed the keys to his house, saying that everything was in order and the garden lovingly tended . . . and Achmed blessed him, waited a bit, then finally asked after his little clay pot.
Ali feinted surprise. "Pot?" he said. "What pot?"
"Friend," said Achmed, "why, you must remember, my little clay pot with the gold in it? My five hundred gold coins?"
"What gold coins?" said Ali. "Why, Achmed, everyone knows you could never save any money." And he called on all the people about to witness: "Look! Poor Achmed has been driven mad by his privations. He remembers wealth he never owned."
Achmed went to the cadi, who judged all lawsuits. But the cadi saw no proof forthcoming of Achmed's claims, and indeed Achmed had never dared to mention his money to anyone . . . that is, anyone except Ali, whom he had trusted. Achmed was turned away, and went sorrowfully back to his empty home and lonely garden. For days he shut himself away, reflecting.
Finally, a frail tune drifting over his gate roused him from his gloom. A single ray of sunlight fell on the street outside, on an old gypsy playing a broken flute, while a monkey danced for coins. Achmed turned toward Mecca, prostrated himself and prayed. Then he went to the gate, and spent his last funds buying the monkey.
From that day forth, he was a changed man. He threw his gates open again, went to work and plied his old trade. He never spoke a word of what had been. Toward Ali, he presented an unchanged face. Ali, overwhelmed by relief, told everyone he forgave Achmed his wild talk, and was very kind to Achmed himself.
In the privacy of his house, Achmed set about training the monkey. He spent hours with Ali, patiently enduring Ali's forgiveness, and all the while he was studying Ali's features . . . carefully, closely. He had always delighted in wood-carving, and now he discovered in himself a knack for portraiture. He carved Ali's likeness in wood.
When his bust of Ali was finished, Achmed set it atop a column--just Ali's height--and dressed it in a man's clothes--clothing that was just like Ali's. This, he put in an empty room. Then he put the monkey in with it. Every day, he would go into this room, shut the door, and spend some time lashing the monkey with a whip. The monkey would fly round the room, trying desperately to escape. It could not climb the smooth walls, and so it would climb the image standing in the middle of the room. When it arrived at the image's wooden head, it would scratch it wildly. Eventually it was so well trained, that all Achmed had to do was to step into the room, and the monkey would fling itself up the image and begin to scratch.
Achmed brought other figures into the room. They were all dressed differently, and every one had a different head and face, cunningly carved. He trained the monkey patiently, until the only image it climbed was the original--the likeness of Ali.
Then Achmed began to spread rumors.
He began to talk about his money again. Five hundred gold pieces, stolen . . . oh, not by Ali, oh no--Ali was Achmed's friend, after all. Stolen by person or persons unknown. And Achmed began to tell people about the magic monkey he had acquired from a saint's tomb. It was a black monkey, endowed with marvelous powers, and would know in a crowd just who was honest, who was a thief. With his monkey, he said, he would be able to discover the true thief.
"Look, he's still crazy," said Ali, laughing behind Achmed's back. "Imagine, magic monkeys!" And the more Achmed talked about his monkey, the louder Ali mocked him. "Monkeys are foolish beasts," he told Achmed, "and your monkey is not going to be any wiser than its cousins."
"Oh," said Achmed, "is that so? If that's what you think, come round to my house and try it for yourself. Or are you frightened?" When Ali refused, their friends all laughed too; they said Ali was nervous. Naturally Ali said he was not, and Achmed dared him to come see the monkey. Ali had to agree.
Achmed went round and spoke to the cadi, asking him to come round too, and to bring a few friends. The cadi laughed at first, but finally agreed.
On the appointed day, everyone gathered at Achmed's house. Ali was dismayed at the size of the crowd, but Achmed took them all into the very same room where he had trained the monkey. All the images had been taken away, of course; Achmed had burned them. "Now, friends," he said, "I'll show you my magic pet. If he who stole the gold is among us, the monkey will know him at once, climb up and scratch his face. If the monkey does not recognize the thief, I swear I'll never mention the subject again."
Ali was smiling.
"Achmed," commanded the cadi, "bring the animal." And Achmed brought the monkey into the room it knew so well. The monkey saw a room full of unmoving men, just as before--and there was one face it recognized--and it knew what it was meant to do. With a scream, it launched itself at Ali, swarmed up his coat and clung with all its claws, scratching and biting. Ali tried to fight it off, he twisted and turned, but it only gripped him the tighter. The cadi marveled at the intelligence of the animal; he went up to Ali, who was now deathly pale and trembling in every limb, and said threateningly: "You thief! Allah has discovered your crime!" upon which Ali fell instantly to his knees and confessed.
Only God knows what is on earth and in heaven; only God knows the secrets we all keep. For he knows the mind of every man, he knows the future and the past. He is the answer to every riddle, and he is the judge every man will have to face in the end.
(Adapted from a tale told in 'With the Riff Kabyles', by Bernd Terhorst. This version copyright by
Sylvia Volk, 2000.)
Return to Myths and Stories
Last Updated August 4, 2000 by Sylvia