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Was it magic? There could be no other explanation for such a strange phenomenon except a supernatural power transforming sand into gold, poverty into riches and ugliness into beauty. It was not strange that a girl like Gamila, moulded from human clay and devil’s fire should turn out to be a witch with supernatural powers. What other explanation could there be for a poor family living in a hut and surviving on charity becoming one of the richest and most respected families in the village? How else could stammering dervish like Yateem, who could not even utter his own name properly, be transformed into such an intelligent eloquent person? Everything about him had changed. Even his features had undergone a transformation and his face that had looked like the stump of a palm tree had become the face of a man accustomed to royal surroundings.
The rumours that claimed Gamila was a witch who ruled over the kings of the jinn were a convincing explanation for all the changes that had occurred in Yateem’s family and that had puzzled and bewildered them so much. This matter became the chief subject for gossip amongst the women who went from house to house spreading the rumour as they drank tea. They also found great pleasure in adding to the rumour and they would find any excuse to go to Yateem’s house to make sure for themselves whether Gamila was really a witch or not. If any woman ever found the girl playing with a cat or feeding a hen, she would say to her neighbour: “Today I saw her talking to her cat and she knows the language of chickens as well.”
When other women refused to believe her, the woman would insist that she had told them the truth, saying: “I saw her myself giving the hen orders and the hen obeyed her.”
Other events confirmed their suspicions, especially when Gomma the dervish kept shouting her name hysterically as he wandered in the streets: “Gamila! How you torment me, Gamila!” The man used to go to the mosque and stand with the people praying behind the Imam who led the prayers and as soon as the Imam was about to kneel and say “Allahu Akbar”, the dervish would scream: “Gamila! How you torment us, Gamila!”
Some people laughed at him while others drove him away for having ruined the prayers. Later on, they would find him sitting beside Sidi Abo Kandill’s tomb talking to Gamila all night long. Whenever the villagers asked him why he was talking to himself, he would reply that Gamila had been with him and that disguised, she came to visit him every day. Although the men considered what he said to be proof of his insanity, some of the village woman believe it to be proof of Gamila’s powers of magic, being able to disguise herself and become invisible to everybody. They even believed that she had been present at some of their meetings and had heard what they had said about her and that after having cast a spell on the men, she would punish the women. The women would then raise their arms up to the Heavens and says, as awe and terror consumed their whole beings: “O God deliver us from what we fear.”
The following day, at the same time, Eid walked to Yateem‘s house again. During the morning he had deliberately avoided meeting the man although he knew that Yateem was looking for him. In the evening, he had yearned to see Gamila and having made sure that her father was out, he used the fact as an excuse to go to her house.
Gamila was surprised when she opened the door. Sweetly, she said: “Hello.”
Eid, spellbound, gazed at her long eyelashes and replied: “I heard that your father was looking for me.”
“But he’s at the mosque for Afternoon prayers.”
Eid replied: “I’ll go to the mosque to see him.”
Gamila remained by the door, which she had not closed, so Eid tried to prolong the moment in order to retain the memory in his mind and he found himself saying: “How’s school?”
He knew it was a silly question and that he should have talked about the flocks of clouds that graze in the fields of the sky or the deer that run in the desert searching for the source of the sun or the flowers in blossom or mild breezes on the green grass or anything else in the world that was as glorious and as brilliant as her fascinating eyes. But Gamila smiled and answered: “As always, a lot of endless homework.”
The sun setting between the palm trees had an irresistible and magical effect on him. Why should such a beautiful girl have to bother with homework – or housework for that matter? He wanted her to embrace the vast expanse with him and to watch the sun which, exhausted from her journey pulling chariots over distant mountains, was stretching forth her weak hands, spreading a delicate gown of sweet melancholy and blessing trees and human beings.
“You’ll soon be a teacher.”
Gamila laughed: “God help the students that I’m going to teach!”
They saw the shadow of a man crossing the road, so Gamila shook his hand quickly. Eid tried to prolong it, but she drew her hand back and closed the door, laughing.
Eid sat on a hill overlooking the palm grove and began singing a song about the sun’s daughter who used to lower her golden locks every night for her lover to climb up to heaven. He imagined that Gamila was sitting next to him. The world seemed more beautiful and life more wonderful: only the inevitability of death could disturb such an image.
Eid asked her: “Why can’t a man live for a thousand years?”
“Don’t be greedy – a hundred years is enough.”
“But they won’t be enough for me to tell you all I want to say.”
“We have wasted a lot of time, so why don’t you start now?”
He remembered that her father was looking for him, to quarrel with him and forbid him to see his daughter. He asked her how he could obtain her father’s approval but she did not answer. He looked around, only to find himself alone.
The vision had vanished and reality had reappeared. He saw a Bedouin in the distance taking his luggage off a camel’s back in order to spend the night in the palm grove. Eid remembered how life in the desert was less complicated than in the village and how contact between men and women was so much more simple. Eid was surprised that life in the village was different from life in the city and in the desert. It lacked the freedom of the city and the spontaneity of desert life. He could not understand why life in the village should acquire such a distorted form. He walked towards the Bedouin, feeling the need to talk to a man who lived in a purer environment than his own.
The Bedouin invited him to join him in his meal and offered him a pot of milk and some dates. Eid thanked the man and asked him, somewhat irrationally: “Do you know Amer Yateem?”
“Which tribe does he belong to?”
“He doesn’t belong to any tribe and has no clan.”
The Bedouin expressed his aversion to any such man who did not belong to a tribe: “I don’t know any such man and I don’t wish to.”
“But I wanted you to put an end to a misunderstanding between him and me.”
“How can I do that when I don’t know the man?”
“It’s nothing. You only have to visit him, pretend you are a famous sheikh and he won’t refuse your intercession.”
“But I’m not a sheikh.”
“You could be, for just once in your life.”
“Why is he angry with you?”
“He thinks I’m having a relationship with his daughter.”
“You shouldn’t flirt with girls, but, tell me, have you proposed to her?”
“If you are serious, then you should propose to her.”
Everything was clear in this Bedouin’s mind. Yes, indeed, why hadn’t Eid thought of marrying her? Why had he not proposed to her? If her father refused, he would send people to intercede on his behalf until Yateem accepted. He understood that Gamila also wanted him and that if his proposal was accepted he could see her and visit her whenever he wanted. So he left the Bedouin feeding his camel and ran back towards the village, knowing exactly what he wanted to say to Yateem.
“Valley of Ashes” is published by Paul Kegan International, 1999