The story so far: In the dusty, hot North African desert, two travelers’ paths have crossed: Abdul, a sheik, wounded after battle with the Spanish, and Francisco, a former Spanish Franciscan monk on a pilgrimage to counter the atrocities inflicted by his countrymen on the Moroccans in the name of God.
An unlikely friendship begins to develop between the two men, but Francisco, being a Spaniard, must enter Jerada, the city where Abdul resides, bound as a prisoner. Though treated hospitably in Abdul’s house, he is kept in a small room for three days. Meanwhile, Abdul goes before the city council and the Imam on behalf of the life of his newfound friend.
– – –
On the afternoon of his arrival to Jerada with the prisoner, Abdul Aziz met to confer together with the elders of the city. The meeting took place in the house of the Imam. A group of gray-bearded, white-robed men were reclining on cushions in a large, oblong-shaped room festooned with colorful tapestries and ornate Arabic inscriptions from the Koran. As Abdul Aziz entered, all rose to greet him. The Imam kissed him warmly on the shoulder and both cheeks, and then all resumed their seats. Sheik Abdul Aziz took a seat at the head of the long low table next to the Imam. The muttering of voices in the room died away to silence.
“Bismallah Rahman a Rahim (in the name of God, the merciful and compassionate),” Abdul Aziz began solemnly, then looked at the floor for a moment before continuing. “Casablanca has fallen to the infidels,” he said heavily, as quiet expressions of despair and anger against the enemy ran through the room. “There were many martyrs, but there was nothing we could do but to pull back, regroup, and continue the jihad* from towns further out. But we fear that the armies of the infidels will not stop there, but will continue their campaign until they have subjugated our entire land. By the grace of Allah we must fight and not submit to this tyranny.”
A slightly more animated murmur of assent ran around the room.
“I propose that we again gather all trained fighting men from our town and prepare them to do battle with the infidels, wherever and whenever we confront them.”
“A worthy proposal indeed,” echoed the Imam. “This should start right away.”
“We cannot defeat the Spaniards by force of numbers,” continued Abdul Aziz, his voice rising as he spoke. “We must use our minds, for they outnumber us in both soldiers and weapons. But there are those in our government, may Allah judge them, who seek to compromise with the infidel in order to line their own pockets. Miserable puppets of the Spaniards they are, making themselves rich and powerful while selling our poor into slavery. That is our greatest weakness: our people are divided. Only if the people see us taking a stand against them will they be inspired to rise up.”
The room erupted into a chorus of agreement and shouts of “Allahu Akbar.”
When it had subsided, the Imam cleared his throat.
“We have heard that you have captured an infidel prisoner. What of him?”
“From what I’ve gathered he is a wandering monk, a religious man who comes out into the desert to do penance for the sins of his people.”
“This is what he told you,” retorted the Imam, “and you believed him? Isn’t it obvious that he is an infidel spy disguised as a monk, sent to spy out the lay of the land, identify our positions and take back information to his own people that they may plan their attack against our cities?”
“By the prophet, peace be upon him,” replied Abdul Aziz, “I have talked long with this man and I do not find in him the guile belonging to a spy.”
“Then he has bewitched you,” barked the Imam. “Let us bring him forth and torture him, that we may find out the truth of his mission and at the same time obtain information about our enemies’ movements.”
“I do not think that would be wise,” demurred Abdul Aziz. “If he is indeed a spy, his training will cause him to close his mouth more firmly the more we press him. Yet should we treat him with greater liberty, if his heart is indeed deceptive and he means evil towards our people, then surely he will trap himself in his own words and doings.”
“Abdul Aziz, you are too soft and too merciful!” The Imam raised his voice angrily. “These are not times for mercy! We are dealing with the rapacious infidel who would steal and subjugate our land.”
“Truly I had my sword against his throat and was about to send him to an early grave,” Abdul Aziz responded, also raising his voice. “But Allah would not permit my hand to do this. I believe that his mission holds within it a blessing from Allah, although I cannot see what that is at this present time. Give me three days to deal with him, and I will keep close watch on his every movement. If there is iniquity found in him we shall deal with him according to the justice of Allah.”
The Imam remained unconvinced, but a chorus of assent ran round the council and it appeared that Abdul Aziz’s word had prevailed for the present. At that point the meeting concluded and Abdul Aziz assigned some of his trusted men to search out able-bodied young men to join the fighting force.
Upon returning to his house, Abdul Aziz appointed one of his deputies, a young man by the name of Ali Abdul Khader, to keep a close watch on Francisco at all times, even secretly observing him at his writings and devotions.
There were several concealed openings in the walls of the room in which Francisco stayed, from which he could be watched. Thus it was that, unbeknownst to Francisco, Ali Abdul Khader spent most of his waking hours over the next three days observing all of Francisco’s conduct. Ali Abdul Khader had grown up in Casablanca and spoke fluent Spanish, and thus was able to overhear and interpret even some of Francisco’s prayers. On the second day he was surprised to hear Francisco praying thus:
” Most merciful God, I pray for Your restraining force to be upon the armies of Spain. Turn back their swords and cause their bullets to go astray into the desert sands, that they wreak no more destruction upon these innocent ones whose only refuge is You, O Lord Most High. Answer the prayers of these humble ones, O God. Be their defense, for they do cry out to You in their dependence upon Your holy name, O God. Let the munitions of them that say they know Thee, yet curse Thy name with their actions and their example, crumble into dust and fall before the desert wind.”
At a convenient moment the faithful deputy reported this fervent intercession to Abdul Aziz, who nodded gravely as he listened.
“And you are sure there is no way that he could tell that you were listening?”
“I have taken every precaution to conceal the fact that I am observing him,” said Ali, “and I have no reason to believe that he suspects that he is being watched.”
“So be it then. Thank you for your report and continue to keep a close watch on him.”
Meanwhile Francisco’s confinement, as well appointed as it was, was beginning to eat away at him. At times he stared blankly at the stone walls around him, and at times he struggled to concentrate on reading and studying his Bible and his Arabic books, trying to block out thoughts of fear and despair that always threatened to gnaw away at his happiness. Yet there were times when he seemed to soar into the heavens in raptures of intercession, such as that overheard by Ali Abdul Khader. In the middle of one night he found himself on his knees by his cot beseeching God thus:
“Wouldst Thou, wounded Lamb of Calvary, manifest Thy love to these people, that they may understand the compassion and tenderness You feel towards them? Thou, Gentle Dove of the Holy Spirit, sail forth upon the heavens, pour down Your blessings upon these little ones, upon these children who wait upon You and have yet to know the saving help of Thy Word. Please, Lord, grant unto Thy humble servant an opportunity to show Thy healing power, Thy saving love to these people.”
On the fourth day of Francisco’s confinement, Abdul Aziz once again presided over a council gathering of the elders. News had come that the Spanish army was on the move, having established a beachhead, and was marching in the southwest, probably with intent to subjugate the central city of Meknès.
“Let us now call on every able-bodied fighting man,” said Abdul Aziz, “to stand against this tyranny. For whether we fight or fight not, the Spaniards will come, capture our cities, plunder our fields, and rape our women. Let us now stand, every man, and defend that which is ours.”
The council was unanimous in its support.
“And tell us of this infidel spy,” said the Imam. “What information have you from him?”
“My deputy, Ali Abdul Khader, has watched him closely for the last three days. He reports how the monk prays to God to overthrow his own Spanish forces and defend the innocent ones of this land against their oppression.”
The Imam shook his head. “Is this not deception woven around you by one who comes to bring curses from Allah into our midst?”
“What do you mean?”
The Imam spoke heavily. “My beloved daughter, the delight of my eyes, is deathly sick of a fever these last two days. I have besought Allah for her healing, but as yet His mercy has not been shown.”
Abdul Aziz looked at the Imam intently. “Then let the Spaniard come to her and pray and use his curative* arts, for he is skilled in such things.”
“An infidel, defile my daughter with his prayers?” snapped the Imam.
“Does not the Holy Koran speak of Jesus, son of Miriam, as the prophet of healing? Then let this Nazarene prove Himself as to whether God hears His prayers or not.”
The Imam looked around the council in desperation. Silence reigned, no man being willing to take sides in such a controversial matter. After a few moments, something in his countenance softened.
“I suppose it is worth a try,” he said, nodding gravely. “Bring the Spaniard and let him pray.”
Francisco was surprised and gladdened by the appearance of Abdul Aziz at the door of what he had come to call his cell. There had been no communication between them since the first day, and apart from Fatima’s brief introduction, his only visitors had been servants.
“Abdul Aziz, my good friend,” he began, “let me thank you again for your overwhelming hospitality, which has exceeded all my expectations.”
“Ah, God is more gracious,” said Abdul Aziz warmly in a traditional Arabic response. “But, Señor Francisco, we must make haste. As I told you, there is in this city an Imam, chief of the religious council. He is a man of great influence and he knows of your presence here and deeply distrusts you. However, his daughter, who is but twelve years old, is sick with a fever, to the point of death. If you could come to her and pray in the name of Christ, peace be upon Him, for her healing, this would stand very well with you and with me also, for I am hard pressed to justify keeping you alive in the face of the onslaught of the Spaniards against my people.”
Francisco’s heart leapt. This was the moment he had been praying for, the situation that he had besought God to provide in order to show His love to the people.
“I will come right away,” he answered without hesitation.
Francisco was a man of prayer and a man of faith, but it would not be true to say that he was without misgivings. As he rode behind Abdul Aziz on the horse provided for him, he knew that failure on his part could mean death for him and severe loss of face for Abdul Aziz. With these thoughts flooding his mind he appealed to the strong and never-failing mercy of his Lord and Savior.
Upon arriving at the house, they were met at the door by the Imam. He greeted Abdul Aziz with all the traditional warmth, then turned and indifferently acknowledged Francisco, although Francisco thought he sensed a keen interest beneath the Imam’s stern exterior. Francisco and Abdul Aziz were led through a sitting room, whose walls were covered with ornately inscribed Koran verses, and shown into a room at the back of the house.
The little dark-haired girl lay, softly moaning on a simple wooden bed, her face almost as pale as the sheet that was covering her. Francisco could immediately tell by the expression of the plump, puffy-eyed woman who sat holding the girl’s hand that the situation was grave. As Francisco entered, the woman stood and withdrew herself.
The Imam extended his hand towards the girl and said simply, “My daughter, Rula.”
Francisco looked to the Imam for some gesture of approval and was granted a cursory nod. He went forward and laid his hand on the girl’s forehead, which was burning with fever.
Deferentially he knelt down beside the bed, gently took the girl’s hand and began praying. He prayed as he had never remembered praying before. Somewhere in his consciousness was the knowledge that this was a pivotal moment in his ministry, but as he prayed he was only dimly aware of the implications of what would transpire.
Foremost in his mind was the pathos* of the situation before him: The deathly white little girl, the red pleading eyes of her mother, and even the grave concern of the father who Francisco guessed had gone against many of his principles in a final attempt to obtain healing for his daughter. After some minutes of fervent intercession Francisco turned to a servant who was standing nearby and asked in simple Arabic accompanied with sign language for some water in a bowl and a cloth, which he brought. Francesco dipped the cloth in the water and gently bathed the girl’s forehead and cheeks, accompanied by further whispered prayer.
After fifteen minutes or so, the Imam shifted uncomfortably. Francisco, sensing that his time was up, laid his hand once more on the girl’s forehead and prayed a final prayer. She appeared to sigh deeply and relax into a restful sleep, although there was no sign yet of any recovery. Francisco rose to go, with a word of thanks and farewell to the servant.
Without another word the Imam led them back out to the front door. With Abdul Aziz once more taking the lead, the two men rode wordlessly back through the streets to his home. They entered the courtyard of the house, dismounted and tethered their horses.
Abdul Aziz turned to Francisco with his palms skyward and said with a note of sympathy in his voice, “It is all in the hands of Allah.”
Francisco nodded and returned to his cell, where he washed himself with water from the basin in the corner of the room and cast himself down headlong on his bunk in prayer.
The evening call to prayer was ringing out over the town when the door to Francisco’s room was flung open. Abdul Aziz stood there, his countenance grave and stone-like.
“The will of Allah has been done,” he said soberly.
Francisco’s heart sank. “The girl…”
“The Imam’s daughter”–at these words Francisco’s stomach felt like it was sinking through into the floor–“has recovered!”
Abdul Aziz’s face suddenly broke into wreaths of smiles and he laughed loudly. He pointed a long bony finger at Francisco, who was now blubbering a jumbled prayer to Jesus and Allah for His mercy.
“Do not tell me,” said Abdul Aziz with mock sternness, “O infidel, that your faith faltered!”
Francisco laughed. “Oh, I freely admit that my faith was blown about like the sand in a desert storm! It is because of the mercies of God, and not any righteousness of mine, that the little girl is healed!”
“And may God be praised,” said Abdul Aziz. “For the Imam in his joy has decided to host a banquet tonight, and you, my friend, are invited.”
Tears of gratitude fell from Francisco’s eyes as he sent a silent prayer to his Heavenly Father. Although his answered prayers seemed to indicate that a major test had been passed in him being accepted by these people, the prevailing thought in his mind was joy that the pale, drawn little girl would now be happy, full of life, and reunited with her family–and that perhaps some sparkling fatherly tenderness would return to the eyes of the grave Imam.
“But I must tell you one thing,” said Abdul Aziz, casting a critical eye towards Francisco’s garments, “I would advise you to dress after the custom of my people. It will gain you much greater acceptance in their eyes. I would be happy to provide you with some garments.”
Francisco stammered a noncommittal reply. He did not want to offend his host, but such a change of garments seemed to hold for him a rather frightening symbolic significance.
“You do not wish to be clad in the garments of a Muslim, an Arab, one you consider a heathen?” questioned Abdul Aziz a little caustically, sensing his hesitation.
“It is not that,” answered Francisco. “It is merely that the humble robes I wear represent my calling to be separate from the things of the world. They are to me a badge of dedication to my faith. Please understand, at least give me some time to meditate on this.”
Abdul Aziz looked at him quizzically before breaking out into a chuckle. “Well, make your meditation speedy, for we must leave for the Imam’s house within the hour.” So saying he left the room.
Immediately Francisco was on his knees beside his cot.
“O my heavenly Father! O my beloved Jesus, show me Your will in this matter. Why is it that this change of garments seems to me as difficult a step as consenting to be the prisoner of Abdul Aziz?”
For long moments he held his soul in agonized prayer seeking his Father’s will. Slowly and with inexplicable clarity the impression began to form in his mind that he must comply with Abdul Aziz’s wishes. Some strangely evocative* but frightening words formed in his mind: cultural crucifixion.
“Cultural crucifixion?” he whispered aloud. “What can this mean?”
Slowly but clearly the answer came again: It is one thing to be physically bound in order to carry My message, but how much more to relinquish one’s own culture in favor of another, in order to win him for Me?
A Scripture passage echoed in his mind. To the Greek as a Greek, to the Jew as a Jew, to the Roman as a Roman.
“To the Arab as an Arab … but where will it end?” His eyes were turned upwards as a beseeching child looking into his father’s face.
Benevolent eyes seemed to smile back down upon him, but the answer was a question that struck a deep and vibrant chord within his soul.
How far was I willing to go for you?
With a long sigh that served as a final act of submission, Francisco’s lips formed the words: “My Lord, I have ever loved and trusted Thee. Why should I not trust Thee now?’
He arose from his kneeling position and went to the door. As he laid his hand upon the handle there was a knock and he opened it. Two of Abdul Aziz’s servants stood in front of him, carrying a white garment and a headdress. Without hesitation he beckoned them to enter the room and began to remove his monk’s vesture. The servants helped him to don the traditional garments, paying particular attention to fixing the headdress correctly. As they stepped back to admire their work, Abdul Aziz appeared in the doorway.
Francisco understood the congratulatory greeting.
“Allah yi barak feek,” he responded with the traditional reply.
Abdul Aziz chuckled gleefully. “As fine an Arab as ever walked the Moroccan desert! We will make a good Muslim out of you yet.”
Francisco smiled and restrained himself from retorting.
“Yalla, let us depart. The horses are waiting.” Abdul Aziz waved for Francisco to follow him.
Francisco stepped gingerly out of the room behind Abdul Aziz. He felt somewhat uncomfortable, as he knew his appearance would invite a volley of comments, questions, and stares. It was the sort of superficial attention he detested drawing to himself, but he determined that if such be given, he would greet it with a smile.
His first test came seconds later as he walked past the front door of the house and turned for a moment to meet the curious gaze of Fatima who was standing in the doorway. She smiled before coyly dropping her eyes, obviously pleased at the sight she beheld. Francisco quickly turned his eyes away, mentally castigating* himself for the flush of pleasure he felt. All he knew of the Arabic culture had taught him that fathers guarded their daughters with an iron hand and often a drawn sword, and there was immense danger in showing even the slightest hint of attraction. This was to say nothing of the vow of chastity he had embraced upon joining the Franciscans, although he had not seriously examined the current state of his vows since the father superior’s reluctant blessing on his departure from the order. Now a tiny flame of passion began to flicker in his heart, and he concentrated with all his might on quenching it.
He and Abdul Aziz passed out through the gate, Francisco ever conscious of Fatima’s penetrating gaze upon his back. With vigor he swung boldly up on his mount. The two spurred their horses down the street, with Abdul Aziz’s servants following close behind.
They were welcomed at the Imam’s house by servants who escorted them graciously into a large sitting room. There were no chairs, but rather long mats on either side of the room with a copious* supply of pillows. The walls were decorated with elegantly woven tapestries in bright colors, which seemed to dance at the flickering of the oil lamps that lit the room. A long low table ran almost the entire length of the center of the room and was spread with a bountiful quantity of flat bread and numerous bowls containing various sauces and other foods, some of which Francisco recognized. The flickering lights, the colored tapestries, and the exotic aroma of spices emanating from the food gave the entire room a delightful mystique, which enticed Francisco’s spirit away from his worries about his appearance, and he began to be glad that he was not wearing his coarse brown monk’s garment. The Imam entered from a door at the other end of the room and greeted Abdul Aziz warmly with a kiss on both cheeks and the shoulder. He turned to Francisco, held out both hands and did the same.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” he said retaining his gravity and dignity, but with considerably more warmth than on their last encounter.
“May one thousand welcomes return upon you,” said Francisco in Arabic.
The Imam turned with a half smile to Abdul Aziz. “The foreigner speaks Arabic,” he said with a hint of surprise.
“He is learning,” replied Abdul Aziz benevolently.
“Please, please make yourself at home,” the Imam continued. “My home is your home.”
The Imam and Abdul Aziz seated themselves at the head of the table and the Imam motioned for Francisco to sit down next to him.
“I was overjoyed to hear of your daughter’s recovery,” said Abdul Aziz after they had seated themselves.
“Yes, praise be to Allah,” said the Imam, “and thanks also to the prayers of the foreigner. Tell me,” he said, turning and looking straight at Francisco, “from whence do you possess these healing powers?”
“I myself possess no healing powers,” replied Francisco. “Your daughter was healed in answer to your prayers and my prayers and through the mercy of God.”
“Ah!” The Imam’s tone was amused, but skeptical and almost caustic. “The foreigner answers diplomatically. I thought that this miracle, and a miracle it was, would have given you an excellent chance to try to convert me to your faith.”
“My Master did not send me to convert,” said Francisco gently, “only to serve and to love your people, and perhaps in some small way to atone for the sins of mine against yours.”
“I do not understand this doctrine of atonement,” said the Imam shaking his head, “for why should one pay for the sins of another? Surely every man should pay for his own sins before Allah, with Whom rests judgment and vengeance.”
“And also mercy and compassion,” said Francisco quietly, and followed with a verse from the Koran: “In the name of Allah the merciful and compassionate.”
The Imam turned to Abdul Aziz, “So the infidel reads the Koran? Perhaps before long he shall submit to Islam.”
“We shall see,” said Abdul Aziz with a chuckle.
The discussion was broken by the arrival of large dishes heaped with steaming piles of couscous. The Imam waved his hand benignly over the table with a gesture to begin eating. The conversation turned to lighter matters. The food was superb and Francisco had to admit to himself that the “cultural crucifixion” at this point was not particularly painful.
After a few minutes the Imam’s daughter entered the room. She immediately threw her arms around her father’s neck and kissed him. Then she looked over at Francisco with a shy smile.
“This is the man who came to pray for your healing,” said the Imam softly.
“Thank you,” she said shyly, before turning once again and burying her face in the Imam’s shoulder. He held her tenderly for some minutes, seemingly oblivious to all that was going on around him, while Francisco began to wonder how the prelates and elders of his church could refer to these people as heathen infidels, damned and cursed of God, and furthermore how his government could look on them as ignorant subjects to be exploited for their own ends.
After one final kiss the girl took her leave. After some more minutes of trivialities the Imam turned once again and looked piercingly at Francisco.
“I suppose you know the Spanish army is but three days’ march away, and heading in this direction?”
“I know nothing of this,” said Francisco, looking anxiously at Abdul Aziz. “Since I arrived here my days have been spent in prayer and study. No news from the outside world has reached me.”
“Their victories in Casablanca and other cities have emboldened them, and I believe they intend to subjugate our entire country–unless, of course, the French get here first.”
“Perhaps that is why they move so quickly,” said Abdul Aziz cautiously.
“So what do you advise us to do? You know your countrymen. How will they attack?”
“My knowledge of military matters is very slight. I would not dare to advise you in such things. All I can do is to pray that by some miracle God will stop them and spare you.”
“My contention is,” said Abdul Aziz, chewing on a chicken leg, “that they will first try to take Meknès, for it is a strategic city. Later they will turn their attention to smaller towns like ours. I think we should raise whatever army we can and go to the aid of our brothers. What say you of this, Señor Francisco?”
“Is it right?” asked the Imam. “Is it right in the sight of your God for a man to fight? If we submit, the foreigners will come and exploit us and use us. If we fight, we will stir up their wrath even more. They will come destroy our cities, rape our women, plunder our goods, and kill our children. So what is better, to comply or to resist?”
Francisco stared long and thoughtfully at a bowl of couscous on the table in front of him. Finally he answered, weighing each word as he spoke. “I don’t believe there is a way I can answer this question. I have not suffered what you have suffered, I have not passed through the valleys that you have passed through, and I cannot truly walk in your shoes for I have no idea what your people have suffered. This question must be answered from your own conscience before God.”
“But come,” said the Imam, “what does your Holy Book teach of these things? Should a man fight to defend his home, his land, his wives, and his children? Tell me what would you do if you were in our place?”
Once again slowly, thoughtfully, Francisco replied, “I only know this, that there was a time when my Master instructed His disciples to take no sword with them, and another time He instructed them to carry their swords. So perhaps wisdom is to know the times and the seasons, for the Scriptures also say there is a time for peace and a time for war. As for myself, I have not come to advise you in your strategy, but I will pray for you. I believe that prayer is the most powerful weapon that a man can wield.”
The Imam nodded and grunted, but didn’t seem completely satisfied with Francisco’s answer.
Abdul Aziz, sensing Francisco’s discomfort, came to the rescue.
“So how many men from Jerada do you think we can rally?”
“Hmm, we shall see,” said the Imam vaguely.
Francisco realized once again that for all the hospitality accorded him on that particular evening, he was still a foreigner, and thus under suspicion by default. It was obvious that the Imam no longer wanted to discuss military details in front of him.
It’s understandable, he thought to himself, as he tore a piece of flat bread and dipped it in a bowl of mutabbel*. I must learn to live with this suspicion, for it is unavoidable that these men will at first doubt my motives. God only knows what tests I must first pass in order for them to trust me.
The Imam was suddenly withdrawn and quiet, retreating behind an impenetrable curtain of skeptical detachment. The miracle of his daughter’s healing had been acknowledged, but his complete trust would not be an easy conquest. By comparison, Abdul Aziz, for all his flamboyant bravado on their first meeting, had opened a door to the inner chambers of his life, and Francisco felt much more assured of his protection and continued friendship.
When dinner ended, Abdul Aziz beckoned to one of the servants. The servant left the room and returned a minute later carrying a musical instrument, which Francisco recognized as an oud. Its large round body, short neck, and angled head resembled the European lute with which Francisco was familiar.
Arranging the pillows and seating himself with his back to the wall, Abdul Aziz took the oud into his lap and began to tune the strings carefully. Another produced a bamboo flute known as a qasba, and began warming it up with some softly evocative* trills and runs. Some of the other men brought drums, cymbals, and tambourines. The Imam turned to Francisco, a faint tremor of warmth returning to his bearing.
“You shall enjoy this. Abdul Aziz is quite a poet.”
Abdul Aziz began his song with long, low, sonorous notes. His eyes closed as the song transported him into a rapture of unconcealed emotion. The melody of the oud followed the trills and tremors of his rich voice, which ascended into the heights and then cascaded into depths of passion, which seemed to mingle despair, yearning, and hope. The percussionists listened silently, intently, hands poised above their instruments as the prelude to the song played itself out. Suddenly, with a lift of his head, Abdul Aziz launched into a rousing melody, and the darbooka, a local drum resembling the tabla, and the cymbals and tambourine exploded in a cacophony of rhythm. The chorus of male voices in the room joined in with the refrain.
The Imam clapped his hands and signaled to one of the servants as the song continued. “Bring the children,” he said.
Within a minute Abdul Aziz’s and the Imam’s children were filing into the far end of the room, gleefully placing themselves on the cushions and clapping along with the rhythm of the song. Francisco had been unaware up to this point that the women and children had been dining in a separate room. Some of the younger children rose to their feet and began dancing, the Imam’s daughter Rula among them. They swayed gracefully to the pulsing beat, their movements seemingly effortless, as if inborn. The others clapped and egged them on.
Francisco suddenly became conscious of Fatima’s eyes observing him once more. She had been caring for her younger brothers and sisters and was now watching the proceedings as she stood in a doorway at the back of the room.
The song didn’t end but moved to other refrains, which lasted a full fifteen minutes, after which the room broke into a spontaneous outburst of applause.
“And what of you?” said Abdul Aziz to Francisco after the tumult had died down. “Do you sing? Could you sing us one of the songs of Spain?”
Francisco hesitated. “I do sing, but I do not know how to play the oud. If I had a guitar I would be happy to give you one of the songs of my country.”
The Imam clapped his hands smartly and motioned to a servant, who returned two minutes later carrying a Spanish guitar.
“So you see,” said the Imam with a smile, “my people are not totally uncivilized.”
“I have never thought so,” said Francisco. “It is indeed to your people that we owe the guitar, for is it not true that it is a descendant of your Arabic oud?”
“Indeed, indeed,” said the Imam, seeming pleased with the reply.
The guitar’s strings were intact, although it had obviously not been used for a long time. It took a few moments for Francisco to pull the strings into harmony. Finally he was satisfied and began to strum.
“I will sing you,” he began, “an Andalusian love song. It is of a man longing for his dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty. Circumstances of tradition and family have placed them far apart, but he promises to her that she will always be in his heart even though on the earth he knew they could never be together.
“The black fire of your eyes, has melted the white stone of my heart…”
Francisco looked down at the floor and took a deep breath as his hands began to caress the strings, softly at first and then crescendoing into deep and passionate chords. His voice sounded sweet and mellow, over the guitar’s pulsating harmonies. Although few in the room understood the words, all were swayed by the emotion of the music and captivated by the passion of the singer.
What sort of monk is this? thought Abdul Aziz, surprised to sense such passion in one whom he had previously considered an ascetic.
When the soaring, searing melody came to a close there was an almost reverent hush in the room for a few seconds, before applause once more broke out. For one more long, delicious instant Francisco’s eyes met Fatima’s, before they both turned away and busied themselves; Francisco with the menfolk and Fatima with her juvenile charges.
“Well done, well done,” said Abdul Aziz, clapping loudly and then picking up his oud as if to match the passionate love song with one of his own.
Once again the room erupted into a lively symphony of rhythm and lusty singing from the men, and dancing and clapping from the children. Revelry continued in such a fashion for more than an hour, then finally Abdul Aziz stood up and graciously took his leave, Francisco following suit. The children were bustled out by veiled mothers and older sisters, and all prepared to depart.
“Thank you most kindly for your hospitality,” said Francisco to the Imam in his best Arabic.
“You are welcome one thousand times,” said the Imam with some warmth, although Francisco noticed that the Imam’s eyes did not meet his squarely.
As they passed out through the front door of the house, Abdul Aziz turned to Francisco and said, “You should learn some of the songs of our people. Perhaps Fatima can instruct you. She has a lovely voice.” He turned to his daughter who was following behind him. “Fatima, would you instruct our guest in some of the music of our people?”
“Yes, Father,” she replied, feigning as much of an air of dutiful submission as she could muster.
Francisco’s heart skipped a beat, and he wondered why Abdul Aziz would propose such a thing. Surely he would be playing with fire to have his daughter in such close proximity to a stranger, and a foreigner and enemy at that! Quickly he pushed the thoughts from his mind, still wondering at the ways of this mysterious people he had come so far to love.
Francisco wasn’t sure if it was Rula’s healing, the night of socializing at the Imam’s house or his decision to wear the Arabic garments, but overnight he found himself much more closely accepted into Abdul Aziz’s household.
The next morning as he rose, he decided once again to put aside his monk’s robe and wear the Arabic garments. When the servants came to his door, instead of bringing him his customary breakfast they passed on the invitation from Abdul Aziz to join the family inside the house, for the first time. The room into which he was escorted was similar to the Imam’s sitting room. Abdul Aziz sat contemplatively drinking his morning cup of thick black coffee. He invited Francisco to sit with him, nodding with approval at his choice of clothes.
Soon they were joined by Ali, Abdul Aziz’s deputy, who immediately began to report on the military situation. Francisco, who was by now also partaking of the fragrant coffee, glanced nervously at Abdul Aziz, wondering if he should excuse himself. Ali seemed to sense the hesitation and stopped in mid-sentence.
“Continue, Ali. Francisco may be a Spaniard, but he is loyal to his vows to God, and he has earned my trust.”
Ali continued his report. “A division of the Spanish army is moving down the valley toward Meknès. It seems you were right in your prediction.”
“How many men?”
“The division looks about three thousand strong.”
“How many men can Meknés raise to defend themselves?”
“Maybe one thousand, or one thousand five hundred.”
“And how many from our city, Jerada, and the surrounding towns?”
Ali thought for a moment. “Perhaps five hundred fighting men. We are already outnumbered by their soldiers and they are better equipped than we are and far better trained. To meet them head on would be catastrophic.”
“You are right,” mused Abdul Aziz. “Our only weapon is surprise. We should set a fighting force of five hundred men before the city. They will think that’s all we have and complacently invade the city. Then at the crucial moment we shall sweep down on them from the hills on either side, cutting them off from behind and surrounding them. It’s our only chance.”
Francisco was silently staring into his coffee and nibbling on a piece of flat bread. Abdul Aziz gazed at him thoughtfully for a moment.
“I know better than to ask your advice in such a matter, Señor Francisco, as you are a man of prayer and not a man of war. I ask you to beseech your God for us that we will not fall prey to this tyranny.”
Francisco nodded gravely. “You can depend on me for that, Ya Seeidi,” he said. “Please let me know if there is any way I can help you and your family. I am acquainted with the Arabic custom of three days of hospitality and then going to work for one’s host.”
“Three days!” Abdul Aziz was indignant. “What poor hospitality that would be? Our custom is forty days, no less.”
“Nevertheless, if you need my help, please ask me. I am skilled in farm work.”
Abdul Aziz chuckled. “Thank you, but now go and work with your God in prayer, for this is the weapon that we must surely avail ourselves of.
“Ali,” he continued, “I will ride today to Meknès and meet the sheik, that we may plan our defense of the city. You gather the fighting men and follow me there. Follow me shortly. Position the men in the hills to the southeast and come yourself into the city by night, lest the Spaniards see you.”
“Señor Francisco,” he said turning slowly to the Spaniard, “until this time you have been my prisoner, but now you are my guest. Come and go as you please. My house is your house.”
Francisco thanked him profusely in Arabic, then sensing that it was time to take his leave, stood up, as did his host. Abdul Aziz looked at him with gravity and kindness.
“I trust that I shall see you again, if so be it that Allah will grant us victory in this battle.”
“May God bless you and protect you and keep you safe,” said Francisco holding Abdul’s hand firmly and looking into his eyes.
Abdul Aziz kissed him on both cheeks. Francisco noticed a trace of tears in his eyes.
“I will pray for you without ceasing,” said Francisco.
Suddenly the intangible bond that had been growing between the two men seemed palpable, as if they had been long and fast friends. With a final embrace Francisco took his leave and went back to his room, where he set about praying with all the diligence of a craftsman starting on a job, or an artist striving to create a masterpiece. Within half an hour he heard the clatter of hooves and knew that Abdul Aziz had departed.
Long and earnestly he beseeched God for the protection of his friend and the people of the land. When he felt he had exhausted his reserves of strength in prayer, he set about studying an Arabic grammar book, which he had requested from Abdul Aziz to perfect his knowledge of the language.
Thus his day was spent until the afternoon. At three in the afternoon Abdul Aziz’s eldest son Sami came to the door of Francisco’s room. He was about sixteen, thin but muscular in build. He scrutinized Francisco closely for a few moments before speaking.
“My sister is ready for the music lesson,” he said.
Francisco closed the journal he was writing in, and arose from the table a bit more quickly than he had intended. Sami led him into the house, to a sitting room where Fatima was waiting, with another younger brother and a female cousin.
Francisco was secretly glad for the additional company, for he knew that to be left alone with this beauty might be too great a temptation for his Spanish heart. Sami handed Francisco an oud. Fatima set her oud in her lap and began to explain the fine points of the instrument to him.
Francisco was musical and a quick learner, and soon was able to pluck out a tune with the long, feather-like quill that was used as a plectrum*. He kept his eyes glued studiously to his instrument, fearing that an exchange of glances with Fatima would either pierce too deeply into his tender heart or alert the ever-watchful brothers to the stirrings of an unacceptable relationship.
The principles of the oud now explained, Fatima proceeded to teach Francisco a folkloric song, an exercise which proved much more difficult, the intricacies of the Arabic tongue in song being particularly hard to master. Fatima could not suppress some giggles at his clumsy attempts to pronounce syllables not found in any other languages. Francisco, however, steadfastly avoided her eyes, looking instead at Sami and the other brothers for help. Many years in the monastery had given him considerable practice at suppressing passion, a skill which he employed to the full extent of his ability in the tantalizingly volatile circumstances in which he now found himself.
After an hour and a half, the lesson was ended. Francisco stood up and thanked Fatima and her brothers for their time and returned to his room. The rest of the afternoon and evening were spent in prayer, further study and writing his journal. Such activities were not burdensome or sacrificial to Francisco. He enjoyed the spiritual voyages he made in communion with his Savior and best Friend, where he could escape from the problems and desires that vexed him and find solace.
At ten that night he extinguished his lantern and went to bed. He was awoken at midnight by the sound of the door of his room creaking. Quickly he started and turned over, preparing to defend himself against any unwanted intruder. His eyes widened in amazement as he made out a feminine figure, faintly silhouetted in the moonlight.
“Fatima!” he gasped. “What are you doing here?”
“Shhh, Francisco,” she said, quietly entering the room and closing the door behind her.
“I am dreaming,” said Francisco. “My willful heart has escaped my control in the night seasons.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed, scrambled for a moment on the desk to find a flint, and lit the lantern. There stood Fatima, no nocturnal fantasy. For a long moment their eyes met.
If a war could be fought without firing a shot, if a concert could be performed without playing a note, if love could be made without a single kiss or caress, that is what transpired between them as they gazed, mesmerized in each other’s eyes. Finally Francisco tore his gaze away.
“Fatima, you should not be here. You must go.”
Softly she pulled off the veil which covered her head and shoulders and let it slip down to the floor. Francisco’s eyes inadvertently returned to the stunning apparition before him. She was clad in a filmy white nightgown and her black hair cascaded down over her shoulders. Her curved lips smiled expectantly. Francisco drew a deep breath, but Fatima spoke first.
“Since I was thirteen no man, except my father and brothers, has ever seen me with my head uncovered.”
“You should not have come.”
“I had to come. That song you sang last night, ‘The black fire of your eyes melts the white stone of my heart.’ I saw you looking at me when you sang. I knew what you were thinking.”
“I … I was not,” he stammered.
Fatima laughed softly. “Do you think because of this,” she gestured towards the discarded veil, “that I do not know what a man wants, and how to satisfy him?” She took a few seductive steps towards him.
Francisco backed gently away.
“No, Fatima,” he said gently but firmly, “we cannot do this. God only knows how I long to hold you and kiss you, but there is something more important. I am here on a mission, a mission of love for my Master. It is most important that I win your father’s trust. If we do this he will never trust me again. My mission will be ended if it is ever found out, and you…” He stopped mid-sentence.
Fatima looked down at the floor for a moment. No more needed to be said. Both knew the consequences of a woman having inappropriate relations outside marriage. The brothers would feel obliged to cleanse the honor of the family by executing the girl. Francisco’s life would also be in jeopardy.
Fatima looked up at him, tears forming in the deep pools of her imploring eyes.
“Francisco, I love you. Take me away from here, to your country. I will dwell with you. I will believe as you do. I will be your wife. We can have beautiful children together and I will dedicate them to the service of your God.”
Francisco’s heart pounded. “Oh Fatima, do not tempt me more than I am able to bear! I have been sent on this mission by my Master, and I cannot depart from it. Please understand.”
Fatima’s eyes dropped again to the floor. “Then I was wrong. You did not want me, and you do not love me.”
“No, you were right. You read the fire of passion in my eyes as I sang that song. You are beautiful to look upon and you are beautiful also in heart. I love you too, but there is One Who I love more.”
“The one you loved and could not marry?” Fatima’s eyes were wide with curiosity. Obviously Abdul Aziz had related the story to his family.
“No. I have long since expelled her memory from my heart. Now I speak of Jesus, Who I serve and Who saved me. To be true to His love and faithful to His calling I would gladly give up anything in this world … even something as beautiful and as precious as yourself.”
“But surely the God that you love and serve will not deny you the desires of your heart.”
“That may be true, but I know that now is neither the time nor the place.” There was a sudden urgency in his voice. “Go, Fatima! Go quickly before you are discovered.”
After one last long, passionate look into his eyes, she stooped and picked up the veil and pulled it once more around her hair and shoulders. As she turned towards the door Francisco spoke once more.
Her hand was already resting on the doorknob, but as if exerting a great effort she turned once more and looked at him. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.
“Would you help me on my mission?”
Summoning every reserve of inner strength she nodded slowly.
“I must leave tomorrow to Meknès. I feel God is calling me to go and help your father, but no one must know.”
Fatima involuntarily wiped her cheek and eyes on the sleeve of her gown and nodded once more.
“Can you get me a horse?”
She thought for a moment then nodded again.
“I want to leave at midnight tomorrow. Can you arrange to bring the horse here?”
Again a silent nod.
“I will need clothes, clothes like those your father wears when he rides.”
Again a nod of assent.
“No man must find out that I have left. I will tell the servant that from tomorrow for three days I will fast and pray for the success of the battle and that I don’t want food and don’t want to be disturbed. I will tell them to place a jug of water by the door. Can you come when no one is around and empty the water somewhere, so they think I have taken it?”
Fatima nodded slowly. “I will do this for you and for your God and for my people.”
One last searching, searing gaze passed between them. Then Fatima pulled the veil tighter around her flowing hair and turned to leave. In the dimly lit room, neither of them saw the gold earring fall from her left ear and roll under a stool in the corner of the room.
As the door closed behind her, Francisco let out a long, deep sigh. Every part of his body seemed to cry out and crave to touch, to hold, to caress the entrancing vision that had just disappeared from his sight. For a moment he was tempted to run to the door, fling it open and call her to come back into his arms.
“No,” he groaned. “I must not.”
He threw himself headlong on his roughly hewn bunk and pulled a threadbare blanket around him.
“Oh, my Lord Jesus, only for You would I give up such a thing.” His large manly frame broke into convulsive sobs, which only subsided many minutes later when he lapsed into a restless sleep.
The following day Francisco told Abdul Aziz’s servants that he would fast and pray for the next three days for God to intervene and assist the people of Meknès in their battle against the invading forces.
“Only bring me a pitcher of water every evening,” he said, “and leave it outside the door of my room.”
At midnight a soft knock came at his door. He opened it a crack, confirming that it was Fatima. Without a word she handed him a neatly folded pile of garments. He closed the door and quickly dressed himself. He slung a traveling bag over his shoulder, opened the door again and followed Fatima out into the night.
She led him down a path, away from the house, toward an orchard. She carried no lantern, but the moon was full and the two easily found their way through the fig trees and grapevines. At the end of the orchard was a fence, and as they approached it Francisco heard a soft whinny. He could make out the shape of a horse tied to a tree near the fence, silhouetted against the moonlight-bathed fields beyond. Fatima led him towards the tree, purposefully undid the reins of the horse that were tied around it and handed them to Francisco.
Their eyes met, and as she passed him the reins their hands touched. She looked searchingly into Francisco’s eyes.
“May Allah go with you,” she said softly.
Francisco saw a tear trickling down her cheek and instinctively reached up with his hand to dry it. She clasped his hand and placed it to her lips. Francisco could resist no longer. In an instant the two were locked in a passionate kiss. For a long, ecstatic minute their lips and tongues caressed each other until firmly but gently Francisco pulled away.
“We must be strong, Fatima,” he whispered. “Pray for me, that if it is God’s will we shall meet again.”
She sobbed and nodded her head in assent. Tearing himself away with all his strength, Francisco mounted the white stallion.
Fatima looked up at him longingly. In his white garments and headdress, astride the magnificent steed, he looked every inch an Arab warrior. She pulled her veil tighter around her face and managed a wave of her hand.
Pulling in the reins, Francisco pressed his hands to his lips in a final farewell, and spurred the horse off into the night. As the moonlit road rose up to meet the horse’s galloping hoofs, the memory of the touch of Fatima’s hair on his face, the fragrance of her perfume, and the softness of her lips enveloped him like an intoxicating shroud.
– – –
(To be continued)
*jihad: a campaign waged by Muslims in defense of their faith
*curative: able to heal
*pathos: feelings of pity, sadness
*evocative: prompting memories of the past
*castigate: to rebuke or punish severely
*mutabbel: dish made from mashed eggplant
*plectrum: device for plucking guitar strings