On a cold evening of the new year, Maria sat alone on a desolate bench with fixed eyes and lips parted. Hers was a life strewn with misery and struggle, a life wasted in Sisyphean labour as a housemaid in the red city Marrakech.
She too could have been a poetess and have her works published, but her dreams were crushed even before they could take on a subtle form. The dreams of a popper, were no more than thin snowflakes covering the ugly road, no more than the dilapidated cottages that were swept away by the raging storm, no more than Maria’s fading hope to see the sun rays break through the thick, gloomy clouds that overshadowed her heart and soul.
For what was life worth living after all? Clinging desperately to a life, a world that had denied her existence, stripped her of her childhood and tore her dreams into tiny pieces, like the shattered glass, so fragile and yet hopelessly irreparable. They were like the grains of sand that slip through the fingers in fear of being put into one wholesome shape.
As she gazed at the marble sculpture in front of the bookshop, Maria remembered the poems that she wrote in her childhood and furtively hid every night under her pillow. She would recite every line of them in a low, apotropaic tone, before angels would come to carry her to the pure world of dreams. From a very young age, Maria believed that reading poetry was a better exorcism than the prayers her father made her recite every day with a stick in his hand, an instrument he kept especially for that purpose in moments of anger. His motto was that ‘The stick is made in heaven’, it kept daughters from going astray.
Maria’s father, El Haj Omar, was a renown fqih in that quarter. Since he got married, his wife Samira was never to be seen outside. There were rumours that she had either been repudiated the very day she gave birth to her last daughter or that she had chosen a life of seclusion as a way to submit to her husband’s wish and stay out from other men’s sight.
Maria could never understand why she and her other sisters were doomed to spend most of their life in the confines of the house, a place ever so shrouded in dark and abhorred in her memory. She recalled the day when she ran away from the countryside where she used to live. A shudder went through her frame and made her aware of the late hour. The day was closing when she got up, adjusted her shawl and walked back to her new lodgings.
For more than two years, Maria had been occupying a room in the basement of her employer’s house. It had but one small window, facing a narrow hallway. There were no chirping birds to cheer her up in the morning, no stars visible to kindle her passion for poetry, and to remove the dust from the only thing that could pull her out from the bleak abyss of misery and woe in which she had fallen.
At night, she would lay her head to rest, but sleep would not come. It was as though she had lost the ability to live like a normal human being. If she ever closed her eyes, it was only to enter a surreal world, far more gruesome than the one she already lived in. The monotonous course of her life constituted of waking up early before her mistress, scrubbing the dishes, washing up dirty clothes, and cooking meals for the twenty-seven students who resided in her employer’s boarding school.
The man for whom Maria worked was fifty-three years of age. At the age of forty, he built an all-boys private boarding school, abutting his house. His rules were clear; for everything to be done in an intact way, each individual had to accept his or her lot. Women had to remain at home, and men had to work outside to provide for their family. A rigid social stratification had to be kept. If ever was there any transgression of these ‘natural’ laws, a calamity was sure to fall upon the heads of those who dared disobey what he believed to be the written words of God. Si Ahmed was no religious man, yet he was fond of boasting about how his ways in life were to be a model for his students, for his children and for his poor maid, Maria.
The day Maria decided to communicate her wish to quit her work to Si Ahmed, he was in his office reading a newspaper. Upon hearing her familiar footsteps, Si Ahmed cleared the tobacco stocks from his desk hastily, thrust them with some banknotes he was hitherto counting inside the closest drawer, and stared intently at the watch that hang on the wall facing him with malignant anticipation.
Maria was often in the habit of passing by her boss’s office on late evenings to clean up the bathroom. On such mornings when the boss was still there, she was not allowed to come to his apartment for any reason. What brought her there in such an untimely hour? Si Ahmed was wondering. Could it be that she wants a raise? The money he was giving her would not last her half a month! Yet, she never complained before. “What on earth has entered into this girl’s mind?” The boss muttered to himself, grinding his teeth and twisting his fingers in such peculiar nervousness.
A soft knock on the door set Si Ahmed’s heart pounding like a hammer against his chest. “Confound this girl!” He muttered again. At length, he recovered his self-composure and straightening his collar in an insidious air, shouted at the top of his voice: “Come in!”
Maria stood before him, her eyes set solemnly on the ground. “What’s the matter?” he mumbled quickly behind his thick moustache. Maria hesitated at first, drew a long breath and explained the reason why she came to his office.
Silence reigned after Maria had placidly finished her sentence with a courteous bow to her boss, who was now chewing ominously at his fingernails as a dog chews at chicken feet. At last, the silence was broken by a sudden bleat coming out from the adjoining building. The students in Si Ahmed’s private school were harmoniously reciting the national anthem of Morocco, until they came to the line “In my mouth and in my blood, Your love stirred up as light and fire.”, and each one of them took the liberty to pronounce the words as he pleased.
Si Ahmed looked at the window as the vigorous voices were now fading. He turned his head back and looked at Maria appraisingly. “I understand that you are fed up with your work?” He let out long, choking sounds from his throat, like that of a grass-cutting machine. “Well, ignorant folks like you are always dissatisfied no matter how much money they receive.” He jeered mockingly, rubbed his flat nose and continued: “I shall tell you one thing before you leave this house, young girl.”
He took off his round eye-glasses, placed them on his desk and shook his head at the newspaper before he met Maria’s eyes. She looked puzzled and disconcerted. Her short black hair was dishevelled, her impenetrable eyes blue like the ocean. He resumed in a husky voice, “I tell you what, Maria, after the egregious mistake you had made by running away from your house, you will not find peace anywhere. Atone and accept your lot.”
That night Maria headed towards a different building. She crossed an old, mossy bridge and walked hastily through the rubbles of a workhouse. Now, she stopped in an isolated alley in front of a bakery. The smell of bread reminded her of the last day she and her mother baked bread in their red clay oven. This memory took her back to two years ago when it all had started.
Maria could not help but ponder over the vicissitudes and the discordant days, when she would clutch her pillow at night, and think of hundreds of ways to go back to school. Her dreams were shattered since the day her father declared that she should no longer go out unveiled, for she was now a ‘threat’ to family honor and to his name as a respectful religious man.
Indeed, Maria’s father was very pious. He was in the habit of giving religious advice to people in the street even without knowing them. One day, when he stood in a grocery store in his black Jellaba, his white beard, now dyed in light red with henna, was seven inches long. It gave people the impression that he was red-headed by birth, given that he was bold and no single hair was to be found on his brown, shiny head.
El Haj Omar came closer and greeted the store owner, before he preceded in telling him to close the store during the prayer of Jumuaa, in order to attend the prayer. “All the money you get at this period is haram,” the fqih concluded in a triumphant tone.
The store owner, a man of Amazigh origins called Muhammad, searched at the fqih, as though to read his reaction for what was to follow. Before the fqih had come, he was preoccupied with gluing the magazine papers that he used as a substitute for plastic bags. They were cheaper and handier. Muhammad was proud. “How fool the Arabs are!” he said to himself in an audible whisper; they not only called him a miser and mocked him for being too stingy, but now they also wanted to show that he knew nothing about his religion.
Before looking at the fqih, Muhmmad lifted his head to the left wall and gazed dreamily at the poster where the following words were inscribed in bold letters: “No credit allowed, fortune is in the hands of Allah.” Muhammad smiled in admiration of his nice handwriting.
“Listen, our fqih.” Muhammad finally said in his accented Darija. “Why don’t you go and tell your daughter to wear the veil? You are a fqih, for God’s sake! save your preaching to your family.” Muhammad continued while working himself again to glue the remaining magazine papers. “As for me, I can distinguish between what is Haram and what is Halal. I will tell you something you will very much like, our Fqih.” Muhammad pressed the two papers between his thumb so hard as though he was squeezing Argan oil. He then resumed: “What is Haram is to close the store in the face of people in need. Why, people would perish from hunger if I were ever to close my store at such a time.” With this, he put an end to their conversation, and the Fqih turned his back directing his steps towards his house.
At the age of fourteen, Maria could not by any perceptible means fathom why on earth she was to start covering her dark wavy strands from public sight. How could a harmless little creature, yet in the bloom of age be a ‘threat’ as were those terrorists and criminals whom she read about in old blackened newspapers. At last, what she had dreaded the most had come. After several days of disquietude and fright at the ceaseless nagging and the unreasonable reproaches she received from her father, and as much as she did not want to believe, Maria began to understand her father’s real motive.
On one of the early mornings during spring, Maria got up from her bed very early. She opened her window and welcomed the first rays of the sun with eyes sparkling like diamonds. The sunrays were like a divine light, lightening her soul and resuscitating her energy. She smiled joyfully at the sound of birds that fluttered around the trees of their garden, the salubrious morning breeze caressing her soft skin and rendering cold her reddish lips and dimpled cheeks.
Her mother was already stirring in the kitchen, tending to her endless daily chores. She sat on a mat made of sheep’s fur, rolled the dough inside her palms dexterously and covered the plate with flour before she made the dough into medium sized shapes. She spread two mats on an old, three-legs table made of wood, and carefully placed them one by one, covering the first row with the second mat, and adding the next row in the same manner. At last, she got up, and after wrapping herself in a long Melhfa, she lifted the small table and placed it on her head. As she descended the stairs carefully, she held the table’s leg with one hand, and with the other she carried a bucket of wet bread and barely for the fowl.
With a rueful expression on her face, Maria sat close to the clay oven, staring at the burning flames and imagining that the fire would soon eat away all the bread. Her mother went to the stable to feed the fowl, leaving her daughter alone with her boisterous thoughts.
The small bamboo cottage where they kept the clay oven was covered by an old rusty roof of zinc. The roof had small holes from which the light of the day could be seen. In winter, the rain would fall in droplets upon the ash-covered ground and buds would start to emerge like a phoenix arising from ashes.
Sooner than her mother turned her back, Maria thrust her hand in her pocket, producing out a paper on which she wrote her last poems, she read the last three lines: Would this feeling last after you are no more? /By heaven’s name it shall! and I will wish you a happy new year/ Ever till the stars grow dim and the birds cease to sing.
The flames rose high, and danced away with the wind. An unsettling feeling crept inside Maria’s heart and weighed heavily upon her chest. The wind coming from the East blew her long, flowery dress, she held it tightly with her hands as if to pacify a storm that raged within her soul.
The fire was casting a red light on the girl’s florid face as she watched the words she wrote shrink and turn into mere ash. Her face as emotionless as the merciless flames that destroyed her last work of art. No one had ever censored her writings – no one knew what her thin fingers could wrought – she did it herself, refusing to ever let someone rub her from that privilege.
The world outside Maria’s window was very hostile, a jungle at its worse. Maria longed to have a companion, someone to answer her questions, to tell her why some kids were begging in the streets? Why some men, looked at her so keenly as though to devour her? Why did her family forget about her? Maria was in a dire need to get answers for a lot of questions that were perplexing enough to make her want to open the window and shout them out at the top of her voice to the heavens above, for they knew better!
It was not her fault. She blamed the universe. Yes, it was the universe’s fault, that she ended up there, with no family, no single soul to console her in those lonesome days. She shook her head to stifle those thoughts, and got up to open the shutters of her window. She drew in a long breath and gazed down at the scenery.
On the brink of a dirty river, laid a vagabond wrapped in grey rags. His long, dishevelled hair was covered with moss and dirt. Under his head was a small bag where he often kept his food leftovers. He was laying on his back and facing the sky, his right hand stretched towards the blinding sun. He seemed like a wingless albatross, asking for salvation. Too starved the man was, that the only things one could recognize about his facial features were his high cheekbones and hollow cheeks.
Upon lifting his head, the vagabond saw Maria looking down at him with pity. He brought his two meek feet close to his chest, and rocked his body two and fro and then rose his body parts slowly as if they were all broken and he needed to perform these moves to put them together. Maria was still looking in stupefaction, when the man suddenly stood erect and took off his shirt, then his shoes. He opened his wide mouth, revealing a set of yellow teeth, and with an effort to raise his left arm, waved at her to come down.
She stepped back in alarm, not believing her eyes. The window was still open, and the voice of the vagabond was still audible. Refusing to believe what she had seen, she rubbed her eyelids with the back of her sleeve, stepped forward again, and looked down near the river. The man was gone.
The next morning when Maria got up from bed, the sun was overshadowed by a big cloud that resembled in its shape a floating whale. It seemed not to move for a long time. After she had her breakfast, Maria sat on a wooden chair in the corner of her room, her eyes partly closed and her chin uplifted. Her round face shone bright even in the dim-lighted room. She looked like Aphrodite in her short reveries. It was indeed one of the rarest times since Maria came to Marrakech, that she was feeling an unusual calmness and serenity surrounding her.
After few minutes of repose, she got up and wrapped herself in a warm shawl as she descended the stairs after hearing someone knocking at the door. No one knew her in that neighbourhood. The only person that could be coming to check on her was the landlord, who often came at the end of the month to take the rent due. The door was ajar. Maria wondered why the landlord would knock at her door when it was clearly opened, but took no moment to reflect on whether the shadowy figure that stood on the other side was indeed the old man she was accustomed to see on such a time.
The door was thrown open in a sudden blow, and who was there when she coiled in shock but the very vagabond she saw from yesterday, laying at the brink of the river. She was rooted to the spot in horror, her voice choked inside her throat that only a hissing sound could be heard coming out of her nostrils. The man, now so close, that she could read his features, stood gasping at her door. In a sudden, uncontrolled fit, Maria let out a deafening shriek that shook her lungs. Her heart threatened to pound out of her ribs.
The vagabond stretched his thin, cadaverous hand and placed it on her forehead. Her hair stood, and blood froze inside her veins. In an uncontrolled motion, Maria darted a look at her left side. She faltered at first and then moved swiftly to pull the nearest object her hand could reach. In a blink of an eye, Maria held her breath as she tightened her grip over the glass vase. The sound that followed was of a disturbing, inhuman nature. It resonated in the hall like a hoarse squeal of a demon.
Silence reigned. The poor man fell at her feet, he was unharmed, for Maria threw the vase so quickly, and without any sense of direction she waved it in the air.
The man begged for mercy. His words came out in a set of incomprehensible sounds, they drowned in the saliva and tears that poured like torrents down his hollow cheeks. He pleaded again and again, while Maria stood in shock, her mind floating to the same rhythm that his words stirred up. She wanted to ask for his forgiveness, yet there was no way to halt the confusion that overtook her mind at that moment.
After few minutes elapsed, the sound of weeping ceased and Maria’s hands trembled in fear as the man was rising on his feet. She broke out suddenly: “Sir, who are you? What are you doing here?” The man only stared long at her baffled eyes, without uttering a single sound. She felt uneasy, but not knowing what else to say, she turned her back and looked sternly downwards, her eyebrows closely knitted as though she was attempting to keep the floor from swaying. “Why, the man must be starving!” She exclaimed at last in a low voice.
“I am Omar Khayyam,” said the man abruptly in a croaky voice. Maria turned again, her eyes were wide open in amazement, she cracked a smile at the vagabond’s bold statement. He raised his right hand as if he were about to swear a pledge at the court.
“Can you recite poetry?” Maria interposed fervently, forgetting about her distress, and refusing to let go of an eagerness that was making itself visible. She so wanted to know if the so-called Omar Khayyam, had the same gift as the poet she admired in her childhood.
The vagabond gazed long at the peeling paint of the ceiling, before he broke into a set of faint whispers, now and then raising his voice at certain words like “A jug of Wine, A loaf of Bread…the Wilderness…Oh the Wilderness where Paradise…” He went on reciting lines from the Rubaiat while Maria stood immobile, staring hard at his lips as they moved, the melodious tone of his voice rang in her ears like a divine revelation, it was like a nostalgic anthem hailing her from days of yore.
The man stopped in the middle of his chanting and marvelled for few seconds at Maria’s beautiful face. She reminded him of his son when he used to fall asleep on his lap, while he weaved poems and recited them for him. There was a rueful smile on his face, a lugubrious air that surrounded his shadowy eyes as he directed his steps towards the door. Without making much noise, the man treaded carefully lest he steps on the broken glass.
A long silence ensued before Maria woke up from that long state of oblivion. The man was gone. The only thing he left behind was a small, soiled bag. She hurried up, took the small bag and rushed outside to look for him, but to no avail. The man was nowhere to be found.
She wanted to meet him again, she spent almost everyday outside her window, staring dreamily at the river. Her hopes to see him started to dissipate, like the white froth that settled at the surface of the cascades of the river in the early cold mornings.
One day, when she was reminiscing the last words of the poem he was reciting, she decided to go out and look for him again. The small bag was still where she laid it the last time. It was so light, that she never thought of looking inside it, only when she held it now, she was seized with a strong feeling to see if there was anything of value inside it. There was a white folded paper, on the back of which was written the name of a street she knew very well. It was the same neighbourhood where she formerly worked as a housemaid, in Si Ahmed’s household. She unfolded it hurriedly, with a mixture of anticipation and disbelief.
It was a letter addressed to a young man whose name was not mentioned. Maria struggled to read the words that were written in a hasty manner, and most of which made little or no meaning at all. At the very bottom of the letter, was inscribed the name “Omar Khayyam”.
One of the students in Maria’s former master’s school was overtook with surprise when he saw her wandering aimlessly in the street, stopping at every opened store or whenever she saw a woman, to inquire about a man called ‘Omar Khayyam’, who happened to live there some years ago.
When Maria was still working with Si Ahmed, she was not allowed to hold any conversation with the students at mealtimes. She was instructed by her master to prepare the food and after everyone finished, she would wait for them to go out to clean the tables and arrange the empty dishes.
While she waited next to the door, counting the students as they ran after each other in the hallway, some of them would bump into her and move without apologizing, others who were more impertinent, would dry their hands on her apron in a successive manner, play hide and seek behind her back, pull at her clothes or push her so suddenly to watch her amusingly as she falls on her face.
Maria would endure it all stoically. She never showed her displeasure at whatever the children did or said to her. She was there to work, and her job was to serve and clean without any complaint. There was one boy, however, on whom she took all notice. He often remained last after all the students ﬁnished their food. He was rather slow in eating, and so she was obliged to wait a couple of minutes before he got up, smoothed his napkin on the table and said a short prayer. He often exchanged swift glances with Maria as he crossed the hallway. “Thank you, Maria,” he said one day, as she was curiously staring at him walking by.
Maria was still walking hastily from one store to the other, when she suddenly stopped in alarm at hearing someone calling her from behind. She turned her head, and stared long at the young man that was beaming at her, she could swear she had seen him somewhere, but her mind was in so disturbed a state to recall when or where they had met.
The young man was the same person who often looked at Maria with pity when he was still a student in Si Ahmed’s school. He grew up into a tall, handsome man in his early twenties, that Maria failed to recognize him, until he introduced himself. He offered to help her on the matter that brought her there but she excused herself and departed, promising to come back to see him again.
The following day, Maria headed to a nearby street to meet the young man from yesterday. As she was reading the address he handed her, she found herself standing in front of a big store of furniture. She glanced at the huge board that was hung on the wall. The board read “For Sale” with a set of lines scribbled at the very lower edge, resembling a poem. She stood on tiptoe to read it but could only distinguish the last word: “Hope”.
The Gothic furniture displayed before the eyes of pedestrians, had the inclination of telling endless stories, echoing laughter and emitting subdued weeping. Feelings peculiar to the human race, but out of habit, they had acquired a tendency to mimic such baffling sounds they were unable to fathom.
Taib sat on an old wooden chair, with a handful of blue pearls at his side and a glue. He awkwardly bent over his knees, sticking these shiny items on the back of an old box. That box, like all the other Gothic furniture in the store, was made by his father.
Just as Taib was making the last touches, using a pointed brush to write his father’s name, Maria stood like an angel in her long sapphire dress watching his work admiringly. Feeling her presence, Taib raised his frame, his bones cracking and his hands stretched like a fan. He grimaced out of backpain for he had been sitting in that position for almost an hour. His soft black hair was burning, with the sun like a giant lighted candle hanging over his head.
“Do you like it?” he said, smiling and before she replied he lifted the small box and gave it to her. “It is yours. This box, I have never opened it since my father abandoned us.” She hesitated and then exclaimed “No! I will not have it, please.” Taib moved a step closer to her, and ruffling her hair gently he said “I won’t take no for an answer, you shall take it with you.” With this Maria thanked him, and after an hour, she went back to her lodgings, thinking about that strange incidence all the way back home. She held the box close to her bosom, sometimes bringing it close to her ears, as though she waited for it to speak.
The stillness of the room and the dim light that her lamp cast on the small wooden desk made her feel uneasy, as she listened to a deep voice calling her from within. There was something in that small box beseeching her to come close. With a pulsating heart she held it between shivering hands, her eyes wide open as she unlocked it with the key Taib gave her. Inside the box, there was a yellow document containing worn out papers, on the back of which was written: “Rubaiat Omar Khayyam.”
Maria dropped the box instantly. She closed her eyes, sat back and fervently recited the poems she wrote when she was young. The words engulfed her soul like a magical red mantle. Looking again at the items she held in her hand, she wiped her tears and whispered to herself in a quivering tone: “Happy new year! Omar Khayyam”.