by Josh Pachter
This story was originally published in EQMM in 1986, and it was included last year in The Tree of Life (Wildside Press), which collected all 10 of the Chaudri stories in a single volume. Details at the end of this post on how to win a copy of The Tree of Life. You can also find an interview with Josh, and a review of another book he wrote with Bavo Dhooge, here in this issue.
“Biqam?” asked Mahboob Chaudri, holding the ceremonial Berber belt in his hands and gazing admiringly at its bold colors and long tassels and glittering bits of mirror. “How much?” The belt would be an extravagance at any price, but Chaudri had promised himself an extravagance this day, and, after hours of searching through the souks of Marrakesh, he wondered if this might not at last be it.
Chaudri had already bought souvenirs for his children and his wife, spending – after much bargaining – some 50 dirham on each of them. Now he had a last 50 dirham set aside for himself. He had long since grown tired of the ritual haggling. It was clearly expected of him, though, so he fingered the belt with apparent indifference and began the game with an offer of 15 dirham.
The Arab laughed. “This is a very fine piece,” he explained. “Very fine. But because you are visitors to my country, I make you a special price: two hondred dirham.”
Chaudri and Malek had arrived in Marrakesh four days earlier as part of the 12-man security team accompanying His Highness the Minister of Defense and his staff. Today was the first time the duty rotation had allowed them a day of rest, and it was to be their only time off of the trip: the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations which His Highness was attending was due to end within 24 hours, and the Bahraini contingent would be flying back to Manama as soon as the final session was over.
“Two hundred dirham?” Chaudri feigned shock and laid down the belt. “La, la, da hrali awi.”
The merchant scooped it up again and held it out to him. “No, my frien’, it’s not too much. Look, you pay hondred-fitty dirham, okay?”
Chaudri waved away the offer. “Thirty dirham,” he said firmly, with the voice he used to interrogate a suspect.
The Arab pressed the belt into his hands. “Not thutty,” he compromised, “not hondred-fitty. We say hondred-thutty dirham, you happy, me happy.”
“Da akhir taman?” the Pakistani asked. “Is that your lowest price?”
The smile disappeared from the merchant’s face. The foreigner in the olive-green uniform had asked that crucial question much too soon. He will never pay my final price, the Arab saw, and I will make no profit if I give it to him for his. He shook his head sadly and took back the belt, folded it together, and returned it to its place. The game was over, and both of the players had lost.
Disappointed, Mahboob Chaudri shook the brown hand the merchant held out to him and turned away from the shop. The Berber belt would have looked beautiful hanging above his bed in the police barracks back in Juffair, but –
“Never mind,” Sikander Malek consoled him. “Perhaps you will find something even better when we get to the Jemaa.”
“These Moroccans are amazingly clever,” muttered Chaudri as they strolled beneath the green canvas awnings which protected the souks from the fierce heat of the afternoon sun. “Somehow, I don’t know how, they seem to know who will be buying and who will not. They are, I think, the finest observers of human nature I have ever seen. They would make excellent policemen, all of them – or excellent criminals.”
They twisted and turned through the tangled maze of bustling alleyways and finally broke out of the coolness of the Medina into the bright pandemonium that was the Jemaa el Fna, Marrakesh’s main square, an enormous tent city where each of the tents was a self-contained shop and hundreds of Arabs too poor to afford even a tent prowled up and down the haphazard arrangement of aisles with their entire stock of merchandise draped carefully over their shoulders and arms.
Teenage boys in tattered shorts and nothing else offered fists full of hand-carved hash pipes with fragile clay bowls. Grizzled old men sang the praises of “antique” daggers, which were turned out by the thousands by craftsmen from the Middle Atlas mountains, and cheap woolen blankets their wives and unmarried daughters toiled over in their ramshackle cottages in the poorest sections of town.
Water sellers in tasseled red hats and red jackets studded with coins from around the world poured sparkling spring water from the bulging goatskins slung over their shoulders into shining brass drinking bowls, and dirt-caked gypsy girls were half hidden beneath their collections of hand-woven wicker baskets. Ancient crones sat cross-legged in the dust, knitting bright skullcaps with nimble fingers and looking up now and again to wave their work-in-progress at the passersby and yell “Three dirham! Three!”
But the Jemaa el Fna was not just a place for shopping. Shoeshine boys clustered wherever one turned. There were guess-your-weight men with heavy old scales and fiery preachers with nothing but an upturned orange crate and a mission from God. There was a long row of tents which served as restaurants, where Berber chefs kept aromatic stews bubbling in heavy iron pots and spicy skewered meats roasting over open fires. There were beggars everywhere, crippled, diseased, one-eyed, blind, crying for alms and offering nothing in return save the knowledge that the giver had fulfilled the third of the five Sacred Pillars of Islam, Zahat, which is the command to be charitable to the unfortunate.
More than anything else, there was entertainment. Not even in the streets of Karachi had Chaudri and Malek seen such an abundance of jugglers, dancers, singers, musicians, storytellers, fire eaters, magicians, and acrobats. They watched, entranced, as a snake charmer flung away his wooden flute, grabbed up three monstrous hooded cobras and stuffed them down the front of his baggy white pantaloons. With a piercing scream, the man dropped to the ground and writhed in wonderfully overplayed agony, clutching wretchedly at his groin and pleading for mercy in a comic mixture of Arabic, French, and English.
For more than an hour they roamed around the square, pausing to hear snatches of a speech or a song, to see trained monkeys with faces almost human in their intensity perform simple tricks at the ends of their thin red leashes, to watch children act out elaborate “playlets” while the youngest member of the troupe approached each onlooker with an upturned palm and a look of forlorn entreaty.
At the edge of the Jemaa, they found a small knot of men gathered around a cardboard carton, buzzing with excitement and waving 100-dirham bills eagerly. The group’s attention was focused on a young man in a yellow-and-brown-striped djelleba in the center of the circle who was busily arranging a length of cord on the upper surface of the carton to form two small loops, with some 10 centimeters of cord left over at either end.
The loudest of the spectators slapped his money down next to the pattern, then stabbed a forefinger into one of the loops. There rose a mixed chorus of groans and approval, and then the crowd fell silent as the young man in the striped djelleba took one end of the cord in each hand. With a dramatic flourish, he pulled the cord taut, and the loop snapped closed around the other man’s finger. Happy cheers rang out, and the young man released the other’s finger and returned his wager – along with a second 100-dirham note from the pocket of his djelleba. As they watched, Chaudri and Malek saw that the rules of the game were simple. If a gambler selected the correct loop, the cord would trap his finger when pulled and he would win 100 dirham. If he picked wrong, the cord would pull free and he would lose his bet.
After watching the sequence repeated several times, the Pakistanis turned to go. But suddenly there were hands tugging at Chaudri’s sleeves, and the players were urging him back toward the cardboard carton.
“La, la,” he said politely, holding up his hands in a gesture of refusal, but the young man in the djelleba waved his hesitation away and grinned, “No money! No money! Just for try!”
Chaudri glanced back over his shoulder at Sikander Malek, who shrugged as if to say Do not be asking me, my friend.
“Well, all right,” Chaudri decided, handing over his armload of parcels to his companion. “Just for try.”
Encouraging noises bubbled up from the crowd. The cord was arranged on the surface of the carton and then there was silence as Chaudri studied the simple arrangement of loops. “I see,” he murmured at last, and confidently touched a forefinger to the center of the smaller circle.
There were cries of agreement, there were cries of dismay, and then again there was a hush of eager expectation. The young man in the striped djelleba pulled on the loose ends of his cord, and as the larger loop shrank and disappeared, the other caught Chaudri’s finger tightly. The crowd exploded with glee, and with an incredibly swift movement of his hand the proprietor pressed a 100-dirham note into Chaudri’s palm.
“Oh, dearie me, no,” Mahboob protested. “No money, do you not remember? Just for try?”
But the man in the djelleba would not accept the return of the bill. “You win! You win!” he chanted as if the words were a prayer, and the other players nodded their heads and jabbered their agreement in liquid Arabic syllables.
Even Sikander Malek shouted over the din, “Why do you argue, my friend? You’ve won. Keep the money!”
“Absolutely not,” said Chaudri firmly. “The man said just for try and I consented. If I had guessed wrongly, I would not have paid him. Guessing rightly, I may not profit.”
The proprietor recognized his determination. “You keep half,” he suggested. “I give you 100 dirham, you give me back 50. Then we both win, yes?”
At that, Chaudri’s jet-black eyes gleamed with understanding, and he pulled his wallet from his hip pocket and fished out a crisp new 50-dirham note. The young man in the djelleba snatched it from his hand – and as if some powerful djinn had performed a feat of magic the Pakistanis found themselves alone at the edge of the Jemaa el Fna.
Proprietor, gamblers, length of cord – all vanished so abruptly that their very existence might have been nothing but the memory of a dream were it not for the sagging cardboard carton left behind and the 100-dirham bill in Chaudri’s hand.
“Fascinating,” he said softly, looking around in vain for any other trace of the scene they had just been part of.
“Most fascinating. How many gentlemen would you say were here just now?”
Malek frowned. “How many? Eight, perhaps, including the man with the cord. Eight or nine.”
“Eight or nine. That means, say, 10 dirham for him and five for each of his accomplices. Not bad for only five minutes’ work.”
Sikander Malek was staring at him. “What is it you are saying, Chaudri? I am not understanding you at all.”
Chaudri smiled. “Ah, my friend, I apologize. I assumed that you saw it, too.”
“Saw it? Saw what, man?”
“The arrangement of the cord. No matter which of the loops I had chosen, the cord would have caught around my finger when pulled.”
“You mean – you mean they wanted you to win?”
Chaudri clapped his companion on the shoulder. “Yes, of course. That was why they were here in the first place, pretending to play their most fascinating game. They were waiting for us to come along – or someone like us – waiting for the chance to let me win, ‘just for try.’” He chuckled at the thought. “These men make their living with this little game of theirs. They set up their carton here and play. When the right tourist comes along, they urge him to enter their game.”
“The right tourist?”
“Indeed. I was saying it earlier. These people can judge a man’s character as expertly as others we have seen today can guess his weight. You would have kept the 100 dirham, my friend, where I would not. That is why they chose me to play their game instead of you. They saw that I am a man who would refuse to keep the full amount pressed into my palm, but who could be persuaded to take half in the spirit of fairness.”
Malek seemed more perplexed than ever. “But you say they make a living at this game? How can that be? The man gave you 100 dirham and took back 50. He lost 50 dirham in the exchange!”
“No, no,” Chaudri shook his head. “He took 50 dirham from me, and in return he gave me this.” He handed the 100-dirham note to Malek, who examined it briefly and then looked up with comprehension dawning in his eyes.
Chaudri nodded. “A trifle, worth nothing at all! Perhaps they make them themselves, perhaps they buy them for a dirham or two. Either way, they sell them to unsuspecting tourists for 50 dirham, almost all of which is pure profit.”
“But you were not unsuspecting – you knew what they were up to all the time!”
“Yes, I did. I was certain it was a con game even before they invited me to play. It all seemed too smooth, too carefully rehearsed to be spontaneous.”
“Then why did you agree to take part?” Malek demanded. “Why did you give them your money?”
A broad grin spread across Mahboob Chaudri’s nut-brown face.
“For 50 dirham,” he said happily, “we have had the opportunity to participate in Moroccan street theater at its finest, but there is something more important than that.” He took the counterfeit bill from Malek’s fingers and held it up between them. “For 50 dirham,” he said, “I have bought myself the souvenir I was searching for, a souvenir which will forever remind me of our afternoon in Marrakesh.”
To enter to win a copy of The Tree of Life (either e-book or print), simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “life,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen February 27, 2016. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address, and if via comment please include your email address.
Click on this link to purchase any of this book. If you have ad blocker on you may not see this link:
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories (including another Valentine’s one during the week) in our mystery section.