BUT MIRIAM WASN’T KILLED. INSTEAD, NOT twenty minutes later, she found herself sitting in one of the many ornate waiting parlors in her uncle’s riad close to the souk, sipping the same sweet mint tea that she was used to at home and having her hands and feet bathed in rosewater.
Presently a small, round man with the deepest, loudest voice Miriam had ever heard waddled into the room. Smiling, he swooped her up into his arms and began covering her with kisses. “Welcome, welcome, dearest child!” he boomed. “Abdullah’s daughter, well, well, well. Welcome, desert rose. Welcome, and may you prosper and flourish evermore in my humble home.”
In reality, Uncle Sulaiman’s riad was anything but humble. Smaller in scale than her father’s palace, it was nevertheless an Aladdin’s cave of sumptuous wealth, beauty, and refinement, all paid for with the proceeds of the younger brother’s thriving textile business. And Miriam did flourish there. Unmarried and childless, her uncle Sulaiman came to love her as his own daughter. For the rest of his life Sulaiman remained grateful to his brother, Abdullah, for bestowing on him so great and priceless a gift. If it were possible, he loved Miriam more than her natural parents had done, but Sulaiman’s love took a different form. Where Abdullah and Leila had protected their daughter from the dangers of the outside world, Sulaiman encouraged Miriam to savor and explore its delights. Of course, she never left the riad unaccompanied. Guards went with her everywhere. But under their watchful eyes she was free to roam through the vibrant buzzing alleyways of the souk. Here were sights and sounds and smells that she had read about in storybooks brought phantasmagorically to life. Marrakech was a delicious assault on every sense, a living, breathing, pulsing city that filled Miriam’s tranquil soul with excitement and curiosity and hunger. As she grew into her teens, more beautiful with each passing day, her love affair with the city intensified to the point where even a proposed vacation to the coast caused her to feel irritated and impatient.
“But why do we have to go, Uncle?”
Sulaiman laughed his booming, indulgent laugh. “You make it sound like a punishment, dearest. Essaouira is quite beautiful, and besides, no one wants to stay in Marrakech in high summer.”
“Nonsense. The heat’s unbearable.”
“I can bear it. Don’t make me leave, Uncle, I beg you. I’ll devote twice as much time to my studies if you let me stay.”
Sulaiman laughed even louder. “Twice nothing is nothing, dearest!” But, as always when Miriam really wanted something, he gave in. He would go to the coast for two weeks alone. Miriam could stay home with her guards and her governess.
LATER, JIBRIL WOULD REMEMBER IT AS the moment his life began.
And the moment it ended.
The sixteen-year-old son of Sulaiman’s chief factor, Jibril was a happy, outgoing child, seemingly without a problem in the world. Pleasant-looking, with curly brown hair and a ready smile, he was also bright academically, with a particular aptitude for mathematics. His father harbored secret hopes of Jibril one day founding a business empire of his own. And why not? Morocco was becoming more cosmopolitan, its inhabitants more socially mobile than they had ever been. Not like it had been in his day. The boy could have the world at his feet if he wished it, as bright and glittering a future as he chose.
Unbeknownst to his father, Jibril had secret hopes of his own.
None of them revolved around business.
They revolved around the incandescent, radiant, utterly lovely form of Sulaiman’s niece, Mistress Miriam.
Jibril first met Miriam the day she arrived at the riad as a frightened ten-year-old. Then thirteen and a kind boy, sensitive to others’ pain, Jibril had taken Miriam under his wing. The two of them quickly became friends and playmates, spending endless happy hours roaming the souk and squares of the city together while Jibril’s father and Miriam’s uncle worked long hours in the company offices.
Jibril couldn’t say exactly when it was that his feelings toward Miriam had changed. Possibly the early arrival of her breasts, shortly after her twelfth birthday, had something to do with it. Or possibly there was some other, nobler reason. In any event, at some point during his fifteenth year, Jibril fell deeply, hopelessly, obsessively in love with his childhood playmate. Which would have been as wonderful a thing as could have happened, had it not been for one small, but undeniable, problem: Miriam was not in love with Jibril.
Tentative allusions to his feelings were met with peals of laughter on Miriam’s part. “Don’t be ridiculous!” she would tease him, pulling him by the hand in a way that made Jibril want to melt with longing. “You’re my brother. Besides, I’m never getting married.” Memories of her mother’s flight and her father’s despair still haunted her. Uncle Sulaiman’s happy independence seemed a far safer, more sensible option.
Jibril wept with frustration and despair. Why had he ever behaved like a brother toward her? Why had he not seen before what a goddess she was? How would he ever be able to undo the damage?
Then one day, it happened. It was during the weeks that Miriam’s uncle Sulaiman was away on vacation in Essaouira. Jibril returned to the riad after his morning’s studies to find smoke pouring out of the windows. You could feel the heat from a hundred yards away.
“What’s going on?”
Jibril’s father, his face and hands blackened with soot, coughed out an answer. “It started in the kitchens. I’ve never seen flames spread so fast. It’s a miracle we got everybody out of there.”
Huddled around them was a throng of frightened household staff, some burned and weeping, others coughing violently. They’d been joined by numerous neighbors and passersby. Soon the crowd was so big that it was difficult for the men with water buckets to fight their way through.
Jibril’s heart tightened in panic. “Where’s Miriam?”
“Don’t worry,” said his father. “She left early this morning to go to the baths. There’s nobody in the house.” But just as he spoke, a figure appeared at an upper window, arms flailing wildly. It was hard to make out who it was through the thick, acrid clouds of smoke. But Jibril knew instantly.
Before his father or anyone could stop him, he darted into the building. The heat hit him like a punch. Black smoke filled his lungs. It was like inhaling razor blades. Jibril fell to his knees, blinded, utterly disoriented. I have to get up. I have to find her. Help me, Allah.
And God did help him. In later years, Jibril described the feeling as some unseen person taking him by the hand and physically pulling him toward the stone stairwell. He had no idea how, in that hell, he fought his way to Miriam, how he lifted her in his arms like a rag doll and carried her downstairs through the flames and into the street. It was a miracle. There was no other word for it. Allah saved us because He wills us to be together. It is our destiny.
When Miriam opened her eyes, and looked into the eyes of her rescuer, Jibril’s prayers were answered.
She loved him. He was a brother no more.
WHEN SULAIMAN RETURNED HOME TO HIS gutted riad, his only thought was for his beloved Miriam and how close he had come to losing her. He summoned Jibril to his study.
“My boy, I owe you my life. Tell me how I can repay you. What gift can I give in gratitude for your heroism? Money? Jewels? A house of your own? Name it. Name it and it is yours.”
“I want no money from you, sir,” said Jibril humbly. “I ask only for your blessing. I intend to marry your niece.”
He smiled, and Sulaiman could see the love light up his eyes. Poor boy.
“I’m sorry, Jibril. Truly, I am. But that is not possible.”
Jibril’s smile crumpled. “Why not?”
“Miriam is of noble birth,” Sulaiman explained kindly. “When her father entrusted her to my care, it was on the understanding that she would one day make an alliance befitting her class and status in life. I have already chosen the gentleman. He’s older than Miriam, but he is well respected, kind—”
“NO!” Jibril couldn’t contain himself. “You can’t! Miriam loves me. She…she won’t do it.”
Sulaiman’s expression hardened. “Miriam will do as I ask her.”
Jibril looked so forlorn that the old man relented. “Look. I said I am sorry, and I meant it. These are the ways of the world, Jibril. We are all prisoners, in our different ways. But you must forget about my niece. Ask me for something else. Anything.”
Jibril did not ask. How could he? There was nothing else he wanted. He tried to tell himself that he still had time to persuade Sulaiman. The older man might change his mind. Miriam might indeed refuse to wed the man to whom she had been unknowingly betrothed, though he knew in his heart that this was a vain hope. Miriam loved Sulaiman like a father, and would never bring dishonor on herself or her family by disobeying him, especially not in so grave a matter as marriage.