a short story by Angus Brownfield
Angus Brownfield on Shakespir
Copyright © 2015 by Angus Brownfield
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Long ago in Meknes—so long ago, in fact, it is wise to begin once upon a time—there dwelt a hummus merchant named Mustapha Massi, a tall, slender man with a large Adam’s apple. He sold his hummus on the street of food merchants, that wound along the western edge of the medina. He made a very good product but his living was quite modest, for every household in the city would make hummus from time to time and only bought from him when they had special guests or if the woman of the house was under the curse and had not planned ahead. His only steady customers were men who, like himself, were too poor to marry, and they ate hummus sparingly. Still, he earned enough dinars that he possessed a good bernus and two for ordinary wear. He was saving up his dinars for the day that he could afford to marry.
Mustapha was very careful in selecting his chickpeas and sesame seeds. He bought the second grade of olive oil, for only the very rich would be so extravagant as to use the first grade in making hummus. He went to the Jewish quarter to buy kosher salt, for that was the best salt in all Meknes. He rose early every morning and made his way to his stall, bearing on his back the large jar that held the day’s supply of hummus, which he had put together the night before. Most persons brought their own container and he would scoop out his product with a dipper which was the basis for what he charged. Each dipperful was worth ten millims. He also had on hand a supply of small, inexpensive clay pots if the customer did not happen to bring along his own container. For a clay pot of hummus Mustapha charged twenty-five millims.
It happened that Ali, the citrus merchant, who owned the stall opposite Mustapha’s, fell ill and in a short time passed away. His sons had long ago moved to Rabat to study and to better themselves, and neither cared to return to Meknes to take over their father’s stall, so it stayed vacant for several weeks.
One day an old woman arrived in the city, leading a spavined and sway-backed horse loaded with household goods. She was dressed in typical Berber fashion. She stopped in the middle of the narrow lane, passed on either side by persons on foot, and rubbed her chin while looking first at Mustapha’s stall and then at the shuttered stall of the late citrus merchant. Finally she tugged on the lead and half dragged her groaning horse to Mustapha’s side of the street.
After the usual pleasantries, she introduced herself as Annisa Hadda. She said, “I have traveled from afar, tired of being robbed by the Tauregs, looking for a safe place to settle before I am too old to travel. I am told that you make a passing fair hummus. I, too, make hummus, and I believe mine is the best from Samara to Cairo. I would like to make you a proposition.”
Mustapha smiled benignly and purred, “Does this proposition include your sharing the recipe for your most excellent hummus?”
Annisa said, “That is at the heart of my proposition. I will share my recipe, nay, reveal my secret ingredient, if you will accept me as your partner.”
He said, “Does that mean that daily you will mash garlic and grind sesame seeds in return for your secret recipe and, say, ten percent of the income from selling the product?”
The guffaw he received caused heads of passersby to turn and also set to braying a jackass nearly fifty feet away. She said, “What if I told you your sales will double within six months? What if I told you that you would soon be visited by merchants from as far away as Rabat and Marrakesh, hoping to carry home your hummus to sell in their shops?”
The sharpness of her words, even for a Berber woman, made Mustapha notice that this woman called Annisa had piercing eyes and long bony fingers, and he could think of nothing but a fierce hawk, which made him feel like a desert hare about to be struck from above. He willed his heart to stop beating so rapidly and said, “Exactly what is your proposition, Mother?”
“Marry me. I have a few dinars, a few shekels, a few reals. Together they may buy us a little house on the edge of town. We’ll work side by side and share equally in the profits from my most special hummus. What do you say?”
Mustapha was so nonplussed he could say nothing for a full minute, by which time the opportunity for a civil response had passed and the old woman smirked, jerked her poor horse’s head around and continued on her way. Mustapha called after her, “I will marry a young woman and have many sons and my hummus is very good indeed.” Yet he wasn’t surprised when, two days after the day of rest, he saw this Annisa unshutter the dead Ali’s stall and take inside a jar that looked suspiciously like the one he transported his hummus in. She set on the counter a smaller bowl and began to fan it with a palm frond fan.
Shortly the aroma of freshly made hummus wafted across the lane. It was unmistakable, and it smelled no different from his. He watched, though, as the woman set out tiny clay dishes and dabbed little mounds of hummus on them, then sprinkled the top of each with, he guessed, paprika. Finished, she called out to passing shoppers in an agreeable voice, “If you please, try my exceedingly good hummus, made from a recipe straight from Casablanca.” Then she would alternate the patter, “Sample my hummus, it is the best in all the Maghreb.”
After a time several persons stopped and sampled her wares. She would hand them little wafers of flat bread and they would scoop the hummus from the little plates and chew reflectively. Most left with smiles on their faces, nodding to Annisa as if to say that they would be back. Among those he saw stop to eat the samples were regular customers of his, persons he had assumed would always be buying from him, even after he had married and his young wife had borne him his first son, whom he intended to name Ahmed, after his own father.
The next day, she was already open for business, again setting out the bowl of hummus and fanning it. It occurred to him that she must have heated this bowl, which in turn heated the hummus slightly, so that it gave up its rather enticing aroma straightaway. It was a clever idea, and he wished he had thought of it. He could wrap a bowl, heated by the hearth, in a few thicknesses of cloth and keep it under his cloak as he walked to his stall. But he wasn’t going to imitate her, it would be bad for his image.
He reconsidered when, a fortnight later, half of his customers, careful not to look his way, were buying their hummus from the old woman, who did not look so old these days. She had a very straight back and modest hips and walked with a dignified but spritely gait. She carefully lined her eyes with kohl and wore tasteful jewelry, and had more everyday dresses than he had everyday bernuses.
Eventually, after he had returned home with his hummus jar a third full for the second day in a row, he stopped a former customer as he was leaving Annisa’s stall and motioned him to come close. “Nouri, friend, I see that you have been buying your hummus from the old woman across the way. I was wondering, do you think her hummus is better than mine?”
Normally he would not be so brash, but he had crossed paths with Annisa in other parts of the medina when she was buying supplies, and she frequented the same pulse merchant to buy her chickpeas and the same spice merchant to buy her sesame seeds, and he suspected she bought her garlic and lemons where he bought his. She could not obtain any better salt than he bought in the Jewish quarter, so there must be some ingredient not normally found in hummus that she was adding to entice customers.
Nouri, somewhat sheepishly, shrugged and said that the woman had implied a secret ingredient but hadn’t named it. Her hummus was nonetheless indefinably tastier. Nouri parted, saying, “You should learn what that rather handsome lady puts in her hummus to make it so tasty.”
Of course Mustapha couldn’t ask her, and he couldn’t spy on her in her home. He resolved the he would happen to be in the shop of the spice and seed merchant when she was buying her supplies. But by the time he managed this, he was on the verge of going out of business. He was preparing half as much hummus each day and sometimes not selling all of it. He had the ugly thought that the customers who were still coming to his stall did so out of pity for the young man who was being bested by the rather handsome woman across the lane.
Pretending to be considering nuts and seeds, he watched the woman as she bought oregano, cinnamon, black mustard seed, cardamom, paprika mild and hot, asafetida, ground sumac berry, white and black pepper berries, and something the proprietor brought out from under the counter already packaged in a twist of Egyptian paper. Mustapha exited the shop before she saw him (he hoped) and went home, repeating as he went the ingredients he’d seen her buy. He dismissed oregano and cinnamon as possible additions to her hummus—too noticeable a flavor, too assertive. A tiny touch of mustard, finely ground, might work. So might asafetida, if you could close enough to it to put a pinch in your mixture. Ground sumac and black pepper would reveal themselves and customers might shy away from speckled hummus. But it was very possibly that little twist of something the spice merchant had produced from under the counter.
The spice merchant was also named Mustapha. Mustapha the hummus merchant went to him one day and said, “Brother, please help me. I have been your customer for a goodly time but I may soon be no more your customer because a certain woman of advanced years has opened a stall opposite mine and is selling more hummus than I ever did. Please help me. If she has mentioned the secret ingredient she puts in her hummus to make it better than mine. Or if you could tell me the contents of that little package you took from under the counter . . . please?”
Mustapha the spice merchant smiled and shook his head. “Let me attend your worries in reverse order. The substance I sold the woman in question is not to put in food. And you wouldn’t want to buy it anyway, you’re of the wrong sex.”
“Ahah. And the answer to my first inquiry, that of the secret ingredient?”
Mustapha the spice merchant shrugged. Then he shook his head. Then he turned his hands up as if to say, “Who knows?”
“She has not said?”
Spicy Mustapha shook his head.
The hummus merchant said, “As a man highly knowledgeable about herbs and spices, might you make a suggestion?”
The other said, “If I were you I would experiment, but as an expert in herbs and spices I would bet on the barest pinch of asafetida.”
Thanking the spice merchant many times, Mustapha went home with a small parcel of asafetida, keeping it downwind from his nose. He had leftover hummus from the day before and he decided to sprinkle a single pinch of the foul amber powder over the top and mix it thoroughly. The problem was, he couldn’t get the foul smell out of his nose. So when he tasted the hummus it seemed that he might as well be eating asafetida. He rubbed mustard oil into his hands and that seemed to help. He powdered his hands with ground cinnamon and now he could only taste cinnamon.
How could he know if asafetida would work? Maybe he should put it in with the chickpeas when he cooked them. Maybe he should just admit defeat.
He had the scribe in the street of lawyers make him a sign which read, “New improved hummus of excellent quality.” It cost him a hundred millims and it was a rash expenditure, for he suspected that fewer than a quarter of his customers could read. He set out little dishes on which to put samples, the way Annisa had. It didn’t draw more than flies. It came to the point that he couldn’t give his product away. True to her prophecy, merchants were coming from far away to buy Annisa’s product by the heqat, loading it onto jackasses and going away smiling.
It was no use. Mustapha decided it was time to end it all. He rose well before market time one day, and took a rope with him to the place near the governor’s mansion where there grew a cork oak with a horizontal branch of a suitable height above the ground. Mustapha climbed into the tree, inched along the large branch and secured one end of the rope. He fashioned a noose in the other end and with a sob and a sniffle put it around his neck.
As he was getting up his nerve to jump out of the tree, a voice came up to him. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” came the voice.
He looked down to Annisa standing directly under him. If he jumped he couldn’t avoid falling on her, perhaps to kill her.
“Move away, woman. I don’t want to hurt you.”
She said, “If you come down I will tell you my secret ingredient.”
“I would rather tell you than be crushed trying to catch you.”
Mustapha, rather glad he didn’t have to follow through, took the noose from his neck, untied the rope, dropping it to the ground. When he climbed down, he saw that Annisa had coiled the rope. She handed it back to him. Without waiting for him to ask she said, “There are actually two secret ingredients.”
He said, “Aha. Is it the asafetida and mustard flour?”
She smiled. He noticed that she had all her teeth and that they were whiter than his. She shook her head. “Neither. The most important secret ingredient is customers’ gullibility. I never actually told anyone there was a secret ingredient, but customers wanted to believe it. They wanted to speculate what it was. I let them speculate. Speculation and mystery are spicy enough for most folk.”
He said, “And what was the other ingredient?”
This time her smile was wider and she cocked her head in a fetching way. “It is my unswerving faith in my ability to fool people into believing what they wanted to believe all along. It is called self-confidence.” She took a few steps away and came back. “You, young man, can’t add these secret ingredients to your hummus here in Meknes. I have already taken over your market. But you could go to another town and add them there and prosper.”
She took a few steps away again, turned, put a fist on her hip and cocked her head like a preening bird. She said, “Or, you could stay here and marry me, an older woman who could teach you many things, and when I die you would have the wealth to secure a young bride who would give you those sons you want.”
She gave him an enigmatic smile, let her eyelids droop in that sultry way that Berber women have, and walked away.
Mustapha is young and unmarried. He works diligently, preparing and selling hummus from a stall in the medina. One day Annisa, a newcomer to Meknes, offers him a proposition: marry her and she will share with him her secret recipe for outstanding hummus. She is nearly old enough to be his mother and he dreams of a young bride who will give him many sons. Naturally he declines. Soon Annisa, who opens a stall opposite his, has taken most of his customers, who are convinced she has a secret ingredient that makes her product superior to his. Mustapha cannot discover her secret and cannot continue to survive selling so little hummus. He is about to hang himself when he is rescued by Annisa, who is willing to give him her secret if he won’t end his life. The question is, is Mustapha wise enough to accept her gift?