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Tislet & Isli
By Jennifer Fry

Many years ago, the chief of the Ait Haddidou tribe announced the birth of his daughter, Tislet. In her honor, the chief declared that a feast would be held. "No expense will spared," he announced to the villagers. "This will be a celebration unlike anyone has ever seen!"

When the day of the festivities arrived, the people of the village agreed that the chief was indeed a man of his word. From dawn until dusk that day, the people of the village gathered under a canopy of palm trees, singing ancient songs and dancing to the rhythms of the Atlas winds. As the sun set across the coral dunes, the people of the tribe raised their glasses of mint tea and toasted the child's long and happy life.

But no sooner had they sipped their tea when the village fortuneteller cut through the crowd, heading straight for the chief's daughter. No one was surprised when she inspected the baby's chubby hand and announced that the girl would grow to be loving and kind. A few raised their brows, however, when the fortuneteller further declared that the girl would one day be more beautiful than the spring rain. Surely too much beauty, they whispered among themselves, was a dangerous thing. Still, no one expected her final words: "This child is destined to marry the son of our enemy."

The singing and toasting abruptly ended; all sat stunned by the child's fate. No one was as shocked as the chief himself who had fought long and hard against his Berber enemy in the south. He hated them with a poisoned vengeance.

Immediately, the chief's counselors stepped forward. Perhaps, they advised their chief, Tislet should be killed. A marriage of his daughter to their Berber enemy would doubtless incite a bitter and lasting war. Wasn't peace in the region worth the sacrifice of one life? The chief sat in a stony silence as his wife threw herself at his feet, begging for the child's mercy. But just as the chief was about to announce his decision, one of his wife's kinsmen, who was intrigued by the fortuneteller's claim of the girl's beauty, interceded.

"Do not harm her," said the kinsman. "As soon as she comes of age, I shall marry the girl. I will take her to the north. There, she will never set eyes upon the son of our enemy, and our people will be safe."

Tears gathered in the chief's eyes as he threw his arms around the kinsman. To see his tiny daughter slaughtered-for even such a worthy cause-would have ravaged his soul deeper than any wound in battle.

"The girl's life shall be spared," he whispered. Then, in a loud voice, he decreed: "Tislet will be removed from the village. She will live high in the mountains, far from any people, until her marriage day. Our clan shall live in peace."

The feast ended. Slowly and silently, the villagers returned to their homes, unconvinced that even a good and noble chief could outwit fate.

For many years, Tislet lived in a cave high in the Atlas mountains with only a nursemaid as a companion. In the beginning, Tislet's mother came to visit every week. Her father came, too, when he was not detained by his duties in the village. As happy as her parents were to see her, the pain of leaving her was very great. Each time they turned to go back to their village, it became more difficult. Unable to bear such sorrow, their visits became less frequent.

Tislet's days were not unhappy. She was a kind and cheerful girl who befriended every flower, every ant, every snake, and every star within miles. One day, when Tislet was twelve, she noticed a white pigeon flying overhead.

"Good morning, Lalla," she called to the pigeon. As she waved to the bird, an arrow flew across the sky, striking the pigeon down to the ground.

Tislet ran to the wounded bird. Finding it, she picked it up and cradled it in her arms. A boy with auburn curls and green eyes emerged from behind a bush. He was a year or two older than Tislet, and carried a bow and arrows.

"Did you do this?" Tislet said to him angrily through her tears.

The boy was captivated by the girl's beauty.

"I'm sorry," he responded. "I didn't know it was your bird."

The boy tenderly took the pigeon from the girl's arm. "She's not hurt badly. I can try to mend her wing."

Seeing how sorry he was, Tislet softened. And before the day was over, Tislet and the boy, who was known as Isli, were friends. Each day at noon, Isli would sneak away from his village to see Tislet. From below her cave, he would call out a signal. Hearing it, Tislet would pry herself away from the watchful eye of her nursemaid, and run to meet him.

One day, just as Isli was climbing the mountain, he saw Tislet emerge from her cave shouting, "Father!" She then ran up to a man who was ascending the mountain from the other side. The man was dressed in the robe of the northern Ait Haddidou tribe-the enemy of Isli's clan. The boy was stunned. With tears in his eyes, he ran back down the mountain, vowing never to see Tislet again.

Meanwhile, Tislet's father took her by the hand. "Daughter, I have news," he said. "The time has come for you to marry our kinsman. He will take you up to the far north. There you can live in a village, and raise a family. You will be content."

Tislet was silent. Her father continued, "The marriage will take place in two days."

After her father left, Tislet ran down the mountain, searching for Isli. She could not bear to be separated from him. He was the one she loved. For hours she wandered through the mountains, calling his name. But she could not find him. At nightfall, she returned to her cave and cried herself to sleep.

The next day, Tislet waited for Isli at noon. Once again, he did not come. By evening, she was frantic. Tislet then realized that there was only one thing to do: She had to run away. If she couldn't be with Isli, she would not marry any man. But as she gathered clothes and food for her journey, she heard a familiar sound.

Overjoyed, she ran out of the cave and, spotting Isli, threw herself in his arms. Tislet recounted her father's news of the marriage that was to take place the next day. "I must run away," she told him. "I will not marry anyone but you."

"I vowed never to see you again," Isli replied. "But I cannot live without you." He then told her about their families' long-standing feud. "Our families will never allow us to marry. Our fathers are bitter enemies."

All night, the two planned their escape. They would run to the west, towards the ocean. They would build a beautiful home of mud and stone. They would have five children; three boys and two girls.

As the sun rose, Tislet and Isli lay down sleepily upon a rock. They did not notice that a band of men was slowly ascending the mountain.

When Tislet's father saw his daughter asleep in the arms of Isli, he threw himself upon the boy in a blind rage. But Isli dodged the chief's blows, and ran.

"I'm going after him," said the chief. "Take the girl," he said to his kinsman. "Get her out of here!"

Tislet was crying very hard. Tearing herself from the kinsman's grip, she ran as fast as she could. When she could go no further, she stopped.

But her tears did not cease. Tislet cried so hard that a pool of water gathered at her feet, and the earth began to crumble. As she fell into the wet earth, Tislet screamed out, "Isli!" The word echoed throughout the mountainside.

Within moments, a lake had formed at the spot where she had stood. From a mile away, Isli heard her voice.

"Tislet!" he screamed back. He knew she was dying. Isli then began to weep with such fierceness that the earth opened and he fell into it. The chief watched mystified as the boy drowned in a lake of his own tears.

"Truly you did love my daughter," the chief said. Slowly, the chief walked down to the spot where his daughter last stood. The chief knelt beside the lake. For many days, he stayed there, whispering through his tears, "Forgive me."

The chief later decreed that no daughter in his clan should be forced to marry against her will. In honor of Tislet and Isli, he declared that a bridal festival would be held each year in which young men and women throughout the Atlas Mountains could gather in the hope of finding and marrying their true love.

The festival continues to this day.

"I first heard the story of Tislet and Isli from a student in my eleventh-grade English class in Taliouine," says Jennifer Fry (Morocco, 1989-92). "Later, I traveled to the High Atlas village of Imilchil, and saw the lakes of Tislet and Isli myself. While I was there, an old Berber woman of the Ait Haddiou tribe told me this legend."

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