Nachman and Shmuelik remained firm in their opposition to the new Arab workers. Not only were they against the arrangement for ideological reasons, the settlers had to pay for the workers themselves, out of their fugal allowance, and most of the Jews had to borrow the money, at interest, from the Jewish Colony Association. Because borrowing at interest from Jews was a practice forbidden by the Torah, Nachman warned that no benefit or blessing could possibly come from such an affair. A Jew was enjoined to loan money out of kindness, and not to make money from the plight of a fellow Jew. Nachman complained bitterly to LeClerc, but the unctuous clerk shrugged his shoulders, saying that interest on loans was Company policy to insure that the settlers would not become freeloaders living on the Baron’s unending charity. Tevye had heard that there were affluent Turks in Jerusalem who lent money to Jews, and he suggested borrowing money from them. True, their interest rate was much higher than the Baron’s, but at least the settlers wouldn’t be breaking a commandment. If, God willing, the harvest was good, the settlers would have enough money to pay back the Turks, without ever having to transgress the Torah.
“And if the harvest, God forbid, isn’t good?” Hillel asked.
“Why shouldn’t the harvest be good?” Tevye answered. “With our hard work and the Lord’s blessing, of course the crops will be good. Surely, the same God who divided the Red Sea can supply the Jews of Morasha with a good crop of carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, and beets.”
A vote was taken in a general meeting, and to Nachman’s satisfaction, it was decided that if loans charging interest had to be transacted, they would be made only with Turkish merchants or banks. However, when Nachman called for another vote regarding the hiring of Arab workers, he and Shmuelik remained the only dissenters.
Often, Tevye would look up from his plowing to find himself surrounded by the swarthy, barefooted laborers. Since Tevye was the head of settlement security, he decided to place a shomer on guard, not only at night, but all through the day as well, to give the impression that the Jews were constantly on the alert. While he trusted the Muktar and his workers, he had lived long enough to have learned that any man can succumb to temptation. Sure enough, though the Arabs did their work in a diligent, well-behaved manner, already in the second week of their employment, the settlers discovered that a mattock was missing. Then a scythe disappeared. When Elisha’s healthiest goat was stolen, Tevye sent off an angry letter to the Muktar. The very next day, the goat was returned, with apologies and the promise that the stealing would stop.
One day, the Muktar himself galloped into the Morasha colony. Sobbing, he fell into Tevye’s arms. His eldest daughter was dying. The girl, he said, was ill with some mysterious disease which only Tevye could cure. Tevye protested, insisting he wasn’t a doctor. Abandoning all ceremony and stature, the Arab leader fell to the ground, grabbed Tevye’s shoes, and begged him to return with him to his village. A physician had examined the girl, and all of his remedies had failed. Her condition was weakening. Only the wisdom of the Jews could save her. He would pay Tevye money, give him cattle and land, whatever Tevye demanded. Finally, at Elisha’s prodding, Tevye consented. The relieved Arab prostrated himself on the ground and cried out effusive praise to Allah.
“Hurry, hurry,” he urged. “Every moment matters.”
“This is madness,” Tevye said to Elisha as they saddled their horses.
“If the girl recovers, he’s liable to send us workers for free,” the Yemenite answered.
“And if she dies?”
“It’s hard to say. In Yemen, if a caliph thought a doctor had made a mistake, he would cut off his hands.”
Tevye’s fingers froze on the horn of his saddle. He glanced at his friend to see if he was joking, but Elisha’s expression didn’t change.
Just to make sure that he returned in one piece, Tevye brought Ariel and Yigal along as his bodyguards. They rode in a sprint, driving their mounts to keep up with the galloping Muktar. The villagers who were gathered around the chief’s house made way for the Jews to enter. The high-pitched wailing of grief-stricken women filled the crowded bedroom. Bowing, they hastened outside when Tevye arrived. The room was dark and suffocating. Immediately, Elisha ordered that a hole be made in the mud wall to let in fresh air and light. Axes quickly appeared, and a window was punched through the wall. One look at the feverish girl told Tevye the problem. Her face had turned yellow. Eyes black as the night looked up at him imploringly, as if he were her only hope. She seemed to be the same age as his daughters.