Thursday, 6 August 2015
Cairo was sweltering in a summer heat wave when the Poet stood on a huge rectangular, wooden platform in a small slave-market. Other people –men and women and boys and girls– were displayed likewise for potential buyers to see. These people –the slaves– formed a motley crowd of different colours, shapes and moods. The Poet had grown quite used to such a scene, for he had been exposed at several other markets before. And up to now, apart from the slavers, no one had evinced any desire to buy him. These slavers had done all they could to give the Poet a more “appealing” look. For instance, they had shaved off his beard and moustache, and they had given him more or less smart clothes. And yet, no one –other than the slavers– had wasted a penny on him. At first the slavers had set the asking price at a level that the Poet thought somewhat consonant with what he really was worth. But from market to market that price had dropped lower and lower. And so the slavers grew more and more desperate about him. Some had even stigmatized him as a bad omen– for each time he had passed into the hands of a new slaver then this one would not sell a single slave (girl or boy, man or woman) until he got rid of the Poet– at the lowest price possible. And thus the Poet would serve for a time at his new master’s home until he was sold again. So far, he had been to Constantine, Bizerte, Tripoli, and here at last, he was in Cairo. Most of the time he had had to speak Arabic, but also his Turkish had improved a bit.
The slavers’ voices made a deafening noise and the horses and mules that roamed about filled the air with dust. The slavers spared no effort to draw potential buyers’ attention to the prominent figures set out on the platforms. The Poet was not much surprised that no one had lavished any kind of publicity upon him. He was now bare-headed, clean-shaven, dressed in a strong yellow, short gown. He thought of only one thing : who would buy him today ? He did not wait long to know. A man –about thirty-five of age, wearing sumptuous clothes and riding a golden horse– approached the spot where stood the Poet. The man looked first at the beautiful slave-girls, then at the handsome boys, and then he looked at the Poet. The Poet’s heart leapt. The slaver, who had noticed this, drew close to the Poet and said in a low voice :
“This will make you a good slave, sir. You wouldn’t regret if you bought him, sir.” He grinned and then added, “He doesn’t cost a lot, sir. Only eight dinars, sir. What do you say, sir?”
The man, who had been gazing all the time at the Poet, turned his eyes toward the slaver and said in a deep manly voice :
“I shall take him.”
The Poet’s heart throbbed with excitement. The man handed a few coins to the slaver, who smiled his thanks and ordered the Poet to descend.
“What’s your name ?” the man asked the Poet in quite a loud voice as they went out of the slave-market and headed toward a poor quarter of the city.
“Salman, Sir,” replied the Poet expectantly.
“And my name is Hassan.”
“Happy to serve you, Sir.”
Hassan took the Poet to a small, mean restaurant and waited outside for him to have a quick meal : cooked broad beans with oil, and bread. Hassan paid the waiter and led the Poet through narrow streets and open spaces toward a conspicuously handsome house not far from the Nile. The Poet glanced at the river and felt once again something akin to happiness. Hassan alighted and entrusted his horse to a servant at the house entry door. Then he went into the house, beckoning the Poet to follow him. They met a forty-year-old man in the inner courtyard. He was a good-looking man dressed in plain clothes. Hassan exchanged greetings with that man and said, pointing at the Poet :
“This is a servant I’ve just bought- for my father.”
The Poet, being new to it, found Hassan’s vernacular quite hard to follow.
“Right,” Hassan’s friend replied. “He looks a good one, doesn’t he ?”
Both men looked toward the Poet, who was now looking at the floor.
“Yes, Abu Khalid,” Hassan said. “I hope Father will be happy with him.”
“I hope so.”
“When are the vessels sailing ?”
“We can send him tonight if you want !”
“Bless you !”
Abu Khalid clapped his hands and a black servant rushed to him and bowed.
“This servant will sail south tonight,” said the master, glancing at Hassan. “Take him into your room and let him have a rest.”
Then Abu Khalid turned again to Hassan and asked in a whisper:
“Is he hungry?”
“No. He’s just eaten.”
“So take him there and let him sleep,” said Abu Khalid to his servant.
Abu Khalid’s servant ushered the Poet through several doors towards a small open space at the back of the house. The servant’s room was there. He pushed its door open and asked the Poet to go in. The Poet entered and sat on a mattress.
“Now you can sleep,” the servant said cheerfully. “No one will wake you up until the master wants you.”
The servant closed the door and left. The Poet lay on the mattress and tried to sleep.
The Poet could not sleep. He did not want to sleep, anyway– since he would sail at night. He was terribly weary and awfully sad now. When he had descended from the platform at the slave-market he had had almost to run so as to keep abreast of his master’s horse. But that was not the source of his sadness. Sultana’s abiding smile had restored its former strength and power. These memories of Sultana were powerful enough to ravage the realm that Yamna had established in his heart. It looked as if he had never loved anyone but Sultana– who, formally at least, was still his wife. And he dreamt fantastical dreams. He looked forward to an impalpable day when he would become free again, brave, strong, wealthy and capable of liberating his wife by force. He even said his thoughts aloud, describing his day-dream….It’s too long a time since we last saw each other. And, darling, to liberate you –you know– I must be a little braver, stronger and cleverer. To go back to Lehreem I need money– a lot of money…
The Poet’s mind travelled over all past events and tried to imagine the future. Ever since he had set foot on Egyptian soil he had felt mystified and deeply enthralled by the beauty of the country and the people. But this feeling was fading away the longer he thought of his wife. Indeed, it was the Poet’s feelings towards Sultana that were now growing more and more numinous. He could not understand why, but this brought him to think of God– again.
At night the Poet was at a small harbour with a number of vessels. Two men had brought him there from Abou Khalid’s house. On the way to the harbour the Poet had looked more at the ground than at the various buildings on his right and left. One thing had attracted him, though: the incredible number of minarets he had seen in this mysterious city. At the harbour there were quite a lot of people. Most of them seemed to be travellers. The two men with the Poet talked amongst themselves, as if the Poet was not with them. When the hour came one of the two men ordered the Poet to step onto a medium-sized ship. So the Poet mounted and trudged sideways toward an isolated corner of the ship. A crewman had beckoned him to go there. And the Poet sank on the bare wood… It was more like a prison cell than a ‘ship-compartment’. Very soon after, the Poet felt dizzy. He held his head in his hands and stuffed his fingers into his ears and waited for the ship to pull out. The ship went on swaying…until, at long last, it started off. At this point the Poet was already giddy and had no desire but to sleep. But although he lay on his side on the bare wood he could not sleep.
The journey was long and painful and the Poet was in no mood to indulge in what otherwise might be appreciated in such experiences. Also he had got a splitting headache that lasted almost throughout the journey. His thoughts too were cruel with him. The thought of Sultana and…of God…had plunged him into an agony of remorse. And the days were like the nights for him. Even when he ate he ate without appetite…Three times he vomited. For a reason unknown to him, the only punishment was an avalanche of angry words each time he did it. And fortunately for him, he could go to the toilet whenever he wished. And that was the only time when he could see other people from the passengers– waiting for a turn to relieve themselves…
The harbour at which the Poet’s journey ended was far smaller than the one in Cairo. The two men who had led the Poet onto the ship there were the same who ushered him out of it here. The Poet was too worn-out to care of anything around him. He did not even show any surprise at finding Hassan waiting for him at the harbour. Hassan thanked the two men and pressed coins into their hands and let them go. Then he turned to the Poet and ordered him to mount a mule that was standing next to his horse. The Poet looked as if to say that he was too tired to ride a mule. But he finally struggled to mount it, and turned to follow his master.
The small harbour stood on a plain, but the farther the Poet and Hassan rode the higher the ground rose. They went along mysterious paths, across now soft, now rocky ground, past dozens of hamlets and scattered cottages. It was quite hot for the morning. The Poet sensed that he was now heading toward something of a desert. And this made him feel very much at home.
Hassan put a few questions to the Poet –about his past– but he seemed uninterested in the answers. And the Poet did not care one way or the other. He was only longing to reach Hassan’s final destination as soon as possible.
For hours on end Hassan’s horse had galloped at breakneck speed, and now, suddenly, it slowed to a walk. And, of course, so did the Poet’s mule.
“Here we are at last!” said Hassan, glancing at the Poet.
“Thank God,” the Poet replied, panting.
The place was a hamlet, quite like the others on the way from the harbour. Only here it looked almost like an oasis. But Hassan did not alight from his horse until he reached the doorway of an isolated, small domed farmhouse. An old man –in his middle fifties– appeared at the door as Hassan’s horse neighed. Hassan walked to the old man and kissed his hand. The Poet did likewise. Then Hassan said to the old man, pointing at the Poet:
“This is all I’ve found you, Father!”
The old man smiled and turned his handsome, bluish eyes toward the Poet and said in a resounding voice:
“Well, we shall see. What’s your name, man?”
“My name is Salman, Master,” the Poet replied respectfully.
“Salman, you’re welcome to Kafr-Hanoon. Come in!”
The Poet made to go into the house, but waited until Hassan and his father had moved first. All three crossed the house’s small courtyard and went into a square room to the left of the entrance. The room was congruously furnished with Arabian tapestry on the walls, smooth multicoloured elevated seats on the four sides and a nice carpet in the middle. There was no table. The old man, who was the first to enter the room, sat on one of the elevated seats. And so did Hassan. The Poet, being aware that he was but a slave, sat on the carpet, close to an elevated seat. The old man chuckled and gave him a sign to move back and sit on the seat. Embarrassed, the Poet did as ordered. In the meantime he stole a glance at Hassan and sensed that he was not really welcome.
“You look very tired,” said the old man to the Poet.
“Yes Sir,” the Poet whispered with a blush.
“Where are you from?”
“I am from Marrakesh, Sir.”
The Poet was tired, actually. But now he had a feeling he could not describe or know what. He felt –oh yes! – as if he had fallen in love with this old man! His voice, his words, his Oriental Arabic (which was close to the Quranic Arabic), his sobriety– The Poet could not know what –what–or why he had this strange feeling. Their eyes met. The old man smiled, but the Poet just gaped. (Hassan was looking at the floor). Suddenly, the old man left the room. The Poet turned his eyes toward Hassan. Hassan too raised his eyes and fastened them on the Poet, but said nothing. And, unexpectedly, he too left the room. The Poet remained alone, his heart throbbing. He was as in a dream.
The old man returned with dates and milk. But the Poet was too hot to eat or drink anything. He could not understand why this old man had changed his gown. At first he had been wearing a light, white gown. Now, he was wearing a brown one. Why?
“Drink your milk!” said the old man.
The Poet began to drink. His hands trembled a little.
“You are a Muslim, aren’t you?” asked the old man, suddenly.
“Yes, of course,” replied the Poet lamely.
“Then we’ll pray together.”
The Poet was taken out to perform his ablutions. Then he joined the old man, and both performed their Noon Prayers together in a small room in the house. The prayers over, the Poet was allowed to take a rest in another room. And there he thought for a while before he succumbed to sleep.
When he was woken by the old man it was already evening. He was conducted again into the guest-room. Hassan was not there. The old man made the Poet to sit face to face with him.
“Now,” said the old man, “tell me something about you.”
“You mean my life-story?”
And the Poet began to recount his tale to the old man as would a grand-mother to her grand-son at bed-time. He gave him an unvarnished account of quite all that had happened to him thus far. The old man looked as if he was listening to wonders. When the Poet finished his story, the old man said, “Wait. I’m coming back.” And he left. Then he returned with a low, three-legged table and placed it between him and the Poet. A teenage boy came with him carrying a plate of food, which he then put on the table. The boy greeted the Poet and went out. He then brought bread and water. An amah came in afterwards and put on the table a small plate of fruits and left with the boy. But before they left, the old man had introduced them to the Poet.
“This is Sufian,” (indicating the boy) “and this is Hind” (indicating the amah.)
The Poet nodded shyly.
The Poet began to eat in silence. He waited anxiously for the old man to comment on the tale he had narrated. That night the old man said nothing about it. After dinner he invited the Poet to join him for prayer. Then he led him into a small room and wished him good night.
In bed the Poet thought for an hour or two and fell asleep.
Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER
The next morning Sufian brought breakfast to the Poet and told him what he would have to do– as a slave. Then he took him on a tour round the master’s house. The Poet discovered that the house was not as small as it had looked at first glance. In fact there were three adjacent small houses that made up something of a compound. There also were wells nearby and what looked like a plantation around the whole block. There was a big shed for cattle and sheep and a stable for horses and mules.
“Your work will be mostly outdoors,” said the boy. “And Hind will be doing the other, indoor small jobs.”
As the days wore on the Poet found himself doing little hard work. He brought water from the wells, watered the cattle and sheep, fetched firewood, and so on. The thing that occupied most of his time was pasturing the cattle and sheep on nearby lands. But he expected harder and strenuous work once the hot season was over.
Sufian was often with the Poet. They chatted (with some difficulty because of their different respective vernaculars); they played together… But the Poet needed most the company of a woman. So far, he had seen only Hind and a very young girl who looked after her parents’ sheep and goats on adjoining lands. He could approach neither of them. And to fill this void he contented himself with thinking of his wife Sultana. Curiously enough, he no longer thought of Yamna as much as he had done not a long time ago.
During these first days the old man –whose name was Assem– very seldom talked to or sat with the Poet. Even at prayer-time they would not meet. And the Poet would perform his prayers only when Assem was around. And days went on like this until one morning a few weeks later. On this morning Sufian joined the Poet in the pastures and told him that Grand-father wanted him. The Poet went back to the compound, thinking on the way. He found Assem in the guest-room.
“Sit down,” said Assem. The Poet sat down.
“Tell me your life story again.”
The Poet mastered his confusion, then began the narration. When he finished, the old man stood up and signed to him to follow. Both went out of the house and headed toward a shed at the back of the compound.
“Here,” said Assem, pointing to the shed, “you’ll find all the materials you’d need to set up a tent. I want you to pitch one there.” Assem pointed to a spot at the extreme rear end of the plantation. The Poet nodded approvingly and asked, “When?” “Today,” replied Assem. “But now come along with me.” They went back into the house. They sat side by side in a room unknown to the Poet. The Poet had a feeling of awe as he entered this room. On one side of the room there was a huge book-case crammed with books of all sizes. Close to the book-case was a big, rectangular table with a few books on it. The Poet was now amazed and happy. Amazed because he had not expected this, and happy because he liked educated people.
“Now,” said Assem in a scholarly manner, “I have a few questions to put to you.”
“I will be happy to answer you, Sir.”
“First, why did you ‘gall’ your amir?”
“Believe me, Sir, if I did anything of the sort that was unwittingly.”
“He did wrong to your wife.”
“No, no, Sir!”
“You meant to!”
“How did you look on him?”
“He did not implement the Quranic teachings.”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know, and that’s it!”
“If you don’t know, I’ll tell you. It’s because you don’t know anything at all! You’re an absolute idiot.” The Poet blushed and gaped. “You are a false poet. You’ve wasted your time on trivialties. Suppose you had a chance to kill your amir, would that bring about any change in Lehreem? Suppose he stayed alive and liberated your wife, what good would that bring to Lehreem? Tell me, how many of you there were good Muslims? How many read the Quran and the Hadith? How many understood the Quran? How many could exchange ideas with the Amir? Tell me!”
Hot sweat trickled down the Poet’s neck. He felt ashamed. He could not answer.
“And what about you personally?” Assem went on. “What do you know? What do you say in your poems? What’s your vision of the world? Why do you live? What’s freedom for you– what’s manliness? Tell me!”
The Poet just listened, with downcast eyes. He found no words to speak.
“I have brought you here to look for the answers in these books,” Assem resumed, pointing to the books in the book-case and on the table. “I want you to wash your brain and your heart and your soul. And I’ll be waiting for your answers. Now, get up! Go back to the pastures. And after lunch do as I bade you: pitch the tent where I showed you. Now go!”
The Poet left for the pastures, bewildered. He could not understand what Assem was aiming at. On arrival at Kafr-Hanoon he had been received as a guest. And now he would perhaps have free access to Assem’s library. Why all this? The Poet did not know, but he was happy.
After lunch the Poet, helped by Sufian, pitched the tent on the allotted spot. He furnished it with a mat, a mattress, a small carpet and a few blankets and pillows. And he went back to the pastures. In the evening Assem told him that he would thenceforth live in the tent. The Poet was happy with this, because it would give him an opportunity to lead a life of his own. Three nights later Assem called upon the Poet in the tent. He brought with him Sufian and three books. The Poet was all smiles. He could not conceal his glee.
“How did you find this home, Our Poet?”
“Nice. It suits me very well. Thank you, Master.”
“And what about Sufian?”
“He is kind. I like him.”
“Good! Now, Our Poet, look at this.”
Assem opened one of the three books and moved it close to the Poet.
“Read!” said Assem.
The Poet looked at the book briefly and said:
“It is written in a language I do not speak.”
“And this one?” Assem opened a second book and handed it to the Poet.
“I think this is another language, Sir. I can’t read it. I’m sorry.” The Poet felt deeply ashamed.
“And this one?”
The Poet looked at the third book for a good while, then he raised his eyes and said, shyly:
“This is Turkish. But I don’t understand anything.”
“Great! You don’t speak Persian; you don’t speak Greek; and you don’t understand Turkish. What a shame!”
Then Assem turned to the boy and said in a disappointed tone, “Sufian, get up! Let’s go!”
Both Sufian and Assem stood up and left the tent. Assem had not even said good night. All the Poet’s joy vanished at once. Assem had addressed him as ‘Our Poet’, which he always preferred to ‘Salman’. Assem had held him in high esteem… And now, all of a sudden, everything crumbled to pieces. Why? He spoke neither Persian nor Greek. Nor did he understand Turkish. What a pity!… But why was Assem so angry? What was the Poet to him? Why did he want the Poet to learn all these languages? Was this part of a slave’s work? But since he himself –Assem– knew all this, and he had all this rich library and all this keen anxiety for knowledge… why had he chosen to live in this isolated, forbidding part of the world? Why hadn’t he gone to Cairo or Baghdad or Fez, or anywhere else? This was hard to understand.
That night the Poet could not have the heart –or the face– to go to the compound and ask for his dinner. So he just arranged the three books which Assem had left in the tent on one side of the carpet, put out the light and went to sleep.
The next morning the Poet was in the pastures. He was in no mood to chat or play with Sufian as he used to. He was deeply absorbed in thoughts about Assem’s gesture on the previous night. Assem was right… This was a golden opportunity to grasp at urgently. But how? Would Assem be ready to teach him these tongues? Would he still be willing to put his library at the Poet’s disposal?… What would happen?…
For days the Poet’s questions went unanswered. And each time he returned to his tent in the evening, he would open the books and contemplate their yellow pages sadly. He tried his hardest to understand something from the Turkish book, but in vain. Sometimes he grew so sad that tears welled up in his eyes. To add to the Poet’s misery, Sufian was no longer allowed to go to the pastures. And the Poet began to wonder whether Assem was going to be cross with him. And again he began to give prayers to God for deliverance.
Not until three weeks later did the Poet begin to see light at the end of the tunnel. He was in the pastures when Sufian came, sauntering, to say that Assem was waiting in the guest-room. Sufian stayed at the pastures and the Poet sped to the compound. In the guest-room, he found a fifty-year-old man with Assem.
“This is Salman, my new servant,” said Assem to his guest, indicating the Poet. “He’s a poet.”
The guest, who was wearing a black vestment and a silver cross on his chest, nodded, glancing at the Poet.
“And this is Boutros, my Christian friend.” Assem indicated the Priest. The Poet noticed that the Priest’s cross could be seen only if he turned his head one way or the other, because his beard fell to his chest and hid the cross.
“Sit down, Salman,” said Assem. The Poet sat down at a respectful distance and lowered his eyes.
Then Assem switched to another language, probably the same in which he and Boutros had been talking when the Poet came in. And both went on with their unending dialogue. At first, the Poet listened intently just to see whether he could guess in what tongue the two men were speaking. It was not Nubian, the Poet was sure. Neither was it Turkish. So was it Persian or Greek? Or some other language? The Poet could not tell. And as he listened –without understanding anything– his mind flew to Lehreem… The Poet had had a home, a good pile of books… Yes, books. There had been too many. But he had not– (The Poet sighed.)… The two men went on talking. Maybe of religion, the Poet thought briefly. But what really struck the Poet was this mutual respect with which the two men spoke to each other. They must be real friends, then… The Poet’s mind went back to Marqus… Where was he now? Was he still free?… And Yamna? And Haroon? And Sultana…? (The Poet sighed again.) “Oh, Sultana!” he thought ruefully. “Were it not for you, why should I be here ? But shall I see you again?” The Poet sighed again and again. And Assem –who must have noticed this– glanced at him from time to time. But Assem was apparently more interested in his talk with Boutros than in the Poet’s moods.
Assem’s and Boutros’ talks lasted up to lunchtime, when Assem turned to the Poet and said (in Arabic):
“You can go now. Go and ask Hind to give you your lunch and then go back to the pastures and send Sufian to lunch.”
The Poet stood up diffidently and bowed as he left the room.
Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER