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