The Poet and his bride had their wedding breakfast together in their tent. The Poet did not know what words would please Sawsan on this very morning, so he said none. He kept quiet, and so did his wife. After breakfast he rose, saying: “I’m going to see Mr Assem.” Sawsan remained silent. She just glanced at his feet as he left for the compound. Assem received him in the library.
“Happy morning, Our Poet!” said Assem, all smiles.
“May God make all your life happy, Sir.”
“How was your night?”
“And the bride?”
“Where’s she now?”
“I left her in the tent.”
“No, Salman. You should not have left her alone. Take care of her. Get up! Get up and go back to her quickly.”
The Poet stood up and went out. He did not find Sawsan in the tents. And while he was looking for her Sufian rushed up to him.
“What are you looking for?” he said.
“Ah, Sufian? How are you? I was looking for Sawsan. Have you seen her this morning?”
“I have. She’s with the women in the house.”
“Ah, good. Now, I want you, Sufian. Right?”
“Yes. What do you want me for?”
“I want you to fetch two long, smooth and strong sticks.”
“Get them and you’ll see.”
Sufian brought the sticks.
“Take this one,” the Poet said as he handed back one of the two sticks to the boy. “And now let’s have a fight!”
Sufian waved the stick happily and lunged at the Poet, who hit back promptly. And both went on fencing, shouting and laughing merrily. Assem appeared and came toward them. He stood aloof and watched, smiling. Sufian was a better fencer than the Poet, but the Poet was happy nonetheless. Assem drew near and said:
“Salman, in the wilderness you’d not find people like Sufian! And even now I see Sufian has whopped you down!”
The Poet glanced at him and said, panting:
“This is just the beginning, Sir!”
“Ah, you say so! We shall see.”
Later in the day the Poet and Sufian went to the lake together. And still Sufian swam better than the Poet. On their way back to the compound, the Poet said to his little friend:
“From now on you’ll be my teacher, Sufian. You’ll teach me everything you know.”
“I shall provided you too teach me everything you know!”
“I shall try.”
“And so will I!”
That day rolled by and the Poet returned to his tent. Sawsan did not talk to him. He tried to change her mood by speaking for a short span of time, but the woman just remained silent. And when the Poet insisted, she burst out: “Either shut up or I’ll spend the night in the other tent.” So the Poet chose to shut up.
The Poet’s next few days and nights followed one another in quite the same way. By day he did his monotonous small jobs. In his spare time he went swimming or hunting. Whenever Sufian was with him in the woods they would play at fencers. Sometimes the Poet read a book there. In the evening, he would read and pray in his tent. At night, he slept with Sawsan…in silence. And very often he thought of his first wife Sultana…And this helped him remain indulgent to this insensitive Sawsan.
Two weeks after the wedding-day, Sawsan was still far from amenable. Whenever the Poet tried to reason with her, by day or by night, she would rebuke him in strong language. The Poet knew through experience that the nearer he tried to get to a woman like Sawsan the farther away she would get from him. He knew that sympathy was useless with some women. But he was too weak to be so indifferent as Sawsan. He was not ready for a war of attrition. Sawsan talked and smiled to others, including Sufian, but not to the Poet. And this infuriated him. He strove to keep this secret. But how long would he resist? His anger was great and his spirit was somewhat pacified only when he read the Quran… He would then realize that his wife’s conduct was but a punishment for the sins he had committed in the past. Hadn’t he slept with Yamna while she was still the wife of somebody else? Hadn’t he drunk wine? Hadn’t he failed to observe last year’s Ramadan? Hadn’t he given up saying his daily prayers?… For these sins he should have suffered more! He in fact felt acute remorse for all his wrongdoing. And thus he wept ruefully and prayed earnestly for forgiveness. He also prayed for his wife to make a change…
As the days wore on the Poet came to notice something unusual. Hassan had suddenly begun to spend at Kafr-Hanoon more time than had been his wont before Sawsan’s arrival. Hassan was a handsome, sweet-tongued person. Any woman would be prone to desire his company. He had the look of a prince. And whenever he was around, Sawsan would spend much of her daytime in the compound. The Poet could not prevent her. He only prayed that the worst should not happen…
One day Hassan joined the Poet in the woods. The mere sight of him made the Poet shiver. Sufian too was there. A handful of shepherds watched from various distances as Hassan greeted the Poet and squatted by his side.
“How do you do, Our Poet? How are you?” he said.
“Fine. Bless you! And you, sir?”
“I’m fine too. How do you find your work?”
“I enjoy it.”
“And my son Sufian?”
“Oh, Sufian is a good boy. I wish I had a son like him.”
“Here you are now married! Sawsan will bear you as many good sons and daughters as you like!”
The Poet could not help sighing.
“What are you sighing for, Our Poet? Is there any problem?”
“No, not quite.”
“Are you hiding your feelings from me? Am I a stranger?”
“Well, my wife is unfortunately unkind to me these days.”
“I don’t know why. As you may have noticed, she now spends more time in the house than in the tent.”
“I find that quite normal. What’s unusual about it? Do you have suspicions?”
“No, no! Not at all! I only don’t understand my wife.”
“If you don’t understand, I do!”
Hassan took from one of his pockets a gold necklace and handed it to the Poet, saying smilingly in his sweet voice:
“This is the key to your wife’s heart!”
The Poet hesitated, his heart beating with fear. Hassan insisted.
“Take,” he said. “Try this and you’ll see.”
The Poet puzzled over what Hassan might be aiming at. But Hassan insisted bewitchingly:
“I haven’t the least desire for your wife, if you have any suspicions about me. I have wives and maids, you know! Take!”
And the Poet took the necklace with a trembling hand.
“This is my present to you and your wife.”
“Thank you very much, sir.”
And after a pause, Hassan resumed:
“It’s very hot, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir, it is,” replied the Poet, almost absent-mindedly.
“Will you go back with me or you’ll stay with Our Poet?”
“I’ll stay here, Father.”
“Alright! You can stay. As to me, I will go! See you.”
Hassan stood up, glanced round and set off at a brisk trot. The Poet gazed at him as he went farther away, and he thought…
On his way back from the woods at sunset, the Poet wondered what to do with the necklace. He was in two minds about it. One mind told him to give it to Sawsan, the other warned him not to. A startling idea suddenly struck him and he seized upon it. Right after the Evening Prayer, he sat on the carpet and opened a book. Sawsan was lying on her side on the mattress, and she now and then stole a glance at the Poet. Now the Poet took the necklace from within his gown and slung it round his neck, without looking at his wife. But as soon as he had done this he sensed that Sawsan was trying her best to stifle a laugh. At last she let it out. The Poet raised his eyes unhurriedly and gave his wife a straight look, which only made her laugh even more.
“Why are you laughing?” the Poet said suddenly.
“What’s that you’ve put round your neck?”
“Hassan gave me this as a present.”
“He gave it to you? Aha! He wasn’t wrong there! I swear he wasn’t wrong!”
“What’s this wrong you’re talking about? What are you drivelling about? Have you gone bananas?”
Sawsan laughed until she cried, then she gathered herself up and sat upright. The Poet looked lovingly at her. Then he rose to his knees and crawled cautiously toward her. He took the necklace off his neck and bent over to fasten it to Sawsan’s. To his surprise, she inclined her head while he fastened the necklace. She then raised her eyes and met his.
“Why don’t you want me, sweetheart?” the Poet said, his eyes glistening with excitement.
“I don’t like you.” Sawsan smiled awkwardly.
“Why? What don’t you like in me?”
“Well, I’ve appreciated nothing in you. I admit you’re quite a pretty sexy boy. That’s probably the only thing good about you!”
The Poet blushed for her. His smile faded away. He turned round and arranged his books and put out the light. Then he made himself a place beside Sawsan and lay on his back… His mind soon flew back to Sultana…
Right from the next morning Sawsan began to change…for the better. Her indifference turned to loving kindness. Her smiles were unfettered. When she talked to the Poet her eyes would sparkle with joy. Her words were sweeter than honey. But…she still spent much of her daytime in the compound. Worse, she now overtly referred to Hassan as ‘the lucky man’, ‘the nice guy’ or ‘the handsome boy’. The Poet’s heart burnt within him. He now felt the woods like a prison or a land of banishment. His days became too long, and so were his nights. Sawsan could easily discern anxiety in his tone and words, and yet she went on lauding what to the Poet’s mind was ‘her beloved’. He pondered deeply over this and finally decided to make an ass of himself and wait.
He waited a few more days. One day he was in the woods when Hassan came straight at him. This time Sufian was not there. The Poet’s blood ran cold. Hassan avoided the Poet’s eyes until he greeted him and squatted by his side.
“Happy to see you again, Our Poet!” said he joyfully. “Peace be with you, first. Ah! I forgot to say ‘Peace be with you’!”
“Peace be with you too, Mr Hassan,” replied the Poet in an unsteady voice.
“How are you and how is your wife?”
“Fine. Thanks. And you?”
“See? Sawsan must have treasured your gift, hasn’t she?”
“It was your gift, sir.”
“You are a perfect gentleman. I really like you, Our Poet! You walk?”
And both stood up and began to walk about amidst the herd.
“Tell me, Our Poet. Last time you told me that you were your amir’s favourite poet, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was,” said the Poet.
“What is splendid, sir?”
“I mean that’s a good job.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“Do I make myself quite clear? I’ve just found a job for you, a good one– I assure you!”
The Poet’s heart leapt for joy.
“I am much obliged to you, sir,” he said with a smile.
“Then you will accept the job?”
“Yes, but tell me about it first.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. You know my business sometimes leads me into the high society. I have many friends who are rich or of noble birth. Well, one of these men has just become amir. He’s a close friend of mine. And I like him very much. And on this happy occasion I would like to make him a present of something special. And I can’t find anything better for a present than a good poem lauding his qualities. This is why I’ve come to you now. I’m sure you’re a great poet and you can write a good epic poem describing my friend. I’ll tell you in great detail everything you’d need to know about him. You just have to put this into rhyme. This will be your surest way to freedom and wealth and fame and happiness. Believe me!”
“Well, I will start from the end, if you wouldn’t mind, sir. For me, the best thing in life is not fame or wealth, but to love and be loved. And the best lover one can have is none but God.”
“Oh, Salman!” Hassan interrupted. “You’re speaking to me as if I were an infidel. Let’s forget all about this and come straight to the point. Eh? What do you say? Surely you’ll write the poem, won’t you?”
The Poet reflected. Then he said:
“Well, let me think. Tomorrow I’ll tell you. Tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, Salman! Come on! What is there to think about? Don’t you want to be free? Don’t you wish to be rich? And if you personally don’t want that, think of your wife. Wouldn’t she be happier if she were free? Oh, Salman, you are a wise man. Don’t let your wisdom fail you. Eh? Tell me now, when will the poem be ready?”
“I don’t know. Mr Hassan, why don’t you give me a chance to think about it? Tomorrow morning I’ll tell you. Is tomorrow far away?”
“Well, you can think. And think well! So I’ll leave you right now. Next morning I’ll see you. Peace be with you!”
The Poet spent that night thinking. Hassan had asked him to choose between two things: freedom or something else he could hardly imagine now. What could he do? Compose the poem and thus pull himself out of the affair? Or keep true to his own principles at any cost? And how could he write a poem about somebody he did not know? How could he write something that he did not feel? He could, for his own safety’s sake. But what would he say to God on Judgment Day?… Tears welled up in his eyes. He strove not to sob lest he should waken his wife, who was sleeping by his side. Or should he wake her up and tell her about his torments? What would she say if he told her? Would she hold out against ‘the handsome boy’ for the mere sake of her husband’s principles?… The Poet did not awaken her. He kept on thinking alone…
Early in the morning Hassan was in the woods.
“Good morning, Our Poet,” said he as he squatted down.
“Good morning, sir,” replied the Poet in a hushed voice, looking at the ground.
“Did you think about what I told you yesterday?”
“You know it is not always easy to compose a poem. One should feelfirst, then think and–”
“I don’t think I can write the poem you’ve asked me for, sir.”
“Well, I don’t know your friend in person. And even if you tried your best to describe him to me in detail I would still be unable to feel anything toward him. And if I can’t feel something, then I can’t say a poem about it. I need inspiration. See what I mean?” The Poet paused and gasped for breath. Then he said, “Well, what if we sat with Mr Assem and put the matter to him and see what he says? Perhaps his words would help me release the poetry obstructed deep within myself?”
“No, no! Don’t mention my father! I know him. He has nothing to do with this. I suppose you’re only trying to fool me!”
“Oh, no, sir! I’ve had no thought of that. Only I feel I can’t please you this time.”
“Shall I wait? One week? Two weeks?”
“Well, I don’t know. Please, Mr Hassan, just exempt me from this I beseech you. For God’s sake please do! I now hate all poets and poetry. It’s too long a time since I last said a verse.”
Hassan stood up. He looked down at the Poet and thundered:
“You know, you nuts, even Father daren’t displease me. I was wrong to come to you. But you will see! Tonight I want my necklace back!”
And he turned to go, foaming with rage.
At lunchtime the Poet told Assem about the affair. Assem smiled and said:
“And what do you want of me now?”
“Well, I can’t ask Sawsan to return the necklace. I’m sure if you talked to her she would give it to you.”
“Right. I will try. Now, lunch and go back to your work.”
That afternoon the Poet had a terrible headache. Back from the woods, he went straight to his tent. Sawsan was there. As he entered, she looked up at him in disgust. She did not answer his greeting. She covered her face with her hands and sighed deeply. The Poet sat on the carpet. He too let out a heavy sigh. He could feel what Sawsan was thinking and feeling just now. He too wanted to be free. He too wanted to have money. He wanted to please his wife, to make her happy, to take her somewhere else and live with her in peace and love. But not by any means. It would be a heinous sin to make a lot of money from praising a person towards whom he had no feelings. And if –God forbid!– he had to do so, he would never get rid of that sin. All his resulting life would have been built upon illicit acquisitions. This he would simply not do, even if he had to stay a slave all his life…
“Do you blame me for what’s happened?” he said suddenly to his wife.
She did not answer a word. She was as deaf as the mattress she was lying on.
“Why don’t you speak? Answer my question.”
Sawsan remained dumb. The Poet went out to perform his ablutions and returned to the tent, without uttering a word. After the Dusk Prayer, he read the Quran until it was time for the Evening Prayer. He prayed and then lay beside his wife on the bed, and waited for her to go to the compound and bring him his dinner. She did not. She only moved to put out the light and went back to her place…to sleep. The Poet did not touch her. He did not speak to her. He could not. He only gave free rein to his thoughts and waited for sleep to come and take him away for a while.
Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER