Assem’s next visit to the Poet’s tent was four days later. It was a surprise visit. He came alone, in the evening, with dinner and a book.. As he entered, he greeted the Poet coldly and sat on the edge of the mattress. He placed the tray containing the dinner on the carpet and waited for the Poet to take it up. The Poet hesitated.
“Don’t you want to dine?” Assem asked coolly.
The Poet bent over to take up the tray.
“Don’t play the fool with me!” Assem said, half-angry.
The Poet took the tray and moved back and sat straight and began to eat, without raising his eyes.
“This time,” said Assem in quite a friendly tone now, “I have brought you this book-“ (The Poet raised his eyes.) “which I hope you’ll enjoy very much.”
“Thank you very much, Sir,” replied the Poet in an unsteady voice.
“I will take back the books I gave you last time.”
Assem rose to his feet, placed the new book beside the Poet –on the carpet– and picked up the other three books and left, after having wished the Poet good night.
After dinner, the Poet edged the light near his pillow on the mattress and opened the book and lay on his right side, leaning his head on his forearm. And he started to read aloud right from the beginning of the book. He was reading Arabic poetry. He read the first page smilingly and then the second; but as his eyes rolled down the third page, he screamed. He could no longer lie on his side. He sat upright and went on repeating a verse over and over again. In this verse Jameel Buthaina said to his beloved (Buthaina):
“My heart will love you as long as I am alive;
And when I die,
My spirit will pursue yours amongst graves!”
But the Arabic words and the rhythm and the imagery…made the Poet shout, “Allahu Akbar!”– as if he were on a battle-field.
The Poet returned to the book and read verse by verse, poem by poem, page by page. And each time he read a particularly beautiful verse he screamed happily. At a point, he could read no more. He was so overcome by his unbridled passions that he just laid the book aside.
The next day the Poet tried his best to compose a panegyric poem to express his thanks to Assem, but he just failed to. And when both met in the evening, near the compound, it was Assem who spoke first.
“How did you find the book?” –
“I–I–I really can’t find words to thank you, Sir.”
“Answer my question: how was the book?”
“It’s a real gem, Sir.”
Assem laughed quietly and said:
“That’s nothing compared to the books you’ll be reading right from tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Oh, let me kiss your hand, Sir!”
The Poet bent down to kiss Assem’s hand, but Assem withdrew his hand, and said:
“This is my mission. From now on, you need not ask permission to come into my library and get whatever book you like. The only thing I want you to do is read and read as much as you can.”
“Oh, thank you Master!” the Poet burst out, with tears in his eyes. “I promise that I’ll do my best.”
“So now go to Hind and get your dinner.”
The Poet did not budge an inch until Assem had vanished into one of the houses that made up the compound.
That was the beginning of a number of happy months during which the Poet thought of no more than two things: reading more and more, and returning, one day, to Lehreem to liberate Sultana. In the evening, and sometimes by day in the fields, he would pore over books dealing with various subjects (literature, medicine, history, religion, philosophy(!), and so on.) But all these books were in Arabic. Sometimes he could not tear himself away from an interesting book and would spend a sleepless night on it. And from time to time he would have a casual meeting with Assem to discuss topics related to the books…
And as one month followed another the Poet’s expectations grew higher and higher. There came a time when he no longer considered himself a slave. Assem was becoming for him more a father and teacher than a master, and Hassan and Sufian were like brothers to him. Also Boutros, who often came to see Assem, was now quite familiar to the Poet– just like Kafr-Hanoon’s landscape and weather. So the Poet would play merrily with Sufian (whenever the latter stayed at Kafr-Hanoon), chat from time to time with Boutros, and discuss topics with Assem. He would eat and drink with zest. He would dress and shave like anybody else. And, of course, he still thought of Sultana and Lehreem… But he was in no hurry to go there…
When it was twenty-five days to the Holy Month of Ramadan, Assem called upon the Poet, in the tent, some time before the first cock-crow. The Poet sensed that his happiness would end very soon. Assem did not say good morning until he had sat on one side of the mattress. The Poet had already gathered himself up. Then, Assem began to assail the Poet with endless questions about names ranging from Plato to Imam Malik. And the Poet answered each question with some difficulty. Then,
“Now, you’ll come along?” said Assem, rising to leave the tent.
The Poet wore his shoes hastily and followed on the heels of Assem. They went toward a shed. From the shed Assem fetched a bow and a dozen arrows, which he handed to the Poet.
“Take this,” Assem said, “and go to the woods to hunt something for me. I want to lunch on it today. Whatever.”
The Poet quickly overcame his incomprehension and set out for a nearby wood, following the way which Assem had shown him. The Poet found no human soul there. He did not go through the wood, for fear of being taken by surprise by any creature. In fact, he was much more anxious to avoid danger than to go back with some game to his master. Soon afterwards, bleats and moos began to fill the air. And as soon as the Poet caught sight of a herdsman coming toward the wood, he made an about-turn and moved away. He had hunted nothing. He then came back to the compound, frustrated. Assem looked at him in astonishment, but all he said was: “After lunch come back to me. Keep the bow. Go!”
At the appointed time, Assem took the Poet, on foot, to a nearby lake, just a little distance behind the wood. Once there, Assem had the Poet put off his outer garments and his trousers and wind round his waist a piece of cloth enough to hide his groin. (It was Assem who gave the cloth to the Poet.) The Poet did all this (behind a bush) without any embarrassment– since there was nobody around. Then he returned to where Assem was standing.
“Now jump into the lake!” said Assem in a low voice.
“I can’t jump,” replied the Poet shyly, “because I’ve never swum in a river or lake before. But if you wouldn’t mind, Sir, let me first enter the water from the shallow edge.”
Assem did not utter a word in reply. He just turned round and trudged back toward his compound. The Poet stood looking at him in amazement, then he rushed to his clothes. He removed the piece of cloth round his waist and hung it over the bush and put his clothes on and hurried after his master.
“I am sorry,” he said, panting, as he reached the master. “I crave your pardon.”
Assem did not reply. He just plodded on his way, under an intolerable sun.
The next evening the Poet came across Assem near the compound and begged his pardon. Assem took a few steps toward one of the houses, looking at the ground and saying nothing. The Poet begged and begged until Assem –at long last– swung round and snapped:
“Just tell me, what sort of man are you?” The Poet lowered his eyes as Assem went on, “Say: do you consider yourself a man? You don’t hunt; you don’t swim– I just can’t see any signs of manliness in you!”
“I beg your pardon, Master. Just give me a chance!”
Assem stared at him contemptuously before he said in a threatening tone:
“You have until Ramadan to learn to hunt and swim. And don’t think I shall forgive you after that. And don’t forget that we’ve paid good money for you! Go!”
That night the Poet read only one thing: Antar Ibnu Shaddad’s poetry.
Every other day over the next few weeks, the Poet would go to the lake as soon as day broke. He would strip to his swim-cloth and step into the lake from a shallow edge. And then he would try to swim as best he could– in a very cold water. On the other days, he would leave the tent around dawn and fetch the bow and arrows and go to the wood…to hunt. But he never ventured to go far through the trees.
It took the Poet a solid twenty days to learn to swim a little better than a lame duck. But he could not yet jump into the water even from a level as high as a man’s thigh. As to hunting, it was not until it was two days to Ramadan that he came to Assem with a…rabbit!
“Ah! Great!” Assem exclaimed as he caught sight of the rabbit hanging from the Poet’s right hand. “At long last you’ve hunted something!”
The Poet could not help smiling jubilantly as he stood in front of his master.
“Hand me the rabbit to see,” said Assem, holding out his hand. He gripped the rabbit by its ears, looked at its eyes and scoffed:
“Don’t you see this?”
The Poet’s heart throbbed.
“This rabbit is mangy!” said Assem, staring the Poet in the face. “Look! Look at its eyes!”
Assem then dropped the rabbit on the ground and it went blundering about, halting here and there. The Poet followed its movements with a drunken man’s eyes.
“See?” Assem jeered again. “You should not have eyes as bad as those of this creature. Now, go! Go away!”
And the Poet moved away, with downcast eyes.
Ramadan arrived at last. At dawn the Poet would start to fast. He was now in bed, thinking about that. He had not fasted during the previous year’s Ramadan. So , one day, he would have to repent of that sin by fasting during two successive months. Worse, he had given up saying his five daily prayers for more than a year now. So to repent of that sin too he would have to make up for all the prayers he had missed… Assem must have noticed this. But –it seemed– he had chosen to turn a blind eye to it. By the way, this Assem– wasn’t he a little bit strange? Sometimes he, the Poet, wondered whether his master was not really a madman. Then how to explain his strange behaviour?…Assem hadn’t given the Poet a dog –besides the bow and the arrows– when he had sent him to hunt in the wood. Fancy that! Yes, but…after all, Assem remained a man of culture. His knowledge was boundless. But…why hadn’t he put his knowledge to good use?… He really was something of a pedant. There was no room for comparison between Assem and his son Hassan. Hassan was rather pragmatic. He was a doer…
Dawn found the Poet in the compound. Assem had told him that throughout Ramadan he would have both the souhour and the foutour meals with him in the compound. And in the course of this first souhour Assem did not talk of books or swimming or hunting or praying…but of food and gastronomy, and nothing else… And word borrowed word till he found himself reminiscing about his “olden boyhood times in Iraq”…
At the foutour (dusk breakfast), the Poet was astonished to see Boutros eating at Assem’s table. They were all there: Assem, Boutros, Sufian and the Poet. (Hassan rarely stayed two successive days at Kafr-Hanoon. His business left him little time to.) So all four ate and drank peacefully.
After that evening’s foutour, Assem commanded the Poet to see the Priest home. And the Poet obeyed with a silent nod. The Priest lived in the hamlet Kafr-Hanoon, about a mile away from Assem’s abode, on the way to the wood and the lake. (All the small area surrounding the hamlet was called Kafr-Hanoon.) So the Poet and the Priest made for the hamlet, following the usual narrow path. The night was dark and cold. Tonight the Priest was silent, and so was the Poet. The Poet’s heart was calm all along the way to the hamlet. He had nothing to fear since the Priest was with him. The Priest thanked the Poet and blessed him and went into his house, and the Poet had to go back to his tent, alone. Now, his heart began to lose its calm. So he prayed to God for safety…
That Ramadan was a happy one. Assem was very thoughtful and friendly. Throughout the Holy Month he never lowered at the Poet. Boutros too seemed to like the Poet, and vice-versa. The Priest would from time to time tell the Poet about Jesus Christ, Saint Mary…and the Poet would listen intently and with respect. And he kept his thoughts and feelings to himself. Even Hassan, who occasionally dropped in at Kafr-Hanoon, seemed to think highly of the Poet. He advised his son Sufian to be “extremely kind to Our Poet”.
After Ramadan another man appeared at Assem’s compound. This man did not come alone; a half-dozen guards made his escort. But he alone was allowed to sit with Assem in the guest-room. The other men stayed with the horses outside. The man in question was a chieftain by the name of Mussa Ibnu Arabi. The Poet was astounded to hear this, because , first, he knew that Assem’s household were the only Muslim family in Kafr-Hanoon, and then he had heard Mussa say to Assem, “Just send me your servant.” So where would Assem send him, and when –by day or by night? And how– on foot or on horse-back? The Poet waited impatiently for Mussa to leave so that he could hear something from Assem’s own mouth…
Mussa and his men left. The Poet waited for Assem to tell him something about them. In the meantime, he thought of the best way he should react to his master’s next order. Now, he thought, he had actually attained to man’s estate. If he could not acquit himself like a true man, then he counted for nothing. Everybody had stigamatized him as a coward. And that was probably clearly written all over his face. Anyone could tell at a glance. But he must not go on like this. He must make a change. He must face all eventualities. He must take to any adventure like a duck to water. He must be like Antar Ibnu Shaddad, not like Jameel Buthaina…Better die a brave than live the life of a coward!…
It was evening of the third day when Assem decided to send the Poet to Mussa. The Poet obeyed the order smilingly, although his heart throbbed. Mussa, said Assem, lived on the other side of the Nile, in a village on the way to Asswan. Assem gave the Poet all the details about the way and the people he might meet on his way. He also gave him special clothes and some coins to pay for the boat-lifts. He showed him where to leave the mule, by the Nile. And he gave him two days to accomplish the mission: The Poet had to carry an important manuscript to the chieftain. “You can go early tomorrow morning if you like,” Assem concluded, handing the rolled manuscript to the Poet.
The Poet could not wait until the morning. He swore to go “now” –just at nightfall– and he jabbered out prayers and fetched the mule and set out for the river. He saw few people on the way, and each time he caught a glimpse of a new figure his heart jumped. The night grew brighter and brighter as the moon rose high up in the sky. The Poet stopped from time to time to make sure he was still on the right track. At midnight he reached the river. But he probably was the only one to stay up until this time. So he rode to a place near the house where he would leave the mule before crossing the river. The house belonged to a friend of Assem’s.
A little after dawn, Assem’s friend appeared and the Poet rose and headed towards him, leading the mule behind him.
“You must be Assem’s servant, aren’t you?” said the man softly in Arabic.
“That’s right, sir,” replied the Poet confidently.
“How is he?”
“He’s fine. God bless you!”
“Thank God. You mean to cross the river, don’t you?”
The man took the mule somewhere behind his house and came back to escort the Poet to the path which, Assem had said, would lead him to the place where he could cross the river. He then left the man and continued on his way. The sun was already rising up when the Poet stepped into a small boat and sat beside a few men, who cast inquisitive looks at him. The boat moved slowly eastward and the Poet turned his eyes toward the water. A feeling of importance warmed his heart. No one spoke to him and he spoke to nobody. Even when he left the boat he did not speak to anybody until he came across a teenage boy pasturing a herd of goats and camels not far from a village.
“Excuse me, my son,” the Poet said to the boy in an unsteady voice, “is it there where lives Mussa Ibnu Arabi?”
“Yes, he lives in the big, white house fenced with trees. On the right of the village. But why are you asking about him?”
“I want to see him.”
“What? You? You want to see him? Are you serious?”
“God bless you, my son!” the Poet said in a mumble. “See you!”
The Poet reached Mussa’s house. Some of the villagers looked at him strangely– especially when he stood at Mussa’s door.
“What do you want, you?” asked an outer-doorman in a forbidding tone.
“I want to see Mr Mussa Ibnu Arabi.”
“What!” the outer-doorman jeered.
“I’m a messenger.”
And before the outer-doorman could speak again someone from within the house cried:
“Let him pass!”
At long last, the Poet delivered the manuscript to the chieftain, who ordered two of his guards to show the Poet out of the village. The guards made the Poet mount a colt and led him up to the place where he took a boat to cross back to the west.
On his return to Kafr-Hanoon, Assem received him heartily. They dined together, in the guest-room; and in the course of the meal, Assem said:
“…You have now atoned for all your past faults, Salman. And for this feat I shall award you the best of my lambs. So just choose one and it’s yours… Tomorrow, you know, you’ll have to take the herd to pasture around the woods…”
Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER