The Poet had breakfast with Assem in his sleeping-room. And there they stayed until Sufian told them that Hassan had taken his horse and gone away. Then Assem and the Poet said their prayers together and left for Boutros’ home. On the way there, Assem asked the Poet many questions about the contents of some of the books he had read in the last few months. And as the Poet displayed his bookish knowledge Assem shouted, “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great!), as a sign of his surprise and pleasure. In the end he burst out:
“You see, Salman. I expected that you would parry some of my questions. But here you’ve answered them all! You have now retrieved yourself. I’m sure you’ll make a great teacher!”
“That’s what I want, Master. This is the fruit of your work. I thank God for having led me into your hands.”
“God is great, you know. My mind is now at ease. Although you will go and I’ll miss you–”
“Go? Me? Go where?”
Assem sighed and said:
“You can’t stay here any longer. Hassan won’t let you. You will take your wife and go wherever you choose. God’s land is immense and wherever you go there’s God.”
The Poet was too moved and confused to speak. Both he and Assem fell silent. Boutros’ house was then a little way off. Boutros himself seemed to be awaiting them. He received them with a cheerful smile and conducted them into the best room in his house. Sawsan joined them soon afterwards. Boutros served his guests tea and bread soaked in olive-oil…
“I am deeply affected by what has happened to you,” he said in Arabic, looking once at Sawsan and then at the Poet.
Sawsan glanced at the Priest, then at the Poet. The Poet looked at her dreamily. Assem spoke next.
“I wish they could stay longer with us. But, unfortunately, no one can do with my insolent son.”
“So they will go?” Boutros asked in a low voice.
“Yes. Salman will take his wife and go.”
Boutros turned to the Poet and said in a worried tone:
“Have you any idea where you could go?”
“God’s land is immense, sir,” replied the Poet in a hushed voice.
Boutros looked at the Poet with a disapproving frown and turned to Assem and said:
“Do you think he can protect his wife whatever the way?”
Assem smiled, glanced at Sawsan and replied:
“Salman loves his wife. He can fight for her, if need be. He has already proved it, hasn’t he?”
The Poet looked at Sawsan to see how she would react. She just cast an arrogant look at him, and looked away, into space.
“Then,” said the Priest, “I can but pray for them. May God be with them and endow them with strength and mutual love. Amen.”
Everybody else repeated:
After tea, Boutros went out and returned with a small silver cross that he handed to Sawsan, saying:
“This is my gift to you. Please have it for a keepsake.”
“Thank you, Reverend,” replied Sawsan smilingly.
Sawsan looked delighted with the gift. But the Poet was not. Nevertheless, he quickly overcame his disgust and smiled slyly.
As they left Boutros’ house, Assem said to his friend:
“Mr Boutros, please bear witness that I now give these two what they owe me. They are now free, like you and me.”
The Poet and Boutros smiled. Sawsan looked unmoved.
“Now, let’s go,” said Assem.
The Poet looked movingly at Boutros, who instantly took him in his arms. Tears rushed to the Poet’s eyes.
“Say a prayer for me, sir, and forgive me,” he said.
“O God give him and his wife good health and happiness! Amen.”
“Amen,” echoed the Poet tearfully.
“Take care of your wife.”
“I shall. I shall.”
Boutros prayed for Sawsan too and commanded her to God’s protection.
On the way back to Assem’s compound, Assem said to the Poet:
“You will leave us tonight. I will lend you two mules: one for you, the other for your wife. You’ll ride to where you can take a boat, if you are going northwards. I’ll show you where to leave the mules. Now, let me say a few words to your wife. Sawsan, are you listening to me?”
“Yes Sir, of course!”
“Then listen, may God bless you. I could well have married you to my son Hassan. But, believe me, daughter: this man, Salman –your husband– is ten thousand times better than my own son.” Sawsan smiled as Assem went on, “And I’m sure if you tried to understand your husband and side with him through all hardships you’d be ten thousand times better than the best of my son’s wives and maids.”
“I will do what I can, Sir. I only hope he won’t lead me to death…in the desert.”
“No!” Assem laughed. “Don’t worry! He’s not a fool!”
Night fell and with it came the hour of farewells. The mules were ready, and by them stood the Poet, Sawsan and Sufian. The Poet and Sawsan were carrying a bag each. As they waited for Assem to join them, the Poet contemplated the charming place around him and the moon watching from above, which brought tears to his eyes. Sufian looked up at him and said:
“I will miss you, Salman.”
The Poet sobbed:
“I too will miss you all, Sufian.”
“I’m sorry for what happened.” Sufian dissolved into tears.
Sawsan turned her face away, probably to hide her tears. Assem came out and joined them.
“You are lamenting!” he said as he faced the Poet.
The Poet now sobbed freely. Assem himself could hardly hold back his tears.
“Come on! Come on!” he said as he opened his arms to embrace the Poet. Both shed hot tears. “You know, Salman,” said Assem in a broken voice, “I don’t blame you for anything. You did nothing wrong. I am proud of you.”
Then Assem let go of the Poet and turned to Sawsan and said:
“Sawsan, you are now free.” Sawsan wiped her face and turned toward him as he added, “I am proud of you too.”
He took from his pocket a gold necklace and handed it to Sawsan. She hesitated but finally took it with slightly trembling hands. Her eyes closed for a moment and then her cheeks were wet with tears. Assem smiled at her and said gently:
“Now, mount your mules!”
The Poet embraced Sufian, who wept movingly, and then embraced Assem once more and took his bag and mounted the mule. Sawsan smiled at Sufian, bowed to Assem and mounted her mule. Assem drew close to the Poet and stood between him and Sawsan and said soberly:
“Salman, if you see Sultana again –who knows? – please do greet her for me and tell her I wish I had the honour to see her. And if Hassan pursues you, please try not to kill him. And take care of your princess Sawsan and of yourself!”
“Insha Allah. Insha Allah.” Salman smiled, dry-eyed.
“And now take this.” Assem took from his pocket a purse and gave it to the Poet.
“Oh, thank you very, very much, Mr Assem! I’m infinitely grateful to you, Sir. I cannot thank you enough.”
“Try to write to me if you can. Now, you can move. God be with you. Go in peace!”
“Insha Allah. Insha Allah.”
The mules moved. The Poet and Sawsan bade farewell to Assem and the boy. And the journey began.
As they had gone a good way from Assem’s abode, Sawsan turned to the Poet and asked:
“Who is Sultana?”
“My first wife,” the Poet replied laconically.
Sawsan said no more.
An hour later the Poet was thinking about one particular thing. He still marvelled at the liveliness with which Sawsan had mounted her mule and, before that, worn the sword which Assem had given her to defend herself! (The Poet too had been given a sword.) The Poet thought deeply about this and compared it with Sawsan’s reaction when Hassan had dashed after him, and found it hard to understand her attitude. An hour later he decided to ask her.
“Tell me, Sawsan?” he said, without looking at her.
“Have you ever ridden a horse before?”
Sawsan laughed and answered haughtily:
“I was taken captive in battle, not in my mother’s kitchen!”
These words filled the Poet’s heart with an amalgam of fear and pride. These words left him speechless. He could do no more than think deeply about this fair-skinned woman riding alongside him. His thoughts led him to compare Sawsan with Sultana. Soon he almost forgot all about Sawsan. He thought, among other things, of the way back to Lehreem…
“Are you in a hurry?” Sawsan said suddenly in an agreeable voice.
“No, not at all.”
“So let’s have a rest.”
“As you wish, darling!”
The Poet and his wife alighted from the mules and sat side by side on a low-lying rock facing a great lake.
“It’s a wonderful sight, isn’t it?” the Poet said with a beautiful smile. “The moon, the breeze, the lake…and you!”
From his bag the Poet took his flute and began to play on it. Immediately after, memories of his homeland rushed into his mind– clear and vivid and lively. Sultana smiled at him and he sang a lively tune to her…
“What are you thinking about?” Sawsan said suddenly.
“I said, what were you thinking of?”
The Poet smiled and said:
“Of you, of course.”
“Ah, I see!”
The Poet reverted to his tunes…
Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER