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