Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Excerpts from THE POET

(…)

At home, the Poet had a quick bath, put on clean clothes and went into the prayer-room to perform his Morning Prayer. Then, he moved about to prepare breakfast. Suddenly, a gentle tap startled him. He left the kitchen and rushed out to see who was at the door. He found a woman: the Amira. 
      “May I go in ?” she asked gently.
      “You?”
      “Yes, it's me!” the Amira replied quite confidently. “Why do you look so abashed? Why are you looking at me with protruding eyes? Am I not welcome?”
      “Oh yes, you are welcome!” the Poet replied nervously.
      “May I go in, then?”
      The Poet made a gesture in response, inviting the Amira in. This graceful lady could not help laughing at seeing the Poet tremble so awkwardly.
      When she entered, sure-footedly, the Poet locked the door and leaned his back against it.
      “Won’t you light the house for me?” said the Amira. “I can hardly see your eyes and do wonder whether you can at all see mine in this cave!”
      “What do you want?” the Poet burst out grumpily.
      The Amira took slow but firm steps towards him. She lifted her fine, small hands up to his cheeks in an attempt to allay his fear, but she only enhanced it instead. When the Poet felt the Amira’s hands fumbling for his, which were clutching the door-handle behind his burning loins, he forced himself to utter a painful, low cry. The Amira was so seriously startled that she found herself, as if in a dream, lying against the Poet’s chest. The Poet eventually liberated his hands and lifted them up to the Amira’s face. He caressed her cheeks, and then grabbed her hands– which were now almost burning. It was not dark, as the Amira had suggested. The Poet could see her features quite clearly.
      “What do you want, your Grace?” the Poet asked, very calmly– to the Amira’s great surprise.
      “I want nothing but you,” she murmured, with a look of entreaty on her beautiful face.
      “What?”
      The Amira withdrew a few paces backward, and waited till she regained her breath, before she spoke.
      “Salman,” she said with a sultry smile, “you know everything!”
      “What do you want?” the Poet retorted, looking at the Amira quite threateningly now.
      “I want to marry you.”
      “What! But you are married!”
      “I’ve never loved the one who married me,” the Amira replied in hasty explanation.
      “I don’t care whether you love him or not, but that’s a fact. I cannot marry a woman who is already married. Thousands of times I’ve told you I can’t. Besides, how could such a marriage be possible? Just tell me?”
      “Let’s elope!”
      “What! Elope? Are you crazy? O listen, your Grace–”
      “Please: my name is Ida!”
      “Oh listen, Ida. Think of another thing. Marriage is just as impossible–”
      “No! If we eloped that would be possible. Listen, Salman. There’s no other way.”
      The Poet forced himself to ponder over the matter for a while. Then, he said with a puckish smile:
      “I have a condition.”
      “What is it? Ask whatever you want, I shall never disappoint you! Just say!”
      “You liberate Sultana. She must go with us.”
      “No!” the Amira burst out. “That’s just impossible!”
      “Why?”
      “I know your tricks!”
      “Anyway, you and I shall never agree. There’s a gap neither your Grace nor I will ever be able to bridge.”
      “You will bridge it one day,” the Amira barked at him. “As to Sultana, you will see how I will make her pay for it. Open the door!”
      The Poet opened it at once, and stepped out to see whether there was anybody around. There was none. The Amira went out and flew east. The Poet stood by the door contemplating the wavering pink of her gown and the lustrous purple of her stole. His body was shaking all over, his heart beating harder than ever before.

(…)


(….)
It was dark now. As the Poet rose and rubbed his eyes he found himself in utter darkness. Had he slept or just drowsed? He was rocking. He could no longer repress his urine. It was very cold. But would he do it here? This made him dizzy. He had already felt the pangs of thirst and hunger, and here he was now feeling the pangs of this as well. He kept rocking and swaying bitterly. His patience was exhausted. He groaned inwardly at the thought of doing what only helpless children would do. And here indeed? It occurred to him to pray. But he could bear no more. He crept toward the door and hastened to get rid of the liquid that had pained him. And as he felt the viscous liquid that was still there he wondered who was that woman he had seen in the last minutes of his sleep.
      As he backed and leant against the chilly wall, the Poet felt ashamed. He had now done this, what would he do next? He shuddered to think! How long would he remain here? He ran his hand over his stomach. Was he going to be starved to death? And Sultana? Poor Sultana! She must have undergone more than this. The Amir was really soulless, damn him! Even Ida forgot the days when she had been a maid. Once she had enjoyed the revels of being an amira she grew more mannish than a man. Why wasn’t she like Sultana?...
      Thought upon thought led the Poet through the rest of the night. As the first morning rays began to flood in, someone knocked at and opened the cell-door. “Get up!” a guard said unmannerly. The Poet rose up and got out of the cell. The guard led him past several wooden doors to a small stable-like shed. “You unload your bowels here and be quick!” the guard said and stepped back. The place was terribly nasty, yet the Poet had no other choice. He went in as ordered. And while he was there he thought of asking the guard for something. He wanted to ask him for a cup of water and a hunk of bread, but his pride prevented him. He wanted to inquire after Sultana, but his fear wouldn’t let him. When the Poet was out of the shed, the guard, who had been yawning, drew his sword and said: “Be quick to your cell!” The Poet just glanced once more and went on to his cell. The guard locked the door behind him and went away.
      As the Poet sat down he felt again the bitter pangs of thirst, hunger and cold. Before now he had thought there was nothing more horrible than sexual deprivation. Was he going to change his mind? He had no idea how long this would last. It occurred to him to bang the door or just scream, but what’s the use? The specters of starvation and death began to scare him. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to get out and be free. He wanted food and water now. Or else– . What? He sneezed.  He abhorred this fusty cell. His thoughts brought tears to his eyes. He felt small. The Amir and the Amira he had praised for so long had now gotten him with his back to the wall and others were going to try him. Had he known this would happen to him, he mused remorsefully, he wouldn’t have praised any– Too late now.
      A good deal of time had passed since sunrise and yet nothing new happened. The Poet looked at the remaining traces of his urine at the bottom of the door and wondered what would have happened if the guard had not come that early. But this wasn’t yet enough. The Poet wished that the guard had brought with him some food or at least a cup of water. But his wish went unfulfilled. Another thing was paining him now. If he had been at home he would have already had a bath and said his Dawn Prayers. But he couldn’t do it here now that he had polluted the place.

(….)


(….)

The Poet knew that this house was not his own nor his parents’, but his master’s. He was here as a slave. What would he be doing? He did not wait long to know.

      Soon after lunchtime, the man who had received him with a “Shalom” appeared at the door of the room with a bowl in his hands. Some sort of smile hovered on his face. The Poet, who had been reclining in bed, rose swiftly and sat upright on the bedside. The man at the door –surely the Poet’s new master– did not budge. His smile disappeared and gave way to a frown. Then, he eyed the Poet up from head to toe. The Poet understood that he had to stand up, and he stood up. The frown on the man’s face quickly grew more provocative. The Poet deduced that he had to step onward, toward the man. And he stepped towards him almost falteringly. The Poet came to face to face with the man.
       “What’s your name?” asked the man, staring the Poet into the face.
      “My name is Salman,” the Poet replied a shade shyly.
      “You’re welcome, Shalman! I’ve brought you this. Here!”
      The Poet took the bowl. He looked into it and saw two pieces of drumstick, olives and bread. Then, he raised his eyes and said:
      “Thank you, Master.”
      “My name is Haroon. Lunch and come downstairs. I’m waiting for you.”
      “Excuse me, Sir. What way is the toilet?”
      Haroon just frowned and moved away. The Poet stepped back and sat on one of the two mats. He put the bowl before himself and began to eat from it. In the meantime, he thought.
      
      Haroon was a Jew, like all the men whom the Poet had seen since he had left the palace. Haroon was a tall, stoop-shouldered man. He was slightly taller than the Poet. He was in his early forties. He had a white cheerful face with a dark, full beard. His voice was soft. He too spoke Arabic.
      All those Jews had been rather fair to the Poet. He had eaten and slept (by day) quite well. He had been allowed to go to the toilet…

      But the Poet didn’t feel at ease, though. He had begun to think and worry about Sultana more than ever before. He was not sure she was still alive. But down in his heart, at least, she was still alive. He had begun to regret his recent attitude toward Abu Sufian and Ida. He felt he had been reckless. And each time he thought about this he wished he could forget all about it.

      When he finished his meal, he rose to his feet and placed the white skullcap on his head and mumbled a few prayers and left the room. He turned his steps to the stairs. And on the way he glanced onto the tiled courtyard. There was nobody. He went sure-footedly downstairs. When he stepped onto the floor he walked straight toward the fountain and turned to face the only door he saw open. The door was in the row below the room where he had been all morning. Haroon appeared at that door and put his hands on the door-posts. His head was bare. He was wearing a smart, green robe and yellow Turkish slippers. He smiled. The Poet kept gazing at him. A young woman appeared fleetingly behind Haroon. The Poet’s heart gave a jump. Haroon removed his hands and moved slowly onward. The Poet’s heartthrobs grew quicker.
      “Shalman?” said Haroon in his soft voice, resting his hand on the Poet’s shoulder.
      “Yes, Sir,” replied the Poet shyly.
      “What’s the story of this skullcap on your head? Are you a Jew?”
      “I’m not. But I like it.”
      “I’m told you’re new to slavery, aren’t you?”
      “Yes, Sir.”
      “Well, I’ll do my best to make a good slave out of you! Come along!”

(….)



(….)

Sarah reappeared at long last. The Poet, who had already begun the courtyard, saw her more with his heart than with his eyes. Once out of her room, the mistress just stretched and yawned and ambled up to the fountain. She sat there with her back to the Poet. What to do now? Every piece of the Poet was now shivering. His heart asked him to go to her and apologize. His mind commented: “What would you say to her? Keep away!” He kept away and endured his torments.
      The mistress rose from the fountain's edge and went into the kitchen. After moments of hesitation, the Poet went there and stood by the kitchen door and coughed. The mistress came out and asked about the milk. Without a word, the Poet leapt round and flew to the tool-room. He fetched a pot and set out for the pastures. For he had forgotten to ask the boy to leave him a cow in the shed. In no time, the pot was by the kitchen-door, full of milk. Sarah came out, took up the pot and said: “Away with you!” The Poet bowed and went back to the broom.
      After that, the Poet was asked to bring water, vegetables and so on, to his mistress. He also did the ordinary, monotonous daily chores. That day went peacefully by. No one beat the Poet. No one barked at him. Even Haroon, who came back in the mid-afternoon. Even Sarah herself. Only Sarah had changed. No more smiles. No more gentle words. The once mild voice had grown hoarse. Sarah no longer looked the Poet in the eye, but in the tooth! (The Poet had carious teeth.) Sarah no longer called the Poet by his name. “Shalman” had turned into “you”.
      When the Poet went to sleep he could not sleep. He could not rejoice that the war with his mistress was over. Yet his fear abated remarkably  as soon as night had fallen. Still in bed, he tried hard to find a convincing answer to a bewildering question, “Why?” He wanted to explain to himself the strange behaviour of Sarah in the last two days. Many answers came to his mind but none was convincing. So he slept on a bewildered mind.
      Sarah on Sundays was as much the same as Sarah on the day before and in the days after. Her strange behaviour had muddled up all the Poet’s logic. Anyone who saw him could easily feel that there was something wrong with him. Even the boys had noticed that and asked him why. “I’m a little bit ill,” he said. “Your climate has affected my health.” The boys did not dwell long on that. But Marqus, who seemed to have reasons of his own, kept touching on that sensitive spot until the Poet, after five days’ hesitation, let out the secret.

      So it was a Thursday afternoon when the Poet decided to unfold his story to Marqus. Both men were seated cross-legged, facing each other, on the thick red rug in Marqus’ room. The story was wonderful, because the Poet recounted it with the instinctive exaggeration of an involved narrator. Marqus had kept unusually silent from the beginning unto the end of the story. But no sooner had the Poet finished his tale than Marqus burst out:
      “Here we go! Sooner or later you’ll be trapped, old chap! That vamp in your master’s home has driven a nail into your coffin!”
      “Really?” The Poet paused and thought for a while. “What would you do in my place?” he asked at length.
      “I would run away!” Marqus said, gesticulating.
      The Poet stared, then bowed his head and thought again.
      “I can’t,” he said after a pause.
      “Why not,”
      The Poet hesitated before he replied:
      “Haroon showed me the cut head of an old slave of his who had attempted to escape.”
      Marqus laughed and said:
      “And you believed him, you noodle! Hasn’t it occurred to you, by any chance, that he might have come across that head in a battlefield or in the wild desert or anywhere else?”
      The Poet kept quiet and stayed with a bowed head.
      “Listen to me, brother!” Marqus broke out desperately. “Let’s put hand in hand and run away!”
      “I wish I could. But I can’t.”
      “Why ever not?”
      “Well, let me think about it!” the Poet gasped , rising from the mat.
      “There’s not a moment to lose! Mind!” retorted Marqus as he stood up and led the Poet out of the room. “We shall escape, whatever your decision is! If you don’t want to go I’ll let out your secret!”
      Alarmed, the Poet turned and stared at his teacher. But he was too confused to speak. So he simply hung his head and walked away, back to his master’s house.
      The Poet took Marqus’ threat seriously. Only he could not understand why Marqus had never mentioned this subject before. It looked as if he had only been waiting impatiently for this very opportunity  to burst out. It was unbelievable, the way Marqus had snapped out his threat. But why? Why hadn’t he escaped before the Poet’s arrival in Tlemsen?

(….)



(….)

Those were ten happy days. The eleventh day was strange enough for the Poet to think it would probably seal his fate. Sarah had changed suddenly. From morning to evening she did not greet, smile or say a good word to the Poet. Haroon was absent all that day long. So when the Poet had finished all that day’s work he regained his room to sleep. He was deeply dismayed at Sarah’s abrupt change. She had not even given him his dinner this night! And this was enough to shatter his morale. Sarah was his beloved. He had never entrusted this secret to anybody, but he loved his mistress secretly and deeply. Even when he had told Marqus abut Sarah, he had not said that he loved her. He had told him anything but this. So the Poet thought about this for two or three hours that night.

      Suddenly, in the middle of the night, a light filled the Poet’s room. So he removed the sheet from his face and turned toward the door. It was Sarah, carrying an oil-lamp in her left hand and a bowl in her right. “You madam?” said the Poet, having nothing else to say. Sarah glanced at the floor, then at the Poet’s face and moved forward and sat on the bedside, close to the Poet’s feet. She put down the oil-lamp on the floor and turned to hand the bowl to the Poet, who had now gathered himself and sat upright, close to his mistress. All his fears had revived instantly. So he began to eat from the bowl with a shivering hand. He did not wash his hands before eating. He did not ask questions. He merely sat beside his mistress and beloved and ate silently. In the meanwhile Sarah had cupped her chin in her right hand and rested her eyes on the floor. She looked absentminded. Now and then the Poet glanced furtively at her. She was wearing a blue nightdress and her hair hung on her back. At long last, she turned to the Poet and asked, as she glanced at the bowl:
      “Finished?”
      “Yes madam,” replied the Poet, slightly puzzled.
      Actually, he had not finished. But his fears pushed him to say yes. Without any more words, Sarah took the bowl gently from the Poet’s hand and picked up the oil-lamp and left the room. She did not say good night. The Poet’s heart beat fast. He was once again amazed and thoroughly captivated by this inscrutable woman.

      Then, the Poet lay on his right side and wrapped all his body but the face in the sheets. He resumed his thoughts by muttering this: “I live a life of adventure.” So far nothing dangerous had happened, though. The mistress had merely brought him his dinner. And the master was still away. But why had Sarah herself brought him the bowl until the length and breath of his room? This had never happened before. And what had she been thinking about when he had been eating? The Poet had affected not to care. But all his body was shivering with fear and desire. A woman could easily discern such an affectation of indifference. Soon afterwards Sarah put an end to these unending thoughts by her new coming into the Poet’s room. This time she came without the oil-lamp. She just coughed at the door to indicate her presence and immediately afterwards blundered toward the bed. The Poet rose, aghast, and asked in a shaky voice:
      “Is there any problem, madam?”
      Sarah hesitated, then said:
      “No, there’s no problem. I only need to be- well, I’ve suddenly felt lonely. Haroon’s away, you know. And- shall I sleep with you?”
      Stunned, the Poet could not reply at once. He just frowned, lowered his eyes and thought briefly before he replied uncomfortably:
      “You’re welcome, madam. Come!”

(….)