For the Poet some of Assem’s actions were good and necessary. But the reason he behaved so remained an unfathomable mystery. Very often the Poet compared his master with his former mistress Yamna. And he thought of this, now, so much that in the end he found himself thinking more of Yamna than of the master. And not without reason. With Yamna he had had moments of unspeakable joy– which he now lacked awfully. That was, perhaps, why he had paid much attention to Boutros’ daughter. (By the way, the Poet had now learned her real name: Mariam.) Even now he thought of her, since he could not see Yamna. And even though he resumed his nightly readings he did not give up playing on the flute while he was with the herd. And to master his passions he tried as best he could to focus all his attention on what he said while being at prayer. And to change the routine he would, from time to time, go swimming in the lake. But all this did not make him happy. His wild instincts had surged again within him, probably more violently than ever. Even Sufian, who now spent most of his daytime with the Poet in the woods, and sometimes they dined or lunched together in the tent, could not make the Poet happy. In truth, Sufian himself was now a nuisance. For he now often wore light clothes and sometimes the Poet felt uneasy in his presence. And he constantly recalled Assem’s hardly veiled warning, “Next time you’ll do it to my maid or –who knows? – to my grand-son!” …But how long would the Poet resist?
The Poet took care not to mention this matter to anyone and bore his sufferings patiently long days on end. One after another these days brought more and more sadness to the Poet. And he hoped earnestly that Assem would understand, one day, and give him a cue…
Now, on his way back from the woods, the Poet was surprised to hear Assem reading the Quran in the tent. Assem’s voice and reading were so beautiful that the Poet preferred to stay out and listen for a while. Assem was reading from the Sura of Yusuf (Joseph) and…really his voice and reading would move any good Muslim to tears. The Poet was thoroughly enthralled and he wept. He stayed out until Assem had finished the Sura of Yusuf. Then he stepped into the tent, greeted his master and sat beside him on the carpet. After a moment’s silence, Assem spoke.
“How are you, Salman?”
“Fine,” the Poet replied with a sigh.
Assem turned and gazed at the Poet for a while, and then looked away from him and said:
“Fine people do not sigh.”
The Poet let out a deeper sigh, and kept quiet.
“What’s the matter with you?” Assem said in insistent tones.
The Poet braced himself and replied with a gulp:
“What’s wrong with him?”
The Poet hesitated, and then said, “I feel Satan is stronger than I am these days, Sir.”
“I see.” And after a pause, Assem broke out laughing.
The Poet gazed at him in amazement.
“Surely,” said Assem amid laughter, “surely you would have stayed happily married –you and Sultana– hadn’t you lost your heads. Your foolishness has driven you asunder!”
“I don’t regret it.”
“Ah, that’s great! Wonderful! Fantastic!” And then silence.
Suddenly, Assem looked up at the Poet and said:
“Tomorrow I’ll take you to Asswan.”
“You know what for?”
“I’m your servant, Master.”
“I shall sell you.”
The Poet’s heart jumped. He lowered his eyes and remained speechless. Assem too said no more until he rose to go, after a while. He then said, without looking back:
The Poet’s night was not good. He could not sleep. His heart kept beating painfully. His head ached too much. His mind reeled. He had now got the feeling that he was suddenly wrenched from all his roots. He could not visualize a life without this wonderful man– Assem. Sometimes he looked a very bitter man, but he wasn’t such a bad sort, after all. In truth, the Poet loved him. He respected him both as a master and as a man… These thoughts brought tears to the Poet’s eyes… And he prayed…and waited…
The next day Assem and the Poet were on the way to Asswan. Assem rode a white horse and the Poet a black mule. Assem acted as though he was not going to sell his present slave. Indeed, both were chatting (about trivial things)…as if they were only going to do some shopping. And the Poet tried hard to conceal his qualms, hoping that the worst should not happen.
It took them two days and a half to reach Asswan. They had spent the two previous nights in the homes of two friends of Assem’s. And all the while the Poet thought and prayed. When they finally arrived in Asswan they headed straight toward the slave-market. It was very hot and the marketplace was not full. A man emerged from the crowd and rushed to Assem and embraced him. After long greetings, Assem said, pointing at the Poet:
“I want to sell this lad and buy some other creature.”
“Right,” replied the man, eyeing the Poet from head to toe. “What do you want for him?”
“Let people bid first and I’ll see!”
“Right,” the man said to Assem, and turned to the Poet and said, “Come along!”
The Poet held back his tears and followed close on the heels of Assem’s friend. He was led into a group of slaves and stayed there waiting. A girl from the group was sold at twenty dinars. The Poet wondered who would buy him now and at what price. Assem looked at him from a distance. The Poet was now quite sure he would never be back to Kafr-Hanoon. He waited anxiously, his heart aflame with passion. Now a boy from the group stepped down and followed his new master. Very soon after, a man of fifty stood in front of the Poet and contemplated him. Then he turned to the slaver and asked the price. “Twelve dinars,” replied the slaver. “Twelve dinars!” jeered the other. “What’s in him that’s worth that much? Does he lay golden eggs?” And he moved away. The Poet sighed and glanced at Assem– who was now straining his eyes to see what was going on. Another man came later on to ask the price for the Poet. The slaver said, “Ten dinars, sir.” That man too scoffed and moved away. Another lad, lithe and handsome, was sold just now at fifteen dinars! The Poet felt small and worthless. His mind wandered back to his lost, happy days with Sultana…to the high esteem he had been held in at the Palace…to his dream nights with Yamna… He tried to forget all about this market and these foolish people around him… But his flight did not last long. A man agreed to pay six dinars for him and he had only to see what Assem would say to that. Assem’s friend, who had brought the Poet into this group, led him out and signed to the interested man to come along. All three joined Assem, who was standing alone on one side of the market.
“This man wants to buy your slave at six dinars,” said the friend to Assem. “What do you say?”
Assem turned to the man and said, trying to stifle a smile:
“I ask for more.”
“More ? How much ?”
“Sixty dinars !”
“What ! Sixty dinars ?” the man screamed. “Even the best of all the maids displayed over here is not worth that price !”
“Either you pay sixty dinars or you go in peace.”
“Ah, I thought you were just joking. Since you’re that serious, then I’ll go ! Peace be with you, old chap ! and upon…your pearl !”
Assem said nothing and the man moved off. Then Assem took his friend aside and whispered something to him. Then they embraced, shook hands and drew apart. Assem walked back up to the Poet, stared him in the face for a while, and said at length:
“Let’s go !”
“Where ?” the Poet asked hesitantly, looking at the ground.
“Back to Kafr-Hanoon, of course !”
The Poet raised his eyes and a beautiful smile wiped all the gloom off his face. Indeed, his face quickly turned aglow with pleasure.
“Won’t you sell me ?” he asked happily.
“At sixty dinars yes, at six no !"
The Poet bent over to kiss his master’s hand, but the master withdrew his hand and opened his arms to wind them round the Poet…
Three days later the Poet was back to Kafr-Hanoon. Assem granted him a day’s rest. The Poet spent much of it in worship and penitence. At night, he dined and read a few chapters of the Quran, and then slept the sleep of unworried children. The next morning he was with Sufian in the woods. He then paid little attention to Mariam, for she now held little attraction for him. At sunset he led the herd back to the shed and returned to his tent.
As the Poet was heading toward the compound to get his dinner that evening, he was startled to see a woman coming toward him holding something in her hands. The Poet was startled because he had not seen here any woman as tall as this one. She looked taller than Hind, and probably than himself. And this woman’s walk was not familiar to him. So he stood and waited for her to come nearer.
“Is it you Salman ?”said the woman as she stood in front of the Poet. She spoke Arabic with a foreign accent.
“Yes,” replied the Poet curiously. “Who are you ?”
“My name is Suzana, but you can call me Sawsan . I’m Mr Assem’s new maid-servant. Take. This is your dinner.”
The Poet held out his hands to take the tray. “Thank you,” he said, as Sawsan turned to go back into the compound. The Poet too turned immediately and walked back toward his tent. He feared that Assem should be lurking somewhere around and watching.
Sawsan ! Suzana ! The Poet was bewitched by the name. His heart had roared for her, and it was still burning for her. The night was long, too long. The Poet prayed and prayed and yet there was too much time left… When he awoke at dawn he found himself still thinking…and dreaming of her. Suzana ! Sawsan ! This name made him forget all about other names. In the woods he sang for her. Sitting, walking, praying, he thought deeply of her. And he waited…
Day by day Sawsan crept an inch farther into the Poet’s heart. And the Poet contented himself with musing and dreaming and fantasizing about her. And when she brought him his meals he looked at her tenderly and smiled his thanks to her. But it seemed as if he were just pouring water in the sand. Sawsan was solid rock... Her greetings were cold. Her looks were blank. She did not smile at all… And yet the Poet sank deeper and deeper in her love. He could not but sit back and shut his eyes and think of her azure eyes, thin lips, small nose, plump cheeks and sweet voice. He could not but love her at a distance…and wait.
A week later Assem asked the Poet to pitch another tent, next to his own. From Assem’s looks and tone the Poet deduced that there was something in the wind. The tent was pitched and furnished. And right from the next day the new tent became Sawsan’s new home. And the Poet could not sleep that night and the next. By day he looked uneasy, and his neighbour kept unmoved. In the following few days he angled for her attention, but all to no effect. The Poet was at the end of his patience. And yet, even when Sawsan handed him his meals, he could do nothing. He only sighed wretchedly.
But the Poet could not wait for ever, so he made up his mind to tell his master. And so it happened that he jumped at the first opportunity that offered, and that was when he and Assem were riding to a nearby market…
“…Mr Assem, may I ask you a question?” said he hesitantly, but with great care.
“Yes?” Assem laughed quietly.
“How much did you buy your new maid?”
Assem burst out laughing. Then he said:
“What, sixty dinars? Oh, no! Does she cost as much as sixty dinars?” He paused. “I bought her at twelve dinars.”
“She looks worth more than that.”
After a moment of silence, Assem spoke again.
“How is she with you? Is she a good neighbour?”
“Well, she’s good. But–”
“I–I–I wish she lived far away from me!”
Assem laughed and said:
“I don’t want you to–”
“You don’t want me to cut off your head?”
“This maid is yours!” Assem said abruptly and gravely.
Startled, the Poet turned and gaped.
“Mine?” he puffed out at length.
“Yes,” replied Assem. “Don’t you deserve her? Or you don’t want her?”
The Poet dropped his eyes and unchained his imagination. Was he going to have a woman of his own at long last?..
“This woman is Christian, you know,” said Assem suddenly. “She’s from Bulgaria. Her Arabic is shaky. But I think you can understand each other. I like her, and I chose her for you.” The Poet kept quiet, and listened. Assem paused and then went on, “Sawsan will be your wife.”
“You said my wife –although a Christian?”
“And what’s wrong about it? It all depends on you!”
“Well, Sir,” the Poet replied with a blush, “I can’t find words to thank you, Master.”
“It’s I who should thank you, Salman!”
The Poet turned and listened in amazement. Assem went on speaking, almost to himself:
“Yes. It’s I who should be most grateful to you. I’ve failed with my own son. I’ve failed on all counts. I’d dreamt of a son completely different from the one you’ve seen. And I’ve had to atone for that. I’ve had to bring up men like those I’d dreamt of.” He sighed deeply, paused, and resumed, “Several of my attempts have gone awry. But I’ve, nevertheless, won a few. I hope you’re one of those few I’ve won.”
“I think I’ve done what I ought to have done. I hope that others will make their own contributions toward the fulfillment of my cherished dream. But truly I count on you personally. From now on, never lean on anybody for advice. Think and think and think and then decide and you’ll be a true man. Marry and beget children and teach them if you can.”
“I shall!” the Poet replied in a tremulous voice, trying to hold back his tears. “I promise.”
“Then, now…you are free.”
“Oh, thank you, Sir! Thank you very, very much!”
“No! I don’t mean that you’re no longer my servant, my slave,” Assem said. The Poet stared and his heart throbbed. Assem went on, “You are! You’re still my servant. When I said ‘free’, I meant that you’d feel the real, the true freedom within yourself. Do you think my son is free? I’ll say not. He’s not free. He’s the slave of money, of prestige, of abundance. He’s the humble slave of the affluent society. He’s the tame slave of his wives’ wishes and whims. He’s in sum the slave of Satan. A truly free man is a slave of God. And that’s what I wish you to be like: a slave of God and a king of yourself.”
“Now, give me a song.”
And the Poet burst into song.
At night the Poet was happy. He heaved a deep sigh of relief. At long last he would be a true man. A man with a manly heart. He would think and decide and act. That was the secret he had long wished to ferret out. He would read more and more so that his thinking would be right. He would go on trying to swim better, to hunt more easily, to have a good seat… He would have to learn how to grapple with his own problems, how to fend for himself.
And soon –very soon indeed– he would have a wife. A beautiful wife: Suzana! Oh, what a beautiful name!…He would marry and beget children and teach them. This was the tip to take… “No,” the Poet muttered to himself. “I’m not naïve. This is not naïvety. This is a good lesson.”…So he thought…and waited, calmly.
The wedding day fell on a Thursday. The ceremonies took place in the compound. The women gathered in one house, and the men in another– in the usual guest-room. Boutros and his elder son were among the men-guests present. Several other friends of Assem’s family were there too. A group of three singers with their musical instruments sat on one side of the room and went from one song to another while some of the others present clapped their hands and repeated refrains. And some of them encored this singer or that. The Poet could not know what happened in the other house. But he knew that all Hassan’s wives and maids as well as other women from the Kafr and elsewhere were there, around Sawsan. Besides the singing, rich meals were served to the guests and everybody was happy…
At night the bride was waiting in the Poet’s tent. She was wearing a white, frilly dress with a light-green stole over the shoulders. Her fair hair hung down in ringlets. The Poet entered diffidently, greeted his bride respectfully and sat at her side on the mattress. As soon as he had sat, the bride moved a few paces aside. After a moment’s hesitation, the Poet turned and asked in a tremulous voice:
“Why are you departing from me, darling? Don’t you want me?”
Sawsan kept quiet. The Poet moved close to her. She did not move away. The Poet raised his hand and rested it against Sawsan’s cheek. Sawsan pushed the Poet’s hand, without uttering a sound. The Poet pondered for a while. Then he rose to his feet and turned round. He lay on the bed and kept looking at his bride’s back silently. Suddenly, Sawsan dissolved into tears. The Poet let her sob her heart out. Then he rose and sat upright just behind her back. After a bit he said, somewhat confidently:
“Why are you weeping, sweetheart?”
“Shut up!” Sawsan said in a low voice. Then she sobbed a long while, before she began to speak.
“Damn!” she snarled. “As always I fell just where I didn’t want to be. How unlucky I am! Damn!”
“I don’t understand,” said the Poet a little bit coolly.
“I myself don’t understand anything,” said Sawsan between tears. “I was happy at home. And all of a sudden I became a slave-girl. And a slave of whom! O Lord! Instead of leading me to an amir my destiny has thrown me into the hands of people– Oh, my lord! Why? What have I done to deserve such a fate!…”
The Poet moved a few paces backward and lay on his back. His mind flew to his first wedding night. Sultana too had wept. But the tears Sultana had shed were clean and beautiful. She had shed tears of joy. “I feel as if I’ve been born again, Salman,” she said. “With you, you know, life will wear another look…” After less than an hour in bed, in utter darkness, he and Sultana had gone out and spent the rest of the night in the open, in the moonlight. They did not embrace there. They just roamed about, hand in hand, or sat side by side under a palm-tree. And they talked…
“Sultana, do you love me?”
“Yes. I love you with a quarter of my heart!”
“Only? And who has got the honour of filling the three quarters left?”
The Poet’s heart then throbbed, and he wept, happily…
Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER