Authors: Hanan al-Shaykh
She laughed and I laughed with her, and she spread herself out on the bed, moaning, and in this way I was imprisoned for an entire year, which ended with her bearing me a son.
At the beginning of the new year, the huge gates swung open and the doors and windows were flung wide and men hurried in bearing provisions. I rose quickly to my feet, thinking that I would leave, but my wife made me wait until the evening, saying, “You must leave at exactly the time you arrived.”
I was terrified that she would imprison me for another year but she fulfilled her promise and let me out, on condition that I would return before the gate was closed. She made me swear an oath on the holy Qur’an, the sword, and the promise of divorce, that I would not be late. I hurried immediately to the garden and found the gate open and my beloved sitting with her head on her knees. She seemed frail and sick but she was happy to see me. “Praise be God that you are safe!”
“How did you know that I would come to you tonight?” I asked her.
“I have been waiting for you every evening for twelve months,” she answered.
I rushed to her and took her in my arms and she seemed to come alive again.
“Now tell me what happened to you,” she said, in a voice filled with longing and curiosity.
I told her everything and she seemed calm and understanding of my situation. And so, lulled into a feeling of peace and security, I told her, “I must return to my wife at daybreak.”
She fell into a rage and screamed and scolded. “I could have destroyed you at the outset but your cousin Aziza protected you from me.”
She looked at me with eyes filled with all the hatred in the world, and said, “Anyhow, you’re married now and you have a son and so you are of no use to me. By God I shall make that whore sorry—you won’t exist for her or for me, for I shall cut your throat like a goat.”
I trembled with fright and pleaded with her and begged her forgiveness but she gave a loud cry and ten slaves appeared from nowhere and pushed me to the ground and tied my wrists and ankles with ropes while she sharpened a huge knife, ignoring my pleas.
“Killing you is the least I can do, as revenge for your cousin.”
I nearly fainted when I saw the knife in her hand but I went on imploring her, calling for God, but in vain, for she kept on sharpening the knife. As she came towards me God gave me the inspiration to cry out, “Loyalty is good; treachery is evil!”
When she heard my words, my beloved turned assassin cried out, “Be assured that it is your cousin who has saved you, both in her life and in death.”
I took a deep breath of relief, but my beloved continued, “I will not let you go in peace, however, I must leave you with a scar that will shame you throughout your life and take revenge upon that whore.”
Then she ordered the slaves to light the fire and two of them sat down upon me, pinning me still, and then she cut off my penis and I screamed the scream of death and fainted, only to come to my senses when she gave me a cup of wine to drink and said, “Now you may leave and go anywhere you desire.”
She kicked me hard and I stood up with great difficulty and tottered step by step, how I got there I do not know, to my wife and child’s home. I collapsed at the door, which still stood open, fainted and lost consciousness.
When I awoke I was lying in bed and my wife was calling out to her mother, “Come and witness this—Aziz is a woman now.”
I fell into a deep sleep and when I woke I had been thrown out into the alleyway and the gates were securely fastened. I wept and wailed and finally managed to stand, just like an insect with a broken wing. I walked until I reached our house. I could hear my mother inside, weeping, “Where is Aziz, is he dead or alive?”
When she saw me she knelt in front of me and kissed the ground, thanking God that I was safe, but I collapsed again, unable to answer her questions, so intense was the pain.
A few days later I had recovered sufficiently to tell my mother what had happened to me at the hands of the daughter of Alsawahi Aldawahi. My mother thanked God once more that my life had been spared and that I had not been slaughtered. She cared for me and nursed me until I began to regain my strength and health. When I finally left my bed, I gazed at where my cousin Aziza had sat and wept, and recited her poems and waited for my return, all the while eaten with jealousy. My abandonment must have tormented her and yet she bore it in silence and with great patience. I began to weep, crying out, “Aziza, Aziza!”
“Son, now you deserve to see what your cousin left you,” my mother told me.
She went and fetched a small box and opened it and took out a handkerchief wrapped inside a piece of cloth, together with a letter. It was the handkerchief embroidered with a gazelle, given to me by the daughter of Alsawahi Aldawahi. The letter was from Aziza, warning me not to return to my beloved if she mistreated me. “Keep this picture of the gazelle,” she wrote, “for it consoled me while you were away from me. I know that you will remember me, but only when I no longer help you, and that you will think of me with love and tenderness, but only when it is too late.”
When I had read Aziza’s letter I fell into despair and melancholy. I sighed, and asked myself, “Where were my kindness and compassion, my heart and mind, when I saw my cousin engulfed in such grief and sadness? I was preoccupied only with myself.”
I wept, and my mother wept with me, and I couldn’t sleep for many nights—every time I closed my eyes I saw Aziza waiting for me on the day our marriage contract was to be drawn, I saw Aziza as I kicked her, when she poured rose water to revive me and when she explained and interpreted the gestures of my beloved, and I saw her face, showing forgiveness despite her sorrow, which had burrowed deep inside her soul like woodworm. I watched her as she withered slowly, slowly, for my sake, and her words, “If you asked for my eye, cousin, I would pull it out from beneath my eyelid for you,” rang in my ears.
Days and nights passed, then weeks and months and Aziza’s face never left me, nor did her echoing voice quieten, but still I heard her saying, over and over, “If you asked for my eye, cousin, I would pull it out from beneath my eyelid for you.” And then one day I plucked out my own eye, calling even through the excruciating pain, “If you asked for my eye, cousin Aziza, I would pull it out from beneath my eyelid for you.”
I renounced all of life’s pleasures, which had once made me so careless, selfish and indifferent to others, wanting only to expiate my cruelty to my cousin Aziza. I stretched out my hand to help the tormented and, little by little, I found that my plucked eye gave me peace and serenity. I set out to roam the wide world, my blanket the sky and the stars in the heavens and my bed the ground, until I reached Baghdad. There I followed a path at random, which led me to a dervish with a plucked eye like mine. He too was searching for eternal truth. We talked together until night fell and this was when a third dervish found us and we three sought somewhere to sleep. Then fate led us to your house, and you welcomed us with kindness and generosity and now I stand before you, awaiting your verdict.
The dervish fell silent.
“Stroke your head, and go,” the mistress of the house told him.
But the dervish answered, “If my lady permits me to listen to the other stories, I would be most grateful.”
“Yes, you may,” was her answer.
The second dervish came forward and began.
have a unique and mystifying story to tell you, of how I came to lose my right eye. I was born to the King of Persia and raised in a palace, which was to me like a vast sea of knowledge. From an early age I showed curiosity and a great passion to study and understand the world around me. When I looked to the heavens and saw the planets and stars hanging there, I wondered out loud about their secrets; and when I saw an apple fall to the ground, I asked the adults to explain to me why the apple fell rather than flew into the air.
And so my father summoned scholars specialising in literature, religion, science and art, so that they would unravel for me the treasures and the secrets of the universe. Over the years I found myself increasingly enchanted by the art of writing, humbled by the fact that if I dipped my quill pen in the inkwell and stroked up and down I could express my feelings, each time differently, and I discovered that my handwriting would change according to the words and their meaning. I would spend hours perfecting a particular letter and I learned to form words as if I was drawing—they took the form of horses, gazelles, falcons, running rivers,
long eyelashes and even lips. And whenever someone remarked upon my superb calligraphy, I would murmur modestly that I loved poetry and science too. Soon luck pointed at me and my fame spread everywhere within my country, to Bilad al-Sham, even as far as India, whose sovereign sent for me to come and discuss and exchange ideas and conventions, for he himself was a great calligrapher and miniaturist and interested in science, too. The sovereign assured my father that he would care for me as if I was his own son. So my father sent me off with many attendants and camels loaded with valuable presents. As soon as we were in the desert a sandstorm blew up, engulfing and attacking us, but soon enough we realised that the sandstorm was in fact a horde of bandits bent on robbing us. When we pleaded, explaining that we were on our way to the King of India himself, they merely shrugged.
“Why is that of any concern to us? We are not this Indian King’s subjects, nor are we in his realm.”
The bandits killed those who tried to defend me or protect our camels and belongings. They fell upon our treasures and I fled into the desert, as did my two surviving companions, who set off in another direction.
With great despair I reflected that only yesterday I was mighty and now I was lowly, I had been rich and was now poor, I had a family so huge that I couldn’t count its members and now I was all alone. I was lost in foreign lands after having known each and every stone in my kingdom.
I walked and walked. After long days of hunger and thirst and lack of sleep and exhaustion, I arrived at a big city, blown there like a leaf. I was on the verge of collapse, but I took hold of myself and walked to the bazaar, where I came upon a tailor sitting outside his shop. I greeted him and when he returned my greetings kindly,
I found myself telling him who I was. The tailor led me inside his shop and advised me not to reveal my identity to anybody, for the King of these lands was a great enemy of my father. Then he gave me something to eat and drink and a recess in his shop next to him in which to sleep. Two days later the tailor asked me whether I had a skill which might help me to earn my living. When I told him I was interested in science and poetry and calligraphy he answered, “Such skills are not in demand here.” He suggested that I become a woodcutter, because I was strong and fit. He gave me an axe and a rope and introduced me to the other woodcutters, telling me, “Gird yourself and God be with you.”
The woodcutters took me with them deep into the forest. As I was about to hack into my first tree, I wondered how it could be that I, a prince who loved science, poetry and calligraphy, had become a woodcutter? But my need and desire to support myself made me strike with my axe with all my might and strength as if I was avenging my bad luck and fate. I gathered a large amount of wood, and carried my bundle on my head back to sell at the market. I spent half the money I made on food and saved the other half. This was how I lived for a year, until one day I ventured deep into the forest alone, and came upon a stand of trees as dense as the hairs on my head. I found a tree stump and when I dug around it my axe hit a brass ring attached to a plank of wood. I lifted the plank and saw beneath it a staircase, which I descended without hesitation. When I reached the bottom, I found myself in a magnificent underground palace, lit up as though it had been built in the eye of the sun and not deep beneath the earth. I stood bewitched, taking in the glittering golden columns, the seats and tables, and then, as I moved forward, I saw a young woman with a radiant face. She outshone all the gold around me. I was speechless, not because
of her great beauty, but the way she stood with dignity, as if she was not all alone in that vast underground palace, but before a large company of people. She saw me, but when she didn’t move, I froze, fearing that she might disappear if I took one step towards her. Then she spoke in the most mellifluous and harmonious voice. “Are you a man or a demon?”
“I am a human being, my lady,” I answered.
Hearing this she sighed with relief and asked, “What brought you here?”
Then, without waiting for my answer, she said, “This is the first time I have seen a human being in twenty-five years.”
“You’ve lived underground for twenty-five years?” I asked in astonishment.
“A demon, the grandson of Satan himself, snatched me on my wedding night and flew away with me, imprisoning me on my own in this palace. He visits and spends the night with me once every ten days, because he is married with children and doesn’t want his wife to suspect anything. He has told me that if ever I need him, I am to touch the two sides of that talisman,” she pointed at her bedroom door, “and he will appear at once.”