Authors: Hanan al-Shaykh
As he left I heard hooves clattering in the alley and smiled. I prepared supper with the chicken and vegetables he had bought, to surprise him. As I worked, I reflected on how peaceful his house was, and how satisfying life was without the clamour of the palace and the jealousy and competition and the mistrust felt in every part of the royal court, from the slaves to the nobles. I went into the bathroom to prepare myself for Ghanem’s return and saw the beautiful earrings laid out for me on a towel. I tried them on and found myself wishing that I had met him before I had fallen in love with the Caliph. When Ghanem came back from his work, we sat together and ate. I handed him back his earrings, saying, “I am still loyal to the Caliph, although my heart flutters when I see you.”
“I beg you to take them, so you’ll remember me when you wear them.”
I drew close to him, and he held my hand and kissed it, saying, “The Caliph is the luckiest man in the world. Can I suggest that I confide in the old eunuch who frequents the mosque? I will tell him everything that’s happened to you, that you are still alive, and listen to his advice.”
He drew closer to me, and seeing the vein in his temple throbbing, I wanted to hug and comfort him but held back.
“It’s no use,” I said. “I’m still loyal to the Caliph.”
In the morning he promised he would ensure that the happy news did not reach Lady Zubeida before it reached the ears of the Caliph.
“Farewell, my lady, God be with you and remember me in your prayers. Who knows, God might answer and send me a wife as trustworthy as you.”
“Will you not return to say goodbye?”
“When the Caliph sends someone to fetch you, it is better that I’m not present.” I rushed to him and pressed him to my heart, but he drew back and kissed my two hands. Then he disappeared, before instructing me to leave the key under a jar in the garden.
I prepared myself for a summons for the palace, but nobody came, and I nearly set out to find Ghanem at his sister’s house. After a while I fell fast asleep. Suddenly the door was broken down and soldiers stormed through the house, expecting to find us together in bed. When they couldn’t find Ghanem, they began to destroy the house, as I screamed and yelled at them, saying, “My rescuer never slept here.”
They continued their rampage until nothing was left unbroken. Throwing my things into a cart pulled by an old mule, they took me with them. With such disrespect I feared the worst, and I was
right. I wasn’t met by Jaafar, or even by my eunuch or my slaves at the palace, but I was led like a criminal into a pitch-black cell, with an elderly woman as my keeper.
“No, no!” cried the mistress of the house. “There is no will or power save in God.” But the shopper carried on with her tale.
I cried out, over and over, pleading with my captors, and telling them that they would be sorry when the Caliph found out how I was being treated. Finally, after twenty-four hours of captivity, the old woman who sat in the corner watching me, and shooing away the rats, said, not without sympathy, “Listen, we’re only executing the Caliph’s orders.”
She told me that the same old eunuch whom Ghanem had asked to pass on the news to the Caliph, had gone in turn to a trustworthy concubine whom he knew very well, and who he knew hated Lady Zubeida. He confided in her that I was still alive and asked for her help. She agreed but any plan she may have been forming was destroyed by her loose tongue. This concubine happened to be the Caliph’s favourite masseuse. She was massaging the Caliph’s shoulders as he snored deeply and she couldn’t resist whispering the secret to another concubine who was massaging his feet.
The Caliph had leaped up and shouted, “Did I dream, or did I hear that my fiancée is still alive?”
The concubine babbled something, but the Caliph shouted impatiently, “Where is she?”
Hearing that I was at Ghanem bin Saeed’s address, the Caliph called for Vizier Jaafar.
“I have been mourning an adulteress. Find her and imprison her.”
When I was brought to the palace and thrown into a cell like a witch, he called Lady Zubeida and accused her of lying to him. She had no choice but to confess and tell him the whole story, blaming her deep love for him, which had made her dangerously jealous of me. He forgave her, and kept me locked in the cell and who knows why? Perhaps he believed that when a woman and a man are together under the same roof, Satan will be the third. Or because of the rumours which were circling around and about the palace that I had betrayed him, in the Caliph’s mind, I had become used goods.
When I heard that he had forgiven Zubeida, I was devastated and I screamed at the Caliph’s betrayal. “One day, Oh Commander of the Faithful, you’ll stand in the hands of a just ruler and the judge will be your God and angels your witness. They will all acknowledge your injustice and show you that you treated badly the one who never did you harm.”
I repeated these lines to the Commander of the Faithful day and night, murmuring to the walls, to the rats, then shouting them out loud until the rats scuttled away in fear. I stopped eating and drinking. Ghanem came to me in my dreams, shaking his head in disbelief at what had happened, but then he would disappear and I would wake, crying out, “No, don’t go now, stay with me,” and stretching out my hands to catch him.
Seeing that I was becoming insane and delirious, the woman keeper took my head in her hands, recited a few verses from the holy Qur’an, and asked me if I had a family. I wept and repeated over and over the names of my four sisters until the woman whispered to me to pretend to die, so she could take me back to my sisters. Half dead anyway, I pretended to fall down dead.
I heard the keeper telling the guards to go immediately to the Caliph and inform him of my death.
The guard came back a few hours later and said that the Caliph had forgotten that I was imprisoned and that my body was to be returned to my family. As I cried silently, the woman wrapped me in sheets and placed my body on a mule with the help of the driver. She made her way to my home and knocked at our door. As soon as someone opened the door, she hurried away.
My sisters couldn’t believe that I had finally returned; they thought that someone had kidnapped me. Hearing this, I told them that I had indeed been kidnapped by a lunatic man, who thought that I was his sister. He had put me in a cellar and his old wife had managed to rescue me by faking my death. I kept the truth in a well I dug deep in my heart.
The shopper looked at the Caliph, who was still resting his head in his hands.
“This is my story, Oh Commander of the Faithful, but I have one final thing to say. I could not agree more strongly with what Your Lordship said to the third dervish; that one shouldn’t act upon what he hears till he is certain that it is the truth. And even then, always to act with mercy.”
The shopper went back to her seat, and her sisters wrapped their arms lovingly around her, while the people in the room looked at the Caliph, awaiting his reaction. But the Caliph continued to rest his head in his hands as the audience fidgeted.
he Caliph was saddened when he heard the shopper’s story. The more he thought about the matter, the more it became clear to him that he wanted to right the wrongs of the past, and he said, with great determination: “You three ladies have suffered enough pain, worry, loneliness and isolation. You have lived without husbands or family, in total seclusion, as if waiting for death, while each of you is still in the prime of youth.”
The Caliph was interrupted by the barks and yelps of the two bitches, and addressed the door behind which they were locked. “Don’t worry, wretched bitches; you haven’t left my mind since I heard your yelps and whimpers and saw your tears.”
He turned to Jaafar. “I want you to find someone able to deliver these two women from the spell they’re under. I am certain we can win over the jinnis with the help of God the Almighty.”
Masrur came forward, bowed to Jaafar, and whispered a few words. Jaafar turned to the Caliph. “The slave Rayhan claims that he learned witchcraft from his aunt; he has memorised the one hundred realms of magic and he would like to help the two bitches.”
“Rayhan, try to save these two sisters from the spell they are under, which has made their lives one of torture.”
Rayhan bowed and kissed the ground, and then addressed the mistress of the house, his eyes cast to the floor. “Come, my lady, hand me the feather of your husband, the jinni.”
The flogged sister went and fetched the feather and handed it to the slave.
“I need a flame,” he said.
The flogged sister brought him a candle. Next he asked for the two bitches to be brought to him. The shopper and the porter went to the cupboard and brought out a dog each. They stood before Rayhan, who took the feather and lit it, so that it burned up and disappeared into the ether.
“Owner of this feather,” he said, “appear before us now; as a spirit or in the flesh, wherever you are, in the depths of seas or in the skies, in the folds of the earth, or on top of mountain peaks.”
At this, the house began to tremble and the jinni Azraq appeared in the room as a shadow. The mistress of the house took a step towards him, but Rayhan stopped her with his hand. Then he closed his eyes and muttered a spell, intoning the talismanic words: “We need you, oh jinni, who cast a spell and turned these two women into bitches. Please, lift your curse and release them from their misery, for they tried to give you back your feather, too late, and they and their sisters have suffered enough for their crime.”
Azraq appeared fully before them now, as handsome and beautiful as ever.
“Peace be upon you. It seems that repentance has lightened your hearts. In the name of Almighty God and his covenant, be yourselves again.”
The two bitches shook and trembled, and stood up as two
women, in their nightgowns, just as they had looked when Azraq cast his spell on them. Everybody gasped.
“God is great!” the porter yelled, breaking the silence, and the room filled with great commotion and excitement.
The mistress of the house ran to Azraq, who gazed at her, then disappeared. She held her breath, hoping he might appear once again, adjusting her shawl so that he might see her beauty. When he did not materialise, as she had so fervently hoped, she felt a great anger engulf her. Why had he never appeared to her before, so that they might exchange a few words and glances, as he had been able to do tonight? But she stopped dwelling on him as her four sisters rushed towards her with all the joy and euphoria in the world. The five sisters held each other in celebration of their reunion and the elder two sobbed, touched their faces and their nightclothes, unable to believe they were free at last.
The shopper ran to her room and brought out two big shawls and silk dresses, and helped her sisters to put them on, as the mistress of the house whispered to them about the Caliph and Jaafar. Then she presented them to the Caliph and the two sisters knelt before him, and thanked him, kissing his hands.
They wept till Jaafar interrupted, indicating they should compose themselves, and sit back down. Then silence fell as the Commander of the Faithful spoke.
“Splendid work, Rayhan; may God reward you with every good wish for delivering these two ladies from their spell and torture and I am going to reward you. And now do you think you could discover who wronged the flogged sister by robbing her of her rights?”
The slave bent and kissed the ground before the Caliph.
“I will give it a try, guided by Almighty God,” he said and then
he called to the porter. “Brother, fetch me a bowl of water, to which you have added just one drop of oil.”
The porter fetched a bowl while the flogged sister held the shopper’s hands and rested her head on her sister’s shoulder, closing her eyes. Once again, Rayhan uttered a spell and talismanic words, looked into the bowl for a long time and then gasped, swaying in disbelief.
“Oh Commander of the Faithful, he is …”
“Spell it out, slave; who is it?” shouted the Caliph, growing impatient.
“What can I say? The man is the nearest of all men to you. He is al-Ameen, your son, the brother of al-Ma’mun. He married her secretly but legally.”
“Masrur, go and fetch me al-Ameen at once,” shouted the Caliph. Then he turned to Jaafar.
“The events of this evening resemble life itself: filled with harmony, the sublime, and with great contradictions—hate and love, tyranny and freedom, bliss and torment, loyalty and betrayal. Can you imagine the contradictions of fingers which play the oud and others which clutch the whip? Nights of music and melodies and others filled with sobbing and wailing?”
“Not to forget nights drinking wine and nights drinking water,” whispered Abu Nuwas. Everyone in the room heard him and suppressed a laugh.
The Caliph was about to respond when his son al-Ameen entered, curious to know why his father had asked him to come to this unknown house, rather than visit his quarters at the palace. He was even more perplexed to discover the Caliph, Jaafar and Abu Nuwas in the presence of three dervishes each with an eye plucked out, and five beautiful women who were neither slaves nor concubines.