Authors: Hanan al-Shaykh
Silence fell upon the room, but the expressions of the seven guests spoke volumes about their revulsion and disgust. The questions gnawed at them: what evil had befallen the doorkeeper’s body and why had the mistress of the house beaten the two bitches until they nearly fainted and yet wept for them, kissed them, and wiped away their tears?
The mistress of the house and the shopper helped the doorkeeper to stand and took her to the closet, where they changed her dress, leaving the seven men fidgeting in their seats. The merchant who had spoken before whispered to his friend, who gestured that he should remain silent, pointing to the inscription on the door, but the merchant felt that he could no longer bear what he had witnessed. “Something must be done,” he whispered to his friend in anger.
“You must remember what we have promised the three ladies,” his friend replied calmly.
But the merchant turned to the dervishes and asked them, “Can you please explain to us what is going on?”
One of the dervishes replied, “By God—we came here just a short while before you, and now we wish that we had never set foot in this house and witnessed such heartrending sights but instead sought refuge anywhere else—even on the rubbish heap of this great city!”
Hearing this, the merchant winked at the porter and asked him the same question.
“You’re asking me? I haven’t set eyes on this house before today, although I was born in Baghdad. But I do know one thing that you do not. These ladies live alone, without a man.”
“Did you say that they live without a man? Then listen to me, all of you,” the merchant said. “Since we are seven men and they are three women, let us ask them for an explanation. If they refuse us then we shall take them by force.”
The men all agreed, except for one of the other merchants, who protested, “Have you all forgotten that we are their guests and that we agreed and swore to adhere to their conditions? And who knows why they have chosen to keep to themselves?”
But the first merchant was determined to know the truth and he continued to try to convince the porter that he must find out what was going on.
The mistress of the house, who now, with the other girls, was behaving as if nothing had happened, became aware of the men arguing, and asked, “What is the reason for this clamour? What is the matter?”
The porter gathered all of his courage and said, “The gentlemen wish to know why you beat the two bitches until you had
no strength left and yet then wept for them, kissed them, wiped away their tears. And they wish to know why the lady tore off her clothes to reveal such terrible marks on her body? Why had she too been flogged with a whip like a man?”
Hearing this, the mistress of the house turned to the men. “Is what the porter tells me true?”
“Yes,” they all replied—all except for the one merchant.
The mistress of the house’s face darkened with rage. “Did you not agree to ask us nothing? You have wronged us gravely, and yet we too are at fault. We were mistaken to have opened our doors to you and welcomed you.”
She struck the floor three times, crying out, “Come at once.”
In no time at all a secret door opened and seven black men emerged, waving their swords in their hands. Each quickly seized one of the guests, and tied him by the hands, and then the seven were bound to each other and led to the centre of the hall.
One of the executioners addressed the mistress of the house. “Our most noble and virtuous lady. Shall we behead them this instant?”
Hearing this, the porter wailed and wept, pointed at the dervishes and said, “I am innocent. I don’t wish to die because of the mistakes of others. These dervishes were indeed a bad omen.” He began to recite:
“Great is the mercy of the Almighty,
And greatest when bestowed upon the weak.
Now upon our bond of undying friendship I implore you,
Never cast aside an old friend when a new one you seek.”
Hearing this, the three ladies nearly giggled, especially the mistress of the house. But she controlled herself and ignored him,
saying, “Wait, let me question our guests before you strike off their heads.”
She addressed the dervishes and the merchants.
“Were you not men of power and distinction you wouldn’t have dared to offend us in this way. So tell—who are you?”
The merchant whispered to his friend, the reluctant one, “Go ahead and tell her who we are, so that we are not slain by mistake.”
And his friend answered, “Be patient, I am trying to protect you from the embarrassment of having to plead our integrity.”
The mistress of the house now turned to the dervishes. “Are you brothers?” she asked.
“No, our gracious lady,” was their reply.
Then she asked them, “Were you each born with one eye?”
They answered her together. “By God, we were not, our gracious lady, we were each born with two eyes. But each of us suffered a great misfortune, which left us with only one.”
“Are you friends?” the mistress of the house asked.
“We met only tonight.”
“I want each of you to tell your story, explain to us what brought you to our home and if I am convinced by your tale, and feel sympathy, then I shall forgive you and free you,” the mistress of the house told the bound men.
Then she turned to the executioner, saying, “If not, I shall order you to cut off each man’s head.”
The porter was the first to tell his story. “Mistress, you know all too well how I came to this house, but you are not aware that I am the brother of a fisherman, who until this very year was poor, when God Almighty made him so rich that he became a jeweller and even Queen Zubeida, the wife of the Commander of the Faithful, Haroun al-Rashid, sends her ladies-in-waiting to purchase for her the most magnificent precious stones. But I refused to work in
my brother’s shop, because I so loved the hustle and bustle of the market and the people who frequent it, both sellers and buyers, especially if they are women as pretty, sophisticated and respectable as your sister.” He gestured to the shopper. “After she hired me, I followed her with my basket like her shadow, from the fruit and vegetables, to the incense and candles, pistachio nuts and sweets. But when she stopped at the butcher’s and stroked a lamb on the head, I thought that she was buying him and so I turned to her and said, ‘I wish you’d told me when you’d hired me that you were after a live lamb, so that I might have brought a mule and carriage.’ ”
Every one in the hall laughed, but the mistress of the house interrupted, saying, “Stroke your head with relief that you still have it, and leave.”
But the porter said, “But my gracious lady, can I not stay to hear the tales of the others?”
“Yes you may,” the mistress of the house told him. She turned to the three dervishes and said, “Let us hear your tales first. You three shall decide who will begin.” The dervishes looked fearfully from one to the other as if the task of telling their story was almost as terrifying as facing death itself. After some time, one of them, who looked especially ravaged by fortune, quietly began.
stand here before you, my lady, to tell you my story—how I became a dervish with a plucked eye.
I was born Aziz, the son of one of the greatest merchants of Persia. I had a favourite cousin called Aziza and we played together every day, some days happily, other days we would fall out and argue. But we loved each other dearly. Our fathers agreed to marry us as soon as we had reached the age of puberty. But then death carried off both her parents, and Aziza came to live with us. We were not kept apart, indeed, we shared everything, even a bed, and when we had both reached puberty my father decided that it was time to draw up a marriage contract and preparations for a wedding began. The marble floors throughout the house were polished, new rugs laid out, the walls decorated with brocade hangings, and then fine dishes and sweetmeats were created for the banquet.
On the promised day, my mother sent me to the public hammam, where I was pummelled and massaged with amber and musk and dressed in the finest of suits and then sprinkled with perfume. I left the hammam and set out for home, but when I
passed a lane in which a friend of mine lived, I decided to knock at his door and invite him to attend my wedding. His mother told me he would be home soon—would I wait for him? I strolled down the lane a little way to wait, noting that each person that I passed inhaled the pleasant fragrance which wafted out before me. I found a little bench and sat down, first carefully spreading out my handkerchief so as not to soil my beautiful suit and upset my mother.
Suddenly a white handkerchief fluttered down from above like a tiny butterfly. I caught it in my hand—it was as delicate as the breeze. I looked up to see who had dropped the handkerchief and saw a young woman at a window. She was so beautiful that she could have said to the moon, “Step down, for I am more beautiful than you.” She smiled and I smiled back and then she put one finger in her mouth, and then she joined her middle finger to her index finger and hid both between her two breasts. Then she disappeared. With a throbbing heart I waited for her to reappear. Never before had I experienced such feelings! I glanced down at the handkerchief and saw that it was knotted. When I untied the knot a slip of paper fell from it, upon which were written these lines:
“My lover asked, ‘Why does your writing scarcely scratch the page?’
I answered softly, ‘Because my fate as a lover is slowly withering away.’ ”
I remained sitting on the bench, with one eye on the window and the other on the handkerchief, filled with desire and longing, desperate to be with this woman. Only after I had finally given up hope of her reappearing did I return home, distraught and sad, her
face etched upon my imagination, my hand clenched around the handkerchief, the scrap of paper hidden in my pocket.
When I reached the house I found Aziza weeping.
“Where were you?” she asked. She described how everybody, including the greatest merchants and emirs, the
, the witnesses and relatives gathered and waited in vain for me for several hours, but eventually gave up when I did not appear. My father was so furious with me that he swore that he would not draw up the contract for another year.
“I was so worried about you, cousin. I thought that some terrible fate must have befallen you. But now I see that you are safe, I can thank God. Tell me, what happened?”
And so I answered, “What happened was bizarre and strange.”
I told her about the young woman and showed her the handkerchief and the slip of paper. She took the handkerchief and smelled it, read the lines written on the scrap of paper, and tears ran down her cheeks. But I could think only of the mysterious gestures of the woman, and so I asked my cousin, “Aziza, can you help me to understand what she was trying to tell me?”
She wiped her tears away with her sleeve and said, “If you asked me for my eye, cousin, I would pull it out from beneath my eyelid. First of all, the handkerchief is the lover’s greeting. By placing the finger in her mouth she is saying that you are the soul in her body and that she would hold on to you as firmly as the teeth sit in the mouth. The two lines of poetry are obvious—she is assuring you that her soul is bound to yours. And finally, when she put her fingers between her breasts she was telling you to come back and meet her in two days and relieve her of her distress at being parted from you.”
I accepted my cousin’s interpretation, for she was more mature than I, even though we were the same age, and she understood the ways of the world.
“But, cousin, I don’t think that I can wait two whole days to see her.”
But Aziza took my head in her hands and rested it on her lap, stroked my hair, consoled me, and entertained me until the time came for me to meet the young woman again. Aziza helped me to dress and sprinkled drops of perfume on my clothes. She told me that I must be strong and determined. “Aziz,” she said, “all I want is to see you happy.”
Out in the street, I felt that everything around me had disappeared, the shops, houses, passers-by. I heard nothing.
I reached her window, saw her looking down, took a deep breath and almost fainted. This time she held a red handkerchief in her hand, which she lowered and raised outside the window three times in the direction of the lane below. Then she spread out her five fingers and struck her breasts with her palm. Next she produced a mirror, which she held out of the window and then put her head out for a few moments before closing the window and disappearing. I found myself standing beneath the window for a long time after she had gone, mesmerised and yet unable to comprehend her signs. At last, at midnight, I gave up hope of seeing her again and made my way reluctantly back home, dragging my feet as I went.
When I arrived, I found Aziza weeping and singing to herself:
“I love him; oh how I love him:
His love has occupied my heart.”
When she saw me she dried her tears, and lifted her head, as if asking me what had happened. I began to tell her the story, but I found myself fainting dead away. When I came to, my cousin was holding me and wiping the tears from my face.