Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Eighteen

Someone splashed the Poet’s face with cold water and he quivered. For a while his eyes remained shut, then they opened and blinked in the first sunlight. “Wake!” a manly voice whispered. Then two voices chatted amongst themselves. The Poet began to return into the living world. But it was some time before he could be more responsive. “Where am I?” he gasped, at length.
      “You are well,” a voice replied cheerfully.
      “I’m hungry,” the Poet gasped again with more difficulty. “And thirsty.”
      “Don’t worry,” the voice reassured him.
      Then a coarse hand wiped the water off the Poet’s face and a cup of water was lifted to his mouth. The Poet gulped down the water, then three sweet dates were put into his mouth. And little by little life flowed into the Poet’s veins. After that, he was given bread and milk.

      Finally the Poet was able to sit tight all by himself. Then he was even able to rise to his feet and have a stroll around the grove with the two men who had come to his rescue. After the stroll, during which there was little meaningful talk, the two men allowed the Poet a short respite, then they told him that he must go with them. All they could tell him now, they said, was that the hamlet men were gathering for something important. So the Poet rose and walked at their side, thinking of that mysterious gathering. 

      The men were gathering in an open ground near the mosque. The Poet looked at them and put their number at a few hundred. A middle-aged man was delivering a speech. The Poet pricked up his ears when he heard the phrase ‘to wage a war’, then his mind went immediately back to his meeting with Iyad… And his thoughts were interrupted only by the crowd’s loud, sudden shouts. Now and then they shouted, “Allahu Aakbar!” (Allah is Great!), in response to the orator’s sharp voice.

      Was he going to have to fight– now? What’s this? Fight whom? For what?... The Poet glanced at the men around him. When they shouted ‘Allah Akbar’, they raised their swords in the air. Was he going to be given a sword too? But he was too weak to wave a sword! And when was this ugly war going to break out?... And were Ben Mahmood and Larbi going to be there too– on the battle-ground?...
      At noon the Poet was with the men of the unit he had been posted to. The amir of this unit was a little younger than the Poet. He was called Abdessalam. He had a sweet voice. But he talked little. His piercing eyes seemed to speak a stern language. The Poet stood in awe of him. But his attention was soon drawn to the lunch food: mutton and fruits. After lunch everybody had a nap in the open. Only Abdessalam stayed awake.

      And during the nap, the Poet mused… For the first time in his life he would be a soldier– or rather he would bear himself like one. His heart told him that all these units combined formed only a little brigade– barely enough to fight another similar hamlet. What if they had to fight a real army? No doubt, his heart whispered sorrowfully, they would be vastly outnumbered by their enemy. But what to do? There was no choice. True, he –the Poet– had no cause to fight for, no people to defend. (So far no one had referred to the ‘woman’, Yamna.) But the mere fact of fighting was in itself something interesting. Like anyone else, he –the Poet– might be killed or injured. That’s quite normal. But hadn’t he already been as good as dead when those two men had come to fetch him in the grove?... And he –the Poet– might as well come out of the war safe and sound… and that would be a wonderful experience. He would have taken a giant step toward overcoming his own initial fear… Better to die a brave than to live a life of fear…

      The hour arrived at last. At sunset two armies were facing each other in an open space between hills. The Poet had been given a bow and arrows and enjoined to stand close to the top of one of the hills surrounding the open ground. Seven other men were with the Poet, whose heart was now beating faster. Other similar groups of men were scattered over the higher parts of the hill-slopes. They all hid behind either bush or rocks. Down on the ground there were a few columns: of infantrymen and horsemen. The enemy, now clear to the Poet’s eyes, had more men and more horses. (The Poet’s heart had been right.) But the Poet had no idea why these men had come here to fight each other. Iyad alone had told him something. And Abdessalam had told him the rest. “If you see the blue flag,” he had ordered the archers, “then shower them with your arrows!”

      The battle broke out. Everything clashed: man, horse and sword. The arrows were being shot. Shouts filled the air and flags of all colours and sizes were being waved. The dust rose to the sky, which was already aflame with the setting sun. The Poet fired arrow after arrow and his heart beat faster and faster. Suddenly a group of twenty men or so with horse and sword outflanked the archers where the Poet was and threw a tight ring round them. All the archers sprang to their feet and some made to aim their bows from behind the hill and in a flash they were round the Poet’s fellow soldiers. “Throw down your arms!” the horsemen-captain shouted. And the archers laid down their arms and held up their hands. The Poet was among the very first to fulfil the order. And thus he and his comrades-in-arms were taken into captivity and herded toward an enemy position.

      That night the Poet was very tired and hungry and he could not sleep. But he was not angry. He was happy. He mused over the past. Now again, he had a future. At the worst he would be sold into slavery and he would begin another experience. This time he might be sold to Muslims. After all, the enemy he had fought were Muslims– Arabs. And not Turks, as Iyad had predicted.

      At dawn the Poet was still thinking. He had thought of Marqus, Haroon, Yamna… He thought of Lehreem, Sultana… And he stopped a long while at…fear.

      It was noon of the following day when the Poet was given something to put into his mouth: some bread and water. All his fellow prisoners, fifty or sixty of them, were given the same. And they all lounged on the floor of this airless mews. In the afternoon ten of those prisoners were ransomed and the others, who probably had no one to pay for their freedom, were bound to stay there– at the mercy of the victors.  


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