Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Five


It was dark now. As the Poet rose and rubbed his eyes he found himself in utter darkness. Had he slept or just drowsed? He was rocking. He could no longer repress his urine. It was very cold. But would he do it here? This made him dizzy. He had already felt the pangs of thirst and hunger, and here he was now feeling the pangs of this as well. He kept rocking and swaying bitterly. His patience was exhausted. He groaned inwardly at the thought of doing what only helpless children would do. And here indeed? It occurred to him to pray. But he could bear no more. He crept toward the door and hastened to get rid of the liquid that had pained him. And as he felt the viscous liquid that was still there he wondered who was that woman he had seen in the last minutes of his sleep.
      As he backed and leant against the chilly wall, the Poet felt ashamed. He had now done this, what would he do next? He shuddered to think! How long would he remain here? He ran his hand over his stomach. Was he going to be starved to death? And Sultana? Poor Sultana! She must have undergone more than this. The Amir was really soulless, damn him! Even Ida forgot the days when she had been a maid. Once she had enjoyed the revels of being an amira she grew more mannish than a man. Why wasn’t she like Sultana?...
      Thought upon thought led the Poet through the rest of the night. As the first morning rays began to flood in, someone knocked at and opened the cell-door. “Get up!” a guard said unmannerly. The Poet rose up and got out of the cell. The guard led him past several wooden doors to a small stable-like shed. “You unload your bowels here and be quick!” the guard said and stepped back. The place was terribly nasty, yet the Poet had no other choice. He went in as ordered. And while he was there he thought of asking the guard for something. He wanted to ask him for a cup of water and a hunk of bread, but his pride prevented him. He wanted to inquire after Sultana, but his fear wouldn’t let him. When the Poet was out of the shed, the guard, who had been yawning, drew his sword and said: “Be quick to your cell!” The Poet just glanced once more and went on to his cell. The guard locked the door behind him and went away.
      As the Poet sat down he felt again the bitter pangs of thirst, hunger and cold. Before now he had thought there was nothing more horrible than sexual deprivation. Was he going to change his mind? He had no idea how long this would last. It occurred to him to bang the door or just scream, but what’s the use? The specters of starvation and death began to scare him. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to get out and be free. He wanted food and water now. Or else– . What? He sneezed.  He abhorred this fusty cell. His thoughts brought tears to his eyes. He felt small. The Amir and the Amira he had praised for so long had now gotten him with his back to the wall and others were going to try him. Had he known this would happen to him, he mused remorsefully, he wouldn’t have praised any– Too late now.
      A good deal of time had passed since sunrise and yet nothing new happened. The Poet looked at the remaining traces of his urine at the bottom of the door and wondered what would have happened if the guard had not come that early. But this wasn’t yet enough. The Poet wished that the guard had brought with him some food or at least a cup of water. But his wish went unfulfilled. Another thing was paining him now. If he had been at home he would have already had a bath and said his Dawn Prayers. But he couldn’t do it here now that he had polluted the place.
      When would he be tried? He was getting worked up. But what on earth would he be tried for? What had he done to deserve such a trial? If they wanted to kill him, why not do it now? No. He shuddered at the thought. He didn’t want to die. Maybe in the trial he would find a chance to escape death. Let’s not despair! Yes, why not? It suddenly came to him to try himself by himself. But he had no idea how a trial normally began. He had never attended one. No matter: let’s try! He pondered for a few seconds before he began in a low, but audible voice:
      “Suppose they ask, ‘What do you want?’
      “Well,” he said, “I want to be free.”
      Question: ‘What do you mean?’
      Answer: 'I have done nothing wrong to be tried.'
      Question: ‘Who are those mongrels?’
      No. This is nonsense. I can’t predict their questions or my answers. I don’t even know who will be there to try me. Maybe the Amirs? And the viziers, too, perhaps? They might ask me about my thoughts, my past, my wife, my faith…
      These thoughts piled up one upon one until they put the Poet to sleep. He had not slept enough for two nights. It was not cold now. And thus he slept like a log. But he was not sleeping at home. The cell-door was already thrown open when a thundering voice came to tear the Poet from his deep sleep. “Get up! Stand up for your trial!” the voice said. As if this was not enough, the guard used his foot to get the Poet up. As the Poet rose and looked up at the guard, he said in a somnolent voice: “What’s the matter?” “Get up! Stand up for your trial!” the guard repeated. The Poet heard that. “The trial?” he muttered to himself. His heart now again went pitapat. He rose up reluctantly and followed the guard in silence. The further he went into the palace the louder the voices he heard grew. Both the guard and the Poet stopped at a door. The Poet sensed that the trial would take place in the Princely Hall, whence came the noise. The guard tapped at the door and waited. The noise behind the door rose higher for a few seconds and then abated sharply. The door opened and a voice shouted: “The accused comes in!” The guard took the Poet by the arm and led him, under the curious eyes of the people present, to a designated spot quite in the middle of the Hall. The first guard left the Poet standing up there and another came with the shackles, fitted them on the Poet’s hands and stepped back out. The Poet remained standing there and looking at the people in front. Abu Sufian was seated in his usual place. On his right sat Ibnu Saadoon and Assaeed, and on the left sat Abu Hind and Saad al-Asmar. Behind the five Amirs stood guards with pointed, long poles in their hands. On the right and left rows of chairs, on both sides of the Poet, sat viziers, poets and other local and foreign dignitaries. Between Assaeed’s seat and the row next to him sat, in a smart, bentwood chair, a sexagenarian man with a snowy beard. The Poet had never seen this man before. There was some silence for a while. At long last, Amir Abu Sufian coughed. All eyes turned to him. Abu Sufian turned to the snowy-bearded man and said respectfully:
      “Sheïkh Abderrahman, we have summoned you to sit in judgement on that man. We could have judged him ourselves. But all the Amirs over here and myself want to pass an equitable judgement on the man over there.”
      “I thank you all, you Magnanimous Amirs, for the faith you put in my humble person,” said the judge approvingly. “With your permission, I will do my best to be true to God, to you Amirs, and to my conscience.” Then he turned to the Poet and said in the same mild tone: “Let’s begin in God’s name!” The Poet looked him in the eye and waited for questions.
      “What’s your name?” the judge began.
      “My name is Salman.”
      “What’s your father’s name?”
      “My father’s name is L’hussein.”
      “What’s your mother’s name?”
      “My mother’s name is Rqiya.”
      “Are your parents still alive?”
      “No.”
      “Where do you live?”
      “I live in Aït Abed.”
      The judge turned to Amir Abu Sufian.
      “Aït Abed is a madshar about a mile away,” said the Amir.
      “I meant to ask you, your Grace, if you wouldn’t mind, to unshackle the man,” the sheikh commented tactfully.
      “Right,” the Amir replied with a nod and clapped his hands. A guard came in and bowed. The Amir commanded him peacefully: “Unshackle him!” The guard executed the order and went out with the shackles in his hands. Meanwhile, the Poet fell to wondering what was the relevance of the questions he had just answered. It occurred to him that the sheikh was only preparing him for the worst.
      “Tell me, man!” the judge resumed. “How old are you?”
      “I am thirty years old.”
      “Are you married?”
      “Yes, sir.”
      “Do you have any children?”
      “No. In truth, I don’t know.”
      The people in the audience roared with laughter. Amir Abu Sufian coughed twice and the silence came back.
      “How do you mean?” the judge asked.
      “My wife was pregnant when I last saw her.”
      “Where and when did you last see her?”
      “She was imprisoned somewhere around here about three years ago.”
      “Why was she imprisoned?”
      “I don’t know.”
      “In your own opinion, why was your wife imprisoned?”
      “Well, she used to advise some of Lehreem women against letting the Amir take their daughters away from them.”
      The silence was now broken by low murmuring.
      “And he did indeed?”
      “Yes, sir. He has always taken away the most beautiful girls.”
      “What for?” asked the judge amidst a slightly louder murmuring.
      The Poet kept silent. The Amir coughed, as a signal for the people present to stay calm and be quiet.
      “How old was your wife when you last saw her?”
      “About twenty-five years old.”
      “You’ve said she was pregnant. Could you guess for how many months?”
      The Poet, being new to it, hardly understood why he had to answer such questions. For a while he gazed at the sheïkh’s purple-and-green robes and then looked up and said:
      “Maybe for three months.”
      “When and where did you marry her?”
      The murmuring came back and the Poet took that for some kind of reaction to the sheïkh’s irrelevant questions. He said:
      “I had married her in Bani Abeed about six months before she was imprisoned.”
      “Are you sure she’s imprisoned.”
      “No.”
      “Why did you marry in Bani Abeed?”
      “My wife was born there. It was she who asked me to spend with her our first marital days in her birth-place.”
      “You miss her then?”
      “That’s private, sir!”
      “When, where and how did you first meet her? But what’s her name, by the way?”
      “She’s named Sultana. She was for some time one of Amir Abu Sufian’s maidens. As the Amir was very satisfied with me, he gave her to me. He said she was his best maiden.”
      “How did you find her? Still virgin, I mean?”
      “That’s private, sir!”
      “You didn’t finish your answer to my previous question, did you?”
      “Yes, sir! I said His Highness the Amir gave her to me as a maiden. But I fell in love with her instantly and we got married. She then ceased to be a songstress. She ceased to be that scantily clad, easy-going girl. And I loved her for that. She made an abrupt change both in herself and in me. She was converted to a good woman. Before that I had been myself a worldly-minded lad. But our marriage changed everything. We began new habits, a new life.” The Poet glanced at the Amirs somewhat defiantly while he went on: “We began to pray almost night and day. We cried over our past sins–”
      “Wait a bit!” the judge interrupted. “Just one by one. You've talked of change, haven’t you? You seem to be proud of it. And you seem to have wanted to impose that change on the whole of Lehreem. Am I wrong to think so?”
      “Well, perhaps my wife did?”
      “And you?”
      “I wasn’t imprisoned with her.”
      “So she was guilty?”
      “I haven’t said that. I feel she was wronged.”
      “What exactly do you want?”
      “First of all, I want a cup of water and a hunk of bread. I’m hungry!”
      Some of the people in the audience laughed, but the sheïkh turned to Amir Abu Sufian with an air of asking him to grant the accused’s wish. The Amir clapped his hands and ordered water and bread for the accused. As the guard came back with the water and bread, the people present began to murmur even more loudly. The guard left, and the Poet gobbled down the bread and emptied the cup at one gulp.
      “Tell us now, what do you want next?” the judge resumed.
      “I want to get out of here free and safe.”
      The murmuring almost turned into a tumult.
      “Not yet,” the judge hastened to reply in an attempt to restore the lost silence.
      “What have I done to deserve this trial?” the Poet asked, encouraged by the tumult he had almost caused.
      Abu Sufian barked at him:
      “It’s not you who puts questions, you wicked boy!”
      The other Amirs murmured something like that. There was no more silence until Abu Sufian said: “Listen and reply!”
      “Mind what I say!” said the judge. “It is I who am to put questions. Tell us now, why do you want to destabilize this and the neighbouring emirates?”
      “How?” the Poet asked, a shade cautiously.
      All the Amirs stood up and the viziers followed. The Poet only waited the end he had always dreaded. The judge stood up at last and said:
      “Please, calm down! This will be the last time he puts a question. Please sit down! Be wise, please!” 
      Abu Sufian gazed and frowned for a few more seconds at the Poet and sat down and the others followed at different paces. The judge was the last to follow suit. He turned to the Poet and said bluntly:
      “Now you have to answer certain charges. You are accused of treason. You have attempted to destabilize Lehreem and the surrounding emirates by emboldening some people to disobey their respective Amirs. You have made conspirators abroad to help you carry out your plot. You attempted to entice Amira Ida away from her husband and abode. You have claimed that the Amirs over here are not good Muslims and that they should be fought.”
      “You’ve ordered me not to put questions. Otherwise I would have asked, ‘What else?’ But–” the Poet began, and stopped and burst into tears. He buried his face in his hands and began to sob movingly. The Amirs kept silent, but the other people present murmured quite audibly. Everybody was now looking at the once exalted Poet.
      The Poet was weeping for remorse. He had praised all the five Amirs facing him. He damned the day he had known them all. He was weeping for himself. He had no way to defend himself by refuting their allegations. He had no concrete proof to adduce. He could not reproach them for not having presented witnesses. He himself had no witnesses to extricate him from this nasty ambush. He was lost. What ached him most was that he was going to die now. He had failed in his attempts to make any difference at all, and he couldn’t see who could make a difference after him. He had lived for nothing.
      To everybody’s surprise, Ibnu Saadoon stood up and walked over to the Poet, who was still sobbing. Ibnu Saadoon  grasped the Poet’s arm and said: “Take this and wipe your face.” He gave him a perfumed handkerchief and walked back up to his seat. The Poet wiped his face with his trembling hands and felt the cheerful scent. When he bared his face, the judge said in a strikingly soft voice:
      “We want words, not tears!”
      The Poet stalled him for a few moments before he began in a rather tremulous voice:
      “True, I had a good weep. But that wasn’t good for me. You have charged me with treason. And that’s enough. I don’t have witnesses. I don’t have convincing proofs. All I have is tears. And if I was weeping it was not because I feared death, but because I would be killed on no sound grounds. I am sure I’m innocent. But I can’t prove it. And there’s no one to blame for that.”
      “So you deny all the charges?” the judge asked expectantly.
      “Yes, sir!” the Poet replied firmly.
      “So now, you have to swear, will you? Say after me: I swear by Allah I have never betrayed any of the five Amirs present here.”
      The Poet replied calmly:
      “I swear by Allah I’ve never betrayed any of the five Amirs facing me.”
      “Say: I swear by Allah I have never done anything to destabilize this and the neighbouring four emirates.”
      The Poet swore.
      “Say: I swear by Allah I have never made any conspirators here or abroad.”
      The Poet swore and glanced at the Amirs.
      “Say: I swear by Allah I have never attempted to entice Amira Ida away from her husband and abode.”
      The Poet swore, now pitifully.
      “And last you swear that you have never claimed that the Amirs present here are not good Muslims and that they should be fought.”
      The Poet swore, almost tearfully.
      The judge turned to the Amirs and said cautiously:
      “I can’t convict him.”
      Amir Abu Sufian rose up, walked over to the judge, who in turn stood up, and both shook hands. “We thank you very much, Sheïkh Abderrahman,” the Amir said, and called for the guards. A guard came in and bowed. “Give the sheïkh a thousand mithqals and help him get back his horse. And do escort him for a distance out of Lehreem,” the Amir said. The Sheïkh mumbled a few words and bowed to Abu Sufian and to the other Amirs and followed close on the guard’s heels. Once the Sheikh was out, Amir Abu Sufian stalked haughtily toward the Poet. As he neared him, the Amir darted a fleeting look all round the Hall and said, grinning: “How can it be that we let this rabid dog loose?” The Poet raised his eyes and glanced at the Amir’s pink face. “Look at me,” said the Amir. “In a moment you’ll be finished!” The Poet spoke no word. He only gazed at the Amir, who was now walking back to his seat. Once there, the Amir turned to Assaeed, on his right, and said:
      “Tell us, Amir Assaeed: where do you stand on this question?”
      “Well, the man’s guilt is written all over his face. I guess we should put him in jail.”
      “Good,” said Abu Sufian. “And you, Amir Ibnu Saadoon?”
      “As to me, I feel we must rather banish him!”
      Abu Sufian turned to Abu Hind, on his left, and said:
      “Perhaps you, Amir Abu Hind, you’ll have another stand, won’t you?”
      “Yes,” Abu Hind replied enthusiastically. “I think we should rather sell him into slavery.”
      The Poet just listened and gazed.
      “And you, Amir Saad, what do you say?”
      “As to me, I believe we must kill him!”
      The Poet’s heart jumped.
      “And now,” Abu Sufian said to the other people in the audience, “it’s your turn to speak your minds. Those who agree with Amir Assaeed raise their hands!”
      The Poet shook his head. This was brand new to him.
      When the hands were raised, Abu Sufian turned to Assaeed and said:
      “Count your partisans!”
      Assaeed counted them and said:
      “They are five.”
      The Poet noticed that those were all local dignitaries.
      “Those who are with Amir Ibnu Saadoon now?” Amir Abu Sufian resumed. He then asked Ibnu Saadoon to count the raised hands.
      “They are nine,” he said, somewhat proudly.
      Those were the foreign dignitaries.
      “And now,” said Abu Sufian, “those who agree with Amir Abu Hind raise their hands.”
      Abu Hind counted his partisans and said:
      “Twelve!”
      Those were the Poets. The Poet wondered why.
      “Amir Saad al-Asmar, it’s your turn now to count those who side with you.”
      Al-Asmar counted them and said in a rather desolate tone:
      “They’re only ten.”
      Those were the viziers.
      And now Abu Sufian thundered:
      “Well, the Amirs have had their say. And you, too, men. So I think the trial is over. Our Poet will be sold to the slavers!”
      He then called for the guards. 

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER


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