Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Four


The sun had sailed some distance southwards when the Poet handed the camel over to the Palace stable-boy. The stable, quite a big one, was on the left part of the palace. On his way to the palace gate, and even when he stepped into the Entrance hall, the Poet saw no foreigner.
      “Peace be upon you,” said the Poet to the guard who had advised him to disappear.
      “Peace be upon you, too,” replied the guard with an air of waiting for a question.
      The Poet gazed at him for a few seconds, glanced at the four corners of the hall, and said:
      “I see everything’s fine. And strange. And calm.”
      “What were you expecting?” asked the guard in a friendly tone.
      “Who’s with His Highness?”
      “Only the guards and Her Highness the Amira and His Highness Amir Ibnu Saadoon.”
      “Ibnu Saadoon?”
      (This was the name of the Amir of Amzod, a neighbouring emirate.)
      “I saw him enter with the Amira. Please go away!”
      The Poet understood. He moved away. The guard, who was from the same madshar as the Poet, should not be embroiled in such a precarious situation. The Poet moved away, many steps away, and stopped. He faced the door leading into the Amir’s Princely Hall. He again ran his hand over his heart and felt the blood dribbling. The door opposite looked like the line between life and death. As the seconds and minutes wore on, the Poet’s heartthrobs began to sound almost like footsteps. But these which made him turn round were actual footsteps. And what he saw was incredible.
      “Where are the others?” he managed to ask one of the guards he had left at Bir L’agrab as he flew past him, with a worn-out face.
      “Get away, you Jonah!” the guard muttered, vanishing through the opposite door.
      The Poet understood barely anything.
      “You get in!” said a maidenly face to him and went out of sight.
          
      Without much hesitation, the Poet mustered up the courage to go forth. He ambled sure-footedly up to the people in the Princely Hall. He bowed as he faced the Amir, the Amira and their guest, Amir Ibnu Saadoon. The Amira was sitting on the Amir’s left, the guest on his right. There was no one else.
      “Wonderful!” grumbled the Amir, bidding the Poet to take a chair. When the Poet sat pensively on a chair on the guest’s right, the Amir continued: “Really wonderful! If we have lost five good men in an unfair battle in the desert, at least we’ve got back the bad one!” Unprepared for such news, the Poet looked up at the Amir and then lowered his head. The news had sent shivers down his spine.
      The Amir clapped his hands and two guards came in, bowed to their masters and continued their way toward the Poet. One of them shackled the Poet’s hands, the other removed his sword. Then both guards bowed again and went out.
      “Now,” said the Amir in a subdued voice, “tell us what happened.”
      “You see, Majesty,” the Poet began somewhat brokenly, “when you dismissed me last night I went in fear of my own life. I could not spend the night here. So I went.”
      “Where did you go?” asked Amir Ibnu Saadoon in a diplomatic tone.
      “I was going to Bani Abeed, but at some point in the desert I came over so homesick that I couldn’t go any further. I made an about-turn and on my way back I stopped at Bir L’agrab to collect some water for the ablutions and for my camel. And there I was surprised by the arrival of a dozen black merchants. Each had a camel. As they alighted and sat on the coping of the well, three of them began to say bad things on Lehreem.”
      “Things such as what?” asked the Amir of Lehreem, after he had glanced at the Amira.
      “Bad things. I can’t find it in my heart to tell you, your Grace!”
      “Just tell,” insisted Amir Ibnu Saadoon.
      “Well, one of them said, ‘Your Amira’s body is worth an emperor’s army!”
      The Poet had lowered his head before he rehearsed that in a halting voice.
      “You stay!” the Amir whispered to his wife; and to the Poet he said:
      “And what did you say, you?”
      The Poet raised his eyes unhurriedly and said tersely:
      “Your Grace’s guards arrived.”
      “And then?” asked Ibnu Saadoon, who had rested his right elbow on the chair-arm and supported his chin with his fist.
      “And then the guards wanted to take me, but one of the blacks drew his sword and tried to prevent them. The Captain of the guard said: ‘Either you shut up or I’ll throw your head into the air, you nasty negro!’ and thus everybody clashed with everybody. I felt I couldn’t help and I flew back here.”
      “Bravoes!” the Amir thundered. “Instead of defending your fellow countrymen, you let them have it? I must be proud of you!” The Amir’s voice rose even louder. “When my men fell among your conspirators and began to fall like leaves at Bir L’agrab you say you scurried over here like a nasty swine!”
      These words pierced the Poet’s heart. He raised his eyes and looked the Amir in the eye.
      “Speak!” said Ibnu Saadoon coolly. The Poet turned his fiery eyes to the speaker and gazed. The Amira coughed. The Poet darted a sullen look at her. And she did not avoid his eye.
      “You speak!” the Amir growled fiercely. The other two kept staring at the Poet. After a brief moment’s hesitation, the Poet spoke.
      “I’m waiting for questions,” he said in a rather dismal voice.
      “Who are those conspirators?” asked Ibnu Saadoon, always coolly.
      And almost in the same tone, the Poet managed to say: 
      “I don’t know them.”
      Now, the Amir stood up, glanced at the guest and stepped up to the Poet. As he stood in front of him, he drew his sword and then put its point almost close to the Poet’s throat and said:
      “Mind your head! Either you tell us everything or you’ll lose everything. This is your last chance to atone for the massacre of my guards. What you’ve done is not venial in this land. Say: who are those mongrels?”
      “Kill me!” the Poet said in a desperate voice.
      “Surely I shall if you don’t tell!” The Amir lowered his voice to a whisper. “Mind!”
      Ibnu Saadoon coughed, and joined them. He asked the Amir to put up his sword, and then he squatted on his heels and put his hands on the Poet’s knees. Then he looked up at the Amir with an air of asking him to go back to his seat. It did the Poet’s heart some good to see his amir obey and go away. The Amir went toward his wife and stood with his back to the two men.
      “Tell me, our Poet,” said Ibnu Saadoon in a reassuring, audible voice. “What do you want?”
      “Believe me,” the Poet replied almost tearfully, “I’ve never had conspirators. I had never met those men before. I don’t even know where they’re from. All I know is that at that time they were coming from the southeast. They had a Sudanese accent and they know Lehreem quite well.”
      “But on Monday you were in the market, weren’t you?”
      “That’s true.”
      “And what did you do there?”
      “I went shopping.”
      “That’s all?”
      “I swear by Allah that was all.”
      “Yesterday, Her Highness the Amira was in your home?”
      “True.”
      “What for?”
      “She came just out of kindness. At least that’s what I understood.” The Poet was about to add, “That was not the first time.” But he checked himself just in time.
      “And then,” said Ibnu Saadoon, “you proposed to marry her?”
      The Poet was about to scream, “It’s she who proposed to marry me!” But he just yelled: “Oh my God!”
      Ibnu Saadoon stood up and began to pace back and forth. The Amir had gone back to his seat and now the Amira moved out of the Hall under the Poet’s tearful eyes.
      Ibnu Saadoon suddenly stood in the middle of the Hall, faced the Amir and said, pointing towards the Poet:
      “This man must be incinerated!”
      Stunned by these words, the Poet looked at both men dumbfounded and, all of a sudden, he rose and said in a defiant tone:
      “If you want to incinerate me, do it now!”
      “Sit down!” replied Ibnu Saadoon with a threatening look. He then turned to the Amir, took a few steps onward, put his hands on his hips and said in a hoarse voice:
      “You see, Amir Abu Sufian, I think the man should be pent until all the Amirs are gathered here. They might want to try him. Those blacks might launch a hit-and-run attack on your emirate. The army must come as quickly as possible. In light of the aftermath of such an attack, if attack there be, we shall see how to deal with your poet. So, I’ll go now and my men will be here by the first star-light.”
      The Amir clapped his hands and two guards rushed in. They bowed and waited for orders. “Put that one in a separate cell!” said the Amir. The guards made for the Poet. Each of them took him by an arm and led him, with eyes downcast, to where the Amir had ordered.
      The guards opened the wooden door of a two-square-metre cell, unshackled the Poet and pushed him onto the greenish straw. The Poet just crouched down as the guards locked the cell-door behind him. The straw was not harsh, but it did not smell good. The earthen walls looked rough. The paint, if any, had gone. Beyond the walls there was nothing audible. Once again, the Poet was lonely.
      After a brief pause, the Poet gathered himself and sat upright with legs crossed. A few tears stood in his eyes. This was the first time he was clapped into prison. He recalled how he had received the Amira the previous day. He ran his hand over his forehead: it was burning. Why? Why had he been so hard? At least for her beauty, she should not have been treated so badly. For her brown eyes, rosy cheeks, dewy lips, and milky face, he should have forgotten Sultana at least for those few moments. 
      But why? Why was Ida interested in him? This he couldn’t understand. He was probably far from handsome. He was but a frail, meager creature. Among the four Amirs Ida knew at least two were very good-looking. Even her husband was good-looking. So what was she looking for?
      The Poet moved slowly until his back leaned up against the wall and then he stretched his legs in front of him. He again remembered  that he had not yet said his prayers. And he recalled what had happened at Bir L’agrab. Ibnu Saadoon might be right. Those people might come and launch a hit-and-run attack on Lehreem. Already five of Abu Sufian’s guards had been killed. This made the Poet’s heart ache more than ever before. He did not want to die. He saw Sultana’s face, and Ida’s. He saw the stream Lehreem and the bush and the sunrise. Life is beautiful. “Oh my God!” Now, the Poet had to say all his prayers. And he did.
      Thoughts, fears and dreams followed one upon another through a couple of hours. As the faintest lights went out of the cell, the Poet began to hear horses neigh and clatter some way around. Also human voices were slightly audible. The Poet deduced that some of the four Amirs had begun to send in troops. These were Ibnu Saadoon; Abu Hind, the Amir of Idao Za’tot; Saad al-Asmar, the Amir of Foox; and Assaeed, the Amir of Aït Iddoot. The Poet knew all the story. Those Amirs would never let Abu Sufian down. And, in return, Abu Sufian would never say no to any of them. The Poet was sitting down and listening for the guards to tap on or open the door opposite. He could do nothing. He had just crossed his arms and stayed waiting. What would they do to him? He didn’t want to die. He felt hungry.
      Minutes flew by. Still nothing new happened. The Poet did not know what was going on exactly outside. If there was going to be an attack he didn’t know when. Nor did he know when the Amirs would come to try him. Yes, he would be tried. It must be good of Man to try a man before killing him, even if the sentence is known beforehand. But Abu Sufian might not this time be as harsh as he made himself out. Perhaps he only wanted to wring some confession or other from him. Then, how could he have heard of Ida’s last visit? But what did Abu Sufian want to know? And why had he set his guards on him? And why did Ibnu Saadoon call for the gathering of Amirs? And why did he himself fear to be killed? What had he done wrong? If his fears were that big, why hadn’t he ventured to go away, anywhere away from these emirates? Here, he remembered al-Mutanabbi, that famous Arab poet who had been murdered far away from his home. If it’s death, the Poet mused hopelessly, then there’s no way out. But why should he die, now– he’s only thirty?   

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER

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