Friday, 19 December 2014

The Poet : Chapter Six


The Poet was now tamed once for all. From now on, he was but a slave. He had had an idea about the slaves. They were the only people to be singled out for all the nasty jobs. The Poet also knew that it was high time he had begun to accustom himself to this frowsty cell. For he wouldn't live in a better place. Already, it was a wonder that he was still alive. Yet, he felt there were still many a thing to aspire to although he wasn't sure what. As long as there was life in his veins, his heart told him, he should never despair.
      The Poet didn't dwell long on that, however. What he wanted now was a good hamper of food and a cup of sweet water. He was terribly hungry. His pangs of hunger increased with each passing minute. Now much of the day had gone and there was nothing to hope for from the people who had thrown him into this cage. The Poet also feared that the guard wouldn't come in time to take him to that foul shed.
      One hour followed another till the cell was engulfed in utter darkness, and yet no one came. The Poet's fears grew wilder. How long would he remain incarcerated in this gloomy place? Weren't slaves entitled to just a handful of dates to appease one's deathly pangs of hunger? Had the world run out of soft hearts? This made the Poet indignant, furious. But what could he do? Nothing but wait.
      The Poet waited with a rising temper many hours far into the night before he succumbed to sleep. But his sleep didn't last long. Even during his sleep he hadn't ceased from wriggling. When he awoke and sat up he was still shivering with cold. He indeed was chilled to the marrow. And hungry, thirsty and angry. He couldn't lean his back against the icy wall. The straw beneath him was wet, and the air bleak. There was no light at all. No sound was audible. He believed there were still several hours to dawn and wondered how he would be able to endure them. So he just sat there, upright, facing the door, and waited.
      The Poet's heart quivered as a distant cock-crow indicated that the night had melted into day. Soon the first rays began to flood in. The world was awakening. Impatiently, the Poet waited for the new day's news. He wanted to know many a thing. Would he breakfast? Would he go out to the shed? Would he be handed over to the slavers today? Who would they be these slavers and where would they take him? What would he be doing as a slave? What would become of his personal belongings: his house, his camel, his flute?... And Sultana? And his brother's small family? Too many questions to answer. The Poet remained engrossed in these unending thoughts while waiting for something new to happen.
      Now the chill was quite a distant memory. The cell was warmed up by the heat outside. Several hours must have passed since sunrise. The Poet sat speechless, but he was expecting something. This time his dream came true. One guard came and took him to the musty shed. He also brought him a pot of water and a receptacle full of dates. When the guard left, after having closed the cell-door, the Poet washed his fingers with some of the water and drank some and ate several dates. He hadn't asked the guard about anything.
      The Poet leaned on one side and melted into thoughts. He would go away. Maybe forever. He would leave behind a smart house, a wonderful camel, a marvellous wife, an elderly brother and his family… He would leave Lehreem. Maybe forever. He would go somewhere else. Where? He didn't know. What would he be doing? He had no specific idea. His only job was composing verses. What else could he do? Who would be his master or masters? Or mistresses? Ida came to his mind fleetingly. Sultana, too. But:
    
      "Why am I to stay
      When I am to go?
      To go far away
      Where the stars stand aglow…?
      Why am I to say
      'I love you', when you know…?"

The singing stopped there. Weary of waiting, the Poet found almost anything boring and disgusting.
      Soon after dark, the cell-door opened. "Shalom" said a fifty-year-old, white man clad in a white jellaba. On his hairless head was a fez and on his shoulders and back a long, black cloth. This man beamed at the Poet, who rose and gaped. The Poet knew immediately that the newcomer was a Jew. Two guards were standing behind the Jew. "Shalom," he repeated. "Salam," replied the Poet. "Come along!" the Jew ordered, and turned toward the guards, who paved the way for him. The Poet followed on the heels of the Jew and the guards. They led him along a passage out into the open, a short way from the palace, where two men and four horses were waiting beside a palm-tree. The guards went back into the palace and the Poet was ordered to mount one of the four horses and ride in front. He mounted diffidently and waited for the next orders. "Fly! This way! Fly!" whispered the Jew as he and his companions mounted their respective horses. The Jew had gestured toward the northeast. And all the company flew that way, in silence.
      The Poet's thoughts were blocked for a moment. All overnight he found himself, as if in a stinking nightmare, in the hands of a Jew. And here he was racing northeastwards, as a slave, to a Jew's world. Where? He didn't know. He was fearfully anxious to know.

      After brief halts at three inn-like large houses, where the horses were fed and watered and where the Jew and his two companions chatted with the people there, the journey ended a little time after dawn at a smart, uninhabited house perched on a hill overlooking a small town. The horses were led into an adjacent stable and the men went into the house. The Poet was then conducted into a large room, where he found on the floor a sufficiently long mat, one sheet and one low pillow. The Jew brought him a good handful of dates and a pot of water, and locked the door and left. He had spoken no word. He only smiled.
      The Poet sat down. He was terribly weary. He drank some water and ate dates. And then he mused for a good while, before he began singing mournfully in a very low voice:

      Sultana! Oh Sultana! here I am a slave!
      Sultana! Oh Sultana! here I am a slave!

      …and can’t guess where you are:
      in what cell, in what cave?

      Sultana! Oh Sultana! Here I am a slave!

      Do send me a smile! Do send me a word!
      I need you most in this crazy world!

      Sultana! Oh Sultana!
      What could I feel but cheap
      Now that I’m sold like a sheep?

      Sultana! Oh Sultana! Here I am a slave!
          
      They will lead me as they please.
      And they will sell me when they please!!

      Oh Sultana!...


      Apart from singing, what else could he do? Oh yes! he prayed. And then he slept. 
          

      The Poet woke up and waited a few hours before nightfall, the time when the Jew came and ordered him to go with two young men. The Jew didn’t say where. The two young men, like the other two who had escorted him the last night, were wearing jellabas and white skullcaps. One of them had a charming black beard. When the Poet left the room, he was led into another –a small room– where he was commanded to put off all his clothes and put on instead an old, but quite clean jellaba and patchy old, short trousers. When he got out of that small room, the Jew escorted him out of the house, where the two men were waiting with the horses. There, the Jew handed a white skullcap to the Poet and ordered him peacefully to put it on his head. The Poet took the skullcap, with a trembling hand, and put it on his head– while the Jew and his men chuckled. “Mount!” said the Jew. The two young men and the Poet mounted their respective horses and vanished into the dark. As the horses flew northeastwards the two men began to talk in a low voice:
      “Did Sham’oon give you all the money?” asked one of them.
      “Yes,” replied the other.
      (The Poet listened very intently.)
      “How much?”
      “As much as he gave you!”
      “What’s this, David? You don’t trust me?”
      “Why do you insist?”
      “Shut up!”
      (…)
      The Poet now knew that these two men, too, were Jews. They pronounced the s sound as sh . But what struck him particularly was that both men spoke Arabic, the very Arabic spoken in the middle of Morocco. For the Poet, the two men must have come from Fez, Shella or Marrakesh. But where were they taking him now? They were heading northeastwards, toward Algeria. Would they sell him to the Turks there? He didn’t speak Turkish. He only spoke Berber, his mother-tongue, and Arabic, which he had been taught by his uncle at the Aït Abed Koranic school. 

Mohamed Ali LAGOUADER


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