Sunset found the Poet at the palace gate. His gown was wavering in the slight wind, his heart burning in his chest. At either side of the open gate stood a guard wearing a brown, long-sleeved shirt and yellow, short baggy trousers. The guards’ long silvern poles intersected a little way above their heads, allowing any comer to get into the palace– by permission of the Amir. The guards’ eyes were bound to keep gazing at the point where the poles intersected. Behind was a long alley that led into the Entrance hall. To either side of the alley lay a long but narrow lawn whose verdure was sometimes thought to be unnatural. Further to the left and right flourished fruit-trees of all sorts. These trees were a heaven for the birds that came there from all over the neighbouring lands.
The Poet crossed into the palace and stepped onward till he was in the middle of the alley, where he stood to have a good, though short, time listening to the joyful twitter of birds. He then moved on into the hall, where he found no one but the usual guard.
“Good evening,” said the Poet, while his eyes rolled around the four corners of the hall.
“Good evening, Our Poet,” replied the guard, smiling cheerfully.
“His Highness is in, isn’t he?”
The guard was about to reply when a dreadful silhouette showed up.
“The Amira?” the Poet whispered unobtrusively to the guard.
“Yes,” answered the guard confusedly.
The Amira, a beauty clad in white and orange, stalked forward, in her ever most dazzling majestic manners, until her eyes caught those of the Poet. She stood staring at him until he lowered his head. When he raised his eyes, the Amira was gone. The Poet turned to the guard and smiled dazedly. Not knowing what to say or do, he just moved and trudged on. At the front side of the hall, he stood to contemplate some of the Oriental candles that lit the place. Suddenly, a door opened behind him. He turned and saw a maidservant smiling at him. He looked at her beautiful brown face, which reminded him of Sultana’s, and then at her multiclour dress.
“Good evening,” the maid said cheerfully. “His Highness the Amir invites you in. He is in His Princely Hall.”
The maid bowed to the Poet as she finished speaking, and turned to open the door. She waited till the Poet budged, and she disappeared.
Once in the Princely Hall, the Poet felt his heart swelling with contempt. The Amir, in his glittering robes and jewels, was seated in the middle of one side of the Hall– resting his arms on the edges of the throne and his feet on a blue pillow. Along the wall on his right a row of chairs were occupied by the guests. Opposite them sat the invited poets in comfortable chairs. And opposite the Amir, in the other end of the Hall, sat a dozen slave-girls on two wooden benches. One of these girls held a lute in her arms. In the middle of the Hall stood a large table on which guests usually laid their presents. Just a little way above this table hung a chandelier that lit the whole Hall. And in front of everybody now present there was a small table laden with different kinds of fruits and cups of different drinks. The Amira was not there.
The Poet was running his eyes over the carpet-covered floor when the Amir coughed. The Amir’s cough was a polite signal for the audience to be quiet. The Amir was a man of forty-five. He was of middle-size and middle height, with a slightly tanned skin. He had a rather good-looking face with clearly drawn features.
“It’s cold, isn’t it?” the Amir began, and paused to cough again. Then came his piercing voice again to break the audience’s rustic laughter. “We’re going to have a little time to ourselves, aren’t we?” he said with an artful smile. Everybody but the Poet shouted, “Yes, your Grace!” Then, silence fell upon the Hall to haunt it for a while. The Poet raised his eyes and darted a fleeting look along the row where he was and opposite before he met the Amir in the eye. The look on the Amir’s face, warm and cheerful though it was, revived all the smoldering wrath in the Poet’s heart. “I love you, Salman!” said the Amir peacefully. All eyes turned to him. No one yet spoke a word, either from fear or from envy. Alone the Poet now tore the silence.
“Without you, your Grace,” said he meekly, “what would Lehreem have been but a barren stretch of desert? We all love you– all, here and beyond!”
“I can see it in your eyes,” roared the Amir, as his thundering laugh sent a queer quiver through the audience. “That is why I have invited you all to this jolly party. That’s after all become a virtue of mine– the best way I can serve my pets. So, we’ll start from where you’re sitting, Our Poet!”
“What do you mean, your Grace?”
“I don’t like wallflowers in my presence, you know. Let us listen to you now!”
“I am sorry, your Grace,” the Poet began in a tremulous voice, as he coughed and paused to check his words. “I am sorry, but I wish I could please you tonight as well. I’m not well, your Grace.”
No one could now look up at the Amir. Even the Poet had no power to. But everyone could feel the Amir was frowning and boiling with wrath.
“Off with you, naughty boy! Get out!”
Even the walls seemed to tremble at hearing the Amir snarl so fiercely. The Poet had no time left to look for excuses. He at once stood up and blundered towards the door. Once there, he turned: the Amir had buried his face in his hands. That gave the Poet’s heart a deathly jump that hardly left him power to pace onward and disappear. Yet, he strove to get out to the Entrance hall. But hardly had he stopped there to recover his breath when the Amira appeared. He looked at her with weary eyes and, as she came nearer, stretched a hand to her. To his consternation, she did not hold out hers. She only stood there and stared him into the face, and turned away, with a mocking look in her eyes and a murderous giggle on her lips. “You will see!” she scoffed back at him, as she vanished through the door of a side-room.
Not knowing what to do or say, the Poet remained dumb, with his face downcast. The Entrance Hall Guard was gazing at him. Their eyes met. The Poet took a few faltering steps towards the guard and said:
“Do you really know the Amir?”
“Yes,” replied the guard, surprised. “But why?”
“He has expelled me from the party. What might he do next?”
“He might kill you, I bet. But I would advise you to see the Amira.”
“I’m on bad terms with her, too.”
“Then you are to disappear at once, forever, and never be back!”
The Poet was already out of the hall. He no more cared of anybody. At the gate, he cast a fiery look at either guard and sneered at both. Out of the palace, the breeze and the moonlight brought him the wavering smile of beautiful Sultana. Were it not for her alone, he would have already become half an amir. Yet his love to her was only worth that much more. He was ready to suffer the worst for her sake. In truth, the mere thought of Sultana melted his heart.
“The night is still young,” the Poet murmured with a sigh as he neared his abode. He sat down beside his camel and faced the door of his house. The breeze which had accompanied him all the way long from the palace was now slightly turning into a chill.
The Poet stood up and sank to the ground instantly. “I’m damned,” he burst out as he felt the pain in his bottom. He turned to the camel, now again indifferent, and began to muse to himself: “Because I’m a poet, I’ve had a chance to step into the palace. Because I’m a poet I’ve had a chance to see Sultana. Because– I am damned. I’m worth nothing!”
“Why should the Amir be an amir? Why should the Amira be an amira? Why should Sultana be a maid? Why should I be a poet?
“Why am I so unhappy? What do I want?...
“I must not stay here. I ought to go to Bani Abeed…”
He waited till he felt his knees would support his body, and he tottered to his feet, and smiled because he did not fall again. He went into the house to prepare for the journey.
By mid-night the Poet and his camel were heading east. It was a windless night. And there was no sound or smell that suggested the presence of a wild animal nearby. So the Poet took to the tunes of his flute.
At a point in the heart of the desert, the Poet stopped singing and began to mull over his entire life.
Dawn was now wiping out the lingering traces of the night. “Forget all about this!” he suddenly burst out, “and think of Bani Beed…”
There were still many miles to Bani Abeed. The Poet’s heart prodded him into singing again, and he reluctantly drew the flute out of the bag and began to sing:
Time and time again
Here I am waiting for the rain
To fall in July.
Mustn’t I then be insane
To pray for the sky to let in the rain
When even kids’ hearts have gone dry!
Then why is my maid so far away
When I’m alone fighting for the Bay
To close round the foe?...
Nearby Bani Abeed now seemed moved farther than it actually was by an urgent appeal that came up to egg the Poet on to go back…to Lehreem. Sultana’s face was hovering around, almost perching on his nose. Her voice kept dinning in his ears. Sweat had already begun to rain over his body. However though reluctant, the Poet could only bow to this yearning. He soon petted the camel, on and on till both were bearing west, back to Lehreem.
“For you Sultana I’m going back,” he blubbered. “For you alone I’ll risk my life. If only you did something for me!”
And so went the song:
‘Cause you’d no heart I gave you mine:
So you could feel what a heart could be;
But –alas! – once you grabbed mine,
You so squeezed it that it’s ceased to be!...
Soon the singing died away, giving way to a little nap.
But here came a shrill cry, thundering through the otherwise quiet desert. Both the camel and his master were startled by the hyena’s cry. And yet there was no hyena in sight… The camel did not wait for a signal. He was already up, trotting on to the west. As to the Poet, he yielded his heart to deeper yearnings. He began to pray… And tears soon began to flow down his cheeks…
It was nearly noon when the Poet caught sight of Bir L’agrab, one of the few wells scattered over the desert. And there at Bir L’agrab he stopped and freed his camel. As he bent forward to draw water from the well, he heard the sound of a bird flying overhead. He raised his eyes, as if in response to somebody’s order, and saw the silhouettes of a few camels heading for the well. They were not coming from Lehreem, but the Poet’s heart was already torn by their dreadful sight. It was as though he had seen a herd of lions coming toward him. He dropped the water-pot and stayed gazing at the approaching caravan. As the company got closer, the Poet saw men in dark-blue. “Perhaps this time I’ve fallen naked to my enemies,” he thought mournfully.
“Allah’s peace be upon you, man!” said the men, alighting from their camels. They were a dozen black merchants.
“Peace be upon you, too!” replied the Poet, forcing an uncertain smile.
“Your dress tells you’re from Lehreem, aren’t you?” asked one of the men, sitting on the coping of the well and bidding his companions to follow suit.
“How do you know, sir?” said the Poet, when he sat next to the man who remarked about his dress. This man just laughed and his laughter provoked his companions into laughing even more wildly. The Poet shivered as that man said mockingly:
“Lehreem, to our knowledge, is the capital of all Amirs around here, isn’t it?”
The Poet remained dumb and his bleary eyes fixed on his camel, who stood aloof from the other camels.
“Your Amira,” the black man continued, “is dearer to the Amirs than their own wives. Oh let me say she’s got more than a dozen husbands at a time!”
“Your emirate need not have an army,” said another black man. “Those Amirs gave their oath to defend you– unto death!”
“Your Amira’s body is worth an emperor’s army!” chuckled a third.
Taken aback by this unexpected avalanche of bitter comments, the Poet said at last:
“You see, honourable men, a newborn cannot choose its cradle. It is either born in Tangiers or in Algesiras. What’s my sin in being from the Lehreem you’re describing? Besides–”
He could not finish his words. A few horses were raising dust on the west, from Lehreem. Blood almost froze in the Poet’s heart. The blacks turned to the coming horses and one of them said: “Lehreem has thrown up good riders, hasn’t it?” His words died away in the wind. The Poet was not listening to him, but to the gripping neigh of the approaching horses and to the rhythmic clatter on the gritty soil. All the blacks stood up as the riders (they were six) alighted from their horses. The Poet remained seated still on the coping of the well.
“Allah’s peace be upon you, men,” said one of the riders in a military tone. He looked something of a platoon leader. Indeed, he was the captain of the Palace Guard. He was a tall, stocky figure of a man. The Poet, who now let his eyes rest on the shimmering ground, had recognized the riders at first sight. He knew they were after him.
“Peace be upon you, too,” the blacks had replied in unison. These had formed something like a wall between the guards and the Poet.
“We are from Lehreem. And you?” asked the captain of the guard, running his eyes over the blacks’ faces and taking two steps onward.
“We’re human beings. We’re not confined to any emirate,” replied the black man who stood a few yards opposite him. “Where were you going, you?”
“We were coming here,” said the captain, grasping the hilt of his sword, which was still in its scabbard. The other guards were lining up behind him and standing on the alert.
“Fine,” said the black man in a rather provocative tone. “What for?”
“This is none of your business!” snorted the captain of the guard and gestured toward the Poet. His men, all impressively well-set, made for the lonely man cowering on the coping of the well.
But the black man who had first made fun of the Poet shouted at the guards with drawn sword: “If you touch this man all your heads will remain here!” The captain of the guard drew his sword and shouted back: “Either you shut up or I’ll throw your head into the air, you nasty negro!” This was the declaration of war the ‘negroes’ were waiting for. All the swords were drawn. And as the men began to lunge about, the Poet moved slowly and slunk away. He flew onto the back of his camel and bore west. The swords still clashed behind him until he was a good distance away.
Into Lehreem he went with a bleeding heart. A few people glanced at him as he zipped past their houses, through the palm-trees, toward the palace.