Chapter 13: Settling In
Sapphira learns the workings of a harem.
Today is a landmark occasion for me. My past has caught up with the present, as far as my journal writing is concerned. You know now how I got myself into this situation and how it came to be that on this hot sunny afternoon I am sitting at this table, writing. From now on, I will write in my journal only when new events unfold. I will do this during the afternoon siesta while things are still fresh in my mind.
I have become quite familiar with the routine and workings of the harem, the roles of the various people, and the goings on. However, before I start I must tell you about the toilets. They are well worth writing about. They are marvelous. You sit over a porcelain bowl set inside a painted wooden box and when you have finished you pull a handle back and forth and water washes away your doings. So much better than a hole in the ground with a wooden plank over it—and they do not reek, even on the hottest days.
At night, a wooden bar is lowered to lock closed the doors to the harem courtyard and two armed guards sit against them throughout the night, their guarding duties taken over by Mustafa and Talil in the daylight hours after the doors are unbarred. We are also required at night to bolt our room doors closed from the inside as a final precaution against intruders.
The two servant women assist us in our toiletries and look after the washing of our clothes and bed cottons. Twice a week two gardeners, an elderly man and his young apprentice, tend to the trees, plants and pools while our afternoon siesta conveniently confines us to our rooms. This is the extent of male presence in the harem, except for the Master, whose entry is always announced by the sounding of a large brass gong.
I find the antics of the slave girl Hortensia and the gardener’s young assistant amusing. He is an attractive youth—an opinion obviously shared by Hortensia—and a quiet courtship of sorts goes on between the young gardener and the sloe eyed Hortensia, for when he works in the garden in front of her room she tactfully opens the shutters, or stands back from the open doorway, and teases him wickedly by showing him what only a husband or master should see. He responds in kind—to the extent possible without raising suspicion—by working discreetly bare chested whenever he is within her view. Her room is opposite mine and I have watched them. In front of her room lies the best-tended garden!
Sheik Ali and his harem gather each evening in the great hall for dining and entertainment. In the center of the large room is a square sunken area bordered by two steps leading up to a surrounding mezzanine. The lower sunken part is where we eat, and later it is the place for story telling, singing, dancing, and board games such as chess and backgammon, and other entertainment. Ali often reclines on a large upholstered divan set in the center of a huge carpet scattered with an array of cushions, taking pleasure from the attention of three or four serving girls. Mustafa selects the serving girls after consulting the written record he keeps of our menses and visits to the Master’s bedchamber. Others lie or stand along the sides of the room, often indifferent to the goings on at the center.
I must mention one of the amusements of this place, a favorite game of the girls—possibly not of the Master. They blindfold him before each one in turn presents part of her anatomy for his feeling, such as the buttocks, leg or thighs—the girls claim breasts are too easy and are not offered. Cloth draped over the proffered part makes his task more difficult. The game is to see how many girls he can identify correctly. Those guessed wrongly accompany him to the bedchamber that night to refresh his memory.
They also try to upset Mustafa’s carefully planned roster by encouraging Ali to choose a girl not on his list for the evening. Success in this small amusement delights all…except Mustafa.
A bright oil lamp placed some distance behind a large cotton sheet forms the screen for a Magic Lantern. Between the sheet and lamp, girls act out scenes and stage poses, sometimes with props, many lewd and naughty, which tell stories from their wild imaginations. They depict in moving shadows, trees, birds, animals, and aroused men pursuing unwilling women, bringing to life stories for the audience.
Eunuchs are both blessed and damned. Blessed to serve in comfort from a position of importance—damned by castration and the constant stimulation of their latent desires, desires that they can no longer relieve by lying with a woman. Mustafa, the chief eunuch, is fortunate. His slaver had cut off only his sac; he is a semivir eunuch. The still intact member above is useful for emptying his bladder but for nothing else. Nevertheless, I notice on occasion, when he is ministering to a girl, preparing her for her master’s enjoyment, that he often shows a slight stirring and bulge beneath his trousers. Talil, the second eunuch, is less fortunate. His captors cut off all his manliness; he is a sandali eunuch. Both sport beards and deep voices, signs that they met the knife as men, because castrated boys do not grow beards or have their voices deepen.
Castration is a terrible fate, particularly for a grown man. In all likelihood, he had experienced the pleasures of manhood before they were cruelly and permanently denied him. Emasculation left memories intact and no means of relief for any desires or urgings that lingered on.
Sheik Ali bin Shareef al-Saalih is a beneficiary of the discovery of copper and gold in Buraydah, in the province of Qassim, a desperately dry, impoverished kingdom populated largely by nomadic warring tribes. This newfound wealth sustained an extremely wealthy class of ruling sheiks, and the building of a new and luxurious palace on the shore of the Red Sea in the market town of Makram. Slave concubines, their supervising eunuchs, household servants and staff moved by camel train from the old palace in Buraydah, protected by armed Bedouin mercenaries. Traveling from oasis to oasis, the journey took over thirty days to complete, so hostile is this country. This southward migration took place seven years before I arrived, spurred forward no doubt by the outbreak of fighting in the north and east and the increasing likelihood of invading Turks attacking and plundering the Buraydah palace.
Most of the statuary, bas-relief plaques, elaborately carved alabaster and stone pieces, came from the old palace. The builders incorporated them into the new one, adding both warmth and a feeling of history. Of course, many of these pieces would remind some of the old palace, its master, his ways, likes and dislikes, many of which were not pleasant to recall.
Ali’s father, Sheik Shareef, a ruthless dominating man with a taste for cruelty, was reputed to be the largest slave owner in Arabia. Male African slaves worked his gold and copper mines in Buraydah, and for his carnal pleasures, he owned an extensive harem. He thought nothing of flogging male slaves for failing to produce their quotas of gold nuggets and flakes, and in the same spirit, taking his harem slave women to his erga to punish them cruelly for real or imagined offenses.
A few years before his death, after he had amassed a huge fortune in gold, he abandoned the worked out mines. Luckily, only his fortune, and not his cruel tendencies, flowed down the bloodline, and though strong willed and demanding, Ali is fair and forgiving. Few mourned the death of his father, and the frequent beatings.
All the girls confide in Yasmeen, sharing their problems with her and seeking her advice. I have many opportunities to talk to her about life in the earlier days in his father’s harem, and she gives me wonderful first-hand accounts of how it was then—a very different scene from the one I am now part of.
Yasmeen told me about life with Ali when he was younger. Under her tutorship, he acquired a fine appreciation and healthy appetite for the pleasures a woman can bring to a man's bed, and on each birthday his mother presented him with a new slave girl. This birthday tradition ended with the death of his mother when he was twenty years old and his harem held seven beautiful women.
Four years later his father died, and Sheik Ali inherited his fortune, the palace, lands, household, and of course, his father’s extensive harem. Ali sold off the women to eager buyers except for three younger girls whom he selected to keep for himself, swelling his harem to ten exceptionally beautiful nubile females all well versed in the arts of pleasing a man.
Fewer possessions and less wealth flowed to his younger half-brother Hussein. Since he is the second son and born to a lesser wife, he inherited little, as is the common practice under the laws of the land. Hussein depends on the benevolence of his older brother, which is generously forthcoming and speaks of how extraordinarily attached and devoted they are to each other. He willingly left the palace at Buraydah, taking three slave girls with him, and took up residence in the small port city of Al-Lith, a short distance south of Jeddah. He lives a life of importance and comfort on an annual stipend provided from the family fortune.
As a boy grows into a man, preferences and attractions emerge for particular parts of the female body. Young Sheik Ali has a fondness for breasts, and to lesser extent buttocks, not to suggest that his interests stop there. Our legs, and surprisingly to me, the small of our backs, call to his eyes and hands. My Master is never tired or jaded by the sight and feel of shapely breasts, and they are on hand to him in every shape, size and color ranging from white through shades of Asian brown to Nubian black. His girls have noticed this and take care to cater to his likes. Many girls pattern their breasts with henna and bejewel them to enhance their appeal.
Sheik Ali is in every sense of the word a strong individual, but behind this hard veneer is a man about thirty years old, a man at his peak of virility—I can not imagine there ever being a higher peak—and a man susceptible to the charms of women. He immerses himself in their carnal attentions but also enjoys conversation and board games with them. Outside his bedchamber, we address him as “Sheik Ali” or “Sire”, an English word I did not know the meaning of at first. I later learned that the English slave Paeonia first used it, and in her language, it has the same meaning as sheik.
Inside his bedchamber, “Master”, uttered with deference, is the proper word to use. There he becomes a man of purpose, a man of fewer words, who relies more on gestures than words to bring us to a place and position to his liking. He leaves no doubt as to who is the Master and who is the slave—he expects and receives unquestioned attention and submission.
Zahra, one of the two Iberian sisters he took in from his father’s harem, sports a tugra below the nipple of her left breast. This is the old Turkish sign of having pleased the Sultan many times, and in a Turkish harem, it is a prized sign of having won the Sultan’s approval and much sought after. I pondered about the perceived shortcomings of Noszahra, the other sister, in view of her equal beauty and poise, and wondered how anyone could see the pain of branding as a coveted prize.
Where were the children?—a mystery of this harem that has piqued my curiosity since I arrived. This is puzzling and odd, because in Arab culture, the number of children a man sires is a measure of his standing amongst his peers, and certainly, there is no lack of opportunity, surrounded as he is by a multitude of women, primed and yearning for much talked of motherhood. And by age and wealth, he is well eligible for fatherhood.
“In the Saalih household, slaves are unsuitable beings for bearing the Master’s children,” Mustafa explained, a woman-belittling notion I suspect he has carefully nurtured. “Childbearing is reserved for wives,” he said, “and pronging for careless slaves.”
The threat of pronging, the excruciatingly pitiless fate for slaves who unwontedly conceive, instills the diligent use of pessaries—sea sponges rinsed in pomegranate juice—to prevent pregnancies. Mustafa always inserts them to ensure there is no cheating—humiliating, nevertheless, much preferable to pronging.
Next chapter in the book
RING FOR SERVICE
One afternoon during siesta I was lying on my bed and lazily discovered that if I pulled on the rope that hung by the side of my bed, it pulled back as though attached to a thin branch, and I could make it jump up and down and ring the bell. Small amusement for a small mind on a sultry afternoon.
Next Review Chapter is Chapter 18:Pleasuring
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