Chapter 19: Harem Captive
Sapphira tells the harem story of the enslavement of two girls who now reside in the sheik's harem.
The palace at Makram was guarded around the clock. Armed guards manned the only entrance, and kept the huge doors closed and bolted, and opened only to allow known and authorized personnel to pass. At all hours, other guards patrolled atop the high perimeter walls. While making escape from the harem impossible, its real purpose was to keep out unwanted intruders.
Many years ago, during a mild sandstorm, bandits had scaled the walls of the old palace at Buraydah stealing precious jewelry and many slave girls. The ensuing sandstorm covered the abductor’s tracks and neither the jewelry nor the girls were recovered. After this loss, Ali’s father enforced the Turkish practice of marking by branding, to identify abducted or escaped slave girls should they be offered for sale in local markets or put to work in one of the well frequented brothels. All of Ali’s girls bore a mark—his, or that of a previous owner.
How valuable were slave girls that they were worth the risk of stealing? Blond haired European virgins less than sixteen years old were the most valuable and could be worth the price of twenty camels or more to those buyers who found them exceptionally attractive. A budding younger virgin, who showed good promise of things to come, could fetch the price of ten camels, her owner then putting her to work as a harem servant girl until her showings were full and regular. Girls who had lost their virginity varied widely in value depending on their age, color of skin and hair, and the fullness and firmness of that part of the female anatomy that most appealed to the buyer. Prices varied widely but were never less than the equivalent of three camels.
Warring between nations and tribes had always been the main source of slaves throughout history. Spoils flowed to the victors, the vanquished taken as slaves, and sold along with their seized possessions. Tribal war and rivalries yielded black African men and women slaves who arrived in Arabia ports by ship and boat, and in the Far East, gold purchased Asian girls who came back overland along with silks and other goods in one of the many trade caravans traveling the great Silk Road.
Ali owned one Asian girl, Briar Rose, indentured by her poor family, supposedly for household service in a wealthy man’s home, as was common practice with female offspring in India and the Far East. Briar Rose, taken westwards and sold to Arab slavers, never saw household service.
Pirate bounty was a large source of European girls. Raids mounted from pirate lairs dotted along the coast of the Barbary States, on ships passing through the narrow Straits of Gibraltar or becalmed in quiet waters yielded many captives. Those captured who were of noble birth, or wealthy, commanded ransoms in gold, but the fate of the poor was slavery.
It was common for a raiding party to return with a hundred or more captives after looting undefended towns along the coasts of the Iberian Peninsula, Ireland and Scandinavia. Captains of pirate vessels were wealthy and respected citizens in their homeports and as such, were beyond reproach. There they dallied with impunity with the choicest of their captives before delivering them for ransom, or selling them on to eager buyers.
Now is perhaps a good time to write about two Ali’s girls: Yasmeen and Paeonia. They have most interesting stories to tell.
Yasmeen, a Visayan girl from the Far East, was a prisoner of pirates who had raided and looted her coastal fishing village. In the slave market in Al-Aqaba, a corrupt official bought her to give to the Grand Vizier of Baghdad as a bribe to curry favor and protection. The Grand Vizier took her into his harem as one of his bed-slaves.
All came to an abrupt and unexpected ending. Convicted of embezzling taxes collected on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad, the Grand Vizier and his sons were put to death and his household goods and chattels sold. His wives and daughters were enslaved and exiled beyond the far corners of the Caliph’s empire where they were sold along with the vizier’s harem girls and eunuchs. That is how Yasmeen found herself aboard a boat taking her back to the slave market at Al-Aqaba. Here in her own words is an account of what took place there after her arrival.
“The slave trader washed and groomed me and gave me a loose fitting white cotton gown to wear, before he brought me before a seated well-fleshed woman of high rank. Her attending eunuch stood at her side. The slave trader opened the front of the gown to reveal my breasts and then peeled it back from my shoulders and let it fall to the floor about my feet. Both the woman and the eunuch asked many questions about my previous duties and knowledge and then the eunuch took me aside. With my hands behind my head, he poked and parted me, sharply slapped and pinched my breasts, buttocks and thighs, and opened my mouth to examine my teeth. An ivory rod, inserted deep into me and then withdrawn, tested the sweetness of my musk.
“A price was negotiated; I was bound tightly to a camel and taken to the old palace at Buraydah. There, after further instruction and enhancement, I was given to Ali as a present to mark his fourteenth birthday. I was his first slave.”
Paeonia was born unwanted and unloved, the illegitimate child of a prostitute, a “Lady of the Night” who worked the dock-lands of the British port of Bristol. Her mother sold Paeonia’s virginity to a sailor, “To make good for my board and keep, and the other troubles I had caused her—I stole things and told lies.” In the squalor and dirt of her mother’s hovel, Paeonia surrendered her virginity, while her mother looked on through a drunken gin-induced haze, encouraging him to, “Give it to her good, Mister.”
Following this ordeal Paeonia cropped her hair short, dressed herself in boys’ clothes, and ran away from her mother. She signed on as a cabin boy on a coastal freighter, joining two other adolescent boys in the crew.
Paeonia told me how Ali came to own her.
“One evening we were ashore spending our hard-earned wages on tankards of tavern ale when the town hall clock struck eleven. We ran down the dockside dodging and jumping over sprawling bodies and stacked cargo and up the gangplank, beating the curfew by two minutes—the first mate always pulled the plank at exactly five minutes past eleven. On the boat, the elder boy, feeling a strong need to relieve himself, challenged us to a pissing contest to see who could pee farthest over the rail and into the sea, a challenge accepted by the other boy. “Belly up to the railing,” was his rallying call. I, of course, being ill equipped for the contest, declined the challenge. We traded derogatory names and a scuffle started during which one of the boys tried to grab me between my legs. He found nothing to grab onto! They pulled off my trousers to reveal my secret and those dreadful boys kept my trousers while they relieved themselves over the railing and then, for their amusement, made me squat on the deck and do the same. Under threat of exposure, the older boy took advantage of me, but the younger boy, probably a virgin, failed to perform when his turn came, and the older boy and I made fun of his inadequacy. He told my secret to the captain.
“The outcome was unexpected. I was ‘promoted’ from cabin boy to cabin bed-wench and when we sailed I had the pleasure of waving goodbye from the rail to the two boys who were left squabbling on the dockside, laying blame on each other for their predicament.
“During voyages I ‘made good’ the captain, and whenever the boat was in port he locked me below deck for safekeeping.
“I was quite content to be away at sea and far from my mother and bad memories, but a year or so later he tired of me, or more likely needed money. In Dublin, Ireland, he sold me to another captain who stowed me down below in a cattle pen along with three Irish peasant girls, a young boy, and hundreds of bleating and stinky sheep.
“In the cattle pens we were watched over by a youth who had designs on me, but I soon cooled his ambitions. I let him undo the first buttons of my shirt and then kneed him sharply between his legs sending him yelping away like a beaten dog. He didn’t bother us again, except to tell us horrible tales about what awaited us in the next port where the boy would have his balls cut off and the girls would be displayed naked and sold in the market place. I told him he was a liar, not realizing the truth in his words.
“We sailed to Alexandria and there, under cover of night, I was sold to an Arab slave trader and taken overland to the slave market in Al-Aqaba where Ali’s mother bought me. She gave me to Ali for his nineteenth birthday.”
Of all the girls, she was the most vivacious and friendly, always cheerful and smiling. I would say with certainty that she was happy living her life as a harem slave. I could understand why, given her unpleasant taste of life in her minor years. She had known no master other than Ali.
All the girls adopted her word Sire when addressing Ali, an English word that I know now means “lord” or “man of high rank”.
Paeonia's harem name comes from a flower that grows wild in the Atlas Mountains of Tunisia and Morocco. I know it well. It has beautiful bowl shaped blooms flushed with pink—just like her breasts. She is the most buxom of Ali’s girls, and refers to them in that fun way of hers as “England’s gift to the Arabs”.
Her eyes, catchingly framed by her abundant hair, do not go unnoticed. They are an exquisite green, a color I had never seen in such intensity in eyes before. Hair the color of apricots—“my ginger tresses,” she called it—falls in waves down her back like ripples on water, and freckles on the bridge of her nose spill over her cheeks and shoulders. She hates them—the freckles that is—and she has the whitest skin, lighter even than Nadya. She keeps to the shade, for the heat of the sun turns her skin from the purest white to a pink as deep as tamarisk blossoms.
To the eyes of Arab men, she is a rare and exotic beauty.
Next chapter in the book
THE DARK ART
I wanted to find out more about life in older harems, those that existed
before my time, as I had heard frightening but fascinating rumors of
diabolical practices in those days. I recruited the services of Yasmeen
who was knowledgeable in these things.