Chapter 23: Travelling Companion
Sapphira's adventure start in earnest. In this chapter she is chosen by the sheik to accompany him to a race meeting where much more than horse and camel racing takes place! It is at this meet that love first flares between Sapphira and Ali although he is not as aware of what is happening to them as Sapphira is.
I was delighted when Ali informed me that I would accompany him on a twelve-day visit to the oasis town of Ranyah where he would indulge in his favorite sports—camel and horse racing.
A retinue of eighteen people would attend. Fourteen, including Talil, would travel ahead and set up camp, and Ali, me, and two armed guards would arrive later, bringing with us two race camels. Ali would be riding his black stallion, I would be on one of the camels, but for the return journey, Ali said I could choose to ride either a camel or one of the racehorses. I would choose the horse—a more comfortable passage—and be grateful for the opportunity to practice my riding skills.
I looked forward to this glimpse into another side of an Arab sheik’s life—a rare experience for a woman, as in the main, men attended public events alone while their women stayed home. My excitement was obviously showing and Ali had to remind me of my position in his household, advising me to bring traveling clothes for daytime and slave dress, jewelry, and mehndi for evenings.
“This is the first time I have taken a girl with me; it is something we agreed to do last year. You are someone I can be proud of when I show you to others. Bring along the clothes Ahmad sent with you; he has a fine taste for clothes…and women. I have chosen you to come with me because it will cause the least amount of discontent amongst the girls left behind, and Mustafa tells me you travel well and are not afraid of horses and camels.”
Was he making fun of me or was he perfectly in earnest? I had felt special at first—and then perhaps a little let down when I thought it possible that he chose me only because I was not afraid of horses and camels.
Yasmeen—she was so thoughtful—gave me pessaries and a vial of medicine to take with me. She prescribed: “Five drops on the tongue each morning will hold back your menses until you return, but I warn you, when you stop you will flow with a vengeance.”
“I know when I am due, and this will be most helpful—I thank you for your foresight.” She only told me later that the medicine was made from the urine of pregnant camels!
At the meet there would be all kinds of goods to purchase, brought there by traders from afar. It was a most important event and a time to acquire goods from other parts of the world. Yasmeen had me write out a list of items to buy for the harem: kohl, henna, rouge, ambergris, vermilion, blue ultramarine and green malachite for our eyelids, oil of attar, and oil of sandalwood for our hair. She asked me to search hard to find the little paper tubes of bright red lip color from Europe. This mehndi was new and brighter than the mixture of rouge, ambergris and powdered vermilion we were using on our lips and it was very easy to put on. Ali had brought one stick back with him last year, and the girls had used it up in short order. This time Yasmeen wanted twenty sticks. Also on the list were silk and cotton thread, buttons, two bolts of chiffon silk or fine gossamer cotton, and one bolt of sturdy cotton, in my choice of color and pattern. And pomegranates to be bought on the way back.
Ali perused the list and nodded his approval, commenting on the overly extravagant use of oil of attar by his girls—this being an expensive ingredient of perfume, but one I knew Ali favored, and used for other purposes as well.
At the break of dawn we left on our journey, following in the footsteps and tracks of the rest of the entourage who had left a few days earlier to set up camp in readiness for our arrival. We journeyed for two days, taking rest overnight close to the water of a small wadi.
In late afternoon of the second day, our destination came into welcomed view as we crossed over the brow of the last of many tiresome dunes. Spread before us was the town of Ranyah, shimmering in the heat. It was surprisingly green and lush, with at first clusters of fine houses and buildings, which gradually gave way to smaller well worn ones at the center. I saw people moving about, passing in and out of the cool dark shadows cast by the colorful awnings of the souk and market square.
Beyond the town, away from the far side of it, was a large encampment of tents of all sizes and colors, swarming with men, camels and horses. Ali pointed out our encampment, a large colorful tent surrounded by several smaller black ones. It was set higher on the flat crest of the hill, separated from the rest.
We rode down the dusty main street, gathering a following of barking stray dogs and shouting children as we went past the usual amenities of an important town: the souk, market square, a large inn, the adjacent brothel, and a large outdoor meeting area set under a canopy of low scrubby trees. We continued onward up the hill to the encampment, shedding our uninvited followers as the town receded behind us, but not before Ali halted and cast a handful of coins into a small sea of outstretched hands. “Share them equally between you,” he said.
Ali’s tent was ready and waiting. A Saalih emblem flag fluttered from a short pole set at the center of the royal blue roof and the white sides billowed and heaved with every slight breath of wind. A tented canopy, decorated with a jagged blue fringe along each side, led to the entrance to the tent. In an unusual gesture—for an Arab man—Ali drew aside the silk entrance curtains, bowed slightly, and allowed me to enter ahead of him.
What a startling revelation greeted my eyes. The heavy canvas sides of the tent had been rolled and tied up, opening to the sunlight white muslin curtains that draped all around from eave to floor. Soft airy light filtered through the muslin, giving life to the rich colors and patterns of the interior. A huge carpet from the orient covered the center of the floor and brightly colored cushions piled on the carpet, low stools, a chair and table, a canvas hipbath, and polished brass lanterns hanging from each of the nine supporting poles finished the pleasing decoration. A large pad in one corner made do as a bed and I noticed a small kneeling rug on the ground in front of it. A comfortable home away from home, with no detail overlooked.
Seven smaller tents housed the rest of his entourage, and the camels and horses were nearby in a fenced enclosure where four boys, who attended the animals, had made themselves a crude shelter out of sticks and a piece of old cloth.
Next chapter in the book
Next Review Chapter is Chapter 24: Sohrab