Chapter 26: Slave Market
Of course, Sapphira is more than aware of the practice of slavery but here for the first time she sees a girl offered for sale, one she believes she may have met earlier, and later witnesses a full fledged Arabian slave auction.
From the moment I saw the black braid hanging down her back I knew she was one of Ahmad’s “pearls” standing on a raised platform, with her back to us, naked—hands and feet bound. A slave for sale.
On our return I would try to steer Ali back in this direction, to walk in front of her and try to catch a glimpse of her face when we came by. Of course, I could do nothing to comfort her, or even smile at her; my burqa precluded that. Still, I wanted to know for certain what had become of her. I was curious.
In the next few minutes I saw many sights—all far removed from what I was accustomed to—one particular one stayed with me—a harried turbaned man yanking along a girl by a chain around her wrists. The girl, a slave no doubt, tugged back, resisting. Growing increasingly angry with her, her owner snatched a crop from a passing man leading a donkey and gave her three vicious lashes across her back. She fell to the ground. He handed the crop back to its surprised owner, impatiently jerked his slave to her feet and went on his way—dragging along a less rebellious girl.
“She will likely be put up for sale later this afternoon,” Ali muttered. “We will go and watch; perhaps I shall learn today’s price for slave girls so I can be sure to make an offer to Sheik Ahmad that does not offend…or delight him.” Again, that grin, and again I wasn’t certain if he was serious or joking.
The sound of a crowd drew us to a small courtyard off the main square. Vetted by two burly eunuchs we walked down a narrow passageway that opened into it, and here, out of view to the casual passerby—and the authorities—a sale of humans in bondage was taking place.
By the time we arrived the auction had been in progress for some time and bids for the last two males, fine looking light skinned youths still in their teens, had been called. Both were kneeling upright at the edge of a raised wooden platform in a position of subservience, legs apart, hands held behind the head. “So, they do it to male slaves as well,” I thought, answering a question I had long harbored in my mind, for it was the first time I had seen a depilated man. I found it unattractive. “Grotesquely overgrown boys,” came to mind. I readily decided that if Ali were my slave I would not have him shaved down there, just trimmed and groomed—so manly that way, in keeping with the rest of him. Penises were in full view, limp between their legs, but only one had testicles, the other without had been castrated in the Christian style.
“Those three bidders with kaffiyehs pulled across their faces,” Ali whispered, pointing to a group of shrouded figures standing close to the platform, “are women. I know two of them. The tallest one is a wealthy young widow, the Turks killed her husband last year in a skirmish, and the shorter one by her side is the brothel owner. They could be buying men for their own use.”
Hearing this made it clear why they displayed youths in this manner. It was for the women who were buying on the pretense of needing a house servant, and the auctioneer played along with their deception by referring to the youths as strong servants, eager for work, with stamina and other pleasing skills and urges.
I asked Ali, “If they are truly women, and interested in a man that way, why would they be buying a man who has been castrated? He cannot perform his duties.”
“The one you refer to, the gelded one, has been prepared for a man, nevertheless, he could also be bought by a woman if she is looking for a servant or bath attendant. They can still bring pleasure to a woman.”
Women, by law, were forbidden to own bed-slaves—something I thought most unfair in the light of my situation—but man-to-man coitus was also against the law and punished by “beheading by the sword”. These laws, however, did not concern the organizers of the sale, other than perhaps prompting the prudent move of the auction out of the main square and into this side courtyard.
We were in time to watch the next part of the auction, the sale of women. In front of a platform, a roped off area was reserved for qualified buyers—men either known to the trader, or men who had shown sufficient gold to make a purchase. Behind this section, a large crowd of voyeurs whiled away their time, including ourselves.
Under the watchful eye of the slave trader seven women were brought forth from a small tent and encouraged, by sight of the short whip in his hand, to mount the steps leading up to the platform. Hesitatingly, they lined up in a row at the rear of the platform, in the shade of a canvas canopy, with their backs to the crowd. A bell sounded. One by one, the auctioneer worked his way along the row of captive women, pulling their garments off their shoulders and down to their waists. Three crimson welts on her back identified one as the girl we had seen earlier in the souk. At the snap of his whip against the platform and a shouted command, the women turned to face the crowd, bared breasts catching the sunlight and the lustful gaze of the crowd. With shouted encouragement from those watching, he walked behind them, teasingly lowering their garments to their feet until they all stood naked before the buyers.
Four of the women still sported their fleece, a true measure of hair color to the eyes of Arabs. It was something Arab men attached great importance to—and then removed!—and always favored the fair, unfortunately for me, for although my skin was light in color, my hair was almost kohl black. As Ali said, “You have French skin and Berber hair”—but he did say he found the contrast fetchingly attractive. I was satisfied with that.
In turn, the auctioneer had each naked girl parade herself back and forth along the length of the platform until halted at the center by his out held whip, where, with exaggerated ritual and show, he forcefully pushed her to her knees close to the edge of the platform. Prospective buyers stepped forward to inspect her mouth and feel the quality of those places they had particular interest in, before the auctioneer shuffled her around and bent her over to expose her for a more intimate inspection by probing fingers and parting hands, by men peering into places no man had the right to peer into.
Ali noticed my unease and embarrassment. “It is something new for me, too, to see this done before a crowd, but remember, they are slaves not wives or daughters deserving respect, they gave up that status,” he explained.
“They were and will always be wives and daughters. Men stole and buried their precious status and freedom. They did not give it up!”
A serious look from Ali did not deter me and I continued.
“It is a sin against God to enslave his creations and I despise those men who draw on this evil offense,” I replied angrily, before regretting that I had used the word despise with such force. “They should be set free, not sold like animals,” I said. “A man of your status and influence should stand up and do something about it!”
He looked at me again, as much surprised as I was by my nerve, and then, somewhat subdued, continued without comment.
“As I was saying, usually, buyers inspect women beforehand out of sight in a holding tent, but let me explain to you why this scrutiny is necessary. In any business, there are unscrupulous purveyors and slave traders are no exception. With the shortage of goods, they have resorted to cheating; there is no honor amongst slavers these days. Nowadays they are not to be trusted. Hair is bleached with alum and lemon, and skilled surgeons are hired to restore the vestiges of virginity to well-used girls with a few well placed stitches, or she could be sachetted.”
“What is sachetted, Master?” I asked.
“It’s an old trick used by brothel owners to sell a girl’s virginity many time over to unsuspecting strangers and now used by slave traders. They insert a sachet, a small bag of thin goat or sheep membrane tightly filled with blood, into her. When the man thrusts into her the sachet bursts and the unsuspecting master believes he has deflowered a virgin; he thinks that the burst sachet is her torn curtain and the blood the ‘blood of the first night’. Clever deceit, don’t you agree?” He continued, without waiting to hear my opinion. “Black girls from North Africa, in particular, have to be looked over thoroughly as the practice of female circumcision is spreading rapidly, a practice that in the minds of many Arab men diminishes the desirability of a woman. She is unable to reply naturally to her master’s passion, and many harem masters take pride in taking a girl to her peak of excitement and hearing her cry out.”
I would remember that—outbursts were easy to make.
“This mutilation of women is a hideous practice. I prefer my girl’s petals uncut,” he said casually, adding, “How good it is that Black Pearl and Hortensia are as God made them.”
With the pre-bidding inspections over, the women again formed a line at the back of the platform in the dark shade of the canopy. When their turn came, they stepped forward into the full glaring sunlight and bidding commenced. The slave trader read out her qualifications, age, and origin, pointed out attributes that might have escaped the eye of the bidders, such as the small Christian cross one of the girls wore around her neck, and closed his remarks with an opening price. The older, less attractive and least expensive women were first put up for sale, while the younger girls were held back to last.
Bidding was lively and raucous, with the crowd yelling remarks over the shouts of the auctioneer as he called out the latest bids. The fifth girl, a small but pretty captive from Syria, was sold to Sohrab—that sordid filthy qanass merchant—of my previous encounter. He signaled his delight with his winning bid by raising both hands in the air, revealing a shiny new item tucked through his belt. That horrible, pig-eating coward had bought a whip, conjuring in my mind visions of his new purchase shackled to the wooden pole of his tent awaiting his barbarous pleasures.
“Did you see who bought that Syrian girl?” I whispered, pointing to Sohrab. “That man is the man who beat me. He doesn’t deserve a woman, never mind such a young innocent girl. I know he will be cruel to her, poor thing. Look how young she is, and look at that whip in his belt.” These thoughts sickened and saddened me, and I urged Ali to take me back to the encampment, claiming that the heat of the sun bearing down on my black burqa was about to overwhelm me.
“So, that is the man. He is the one who sells falcons in the souk. And yes, we will leave, but did you notice that he paid nearly four thousand qirsh for the girl? She is a lesser beauty than you are. She has smaller breasts, and her narrow hips promise less vigor than yours do. You are worth more, but should I pay Ahmad your price?” he asked, suggesting that he could afford the price but perhaps I was not worth it. Was he making fun of me again or was he serious? I dared not ask for the answer.
Ali continued to bemoan the shortage of new slave girls that was driving prices up. For hundreds of years, he explained, Arabs had brought black girls north to stock their harems, but now black kings, chiefs and nobles were buying white girls and taking them south. The flow of human cargo had reversed direction. A further exacerbation was the scarcity of new slaves from Europe and the East now that wars were being waged in Europe, and piracy policed by the navies of the European states. He reflected that well over half the girls of his father’s harem had been black, and he went on to tell me that black girls, particularly Christians from Nubia or Abyssinia, “are highly prized for their pert breasts and generous buttocks.”
As we walked back, Ali reminisced about the times when he first came to these meets with his father. “At that time, on slavers day, the entire main square was filled with slavers showing their wares,” he said. “Some set up tents or rented buildings facing the square, while others erected wooden platforms from which they conducted their business. It was exciting for a young boy awakening to the charms of girls and women, to see them exposed naked like that,” he chuckled.
I thought about the casual and matter-of-fact manner in which Ali discussed the most intimate details of women. Did he see his girls and women as mere possessions without emotions and feelings of their own? Possessions displayed like fine furniture or valuable carpets, used to add comfort and variety to his life, to relieve him of his lust, and lend to his friends at will. Was having many women at his call the same to him as owning many camels or having many servants in service? And if so, why would he feel any different about me?
Yet, on the other hand, he had shown encouraging compassion and concern for my misfortunes at the hands of the merchant, which gave room for hope that my first thoughts were wrong.
Next chapter in the book
Afternoon walks to the souk had become almost routine, something I looked forward to every day, but never took for granted. I was one of the few women seen in the souk, which spoke well for Ali. He was quite modern in his customs.
Next Review Chapter is Chapter 28: At the Races
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