Chapter 3: Arabia
at sixteen through an arranged marraige Mariyah moves to Arabia to live
with her husband in his mother's house. Her reception there is anything
The unexpected unfolded before me one evening during a conversation with Ahmad, a young sheik who was a worldly and well-traveled trader in carpets, spices and medicines.
My husband had purchased from him two expensive carpets for the house, and in gratitude, Sheik Ahmad invited us to dine with him that evening in his home in the inland town of Al-Ta’if.
We sat on cushions around a small carpet spread on the floor, my husband and I, Sheik Ahmad and his companion Kassim, an exceptionally pretty brown-skinned Asian girl. She was dressed in silk chalwars and choli—traditional harem trousers and bolero jacket—just as I had imagined harem dress to be, and adding to this exotic aura was a small jewel nestled in her navel. It caught the light and drew attention to her narrow waist and the smooth swell of her hips.
During the meal, I noticed more than once that my husband’s eyes were paying attention to the young Kassim, and her shy downcast eyes told me that she, too, was aware of his scrutiny. After our meal, my husband rose and asked permission for us to walk about the grounds at which point Sheik Ahmad leaned over and whispered in Kassim’s ear and then insisted that she accompany Jamaal on his walk and show him the gardens. They left the room together, leaving me sitting on the floor, not invited to join them.
I started our conversation quite bluntly, possibly rudely, by asking, “Sheik Ahmad, is Kassim your slave?”
He never answered the question directly. Instead, he told me, “She is a traveling companion. I brought her back with me after a voyage to India. She is under my care until I make other arrangements for her. She wants to be placed in a harem.”
“An agreeable way of putting it,” I thought, because I knew “will be sold into a harem,” was more to the truth. I was far from naïve about harems by now—my travels and discussions had thoroughly enlightened me. However, burying my darker thoughts, I took advantage of this opportunity to tell him of my ambition.
“I would like that for myself; to be placed in a harem,” I ventured.
Ahmad looked at me, amazed. “Your husband would not allow it. A slave harem is not the place for another man’s wife. Furthermore, I can assure you it is not a place for a free-spirited woman like you, one who is worldly and knowledgeable about many things and other cultures,” he replied.
“Yes, I am sure that what you say is true,” I countered. “Nevertheless, I would like to be placed for a short time, or simply visit such a place. Could you arrange for that? I think my husband may agree. He has both a new wife and child and one more child to arrive shortly. I am unwelcome in his household these days and my presence distresses his other wife. It is important that peace and harmony exist for her at this time, or the baby will be born sickly and irritable. Jamaal is aware of this fact and is concerned about it.”
His first response was immediate. “It would be impossible. Outsiders are forbidden to enter the interior of a slave harem, and if by subterfuge you gained entry and were discovered, you could never leave. You would be enslaved and forced to remain there, and then the only way out for you would be to either bear the master a son or be put to death.”
My barrenness left me with death, however, Sheik Ahmad did offer some comfort. “You are too pretty and valuable to be put to death, instead you would probably be sold to another master if discovered. Salim the Turk pays a good price for girls like you, a very good price I should venture.” He said this with a hint of brisk enthusiasm that I did not share, while he unashamedly looked me over from head to toe—a barely perceptible smile on his face taking away any comfort his earlier words had given me about not being put to death.
However, the idea of my entering a harem had obviously taken root; his mind was working, and I could tell that he found something intriguing about it.
After a long pause, he spoke again. “Perhaps there is a way for you that would pose no danger of entrapment or death.” He went on to tell me that “On a recent visit to the town of Makram I saw an unusually attractive fair-haired slave girl belonging to Sheik Ali al-Saalih. He is a long-time friend of mine, and he offered her in service to me for a few months. In return, I agreed to send Sheik Ali an interesting girl for his enjoyment, and this was what I had in mind for Kassim before she is…placed in a harem.”
He looked at me as if wondering if I had grasped the implication in what he had said, and whether to go on or not. Then he continued. “What if I sent you instead of Kassim? It would be for four months; you could then come back here and return to your husband. You would of course have to perform the duties of a harem girl while you were there, the nature of which you are surely well aware of, and would agree to.”
I stared back at his slight smile, neither shocked nor uncomfortable.
After another long and thoughtful pause he continued. “A harem slave girl is kept for the sole purpose of gratifying one man, the master. A harem girl’s duty is to allure, entice and arouse him using the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, and then to offer herself to him in any way he desires so that he can spend the lusts aroused within him. Most harem girls are slaves; their thoughts and actions are completely subservient to those of their master. They accord him his every wish, and I may add, denial, aversion or deficiency in service is rarely taken lightly by the master.”
He spoke as though reading from a ferman, and I remember well those words.
“If harems are closed to all except the master how was it possible for you to see this girl of your choice?”
“Ah, a good question. Grand harem baths have a screened wall or window behind which there is a darkened room. From there the master and his eunuchs sometimes watch the women bathe, unseen by them. My friend Sheik Ali invited me to sit with him late one afternoon and that was when I was attracted by the unusual fairness of this girl of his.”
I had listened, fascinated. Then I spoke, quite calmly, saying, “I want to take this chance. Please talk to Jamaal about it.”
My husband and Kassim returned and I could tell that in this short time, more than a walk had taken place—wives can tell these things. His flushed face glowed with guilt. He was ill at ease and quickly agreed when Ahmad suggested they retire and smoke awhile together. There he listened to Ahmad’s words and then came and spoke to me.
“Marie, are you sure this is what you want?” he asked, his dark eyes firmly on mine.
“Yes. Please let me do it,” I replied.
Perhaps he was ready to be free of me for a while. He was content with his new wife and son, and maybe he saw this as a chance to bring quiet harmony to the household for the occasion of the birth of his second child—who knows? Whatever the reason it suited him and he agreed to the plan with one condition.
“We will return to Jeddah. I will think this over for a few days to be sure it is what I want for you. It is a most unconventional proposal and I need to give more time to thoughtful consideration before I send a message to Sheik Ahmad with my decision, one way or the other.”
Even though it was clear that the decision would be his, and his alone, his giving of thoughtful consideration delighted me. At least it wasn’t outright rejection of the idea.
Sheik Ahmad would be delighted also if this plan worked. He could finish the other business he had in mind for Kassim, a profitable one no doubt, and then devote his attention to another journey to India or other distant places he had mentioned.