Chapter 6: Kasre El Nouzha
(Mariyah's new harem name) travels by camel to the harem of
Sheik Ali bin Shareef al-Saalih where the sheik's first act is to have her brought
before him - freshly bathed and naked.
New Slave for the Sheik
Sheik Ali bin Shareef al-Saalih was waiting and reading the letter I had brought with me. After a thoughtful pause, he brusquely commanded me. “Slave Sapphira; reveal yourself, my eyes are curious.”
I stood unmoving before him, bashful and restrained.
Mustafa interpreted my hesitation to obey as shyness, and quickly explained to the sheik.
“If that is the cause, some help is required. Talil will encourage you,” he said. He had no sooner spoken than the second eunuch rose to his feet, a whip in hand.
However, without lifting his eyes from the letter, the sheik held up his hand. Talil halted in his threatening advance, and I, unwilling to discover if he was prepared to use the whip to persuade me to do my Master’s bidding, let the cloth slip off my shoulders and then to my side so that I stood naked before the sheik. Talil sat down.
Sheik Ali walked towards me slowly, casting over my naked body what I imagined to be appraising and calculating eyes—imagined, because I could not bring myself to let my eyes dwell on his. Nevertheless, as he came closer, I did exchange a furtive glance; a glance tinged with the unseemliness of my being there, and when he passed behind me, his thobe brushing against my legs, sent a tingling frisson up my spine.
Through lowered eyes, I again saw his feet paused before me, while he leisurely satisfied his curious eyes with what the barber had uncovered, and those other parts that call out to the eyes and thoughts of men.
Mustafa pushed me down onto my knees, and pressed my head to the carpet with his foot.
A long quiet pause followed, and out of curiosity, to see if they had left, I turned my head to one side and glanced upwards, and was startled to find the sheik looking down at me in thoughtful contemplation, a glimmer of satisfaction showing on his face.
“I look forward to knowing you better, though for now, I am placing you in the well experienced hands of Mustafa, who with his usual thoroughness will see to it that you are ready for that occasion. For your part, you will do as he commands, as though his words are mine,” his compelling eyes settling on mine as he spoke. Dark eyes set in a kindly bearded face that seemed strangely at odds with his strong commanding voice. Audaciously, I held his eyes with mine, dropping my head back down to the carpet only when driven by an insistent urge to blink.
Whispered conversation followed that I could not hear and then Sheik Ali clearly instructed Mustafa. “She is to have Katana’s room, and show her the harem buildings and courtyard later in the afternoon. Bring her to the great hall after sundown. She will take part in the celebrations this evening.”
Whether he was speaking to Mustafa or me I did not know, because I kept my head on the carpet, however, before he dismissed us Sheik Ali said, “Pleasing to the eye. Ahmad is a man of his word, a fair exchange indeed.”
He did not know, of course, that he would be gazing down on a strikingly beautiful Indian girl, had I not intruded on his affairs. I stayed in that unladylike and submissive position, under the watchful eye of Talil, as Sheik Ali and Mustafa left the room.
Mustafa returned shortly, ordered me to stand up, and thrust a matching set of black harem chalwars and choli at me. “Cover your nakedness and follow me,” he said, as though somehow I was responsible for my state of undress.
We passed through the only entrance into the harem—it led from the great hall, passing between an unoccupied guardhouse and the eunuchs’ quarters before opening to a sunlit courtyard.
Down the middle of the courtyard ran a string of shallow oblong pools, connected to each other by narrow channels through which silvery water trickled from sparkling pool to sparkling pool reminding me of a Berber crystal necklace I had once seen and coveted. On a stone bench, circled around a pool, sat a beautiful woman unashamedly naked, having her hair groomed by a black woman dressed in colorful African garb. In the center of the pool a fountain spouted water, and two naked girls ran in and out of its arching jets laughing and shrieking like excited children.
On each side of the courtyard, a colonnade of slender columns supported latticed Moorish arches, where in the dappled shade cast by the lattice sat other women of various nationalities. Two tended with mehndi the face and eyes of each other; others embroidered and sewed.
Mustafa paused, allowing silent and uncertain faces to dart more than questioning eyes at me, the unwanted intruder, but a friendly wave and a comforting smile from a girl with hair the color of polished copper warmed my welcome. Hesitant smiles from others followed her lead, pushing from my mind unsettling thoughts about the cool reception and the incident with eunuch Talil and his menacing whip.
In the walls set back deep in the shade of the colonnade were doors leading to small rooms. Mustafa led me into one—it would be mine for the next four months.
It was a colorfully furnished room, with a small bed set in an alcove, a long padded bench backed with silk cushions, and a table and chair under a barred window that was cut high in the wall, “but low enough,” I thought, “to allow me to see out if I stood on the table.” By the side of the bed, hung from the ceiling by three light chains, was a burnished metal cylinder. A rope ran down between the chains and through the cylinder. Some sort of lamp or bell, I reasoned.
The door through which we had entered was set in a large expanse of wooden mashrabiya shutters, to let in light without exposing to view those within. Below these shutters was the long padded bench, thoughtfully placed so that a slave girl could sit and pass the hours away with a view of the courtyard or simply savor any cooling breeze that managed to percolate through the screen.
Mustafa told me to take my rest—he would return in two hours to show me around as Sheik Ali had instructed. He left, sliding a wooden bar into place to lock the door behind him.
I lay down on the bed, exhaustion overcame my curiosity, and I fell asleep to the soothing sounds of the women’s voices in the courtyard.
I awoke to the sound of Mustafa sliding back the wooden bar and opening the door, my eyes squinting against the burst of sunlight.
“It’s dark in here—accept my apology, I should have attended to the shutters earlier,” he said, as he moved to the window. He reached through the iron grill that barred them, unbolted them, swung them upwards, and propped them open with a wooden rod. A flood of light and fresh air filled the room.
“Come, I shall show you the harem buildings and facilities and later tonight I will take you to the celebration.”
A high walled courtyard contained the buildings and rooms that made up the inner sanctum of the harem. In one corner of the courtyard, overlooked by the eunuchs’ quarters, was a large outdoor bath, and inside an adjacent building there were two smaller baths. A domed ceiling, supported by blue and yellow tiled columns, spanned over these indoor baths, and a galaxy of star shaped openings in the domed ceiling cast down beams of misty sunlight that dappled the water with moving light.
Mustafa told me that the smaller of the indoor baths was for soaping and washing, and the larger one for rinsing and soaking. A short submerged tunnel connected the larger indoor bath to the outdoor one, and if the eunuchs raised the iron grill that normally blocked the tunnel, it would be possible to dive down and swim from one bath to the other.
Carefully tended flowerbeds, stone-covered pathways, pools and fountains, filled the rest of the courtyard. It was fabulously luxurious, far in excess of anything I had ever seen or imagined.
At the far end of the courtyard, several wide stone steps led up to a pathway in front of a low stone wall that served to screen a smaller courtyard from view. We mounted the steps and walked beside the wall to a narrow gap that opened to this inner garden. Ahead of me—a massive pair of wood and bronze doors—the entrance to the Master’s bedchamber. I looked up, and could just see the gilded domes of the two towers I had noted earlier on my approach to Makram. It seemed to me that there was one at each far corner of the Master’s bedchamber and the only entrance to them would be from within that room. Off to one side of this small private courtyard were four apartments and a private bath and toilet for his wives.
“Do you have any questions?” he asked, while escorting me back to my room without showing me the interior of the bedchamber, much to my disappointment.
“Yes Sir. Does the Master have wives?” I asked.
“No. There are no wives here. He has not seen the need to marry. The apartments are empty.”
At dusk, Mustafa escorted me to the great hall and to the center of a large sunken floor, where Sheik Ali sat. He rose and stood beside me.
“Please welcome Sapphira into our presence; she is a slave, here to take the place of Nadya. She has traveled far to be here, from the country of Tunisia, and she is a stranger to our Arabian ways but anxious to learn. Patiently teach her, for she is without experience.
“Yasmeen, she is in your care.”
A confident, pretty woman of petite stature stepped forward and led me to the side of the room where we sat down together on the padded bench that ran around the walls.
I was relieved with the shortness of my “showing” as I had heard vividly told stories of harem initiation ceremonies where the girl was made to do unseemly things and had unseemly things done to her. I was thankful to be safely at the side of Yasmeen.
“This is a special occasion; we have been preparing for it all day, and have chosen to celebrate with an Egyptian fantasy.”
“All for my coming? That is kind of you.”
Yasmeen smiled. “Slaves are not given such celebration. No, it is our Master’s birthday, and we are honoring him.”
Shamed by my naïve and conceited arrogance, my face colored beneath my mehndi. I wanted nothing more at that moment other than to take back my words and forget I had spoken them. Happily, my foolish presumption brought no further comment—Sheik Ali and the festivities claimed attention.
As I gazed into the room from my vantage point, an undeniable scene from the Arabian Nights unfolded before my eyes. I was enthralled. Here was a gathering of houri, each hanging on every word and gesture of a handsome and authoritative man, waiting for his commands, and eager to please. Two bare breasted girls sat on the floor, one on each side of him, leaning lightly against his legs. Possibly twins, certainly related—my cynical mind thinking, “matched pair of bookends.”
Rings and dangling jewels graced nipples and ears, dark eyes flashed beneath gold sprinkled eyelids, necklaces swung about elegant necks. Taut bellies held brilliants tightly, and ankle bells and bracelets tinkled their beguiling tune. Sparkling bindi spaced along eye-lines gave shape and size to the eyes, with a line curving back from the corners adding an exotic Cleopatra look…and I saw the glitter of bindi in other places, places where I never expected to see the glitter of jewels.
Two black women, one I recognized as the harem servant who had bathed me, sat to one side making music by plucking the stringed 'ud, shaking tambourines, and occasionally tapping gently on a drum.
Colorful sheer cholis and short sheer skirts, proudly worn and parted with deliberate carelessness, replaced the afternoon dress of harem pants and thickly embroidered cholis that I had earlier seen the women wearing in the courtyard. Now, loose diaphanous cholis cascaded over hazily outlined breasts, their draped smoothness disturbed only by the thrust of protruding nipples, and anyone with more than half an eye could see that nothing but woman was under the sheer skirts. The serving girls showed themselves alluringly this way, but only induced restrained touching from the Master. Occasionally he lifted a skirt, glided a hand over skin and under silk, or straddled a girl vulnerably across his knees—suggestively, if nothing more—and from the sultry pace of the girls I knew that they were thinking about less restrained behavior later in the quiet of his bedchamber.
A magnificent feast ensued, with trays brought in piled high with delicacies—kebabs, pastries, fruits, sweetmeats and treats of every kind. Later, several of the girls danced charmingly and towards the end of the evening, they rolled back the carpet and played a rousing game, something like alquerques, using the checkered tiled floor as a make-do board, and themselves as living pieces. The Sheik, whom the girls had carefully blindfolded, called out moves, and one by one, amid much cheating and laughing, girls eliminated themselves from the game whenever they were moved onto a forbidden square, until only one girl remained. With a flourish, she untied his blindfold and her choli, and dropped them to the floor, revealing jeweled tassels dangling from pierced nipples. She finished with a short dance of victory, beguilingly pulled a veil across her face, and left the ensemble, her sassy bejeweled breasts proudly bobbing up and down with the motion of her steps. She had won the Master’s calling.
I reasoned that the repressive culture of purdah that keeps women shrouded from the eyes and notice of men, releases from within these same women an intense eroticism—when behind closed doors and harem walls. Perhaps this display of eroticism was a private rebellion against purdah, and the scene I witnessed could be a testament to this, for I had never seen or fully imagined such a seductive and suggestive occasion. Certainly, the women were slave concubines, and, as my mother said, “Had no choice in the matter,” nevertheless, I did not sense reluctance or coercion. All I saw was subtle enthusiasm, a willingness to please, a release of repressed womanly urges and desires that rose to the surface, peculiarly brought forward and intensified by the pervading presence of the sheik’s immense masculinity.