Chapter 6: Kasre El Nouzha

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Sapphira (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.
With celebration Sapphira is introduced to the other harem girls and later Mustafa, the chief eunuch, instructs her in the "ways" of the harem.


We traveled by camel from Al-Ta’if to my new master’s house in Makram, securely escorted for the overnight journey by Mustafa, the chief eunuch, and four armed guards. I carried with me a side bag of personal belongings: writing instruments, sketchbook, notepaper, clothes the seamstress in Jeddah had made for me, Ahmad’s tantra notes, and his letter of introduction.

A camel, with its awkward rocking gait made for a tiring journey. I much preferred to ride a horse than a camel. I could move in the saddle to the stride of a horse, but not a camel. This cumbersome beast compellingly swayed me back and forth, hour after hour, and the monotony of the hot shimmering desert sands provided no distraction. Insidiously, the motion sickened me so much that it overcame my excitement, and when it was time to stop and make camp, I was thankful.

Before darkness fell, after I had rested and enjoyed a cooling drink, I reached into my side bag and took out the letter Ahmad had given me. Taking care that no one saw me, I tilted it to catch the last glow of sunlight, and read:

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
My Tunisian slave Sapphira, who bears this letter to you, has recently studied the Qur’an and has converted to Islam. I ask that you treat her accordingly and reward her for her good diligence.
I plead for your forgiveness and understanding for sending you a less experienced girl than you have sent me.In your wisdom, do not confuse her lack of skill with a reluctance to please. Her exotic beauty, freshness of spirit, and her eagerness to learn, I am sure, will be more than offsetting. I encourage you to find comfort with her to the full, with the expectation that I shall be fortunate to take back, to my benefit, a girl imbued with your teachings.
I have recently acquired two unspoiled Pearls of Allah. Both are beautifully formed and eager to serve a new master. They answer well to commands.
Because our long-standing friendship is something I value highly, I offer you first choice and a favorable price. I will be proud to bring them to you so your eyes may judge their virtues.
Sapphira will vouch for your good fortune in being offered these pearls of the Orient.
Please advise within the month of your intentions in the matter of my offer as others are anxious for their company.
Peace be upon you and your brother and Allah’s mercy and blessings.

I passed the letter to Mustafa for safe delivery.

We rested briefly during the night snatching a few welcomed moments of sleep. A small fire kept the night chill at bay, and to catch the damp Mustafa spread a piece of muslin over me supported by poles at each corner. I appreciated his caring, but the efficacy of the cover was lacking and I awoke before dawn, cold and clammy. Nevertheless, I thanked him profusely, thinking it better to encourage his friendship rather than make complaint.

At daybreak, we quenched our thirst with hot mint tea and ate some dried fruit and khobz, freshly baked on the hot stones of the night fire, before we mounted our rides for the final leg of the journey.

Our traveling took us from the central desert plateau through a broad divide in the western coastal mountain range, and down to the shores of the Red Sea.

As we emerged from the low mountains our entourage halted, and with a broad wave of his hand Mustafa announced, “Makram.” There in the distance, close to the shore of the sea, was a large spread of buildings—a fair-sized town laid out at the foot of a rocky promontory that jutted out from the coastal hills like a pointing finger, before tumbling into the sea. Along the promontory, lines of green trees traced sharply against the golden brown of the dry hillsides. Mustafa pointed out a large white building set high against the south face of the promontory that would give those looking out long views of the sea to the west, the desert to the east, and the town beneath. Two tall towers, capped with gilded domes, soared over the high surrounding wall, shimmering in the heat of the late morning sun. “That is Sheik Ali’s palace, your destination.”

I was both surprised and threatened by the enormity of the palace having expected nothing more than a large house and started to imagine how luxurious and colorful, or dark and foreboding, his Kasre el Nouzha might be within its walls. And the occupants—what were they doing at this moment, what did they look like, what were they wearing?

As our approach shortened I saw water—that rarest and most precious desert commodity—cascading from cracks and ledges in the rock face above the palace, the flow carefully diverted into a huge overflowing cistern. From there it streamed into irrigation ditches to nourish the long rows of fruit trees I had seen earlier from a distance, before it drained through the stony ground, to find, no doubt, a subterranean passage to the sea.

I welcomed the cooling sea breeze, the tamarisk and spreading acacia trees, and the gracefully tapered cypress trees spiking above them. It was a pleasant change indeed from the barren desert we had traveled through with its jagged rock outcroppings and endless méréyé sands.

Creaking wooden doors swung open before us, our bedraggled and dusty band of travelers filed into the palace, and the doors creaked and banged closed behind us with an echo of finality.

We reported at once to the man who was to be my master, Sheik Ali bin Shareef al-Saalih. Mustafa found him in a secluded courtyard garden. Much to my disappointment, I was unable to see him clearly. He sat far back in the shade, and the full morning sun glaring in my face dazzled me. I had to be content at this time to hear his disembodied voice giving instructions. “Take refreshment, Mustafa, and then have her bathed. When I sound the gong bring her to the great hall.”

Mustafa handed over Ahmad's letter and led me away.

We ate together, saying little to each other. Concerns about my venture and the cool indifferent way the sheik had greeted me, subdued me.

After we had eaten, an African slave woman bathed me under the watchful supervision of Mustafa, who afterwards dabbed fragrant oil through my hair and sat me naked on a bench to await his order. A gong sounded. He quickly wrapped a bright red cotton cloth around me and escorted me into the great hall of the harem. I clutched the cloth closed so it would not billow open as I walked.

Sheik Inspects a Slave Girl

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.

Harem Courtyard

Harem 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.


Room in a Harem

Harem Room

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.


Harem Dancing Girl

Chosen Girl

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.

Next chapter in the book

is Chapter 7: LESSONS