Who Is Blackened?
A tale of a desert feud, of a prize more lovely than the rose, and a revenge that only Oriental humor could have devised
MADHA—what is it?”
They huddled in the scant shade of a rock against the blistering sun, for they were naked to the waist and the blood clotted in their wounds. Behind, their dead strewed the wadi. These, the survivors of the wrath of Allah, these eleven, stripped beaten, broken sons of Ishmael watched anxiously the black object that wavered and dissolved in the mirage, that came swaying slowly out of the horizon, that took so long a time to become recognizable against the heat waves of that sun-tortured interval of flinty rock.
Madha? Another portent that fate, the blind old camel who had already belabored them so grievously, was about to lash out again with both feet? Inshallah, was there no escape from the misfortune that had overtaken them?
A rasping breath of relief soughed from their tense throats. It was the figure of a man on foot ... it came nearer ... it was the tall figure of a young man whose clothes though gray with dust, were the clothes of a sheikh . . . whose scarce bearded face was creased with lines of suffering and bitterness . . . who stood finally swaying a few yards from them . . . staring with bloodshot eyes . . . leering at them with an arid irony.
A laugh croaked from his heat-tightened throat. It was probably a gesture in the face of cl ouad—the destiny that had drawn derelict to derelicts—but it set the naked tribesmen’s teeth on edge and their fingers flexing.
“Who are you, brother of the hyena?” one growled hoarsely.
The ironic features straightened, the eyes burned with a momentary agony. “Who am I?” And then again the ironic rasping laugh. “Who am I?” The voice was raised, flinging the query past the naked Arabs into the teeth of fate. “I am Asswad!”
Before that word they drew back in superstitious fear. Asswad—black! Never had Arab father given son that name; Omar—red—yes, but Asswad never. Was he real, this intruder, or a djinn come in such name to harry them further?
“I am Asswad and I march in the face of Allah! Who are you with your nakedness uncovered and the blood fresh in your wounds?”
A djinn would have known! They told him the tale. Jazi they were, scattered from the main body of the tribe in the summer pastures, who had been set on that morning, in this very wadi, by a raiding party of the Rualla; who had fought against overwhelming numbers and in the end been beaten, stripped of their clothes, their goods, their beasts, their women, and left here with their dead.
The intruder grunted: “You wait a long time burying your dead, O Jazi.” And it was a reproach against them that they had not followed the enemy.
They glared at him, eyes smouldering. Old Mansour ibn Faiz growled in his white beard: “They were fifty and mounted on swift camels—may Allah send them to destruction !”
“So you die here naked and dishonored? . . . And you are Jazi? wellah, you are women!”
Growls gutturaled in eleven throats, clawed hands moved in menace to empty belts.
“By the Prophet of Allah, if I had a knife I’d slit your lying throat!”
The intruder’s cracked lips moved back over his gleaming teeth again, and he thrust the hilt of a long, thin-bladed knife toward the man who had spoken. “Here is a knife, and here—” his chin went up contemptuously— “is my throat!”
The Jazi looked from the knife to the glittering eyes— and he drew back. To one after the other the hilt was held out in taunting invitation—but none would touch it. Suddenly it was thrust into the air, and the croaking challenge rasped out: “Who will follow me? I march against the Rualla!”
There was surely madness here, but in the Arabian desert madness and prophecy have gone hand in hand so often that men hesitate to differentiate. Stunned, yet fascinated, the Jazi hesitated. And then suddenly they saw the raised blade turn to flame. It may have been the sun glittering on it, but to them it was portent— and it was enough. They had not yet lost faith in miracles. AUahu akbar!
A wild yell broke over the desolation of the deathstrewn wadi. The blade came slowly down. The voice croaked softly, laughingly, persuasively:
“Death is better than life, ya Jazi, and paradise dangles at the point of a Rualla sword.”
But it was written in the sand that for those Jazi paradise lay farther than Rualla swords, that death should not so easily find them. It was written, moreover, that the comet’s tail to which that day they clung so desperately, was to flare brighter and brighter over the desert until from Damascus to the Two Rivers men should ask one another uneasily in the black tents: “Who is this Asswad abu Jazi whose hand is against all men and whose beasts multiply with the raids?” Faced with such questions in the market-places of Amman and Deraa, the Jazi shook their heads. Let men believe what they would—they were saying, that Asswad abu Jazi was the offspring of an offrit, or that he was a disguised Prince of Mecca seeking fame as a desert fighter—let men believe anything; they, the Jazi, would shed no light. The truth was they could not, for even themselves did riot know. Once they had put the question direct to the only one who could answer it to find themselves quailing before two murderous eyes.
“I am who I am ! And here’s a knife for the tongue of the next inquisitive one!”
But they told eloquently over the coffee of the day when they were broken by the Rualla raid, and how he, Asswad, came to them out of the mirage; how he led them across the rock-strewn gehenna under a withering sun until the breath of night came to cool the heat of their despair, and the stars sang in the sky that nothing would be impossible to them while he marched before them like an arm of Allah. They told of midnight on the crest of a hill, of his low laugh as he pointed at the shadows in the wadi beyond, and his laughing whisper: “The Rualla sleep arrogantly!” Aiee billah, the Rualla slept arrogantly, with only two herdsmen keeping watch over the fruits of a dozen raids; the long lines of stolen camels and sheep, the black tents in which slept the captured Jazi women and children. They told of dark, tense figures creeping down the slope toward the fire over which the watchmen drooped, half-nodding; of Asswad’s swift knife at the throat of one and their own swift fingers clamped on the windpipe of the other; and then of death stalking silently through tents where the Rualla slept their last arrogant sleep. And in the morning, wellah, with the women singing at their work and a thousand camels grazing the hills, old Mansour said over the coffee to him who had made all things possible: “By the beard of the Prophet—whose name be exalted—you shall be sheikh in the place of Khalil and his sons who are dead!” And then—but let Faiz tell it, for Faiz was there.
“And then, by the honor of my neck, our father, Asswad, started up and cried: ‘By Allah, I have a question to ask first, O Jazi!’
“To which we made reply: ‘Ask, O lion of the nefud!’ “Then Asswad asked: ‘What is better, life or death?’ “Wellah, what could we say? We looked out over the tents and saw our children. We looked upon the hills and saw them black with our beasts. With one accord we made answer: ‘Life is sweet, O Asswad.’
“But by the last white hair on my uncle’s head it was no answer! He leapt to his feet and cried contemptuously: ‘God forbid! Give me a camel and I march!’ And he strode from the tent ! And he left us staring after him in blank dismay! And he made a straight way to the grazing herd to choose a mount!
“Then we knew that a light was dying in our sky! My uncle, Mansour, cried: ‘Pio, my brothers, without Asswad we are sand in the wind! I hate life when he marches out of it and if he will be our father I will learn to love death. Let us go after him and hold him !’
“So we went after him and held him, and by the brightness of the Allah’s face, he has placed our tents with honor in the face of all men from that day to this! La ilia il allah!”
So it was. Joined by other outeastes, by the wild reckless free-lances of the desert, by those without allegiance who will tie their ambitions to any rising star, the tribe grew until at the end of three years it dared send a raiding party against even ibn Saud of Najd.
ND again it was written that two youths, mere boys, should stride into the encampment one morning as it lay on the outskirts of Ma’an and ask the way to the tent of Asswad abu Ja.zi. Led through the “houses of hair” to the largest, on the floor of which a dozen men sat “drinking” smoke, they found themselves staring into the massive, reddish-bearded face of one whose tawny eyes couched like lions beneath the massive brow, whose shoulders were wide and thick, and on the canvas of whose personality the color of authority had been thickly laid.
“We seek refuge, O Sidi!” they cried to this one.
“From Yusef ibn Fahad, sheikh of sheikhs of the Beni Hassan.”
“You are Beni Hassan?” The tawny eyes of Asswad stirred oddly.
“Aiee billah! I am Fuad, and this is my brother, Tami. We are the sons of Rahail.”
“And why do you fly from Yusef ibn Fahad, 0 sons of Rahail?”
The brothers looked at one another a moment and then the talker answered: “It is a long story, O sheikh, and we have not drunk coffee since yesterday morning, seeking your tents.”
A smile stirred under Asswad’s red beard. There was a certain dauntless pride about the Beni Hassan even when they came begging sanctuary. He clapped his hands. A slave put dried dung on the smouldering fire and blew it into a glow. The beans were ground— at whose fragrance the Beni Hassan sniffed hungrily— the water boiled. It was not until the third cup of coffee had passed that the talkative one, Fuad, said bluntly:
“There is shame in the tents of the Beni Hassan, 0 sheikh !”
He spoke with a certain defiance, his head thrown back, his black eyes glittering; but his auditors knew what the words cost him in pride.
“God forbid!” Asswad murmured piously, his tawny eyes becoming gray-yellow pools of interest.
“Wellah, ya sheikh, it was to lift the shame that my brother and I plotted to kill the girl.
But she found us out and accused us before Yusef.”
“Speak straitly !”
The sheikh’s voice rumbled in his beard.
“What do I know of a wench who found you out?”
“It goes back to the blackening,” Tami, the quieter brother, broke in softly.
—speak!” There was a rasp in Asswad’s voice.
“The blackening of Zeyd, Yusef ibn Fahad’s brother.”
When an Arab has transgressed certain tribal laws he is “blackened.” His accuser plants a black flag before his tent and black flags in prominent places about the encampment. For three days the accused must remain behind the closed walls of his dwelling during which anyone entering the encampment will ask:
“For whom is the blackening?” To which the reply will be: “For so-and-so,
and his people.”
Reasons will also be given, and at the end of the three days the man so blackened is cast out from the tribe. Many of Asswad’s followers had come to him after that fashion.
man so blackened is
“He was seen with the girl, Hind, alone in the hills above the encampment one night by Omar el Safa, and her father blackened him. He was cast out from the tribe. He perished—may his bones be scattered—but the girl remained to cast a spell on Yusef . . .”
“Inshallah, the girl stayed?” Asswad’s eyes were like two knife points beneath his heavy brows, and he hung strangely on the young Beni Hassan’s words. “But what of the law of stoning? Is not the woman stoned in the Beni Hassan when the man ,s blackened?” “Yusef would not have her stoned—though her father cried for it. Even then her beauty had pierced him, and he sent her to his sown land beyond Amman to save her from the anger of the tribe. When time had softened anger she was brought back. She was given a tent on the outskirts of the encampment, for her father would not have her in his house, and she drew water for Yusef’s wives. But who can escape folly when madness has touched his heart, O sheikh? One day I heard Yusef speak to her. Tami and I were in my father’s tent and he had met her just without. ‘It is not good that you remain unwed, ravisher of dreams,’ we heard, him say. Wellah, she laughed in his face! We saw, for we lay on our bellies looking under the wall of the tent. When she asked: ‘Who will wed the shameful woman?’ Yusef—may pigs defile his mother’s grave!— replied: ‘I will wed.’ By my very Allah she laughed at him then, and it was like the cut of a lash. ‘You— when I have been Zeyd’s?’ she cried. For a moment, O sheikh, his passion faltered like a sick camel in the wind, and then he said: ‘Zeyd is dead.’ But the girl replied—and, wellah, with such scorn:
‘Better a dead lion than a live jackal!’ We saw her strut past him with contempt. We saw the blood trickle into his beard where he had bitten his lips.
‘‘He went to her father, Ali, and asked for her hand, but the old man cried: ‘God forbid! The stain that is upon her would also blacken your cloak, O Yusef. She should have been stoned!’ But patience stayed with Yusef ibn Fahad, for the love of Hind was a flame he could not quench. He came again to Ali’s tent and offered fifty white camels for the girl. Day after day, in the face of Ali’s stubbornness, he added a camel until it was a hundred and fifty—and thirty of his best brood mares in addition! Hiyah, he was smitten! But Ali declared, and Allah strengthened him, that camels and horses were nothing to the honor of the Beni Hassan.
“So will a man speak when he has flocks grazing on the hills and his goods are sufficient, but misfortune can take the fine edge from pride. Two months ago Ali went with his family and beasts to the pasturage over by Al Ratak al Shamali, and there a raiding party of the Beni Sakr fell on him. Only himself returned, stripped and naked, to tell of this frowning of Allah, and when Yusef spoke of a hundred camels—not even mentioning the brood mares—he bowed his head and answered: ‘It is just—the girl is yours!’
“What was there left then for men to do, O sheikh? My brother Tami and I vowed to kill the girl before the day of marriage. We spoke to the others secretly and they agreed it should be so. But someone whispered it in the sand—may his tongue wither!—and it came to came her ears. She appeared at Yusef’s tent at the coffee hour. Standing brazenly there before us she tore the ragged dress from her breasts. ‘Here is the sheath Fuad and Tami ibn Rahail seek for their knives!’ she cried. ‘1 am not afraid to wear them in my heart!’
“We were there with the others. Yusef turned on us, his face thunder, wrath dripping from his beard, and cried: ‘What is this?’ The girl laughed, and it lashed me to speak boldly. ‘I marched with Tami to kill her for the tribe’s honor!’ I said, without fear. He would have struck me down with his sword, had not the others held him back. Then he cried—and the wordsfoamed on his lips: “ ‘By Allah, by my very Allah, this conspiracy will remain in my memory! Go, and if you delay be it even for an hour, there shall remain no trace of you, nor your father, nor your brothers!’
“To whom else could we come but to you, O sheikh, in whose tents there is refuge for the outcaste and misjudged? We are your men and if you will take us we will say the words: ‘Death is better than life’.” Asswad stared past the Beni Hassan and past the wavering mirage that danced on the horizon. There was a strange brooding look in his tawny eyes and his face was the face of a man who knows the pain of memory.
Suddenly he said: “You are my men!” And then he said: ‘‘Leave me here — there is in your story that which makes a man wish to think . . . Go in peace, you shall march in my face.”
They left him there even as he had wished.
Through the massed black tents of the Beni Hassan strode a tall figure who, though the clothes he wore were threadbare and the ass that followed him scraggy with age, had an air about him. As he went through the tents he cried out:
“Ho, women of the Beni Hassan, who will buy kohl and henna? ... Is the rose beautiful?—that is the hand of Allah, whose name be exalted . . . But here is Gasim the Beautifier, to paint the rose among women . . . Who would be young again?—I am the Renewer! . . . Where is she who seeks favor in her lover’s eyes?—I have secrets! ... Or the bride who would go to her lord beautiful as the first night of a new moon?—here is Gasim with a hand skilled in loveliness, with purest kohl from Damascus and henna from the south !”
Women’s laughter echoed mockingly from behind the walls of camel hair. From a fire close by, over which she bent with rheumy eyes, an old hag shrilled: “Where did you sharpen your claws that you can tear off the veil of the years, 0 mouth that makes a large sound?”
He stopped—laughing—and flung his head back so that the sun gleamed ironically on his white teeth. “Is it the want of a lover that drives the question to your withered lips, O mother of ten generations? Wellah, let me touch those lips with my art and a beauty will drip from them to melt a heart of stone!”
“Go, lying fool, and tell your boast to the men—who believe in any folly!” “What then, O grandmother, has a man need of any beauty but his honor? And who am I to give honor to the Beni Hassan? Are not Yusef and his warriors beautiful with honor among you? Would you have me change them?”
The giggling ceased suddenly behind the black walls, and the silence was so significant that the kohl merchant’s mouth moved sardonically. The old crone hissed: “Don’t prate too loudly of honor in these tents, 0 fool, or you’ll have your noisy throat slit!”
“Silence me then with a silver riyal! Buy beauty from me and become a sheikh’s bride!”
“Begone with your oily tongue or I’ll beautify you with this!” She raised a burning stick from the fire and brandished it at him.
He turned to the naked, pot-bellied children who circled him with grave curious eyes. “Listen and learn, little ones,” he admonished them. “Age hears not the voice of promise, for hope dies in a wrinkled heart. Wellah, keep your hearts unwrinkled though you live to be fourscore! . . . Where is the tent of Yusef ibn Fahad?”
He set off in the direction of the chubby pointing fingers.
It was the coffee hour and the sheikh’s tent was crowded with Beni Hassan, for the tribe had gathered in full strength, if however unwillingly, to grace the marriage ceremony. That the occasion was an awkward one was only too evident from the relief with which they viewed the approach of the tall ragged figure and his scraggy ass. Here at least was a temporary diversion from the pain that gnawed at the Beni Hassan pride. “Salaam alaikum, ya shaikh!”
The grave bloodshot eyes of him who sat nearest the fire, and whose beard was touched with white, rested coldly on the intruder. “W’alaikum ál salaam!” His words had the flat sound of pebbles falling on a rock.
“I am Gasim, the merchant of kohl and henna, O sheikh,” said the newcomer, seating himself imperturbably at the edge of the circle. “I come to make beautiful, to adorn loveliness, to prepare the bride.”
This salt flung in their wounded pride sent a shudder through the Beni Hassan. This kohl merchant was only another come to remind them of their shame.
Yusef ibn Fahad’s eyes narrowed, and a curt laugh rasped over his tongue. “You come at a fair time, O Gasim!” he said. “I take the girl, Hind, to wife to-night and there is rejoicing in our tents.” His eyes gleamed coldly as the Beni Hassan winced again. “Go and beautify her for my pleasure ! But first, here is coffee !”
The tribesmen sat mute and tense, quivering with a hatred they dared not yet translate. Yusef ibn Fahad held them in subjection with the invisible bonds of his authority; he was sheikh, and they marched in his face.
Above the tiny cup at which he sucked noisily the kohl merchant’s eyes swept the Beni Hassan with their gentle irony. “By the honor of my neck, O sheikh, I have read the sand truly! It was in front of my tent I sat casting the grains two days ago. And lo, some fell this way and some that. And it was written there plain for the eye to see that a marriage would take place in the north. So I came. I am here. And, bismillah, it is the place of marriage! ... Is she the flower of virgin woman, this Hind? So it was written in the sand, O sheikh— plainly for an upright man to read.”
There was not even the sound of a drawn breath among the Beni Hassan, on whose foreheads the sweat beads glistened yellowly. Yusef growled dangerously: “What was written was written—do you question the finger of Allah?”
“No—may His be the power to see into the lying heart!—I do not question. The man who says this Hind is not white and pure in the face of Allah lies—may his life come to harm ! So it was written ! So I saw! So it must be!—though a thousand defamers bear testimony against
There was a yellow flame in the kohl merchant’s eyes that touched one by one the glances of every tribesman there and found finally the twitching eyelids of Yusef ibn Fahad. But Yusef could not face that yellow flame. His bloodshot eyes wavered uneasily; his roving glance seeking release found the greasy beard of Omar el Tafa on his other side. He said to the man, the words breaking over the phlegm in his throat: “Take this kohl merchant to the girl’s tent that he may prepare her.”
Gasim threw back his head laughing, and the light in his eyes was no longer a flame but a pricking irony. “Wellah, ya shaikh,” he cried, leaping to his feet, “you shall witness a miracle! To-night you will go in to Hind and you will not know her. You will lay hands on the work of my jadoo—my magic!”
He found the girl—when the waddling Omar left him and the old woman who attended her pushed him with a low jest into the tent—seated on the floor, staring at a pattern she made idly in the sand with the tip of her finger. She did not look up at him, and for the moment he stood watching her. He saw a beauty that had been drawn out by pain into a thin taut wire. She was dark and lovely, and there was that suggestion of something lost in her—some part of her own soul which she sought and did not find— that drew the heart out of a man and stirred him to go also searching.
He seated himself in front of her and said gravely: “I am sent to make beautiful that which already strikes with a flame, O burner of hearts. I am sent to prepare you for the eyes of your lord.”
She glanced up at him, and as her slanting eyes settled at length on his face they widened. She stared. Her hand moved across her forehead in the bewildered way of one waking sharply from a dream. But when she saw the white gleam of his teeth as he smiled, her face hardened and she said harshly: “Here, O uncle of stupidity, is a bride who asks nothing but to see loathing lie like a cold hand on her lord’s heart!”
“Those are strange words, 0 girl!”
She shrugged, her finger beginning to move the sand again.
“And yet, O girl, a man can be worse tortured by a beauty which he holds and is not his,” the kohl merchant said persuasively. “One can turn away from ugliness with a shudder and forget, but beauty may sear a scar on the soul that time cannot heal. Let me touch you with the magic of my art and Yusef ibn Fahad will draw painful breaths because of you. Your loveliness will eat like a madness into his peace of mind.”
“No!” She flung back her head defiantly. “I go to him as I am—a pariah— the despised woman of the Beni Hassan ! . . . But why would you bring madness to Yusef ibn Fahad?” Her slanting eyes narrowed on his sharply.
He ignored her question. “I have brought from Ma’an a crimson robe threaded with gold. I have henna for your fingers and kohl for your eyes. I ask the privilege of preparing you for Yusef ibn Fahad, 0 purchaser of Paradise . . .”
At that address which, until that moment she had heard only from the lips of one other, she started back. Again she stared bewilderedly at him. And then a light glowed suddenly in her eyes, suffusing her face with eagerness. A name burst from her lips . . .
TN THE late afternoon Yusef ibn Fahad •I led the wedding procession through the black tents. Behind him, on a white camel, came Hind, wearing a crimson gown shot with threads of gold. Behind her again marched the men, stamping their feet to the beats of the immemorial chant of the tribe: “We are the sons of Hassan!. . . We are the sons of Hassan !” They raised a great cloud of dust that floated sombrely over the “houses of hair.”
Yusef’s bloodshot eyes glittered with triumph. It did not matter that the tribesmen’s chant lacked the orgiac enthusiasm it should have held, or that the women in the open doorways of the tents scowled at the girl on the camel—or even that she curled back her lips at them in a half-amused contempt. A little while now, he told himself, and the long years of waiting would melt into rapture; a little while and fulfilment would wipe out, if only temporarily, the memory of the dark detours leading to this hour of triumph.
At the door of the tent he halted and turned to the camel. As the slave brought it to a stop he stepped forward and held his hand up to the girl. But without touching it, without even waiting for the beast to couch, she slipped lithely to the ground and stood in front of him straight and slender in her crimson robe. He found himself suddenly shivering as he looked down into her slanting eyes; they burned, yet they were ice. He shook himself as the laugh on her painted lips cut him like a lash. He followed her across the tent to the curtain, stood there watching her uneasily as she disappeared behind it.
The guests came crowding in. He shook himself again. A man must smile on his wedding day—especially with so many unsmiling faces about. He clapped his hands loudly, and seven men came grunting in with the huge platter heaped with rice, atop of which lay a whole young roasted camel. Seating himself among the elders and the more honorable close to the platter he said: “In the name of Allah the merciful and compassionate!” and dipped his fingers into the melted fat and rice. For a space of time there was silence save for the scrape of tooth on bone and the hearty suckings and smackings of men not ashamed to enjoy their meat audibly.
Five sittings it took to feed the guests, and when the fifth and humblest—which included Gasim the kohl merchant—had eaten their fill, there remained nothing on the huge copper bottom but a swithering of rice fragments in congealed fat. It was removed. Men sat with their hands clasped over their stomachs and an air of expectancy in their faces. Shame might be on the point of falling, yet childlike the Beni Hassan awaited the entertainment that a sheikh of Yusef’s importance could not fail to provide. It came. A wide circle of lamps had been placed on the ground about the cleared space immediately without the open wall of the tent. Into it stepped a juggler—a Hindoo he called himself, though that was open to doubt—who kept a dozen or more long-bladed knives weaving miraculously through the air. Then a group of Bedawin dancing girls wriggled and pirouetted, their coquetting eyes searching disturbingly among the guests. Last of all came Mehjet, famed in those parts as a singer of misras, or improvised songs, and it was not his fault that the guests listened with a distressing lack of enthusiasm to his extravagance. The Beni Hassan might blow heavily down one another’s backs over the nuances of a lovely dancer; they might ejaculate piously at the things a man of skill could do with a dozen knives; but they could not bear with grace the long piled up and highly mythical recital of Yusef ibn Fahad’s virtues and prowess. La wellah—■ no, by Allah!
The unhappy Mehjet was moving grumbling from the lighted circle; Yusef had half risen—the entertainment now being complete—to go in to his bride, when the kohl merchant, who all this time had watched the entertainment from a point about a yard in front of the foremost guest, turned on the Beni Hassan and declared, in a voice that could be heard plainly over the whole tent :
“As I came in to-night, as I passed over the very threshold, a misra came to my mind, beside which the misra of Mehjet is as the guttering of a candle dip to the effulgence of the noonday’s sun !”
In spite of themselves the Beni Hassan laughed, and their eyes brightened again. Here was a chance to stave the inevitable off a little longer, and while they knew that the kohl merchant was a barefaced liar when he said that he had a better misra than Mehjet, there was something ironic in the fellow’s eyes that promised amusement. Someone shouted: “Thy song, braggart ! The night is still a young camel !” The cry was taken up with enthusiasm. The seller of kohl turned to Yusef, who stood frowning.
“Blessing and peace be upon thee, 0 thou whom ‘Allah has seated upon the carpet of love, and may the man, the one whose art touched her beauty and gave her a crimson gown threaded with gold, sing his misra to the men of the Beni Hassan?”
To have refused in the face of the obvious eagerness of his guests would have been churlish beyond reason, so Yusef said with an impatient wave of his long, thin hand: “Allah loosen thy tongue, fellow !”
The Beni Hassan sat back on their haunches. The light gleamed on the kohl merchant’s smiling face, and there was that look in his eyes that comes into the eyes of men who see, after long travel, the end of the journey. He began:
“In the name of Allah, the merciful and compassionate! ... It was a place where a dark rock rose, and the desert lay to the south quavering under the heat. Beneath nine palm trees stood the tents of the Beni Musiybat, and a spring of water flowed there dark with their shame . . .”
A movement, like the uneasy stirring of leaves in the first breath of winter, passed through the listening Beni Hassan. The Arab is quick to recognize a locality from verbal description and this place the kohl merchant described was in their marches. Who, furthermore, were the Beni Musiybat—the Sons of Calamity?
“There were two brothers of the Beni Musiybat whose hearts were pierced by the beauty of the same girl. Aiee billah, may eloquence overtake me as I describe her, for her eyes were heavenly pools from which to drink rapture, and her jewelled breasts pillows in paradise. Only sixteen times had she known flowers to carpet the hills in springtime, and the fruit of her loveliness was ripe for plucking. Of the brothers she loved Ahmed, the younger, for the beard of Sadr, who was rich, was flecked with snow—and snow makes a cold bed for a young bride. But Sadr, burning wickedly with the poison of his desire and shot through with longing, chewed upon the cud of his unrequited love in the secret of his tent. Day after day he saw the girl smile at Ahmed and it was like a sword turned in his breast. To himself, burning, he talked how he might destroy his brother and have her for his own. And yet, what waits for a man who tries to bend back the line that Allah has drawn but shame and wickedness?”
The bloodshot eyes of Yusef ibn Fahad glittered feverishly, and his face had gone pale, but the Beni Hassan clung tense to the misra-maker’s words.
“One night, following the scent of his wickedness into the surrounding hills, Sadr heard singing to the accompaniment of the lute. He followed the sound to a hollow in the rock where Ahmed sat at the girl’s feet pouring out a melody. Where is the evil in a young man unfolding his heart at the feet of his beloved? In the desert are our women not free to go where they will and our men to meet them? Wellah, we are not as the city dwellers in this matter ! But the eye of a wicked man sees evil in the very face of Allah, and Sadr saw evil. Returning to the encampment he brought back to the place one fat and greasy, and evil like himself. To this man he said: ‘See! There is shame!’ And the greasy one answered: ‘Truly, O sheikh, there is shame.’ Then Sadr said: ‘Return to the encampment, summon the men to my tent, and have the girl’s father lay a charge against the two.’
“This the greasy one did forthright and the girl’s father declared: T will blacken Ahmed!’ Sadr said to him: ‘Verily, you have the law. Ahmed shall be blackened.’ So a black flag was placed before the door of Ahmed’s tent and after three days he was cast out from the tribe. But hear further, O Beni Hassan, of the iniquity that will grow out of a wicked man’s heart, for the half has but yet been told. By the laws of our fathers the woman caught in shame shall be killed—with stones or a knife. As Ahmed sat in his tent the night before he was cast out, he heard a sudden shriek from the tent next his own in which the girl lay. And he said bitterly: ‘She is dead, the moon of heaven.’ In the morning he disappeared into the desert believing her to be dead and no man saw him again. But she was not dead, O Beni Hassan ! She was not dead, O ye who listen with staring eyes! She was but frightened out of her sleep that she -would make a cry, hearing which cry Ahmed would go into exile with so heavy a load of despair that he would seek death straightway!
“And in the fulness of time, Sadr bought the unwilling girl from an unwilling father with heavy presents. But on the night of the marriage as he sat among his guests, as he sat among guests whose pain was heavy because of the shame he covered them with, he heard a voice. It was the voice of his brother, Ahmed—but Ahmed was not there. Then he knew that it was the voice of an effrit who had taken on the vengeance of Ahmed. For the effrit said: ‘If you go in to the girl to make her w'ife, 0 Sadr, you shall be blackened, and she become straw in your hands. For that is the punishment of Allah on those who bear false witness.’ But though he trembled because of the effrit’s foretelling, Sadr’s desire was a fire that fear could not quench. He left the guests and heeding not the warning voice, went in to his bride.
“And then what came to this wicked ’ man, O Beni Hassan?”
The kohl merchant leered sardonically at the tribesmen, who hung in a horrified mesmeric silence on his words, and at Yusef whose face was a sickly mask in which two eyes glittered savagely.
“In the name of Allah, Lord of the Seven Worlds, the Opener of Doors, it happened as the effrit had said! Sadr was blackened like a negro and the girl turned to straw in his embrace. IIo, Beni Hassan, is it not a sign that the ways of Allah are straight, leading upright men to honor and delight, and the wicked to destruction?”
A moment’s deathly silence—and then the Beni Hassan turned fierce questioning eyes on Yusef ibn Fahad. Some minutes before, Omar el Tafa had slipped under the side of the tent and disappeared into the night. Yusef rose to his feet, faced the tribesmen defiantly, a smile cracking feebly the tenseness of his pale features.
“I give thanks for your song, O Gasim,” he said, “and in the morning Í shall requite you.” And then he said, his cold voice rising, his eyes touched with the glitter of madness: “I go in to my wife!” He strode behind the curtain.
A growl rose from the Beni Hassan, some of whom half rose to follow, their hands on their knives. But suddenly, as the kohl merchant who sat eyeing them sardonically, cast the second handful of sand to left and right in front of him, a tinny crash sounded behind the curtain— and a phlegm-thick curse. And then Yusef ibn Fahad reappeared.
He made a comic figure, but no one laughed. Men do not laugh in the face of a miracle. He was black from head to foot; his face, his beard, his white tunic— sooted with kohl. In one hand he dragged a grotesque thing that was a white gown stuffed with straw. He moved forward, and before the wrath in his eyes the crouching Beni Hassan parted, making a path for him. He made straight for the kohl merchant, who had risen, whose face was still creased by that sardonic smile.
“Who are you?” he demanded hoarsely, the saliva frothing blackly on his lips.
“I am Zeyd, thy brother.”
A gasp—tense, incredulous—shook the Beni Hassan. Suddenly they saw Yusef’s blade gleam above his head. But the kohl merchant had leaped back so that he stood some distance out in the circle of sputtering lamps. They saw him throw back his head and laugh. They heard him cry out sharply:
“Limin Asswad—for whom is the blackening?”
Out of the night a hundred voices roared in answer: “For Yusef ibn Fahad !” And then the awe-struck Beni Hassan saw another miracle. From the shadows beyond the kohl merchant a figure stepped into the circle of lamps. It was Hind in her crimson gown, her head held high, her eyes gleaming. And behind her in a great wide arc came pressing the serried ranks of Jazi warriors, their knives eager for blood.
“For what is Yusef ibn Fahad blackened?”
“For that he bore false witness against his brother Zeyd and the girl, Hind, O Asswad !”
“And his punishment?”
“That he go accursed and despised upon the earth !”
THEY still tell, over the coffee, of Asswad abu Jazi’s jest, how he arranged with the girl, Hind, to dress a booby in straw and attach it by a rope to a basin of kohl suspended to the top of the tent. With a lingering delight they describe Yusef going in to his bride, clasping her to his arms in the darkness only to draw down that blackening cloud. And then they sing a misra of Asswad the warrior, v/ho was Zeyd; of the lion of Amman v/ho, when he leads the combined Jazi and Beni Hassan on a raid, is as irresistible as the sandstorm.