Trigger warning: references to extreme racism, cannibalism, mutilation, indecent treatment of children
Last week we began a new story, opening with the death of a wealthy merchant. He leaves behind his handsome son Ghanim ibn Ayyub and Ghanim’s equally attractive sister Fitna. Night thirty nine explains that wealth in more detail. An impressive stockpile of expensive goods were destined for sale in Baghdad when the merchant died so Ghanim takes them there himself. The business goes exceedingly well. He has been staying in Baghdad for a year when he attends a funeral procession, not because he knows the dead man but because he was one of the local merchants and the market has pretty much shut down while his friends see him buried.
In the graveyard, Quran reciters speak prayers over the grave while guests are seated around to watch. A meal is brought; night falls. Ghanim grows increasingly uncomfortable, worrying about his reputation for wealth and the chance of thieves breaking in while he’s away from home. Late in the night he gets up, pretending he’s slipping off to the toilet when actually he’s got no plans to come back.
Unfortunately, the main gate is shut, leaving him stuck among the graves while jackals and wild dogs howl rather too close at hand. Retreating to a walled burial plot, he tries and fails to sleep the rest of the night away. When he admits defeat and gets up, he notices a light near the gate. That looks ominous. He closes the gate to the burial plot, climbing a nearby palm tree to watch from above as the light draws nearer. Three slaves come past, one holding a lantern and an axe, the others carrying a chest. They notice the closed gate and two accuse each other of forgetting to leave it open. The third works out that someone might be taking shelter there, perhaps hiding in the palm tree. The slaves are black and there’s an extremely offensive reference to cannibalism here.
The slaves are thieves, the chest containing their booty, and the third one, Bukhait, suggests they go into the burial plot in case a rival gang of robbers comes by. It would seem the graveyard is a crime hotspot. Once inside, they all sit down. “It’s now midnight and we have no energy left for opening up the tomb and burying the chest,” one of them remarks. “Meanwhile, let each of us tell the story of why he was castrated and what happened to him from beginning to end. This will help pass the night.” The first to speak is Bukhait. Segue, I guess.
Be warned – this next segment is awful on many levels. I’m going to sum it up as fast as I can, but if you want to skip (I WANT TO SKIP) I’m bolding the beginning of the next segue. Though I can’t guarantee it will be much better.
Okay, so Bukhait’s story starts with his abduction by a slave dealer, at which time he is a five year old child. This part of his life gets one sentence. He’s bought by a sergeant as a playmate for his daughter, two years Bukhait’s junior. They grow up as good friends. When he is twelve and she is ten, they engage in some confused sexual experimentation and it goes too far. The whole thing happens in a really improbable way and is described in extremely explicit terms. Frightened, Bukhait runs away; the girl’s mother finds her and helps her clean up. They tell no one what’s happened.
For two months Bukhait goes into hiding. He’s persuaded to come home by friends in the household but the girl is quickly married off to a young barber. During the bridal preparations, Bukhait is caught and castrated. The order comes from the girl’s mother, who has gone to enormous trouble to hide her daughter’s compromised virginity from everyone, from the girl’s father to her new husband. It’s all sickening. Bukhait is made the girl’s eunuch, remaining her friend and, it’s strongly hinted, her lover. He stays until she dies. Actually, everyone dies, her husband and parents too, another weird thing given no explanation whatsoever.
The next slave’s name is Kafur. His story starts when he’s eight years old, already a slave, tricking the slave traders into fighting with each other. His master gets sick of his trouble-making and sells him off to a merchant.
At the beginning of the new year the local merchants hold a series of banquets and when it’s the turn of this particular merchant, he sets up the event in a garden outside the city. Kafir is brought along to be a messenger; he’s sent during the meal to fetch something from home. Kafir, little hell-raiser that he is, makes the journey but on the way bursts into such loud tears that he gathers an anxious crowd. He claims that the merchant and his companions have been crushed by a collapsing wall. The merchant’s wife goes into a frenzy of grief, smashing up the house. When it’s a landscape of splinters, she orders Kafur to lead her and her children to the site of the tragedy. They attract a massive entourage of curious spectators. Kafir runs on ahead into the garden where the merchants are quite alive and tells his master that the house collapsed on his wife and children, killing them all. The merchant flies into a wild grief the mirror of his wife’s – his friends echo his cries in sympathy. Then they emerge from the garden, and collide with Grief Brigade No.1. It is a perfect storm of confusion. The family fly into each other’s arms with pure relief.
Once the first shock has passed, they exchange stories and realise Kafir played them all. The merchant is livid. Kafir, however, is not afraid at all. He points out that the merchant bought him fully aware of his faults and what’s more, he considers the events of today only half a lie so he’ll tell the other half when the year is nearly up. In desperation, the merchant tries to free him. “Even if you free me, I can’t free you until the year is up and I have told my other half lie,” Kafir replies. “When I have completed it, you can take me to the market and sell me for what you bought me, defect and all. You are not to free me, as I have no craft by which I could earn my living. This point is found in shari’a law and is mentioned by lawyers in their discussion on the emancipation of slaves.”
This kid is kind of brilliant in a frankly quite frightening way.
The confused crowd share in the merchant’s outrage. It’s even worse when the merchant gets home and sees the wreckage Kafir caused there. “He says that this is half a lie,” he wails. “If it were a full one, he would have destroyed a whole city or even two.” At this point I want Kafir to be an ifrit in disguise or an immortal spirit of discord, but instead the merchant drags him off to the authorities and has the boy beaten half to death. While Kafir is still unconscious, the merchant has him castrated. He then sells his slave as a eunuch, and Kafir has gone from household to household ever since, wreaking as much havoc as he can. At the time of his arrival in the graveyard, he’s feeling a little depressed about his life choices.
His friends don’t believe a word of it. Fair enough. The third slave, Sawab, dismisses both stories as dull compared to his – he slept with his mistress and her son, apparently – but doesn’t elaborate because dawn is drawing near and they’ve still got that chest of stolen goods to conceal. They dig a space between the graves and cover the chest in earth.
Once they’ve gone and the sun has risen, Ghanim climbs down and scoops away the earth so he can peek inside the chest. It’s not stolen goods at all – it’s a girl, beautiful and richly dressed, still alive but drugged into a deep sleep. Ghanim lifts her out. The fresh air rouses her; as she wakes, she calls out several names and of course gets no reply. She is bewildered to find herself amongst the graves. Ghanim tells her the whole story, or as much as he knows. He wants to hear her side too, of course, but she is in no sharing mood. She orders him to put her back in the chest and find someone to carry it safely to his house. Once she’s there, she promises to tell him all.
You might think Ghanim is quite the hero at this point, but he’s mostly motivated by a strong attraction to the girl and, having assumed she’s a slave, has already worked out her financial worth, so the only person I give a damn about by this point is the girl herself. Next Tuesday we’ll find out what happened to her, and what she intends to do next.