The Caliph and the Sharmuta

………………………….. Haroon the apprentice tailor ……………………….

First, dear friends, I will begin by telling you about the Caliph. It was no less than our venerated Haroun al Rashid who started the tradition. He used to dress in poor man’s garb and go out incognito in the night, into the haunts of ordinary rabble, join them for a glass of tea, smoke the nargile with ruffians, just so he might learn more about his people, with the sole purpose of finding out what their problems were, after which he would order his ministers, to find a remedy for the failings of his governorship. It did not please Allah to appoint me Caliph, for my personal glory and fun, but to make my people’s life comfortable and happy. Verily he was a truly a worthy monarch who cared for his people, may Allah bless his soul.

You can always wow your audience with a mention of Haroun al Rashid, though only Allah knows if everything people believe about him was based on fact.

Sadly, subsequent caliphs did not all have Haroun’s generous soul, although many kept alive the tradition, though often it was for frivolous reasons. As caliph they could not go to gambling dens, or drinking houses, or even houses of ill-repute, but in disguise, all the sinful activities of Baghdad night life were available to them. Verily some people know how to get inspiration from good people to carry out dastardly acts. All-seeing Allah knows about them and on the day of judgement he will confront them.

Our story today opens with Caliph Suleiman Al Firni. I think he was Haroun al Rashid’d great great … grandson… eh … you must forgive me I don’t know how many … greats … He only lived for fun. I think one can describe him as a hedonist. Some Caliphs have been inspired by Haroun al Rashid and have tried to rule wisely and generously. Others have set out on the path of righteousness, but have sometimes strayed, but sadly there have been many who were never concerned about the welfare of the people, and they can only be described as bad rulers. I will not pass judgement on Suleiman al Firni, but will tell you about him so you can draw your own conclusion.

The funny thing though, dear listeners, is that Suleiman had a club foot and walked with a limp, so that whatever disguise he used, no one failed to recognise who he was, but the folk of Baghdad were not known as the most sophisticated people in the whole of Araby for nothing. Al Firni thought that no one could see through his disguise, and no one acted as if they knew who he was. People would take bets that they could go jostle him and even call him ibn kalb, son of a dog, and of course they would get away with it. Al Firni was happy when these unpleasant encounters occurred, because they proved to him that he was a master of disguise.

Now for the sharmuta who was at the disposal of paying clients in the Bayt Sayye As Suma, house of ill repute. Taslima. She was the daughter of a well-known tailor. Even as a child she was devout and studious. She had been obedient and hard-working, and no one could have predicted that she would end up in the ill-famed bayt.

The khayaat, tailor, Uthman al Waqab, was a very strict man who ruled his house of two wives and six daughters with an iron hand. He was always angry with the world, perhaps because he had prayed in vain for a son. Everything that everybody did, with the exception of breathing, had to be sanctioned by the lord and master of the house. Taslima was obviously not allowed outside the home, and had no friends. The only young people she saw were her cousins who often came for a visit, or to whose place she also went. The widow of an erudite imam was appointed to teach her and her sisters the precepts of the Quran, which she found very stimulating.

She never felt that she was missing out on anything because she thought that this was how it was meant to be. She expected that one day her father would inform her that he had found a good husband for her, and had no opinion about this. It was like the cold weather or sand in your eyes. Nobody thought either was a good thing, nobody questioned their occurrences. People accepted them, as there was nothing they could do about it. She was brought up to do as she was told. She would no doubt also bring up her daughters, one day, Allah willing, according to the strict codes of Islam.

As she saw it.

But dear friends, Islam is not a religion which forbids joy and fun, as many faithful believers saw it. But I am not a social commentator. I have a tale to tell. My brief is to entertain you, make you smile and perchance laugh.

Sometimes I will make you weep a few drops of tears. As my mentor Quayyum bin Quayyum taught us, it’s good to cry. May Allah have mercy on his soul, sinner though he was.

I have forgiven him, but would Allah, I wonder.

Taslima would never question her father’s authority. He used to say that a father was only second to Allah in authority. Questioning your father is tantamount to questioning the will of Allah. She did not wish for any complications to her life, and kept her doubts to herself. But this was about to change.

Uthman was reputed to be the finest tailor in his district, and was never short of work. In fact even with three people working for him he could barely meet with demands for his craftsmanship. Which is why he took a young apprentice whose family was from Basra. He was perhaps a year or two older than Taslima.

I am sorry I have to refer to delicate matters when I tell my tales, and the wilayat allows such liberty when it is central to the tale. I always find it a little bit delicate. Taslima had only recently had her first bleeding. She had become moody and absent-minded. She had aches and was very worried about blood coming out of her parts. I hope I’m not going to die, she thought, but there was no one to speak to, one does not speak of such things to one’s elders.

But the moment she cast eyes on this boy from Basra, Haroun Billaba, she did not know why, some of the gloom around her was lifted. Oh how she loved stealing glances at the boy. She did not doubt that Uthman would strongly disapprove, but the young apprentice had the sweetest smile she had ever seen. He was not tall or handsome. If anything, to everybody else Haroun was a drab underfed youngster with crooked teeth, and rings under his eyes, and spoke with an irritating nasal twang common to teenagers, but to Taslima, whenever she heard stories of princes and warriors, she saw the features of Haroun in her inner eye. She never asked herself why. It was like this, and she accepted it.

It was inevitable that the two youngsters’ path would cross, and when it did, accidentally, they both liked it so much that they organised many such accidents. They would meet surreptitiously, and if there were no risks of being caught, they would sit closely huddled to each other, holding each other’s hands, allowing their haunches to touch, but exchanging hardly a word.

Sighs are nor words!

Yes, dear listeners, Taslima and Haroun had fallen madly in love with each other. Madly, truly and irrevocably. If they could not be married to one another, they would throw themselves in the Tigris and drown in its torrents, they swore. Taslima hoped that when the day came, her father Uthman who she knew, loved them very much, all his harsh regimen notwithstanding, would not stand in the way of her happiness. How wrong could a hopeful heart be!

One day a neighbour who had spotted the pair kissing approached the tailor.

‘I believe congratulations are in order, khayaat,’ he said slyly. Uthman did not understand.

‘No, I mean you should share your joy with your neighbours. We all love your Taslima.’ Uthman still did not understand.

‘Well, no, khayaat, we understand that they must be affianced if they kiss under the palm tree.’

‘Which tree?’ he snapped. That’s not what he meant to ask.

‘Who is kissing who?’ he corrected himself.

‘Well, no, khayaat, I mean, they wouldn’t kiss if they were not affianced, would they? Shouldn’t you fill with sweets in the mouths of your loving neighbours?’ He answered his own question: ‘Perhaps you have ordered them but they are not ready _’ The tailor began to lose his cool at this juncture.

‘What are you talking about, father of Dawood?’ he shouted. The neighbour was not ready to blurt out directly what he had in mind, but continued his insinuations in his circuitous way.

‘No, I mean even if he is from Basra, I hear there are many good people in that part of the world…and I was telling my senior wife, Oom Dawood, I said to her, Khayaat Uthman would never allow this kissing. He is too pious a man, Allah bless him.’

Basra? Is he talking about Haroun Billaba? My daughter ain’t gonna marry a penniless apprentice, Uthman told himself as the anger which resided beneath his belly button rose to his head. I’ll strangle that little fool with my own two hands.


As if it were possible for someone to strangle anybody with other than their own hands.

A little trick Quayyum bin Quayyum taught us. The funny throw away remark is like a piece of almond in the baklava becoming trapped between your molars.

There is no other way of putting this: Uthman was stunned. Kissing my innocent little girl? Contaminating the purity of our blood. No, as Allah is my witness that’s not gonna happen.

He rushed home, called Taslima’s mother, and without one word started pummelling her, with his own two fists, on the face, the head and in the stomach, and once she had fallen to the ground, began kicking her in the ribs and in the head. Sadly I must report that he often did that. When a client asked for an extra week to pay. When he had hurt himself with a needle, or whenever some slight contretemps occurred. But in the last two years he had only raised a hand in anger to her twice. Once she had put too much salt in her food, and the other time she had put too little. So, poor Hafiza was completely taken by surprise. She was so shocked, she could neither speak nor cry. And Uthman, though he was grunting like an animal, was unable to say a single word. When he was exhausted _ because beating someone can be quite exhausting _ he sat down on cushion his head in his hands, and began to cry.

‘Ya Allah, what have I done to deserve such misfortunes? Why did you give me a useless wife who teaches her daughters to kiss idiots from Basra?’ he asked, raising his hands above his head and fluttering them, to draw Allah’s attention.

‘What have I done to deserve this beating?’ she asked calmly.

‘What have you done? Now she’s questioning me,’ he confided to Allah. ‘I’ll tell you what you have not done. You haven’t raised your daughters properly. Your Taslima has turned into a whore, kissing boys all over the place. That’s what you have done. You’ve encouraged her to dishonour my reputation. Her reputation is gone. What will happen to our other girls. Is it too late for them? Or has she poisoned their minds too?’

If truth be told, Hafiza was not unaware of Taslima’s penchant for the young apprentice from Basra, but she had never seen them kissing.

‘Who told you those lies? Our Taslima is a sweet innocent little girl. People have been slandering her and instead of defending her, you … you …’ She raised her hands to cover her face in the expectation of another salvo from the wronged man, but mercifully it did not come.

And only now did she start crying. ’Our daughter would never do

anything to bring dishonour to you,’ she assured him. Whoever told you that lie is a murderer of truth.’

They decided to call Taslima.

‘Taslima habibi,’ Hafiza said, ‘you’ve always been truthful, we know that. Is there any truth in what some people have been saying, about you and Haroun misbehaving?’

Taslima looked away, but nodded.

‘I told you,’ Uthman said, raising his hand to her but leaving it suspended in the air.’

‘Did you hold hands?’ Hafiza asked. Again she nodded, but suddenly she burst out, ‘But we’re in love.’

Thus time Uthman’s hand went all the way to crash on Hafiza’s face, but she shrugged it off.

‘But you didn’t do anything more?’

Taslima looked away and nodded.

‘You mean you kissed?’

‘Yes ma, we did.’ Uthman raised his hand, but with tears welling in his eyes, he shook his head in despair.

‘Did you do more?’ Uthman shouted angrily. Taslima had promised herself that she was not going to lie, to deny her love for the apprentice. She had allowed Haroun to put his hand between her breasts.

‘Yes, we did. More than that.’ Thus time Uthman sprang up like a Jack in a box, threw himself on his daughter and began pummelling her with both fists, and true to his tradition started kicking her in the ribs when she fell on the floor. When he had no more strength left in him, he started cursing and swearing.

‘You have brought up my daughter as a whore! Maybe it’s not your fault, maybe it’s in your family’s blood, maybe she had it in her blood from birth. Nothing happens without Allah wishing it. She’s a whore. The other girls must be protected, or no one will marry them. We have no choice.’

‘What do you mean we have no choice? What’s to be done?’

‘Watch me,’ he said ominously.

To cut a long story short, there are many bayt Zayye As-suma in Baghdad where people whose daughters have brought dishonour upon their fathers can be taken to continue doing that they had done to the family’s honour, but this time getting paid, fed and lodged. The fathers disowned the erring daughters, proclaiming that they never existed, washed their hands off them, and thus purified are able once more to look people in the eyes.

Taslima would be taken to a house of ill repute and left outside. When the madame opened the door in the morning, the tradition was that she would invite the wretched girl in, and train them in their new profession. If she was in a bad mood or if she thought the girl was unlikely to find a taker, she’d take her in as a servant. If not, she’d leave her there, and she’d have no alternative but to go to the Tigris where it was deepest and throw herself in its torrents, hoping Allah would take pity on her soul.

Dear listeners, you are no doubt aware of this, as the practice is still prevalent today as we speak.

Uthman who had two beautiful wives at home no longer felt the necessity to visit Oum Khatoon’s establishment, but time was, when he was a red-blooded bachelor, he regularly went there every week, when the place was run by Oom Hanifa, Khatoon’s mother. The old procuress used to boast that all her girls were former virgins.

For one copper piece the client can pick one of the old ladies who had been there for a good number of years. For five, you had the choice of the younger models, and for one gold coin, you could choose the prettiest and spend the whole night with her.

The moment Oom Khatoon opened the door and saw the pitiful but stunningly beautiful Taslima, she opened wide her eyes, and could not help muttering to herself, Allah be praised! Come gold coins my coffers are waiting for you.

If poor Taslima knew the way to the bank of the Tigris, she’d have taken the drowning option, but she just followed Oom Khatoon inside.

To cut a long story short_ dear friends, if only to spare you details of the poor girl’s misery, but which you can imagine_ she knew there was no alternative to obeying Oom Khatoon. Everyday the moment she woke up, she begged Allah to cut short her misery and to take her, even to gehenna so she could pay for her sins, because what she was forced to do was worse than dying a thousand deaths.

Sometimes she rebelled against an Allah who allowed such injustice to flourish in a world he was supposed to rule with infinite wisdom and compassion. But her deeply ingrained faith made her rebuke herself and she told herself that surely Allah had a reason for dealing with her in this way. Perhaps it was a sin to let him put his hands between her breasts, or kiss or even hold hands, but never once accepted that she had committed a sin by loving Haroun. However many men she would be forced to open her legs to, the sweet boy from Basra would always be her love, she would never repudiate that.

I can see many of you are very sad about the fate of Taslima.

In fact there are many who think that the girl was guilty and deserved her fate, and that’s very sad.

But the river of life kept flowing towards eternity, every day the same as before.

You were wondering, dear listeners, where was Caliph Al Firni, I dare say. I’ll tell you now. Caliph Suleiman was happy to leave the matters of the state in the hands of his ministers_ between you and me, dear listeners, the only good decision he ever took in his life, although the reason for this was that he needed all the time he could get to enjoy himself. Between you and me, in less than salubrious occupations. After a copious lunch he’d spend two hours doing a siesta, after which he would summon some courtiers and play games of chance with them. If he lost he’d fly in a temper and begin to throw things at them. But he really lived for the night.

He greatly admired his ancestor Haroun Al Rasheed, and thought that his disguising himself to mix with the rabble was a hoot. Never once had he paused to think of the idea behind the ancestor’s practice. He would put on clothes he borrowed from a cook, a gardener, a porter, a clerk or a beggar, and he would roam the dark streets of Baghdad alone.

Al Firni would first stop at a tavern and imbibe some arak to relax, then he’d take himself to some gambling den. He always ended up in a bayt. Oom Khatoon’s was one of three hundred such establishments, but it was one of his favourite haunts.

The inevitable happened.

Beloved listeners, I might have given you the impression that his majesty was a crude unattractive man, but judge for yourself. The moment he cast eyes on Taslima his heart became a darbuka, a drum. I notice the Englishman is again with us, good day sir. I’m having a heart attack, was his first thought. Although he had planned to spend a couple of hours in the bayt, he summoned the eunuch waiting outside and gave him instructions to arrange for him to stay indefinitely. Taslima had obviously been taught the modus operandi of the establishment, and had learnt_ the hard way _ to stop scowling at punters. I am not going to make this sad story any sadder by relating to you how many slaps she had earned from Oom Khatoon’s thick fat hands, nor how many times she had been sent to bed without dinner, or had to sleep on the cold stone floor. In the end she forced herself to respond politely when her visitor spoke to her, although she felt her ruh, her soul, ooze out of the pores of her body every single time a man pointed at her. Sadly no man ever pointed at anybody else apart from those with regulars. Even those often changed their minds when they caught a glance of her. Which caused a lot of resentment towards her, although, dear listeners, she never raised her eyes on anyone, or willed anybody to choose her. But as I said, she had learnt how not to make waves.

I think you could say she had learnt the art of survival.

But never a day passed without her thinking of her beloved boy from Basra. She never knew what had happened to him. Had her father kicked him out? Had he gone back to Basra? Was he earning a proper living, or was he dying of hunger? Her prayers to Allah were more about him than herself.

The poor girl had been so shocked by the new life forced upon her that she only ate to survive. She even contemplated starving herself to death, such was the shame she felt about the life she was forced to live. Her eyes had become sunken, with dark rings under them. Her cheeks had become lean and sallow. Even her silky hair was becoming brittle and wiry.

It took the limping caliph who was besotted with Taslima more than three months before he began to lose interest in her, for sadly she was now a pale shadow of what she had been. He was now asking Oom Khatoon for other girls, and Taslima felt nothing but relief when she realised this, for from the very beginning she had found him repulsive and vulgar.

Then, suddenly, almost overnight the colours had returned to her cheeks.

Like magic!

The sparkle in her eyes were rekindled. Like the rose which flourishes in cow dung, she seemed to be now thriving in the filthy environment she lived in.

My friends, she had become more beautiful than ever.

The Caliph did not fail to notice the change, and now once more he only came for her, and after every visit he was more and more besotted with her.

Taslima did not fail to notice the effect she had on the Caliph, and inevitably the thought occurred to her that she might appeal to his generosity. Ayda said there was no harm trying.

Oh, Ayda! I have not yet introduced you to her. She was the daughter of a Nubian slave who was one of the few sharmutas who had befriended the hapless tailor’s daughter. At first she had been suspicious of her motives, but she gradually accepted that the dark girl was well-intentioned.

Cautiously she had opened up to her, and after a few weeks, her trust had become absolute. She told her everything in the knowledge that there was no link between her ears and her mouth. Taslima asked Ayda, Is it possible to ever leave the bayt? Ayda thought not, but she suddenly remembered one girl with whom a poet had fallen in love. That was some years ago. He went down on his knees and begged Oom Khatoon in verse, to release her, and she did, but only after demanding a compensation of fifty gold dirham. They said, but who’s to know for sure, that the poet waylaid a rich merchant and killed him to find the money.

I just made that last bit up.

Suleiman stayed three days at the bayt, never for one moment keeping his eyes from the angelic beauty of the sinner. Except when he fell asleep. Obviously.

After that time, he came to Oom Khatoon’s every other night. Taslima was indifferent to him, Caliph that he was. He left her cold, just like any other punter.

Taslima became uneasy when she realised that the client’s attitude to her was changing from one which was driven by lust to one of tenderness. Instead of being happy about being loved by the most powerful man in the kingdom, she became more apprehensive. Caliph or not caliph, she found him more repulsive than most.

Perhaps the Caliph will want to marry you too, Ayda had said merrily. To her amazement Taslima had screamed in horror. Never!

Yes, dear listeners, she shouted, Never! I bet you cannot guess what made her recoil with such horror from a prospect which most young girls in Baghdad would have given an eye for.

Quayyum bin Quayyum warned us against deviation, but this is perhaps the one injunction I have found hardest to follow. Whilst narrating a story, often a little divertimento forces itself on one’s inward eye. I could not resist that one, but I’ll make it short.

Which reminds me of a beautiful peasant girl who once saw a handsome swain and said to herself aloud: I’d do anything, I’d give an eye if that boy wants me. Shaitan, who is always around planning a mischief overheard.

So be it, he said. The boy looked at her, immediately fell head over heels in love with her, and on the spot asked for her hand. The boy went away to prepare for the festivities. When the time came, the wedding took place. During the nikah ceremony, as was the custom, the bride had a veil over her face. The moment they were wed, he raised the veil, only to notice that Shaitan had exacted his due and had gouged out her left eye. It is said that a world record for the quickest divorce was broken on that day.

But I went off the rails, pardon me.

My little risk paid off. They chuckled at this.

And true enough, in less than four weeks, Suleiman said to Taslima to prepare her things as he meant to take her away to the palace where she would become one of his concubines.

I think it’s time to reveal a pertinent part of my tale, for which we need to go back in history a bit. Six months after being committed to Oom Khatoon’s bayt, who should walk in, but Haroon the boy from Basra himself!

You will have guessed that Taslima’s re-blossoming, like a beautiful rose left to dry in the sun, being given revivifying water, was a direct result of this happy occurence.

He had obviously been kicked out by Uthman the khayaat, just as Taslima had feared, but he found a poorly paid work at another tailor’s in the south of Baghdad. He had guessed that the irate father would had taken his daughter to a house of ill-repute, which is a common practice. If you will allow a little diversion … there are many men who are mortally aggrieved whenever, according to them, their daughters have strayed. They … I daresay, we … feel that our good name has been irreparably tainted. We fear the gaze of people, and have convinced ourselves that this can only be cleansed by an honour killing, or by what many consider, something worse. I mean the house of ill repute option. But first, Haroon, a pious boy, had never visited one, although he knew that there were five hundred and seventy-six such houses in the city. If he knew which one, he’d have starved himself for a week to save the money to go visit her.

Some chroniclers have averred that he began by systematically visiting one bayt every week, until one day it was Oom Khatoon’s turn. But dear listeners, just ask yourself the question: Where would he have found the money. Others said that an elderly fellow worker from Uthman’s atelier mentioned that in his youth the boss used to visit Oom Khatoon’s bayt, when, as I said it was Hanifa who ran it. The truth is nobody knew, but the version I liked best, the true explanation, I think, is that he saw the house of Oom Khatoon in a dream.

Dear listeners, please agree with me that the how is immaterial to the tale. The crux of the matter is that he had stumbled upon the location of the prison of his beloved.

He was determined to see the girl who had occupied his mind, to the exclusion of everything else, all those months.

He starved himself for two days _ some say three_ to raise the entrance fee. To cut a long story short, when the two lovers faced each other, they had to struggle not to faint with excitement. God is great, the boy whispered. She threw herself in his arms and they clasped each other so hard they felt their souls were fusing to become one. This is Djannat, Taslima said through her tears of joy. This bliss made all the misery and hardship that she had endured an affordable price to pay for such happiness. However, they had the wisdom to hide their emotions. You never knew with Oom Khatoon. Out of jealousy she might hide Taslima when Haroun turned up next.

From that moment, the pair lived only for the time when Haroun could afford the cost of visiting the bayt.

So the lovers lived for the half hour the poor tailor’s apprentice could afford every two weeks. Whenever he arrived, Taslima believed in the omnipotence and infinite compassion of Allah, and thought no one could be happier than her. Allah’s bounty is verily infinite, she muttered. When he left she beat her chest and begged for death.

The caliph was not going to give up after one refusal. She had refused to become a concubine, but surely she wouldn’t say no if he asked her to become a proper wife, albeit wife number four, but she would still be a queen. She again said no. Why? he asked. She thought it best not to offer an explanation, which left the young monarch angry and perplexed. A miserable sharmuta who refuses my generous offer to take her away from this filth, Tcheee!

But he was not one to take no for an answer.

Next time he approached her with a smile of triumph. ‘Taslima, my mind is made up now. I’m gonna marry you, and make you love me. I will make you my Number One queen, I will repudiate my Sultana. I’ll come take you to the palace first thing tomorrow just as soon as I have organised your quarters.’

She shook her head. He sprang up angrily, and had to control himself from strangling her. He left, swearing that he would never darken that bayt’s door ever again.

‘Have you gone completely mad?’ asked Ayda, ‘think of the power you’d have as queen on Iraq! You prefer living in this gehenna of Oom Khatoon’s. What’s wrong with you?’

‘As long as I am here,’ Taslima said, ‘he will know where to find me, and, Allah willing, we can see each other, my Haroon and I, once every two weeks. I want nothing else in this life.’




Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.

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San Cassimally

San Cassimally

Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.

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