The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, by James Justinian Morier

Chapter xxiv

He has an interview with the fair Zeenab, who relates how she passes her time in the doctor’s harem.

‘So,’ said I, when I had well rubbed my eyes: ‘so, now I am in love? Well! we shall see what will come of it. Who and what she is we shall know to-night, so please it; and if she is anything which belongs to the doctor, may his house be ruined if I do not teach him how to keep a better watch over his property. As for marriage, that is out of the question. Who would give a wife to me; I who have not even enough to buy myself a pair of trousers, much less to defray the expenses of a wedding? Inshallah, please God, that will take place one of these days, whenever I shall have got together some money; but now I will make play with love, and let the doctor pay for it.’

With that intention I forthwith got up and dressed myself; but it was with more care than usual. I combed my curls a great deal more than ordinary; I studied the tie of my girdle, and put my cap on one side. Then having rolled up my bed, and carried it into the servants’ hall, I issued from home, with the intention of bathing, and making my person sweet, preparatory to my evening’s assignation. I went to the bath, where I passed a great part of my morning in singing, and spent the remainder of the time, until the hour of meeting, in rambling about the town without any precise object in view.

At length the day drew towards its close, my impatience had reached its height, and I only waited for the termination of the shâm, or the evening’s meal, to feign a headache, and to retire to rest. My ill luck would have it, that the doctor was detained longer than usual in his attendance upon the Shah, and as the servants dined after him, and ate his leavings, it was late before I was at liberty. When that moment arrived, I was in a fever of expectation: the last glimmering of day tinged the western sky with a light shade of red, and the moon was just rising, when I appeared on the terrace with my bed under my arm. I threw it down and unfolded it in haste, and then, with a beating heart, flew to the broken wall. I looked over it with great precaution; but, to my utter disappointment, I saw nothing but the tobacco spread about in confused heaps, with baskets here and there, as if some work had been left unfinished. I looked all around, but saw no Zeenab. I coughed once or twice; no answer. The only sound which reached my ears was the voice of the doctor’s wife, exerting itself upon some one within the house; although its shrillness pierced even the walls, yet I could not make out what was the cause of its being so excited, until of a sudden it burst into the open air with increasing violence.

‘You talk of work to me, you daughter of the devil! Who told you to go to the bath? What business had you at the tombs? I suppose I am to be your slave, and you are to take your pleasure. Why is not your work done? You shall neither eat, drink, nor sleep, until it is done, so go to it immediately; and if you come away until it be finished, wallah! billah! by the prophet, I will beat you till your nails drop off.’ Upon this I heard some pushing and scuffing, and immediately perceived my fair one proceeding with apparent reluctance to the spot, which not a moment before I had despaired of seeing blessed with her presence. Oh what a wonderful thing is love! thought I to myself: how it sharpens the wits, and how fertile it is in expedients! I perceived at a glance how ingeniously my charmer had contrived everything for our interview, and for a continuance of it without the fear of interruption. She saw, but took no notice of me until the storm below had ceased; and then, when everything had relapsed into silence, she came towards me, and, as the reader may well suppose, I was at her side in an instant. Ye, who know what love is, may, perhaps, conceive our raptures, for they are not to be expressed.

I learnt from my fair friend that she was the daughter of a Cûrdish chief, who, with his whole family, including his flocks and herds, had been made prisoner when she was quite a child; and that, from circumstances which she promised hereafter to relate to me, she had fallen into the hands of the doctor, whose slave she now was.

After the first burst of the sentiments which we felt towards each other had subsided, she gave way to the feelings of anger, which she felt for the treatment that she had just experienced. ‘Ah!’ she exclaimed, ‘did you hear what that woman called me! woman, without faith, without religion! ’Tis thus she always treats me; she constantly gives me abuse; I am become less than a dog. Everybody rails at me; no one comes near me; my liver is become water, and my soul is withered up. Why should I be called a child of the devil? I am a Cûrd; I am a Yezeedi.40 ’Tis true that we fear the devil, and who does not? but I am no child of his. Oh! that I could meet her in our mountains: she would then see what a Cûrdish girl can do.’

I endeavoured to console her as well as I could, and persuaded her to smother her resentment until she could find a good opportunity of revenging herself. She despaired at that ever coming to pass; because all her actions were so strictly watched, that she could scarcely go from one room to another without her mistress being aware of it. The fact was, so she informed me, that the doctor, who was a man of low family, had, by orders of the king, married one of his majesty’s slaves, who, from some misconduct, had been expelled from the harem. She brought the doctor no other dowry than an ill-temper, and a great share of pride, which always kept her in mind of her former influence at court; and she therefore holds her present husband as cheap as the dust under her feet, and keeps him in a most pitiful state of subjection. He dares not sit down before her, unless she permits him, which she very seldom does; and she is moreover so jealous, that there is no slave in her harem who does not excite her suspicions. The doctor, on the other hand, who is very ambitious, and pleased with his exaltation, is also subject to the frailties of human nature, and is by no means insensible to the charms of the fair creatures, his slaves. Zeenab herself, so she informed me, is the peculiar object of his attentions, and consequently that of the jealousy of his wife, who permits no look, word, or sign to pass unnoticed. Much intrigue and espionage is carried on in the harem; and when the lady herself goes to the bath or the mosque, as many precautions are taken about the distribution of the female slaves, with respect to time, place, and opportunity, as there would be in the arrangement of a wedding.

Having never seen more of the interior of an anderûn than what I recollected as a boy in my own family, I became surprised, and my curiosity was greatly excited in proportion as the fair Zeenab proceeded in her narrative of the history of her life in the doctor’s house. ‘We are five in the harem, besides our mistress,’ said she: ‘there is Shireen, the Georgian slave; then Nûr Jehan,41 the Ethiopian slave girl; Fatmeh, the cook; and old Leilah, the duenna. My situation is that of handmaid to the khanum,42 so my mistress is called: I attend her pipe, I hand her her coffee, bring in the meals, go with her to the bath, dress and undress her, make her clothes, spread, sift, and pound tobacco, and stand before her. Shireen, the Georgian, is the sandukdar, or housekeeper; she has the care of the clothes of both my master and mistress, and indeed of the clothes of all the house; she superintends the expenses, lays in the corn for the house, as well as all the other provisions; she takes charge of all the porcelain, the silver, and other ware; and, in short, has the care of whatever is either precious or of consequence in the family. Nûr Jehan, the black slave, acts as ferash, or carpet-spreader: she does all the dirty work, spreads the carpets, sweeps the rooms, sprinkles the water over the court yard, helps the cook, carries parcels and messages, and, in short, is at the call of every one. As for old Leilah, she is a sort of duenna over the young slaves: she is employed in the out-of-door service, carries on any little affair that the khanum may have with other harems, and is also supposed to be a spy upon the actions of the doctor. Such as we are, our days are passed in peevish disputes; whilst, at the same time, some two of us are usually leagued in strict friendship, to the exclusion of the others. At this present moment I am at open war
Shireen, the Georgian slave.

(From a sketch by James Morier.)
with the Georgian, who, some time ago, found that her good luck in life had forsaken her, and she in consequence contrived to procure a talisman from a dervish. She had no sooner obtained it, than on the very next day the khanum presented her with a new jacket; this so excited my jealousy, that I also made interest with the dervish to supply me with a talisman that should secure me a good husband. On that very same evening I saw you on the terrace. Conceive my happiness! But this has established a rivality between myself and Shireen, which has ended in hatred, and we are now mortal enemies: perhaps we may as suddenly be friends again. I am now on the most intimate terms with Nûr Jehan, and at my persuasion she reports to the khanum every story unfavorable to my rival. Some rare sweetmeats, with baklava (sweet cake) made in the royal seraglio, were sent a few days ago from one of the Shah’s ladies, as a present to our mistress; the rats ate a great part of them, and we gave out that the Georgian was the culprit, for which she received blows on the feet, which Nûr Jehan administered. I broke my mistress’s favourite drinking-cup; Shireen incurred the blame, and was obliged to supply another. I know that she is plotting against me, for she is eternally closeted with Leilah, who is at present the confidant of our mistress. I take care not to eat or drink anything which has passed through her hands to me, for fear of poison, and she returns me the same compliment. It is not, that our hatred amounts to poison yet, but such precautions are constantly in use in all harems. We have as yet only once come to blows: she excited me to violent anger by spitting and saying, ”lahnet be Sheitan,” curse be on the devil, which you know to the Yezeedies is a gross insult; when I fell upon her, calling her by every wicked name that I had learnt in Persian, and fastening upon her hair, of which I pulled out whole tresses by the roots. We were parted by Leilah, who came in for her share of abuse, and we continued railing at each other until our throats were quite dried up with rage and exhaustion. Our violence has much abated since this conflict; but her enmity is undiminished, for she continues to show her spite against me in every manner she can devise.’

Zeenab continued to entertain me in this manner until the first dawn of the morning, and when we heard the muezzin43 call the morning prayers from the mosque, we thought it prudent to retire; but not until we had made mutual promises of seeing each other as often as prudence would allow. We agreed, that whenever she had by her stratagems secured an opportunity for meeting, she should hang her veil upon the bough of a tree in the court, which could be seen from my terrace; and that if it were not there, I was to conclude that our interview on that night was impossible.

40 [ The Yezeedies are a tribe of the Curds, who are said to worship the devil.]

41 [ The Persians give the most magnificent names to their negro slaves. Thus Nur Jehan means “light of the world."]

42 [ Khanum is the title usually given to a Persian lady, and is equivalent to “madam."]

43 [ The priest is so called who invites the Mohamedans to prayers from the minaret, or from the roof of the mosque.]

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09