Snatched from the Gates of Paradise
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab American Contributing Writer
It was in the year 1000 A.D. and al-Mansour, the never-defeated Moorish leader of Arab Spain, had returned to Cordova from yet another victory over the Christians of the North. A man of steel, he had forged an army which was the best in both Europe and the Muslim world. His soldiers loved him and his officers without hesitation obeyed his every command.
Thereafter, for days in every emir*s home crowding the outskirts of the world*s largest and most illustrious city in that era, there were celebrations commemorating this triumph. As always, the most spectacular of these fiestas were held in the luxurious villa of Yousif al-Ahmar (Yousif the Red), one of al-Mansour*s greatest generals. Due to his long-flowing red beard, his troops had given him this name and he had taken it on as his own.
Amid the exquisitely tiled Moorish arches edging the huge flower-filled courtyard, enhanced by bubbling fountains, poetic sessions followed by gripping songs and dances were everyday events. Tonight, as the culmination of the celebrations, it was to be the epitome of these evenings of merriment. Every friend and acquaintance of the general had been invited.
The newly acquired servant girl, Maha, who because of her large eyes had been named after the wild desert deer, was more content than she had been for days. She was enjoying a world with which she once had been familiar. Hidden in an overlooking room, she could see in the splendid courtyard below a scene of exceeding grace and beauty. Young stunning women dancers dressed in revealing silken robes were swaying to the haunting music played by half a dozen colorfully dressed musicians. Standing before them, the emotionally charged poet-singer held his audience, jammed into every inch of space, in an all-embracing trance. His words had an echo in many a man*s heart.
“Her kohled eyes like razor-edged swords,
Slew me and I was happy to be slain.”
His voice seemed to become more melancholy as he continued,
“I thought her mine but she was for others,
A dancer who aroused then slid away.”
The bewitching dancers, some dark from the North African lands, others olive-skinned from the Arab East, intermixed with blond Christian girls of the North moved with ease and appeal, seemingly inspired by the singer*s voice. Yousif had purchased every one of these women as jarriyahs – educated maidens trained in the art of poetry, singing, and dancing.
These performers were brought up from an early age to excel in this looked-down upon, yet a cherished profession. Yousif al-Ahmar, a patron of the art of entertainment, had gathered them from the four corners of the Muslim Empire. His entertainers were, it was said, the best to be found in the countless homes of Cordova*s aristocrats.
Maha was so fascinated with the scene below that she did not notice Yousif enter the room. Why are you not at your task in the kitchen?”, his voice had a tone of anger as he lifted her with battle-hardened hands into the air. Turning her around he set her gently on the floor, bewitched by the beauty he had between his hands.
Her large dark eyes encompassed by a milky white face which was overshadowed by flowing jet black hair, decorated with a large reddish-white flower, appeared to soften the fearless emir. Quickly his anger faded, replaced by desire.
In the endless wars, he had taken many women captives and bought the most renowned jarriyahs in the land. But never had he been so captivated by a maiden at first sight. He stood back and surveyed for a moment her perfect figure. It seemed to him that her protruding well- rounded breasts and shapely body were trying to escape her maid*s gown. He smiled, “What is a beautiful girl like you doing in my kitchen? I cannot believe that one such as you can only make a living by doing household chores.”
Maha without a trace of fear or embarrassment looked him straight in the eyes, “It was a simple way in which to enter your household. You see! I have heard that you are a connoisseur of the female sex and I am in need of a new home.”
Yousif snapped awake from his bewitchment, “Brazen woman* Why would I want you when I have the choice of the most beautiful maidens in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain)? As the dancers and singers, you were looking at below, my women are not only attractive and enticing but excel in all the feminine arts, including poetry singing and dancing. “Besides your looks, What do you have to offer?” He was angry with himself for not sending her back quickly to the kitchen, yet, he felt a compelling urge to hold her in his arms.
Maha speaking softly and blinking her eyes in a seductive fashion smiled, “I was the most sought after jarriyah (house keeper) in Granada before my master fell from favor and was expelled from this land. I escaped after being sold to Ibn al-Mujrim, who as you know is reputed to be the cruelest man in Andalusia. Finding no other way of making a living without being discovered, I worked as a servant girl from one household to the next. Yet, once I was the jewel in my master*s household more cherished than any of his wives.”
Yousif frowned, thinking to himself, “Is she a jarriyah or just a great storyteller?” He smiled as he looked into her eyes, “Tell me more about yourself and let that be in words of poetry.” He half believed her but this would be her test.
In the whole Islamic world of that era, every jarrivah, besides being a superb dancer and singer, had to be an accomplished poetess. They were trained for many years by famous masters in these arts and became very valuable in the world of merriment and pleasure. A good number married their patrons, while others became renowned throughout the Muslim lands for their entertaining attributes. They were the essence of culture and nightlife – the ornaments of high society.
Maha lifted her head held high in a haughty posture and spoke with confidence:
“My eyes are more enticing than those of the desert deer,
And no necklace can make more beautiful my slender neck..
My lips yearn for a proud warrior, who has no fear,
And my bosom, can the most congenial of marriages wreck.”
Inside, Yousif felt a great need to embrace this fiery woman. He sat on the cushioned divan and stretched out his arms as words of poetry flowed freely from his lips:
“I need you now, I have all the proof,
No jarriyah can more eloquently herself describe.”
He stopped for a second trying to think of the concluding lines. At that moment, Maha broke in:
“Forever, you can live under my roof,
And be my companion and intimate scribe.”
Now Yousif was totally satisfied that this was no ordinary servant girl. He motioned her to sit beside him but she ignored his command and stood before him, words like honey drops falling from her lips:
“You have not yet seen what I am truly worth,
Tonight, while shadows flicker on my silken gown,
And my nightingale voice make alive your hearth,
You will know how I can all worries drown.”
“Wait for me in your chambers this evening when the sun goes down,” Maha had a broad smile as she skipped out of the room. Her well-laid plans were to soon bear fruit.
The cool night air flowed in through the open window, easing Yousif*s passion as he lay on a low velvet divan dreaming of the joys to come. Suddenly, Maha swept into the room, her subtle perfume filling the air. Two red carnations decorated her long glossy ebony hair which contrasted vividly with her lily-white skin. A loose silken robe covered yet exposed her body*s endowments. It was a perfect picture of a woman, for which, from the beginning of time, men have yearned.
From the moment she entered, Yousif felt that he was in a sensuous world of beauty and desire. To his aroused mind, it was truly an earthly paradise.. Dreamlike he sat up as she glided around the room, guided by the music from the courtyard. Now stopping and shimmering her body, now gently swaying, she captivated Yousif more firmly than if he was chained. It was the body-tingling shackles of a burning desire.
No sooner did the music stop, then her voice sweeter than those of the maidens on the isle of forgetfulness began to send shivers through Yousif*s body. He could hardly hold back from leaping for her. Yet, he wanted to hear more of that bewitching voice which had ensnared his very soul. Proudly she boasted:
“My beauty and charm no man can resist,
Whether, warrior, scholar, or clericalist.”
Yousif had reached the end of his staying power. He jumped up and swept Maha into his arms. At the same moment, a high-ranking officer girded and ready for the battle burst in, “Get ready quickly! There is not a moment to lose. Al-Mansour has ordered you to come with me this instant. He needs you on an urgent mission.” Yousif gently let Maha down. Al-Mansour*s orders took precedence over anything his officers might want to do. To disobey would mean instant death. In a few moments, he was dressed, ready for battle, bidding his beautiful creature adieu. As he sadly walked away, his comrade-in-arms could clearly hear him mumble to himself, I have been snatched from the gates of paradise.”