tales of the caravanserai
I wrote this story a few years back, one of my first, so I decided to include it- a folk tale
with tributes to Oscar Wilde, the Childe Ballads, Ozimandias, Scheherzade, and to the great deserts and those who wander on them.
Thanks to the Story Warrior Institute, J. Hayduke and Asmira McConnell, and all imaginary realms, tellers of tales and dancers on the sand.
Illustrations by CybeleMoon
The old man arranged his robes and sat by the fire. He dipped his flat bread into the communal pot and shared a meal with his desert hosts. Afterward as all looked toward him expectantly, he began to speak…..
As Salamu Alaykem!
I must tell you a story. It is one I heard while travelling through the far kingdoms, a tale of a beautiful woman called Roxanne Abal, who was known as The Desert Rose, and of a powerful warlord and king named Sa’ed, the lion of the dunes.
A mighty warrior of a powerful desert kingdom, Sa’ed ibn Fardin loved the fair Roxanne, daughter of a neighboring Amir. Her lips were the colour of pomegranates, her eyes had the light of two emeralds, her hair shone like golden wheat, and her skin was as radiant as an opalescent pearl.
Her only blemish was a birthmark which glowed like a smouldering rose on the inside of her upper thigh. None, but her mother had seen this mark at her birth. It was with great apprehension and a sense of foreboding the woman had quickly covered the child up, uttering many prayers and supplications to keep away evil djinns and spirits. Yet in spite of her fears, her daughter’s early years passed without incident and the child grew up in beauty, wit, and grace.
Although many sought her hand, Sa’ed paid a high bride price to her father, and even Roxanne seemed pleased with the match. Though her new husband was much older, she quickly became devoted to him and he in turn showered his young bride with many gifts of gold and jewels.He indulged her every whim, for his heart found great joy in her youth and charm, and they spent their nights in loving conversation and affectionate caresses.
The King was a righteous ruler as well as a renowned warrior. He was often away defending his borders against brigands and administering justice throughout the desert tribes. His lovely consort he left to wander the palace and gardens alone with only her servants and guards for company. He had forbidden her to leave the palace, for he had enemies who might try and capture his precious prize to bargain for power or demand ransom.
It was always with eagerness and relief that he returned to find her waiting in the lush courtyard gardens, her arms like the petals of the rose opening to embrace him, and her sweet laughter spilling into the air like water from the tiled fountains. He was content.
However, time passed, and it was during these periods of his absence that Roxanne proved to be as false as she was lovely. A restlessness inside her soul burned like the flame that stained her pale thigh, and she had begun to feel imprisoned and bored within the limits of the palace walls. She longed for a small adventure of her own. She finally decided to bribe some of her personal servants to aid her in a small and harmless ruse to disguise herself in the cloak of a serving girl . In this manner she was able to sneak away and visit the market place for a few hours without the ever watchful guards.
It happened on one of her market adventures that she spied a young man, a commoner who was an apprentice to a metalworker.His name was Hassan and he was as handsome and sure as if he were a prince of royal blood.She would pause at his stall pretending to adjust her shoe or cloak and they both would cast furtive glances at each other. She felt a stirring at the sound of his voice when he first addressed her. He was also smitten and he began to watch for her as she made her way gracefully through the streets and market stalls of the Souq.
One day by the heat of the forge and while pretending to inspect his workmanship, she accidentally brushed up against him. It was then that the mark on her thigh truly caught fire, and her knees buckled. Afterward the touchings became more deliberate.They were falling in love. They eventually planned an assignation at a deserted caravanserai in the nearby hills , There,they could quench the fever that had begun to addle their faculties of reason and thus their fear of consequence. Roxanne had by now, revealed her deception to Hassan, but it was too late, their kismet had already been sealed.
What they did not know was that Sa’ed had a trusted slave who worked for him as a scribe and a keeper of his accounts. He was a man so observant and astute that Sa’ed depended on him for information of the goings on in his court; such as who might be stealing amongst his servants or who might speak against the king while he was away.This slave was called Aziz, and Aziz had a seed of festering and grudging covetousness, a smoking ember in his heart which in time became a blaze of jealousy and longing. He dreamed of being a free man with prestige and wealth of his own. Thus he was only too happy to take on the mantle of spy and seek out what ever base deeds and calamities he could uncover that would enhance his own position and worth in the king’s favour.
He became suspicious of his master’s companion and began watching her closely.He eventually uncovered her ruse and stealthily followed her to her tryst. With his eye to a crack in the wall he saw Hassan and his master’s bride engaged in their wild love play and locked in each other’s embrace. The very room though dark, seemed to ignite around the lovers but whether by lamp or passion he could not tell.
To show the uncompromising loyalty of his embittered heart, Aziz was only too eager to tell his master of the infidelity. Whether it was in the hope of currying some greater favour or prominence, or of at last winning his freedom -I do not know except that he desired both. He sent a courier to reach Sa’ed’s caravan with a plea for him to return at once as treachery was afoot. When Sa’ed arrived at the palace Aziz revealed Roxanne’s adultery. At first the king disbelieved but finally Aziz described the birthmark no one else but her mother and himself had seen, and so Sa’ed had no choice but to accept the word of his reliable slave.
A black rage descended over his mind and Sa’ed felt his chest ripped open as if in the talons of an eagle. His heart became an inferno of pain and wrath which devoured all sanity
He ordered the personal servants whether guilty or innocent to be summarily executed. He had the apprentice Hassan arrested and tortured, and after confessing to the crime, the ill fated youth was dragged before him and the faithless,weeping Roxanne. In spite of her plea for mercy Hassan was slaughtered like a dog with one stroke of the sword in front of all present. Although the grief stricken Roxanne begged forgiveness and tore her hair in woeful penitence, it was commanded that her unblemished thigh bear the brand of slave and harlot, and with that curse of burning shame she was sold to a passing Numidian caravan that very night.
>As for Aziz, he had misjudged his master greatly and he was borne no gratitude for his revelation. The king granted him the freedom he had sought with such desperate diligence, but first it was ordered that Aziz be blinded in the offending eye that had seen what was not to be seen and his tongue cut out that had spoken the unspeakable. He was allowed the clothes on his back, and after being given a horse and a bag of coin he was escorted to the city gates to be turned out and banished forever.
Roxanne has long since disappeared into anonymity or death, whether in the harims or the slavery of powerful men, I know not. In the ensuing years Sa’ed became ruthless and cruel, and though he took wives as he pleased, he had forsworn love from that fateful day forever. His servants and subjects alike feared him. The once beautiful gardens became fallow and the fountains crumbled and dried up.
I later heard that he had become careless and was gored to death by a wild boar on a hunting expedition. At least that is what his servants said although amongst some there were whisperings of an assassination.
I further heard that in the months preceding his death, he had been detaining the caravans that passed by the city gates. He was overheard asking all wayfarers, traders and strangers if any in their travels had come across a woman of surpassing beauty who bore the mark of a flaming rose on her thigh, –
but the answer had long been lost in the seductive dance of an oasis mirage and in the mournful wail of the dunes as they are created and destroyed by the desert winds.
In those last days he was seen standing ever watchful on his palace walls, his eyes searching the shifting shapes of the landscape, until the day folded silently into the dark and hungry cloak of the desert night.
I cannot help but think that whatever the manner of his death it must have come as a welcome release from the torment and thirst of his parched soul.
And still the caravans in ancient procession and on unknown quests, journey by the towns and oases . They pass over old stones and forgotten temples, many of which lie buried beneath the desert that ultimately claims them all.
Aziz still wanders the hills and villages, a half witted, half blind and dumb beggar, muttering wordless prayers and curses, but he too will be gone soon, dissolved into the pitiless sands, and when I am gone, perhaps another poor wanderer will tell the tale until he is gone, and all will fade like a shadowed dream into the dust of the desert winds, as do all the vanities and deeds of men.
These are my words and so, ya a sadiqa, beware! Love is a chain of misfortune and madness, but a vengeful wrath is a funeral pyre that when spent leaves only the crumbling bones of sorrow and regret in it’s bitter ashes–
but let our own hearts be unfettered like the wind, wild and free!! Inch’Allah!
Song of the desert click to play
as salamu alaykem- the peace of God be upon you
ya a sadiqa – oh my friends
Inch’Allah– if it is God’s will