بخش 27

کتاب: ملت عشق / فصل 27

بخش 27

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  • زمان مطالعه 15 دقیقه
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Desert Rose the Harlot

KONYA, OCTOBER 17, 1244

Brothels have existed since the beginning of time. And so have women like me. But there is something that amazes me: Why is it that although people say they hate seeing women prostitute themselves, the same people make life hard for a prostitute who wants to repent and start life anew? It is as if they are telling us they are sorry that we have fallen so low, but now that we are where we are, we should stay there forever. I don’t know why this is. All I know is, some people feed on the miseries of others and they don’t like it when there is one less miserable person on the face of the earth. But no matter what they say or do, I am going to walk out of this place one day.

This morning I woke up bursting with a desire to listen to the great Rumi preach. Had I told the patron the truth and asked permission, she would have made fun of me. “Since when do whores go to mosques?” she would have said, laughing so hard her round face would have turned crimson.

That’s why I lied. After that hairless dervish left, the patron looked so preoccupied I sensed it was the right time to go and talk. She is always more approachable when distracted. I told her I needed to go to the bazaar to run some errands. She believed me. After nine years of my working like a dog for her, she does.

“Only on one condition,” she said. “Sesame is coming with you.”

That wasn’t a problem. I liked Sesame. A big, hefty man with the mind of a child, he was reliable and honest to the point of simplicity. How he survived in such a cruel world was a mystery to me. Nobody knew what his real name was, perhaps not even himself. We had named him so because of his infatuation with sesame halva. When a harlot from the brothel needed to go out, Sesame accompanied her like a silent shadow. He was the best guard I could have wished for.

The two of us took the dusty road winding through the orchards. When we reached the first intersection, I asked Sesame to wait for me, and I disappeared behind a bush where I had hidden a bag full of men’s clothes.

It was harder than I thought to dress up as a man. Wrapping long scarves around my breasts, I flattened my chest. Then I put on baggy trousers, a cotton vest, a long maroon robe, and a turban. Finally I covered half my face with a scarf, hoping to resemble an Arab traveler.

When I walked back toward him, Sesame flinched, looking puzzled.

“Let’s go,” I urged him, and when he didn’t budge, I uncovered my face. “My dear, haven’t you recognized me?”

“Desert Rose, is that you?” Sesame exclaimed, putting one hand on his mouth like a child in awe. “Why did you dress up like that?”

“Can you keep a secret?”

Sesame nodded, his eyes widening with excitement.

“All right,” I whispered. “We are going to a mosque. But don’t tell the patron.”

Sesame’s bottom lip quivered. “No, no. We were going to the bazaar.”

“Yes, dear, later. First we are going to listen to the great Rumi.”

Sesame panicked slightly, as I knew he would. The change in plans was unsettling to him. “Please, this means a lot to me,” I begged. “If you agree and promise not to tell anyone about it, I’ll buy you a huge chunk of halva.”

“Halva.” Sesame clucked his tongue with delight, as if the word alone had left a sweet taste in his mouth.

And with sweet expectation, we set off toward the mosque where Rumi was going to speak.

I was born in a small village near Nicaea. My mother always said to me, “You were born in the right place, but I am afraid it was under the wrong star.” The times were bad, unpredictable. From one year to the next, nothing remained the same. First there were rumors of the Crusaders coming back. We heard terrible stories about the atrocities they committed in Constantinople, ransacking the mansions, demolishing the icons inside chapels and churches. Next we heard about Seljuk attacks. And before the tales of terror of the Seljuk army faded, those of the ruthless Mongols started. The name and the face of the enemy changed, but the fear of being destroyed by outsiders remained as steady as snow on Mount Ida.

My parents were bakers and good Christians. One of my earliest memories is the smell of bread out of the oven. We weren’t rich. Even as a child, I knew that. But we weren’t poor either. I had seen the stare in the eyes of the poor when they came to the bakery begging for crumbs. Every night before going to sleep, I thanked the Lord for not sending me to bed hungry. It felt like talking to a friend. For back then God was my friend.

When I was seven, my mother became pregnant. Looking back today, I suspect she might have had several miscarriages before that, but I didn’t know anything about such things. I was so innocent that if anyone asked me how babies were made, I would have said God kneaded them out of soft, sweet dough.

But the bread baby that God kneaded for my mother must have been enormous, because before long her belly swelled up, big and tight. Mother had become so huge she could barely move. The midwife said her body was retaining water, but that didn’t sound like a bad thing to me.

What neither my mother nor the midwife knew was, there wasn’t one baby but three. All were boys. My brothers had waged a war inside my mother’s body. One of the triplets had strangled his brother with his umbilical cord, and as if to take revenge, the dead baby had blocked the passage, thus preventing the others from coming out. For four days my mother remained in labor. Night and day we listened to her screams until we heard her no more.

Unable to save my mother, the midwife did her best to save my brothers. Taking a pair of scissors, she cut my mom’s belly open, but in the end only one baby survived. This is how my brother was born. My father never forgave him, and when the baby was baptized, he did not attend the ceremony.

With my mother gone and my father turned into a sullen, bitter man, life was never the same. Things rapidly deteriorated at the bakery. We lost our customers. Afraid of becoming poor and having to beg someday, I started to hide bread rolls under my bed, where they would get dry and stale. But it was my brother who really suffered. I at least had been loved and taken good care of in the past. He never had any of that. It broke my heart to see him being mistreated, and yet a part of me was relieved, even grateful, that it wasn’t I who had become the target of my father’s fury. I wish I had protected my brother. Everything would be different then, and I wouldn’t be in a brothel in Konya today. Life is so strange.

A year later my father remarried. The only difference in my brother’s life was that whereas before it was my father who ill-treated him, now it was my father and his new wife who did so. He started to run away from home, only to come back with the worst habits and the wrong friends. One day my father beat him so badly he almost killed him. After that, the boy changed. There was a cold, cruel stare in his eyes that wasn’t there before. I knew he had something in mind, but it never occurred to me what a horrible plan he was brewing. I wish I had known. I wish I could have prevented the tragedy.

Then, one morning in spring, my father and stepmother were found dead, killed with rat poison. As soon as the incident became public, everyone suspected my brother. When the guards started asking questions, he ran away in panic. I never saw him again. And just like that, I was alone in the world. Unable to stay at home where I still sensed my mother’s smell, unable to work at the bakery where disturbing memories hovered in the air, I decided to go to Constantinople to stay with an old spinster aunt who had now become my closest relative. I was thirteen.

I took a carriage to Constantinople. I was the youngest passenger on board and the only one traveling alone. A few hours on the road, we were stopped by a gang of robbers. They took everything—suitcases, clothes, boots, belts, and jewelry, even the driver’s sausages. Having nothing to give them, I stood aside quietly, certain that they would do me no harm. But just when they were about to leave, the gang leader turned to me and asked, “Are you a virgin, dainty thing?” I blushed and refused to answer such an improper question. Little did I know that my blushing was the answer he wanted.

“Let’s go!” the gang leader shouted. “Take the horses and the girl!”

While I resisted them in tears, none of the other passengers even tried to help me. The robbers took me to a thick, dense forest, where I was surprised to see they had created a whole village. There were women and children. Ducks, goats, and pigs were all over the place. It looked like an idyllic village, except it was inhabited by criminals.

Soon I understood why the gang leader had asked me if I was a virgin. The chief of the village was severely ill with nervous fever. He had been in bed for a long time, with red spots all over his body, trying countless treatments to no avail. Recently someone had convinced him that if he slept with a virgin, his illness would be transmitted to her and he would be clean and cured.

There are things in my life I don’t want to remember. My time in the forest is one of them. Even today, whenever the forest comes to my mind, I think of the pine trees and only the pine trees. I preferred sitting alone under those trees to the company of the women in the village, most of whom were the wives or daughters of the robbers. There were also a number of harlots who had come there on their own. I couldn’t understand for the life of me why they didn’t run away. I was determined to do so.

There were carriages crossing the forest, most of them belonging to the nobility. It was a mystery to me why they were not robbed, until I realized that some carriage drivers bribed the robbers before passing through the forest and in return got the right to travel safely. Once I figured out how things worked, I cut my own deal. After stopping a carriage heading to the big city, I pleaded with the driver to take me with him. He asked too much money, although he knew I had none. I paid him the only way I knew how.

Only long after I arrived in Constantinople would I comprehend why the harlots in the forest would never run away. The city was worse. It was ruthless. I never looked for my old aunt. Now that I was fallen, I knew a proper lady like her wouldn’t want me. I was on my own. It didn’t take the city long to crush my spirits and ruin my body. Suddenly I was in another world altogether—a world of malice, rape, brutality, and disease. I had successive abortions until I was damaged so badly that I stopped having periods and could no longer conceive.

I saw things on those streets for which I have no words. After I left the city, I traveled with soldiers, performers, and Gypsies, serving the needs of all. Then a man called Jackal Head found me and brought me to this brothel in Konya. The patron wasn’t interested in where I came from as long as I was in good shape. She was delighted to learn I couldn’t have babies and would not cause her any problems in that respect. To refer to my barrenness, she named me “Desert,” and to embellish that name somewhat, she added “Rose,” which was fine with me, as I adored roses.

Which is how I think of faith—like a hidden rose garden where I once roamed and inhaled its perfumed smells but can no longer enter. I want God to be my friend again. With that longing I am circling that garden, searching for an entrance, hoping to find a gate that will let me in.

When Sesame and I reached the mosque, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Men of all ages and professions occupied every corner, even the place in the back that would normally be reserved for women. I was about to give up and leave when I noticed a beggar relinquish his seat and inch his way out. Thanking my lucky stars, I wriggled into his space, leaving Sesame outside.

This is how I found myself listening to the great Rumi in a mosque full of men. I didn’t even want to think what could happen if they found out there was a woman amid them, let alone a harlot. Chasing off all dark thoughts, I gave my full attention to the sermon.

“God created suffering so that joy might appear through its opposite,” Rumi said. “Things become manifest through opposites. Since God has no opposite, He remains hidden.”

As the preacher talked, his voice rose and swelled like a mountain stream fed by the melting snow. “Look at the abasement of the earth and the exaltation of the heavens. Know that all the states of the world are like this: flooding and drought, peace and war. Whatever happens, do not forget, nothing God has created is in vain, whether wrath or forbearance, honesty or guile.” Sitting there, I saw that everything served a purpose. My mother’s pregnancy and the war in her womb, my brother’s incurable loneliness, even the murder of my father and stepmother, my dreadful days in the forest, and every brutality I saw on the streets of Constantinople—they each contributed, in their own way, to my story. Behind all hardships was a larger scheme. I couldn’t make it out clearly, but I could feel it with my whole heart. Listening to Rumi in a packed mosque on that afternoon, I felt a cloud of tranquillity descend over me, as delightful and soothing as the sight of my mother baking bread.

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