HAREM SLAVE: ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND FOUR DAYS OF HELL ON THE PERSIAN GULF
By Nancy Hartwell Enonchong
(Jumada Al-Thany - Rajab 1425)
[Story so far: Tammy Simmons, a recent honor high school graduate from Maryland, is visiting friends outside Marseilles, and decides to try on a dress in the Arab Quarter. In the dressing room she is overpowered and drugged, then dumped onto a boat with a dozen other young women who are all being transported to harems and brothels on the Persian Gulf. She there becomes friends with Marisa, a stunning Swede who had answered an ad for a swimsuit model, and who is weeping uncontrollably after a brutal rape. Marisa is silenced with insulating foam, but she suffocates, and her body is thrown overboard. Tammy herself is brutally beaten and sodomized by Fuad, who informs her that she is destined for a brothel. The captives are crated up and drugged for the trip through the Suez Canal.]
Oh no, Tammy thought, as she recognized that she was coming to, I don’t want to wake up. If I’m awake they’ll kill me. She could sense someone lurking nearby. Fuad! The brothel! She had to get away.
“Ya Allah! God! Don’t struggle so, my golden treasure, your IV will – oh, too late,” said a soothing baritone. “Now, tell me please, where will I ever, ever find another vein?”
She blinked. Stared. Sheets, clean and white. Soft pillows. A man in white with a thousand-watt smile. Thick dark hair. Thick dark moustache. A stethoscope. A hospital! She wasn’t in a brothel, she was in a hospital! She was going to be all right. Tears that she’d bottled up for days soaked the pillow.
“I’m Dr. Hassan,” said the man beside her, a dizzying cross between Omar Sharif and Clark Gable. “Alas, that is my fate, to be considered frightening by beautiful women. You were brutally raped, you are dehydrated and weak, your rectal walls are ruptured, and your back is nothing but bruises, but you’ll soon be as good as new.”
“I’m sorry,” she said sheepishly between sobs, “I thought you were…someone else. I’m Tam, Tamara Simmons.”
“Taamm? It means complete, or perfect. Which you soon will be again.”
A dozen tissues later, Dr. Hassan was still there, still smiling, still reassuring. He gave her his card, Arabic on one side and English on the other. The Emirate of Amalia Jirahiya? She’d never heard of it. His devilish wink set her heart racing. “If God wills it, my golden one, in a couple of weeks you’ll be able to travel.”
“Weeks! But I need to get back to France. My family and friends must be worried out of their minds. I need to let them know I’m all right.”
“Tomorrow I need to operate and you’re not going anywhere until you’ve sufficiently recovered. Meanwhile, give me your family’s and friends’ emails and I will send them messages. Now, I’ll give you a shot so you can get some rest.”
Over the next few days, pleasantly drugged, she drifted in and out of a misty netherworld. Once, after a vivid nightmare, she woke up screaming. A smiling male nurse in a white uniform held her hand and gave her pain-killing shots. She was grateful, because both arms were sore from the IVs, her back knotted with pain when she breathed too hard, her rear was still on fire, and her legs felt like she’d done a thousand knee-bends.
She thought her heart would explode with gratitude the day Dr. Hassan arrived with two suitcases crammed with designer clothes and a ticket to Marseilles. “Your embassy people certainly are complicated,” he said, shaking his head, “Phone calls, verifications, more phone calls, oh my.” He triumphantly held up a replacement passport. “You’ll be leaving on the twenty-ninth of Jumada Al-Akhir, if God wills it.” He waved off her protests that he was doing too much, too much by far. “You are our guest,” he explained, “and we are honored to assist you.”
“I’m so lucky to be alive,” Tammy told Dr. Hassan again and again, letting the story of Marisa tumble onto sympathetic ears.
“May Allah be praised. Once a year, during the month of Shaban, the Tree of Life drops the leaves of those who will die in the coming year. I rejoice that the Tree of Life still holds fast to your leaf and that Almighty God has seen fit to spare you.”
She was cheered when huge arrangements of flowers from the Couillacs and her parents soon turned the bare hospital room into a fragrant, colorful bower.
“Nothing from my boyfriend?” she asked Dr. Hassan. “Just wait ’til I get back to Washington. Will Marc ever hear about this!”
The following day two dozen roses arrived with a card that said, “Dearest Tam, all my love, Marc.”
“That’s odd,” she told Nurse Nessim, “maybe I’m getting all worked up over nothing, but Marc hates the nickname Tam.” Why hadn’t he sent the roses to Tamara Lynne, she wondered. Was he pulling back?
“Perhaps he’s just trying to please you,” Nurse Nessim suggested.
Maybe. But it raised a lot of doubts.
“Can we please try to call my parents again?” she asked Dr. Hassan. “I hate to keep asking, but it’s been more than a week.”
“Why certainly, my golden treasure.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, putting the receiver to her ear, “no answer again, perhaps they are on an excursion. Beautiful flowers they sent you, though; I’m glad our email reached them safely.”
“Flowers are nice, Dr. Hassan, but I want to talk to them.”
“What’s important right now is your health, Taamm. Now you go back to sleep.”
When the bruises on her back had faded to bluish yellow and the thick hard knots were starting to shrink, she could raise herself on her elbows and write more emails for the nurse to send.
“What’s the day today?” she inquired.
“The 24th of July.”
“Look, while you’re here, can we please try to call Bethesda again?”
“Of course.” Nessim brought the phone in and plugged it into the wall jack. He’d barely picked up the receiver when he was summoned urgently away. “I’ll be right back,” he assured her. “It’s real complicated, so I’ll make the call for you.”
Tammy waited for a moment, then sprang to life. Complicated? What did he take her for, a total ninny? She’d watched, so she knew the access code for international calls, and although the so-called “Arabic numerals” bore only occasional resemblances to what she was used to, she closed her eyes and dialed from finger-memory. The phone rang.
“Who’s this?” he said absently. “Really awesome. Turn it up, Zyko, this song really rocks.”
“Wellie, I can hardly hear you. This is Tam. Let me speak to Mom or Dad. I’m calling from overseas on somebody else’s phone, so make it snappy.”
“Not home. No, it’s not Pelican, it’s only my sister.”
“Where are they?”
“Pelican and Julep? That’s just it, they were supposed to be here hours ago. Oh, awesome, play it again, really awesome.”
“Wellie, listen! I was kidnapped. I’m okay, but I’m in a hospital in an emirate on the Persian Gulf. I’ll give you the number. Ask Mom and Dad to call me, okay?”
“Sure. Dad’s over there looking for you. Hey, Zyko, get me a pencil. Hold on, Tam.”
“Listen, potato-brain, hurry up!”
“Don’t short your circuits, mudface. All right, go ahead.”
She read it off to him and made him repeat it. She hung up less than ten seconds before Nessim opened the door.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Taamm. Don’t worry, this time we’ll get through.” He put the receiver to her ear. The phone rang and rang. There was no answer.
“But–” Something told her not to elaborate.
How odd, she thought, how very odd.
Again and again, Tammy started letters to Marc and tore them up. This was just not what you could talk about in an email. Sometimes she made light of things; other times, she sensed she’d said too much. She could never seem to find the right balance of respect for his feelings and her own. How could she explain to him how filthy she felt, as if she could take twenty thousand showers and still not feel clean? It hadn’t been her fault, but that didn’t keep her from feeling guilty, and if she had such mixed emotions, how could she expect him to do otherwise?
She thought it would help to file a report with the police. Dr. Hassan hardly shared her enthusiasm, saying that under Islamic law rape was extremely difficult to prove, and that she would probably be disappointed. Nevertheless, since she insisted, he arranged for a police sergeant to interview her. She was annoyed at having to be veiled for the visit. Maybe it was one of the reasons the session went straight downhill.
The sergeant was a world-class nincompoop. Not only was he not the least bit scandalized about her abduction, he kept implying that it was her fault. He kept harping on how she’d entered the country illegally, wanted to know how long she’d been a prostitute, preached that in this part of the world where morality still had some value, prostitution was a serious crime, on and on. There she was, lying face down in a hospital room with rope burns on her wrists, her back a mass of bruises, and thirteen stitches up her rear, and Sgt. Nabil kept referring to her “alleged” abduction. She had to hold onto the bed linens with both hands to keep from jumping up and smacking him. He didn’t bat an eye when she told him about Marisa; he said any slut willing to parade around in skimpy swimsuits in public had no business coming to a proper Muslim country in the first place.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Hassan said after the idiot left, “but unfortunately that’s about what I expected.”
“What year did you say this was?” she asked, ripping off the veil.
“Sounds just about right,” she fumed.
“Do you know how beautiful your eyes are when you get angry?” he asked with a slanting smile. “They’re ten times bluer than usual.”
She groaned. “Sometimes I think you’re as much of a Neanderthal as that lame excuse for a sergeant. I’m trying to talk about something serious and you want to talk about my eyes.” The stricken look on his face filled her with remorse. “I’m sorry, Doctor, I really am. You’ve been just wonderful and I shouldn’t lump you in the same category with that jerk.”
“Thank you,” he said mildly. “Now let me check your stitches.”
As her health improved it got harder and harder for her to stay cooped up in the hospital room, but she wasn’t allowed to venture into the hallway where – horrors! – a man might see her, so Dr. Hassan arranged for a hairdresser to give her a glorious cut and styling, followed by other specialists who manicured, creamed, massaged, and lulled her into forgetting that she still hadn’t been able to reach anyone by phone. She held on for dear life to what Wellie had said: Dad’s over there looking for you.
The stitches came out. Within a few more days she walked. She sat – something she doubted she’d ever do again. She fidgeted. She wrote more emails. She practiced putting on the Yves Saint Laurent veil Mrs. Hassan brought her, logo discreetly embroidered in one corner of the double thickness of georgette, and startled herself with her black-veiled image in the mirror.
“Dear Clo,” she wrote for them to email, “Please bring the biggest, fattest pain au chocolat you can find and a whole carafe of Burgundy when you come meet me at the airport. I’ll hold my mouth open and you just keep pouring.”
She was really frustrated that phone calls never got through, and for days, they hadn’t been able to reach anybody by email. She had an especially bad case of cabin fever one afternoon when a grinning Dr. Hassan showed up with a stack of newspapers. “I’m sorry to say, the Internet is still down all over this area. Thought you might like something to read, though,” he said. “I’m sorry they’re so old, but they’re the best I can do.”
Who cared? She shrieked when she saw an article on page four of the International Herald Tribune.
Paris, July 17. (AP) –
Sources at the American Embassy in Paris confirmed today that 18-year-old Tamara Lynne Simmons of Bethesda, Maryland, has been declared a missing person since disappearing Tuesday morning in the Arab Quarter of Marseilles. Spokesmen say that concerted efforts by French authorities to locate the 5-foot-8-inch blue-eyed blonde have not yet been successful. She is described as tanned and fit, weighing approximately 125 pounds; when last seen she was wearing a long ponytail, jeans, and a Washington Redskins tee shirt.
John Willem Simmons, her father, 51, a former U.S. diplomat and presently owner of an international trading company, and her mother, Catherine Caldwell Simmons, 43, a well-known interior designer, say they have not given up hope. “She’s smart and resourceful,” he said at a press conference in their colonial home. “We’re confident that she’ll turn up soon.”
Tamara, a recent graduate of Walt Whitman High School, is expected to enter the freshman class of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in September.
“Oh look! I made the paper!”
Dr. Hassan rapidly read the article. “Your father used to be a diplomat?”
“Yes, Doctor. Specialized in North African affairs.” Was it just her imagination, or did a faint wave of trouble just wash over him?
“Only three days left before your flight. Are you sure you don’t want to stay here with me?”
“Thanks,” she replied, “I’ll never forget you, but just between you and me, I’ll be glad to get back to civilization.”
Even though her bruises were fading and turning into hard lumps, she often felt depressed. On those days, the slightest thing would set her off, which startled and embarrassed her, because she couldn’t stand weepy women.
“It’s normal,” Dr. Hassan reassured her. “My golden treasure, you’re strong, but you can’t expect to get over such traumatic events in a mere three weeks. You might consider getting counseling when you get home.”
The twenty-ninth of Jumada Al-Akhir finally arrived. Home! Tammy could almost smell it. She rose at dawn, flitted merrily around the room, and got everything ready with hours to spare. Time to write a few more emails, including a long one to Elaine. “I’m sorry Marisa wasn’t alive when we were rescued, but otherwise, she was lucky. Can you imagine how horrible it must be, closed up in a spooky harem, and you try to run away and they beat you, and this old geezer slobbers all over you and gets you pregnant, and you know you’re stuck there for the rest of your life? I mean, just think how horrible it would be if you were forced to live with somebody as creepy as Martin Higgenbotham, or a brute like Fuad!”
The Internet was still down, but she knew she could impose on Dr. Hassan one last time and get him to send the messages for her as soon as it was back up. She left them on the rolling table along with thank-you notes to him and Nurse Nessim.
Just as she was prepared to leave, the nurse appeared. “I need to give you one last shot,” he said. “This will help prevent jet lag.”
“Thank you so much for everything,” she said, overcoming the urge to hug him. “Shukran shukran shukran shukran,” she said, hoping that by sheer volume she could make up for her almost-non-existent Arabic vocabulary.
“Allah maa kum,” may God be with you.
Suddenly overcome by gratitude for those who had offered a hand of kindness to a suffering person, she went quickly outside.
She inspected the contents of her beige snakeskin handbag. Ticket? Check. New passport? Check. The €100 Dr. Hassan had insisted on giving her? Check. His card, so she could write and let him know how she was doing? Yes. Everything was just perfect, except for the fact that she had to cover up her beige pleated Gucci with the stupid black cloak.
Enveloped as she was in the ankle-length black abaaya and a long black veil, just in the fifty feet or so between the air-conditioned clinic and the white stretch limo, she thought she’d positively suffocate. She felt bizarre, too, as if she was just an oversize Idaho potato wrapped up in a black bag.
She’d resisted the veil. “If Arab women let men oppress them, it’s their business,” she said, “but I’m not covering up my face.”
He gasped. “It’s not oppression at all,” he explained, “just a different sense of decency. No self-respecting Arab woman would expose her face to strange men any more than you’d walk topless down the Champs Elysées. My wife, for instance, who studied in Paris, wouldn’t have things any other way.”
Her dad had always insisted that they respect other cultures, so she finally broke down and let him put the darn thing on her. What a pain! Even her own mother wouldn’t have known her. Brother, she thought, am I glad I don’t have to fool with this stuff all the time.
The two suitcases went into the trunk. Dr. Hassan had said that it would be preferable, since she didn’t speak the language, to let the driver handle the airport formalities. It annoyed her – didn’t these men think women were capable of anything? – but she capitulated and let the driver take the ticket and passport. She eased into the white leather seat. She sighed contentedly, and to her amusement, the veil puffed out. She experimented blowing it out and sucking it in. Fascinating.
She groaned when she noticed that the limo windows were heavily curtained, reminding her of a hearse. Dr. Hassan had told her that the Arabic word for “chaste” also meant “well guarded,” but they took things to ridiculous lengths. Oh well, just this once was no big deal. Besides, she was feeling downright woozy. “Yes, Jensen, another glass of champagne, thank you dahling. Oh, dear me, an emergency! I’ve nicked a nail! Fifi, quick, a manicure, dahling.” The veil obligingly went puff-puff-puff. How could Arab women talk to each other and manage to keep a straight face?
The driver cast questioning looks at her as she chattered away to herself. Okay, so she was feeling silly, but didn’t she deserve a little fun? What really mattered was that she was on her way home.
She felt like she’d had about three “ti many martoonis” by the time they arrived at a huge gated compound where Dr. Hassan had mentioned that they would drop something off. She hadn’t expected to get out of the car, but after the driver spoke briefly with one of the sentinels, he drove through the gate and grandly opened the door.
“Oum Mohammed, Sheikh Khalid’s wife, invites you to have a glass of lemonade with her.”
“But we need to get to the airport.”
“We have time. It would be extremely rude to refuse, and ten or fifteen minutes won’t really matter. Don’t spend all afternoon, though, or you’ll miss your plane.”
“Fat chance of that!” Maybe some lemonade would perk her up a little. She finally located the assorted parts of the black lump and managed to get them all out into the staggering heat.
Ferocious-looking guards draped with bandoliers of ammunition relaxed on a wide arched portico, behind them to the left a beautiful white marble building, to the right a vine-covered wrought iron gate. One of them nodded politely and unlocked it, and Tammy was admitted into a small courtyard where she was immediately greeted by two smiling women wearing long dresses but – much to her indignation – no cloaks or veils. Then she remembered. Behind a locked gate. Behind a high wall. What Dr. Hassan would call “protected.”
“Ahlan wa-sahlan,” Welcome welcome, the taller and very pregnant one said, a large-boned woman of maybe 35 with a plain face and pretty eyes. “Ismii Zeynab. Zeynab,” she repeated with a smile. My name is Zeynab.
They seemed to be expecting her.
“Ismii Haifa,” My name is Haifa, the other one said. She was much younger, quite pretty, Asian, and only half as pregnant. “Alham-dulilah alla salama.” She knew Alhamdulillah meant thank God, because Dr. Hassan made sure she said it after every meal.
“Ismii Tam,” she replied, recklessly using up a huge percentage of the Arabic that Nessim had taught her. She said it a little more breathily than she had to, to make the veil puff out. It did. She giggled. Haifa and Zeynab seemed puzzled. Then she giggled again because they hadn’t. They exchanged nervous glances, like, are Americans always this harebrained?
“Taamm.” They pronounced her name like Dr. Hassan, stretching it out like salt-water taffy. He said it meant “complete,” but for all she knew it meant “complete idiot.” The trouble was, she was never sure she could believe him, because he was always skating on the border between chivalry and mischief and wasn’t above saying something flattering even if it weren’t entirely true.
The courtyard was set with potted geraniums and lemon trees. A grape arbor provided a little thin shade, cutting the 120-degree heat to a mere 115 or so. Off to the back was an odd wooden building with a pair of doors that looked like they belonged on a medieval castle. Zeynab let them through with a six-inch key. She and Haifa helped Tammy out of the cloak and veil and exclaimed admiringly over her wilted Gucci. Her wrappings took their place on hooks by the door. They were as alike as quarters. How would she know the right one to take when she left? She giggled. What difference could it possibly make?
It was only marginally cooler inside the house. That lemonade, perchance? Dr. Hassan had said that Sheikh Khalid was a fabulously wealthy commodities trader. Maybe so, but his house was in shambles. From the entryway of chipped patterned tiles, they climbed a rickety stairway that led to a shabby living room with lattice-covered windows and built-in couches. Two middle-aged women were doing needlework and a curly-haired girl was teaching a teddy bear how to read. Oh good, Tammy thought, now for that lemonade. She stopped, too dizzy to continue, and steadied herself. She made circles in the air with her finger, and they seemed to understand. They continued around a couple of odd corners, up two or three more small flights of swayback wooden stairs, flattening themselves against a wall while squealing twin boys raced by. I’ll be darned, she thought, if this is where the women and children live, it must be the harem. I’m actually visiting a sheikh’s harem. Wait until I tell Elaine!
It wasn’t at all like Hollywood had led her to expect. A touching crayon drawing of a purple horse? What, no belly dancers, no bejeweled women in harem pants lounging seductively on fringed sofas? Where were the naked-chested eunuchs in draped pants and gold earrings? Even an ironing board? Her father would be pleased with all the stereotypes this short visit had exploded.
Next stop on the tour was a small dim room furnished only with a window-seat. Tammy looked politely out the window, trying to see what the world looked like through a carved lattice screen. She turned around just in time to see the door close. That’s odd, she thought, where’d everybody go?
A heavy bolt slid solidly into place.
Title: Harem Slave: One Thousand Nine Hundred and Four Days of Hell on the Persian Gulf
Age Range: Older teens and adults
Word Count: 117,000 (this excerpt: 3.973)
Author Name: Nancy Hartwell Enonchong
Why this book is a good fit: After collecting dozens of rejection letters, I finally self-published this book on Amazon, and within five weeks it had reached number one in its category. I am an internationally recognized authority on human trafficking and drive sales through radio interviews. After one particularly juicy interview on the popular Real Talk with Lee in New York, I had 720 downloads in a single day, lifting Harem Slave to number seven in All Fiction on Amazon (three million titles)! It has been translated into French, German, and Spanish and has sold more than 25,000 copies. The sequel, Prince Ibrahim’s Favorite, and a companion volume, Voices from the Harem, are also strong sellers. Both Harem Slave and Prince Ibrahim’s Favorite were voted the monthly favorite by members of the e-book club, Noveltunity.
The hook: This could happen to anyone
Synopsis: Tammy Simmons, every parent’s dream daughter, is kidnapped and, to her utter disbelief, sold into the harem of an 81-year-old sheikh. She struggles to deal with the chilling detour her life has taken and to hang onto some semblance of sanity. In the five-plus years she spends in slavery before her near-miraculous rescue, she also belongs to a brooding and unpredictable petroleum geologist, a weirdo who dyes her green, and a prince with a weakness for fresh blonde corpses. She gets into trouble when she gleefully wreaks revenge on a surgeon who has taken great delight in tormenting her; indeed, she’s sentenced to be tortured to death at a “snuff club” that has been held as a threat since day one. Her extraordinary courage, willingness to love those who deserve it the least, and ability to see her masters as other humans grappling with their own demons. finally constitute the keys to her salvation.
Target audience: general public, parents of teenage daughters, activists, women
My bio: I grew up in Tampa, earned a degree in international relations from American U., and married a distinguished attorney from Cameroon, where I lived and worked for 15 years. Back in the U.S. I wrote for The Washington Post on Capitol Hill, became lead proposal writer for an international consulting company, and with brilliant timing opened a catering company just in time for the recession. I have traveled to 44 countries (even Mozambique, Haiti, Guyana, Bangladesh) and speak more than a dozen languages. I became fascinated – and horrified – by the modern-day slave trade when a friend of mine vanished and it was later rumored that she had been sold to a sultan in Libya. This prompted me to start collecting stories, which eventually resulted in the three books in my Human Trafficking Series.
Platform: I am in hot demand as an expert on the 21st Century slave trade; to date I have done more than 500 radio interviews around the world. I also do presentations at local civic and religious groups (e.g., Rotary). In addition. I have an active website focused on human trafficking and a monthly newsletter.
Education: B.A., international relations, American University, 1967. Certified French/English translator, September 1968.
Experience: Been There, done That! And while I was There doing That, I got into trouble. By the grace of God I climbed back out and then immediately got into trouble again. I have lived an incredibly rich life, and many people have told me I’m the happiest person they know. I was in the first interracial couple to marry in Maryland. In the 1970s I supervised 44 people (41 men) in Cameroon when women were expected to be secretaries. I investigated stolen cargo in the port. I spoke eight Cameroonian languages, but nobody believed it, so crooks would make plans right in front of me, and I’d arrange for cops. They never figured it out! When close friends were murdered, a Gendarme officer and I spent 18 months dismantling a cover-up and cracking the case, but we destroyed the corrupt President, who was exiled in disgrace. I was calligrapher for Bob Dole’s Presidential campaign. I raised eight kids, only one of whom is “officially” my own. I offer my home to people who need it, currently a father and daughter from Pakistan here for specialized surgery; others have been from a dozen countries. I have edited 35 or 40 books and translated half a dozen. I don’t care what color you are or what you call God. I have collected hundreds of stories about victims of human trafficking. The crime positively infuriates me and makes me sick to my stomach, and I hope that my efforts can help prevent at least two or three people from becoming trapped in this horrific vortex.
Personality/writing style: Harem Slave went through 107 drafts. I do my best to be accessible, compelling, provide carefully researched, authentic detail about time and place, and let the characters drive the story. At times, the characters became so real to me that they would wake me up screaming, “You idiot, that’s not what I said!” Critics complain that content is occasionally too graphic , and I often struggle trying to strike a balance, but in the end I follow the maxim Show, don’t Tell. I want readers to experience the horror right along with the victim and not just blandly read, “The torment lasted for an hour and a half.”
Likes/hobbies: I am an accomplished baker and made a wedding cake for 5,000 for the daughter of the President of Cameroon. I wrote a cookbook: Heavenly Brownies. Therapy! I love reading, writing, words, languages, philology, chocolate, wildlife, traveling, and young people. My brother teased, “Nancy loves wildlife – especially elephants, giraffes, and teenagers.”
Hometown: Tampa. Love this beautiful, reasonably priced, friendly, and resolutely easy-living city!
Age: 70. I do not take a single prescription drug and don’t even wear eyeglasses. I passed the Florida State driver’s vision test on my 69th birthday without glasses!
Around the year 1700, in the beautiful green mountains of west-central Africa, a slave was born to the wealthy elder ya-Mitoumaza. He developed into a well-muscled “back” whose job was to build stone structures. Like all slaves he owned no name, but people called him Kamba Mbou – Rock Slave.
One day, on his way back from the quarry, he found a young woman lying beside the path with a broken ankle. She was startlingly beautiful, but he could be castrated for looking indecorously at a free woman, so he tried not to think about her velvet skin as he made a bamboo splint and offered to carry her back to her father’s compound.
“You’re very strong,” she said when he set her down to rest, her eyes appreciating every sinew. Slaves wore only identifying tattoos, so she had much to admire.
“This slave finds the honored lady a thousand times beautiful,” he said aloud, a shocking impropriety.
To his relief she was not offended. “I am Mika, daughter of Koyo. He buys me whatever I like. I shall ask him to buy you.”
“Perhaps he will give this slave freedom, honored lady,” Kamba-Mbou brazenly replied. He inwardly gasped. What was there about her that made him feel so unrestrained, as if his tattoos had suddenly vanished?
“Does your owner mistreat you?”
“No, honored lady, ya-Mitoumaza is generous and kind. This slave loves his master. But he thirsts to hold a spear in his hands like a real man.”
The walk to Koyo’s compound was long and the sun melted away formality. Mika made him laugh at her irreverent descriptions of the King of Sana who wanted her to become his forty-third wife; his heart went out to her when she wished plaintively that her father would sell her not to the wealthiest suitor but to the man who would treat her best. “The king has sons with gray hair, but he still marries a new wife every year even though he can no longer fill either her warmth or her womb.” Suddenly her eyes opened wide. “Your heart is kind and you are strong. I will marry you.”
Kamba-Mbou nearly dropped her. “Honored lady, this slave owns no property and can give your father no bride-price. From today forever this slave will keep you as a treasure in his heart, but please, do not think of more.”
“I will find a way. Besides,” she added impishly, “you wouldn’t dare use a rod on me.”
Kamba-Mbou smiled at her irrefutable logic, and promised he would request permission for them to marry.
The Senior Wife hooted. “A daughter of Koyo would no more marry a flap than a hyena.” She used the most vulgar term in the language for an uncircumcised male.
Undaunted, he appealed to the Elder, who sensed his profound purpose. “It is against the law for a slave to own a wife, but this I will promise you. If her father gives his permission, I will buy Mika as my pleasure and allow you to cohabit.” He cautioned Kamba-Mbou not to be too hopeful, however, since it was unlikely that the ambitious Koyo would sell one of his beautiful daughters as a mere concubine.
Meanwhile, Mika informed her father that she intended to marry Kamba-Mbou whether he approved or not. Koyo beat her with the Rod of Honor and ordered her to remain secluded in the House of Shame until she regained her senses. Weeks passed. After much haggling, he reached an agreement with the King’s ambassador, and Mika was summoned to demonstrate her acquiescence to the marriage by serving a ritual cup of palm wine. Instead, eyes blazing with defiance, she strode across the room and emptied the contents of the calabash over the ambassador’s head.
Scandal poured over Koyo like a monsoon rain, soaking him in humiliation. Koyo beat her with the Rod of Respect, the Rod of Honor, and the Rod of Obedience, but the damage had been done: there was no way he could redeem Mika’s reputation as an insolent, ungovernable woman. He got exactly two offers for her, one from a smirking Egyptian slave-trader, and the other – in the circumstances more than generous – as a pleasure to ya-Mitoumaza.
The Elder kept her for the obligatory minimum of nine days in his bedchamber, and said she could then cohabit with Kamba-Mbou. The Senior Wife considered the “marriage” between Mika and Kamba-Mbou an aberration. In her opinion the Elder had made a grave error in bringing Mika into the compound at all. Allowing a back to share a bed with a free woman would interfere with his duty to fill the wombs of the female slaves, make him difficult to discipline, and destroy morale among the other slaves. Allow such “marriage” to be consummated? Never!
She set him to work on a new House of Hospitality built with special stone from a quarry an exhausting four drum-stations distant, and doubled his breeding assignments. She forbade Mika to leave the women’s quarters except when selected as a pleasure to overnight guests – by coincidence, no doubt, every time the moon-beads in the Senior Wife’s possession indicated Mika’s womb could be filled. The young concubine’s first child, fathered on the bed of hospitality, was a boy who died within two weeks. The second was a sickly son who lived only a few months. The third was a healthy daughter.
Now, cunning as she was in circumventing her husband’s intentions, the Senior Wife was unaware that Mika and Kamba-Mbou had agreed to give all their daughters to the Elder as slaves, the only way they could begin to repay his generosity. On the other hand, the Elder was unaware that the Senior Wife had effectively prevented the cohabitation that he had authorized. Accordingly, on the ninth day, ya-Mitoumaza expected Mika and Kamba-Mbou to bring him their child for her tattooing. When instead, Mika appeared alone with the infant and requested the ceremony of Naming as if the child were free, he was greatly indignant.
“Was this child not called forth by my rock-slave? Is a favor I conceived in kindness to be repaid by defiance and disrespect? Speak, Mika, or the tattoo-man will have double work today.”
Explanations drenched with many tears finally revealed the truth, and the Elder graciously apologized to his concubine for the Senior Wife’s “misunderstanding.” The next day ya-Mitoumaza’s Rod of Obedience, which had mildewed from disuse, shone with unaccustomed luster, and the Senior Wife was confined for nearly a week with an “intestinal” ailment.
Thus, after four years of frustration, Mika and Kamba-Mbou were allowed to leave their beds of duty and lie together. They were warmed with happiness, but the air around them was filled with insults. The Senior Wife called Mika “that she-flap.” Junior Wives threw mud on her laundry. Little children chanted “zi-mbou, zi-mbou” – wife of a slave. Mika didn’t care. She was at last expecting a child by the man she loved.
Kamba-Mbou wept when they handed their beautiful nine-day-old daughter to the Elder. Two more daughters were born to them and twice more, in accordance with their agreement, they gave them up. After the birth of a stillborn son they were blessed with a sturdy little boy whom the Elder named Limoboto, patience rewarded, but to mock him, everyone called him “zi-mbou” like his mother.
“Make them jealous of your name,” Mika advised her son, and he swallowed her words with his whole heart. People began to notice him when he bloodied champion wrestlers, and his spear-throwing was so exceptional that ya-Mitoumaza arranged for him to undergo military training reserved for sons of nobility. Legally, his concubine’s children were considered his, so the Council of Elders could only roll their eyes.
At Final Initiation the son of Mika and Kamba-Mbou pointedly took ownership of the name Zimbou and ignored the stir he caused; he was busy redesigning the war-spear to improve its stability, revamping the system of military communication, and rising rapidly to battalion commander. He was such a charismatic leader that warriors clamored to serve under him. Fathers of eligible young women, quick to forget his humble origins, solicited offers of marriage. The ever-generous Elder quietly bought him a bride from an excellent family, and Zimbou became a respected member of society.
About this time bleached slavers from across the sea grew bold and extended their raids from the coast to the mountains, stealing strong youths and healthy women and carrying them away in chains. The people were outraged. “We are the mighty Bakou, the Conquerors. Do we do nothing to drive these criminals from our territory?” Zimbou organized a party of elite warriors known as The Fearless. They freed captives, burned camps, and sank ships. They killed most of the bleached men, but a few were brought back as war-captives. The Chief had them relieved of their manly parts, confined them in bamboo cages, and set them in the middle of the market to be mocked by everyone. Word traveled fast that slavers were not welcome in the mountains, and peace returned.
Several years later, however, a surprise foray succeeded in capturing more than a dozen young people, including a new bride of Zimbou and a newly-initiated son of the Chief, a youth so intelligent and popular that he was already considered a leading candidate to succeed his aging father. The people were in an uproar, and General Zimbou, who took the raid as a personal affront, vowed to bring the captives back. Not only did he succeed, but stories of his daring thrilled the hearts of everyone.
The Chief and Elders appointed Zimbou as Keeper of the Royal War-Spear and awarded him the title Ko – the great – which by law could be conferred only once in three generations. The Chief offered him six magnificent ivory tusks and three pregnant slaves, but Zimbou-Ko respectfully declined.
“Most noble lord, only one thing I lack. I implore you, most noble lord, grant freedom to my father.”
The Chief took the Spear of the People in his right hand and solemnly tapped it three times. Kamba-Mbou, coughing and feverish, was brought before the Council where the knife-man drew a drop of blood and declared him circumcised. A frail ya-Mitoumaza himself insisted on placing the Cloak of Manhood on his shoulders.
“What name will you own, honored sir?” the Chief inquired.
“This sl—no, I,” he said firmly, smiling at the word coming from his mouth, “wish to own, most noble lord, the name Tou-Mbou, freedom for a slave.”
“Welcome, Tou-Mbou, to the Assembly of Citizens!”
General Zimbou-Ko, supreme commander of the army, knelt before the former slave and presented him an intricately carved ceremonial spear. “This humble gift is for the man I am proud to call my honored father.”
Tou-Mbou’s fingers touched the exquisite spear, turning it over and over in his hands, fearful his heart would burst with happiness. “Thank you, my pride, my son,” he said with tightening throat.
Mika, now zi-Tou-Mbou, respecting the custom, prostrated and presented her husband with the Nine Sacred Rods. “My honored lord.”
Tears streamed down his face while he searched for his voice, hidden under the thousands of flowers of happiness she had planted in his soul. After several tries he was able to squeeze out a single word: “Mika.” It was the first time he had been allowed to call her by her name.
When he passed into shadow two weeks later, clutching the spear in his hand, he was mourned in a way befitting the father of a great general of a powerful army. Tou-Mbou was buried on the east slope of the Mount of the Tortoise, overlooking the field where his grandsons practiced spear-throwing. In the distance his beloved Mika lived out her days at the compound of her son, her mother’s tears of pride outshone only by her widow’s tears of sorrow.