Sand Beneath the Rainbow
by Neal Robbins
Zayd felt exhausted as he made his way toward the city of Marib. He had spent a full day working in the alabaster quarry. His arms and legs ached and he had become dizzy. Zayd was wearing a white robe and a kufa of the same color.
A variety of trees stood near the outskirts of Marib. The vegetation included palms and acacias. A grove of frankincense trees lay in the distance. Zayd perceived a man standing near them. He surmised that the individual might be his friend Adil. Both Zayd and Adil’s family were members of the temple of the goddess Al-Uzza.
Zayd managed to quicken his pace as he approached the figure. As he drew near, the man turned and Adil said “Zayd, it is good to see you. I can see you have had a full day of work."
“Yes, and I feel very tired,” Zayd said. “There was much work today. The king of Saba sent a message for a large amount of alabaster to be sent to his craftsmen.”
“We should sit down,” Adil said and pointed to a stone bench. The two seated themselves and Adil said “You have worked in the alabaster quarry for twenty-two years, but I have never seen you look this tired.”
“I am tired in more than one way,” Zayd said. “My body is tired and so is my mind.”
“Were you paid today?” Adil asked.
“Yes,” said Zayd. “I have a few bronze coins and one silver coin. But it is not enough for the work that I do.”
Adil looked toward the frankincense trees and said “I have also been working very hard today. I want to show you something.”
“What is it?” Zayd said.
“You will see,” Adil said. The two men got up and walked over to the grove. Adil touched the trunk of the nearest tree and said “Look at this.”
Zayd perceived several droplets of gum resin. They had oozed out of a spot where the bark had been scraped away.
“This is from the second scraping,” Adil said. “As I have told you before, we will throw it away. When we make the third scraping we will get fine quality incense.”
“Then it will be exported to many countries,” Zayd said. “But everyone in Saba knows that. So what is your point?”
“We pray to our deities,” Adil said. “Some such as myself and you pray to Uzza.”
“That is true,” Zayd said. “I also pray to Uzza. And I am paid for my work as a stonecutter. But I am still not happy.”
“You should pray for more than making money,” Adil said. “Pray to Uzza for happiness. That is a higher level of prayer.”
“Maybe so,” Zayd said in a tired voice. “I need to go now. My family will be expecting me.”
Adil smiled and said “Will you be working tomorrow?”
“No,” said Zayd. “I will not have to work tomorrow.”
“I will go to the temple of Al-Uzza,” said Adil. “Will you and your family go there?”
“Maybe,” Zayd said. He spoke with Adil for another minute and then resumed his walk toward the city.
Within a half-hour Zayd reached his residence. His son Hussein was sitting on a stone bench in front of the small brick dwelling. Hussein held a flat piece of wood on which he had etched some poems in charcoal.
As Hussein rose to greet his father Zayd said “Did you write many poems today?”
“A few,” Hussein replied. “Were you paid for your work?”
“Yes,” Zayd said. “Let us sit down. I need to talk with you about some things.”
They seated themselves on the bench and Zayd said “Hussein, I am going on a trip tomorrow. I will only be gone for a few days. While I am gone, I want you to look after your mother and Amat.”
“Why are you going on the trip?” Hussein asked.
“I will tell you about that when I return,” said Zayd. “I want you to go with your mother and Amat to the temple of Al-Uzza tomorrow. It is important that you pay your respects to the goddess.”
“Yes, father, I understand,” Hussein said. Zayd touched Hussein’s shoulder and said “We must go inside now.”
The two men got up and entered the house. Zayd’s wife Bashirah and his fourteen year old daughter Amat had laid out plates of mutton and dried dates on the mud brick floor. The room was sparsely furnished. A stack of woolen blankets lay in one corner. Two alabaster boxes were placed next to the window.
“I was paid today,” Zayd said. Bashirah and Amat smiled as Zayd took the coins out of the pouch.
“Uzza has blessed us,” Bashirah said.
Zayd drew the reins and halted his camel. He gazed at the three small hills that lay in the distance. Two days of riding had brought him to his destination. Nothing seemed ominous about the scenery. Zayd dismounted and used his stick to prod the camel into sitting down. He did the same with the pack camel and began unloading the baggage from it. After all the items were unpacked Zayd removed the saddle from the riding camel. Making camp was essential, for the sun would set in a couple of hours.
The spot where Zayd had stopped was on high ground. His position would be advantageous during the day, since he could easily perceive anyone coming into the area. Nighttime would be different. Darkness would give cover to an intruder.
After eating a brief meal of mutton and coarse bread, Zayd pondered a decision he had to make. Should he light a fire? On one hand it would keep wild animals away while he slept. However, the light would betray his position to hostile parties. A number of bushes could provide ample fuel. Zayd thought for another minute and made his decision. He would build a fire. The area did not seem to be inhabited by any people.
Zayd picked up one of his knives and walked over to a dead bush. He began pruning the branches from it and making a pile. The dry wood was excellent for starting a blaze. Zayd knelt down and scooped up the twigs. Just as he started to rise, Zayd suddenly noticed a shadow on the ground. It was not his own. He sprang to his feet and perceived a man facing him. The individual wore a black turban and a white robe. His white sash held a dagger, but he made no attempt to draw it.
“My name is Nizar,” the man said in Arabic. “I am not here to fight.”
“I do not wish to fight, either,” Zayd replied.
“I notice that your accent is not that of a native speaker of Arabic,” Nizar said.
“My native language is Sabaean,” said Zayd. “I speak Arabic as a second language.”
“So you are from Saba,” Nizar said. “I have never been to Saba, though I have heard much about it. Your country produces and exports much frankincense.”
“That is true,” Zayd said. “You must be from north of here.”
“I am,” said Nizar. “I am of the Kiyil tribe. My people are nomads.”
“The Kiyil live very far from here,” said Zayd. “You have obviously come a long way.”
“You are right. I have traveled a long distance. Before I speak of my purpose, I can help you build your fire.”
“Yes, that will be good,” Zayd said. He sensed no hostility in Nizar and now felt glad to have met him. Nizar seemed friendly enough.
The two men gathered a substantial number of sticks and laid them in a pile. As they proceeded with the task Zayd said “Where is your mount?”
“Behind those large rocks,” Nizar said. “I came here on a horse. After we make the fire, I will go and get it.”
After the fire was lit, Nizar went to get his steed. He walked over to two huge rocks and disappeared behind them. In a few seconds, Nizar reappeared, leading a white horse.
“That is a fine horse,” Zayd said.
“He has very good speed,” said Nizar. “And I am glad of that. Three days ago his speed saved my life.”
“Several bandits came after me. My horse was faster than theirs, so I was able to get away from them.”
“So there are many bandits in this area?”
“A fairly large number. You must be very careful out here.”
Darkness had come and the men were sitting by the fire. They had eaten and were carrying on a conversation.
“I am a stonecutter by trade,” Zayd said. “It is very hard work and I have done it all my life. To tell you the truth, I do not like it. And I do not want my son to follow in my footsteps.”
“You must have some reason for coming here,” said Nizar. “I am sure that you do not intend to abandon your family.”
“I will tell you why I am here,” said Zayd. “I have heard that there is gold in this area.”
Nizar stared intensely at Zayd and said “That is also why I came here. I was told by a man of the Himyar tribe that there is much gold near those three hills.”
“So we are here for the same purpose,” Zayd said. “We can look for the gold together. There should be more than enough for both of us.”
“I think you are right,” said Nizar. “We can look tomorrow.”
“This region seems to be deserted,” said Zayd. “I have not seen any people.”
“There are people in this area,” Nizar said. “I have seen two villages from a distance.”
“Did you go into the villages?” Zayd said.
“No, I avoided them.”
“When I talked to the Himyar tribesman, he said that I should keep away from the people of this area.”
“Is there a reason for that?”
“Yes. He told me that those people are unfriendly. And he also said that most of them do not worship gods or goddesses. They worship sticks and stones. Some of them practice sorcery. And some eat pig meat.”
“That is disgusting,” Zayd said. “I would never eat pig meat. It is unclean and can cause sickness. I do not want to be around those people.”
“It is a good idea to keep away from them,” said Nizar.
“Once we have gathered enough gold we should leave immediately,” said Nizar.
“Will you return to your tribe?”
“No, I do not plan to do that. I plan to go to Qataban. There are things that I want to do there. I am not married, but I desire a wife.”
“Do you not want to marry a woman of your tribe?”
“There was a woman of my tribe that I wanted to marry. Her name was Sitt and she was very beautiful. But she married another man who had many camels, horses, and sheep. Her family thought that he would be a better husband for her.”
“So you left your tribe?”
“Yes. I might visit them again someday, but I can never think of myself as being a part of them again.”
“I understand. Since you are planning to go to Qataban, you could ride with me part of the way. Qataban lies in the same general direction as Saba."
“It would be a good idea for us to ride together. We will be carrying gold and can more easily defend ourselves against bandits or anyone else who might attack us.”
Nizar looked away for a moment. He turned back toward Zayd and said “There is something about this area that puzzles me.”
“What is it?” Zayd asked.
“If there is gold around here, why do the people not gather it and become rich?”
“I do not know. I wonder if there really is very much gold.”
“We will find out soon.”
Changing the subject, Zayd said “Which deity do you worship?”
“I worship Qos.”
“I have heard of him. He is the god of weather.”
“He is also a hunting god,” said Nizar. I pray to him often. A week ago I was hungry and needed food. I made a prayer to Qos and he answered it. An hour later I saw an oryx and shot it with my bow. The meat was very good.”
“I have heard that Qos sometimes holds a rainbow,” Zayd said.
“Yes, that true,” Nizar said. “I have never seen Qos, but my grandfather saw him once. It was long before I was born. My grandfather and several other members of the tribe experienced a rainstorm. They went inside a cave and waited until it was over. When they came out of the cave, Qos was hovering in the air. He was huge and held a rainbow in his right hand.”
“That must have been an experience,” Zayd said.
“Yes, my grandfather has never forgotten it,” Nizar said. “I have heard him speak of it many times.”
Zayd put some more sticks on the fire and Nizar said “Which deity do you worship?”
“Al-Uzza,” Zayd said.
“I have heard of her,” said Zayd. “She is the goddess of love and beauty. Uzza is well known. As I am sure you know, she is a sister of Ilat the sun goddess.”
“And also a sister of Manat the goddess of fate,” Zayd said. “I think everyone has heard of those three goddesses.”
“They are well known,” Nizar.
The moon was full as Zayd sat and kept watch. Nizar lay sleeping nearby. They had extinguished the campfire as a precaution. Zayd held his bow and an arrow in readiness. To the side lay his quiver and sword. He could take no chances. To drop one’s guard would be foolhardy.
Zayd thought about his family back in Marib. They were surely worried about him. He longed to get back to them as soon as possible. Perhaps Hussein had written some more poems. Bahija, Hussein, and Amat had undoubtedly been praying for Zayd’s safety.
Zayd’s thoughts returned to his immediate surroundings. The darkness was frightening. Camping out in the open was nothing new to Nizar, since he was from a nomadic Bedouin tribe. Zayd’s background was far different. He had lived all his life in Marib and was unaccustomed to the wilderness.
Zayd surmised that imaginary dangers could be almost as scary as real ones. He turned his head briefly and then resumed gazing forward. Suddenly Zayd perceived something that alarmed him. Two lights were moving up the slope of one of the hills.
At this point Zayd could no longer contain himself. He turned toward Nizar and shouted “Nizar! Wake up!”
Nizar suddenly sprang to his feet holding his sword. The action startled Zayd. Never had he ever seen anyone react so fast.
“What is it?” Nizar said.
“Over there!” Zayd yelled and pointed.
“Do not shout,” Nizar said with a frown. “That could betray our position.”
“All right, I understand,” Zayd said. “But you must look.”
Nizar gazed toward the hill and perceived the lights. He bore a concerned look on his face. Zayd breathed heavily and said “Do you think someone may be looking for us?”
“I do not know,” said Nizar. “But we need to be cautious. We must look and see if there are any other lights.”
Zayd and Nizar turned and looked in all directions. They saw no other lights and Zayd said “This is very strange.”
Nizar pointed and said “Those two lights have disappeared on that other hill.
“What could have caused that?”
“I do not know,” Nizar said. “But we need to stay alert. Neither of us should sleep now.”
Both men stayed awake and waited. They saddled their mounts as a precaution. Yet no one came into view. Morning came as a great relief.
“Are you ready to go looking for the gold?” Nizar said.
“Yes,” Zayd replied as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. He and Nizar had managed to catch up on their sleep. It was early afternoon and they did not wish to waste any time.
Nizar mounted his horse and Zayd got on his camel. Zayd rode forward with the pack camel following him and Nizar riding to the side. They moved down the slope and soon reached the bottom of the hill. Zayd pointed to the row of three hills and said “Which one do you want to search first?”
“The one to the left,” said Nizar. “That is the one where we saw the lights.”
“All right,” said Zayd. “I am very curious about that one.”
Zayd and Nizar rode to the base of the hill. They halted and Zayd said “The slope is too steep here. We need to ride farther to the left where it is not so steep.”
“I agree,” said Nizar. “I see a place where we can ride up.”
Nizar and Zayd began riding toward the part with a gentle slope. They came to it and perceived a set of stone steps leading to the top.
“Whoever went up there last night must have used those steps,” Zayd said.
“I am sure of that,” said Nizar. Zayd and Nizar dismounted and suddenly saw four sets of footprints in the sand. Two led to the bottom of the stairs and the other two led in the opposite direction.
Those were made by the people who went up the hill and then back down,” said Nizar. “And there were only two.”
“Yes, that is true,” said Zayd. Zayd knelt down to observe the tracks. He looked closely at them and got up.
“I think they may have been made by women,” Zayd said.
“Maybe you are right. I am curious as to why they went up there.”
“I would also like to know. But it is risky to leave our mounts unwatched.”
“I will go and see what is up there,” Nizar said. “Wait here.”
“Call if you need help,” Zayd said.
Nizar began ascending the steps. He carried his sword in case of danger. Thorny bushes grew here and there on the otherwise barren hillside. As Nizar proceeded upward, he felt quite uneasy. Something about the hill seemed evil.
Nizar reached the top and came onto a large sandstone plaza. The terrace was perfectly flat and had no markings. Nizar gazed around and experienced a feeling that he had never felt. The place was extremely evil and he knew it. He went back down the stairs and was glad to reach the bottom.
“That is a very evil place,” Nizar said. “You do not want to go up there."
“What did you see?” said Zayd.
“Only a stone plaza. But something very bad comes there. I can sense it.”
“I trust your judgment. But do you want to continue looking for the gold?”
“Yes, I want to go to the middle hill.”
Zayd agreed to Nizar’s suggestion and they rode to the next hill. The incline was not a steep one, but Nizar said “I will walk up this hill. You wait here.”
Suddenly Zayd pointed and said “I see something. It is yellow and looks like gold.”
Nizar looked and saw a yellow boulder on the slope. It lay next to a thorn bearing bush.
“That may be gold,” said Nizar. The two men dismounted and walked up to inspect their discovery. As they came to it, their guess turned out to be correct. The object glistened in the sunlight.
“This is gold!” Zayd exclaimed.
“Yes, and there is probably more of it,” said Nizar. “We must look around.”
Nizar and Zayd began searching. Their expectations were soon fulfilled. Nuggets of gold were scattered here and there.
“We need to get our sacks and gather it up,” said Zayd. “As much of it as we can get.”
“We are going to be rich,” Nizar said. He and Zayd went to their mounts and got several bags. They scooped up chunks of gold and soon filled the sacks. The treasure was loaded on Zayd’s pack camel and Nizar said “We can divide it up when we get to our campsite.”
“That is a good idea,” Zayd said.
Zayd and Nizar rode back toward the place where they had camped the night before. Both talked excitedly about what would do with their newly acquired wealth.
It was near the end of the day when Zayd and Nizar finished dividing up the gold. They put it into the sacks and sat back to talk about their plans.
“I will not have to work as a stone cutter anymore,” Zayd said. “I can buy a jewelry shop and make much money with it. And someday my son will inherit the shop. What do you plan to do?”
“I want to settle down in Qataban,” Nizar said. “I will buy a small house and get married. Maybe I could buy some horses for breeding. Or I could buy some frankincense trees.”
“You could do that in Saba,” said Zayd. “I could introduce you to people who could help you get started in either business.”
Nizar thought briefly and said “You have a good point. Maybe I should go with you to Saba.”
“You are welcome to come with me,” Zayd said. “When we get there,” you can have dinner with me and my family. My son Hussein can read you some of his poems.”
“I accept your offer,” Nizar said. Nizar got up and gazed toward the hill where they had gotten the gold.
“Do you think anyone will notice that some of the gold is missing?” Zayd said.
Nizar did not answer. He held up his hand for silence and began looking in all directions.
“What is wrong?” Zayd said.
“I sense danger,” Nizar said. He snatched up his bow and pulled an arrow from the quiver. Zayd did the same and both men fitted the arrows to their bows.
“What could it be?” Zayd said.
“I do not know,” said Nizar. “But it is something very unusual.”
Zayd’s heart pounded and he was short of breath. An evil presence lurked nearby.
Just then an enormous form came slithering on the ground. It was very long and the sight astonished the men. They suddenly realized that it was a giant sized snake. The creature reared up and its head swelled displaying a hood.
“That is an asp!” Zayd shouted. “A giant one!”
Zayd and Nizar began backing away from the entity, holding their bows and arrows in readiness. The snake continued to move toward them and swayed.
Nizar pulled back the bowstring and let fly an arrow. It plunged into the neck of the serpent and blood gushed from the wound. Zayd also fired an arrow and it pierced the flesh of the snake. The creature stopped and swayed violently, Nizar sent another arrow into the entity. The snake rolled back and it head struck the ground.
“Is it dead?!” Zayd yelled.
“I do not know,” Nizar said. “It is writhing, but snakes do that even if they are dead.”
Zayd dropped his bow and arrow and rushed to get his sword. He grabbed the weapon and moved toward the serpent.
“It is trying to raise its head!” Nizar shouted and picked up his sword.
Zayd held his sword with both hands and made a slash. The blade cut deep into the asp’s neck, just below the head. Blood flowed out and stained the ground. A second blow from Zayd’s sword severed the serpent’s head. At this point Zayd and Nizar knew it was dead. Both breathed sighs of relief as they stepped back.
“I have never seen an asp or any other kind of snake that large,” Zayd said.
“It may have that size because of the work of a sorcerer,” said Nizar. “As I told you, I have heard that some people in this area practice sorcery.”
“I cannot explain it any other way,” Zayd said.
Fadhila glanced from side to side as she made her way down the narrow path. Jagged rocks and thorny bushes flanked the trail that led to the spring. Fadhila was wearing a long gray gown, a white scarf, and sandals. She held a large clay pot that was used for carrying water.
This chore was a normal task for Fadhila. She had done it all her life. Today was different. Fear coursed through her mind. Fadhila wondered whether she would live out the day.
Within a few minutes Fadhila reached the pool. After looking in all directions, she dipped the earthen vessel into the spring and filled it with water. She set the container on the ground and sat down. So far, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Fadhila was a beautiful young woman who had never traveled outside of the area in which she resided. She always went to get water for her aged widowed stepmother. Their home was at the edge of a small village.
Fadhila rose and started to pick up the jug. She suddenly sensed a sinister presence. Her fear turned to stark terror.
Suddenly a cloud of smoke burst out of nowhere. Fadhila screamed and jumped back. The mist thickened and a horrible face appeared at the top of it. Arms with clawed hands protruded from the sides.
A harsh voice said “Fadhila! Why did you not come last night?!”
Fadhila gasped and struggled to speak. Never had she been so terrified.
“Tell me or I shall kill you!” the frightful entity roared.
“I did not come because the asp did not appear to escort me!” Fadhila said as tears appeared in her eyes.
“Am I supposed to believe that?!” the jinn said.
“Harchar, I swear it is the truth!” Fadhila said and began crying.
“Come tonight with gold trinkets,” Harchar said. “And do not bring just two. Bring four. If you do not come I will come to your house and kill you and Bashirah. And others.”
The jinn disappeared and Fadhila dropped to her knees. She wept almost hysterically. After finally regaining her composure, Fadhila picked up the pot and began walking toward the village. She shook and her heart beat furiously.
Fadhila came to the village and saw her stepmother Basima standing by their house. Basima was wearing a white dress and a purple scarf. A crowd of people had gathered near the dwelling. One of them was a man in a black robe and a gray turban. He wore a heavy gray beard and Fadhila recognized him as Fawwaz the priest. Fadhila approached the throng and Basima turned toward her.
“Fadhila, the whole village is upset,” Basima said. “You did not go to give the tribute to Harchar the jinn. Harchar has threatened to kill everyone in the village because of that.”
“I know,” Fadhila said. “But the asp that escorts me to Harchar did not appear. I did not want to walk alone in the dark. Something must have happened to the snake. Harchar appeared before me while I was on my way to the spring. He did not believe me.”
“I hate to say this, but I find it hard to believe that Harchar’s snake could not have appeared to escort you,” Fawwaz said.
“But it is the truth!” Fadhila cried out. “Does no one believe me?!”
“I cannot believe it,” said Fawwaz.
“I believe it,” a youth named Ajlan said. Ajlan was wearing a white robe and a white and pink checkered kufa with a black band. Everyone turned toward Ajlan. Ajlan’s father Miteib came forward and said,
“Ajlan, you must speak respectfully to your priest.”
A woman in a brown gown stepped forward. She was his mother Sitt.
“Ajlan, your father is right,” Sitt said. “You should not dispute what Fawwaz says.
“There is something I have to say now,” said Ajlan. “And it is very important. Fadhila and Basima are telling the truth. The asp did not escort them to Harchar. I know why it did not come. The asp is dead. Yesterday I saw two men kill it. They are strangers from somewhere else. Those men killed the asp with arrows.”
Ajlan’s words shocked the crowd. Fadhila and Basima were speechless. Many of the villagers began talking excitedly. Fawwaz moved toward a small stone altar. He placed his hands upon it and began muttering to himself.
“My son, what you say is hard to believe,” Miteib said. “Do you swear to speak the truth?”
“Yes, father,” Ajlan said. “I saw those men kill the asp.”
Fawwaz turned and said “This is a very serious matter. I must consult the powers within the sacred objects on this altar.”
Three sticks and three stones lay on the altar. Fawwaz began touching them and whispering. Ajlan suddenly did a surprising thing. He walked over to the altar and glared at Fawwaz. Then Ajlan shoved the objects from the altar, scattering them on the ground. His action caused consternation among the onlookers.
“Those things are no good!” Ajlan shouted. “Why should we worship them anymore?!”
“You have committed the worst type of sacrilege!” Fawwaz said angrily.
"Ajlan, you must pick those up and apologize to Fawwaz now,” Miteib said sharply.
“Ajlan how could you do such a thing?” Sitt said. She was practically at the point of tears. Ajlan did not reply to his parents’ remarks. Instead, he faced the crowd as a whole and yelled “It is stupid to worship those sticks and stones! They can do us no good. People in other places worships gods and goddesses. Maybe that is what we should do!”
Ajlan then turned and walked swiftly away. He headed toward a ravine and did not look back. No one dared to follow him. Fadhila stepped forth and said tearfully “I will leave now. I have nothing to live for.”
Fadhila ran crying from the scene. She left in a different direction from the one in which Ajlan had gone.
Ajlan’s stepmother was weeping and others sought to console her. All of the villagers felt frightened and confused, including Fawwaz. His credibility seemed seriously diminished. Harchar very well might come and kill everyone in the village. Basima cried almost uncontrollably. She was too weak to go after her stepmother. A dark day had come for all that were present.
Nizar reined his horse to a halt. He had come to a narrow ravine. Although he had been searching all morning and part of the afternoon, Nizar had not yet found water. A difficult dilemma faced him. He could ride to the middle hill and wait for Zayd. Yet Zayd might not be successful either. There was the option of riding to the village and asking where the sources of water were located. Nizar quickly put the thought out of his mind. Such an action might result in a confrontation. It was possible that some villagers could have seen him and Zayd taking the gold. In that case he and Zayd might be regarded as thieves.
Nizar gazed at the canyon. He decided to ride through it and see if there were any hidden springs. The floor of the ravine was sandy and Nizar looked down. He quickly spotted a trail of footprints. They had obviously been made by a human. Nizar dismounted and closely studied the tracks. He surmised that they were probably made by a woman. The discovery puzzled Nizar. What would a woman be doing here alone and on foot?
Nizar got on his horse and resumed riding. He followed the trail for several minutes and soon noticed that it moved to the right and toward a large set of jagged rocks. Nizar gazed in that direction and perceived a woman in a long gray dress and a white scarf. She was leaning against a stone ledge with her back to him. Nizar rode toward her and she turned around. The sight of Nizar frightened her. She let out a shriek and put her hands to her face.
Nizar halted his steed and said “I will not hurt you. I am only looking for water.”
The woman stared at Nizar. She was still scared.
“My name is Nizar,” Nizar said. “I am a bedouin of the Kiyil tribe.”
After hesitating for a moment, the woman said in Arabic “I am Fadhila. I live at a village that is near here. If you want water, I can show you where to find it.”
“That is all I want,” Nizar said in a reassuring tone. “A friend of mine is in this area and is also searching for water. I am supposed to meet him in a little while.”
“There are two of you?!” Fadhila exclaimed. She gasped and breathed heavily. Nizar could see that his words had shocked her. He got off his horse and said “What is wrong? Why are you so upset?”
Fadhila struggled to compose herself. She sat down and thought intensely. Finally Fadhila looked at Nizar and said “It is unseemly and forbidden for me to speak or socialize with strange men. But under these circumstances I will break that rule. I must ask you an important question. Did you and your friend kill a giant snake?”
“Fadhila’s question startled Nizar. He hesitated and then said “Yes, we killed a giant asp. It tried to attack us.”
“A man of my village named Ajlan said that two men killed the asp,” said Fadhila. “Since you have now admitted to killing the snake, there is something I must tell you.”
“What is it?” said Nizar.
“You have seriously disrupted my life and put the lives of me and my people in great danger.”
“How?” Nizar asked.
“That asp played an important role in my life. There is a jinn called Harchar to whom we give tribute. Our craftsmen take gold from one of the nearby hills and make trinkets. At the beginning of each month, I take two trinkets to Harchar. The giant asp always escorts me to him.”
“Do you go to the top of the hill?”
“Yes, how did you guess that?”
“My friend and I found a hill with a stone plaza on the top. We had seen two lights going up it the night before.”
“Yes, that was when I took the first trinket. A girl named Anah went with me, for sometimes another person comes along. I was not able to take the second trinket on the following night. That was because the asp did not appear.”
“So the jinn may be angry!”
“I know he is!” Fadhila shouted. “When I went to get water this morning, he appeared at the spring and threatened to kill me if I do not bring him a trinket tonight.”
“Do you think he might not be angry anymore if you do what he has told you?”
“It is not that simple. If I come without the asp escorting me he will know that something has happened to it. The asp has been closely connected with him.”
“Surely he would not think that you or anyone of your village killed the asp.”
“No, but he might think that we know who did it. Harchar might kill everyone in the village if he thought we were holding back a secret.”
“This is a most strange situation,” Nizar said. “I cannot understand why you let a jinn tell you what to do. Why do you not pray for help?”
“My people do not worship gods or goddesses,” Fadhila said. “They worship sticks and stones. A man named Fawwaz is our priest who claims to communicate with our sacred objects. He says that they have power, but I am beginning to doubt that. I am not the only person in the village who is starting to disbelieve. The young man named Ajlan is another. A while ago I saw him shove the sacred sticks and stones off the altar in front of Fawwaz and everyone in the village. That was when I admitted to not taking the trinket to Harchar.”
“My people worship gods and goddesses,” Nizar said. “We regard the worship of sticks and stones as being very stupid.”
“Which deity do you worship?” said Fadhila.
“I pray to Qos,” said Nizar. “He is a god of weather and hunting.”
“Does he answer your prayers?” Fadhila asked.
“Yes, when they are for the right things. Several days ago I was hungry and prayed to Qos for food. Soon I spotted an oryx and killed it with an arrow. I cooked the meat and had had enough for several days.”
“I have never heard of Qos, but from what you tell me, he must be a good deity to worship,” Fadhila said.
“There are many other good deities,” Nizar said. “Surely you have heard of some of them.”
“Only a few. There is a village four days journey from here. People of my village visit it on rare occasions. I have been there twice. The people there worship a goddess of purity called Kalisha. I talked with a woman named Turaifah. She told me the names of some deities that are worshipped in other places. She mentioned a goddess called Al-Uzza.”
“My friend worships that goddess,” said Nizar. “Al-Uzza is a goddess of love and beauty.”
“Is your friend of the same tribe as you?”
“No. He is not a bedouin. His name is Zayd and he is from Saba. It is a kingdom to the southwest.”
“I have heard of Saba,” said Fadhila. “When I visited Turaifa’s village, she said that one of her cousins had been to Saba and seen many groves of frankincense trees.”
“Saba is famous for that,” Nizar said. “It is a rich country and has many opportunities. I will go there after Zayd and I do what we have to do.”
“What is that?” Fadhila said.
“We are going to kill that jinn who has dominated you.”
Nizar’s words astonished Fadhila. She had never conceived of opposing Harchar.
“Are you serious?!” Fadhila exclaimed.
“I am very serious,” said Nizar. “I know that it is not considered good for a woman to be with a strange man. But right now, you are not safe if alone. The jinn might appear and attack you. I can give you a ride on my horse. He is strong enough for us to ride double.”
“So you are going to meet your friend?”
“Yes. If you are with us, you will be safe.”
“Somehow, I believe it,” said Fadhila
Nizar helped Fadhila to mount. Then he climbed on the horse and began riding. Fadhila held onto him to keep from falling off.
About a half-hour of riding brought Nizar and Fadhila to the three hills. They rode toward the middle one and quickly perceived Zayd and his camels. Zayd came toward them and Fadhila said “So that is your friend. I see that he has two camels.”
Nizar reined his horse to a halt. He dismounted and then helped Fadhila to do so.
“This is Fadhila,” Nizar said. “She is from a nearby village.”
“Nizar told me that you are from Saba,” Fadhila said.
“Yes, I am from that country,” said Zayd. “I am going back very soon.”
Fadhila looked at the camels. Without saying a word, she walked over to them. She began observing the sacks on the back of the pack camel. Zayd felt tense as he and Nizar watched Fadhila. Nizar noticed that Zayd was uneasy and said “You look worried. Is it because of Fadhila?”
“Yes,” Zayd said. “I am concerned about the problem we will have if the villagers find out that we are with her.”
“She is not married,” said Nizar.
“There can still be trouble,” Zayd said. “She is violating a rule by being with us. We are strangers. Her male relatives may try to kill us. If they attack us, we will have to fight them.”
“I must tell you that this is an unusual situation,” Nizar said. “After I explain it to you, you will understand.”
Fadhila abruptly turned and walked back to Nizar and Zayd. She frowned and said “Now I know why you came here. You came to collect gold.”
“Yes, we did come for that reason,” Nizar said. “I will not lie to you.”
“That gold you have taken is from land that belongs to the people of my village,” Fadhila said.
“I did not know that,” said Nizar. “I will put back the gold that I took.”
“I will also do that,” said Zayd. “I do not want to be called a thief.”
“Wait,” Fadhila said. “You could also get permission from the people of my village to keep the gold. If you get rid of the jinn, my people will be glad for you to keep the gold.”
Fadhila’s words surprised Zayd. He looked at Fadhila and Nizar and said “A jinn? Could you please explain to me what is going on?”
“It is a dangerous situation,” Nizar said. “Part of it has to do with the giant asp that we killed. Fadhila told me that the snake was the servant an awful jinn called Harchar. Fadhila’s people have been paying tribute to Harchar for a long time.”
“It has been my task to deliver gold trinkets to Harchar,” said Fadhila. “Last night the asp did not appear. It had always escorted me to Harchar. I was afraid to go alone in the dark, so I stayed at home. This morning I went to the spring to get water. Harchar appeared and threatened to kill me and others of my village if I do not bring tribute tonight.”
“I promised Fadhila that we will deal with Harchar,” Nizar said. “It is our duty to rid them of that cruel jinn.”
“I agree with you,” said Zayd. “We will go and do it together.”
“We need to make our prayers,” said Nizar. “I will pray to Qos.”
“And I will pray to Uzza,” Zayd said. Zayd said.
Nizar and Zayd dropped to their knees and began praying. Fadhila watched with fascination. When the men concluded their prayers, Fadhila said “Your faith seems very strong.”
“It is very strong,” Nizar said. “We pray to good deities.”
Fadhila gazed at Nizar in an admiring way. Zayd noticed it and realized that Fadhila had a liking for Nizar.
“We should ride to your village now,” Nizar said. “You said that the jinn is likely to come there.”
“Harchar will certainly come to the village,” Fadhila said. “It will be around sunset or at night.”
“What will the people do when they see you with us?” Zayd asked. “I am sure it is not considered good for one of their women to be with two strange men.”
“They will not attack you,” Fadhila said. “By now, they are so terrified of Harchar that they will not be concerned about us. I want to get to the village quickly. I am very worried about my stepmother and I am sure that she is worried about me.”
“Then we must go,” Nizar said. He helped Fadhila to mount and got onto the horse. Zayd mounted his riding camel and Fadhila pointed in the direction of the village. The three began riding and Fadhila said “It will not be long before we get there.”
“We are almost there,” Fadhila said as they rode down the trail. She and Nizar were riding in the lead. Zayd came behind them with the camels. Fadhila had guided the men to the spring and they had filled their goatskin casks with water.
“I hope your stepmother does not become upset when she sees you with us,” Nizar said.
“You have already said that,” Fadhila said. “But I think she will understand that this is an unusual situation.”
The small party soon came within sight of the village. They perceived only one person, a woman standing in front of a mud brick dwelling. She was wearing a long purple gown and a white scarf.
“That is my stepmother Basima,” Fadhila “I can see that she has been waiting for me.”
“She is coming toward us,” Nizar said. “We shall dismount now.”
Nizar climbed off his horse and helped Fadhila to dismount. Zayd got off his camel and the three walked toward Basima. Basima moved slowly, for she had to use her cane to walk. Fadhila, Nizar, and Zayd quickly reached her. The sight of Fadhila with Nizar and Zayd had obviously startled Basima.
“Who are these men?” Basima said. “And what are you doing with them?”
“They have not done any harm to me,” Fadhila said. “I know that it is considered unseemly and forbidden for me to be with them. But these are unusual circumstances.”
“Everything is unusual now,” Basima said. “The people in our village are all terrified. They are afraid that Harchar will come and kill them. And they blame you for the situation.”
“Yes, I know,” Fadhila said. “But we will not have to fear Harchar anymore. These men will kill that horrible jinn.”
Fadhila’s words shocked Basima. Basima stared at Fadhila and then at Nizaar and Zayd.
“According to custom I should not speak to you directly,” Basima said. “But on this occasion I must break that rule. My stepdaughter has just told me that you are planning to kill that jinn. How can one kill a jinn?”
“My faith is strong,” Nizar said. “I worship Qos.”
“I worship Al-Uzza,” said Zayd. “I do not fear jinns.”
“So you are worshippers of deities,” Basima said.
“Yes, we are,” said Nizar. “We will rid your people of Harchar, for our faith can make us able to do that.”
Zayd suddenly pointed and said “I see someone coming.”
“I see him too,” Nizar said. Fadhila and Basima turned. They perceived a young man approaching. He was wearing a white robe and an orange kufa.
“That is Ajlan,” Fadhila said. Baslima looked at Nizar and Zayd and said “He told the villagers that you killed the asp.”
“He spoke the truth,” Zayd said. Ajlan joined the group and said, “I recognize both of these men. They are the ones who killed the snake.”
“Yes, we slew that serpent,” said Nizar. “And we will kill the jinn Harchar when he comes to the village.”
“You are not from this area,” Ajlan said. “Where do you come from?”
“I am of a bedouin tribe that lives far to the north,” Nizar said. “My tribe are called the Kiyil.”
“I am from Saba,” said Zayd. “I worship Al-Uzza and my friend Nizar worships Qos. My name is Zayd.”
“My name is Ajlan,” Ajlan said. “So you worship deities. The people of my village have long worshipped sticks and stones.”
“That is what Fadhila told us,” Nizar said. “She also told us that your village is afraid of the jinn Harchar. We have come to kill him.”
“I saw you kill his snake,” Ajlan said. “And I believe you can kill him. I support you in what you plan to do.”
“How would the other people of the village feel about this?” Zayd said.
“They will not even come out of their houses,” Ajlan said. “They are cowards.”
“Please, Ajlan,” Basima said. “You should not speak that way about the people of your village.”
“Maybe you are right,” Ajlan said. “But I am tired of our village paying tribute to Harchar. And I also think that we should not worship sticks and stones. We should worship deities.”
Basima did not reply to Ajlan’s remarks. She bowed her head and stared at the ground. Fadhila touched her shoulder and said “I have always loved you. You have long been my guardian. But I think Ajlan is right.”
“I do not know what to think anymore,” Basima said. The two women embraced and Fadhila said, “Everything will be all right.”
“The sun will soon set,” Ajlan said. “Harchar will come when it gets dark.”
“Fadhila and I must go to our house,” Basima said.
“Ajlan, do you want to stay here with us?” said Nizar.
“Yes,” said Ajlan. “I would like to help you fight the jinn. I wish I had a weapon.”
“You need more than a weapon,” Zayd said. “You need belief in a deity.”
“I already have that,” said Ajlan. “As of now, I believe in the goddess Kalisha. I know of her because I have visited a village that is a few days ride from here. The people of that village worship her.”
Ajlan’s words astonished Basima, but Fadhila did not seem surprised. The women made no comments. They turned and walked back to their house. Just as they entered the dwelling, a man came walking toward Zayd, Nizar, and Ajlan. He was wearing a white robe and kufa and carried something wrapped in a brown cloth.
“That is my father,” Ajlan said. “He wants to talk to me.”
“He is carrying something,” Zayd said.
“I think he may also wish to speak with us,” said Nizar.
Ajlan’s father came to where they stood. He initially ignored Ajlan and stared directly at Nizar and Zayd.
“My name is Miteib,” he said. “I am Ajlan’s father. Are you the men who killed the giant asp?”
“Yes, we are the ones who killed the snake,” Nizar said’ Nizar spoke firmly. His facial expression showed that he would not apologize for what he and Zayd had done.
“We are also going to kill the jinn,” said Zayd. “We have no fear of him.”
“I can see that,” Miteib said. He turned to his son and said “Ajlan, you have behaved badly. You showed disrespect for Fawwaz and you disobeyed me when I told you not to leave the house.”
“Yes, and I apologize for disobeying you.”
“Do you also apologize for the way you acted toward Fawwaz?”
“In one way I am sorry, but in another way I am not.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I respect Fawwaz as a man, but I do not think those sticks and stones are sacred. I want to worship Kalisha. She is a goddess of purity. The people of the village that is a few days travel from here worship her.”
“I know that,” Miteib said. “So you have made your decision?”
“Yes, father,” Ajlan said. “But I want you to know that I still respect you and mother.”
Miteib took the cloth from the bundle and revealed two bows and two quivers full of arrows. Ajlan looked at the weapons and said “Father, are we going to fight the jinn together?”
“Yes,” Miteib said and handed a bow and quiver to Ajlan.
“Your decision is a good one,” Nizar said. “You will not regret it.”
“Nizar is right,” said Zayd.
“We will stand by you,” Miteib said. Zayd and Nizar got their bows and arrows. The four men awaited the arrival of Harchar.
Darkness had descended on the village. Ajlan and his father had gotten two torches. They had set them in two indented rocks to provide lighting. All four men awaited the arrival of Harchar. The jinn could come at any moment. Each man held his bow and an arrow in readiness.
“I want to know something,” Zayd said to Miteib. “Have you or your son ever seen Harchar?”
“Yes, both of us have seen him,” Miteib replied. “His appearance is extremely frightening.”
“I saw him once in the early morning,” said Ajlan. “It was shortly after sunrise. Harchar screeched at me in a terrible way and I begged for mercy. He laughed and then disappeared. I can never forget that experience.”
“I am sure that you will always carry that memory,” Zayd said.
Nizar made no comment. He gazed into the blackness of the night. Zayd turned around briefly and glanced at the houses. Braziers burned in the interiors and faces showed in the windows. It was obvious that none of the villagers could sleep. They were facing the most serious crisis of their lives.
Then it happened. A loud screeching noise burst forth. The sound practically unnerved Miteib. He jumped back and shook with terror. Nizar and Zayd fitted the arrows to their bows. Ajlan momentarily hesitated and then followed suit.
A horrid form emerged from the darkness. The figure consisted of a gruesome face and a mist beneath it.
“So you dare to defy me!” the jinn roared. “And you have two strangers with you!”
“We are the ones who killed your snake,” Nizar said firmly.
“That is what I thought,” Nizar said in a harsh rasping voice. The mist suddenly transformed into a torso, arms, and legs. Harchar’s body was gnarled and the hands had long sharp claws. Harchar moved toward the men and Miteib began backing away. He shook with fear and Harchar said, “I think I will kill you first.”
“You not harm my father!” Ajlan shouted. He fired an arrow and it struck Harchar in the left leg. Harchar shrieked with pain. The jinn wrenched out the arrow and tossed it aside. A red liquid poured out of the wound. Harchar limped toward Ajlan and roared, “I will kill you first.”
“You will kill no one!” Nizar yelled. He let fly an arrow and it plunged into the heart of the jinn. Zayd shot an arrow into Harchar’s midsection. The jinn screamed and then crashed to the ground. Harchar’s body convulsed, twitched and began dissolving into a foam. The remains of the jinn changed completely into a liquid substance and soon disappeared.
“Harchar is dead!” Ajlan shouted.
“This is incredible!” Miteib exclaimed.
“Yes, the jinn is dead,” Nizar said.
“He will plague that village no more,” Zayd said.
The villagers began emerging from their houses. A crowd gathered and their torches lit up the night. Ajlan’s mother threw her arms around him and her husband.
Fawwaz approached Zayd and Nizar. He eyed them intently and said “My name is Fawwaz. You have rid our village of that horrid jinn. It is obvious that you have some type of power on you side.”
“It is because of our belief in our deities,” Nizar said. “I worship Qos and my friend Zayd worships Al-Uzza.”
“I do not know much about deities,” Fawwaz said. “But I must say this. It is time for me and the others of this village to learn about them. We have long worshipped sticks and stones, believing them to have spirits. We were mistaken. Sticks and stones are not living beings. We must now start worshipping deities.”
“I agree with you,” Nizar said. “That is a good decision.”
“You have been the priest of the village,” Zayd said. “Fadhila told us about you.”
“I would like to continue being the priest,” said Fawwaz. “But it is up to the people of the village to decide if I may keep my position.”
Fawwaz turned to the crowd and said “It is your decision. If you wish for me to continue being your priest, raise your right hands.”
Everyone, including the children raised their right hands. Seeing that the vote was unanimous, Fawwaz said “I thank you for allowing me to keep my position.”
A man stepped forth and said “But which deity shall we choose to worship?”
“Fahd, that will be up to each individual. Each of you may choose a different deity if you prefer.”
“May I say something?” Miteib said.
“Yes, Miteib, what is it?” said Fawwaz.
“I think that Nizar and Zayd should tell us about their deities. Then my son can speak about the goddess Kalisha. As you know, there is a village where people worship her.”
“I agree with your suggestion,” Fawwaz said. “Nizar may speak first.”
Nizar stepped closer to the crowd and said “Qos is the deity that I worship. He is the deity of weather and also of hunting. I pray to him when I hunt. Qos sometimes appears to people. When he appears he holds a rainbow. I will now let Zayd speak.”
“I worship Al-Uzza,” Zayd said. “She is the goddess of love and beauty. Al-Uzza has two sister goddesses. They are Ilat and Manat. Ilat is the sun goddess and Manat is the goddess of fate. Now that I have spoken, Ajlan may speak about Kalisha.”
“Kalisha is the goddess of purity,” Ajlan said. “All of you know about the village where people worship her. I have already begun praying to her. Tomorrow I will talk to any of you who are interested in worshipping her.”
“There will be many discussions tomorrow,” Fawwaz said. “For now we must all go to bed.”
The villagers went back to their houses. Zayd and Nizar unloaded the baggage from their mounts. They made camp and Zayd said “We have made a great change here.”
“You are right,” said Nizar.
Zayd awoke at noon. He looked and saw that Nizar had gotten up and gone somewhere. Nizar’s horse was nearby, so Zayd surmised that his friend must have gone into the village.
After eating a brief meal Zayd debated with himself over whether he should go to see what Nizar was doing. Zayd decided to sit and wait. He sat down near the camels and gazed at the mud brick dwellings. Two women came out of one house and walked down the trail that led to the spring. They were carrying jugs and Zayd readily guessed that they were going to get water.
Zayd suddenly perceived a man walking toward him. The individual was wearing a white robe and kufa. Zayd initially thought the individual was Nizar. As the figure came nearer, he realized it was Ajlan.
“Good morning, Zayd,” Ajlan said. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes,” said Zayd. “Ajlan, have you seen Nizar?”
“Yes, I have spoken with him this morning,” said Ajlan. “He sent me to tell you something.”
“What is it?” Zayd said.
“Nizar is going to marry Fadhila. He asked her stepmother’s permission to marry her and Basima granted it.”
Zayd sat speechless for a moment. Then he rose to his feet and said “I am surprised, but I am also happy for my friend. I will attend his wedding It is regrettable that I did not bring fine clothes with me on this trip.”
“That is all right,” Ajlan said. “You did not anticipate that you would attend a wedding.”
“Where is Nizar now?” Zayd asked.
“He is with Fawwaz. They are discussing the wedding procedures. The marriage will be consecrated in the name of Qos, the deity that Nizar worships.”
“So Fadhila has chosen to convert to the worship of Qos. What about her stepmother?”
“Basima has also decided to worship Qos.”
“That is understandable. Will Nizar live here or will he come to Saba?"
“He and Fadhila will be riding to Saba with you. Basima will be coming with them.”
“As I understand it Basima and Fadhila hardly have any family left.”
“That is true. Basima is a widow. Her brother died years ago. Basima only had two children of her own. They married a long time ago and are in different villages. Fadhila’s parents died when she was a child. Her father died when she was an infant and her mother died when she was ten.”
“So Fadhila has lived a hard life.”
“Yes, it has been a sad one.”
Zayd looked toward the village and said “I want to go and speak with Nizar.”
“I will take you to him,” Ajlan said. “As I told you, he is at the house of Fawwaz.”
Zayd and Ajlan walked together to the village. They perceived two men leading a sheep with a rope around its neck and Ajlan said “That ram will be sacrificed at the wedding.”
“It is a procedure that Nizar’s people follow at weddings,” said Nizar. “My people also do that.”
They came to a small mud brick dwelling and Ajlan escorted Zayd inside. Nizar and Fawwaz were sitting on a white rug in the middle of the room.
“Ajlan told me that you will marry Fadhila,” Zayd said. “I wish to tell you that I am happy for you and I will attend the wedding.”
“I feel honored that you will be there,” Nizar said. “You are a true friend and have stood by me in the face of danger.”
The four men sat and discussed the ceremony that would soon occur.
Nizar and Zayd stood with Fawwaz at a spot that was a short distance from the village. Fawwaz had escorted them to the place. A small sandstone altar lay nearby. Bushes formed a semicircle around it.
“I would like for my parents to be at my wedding,” Nizar said. “But I cannot take Fadhila with me on a trip to my tribe without being married to her. It is forbidden for me to be traveling with a woman unless she is my wife or a female relative.”
“My people have the same view on that,” said Zayd.
“You said that you will go with Zayd to his country,” Fawwaz said to Nizar. “Since Fadhila and Basima will go with you, they will have to learn the ways of that land.”
“That is true,” said Nizar. “But I will also have much to learn. It will be a new place for me.”
“I can help you learn the ways of Saba,” said Nizar.
The people of the village soon came and gathered by the altar. The two men with the sheep arrived and tethered it to a tree. Fadhila came riding on a white horse. She was wearing a white dress with a black veil. Her stepmother walked beside her and was dressed in solid black.
Fadhila dismounted with the help of Basima. The two women walked to the altar and faced Fawwaz. Fawwaz gestured to Nizar to move alongside Fadhila. Nizar did so and Fawwaz said “As the priest of this village, I am about to perform the ceremony of marriage. This wedding is to be consecrated in relation to Qos, the deity of weather and of hunting. He is the deity that Nizar and Fadhila worship. Both Nizar and Fadhila must now make their sacred vows. Nizar, do you promise to honor your marriage to Fadhila and always be loyal to her?”
“Yes, I promise to be a good husband for her as long as I shall live,” Nizar said. “I say it as a promise to all, including Qos.”
Fawwaz looked at Fadhila and said “Fadhila, do you promise to always be a faithful and virtuous wife to Nizar?”
“Yes, I promise to do that,” Fadhila said.
“Both of you must now pray to Qos that he will look favorably on your marriage.”
Nizar and Fadhila knelt and bowed their heads to the ground. Basima did the same and all three uttered prayers to Qos. They rose and Fawwaz picked up the knife on the altar. He walked over to the sheep and the two men standing by it held the animal. Fawwaz slit the ram’s throat and blood gushed out of it. The animal’s legs buckled and it fell.
“Thus I consecrate this marriage by this sacrifice to Qos!” Fawwaz said.
“We are now husband and wife,” Nizar said. “This is the happiest day of my life.”
“It is the happiest day of my life too,” said Fadhila.
“It has been a long time since I have been this happy,” Basima said.
“You will have a wonderful life living with me and Fadhila in Saba,” Nizar said. “I must tell you this. I am honored that you are my mother-in-law.”
Basima smiled radiantly. She almost cried from the joy she felt. Zayd walked over to Nizar and congratulated his friend.
Zayd, Nizar, Fadhila, and Basima had finished packing and loading the baggage onto the four pack camels They had gotten up before sunrise to accomplish their task. The sun had risen and the villagers came to bid the party farewell. Ajlan and his family spoke to them first.
“If you ever come to Saba, you are welcome to visit me,” Zayd said. “My family will show you much hospitality.”
“We may do that someday,” Miteib said. “Ajlan and I have been talking about it.”
“I have become curious about the world outside this area,” Ajlan said. “One reason is that I met you and Nizar.”
Ajlan’s mother embraced Fadhila and Basima. She had long been friends with them. Although she was happy for Fadhila and Basima, she felt sad to see them go.
“Most of the villagers have decided to worship Kalisha, the goddess of purity,” Fawwaz said to Nizar. “But some are going to worship Qos.”
“Which have you decided to worship?” Nizar said.
“I have chosen to worship Qos,” Fawwaz replied. “In a few days, a small shrine will be built for worshipping him. The followers of Kalisha will also build a shrine. Miteib will be their priest.”
After saying their good-byes, Zayd and his party rode out of the village. They began traveling west toward Saba.
“This evening is so special,” Sitt said to her son Ajlan. “It is one that we shall never forget.”
“I agree, mother,” Ajlan said. “For our new shrine is to be consecrated.”
All of the worshippers of Kalisha had gathered by the small temple. Some of the men had finished erecting it a few hours earlier. A small square basalt rock lay near the building. Miteib stood by the object. He was wearing a white robe and a green kufa. Many men and women watched as Miteib raised his right hand. Torches illuminated the scene as Miteib spoke.
“We shall now circle the stone,” Miteib said. “I will lead the way and all of you shall follow me.”
Miteib began walking around the stone. Sitt and Ajlan came behind him and the others followed. They began chanting Kalisha’s name. The emotional fervor reached a high pitch.
Suddenly the whole scene became bathed in milky white light. Everyone stopped in their tracks. A figure appeared and held them spellbound.
The figure was female and wore a long white gown. Her hair was jet black and a white aura shone all around her.
“I am the goddess Kalisha,” she said. “I have come because you have chosen to worship me.”
The people immediately dropped to their knees and bowed. Kalisha observed them for a few seconds and said, “You may rise.”
As everyone got up, Kalisha said “I know all of your names. There are three of you who must come forward. Miteib, you, Sitt, and Ajlan come to me.”
Miteib, Sitt, and Ajlan approached the goddess. Miteib said in a humble voice:
“It is an honor for all of us to meet you, great Kalisha.”
“We are so honored,” said Sitt.
“I feel ecstatic,” Ajlan said. “We revere you, Kalisha.”
“You have all made a good choice by choosing me,” Kalisha said, “I am going to take you on a trip. It will be a very brief one, only for a few minutes. But you will see sights and wonders that you have never imagined.”
Kalisha waved her right hand. She disappeared, along with Miteib, Sitt, and Ajlan. The onlookers gasped and talked excitedly. One woman looked toward the sky and said,
“Who knows what they shall see!”
Kalisha stood with Miteib, Sitt, and Ajlan in front of a magnificent palace. The huge building appeared to be made of white marble. It featured three levels with numerous windows. Orange curtains covered an enormous entrance. A fountain near the front spouted water that changed colors. First the liquid was blue, then it became green. It turned red and then back to blue. Five peacocks strutted about the sandy palace grounds.
Kalisha waved her right hand and a tree instantly sprouted out of the ground. That action astonished Miteib and his wife and son. The tree bore large red fruits.
“You may eat those fruits,” Kalisha said. “For you are ready for the experience.”
Miteib walked over to the tree and Sitt and Ajlan followed him. They began picking the fruit and found it to be extremely delicious.
“I have never tasted anything this good!” Sitt said. “I feel so euphoric!”
“This will lead you to your next experience,” Kalisha said.
Miteib, Sitt, and Ajlan instantly found themselves in a huge chamber. The floor and walls were decorated with carpets of various colors and geometrical designs. A light blue curtain led to another room.
“We are in Kalisha’s palace,” Miteib said. “I know it.”
“Yes, we are,” Sitt said in an excited voice. “And I know she is near us.”
“She will appear soon,” Ajlan said. “I can sense it.”
A red carpet with interlocking black squares suddenly dropped from a wall. The three beheld a fresco painting of a vast grassy plain. Ajlan, Sitt, and Miteib felt compelled to move toward it. The picture became life-like and they passed through it, finding a themselves in a huge grassland. Two strange creatures galloped toward them. The entities were winged bulls with bearded human heads. They wore glistening yellow crowns.
“Those creatures are incredible!” Sitt said. “They are strange, but I do not fear them.”
“They serve Kalisha; I can sense it,” said Miteib.
“You are right, father,” Ajlan said. The minds of the family swam with vivid excitement. Their thought seemed to intermingle as a voice said, “You are having quite an experience.”
They turned and saw a man mounted on a camel. He wore a white robe and turban. His face seemed like that of a young man, but something about him indicated that he was much older.
“I am Hasan,” he said. “I no longer live upon the earth of any part of the material universe. I was a priest of Kalisha in my life there. Now I watch over this herd that belongs to Kalisha.”
“I have a question,” said Sitt. “Are we to stay here?”
“No, you are to return to earth,” “You have much to do in your lives there. The purpose of your visit here is to show how significant it is that you have been chosen.”
Kalisha appeared and said, “I must take you back to your village.”
The goddess led them through a square arch and they found themselves back in the palace room. The carpet rose and once again covered the wall with the picture. Kalisha waved her right hand and the curtain moved aside. She escorted Ajlan, Sitt, and Miteib down a long corridor. Blue, green, and purple birds perched on stands sang in Arabic. Two orange curtains at the end of the hallway moved to the sides. Kalisha escorted them out into the courtyard.
“Now you must go and serve the others of your village who worship me,” Kalisha said. She raised both of her hands and the three people found themselves back at the shrine near their village. Everyone gathered around them and eagerly asked them what they had seen.
“We have seen things that we had never before imagined,” Sitt said.
It was the fourth day of the journey. The first three days had gone well. No mishaps had occurred and Nizar had killed an oryx. The meat was a good addition to their food supply.
After riding during the morning, the group had stopped to rest. They had come into an area where the terrain was flat. The land was fertile and a number of trees could be seen. Fadhila and Basima were glancing toward the way from which they had come. Both women appeared to be nervous. Nizar motioned for Zayd to get up and the two walked over to a spot where Fadhila and Basima could not hear them speaking. Zayd looked up at the sky. A number of dark clouds had gathered.
“It may rain,” Zayd said. “That could cause problems for us.”
“Rain is not the real problem,” Nizar said. “Are you saying something is wrong?” said Zayd.
“Yes. Someone is following us.”
“How do you know?”
“One reason is that Fadhila and Basima have been looking back. Women have a way of knowing that someone is watching or following them.”
“Are you certain?”
“I am very certain. It is possible that bandits may be in this area.”
“But I never saw any bandits when I came through this area before.”
“You were lucky. Zayd, you are my best friend. But I have to tell you this. You have much to learn about being out here. You have lived most of your life in a city. I am a bedouin. A bedouin knows things that a city dweller does not. This is an area where caravans travel. Bandits come into areas like this one to find and rob caravans.”
“Then we should start moving.”
“Yes. And we must travel even into the night if it is necessary.”
Zayd and Nizar walked back to where Fadhila and Basima sat. The women got up and Fadhila said, “Is it time for us to start riding?”
“Yes,” Nizar said. “We have a long way to go.”
“I think that people are following us,” said Basima.
“That is a good possibility,” said Nizar. The four mounted up and began riding. They glanced back periodically. Zayd felt concerned about a critical factor. The pack camels were carrying heavy loads. Their burdens would slow the progress of the group.
At one point Nizar gazed toward the clouds and said, “It is raining in the distance.”
“Those clouds are moving toward us,” said Zayd. “They will reach us soon.”
Suddenly Fadhila shrieked, “Look!”
The others glanced back. They perceived a number of riders moving toward them.
“Are they bandits?!” Basima screamed.
“Yes!” Nizar said. “They are mounted on horses and riding fast.”
“There must be about thirty of them,” Zayd said.
“Maybe more,” said Nizar. Fadhila and Basima began crying hysterically. The situation practically unnerved even Nizar.
Zayd suddenly drew his sword. He slashed the cord that was attached to his pack camel.
“They can have my share of the gold,” Zayd shouted.
“Zayd’s words and action startled his companions. They stared at him and Zayd yelled “We must ride!”
“He is right,” Nizar said. “Those bandits might not be satisfied with that amount.”
The four began riding. They moved at a moderate pace, for the three remaining pack camels slowed their pace. Fadhila looked back and said “The bandits are slowing down!”
“But some of them may still come after us,” Nizar said. “We must keep moving.”
Rain began falling. It came as a light drizzle, but would soon intensify.
“Look!” Zayd shouted.
“I see something ahead of us!”
“It looks like a wadi!” Basima yelled. Ahead of them lay a dried up watercourse. The ravine ran for a long distance in either direction.
“We must cross it,” Nizar said. “We cannot go around it.”
The ditch was fairly deep, but the slopes on both sides were gentle enough for riding across the wadi. As they started to go across it, Basima screamed, “The bandits are coming after us!”
“I was afraid of that,” Nizar said. The group rode across the wadi with the pack camels close behind. Just as they came out of the wadi, Zayd glanced back. The bandits were about to reach the ditch.
“We are doomed!” Basima shouted. “Those bandits are going to get us!”
Then an astonishing thing happened. A deep and swift torrent of water came rushing down the ravine. It flowed from the north and formed a river.
The bandits on the opposite bank halted their horses. They shouted in anger and Fadhila exclaimed, “We are saved!”
“That was just in time!” Basima said. The rain intensified and suddenly the brigands turned their horses and rode swiftly away. In about a minute the clouds moved on at an abnormal speed. The sky became clear and Fadhila said “Those bandits were frightened. What could have scared them away?”
“I know the reason,” Zayd said. “Look.”
The others turned and perceived a large figure hovering in the air. The form resembled a man and wore a blue robe. He was wearing a silver crown and held a rainbow in his right hand.
“It is Qos!” Nizar shouted. Nizar, Zayd, Fadhila, and Basima immediately dismounted. They knelt and bowed their heads to the ground.
“You may rise,” Qos said. The four got up and Nizar said “We are honored to meet you, great Qos.”
“I can read your minds,” Qos said. “Three of you are worshippers of me and one of you is a worshipper of Al-Uzza.”
“Yes, great Qos, Al-Uzza is my deity,” Zayd said.
“Al-Uzza is a good deity,” Qos said. “I know the goddess. I also know her sisters Ilat and Manat.”
Qos gazed down at Fadhila and Basima. His look held them spellbound.
“You recently became worshippers of me,” Qos said.
“We are so honored to meet you, great Qos,” Fadhila said.
“Yes, it is a great honor,” said Basima.
“The remainder of your journey to Saba will be safe,” Qos said and disappeared.
“That was so amazing!” Fadhila said. “I would never have imagined that I would have such an experience.”
“It was incredible!” Basima said. “I can never forget it!”
“None of us will ever forget it,” Nizar said.
“I agree,” said Zayd. The four sat down and talked for an hour before resuming their trip. Nizar offered Zayd some of his gold but Zayd said “Thank you, but I have some gold in the sack attached to my saddle. I am glad that I did not put it in the sack on my pack camel.”
Though Zayd tried to conceal his bitterness, the others were able to perceive it. They felt sympathetic to Zayd, for he had sacrificed most of his gold to help save their lives.
The party of four sat around a fire. They had eaten a brief supper. Many stars shone brightly in the sky. Zayd was silent while the others talked.
“So your tribe moves around from place to place,” Fadhila said. “Have you visited some cities in the past?”
“A few,” Nizar said. “I visited Naklah twice.”
“I think I have heard of Naklah,” Basima said. “Though I know nothing about it.”
“Naklah is the main center of worship of the goddess Al-Uzza,” Nizar said. “There are three acacia trees planted in honor of her there.”
Zayd broke his silence and said “Acacia trees are sacred to worshippers of Uzza. As I mentioned, there is a temple of Uzza in Marib where my family goes to worship. It has two acacias planted in front of it.”
“This is the first time you have spoken of your family,” Basima said. “How many children do you have?”
“Two,” Zayd said. “I have a son named Hussein who is eighteen and a daughter named Amat who is twelve. Her full name is Amat Al-Uzza.”
“Children are a blessing,” Basima said. “I really love children.”
“I love my children,” Zayd said. “I have always wanted them to have the best things.”
“You mentioned to me that your son writes poetry,” said Nizar. “What kind of things does he write about in his poems?”
“Many things,” said Zayd. “He writes about the land, the sea, the birds, the animals. Some of his poems are about love.”
“That is a nice subject,” Fadhila said.
“Hussein writes in several different styles,” Zayd said. “He uses the Kuhhan, the Qasida, and the Rajaz. Sometimes he writes in the Huda style.”
“I know about that one,” said Nizar. “That has to do with the song of the camel driver. Some people in my tribe recite or sing in that style. They do not know how to write, but they create the poems in their heads.”
“Do people of other tribes do that?” Fadhila asked.
“Yes,” Nizar said. “I have met some poets of the Taghlib and Kindah tribes.”
The four talked for another hour. Zayd agreed to stand guard while the others bedded down. Zayd sat next to his weapons and stared into the darkness. He felt depressed. Losing most of his hare of the gold had been a bitter experience. The sack containing the chunk of gold that was attached to his saddle was all he had now.
Zayd and his companions had entered the kingdom of Saba. They had spent the first night near a small village. The villagers had been quite hospitable and had sold them some food. Zayd met a craftsman who agreed to fashion an image of Al-Uzza from the chunk of gold that he had.
The group was nearing Marib. It was now the morning of the final day of their journey. They had eaten breakfast shortly after sunrise and prepared to resume traveling. As the four began riding down the road, they perceived many crops and irrigation ditches.
“It is amazing how many crops are grown in this country,” Fadhila said.
“And I see so much water that is provided for them,” said Basima.
“This area is especially fertile,” Nizar said. “It is the most fertile place I have ever seen.”
“That is because of the great dam near Marib,” said Zayd. “It enables the people to get much water to irrigate the crops.”
“You told us that we will reach Marib this morning,” Nizar said.
“Yes, we will be there in about two hours,” Nizar replied.
They soon reached a small village and decided to stop. As the party dismounted near the well, a man came out of one of the mud brick houses. He was wearing a white robe and an orange kufa. As the individual approached, Zayd said “Nizar, you have learned how to speak some Sabaean. Do you want to ask him for permission to draw some water?”
“Yes,” Nizar said. “I need to practice speaking Sabaean.”
Nizar greeted the villager and said in Sabaean “Good morning. My name is Nizar and this is my friend Zayd. “The women are my wife and mother-n-law. We would like to draw some water from the well.”
“That will be fine. My name is Aziz.”
“Thank you,” Nizar said. Zayd walked over to them and said “We are traveling to Marib. My home is in that city.”
“A poetry contest will take place in that city today,” Aziz said. “Most of the people of my village have gone to Marib to see it. My wife and I are among the few who are staying here today.”
“My son is a poet,” Zayd said. “He may be participating in it. He would have a good reason to enter the contest. There will be many prizes for those who do well.”
“I will certainly go to the contest,” said Zayd. “When will it take place?”
“At noon,” said Aziz. “Excuse me, but I must go to work now.”
“Thank you so much for the information,” Zayd said. Aziz walked toward the fields and Zayd said “We will easily get there in time for the poetry contest.”
“I would like to go to it,” Nizar said. “I think it would be an interesting experience.”
Nizar walked over to Fadhila and Basima. He told them about the event and Fadhila said, “It sounds very exciting. I am anxious to see it.”
“I feel the same way,” said Basima. As the four mounted up, Nizar said “I wish to learn more Sabaean. As you said, there are people in Saba who can speak Arabic, but learning Sabaean is important.”
“I know a man in Marib who can tutor you,” said Zayd. “His name is Hamid and he knows Arabic as well as Sabaean. Hamid can teach you how to speak, read, and write Sabaean.”
“I would also like to learn how to read and write Arabic,” said Nizar. “Though it is my native language, I only know how to speak it.”
“Hamid can also tutor you in reading and writing Arabic,” Zayd said. “And I wish to mention one more thing. Hamid’s wife Shukriyah is a very learned woman. If you wish, she can tutor Fadhila and Basima.”
“I think that is a good idea,” Nizar said. Nizar’s statement delighted Fadhila and Basima. Both women smiled radiantly and Fadhila said “I believe I am going to enjoy living in Marib.”
“Both of us will love it,” her stepmother replied.
Chapter Twenty One
Bashirah and Amat had finished cleaning the dishes. In a few minutes they would go to the temple of Al-Uzza to make their prayers. Hussein had already gone to the grounds where the poetry contest was to take place. He had left the house shortly after dawn.
“Mother, I wish father could be here to see Hussein take part in the contest,” Amat said. “I am worried about father. He has gone longer than we expected.”
“Yes, I have been worried too,” Bashirah said. “But when we go to the temple of Uzza, we will pray that he returns safely.”
Bashirah got some coins for the offering. She and her daughter put on their shoes and walked outside. As they headed for the temple, the city seemed almost deserted. The shops were closed and the open-air market was empty. Bashirah and Amat walked past one of the citadels and saw two guards holding spears and shields.
“I wonder how they feel about missing the poetry contest,” Amat said.
“Maybe they are not interested in poetry,” said Bashirah.
“I heard that our king will not be at the contest,” Amat said as she glanced at the palace on a nearby hill.”
“He has many responsibilities,” Bashirah said. “There are other things that concern him more.”
They came within sight of the temple and Asmat stopped. She put her hand to her head and Bashirah said, “Amat, what is wrong?”
“I have a headache,” said Amat. Bashirah touched her daughter’s forehead and said, “You seem to have a fever. After we make the offering, we will go home.”
“But I hate to miss the poetry contest,” Amat said.
“It is better that you rest,” Bashirah said. Bashirah and Amat entered the temple. It consisted of a small building with a central courtyard that had an entrance to the west. Two acacia trees grew near the point of entry. Bashirah and her daughter passed a fountain in the court. A set of four square limestone pillars supported the roof of the porch of the main shrine. As Bashirah and her daughter came into the sanctuary, the smell of frankincense filled the air. Sherifa the priestess was standing near the large alabaster statue of Al-Uzza. She wore a long white gown and was barefooted.
“Good morning, Bashirah,” Sherifa said. “Are you here to make your offering?”
“Yes, Sherifa,” Bashirah said. “We will also make prayers.”
Sherifa picked up an alabaster jar and held it for the offering. Bashirah dropped the coins into the container. Sherifa placed the vessel on the shelf and knelt down with Bashirah and Amat. They prayed silently for about a minute. Bashirah and Sherifa rose, but Amat remained kneeling. She placed her hands on the floor and her eyes stayed closed.
“Amat, what is wrong?” Bashirah said in a concerned voice.
“Mother, I feel sick,” Amat said. “I cannot get up.”
Sherifa grabbed a cushion and placed it behind Amat. Bashirah and Sherifa helped Amat to lie down. Amat’s head rested on the cushion while Bashirah held her hand. Sherifa touched Amat’s forehead and said, “She has a severe fever. I will get some water.”
Sherifa got a jug of water while Bashirah helped Amat to sit up. Amat’s eyes opened and she said, “I feel so sick.”
“We will help you,” Bashirah said gently. “You will be all right.”
Sherifa poured some water into a cup. She held it to Amat’s lip. Amat managed to drink a few swallows. Her eyes closed and Bashirah laid her back down.
“Her fever has gotten even worse,” Bashirah said. “She is in no condition to go anywhere.”
“I know,” said Sherifa. “We need to make another prayer.”
Chapter Twenty Two
“That is so amazing!” Fadhila exclaimed. “Marib is so large!”
“And it has walls around it,” said Basima.
The party had at last come to Marib. Zayd led the way as the four rode up to the entrance. The gates had been opened and four guards stood to the side. All wore robes and kufas and two held spears. The others were armed with bows and arrows. Zayd halted his camel and said to one of the sentinels:
“Have most of the people gone to the poetry contest?”
“Yes, but there are a few people in the city,” the soldier replied. “The contest will be held on the other side of the city. The contestants are there already, but it has not started yet.”
Zayd thanked the men and rode into the city. His companions followed and they moved down a long street. Nizar, Fadhila, and Basima marveled at the vast array of buildings. None of them had ever seen such a large community.
“We will reach the house of Hamid the scholar very soon,” Zayd said. “As I told you, he can provide you with lodging until you find a place of your own.”
“I hope he is at home now,” Nizar said.
“If he is not there, you can stay at my house tonight,” said Zayd.
In a few minutes they reached a large two story house built of sandstone. A man in a white robe and a red turban was sitting on a bench. He appeared to be upper middle aged and had a beard streaked with gray. The man rose and approached Zayd with a smile.
“So you have returned from your trip,” Hamid said. “Your friend Adil told me that you were going on a journey.”
“And I am glad to be back in Marib,” Zayd said. “I have had some experiences that I can never forget.”
“I see you have some friends with you,” said Hamid. “I would like for you to introduce me to them.”
Zayd and the others dismounted. Introductions were made and Hamid escorted the four into the house. Hamid’s wife Shukriyah came from another room. She was a heavyset woman wearing a black dress and a green scarf.
Soon she was engaged in a conversation with Fadhila and Basima. Hamid sat and talked with Zayd and Nizar. The men discussed the situation. Hamid agreed to provide rooms for Nizar, Fadhila, and Basima. After a few minutes, Zayd excused himself and left. He promised to return soon.
Chapter Twenty Three
Zayd arrived at his house after a ten-minute walk. He hastily pulled back the curtain and entered the dwelling.
“Bashirah! Hussein! Amat!” Zayd called out. “I have returned.”
There was no reply. Zayd searched the other rooms and saw that no one was at home. He surmised that his family had most likely gone to the poetry contest. Zayd decided to return to Hamid’s house. Walking at a fast pace, he quickly reached Hamid’s home. Hamid’s servants were unloading the baggage from the horses and camels that belonged to Nizar, Fadhila, and Basima. Nizar and Hamid had come outside and were carrying on a conversation. Shukriyah and the other women were sitting nearby.
Zayd walked up to Nizar and Hamid and said “My family are not at home. They may be at the grounds where the poetry contest is to be held.”
“I will go there in a little while,” Hamid said. “My wife is also going. You can come with us.”
“I am also going,” said Nizar. “Fadhila and Basima are excited about seeing the contest.”
“There is something I want to do first,” Zayd said. “I am going to the temple of Al-Uzza.”
“Now that you mention it, I need to go there too,” Hamid said. “I need to make some prayers to Uzza.”
“So you are a worshipper of Uzza,” Nizar said.
“Yes, I go to her temple,” said Hamid. “My wife also goes there for prayers.”
Zayd got the sack that had been attached to his saddle. He took out the gold image of Al-Uzza and said, “I am taking this with me.”
“Are you going to donate it to the temple?” Hamid asked.
“Yes,” Zayd said. “I think that is the best thing to do with it.”
“Although I am a worshipper of Qos, I would like to come along,” said Nizar. “I think it would be interesting to see the temple of Uzza.”
Zayd, Nizar, and Hamid began walking in the direction of the temple. The women came with them.
“So you have never seen a temple of Al-Uzza?” Shukriyah said to Fadhila and Basima.
“This will be the first time for both of us,” Basima said. “As we told you, we recently became converts to the worship of Qos.”
“You mentioned that there is a temple of Qos in this city,” said Fadhila.
“I can show you that temple tomorrow afternoon,” Shukriyah said.
They soon reached the temple of Al-Uzza. Zayd led the way as the group entered the courtyard. He walked up the steps of the porch and the others followed him into the shrine. They immediately perceived a startling sight. Amat lay on the floor with Bashirah and Sherifa kneeling beside her.
“What has happened?!” Zayd exclaimed. Bashirah and Sherifa turned toward him.
“Zayd!” Bashirah said. “I am so glad you are back!”
“What has happened to Amat?” Zayd said.
“She is very sick,” Bashirah said tearfully. “I am afraid she may die.”
“Is there anything we can do to help?” Fadhila said as she stepped forward. Bashirah gazed at the others. She had never seen them before.
“That is Zayd’s wife,” Hamid whispered to Nizar. “The girl lying there is his daughter.”
“That is what I thought,” Nizar replied.
Bashirah did not take any time for formalities. She waved her hands and said “Do you have anything? Any medicines?”
“I wish we had them,” said Fadhila.
“We should have brought some herbs with us when we started our trip,” Basima said.
At this point Zayd surprised everyone. He held up the golden statuette of Al-Uzza and walked toward the life-sized statue of the goddess. Holding up the small image, Zayd cried out “Great Uzza, I offer this to you as a gift. I have always remained loyal to you. I pray that my daughter Amat may be healed.”
Everyone watched as Zayd prayed aloud. Then an astonishing thing happened. A large white light appeared. It glowed brightly and startled everyone. Suddenly the light vanished and a female figure stood in its place. She wore a long green dress and dark hair. Her beautiful face enchanted those present. Zayd and the others instantly realized who she was. They dropped to their knees and bowed their heads to the floor.
“You may now rise,” Al-Uzza said in a firm but gentle voice. Everyone got up and looked in awe at the goddess. Al-Uzza walked over to where Amat lay. She touched Amat’s forehead. Amat’s eyes opened and she stared into the face of the goddess.
“I am Al-Uzza,” the goddess said. “You are now healed.”
The experience practically mesmerized Amat. She sat up and said, “It is such an honor to meet you, great Uzza.”
Amat bowed her head to the floor and Al-Uzza said, “You may rise.”
Amat got up and Al-Uzza gazed at the group. First she addressed Zayd.
“Zayd, you went seeking after material wealth. What lesson would you say that you have learned?”
“I have learned that what is truly precious to me is my family,” Zayd said. “They are more valuable than gold.”
“You have learned an important truth,” the goddess said. She turned toward Bashirah and said, “You have always been a virtuous wife and mother. Zayd, Hussein, and Amat are fortunate to have you.”
Al-Uzza then focused her gaze on Nizar, Fadhila, and Basima. She said, “Basima and Fadhila, you have recently begun worshipping Qos. Before that, you worshipped sticks and stones. Qos is a good deity; you made a good choice. Nizar, you have long been a follower of Qos. You should treat your wife and your mother-in-law well. Qos will expect that.”
“I will do that, great Uzza,” Nizar said.
“I will be a good and virtuous wife to Nizar, great Uzza,” said Fadhila.
“I am sure that Qos will expect that of me.”
Al-Uzza gazed at Hamid and Shukriyah and said, “You are both very learned. There are things that Nizar, Fadhila, and Basima need to learn. You must tutor them well.”
The goddess then said to Sherifa, “You have always been a good priestess. Continue to do so.”
Al-Uzza faced Zayd, Bashirah, and Amat and said, “The poetry contest will begin soon. Hussein will participate in it. You need to be there.”
“We shall attend the contest, great Uzza,” Zayd said.
“I must go now,” Al-Uzza said. “I am going to get together with my sisters Ilat and Manat.”
The goddess disappeared and everyone began speaking excitedly. They knew that they would never forget the experience.
“She read our minds!” Fadhila said. “Just like Qos did.”
“Deities are able to do that,” said Nizar.
Nizar introduced his wife and daughter to Nizar, Fadhila, and Basima. Upon concluding the formalities, Zayd said “It is an interesting story about how I met them. I will tell you about it while we walk to the poetry contest.”
Everyone exited the temple. They began making their way toward the gate that led to the grounds where the event was about to take place.
Chapter Twenty Four
Zayd and the others reached the place soon after the preliminaries had ended. They passed a large cluster of tents that had been set up by outsiders. Many people had come from other communities to see the event.
Hussein and nine other men stood near the crowd. To the left of the contestants sat a panel of five judges. Those men were older and wore beards. Not far from them were a group of six people dressed in unusual attire. Two were women and four were men. They wore long sleeveless robes. The men had wreaths on their heads.
Behind the two groups lay the prizes to be given. The Sabaean judges were sitting in front of five camels, five fine horses, several sacks containing coins, and array of pottery. Some of the wares were made of alabaster.
Behind the set of foreigners lay a large number of sacks that obviously contained a great deal of wealth. Whoever made the best impression on them would become quite rich.
Zayd sat down with his wife and daughter. Nizar and Hamid seated themselves with their wives. Bashirah sat next to Fadhila.
“Are those the judges?” Fadhila asked.
“I believe so,” said Nizar. “It looks like those judges are divided into two groups. The ones in the group of six are foreigners.
“They are Romans,” Hamid said. “They come from lands far to the north. Their capital is called Rome and it is across a sea. I met two of them yesterday. The bald headed man is named Tiberius and the woman sitting next to him is his wife Cordelia. Tiberius is a well-traveled man and speaks many languages. He knows how to speak Sabaean and Arabic, as well as his own language.”
“What is the language of the Romans called?” Nizar said.
“It is called Latin,” said Hamid. “Latin is written in an alphabet that is different from the alphabet used to write Sabaean and Arabic.”
The presence of the Romans fascinated Fadhila and Basima. Shukriyah mentioned to them that Romans occasionally came to Saba.
Zayd, Bashirah, and Amat talked excitedly as they watched in anticipation of the poetic competition. Amat smiled and said “I hope Hussein will win a big prize.”
“I hope so too,” said Zayd.
“Even if he does not win anything, he will still perform well with his poetry,” Bashirah said.
One of the Sabaean judges rose. He walked to a spot in front of the contestants and said, “My name is Jamal. As I am sure you know, I am one of the judges. There are two groups of judges today. My group are the Sabaean judges. The other set of judges are visitors from Rome. Both groups will make their judgments separately and then award prizes. Each poet will recite his chosen poem. I now call the first poet to speak. His name is Anwar and he is of the Kindah tribe. His family has come a long way from here. He will speak in Arabic. For those of you who do not know Arabic you may ask those who do to interpret for you.”
A young man stepped forth and began reciting. He spoke eloquently of the sky goddess Naila. Anwar compared the blueness of the sky with the gown of Naila. He described her grace as being like soft breezes. When Anwar had finished, the crowd clapped and cheered.
Zayd and his family knew Arabic in addition to Sabaean, so they understood the contents of the poem. Anwar was obviously quite talented.
One by one the poets performed. Their poetry included a variety of topics that included deities, love, war, and nature. Finally it was Hussein’s turn. Hussein came forward and began reciting about the goddess Al-Uzza. He praised the goddess in terms of her beauty and spoke of the sweetness shown by her love. Hussein quoted verses comparing the virtue of Al-Uzza to the crystal clear waters of the springs sacred to her. When Hussein had finished, he drew a large round of applause.
“I think Hussein is the best poet,” Amat said. “He should win the best prizes.”
“I hope so too,” said her mother.
Hamid and Shukriyah interpreted Hussein’s poem to Nizar, Fadhila and Basima. Nizar said that he like Hussein’s poem the best. Fadhila and Basima agreed with his opinion.
The two sets of judges began voting on who would receive the prizes. After they had made their decisions Jamal again came forth and said, “First the awards given by the Sabaean judges will be made. The prize of five sacks of coins goes to Anwar.”
Cheering erupted and Anwar smiled as Jamal congratulated him. Anwar had won the largest of the prizes given by the Sabaean judges. Jamal announced the other awards and none of the major ones went to Hussein. A set of red and white pottery from Hadramawt was all that Hussein received.
“They should have given Hussein the first prize,” Amat said.
“I agree, but life has many disappointments,” said Zayd.
“Your father is right,” said Bashirah. “We do not always get what we want.”
The spectators and contestants turned toward the Romans. After saying something to his wife, the bald headed Roman named Tiberius rose. He gazed toward the line of poets and said, “The prize that we are about to give is an enormous one. It consists of many sacks of gold and silver. We have decided that the prize will go to the young man of Marib named Hussein.”
Loud cheering burst forth. Hussein’s family jumped to their feet in ecstasy. Nizar, Fadhila, Basima, Hamid, and Shukriyah also got up. Hussein came over to claim his prize. As he did so, his family joined him.
“Father! You are back!” Hussein shouted.
“Yes, I arrived just in time for the contest,” Zayd said.
“Did you have many adventures on your trip?” Hussein asked.
“Yes, but we can talk about that later. For now you need to claim your prize and thank Tiberius.”
Tiberius congratulated Hussein. Hussein introduced Tiberius to his family and their friends.
“Your son is an extremely talented poet,” Tiberius said to Hussein’s family. “If you and he ever come to Rome, you can be my guests at my villa.”
“We will be glad to visit you if we ever take a trip to Rome,” Zayd said. The other Romans came over and Tiberius introduced them to Hussein and his family and their friends. Tiberius’s wife Cordelia talked with Bashirah for a while. Nizar complimented Hussein on his poem and said, “You have gained much wealth in a single day.”
“That is true,” Hussein said. “But I will share it with my family. Money alone does not make one happy. One’s family is the greatest treasure.”
“I agree with you,” Nizar said.
Chapter Twenty Five
Nizar, Fadhila, and Basima were sitting on a bench in front of their house. It was dark and two lamps provided light.
“We have been in Marib for three months now,” Fadhila said. “And I have come to enjoy it.”
“I feel happy here too,” said Basima. “I do not wish to ever live in that village again.”
“I may go and visit my tribe someday,” Nizar said. “But I will not live with them. I have become too accustomed to living here in Marib.”
“It is so interesting here,” said Fadhila. “People come from other places that I had never heard of before. The world is larger than I ever realized.”
“That is right,” said Nizar. “Hamid has taught me not only Sabaean, but also geography. I have learned about lands that I never knew existed.”
“His wife Shukriyah has told Fadhila and me about such things,” said Basima.
“I have been making much money from the pottery shop that I bought,” Nizar said. “In the future we can do some traveling.”
“I am looking forward to it,” Fadhila said. “Yesterday I talked to Zayd’s wife Basima. She said that Zayd is very happy with the jewelry shop that his son helped him to purchase.”
“Zayd is happy with it,” said Nizar. "He told me that this morning.”
After talking for another hour, the three went inside. Zayd sat down on a cushion and said “It is time to rest.”
Neal Robbins is an Arabic translator, a native of Arkansas and received his B.A. in philosophy from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. He went to graduate school in philosophy at the University of Florida at Gainesville which is where he received his initial training in Arabic. He later took more coursework in Arabic at the University of Texas at Austin. As an ESL teacher in Saudi Arabia he used Arabic to a considerable extent. He also had a military tour of duty in Turkey where he acquired a working knowledge of Turkish. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org