The past had lived itself the way it was
Their futures fused
Felt their dark eyes meet
I have written into the princess’s past
Driving across the desert at night is like driving across the Arab mind *
Part of me fights against this
A still vastness
In my dream I visit
Found her carpet weaver lover
So too our love was stolen
Swifter than nightfall
He stole her away riding across the moonlit desert
to his village under the snow capped Elburz Mountains of Tehran
Till just an echo remained
I wonder if there is only one song, one loving, one killing
* (Bruce Chatwin)
Neema and Bijan
When I first met the princess Neema I noticed the restlessness of her hands the languid stillness of her body.
We dined together that night under a misty moon in her palace garden.
Her restlessness reminded me of my own feet, trapped in mythical red dancing shoes, running, always ahead of memories too deep to sit in stillness with.
So I wrote into the princess’s past; found her carpet weaver lover, saw their dark eyes meet, their futures fuse.
The crescent moon had risen higher peering through the arched window at the princess kneeling on her Iranian carpet. She lingered, and then hurried soundlessly on her bare feet through the hallway and out into the garden.
Romeo her driver was waiting, “Tonight Romeo I will go out into the streets and see what it is to be with out walls. I have sat here night after night and I have gathered nothing.”
Reluctantly he drove her into the Middle Eastern night, past the twinkling lights of the corniche and then on to the dim outskirts of Jeddah before the princess said, “Yes, this will do. I will see you in two hours Romeo.”
And so I see her, the princess Neema, unrecognisable in her abaya and veil she steps out of the car, picking her way through the filth of the streets and broken pavements. Soon the fascination of shops carrying Chinese silks, saris, silver kettles, brass coffee pots, lures her deeper, she becomes lost in the labyrinth of Sharafiya. When the Isha prayer call hangs in the air she is waved out of a bookshop, metal shutters close, leaving her a woman alone. Alone only in that she is unknown. She walks on, this way she feels less vulnerable. Groups of men gather on street corners, she feels their eyes. She passes the open door of the mosque; men kneel in rows under a single light bulb, sandals by the door. Weary now, she looks for a place to sit out prayer hour, and find her bearings.
She sinks onto a pavement step beside a brown-skinned lady and her child. They sell their meagre wares: cooked corn, strings of wooden prayer beads. She is probably from Morocco, now one of the poor of Jeddah’s streets.
Looking at the beads Neema enquires “Cam – how much?”
“Ithnyn – two riyals,” the brown lady replies holding them out to the princess.
Neema places 20 riyals into her hand, their eyes, hearts meet. This would feed her family for two weeks. The woman reaches under the folds of her abaya and squeezes a tiny trinket into the princess’s hand.
An old tarnished coin, a braided string thread through its centre. Neema’s heart beats faster. The first remembered gift from her father; a tiny wooden box, inside a penny. He had said, “This is a penny from the queen of England… for my princess.” She had braided yellow and red string together and worn the coin around her neck. Now as she polished it with her gloved finger, memories flooded back. “Walla – by God.” The coin was her first gift to her beloved Bijan. ‘‘This is a penny from the queen of England, for my Prince,” she had said to him.
Bijan had stolen her away, riding across the moonlit desert, to his village under the snow – capped Elburz Mountains of Tehran. Here he had kept her a willing captive. For eighteen moons they had lived side by side, she watching him work, weaving stories of red and orange into his carpets. She had brewed strong cardamom coffee and baked the daily loaf of naan bread on the flat stones beside the fire. Later the child had come with his dark black curls and tiny soft hands.
Faster than nightfall they had entered the village, honour had been tarnished, blood must be spilled – She was spirited away once again only this time by her brothers – they had ridden swiftly through the day break until only the echoes remained of her cries in that tiny weavers village.
After three weeks they reached her father’s home. Neema changed; there was strangeness in her, a stillness in her body, a restlessness in her hands. She would not take a husband and had stayed within the palace walls.
Tonight my story had enticed her to leave the safety of these walled gardens.
I wonder if there is just one song, one loving, one killing?
Neema looks up; the brown-skinned woman is gone, only the child stands alone in front of her.
She reaches forwards, slipping the queen’s penny over his little boy head. I cannot catch her words. They smile, her hands are still.
I recall my father’s words “Even the dusty poor notice the opportunity for joy, seeing blossoms after death.”
It will be spring in Tehran now.
I bend down to unlace my red dancing shoes. I will not need them tonight. I will be heavy and still with my own memories.