Hilda Oakley

Australian author and poet

   Jan 06


A blood curdling scream filled the air, not unusual during an evening in this Egyptian city.  Most people were asleep or just ignored the noise, continuing to go about their own business.

Habib, an archaeologist, and his daughter Vashti, were also about to turn in.  Habib sensed danger.  Peering outside, he noticed a man half hidden in the shadows.  He was cautious at first, but then he realized the man had no weapons.  It was a man in distress.  Still, Habib was careful.

Once in the light of the doorway, the man said that his name was Omar and pleaded for Habib to come and see his wife, as she was in labour.  As she wasn’t an Egyptian, everyone treated her poorly and as taboo.  Habib wondered to himself why did he come here to Cairo?  Why didn’t he stay in the Bedouin camp where he would be safe?

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Habib recalled his own dramatic experience years ago.  Habib’s wife Marab, had prepared him with a few details on what to do if she had trouble giving birth.  She also told him how to care for the young baby.  This knowledge alone would be enough to curse or even kill him.  Egyptian law decreed that medical assistance was the specific role of the women when birth was imminent.

Alas, tragedy struck.  His beloved wife Marab died while giving birth.  He felt as though his heart had been wrenched out and torn apart.  Though he wanted a son, Habib’s heart melted when he saw his newborn daughter.  He carried out his wife’s wish and called her Vashti.
Grabbing the sheepskin bottle and herbs he had made for such an emergency, he fled into the darkness of the night, filled with grief beyond belief and unbelievable pain.  He couldn’t give in to his feelings; he had to be strong for his baby girl whom he adored.  He had no time to choose what other possessions to take with him or what path to take.  He was fearful and conscious of being pursued and killed.

He left Cairo to wander in the wilderness, mainly keeping off the well-known camel routes.  Eventually he was surrounded by a large band of Bedouins.  They were a wandering nomadic tribe of the desert, rearing and trading camels for a living. This group looked war-like but actually were very friendly.  They took Habib and his daughter back to their temporary campsite near an oasis.  The elder of the tribe was laid down with a severe infection.
Habib used some herbs he had in his possession, which helped cure the elder.  After this Habib and his young baby daughter Vashti were graciously accepted into the tribe.

Not long after, one of the Bedouin guards was patrolling on the outskirts of the camp when a knife was put to his throat.  He froze in his tracks.
“Lead me to your camp or I will slit your throat,” the intruder ordered.

With some quick agile movements, the Bedouin guard was able to free himself and make a dash, darting between the sand hills, leading the intruder on a merry chase away from the camp.

On managing to evade and lose the intruder, he returned to camp out of breath and near to exhaustion.  He gasped out the words that the camp was in danger, and reported to the elder of the tribe what had happened.  The Bedouins are a disciplined and astute people who, in no time at all, were packed up and ready to leave.  Faster and faster they moved deeper into the desert, covering their tracks.  They didn’t stop until nightfall when they reached another oasis.

Habib enjoyed his stay with the Bedouins.  He learnt a lot about the Arab and Egyptian ways and religion.  He found that they worshipped the sun god ‘Ra’, they prayed to the river god ‘Hapi’ and if a child was sick, they prayed to their god ‘Imhotep’, the God of Medicine.

A few years passed and Habib and his daughter finally left the Bedouin camp, feeling safe now that they wouldn’t be pursued or persecuted.  He enlisted to help in an archaeological dig site near the pyramids.  Here again the conditions were harsh with the glare and heat from the sizzling sun.  Day after day of monotonous intense, sun-burning heat, draining every ounce of bodily fluid from everyone.  Oh for a glass of cool water!

Brilliant though the team was, the conditions were appalling.  Why did they do it?  Was it greed, or was it a desire to find for himself the truth, that there was something from the past buried beneath this mountain of sand?

One word covers it all.  Addiction.  The addiction of an archaeologist to find an archaic relic from ancient times.  This was his first dig, his ‘Baptism of Fire’ so to speak.  It was a time-consuming, painstaking task.  He may not find a tomb or a mummy, and some of the finds may be grim to the ordinary person, but to the archaeologist the rewards can be great, unique and even unbelievable.

Here there were no comforts of home, just sand and more sand.

Vashti remembered how, when she was a little girl, she loved playing in the sand.  Now she was older, she detested it; it was inside everything, blowing in the air, blowing in her hair, gritty and unrelenting.

Another danger was about to emerge.  Vashti had dug-up an ancient artefact, a pottery vase in perfect condition that was buried beneath the sand.  This treasure was like finding a pot of gold, and many less honourable treasure seekers were aware of it.  They would try to steal it at the first opportunity that presented itself.

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Habib’s thoughts were jolted back to the present by Omar, who was still standing in the doorway pleading for him to come and help his wife.

“I’m not a doctor,” Habib insisted, “and my daughter is young”.

Omar pleaded, “You must come, we need your help”.

Against all his inner feelings, Habib felt pity for the man, and he and Vashti agreed to follow.  Habib’s guards had turned in for the night so he didn’t bother to rouse them.  Though fearful that something may go wrong, Vashti insisted that they still should help this man and his wife Cleo.  Anxiety heightened as they twisted and turned through the sand dunes.  At last they arrived.  Vashti was told to go into the tent where Cleo lay, while her father Habib gave her instructions from outside.

On hearing a baby’s cry, Habib waited for Vashti to emerge from the tent and come outside.

The cunning and sly Omar had it all worked out.  As soon as the baby was born, he gagged Vashti and snuck her out of the back of the tent.  He would soon be a wealthy man, stealing the vase from Habib, and selling Vashti to the slave trade, as white slavery was still a roaring business in Egypt.  A rich man would be prepared to pay thousands of dollars for a white, nubile virgin.

When Vashti did not reappear, and Habib discovered the betrayal, his first thoughts of anger turned to desperation as he sought a way to find his daughter.

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Vashti was taken to a large tent and placed inside with the other harem girls.  The tent was the most elaborate she had ever seen, and under any other circumstances, she would have been delighted with its opulence.  But her fear of the unknown and her captive state suppressed her feelings.  How was she to escape?  How could she contact her father?

The pampering, her transition to the world of the harem, was tainted by the knowledge that her days here meant absence from her father.  Days of never ending essence of oils, perfumes, massaging, hair brushing for hours on end, poking, prodding, and enduring the pain of it all.
Having to stuff herself with food, as the sheik liked buxom girls.

Vashti made friends with another girl Yasmin, who was as timid as she.  Yasmin seemed grateful to Vashti, who had given her some of her extra food.  One thing Vashti couldn’t understand, was that Yasmin seemed a lot older than most of the young maidens in the harem.  After some coaxing, Yasmin confided to Vashti that she was still here because she hadn’t been able to give the sheik a child.  “We have to be very discrete and keep silent here”.

“Why are you here Vashti?” asked Yasmin, “You also look out of place here.”

“I was kidnapped, sold, and ended up here,” replied Vashti.

“Oh my goodness, your father must be frantic,” exclaimed Yasmin.  Then her voice changed. “Quiet!  Someone is coming.”  The girls continued doing their embroidery.

“Praise be to Allah!  Its Ali, my head eunuch,” said Yasmin.  “Write a note to your father to let him know where you are.  Ali owes me a favour and I’m sure he will smuggle it out for you.  He has ways and means of contacting the world outside.”

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Meanwhile, Habib was in torture.  Where had they taken his beautiful Vashti?  He had already lost his wife.  Now would he loose his daughter too?  He was determined to find her but where would he start?

One evening, in the darkness of night, Habib thought he saw a silhouette of a man in the shadows.  He thought, “Am I being watched, or is it a figment of my imagination?”  Having been taken in once before, Habib’s senses were on high alert.

A man emerged out of the darkness.  As the man drew closer, Habib could see that he was neither sly nor dangerous.  The man just handed him a note and blended back into the night.

Habib read the note.  His heart pumped as he scanned each word.  It was from Vashti!
Was his daughter being well looked after?  Were they treating her well?  Would he be able to get her back again?  There were so many thoughts running through his brain, but at least he had had some word.

“Please don’t let it be a hoax,” he thought to himself.

He continued to think deep into the night.  He needed a viable plan, a solution to rescue his daughter.

“Thanks be to Allah!  I have the answer,” said Habib.  “I will contact my Bedouin friends. When they hear of my predicament, they will have ways of helping me get my Vashti back.  They blend into the desert and move through the shifting sands like the sly hyena.  They’re not afraid to stare death in the face and still toil on.  Now I have hope.  I know my Vashti will be saved after all!”

Habib set out into the desert to where he knew the Bedouins would be camped at this time of the year.  As he journeyed along, a strong Siricco wind blew up tossing him into the air.  Whirling and twirling him around, his feet never touching the ground.  Eventually he came down with an almighty thud.  The unbelievable had happened, Habib was in the middle of the Bedouin camp!  Although they hadn’t seen him for some time, most of them still knew him, or who he was.  “Praise be to Allah for the wind!” shouted Habib.

Habib asked to see the head elder of the Bedouin clan, but found that he had passed on.  His son Abdullah was now the leader and in charge.  He seemed stern and threatened by Habib’s arrival.

“How did you get here old man?  I hope you haven’t come to spy on us? ” demanded Abdullah.

It was then that the medicine woman came and told Abdullah who Habib was, and that he had cured his father’s illness when her own herbs had not worked.  Habib’s initial reception changed immediately from defensive to welcoming.  He was treated like a God, knowing that the Sirocco winds had brought him back for a reason.

Abdullah asked, “So why have the storms brought you here, no-one will believe you, unless what you say is the truth?”

Habib told Abdullah his story.  He told how his daughter had been kidnapped and sold into the harem of a wealthy Arab Sheik.  He said he knew exactly where his daughter Vashti was, by the letter she had smuggled to him.  His main problem was the large number of guards that protected the palace compound of the wealthy Sheik.

Abdulla listened intently.  Eventually he spoke.  “I have listened to your story and believe it is the truth.  Leave it with me; I will have counsel with my elders to organize a strategic plan to secure her release.”

Later that evening, Habib and about thirty Bedouin men started off towards the Sheik’s compound, situated on the edge of town.  About fifteen of them went straight towards the front of the compound.  At the gates they began arguing and yelling at the top of their voices, fighting each other.
As the guards came out to investigate, Habib and some of the others climbed over the back wall of the palace compound and commenced looking for Vashti, while some stayed outside on look-out.  They searched from room by room.  Eventually, on entering a large foyer, there she was.  Habib ran up to her, his arms open wide.  She hugged him and whispered, “I knew you would come, praise be to the Gods you are here.”

Habib said, “Now we must get out of here fast, follow me.”

Then Vashti broke some more news to him.  “There are ten girls here who have also been kidnapped.  Can we take them with us?”

Habib looked at the other Bedouins.  They nodded their heads, and one of them said, “Yes, if they come with us now, and hurry.  Don’t stop to gather anything.”

Quickly, one by one they were helped over the back wall and whisked into the night.  When they were clear of the town, and well into the desert, the signal was given for the other Bedouins at the front gate to scatter and make themselves scarce.

On reaching the Bedouin camp, they found that everyone was packed-up and ready to move.  Although it was a windy night, and the sand was still blowing-up a storm, they kept moving until daybreak before making camp again.  Abdullah said, “This was part of my plan, for the wind and the sands of the desert to cover our tracks, nobody will know which direction we went.”

Habib, Vashti and the other ten harem girls were all so grateful.  Abdullah, the Bedouin leader, said he would do his best to relocate the girls back to their families.  In the meantime, they were quite welcome to stay with, and be part of the Bedouin tribe.

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Meanwhile, back at the Sheik’s palace, he was in a rage.  All of his favourite Harem girls were gone.  He paid an enormous amount of money for each of them.  He ordered his guards to go and fetch Omar, the man who sold him the white girl.  He believed that, by having this white girl in his harem, it had brought bad karma to his palace.  Omar would regret his error.
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Habib and Vashti returned to their true passion – archaeology – knowing that any discovery of a precious piece would be safe in Bedouin care.

Hilda Oakley
Copyright © 16.11.2009

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