“Tin Hinan” Chapter 5.

Berber man

(Moroccan Berber man)

Our journey over that last mountain tried body and soul. We were among about thirty men, led by the large man, called Immel Uzmir. They were mountain Berbers, perhaps that accounted for the difference in language. Their voices had a flat, windy sound, not the pleasant, musical tone of our desert tribes. That their lives were so violent maybe made for the difference in speech. Perhaps they whispered to each other behind trees before raids and this formed their speech differently. But of course that couldn’t be it. They would raid from the desert, not from the mountains. They only stole away to the mountains, back to their homes, loaded with the loot of bandits.

Takama and I got used to their brusque ways– they were men after all. Without the soothing nature of women around, what could one expect? Men left to their own devices reverted to savages, more like wild beasts than men. These men were a rough bunch, and if it weren’t for the respect they held for Immel Uzmir, Takama and I would have been plunder.

They must have come from a successful raid somewhere in the desert, for their mules and pack horses were loaded with bags of spices and bales of cloth woven and dyed with various and seemingly rare dyes.

“Look at the colors, Aicha”, her voice expressing wonder.

We could see some of these cloths were woven with gold thread.

“They must have robbed a very rich merchant,” I whispered.

Our women of the tribe did various forms of embroidery, but nothing like the sumptuousness of this cloth.

Caravans crossing from the east were loaded with spices, gold and gold dust, cloths, and precious salt, which they traded further south of the desert for slaves. Since there were no slaves amongst them, we supposed they had raided some rich merchant’s caravan before it had crossed into the southern reaches of the desert. Slave trade was very common, and women and their children were sold off to different tribes and taken far from their lives.

We were the only women amongst these raiders.

Takama and I were treated well enough, given warm blankets and food from their fires. We knew our safety was still in question, for we were only women amongst men.
Each night we wrapped ourselves in the blankets and settled against Niefa, for Immel Uzmir allowed me to keep her. A guard was set near us. We never were sure if it was because Immel Uzmir thought we might try to escape, or if a man would force himself upon us. We slept safely enough, though the weather was colder and the air thinner the higher we climbed.

One night, after the evening meal of snared rabbits, Immel Uzmir came and sat near, a gourd of camel’s milk in his hand.

“You eat little food, Tin Hinan. Is our cooking that bad to your mouth?” He was smiling and held out the milk to me.

I bowed my head in thanks. Camel’s milk was like mother’s milk to me, and I had not had the taste of it since I had left my tribe now so long ago. Drinking deeply, I could have cried for it reminded me of all I had thrown away.

In truth, my liver was nervous, and I was uneasy. It is not peaceful to be among men without the presence of women. Many times I caught the eyes of a man looking at me with that particular hunger. I adopted a veil to keep the cold from my face, but also to keep obscured from curious glances.

“Your food fills the belly, but could use some salt. All in all, women cook better than men. But I imagine you will be home soon and the women of your tribe will rejoice with a feast.”

Immel Uzmir laughed softly and shook his head. “You are of the age, Tin Hinan, to be married. Why are you not so?”

I can be stubborn and when I am, I retreat into silence. It would take a donkey pulling hard to open my mouth and pry out my voice. These many weeks with only the company of Takama, and it had taken its toll on my nature. I was, if the truth were known, lonely and miserable. Perhaps this trek up the mountain had taken more than my strength. I was tired and sore in legs. The mountains were beautiful, but this relentless climb upwards challenged more than my stamina. I was a desert woman, out of my element. I felt as alien as a star dropping to earth and could not get back to the heavens.

I was silent. What should I tell him? His name, Immel Uzmir, meant ‘powerful, constant one’ and he certainly had the respect of these men. To be able to control a score and a half again of Berber men meant he was well respected. The Goddesses had been silent to my demands and I had little else for comfort. I must be grateful.

Sighing, casting my eyes on the ground, I spoke in a low voice. Low, not because I was worried that others would hear my tale, but because I was almost overcome with sorrow. My heart and liver ached and our people say that it is better to let out demons than to trap them inward where they multiply day after day, frolicking in the flesh.

 

“I was to be married. There is not much to tell. My intended broke the contract and the wedding gifts were returned to my parent’s tent. We heard then he had married and left his tribe.”

I kept my eyes on the ground, feeling shame before this stranger. His own voice was low and I struggled not to let foolish woman’s tears fall down my cheeks.

“Ah, Tin Hinan. You blame yourself for a man’s inconstancy? He knew what he risked in doing so. He would not be able to do what he wanted if he was not backed by his parent’s agreement. You are comely and brave for a woman. There is no need to feel shame. Did your tribe prepare to war with his?”

I looked up at him, my voice bitter.

“Our tribe is small. If we did, over this broken promise, many of my kin would be killed. Hasim’s tribe was much stronger.”

In speaking his name, I could not hold back the tears. They fell down my cheeks, though I tried to pull my veil across my face to hide. Immel Uzmir reached out from where he was sitting and raised my face with his hand. He looked closely, his eyes searching. I pulled my head back with a grimace.

“So, you cut off your hair and took your slave and went into the desert? Did you think of the risks? Foolish girl, you could have easily died out there, or be taken prisoner by Arabs.”

“Hah! Instead I lived to be taken by Berbers, my own tribemen! What difference has it meant? I am still a prisoner, probably a slave now like Takama.”

My voice hardened and my eyes flashed through my tears.

Immel Uzmir had his own temper.

“Are you bound like a slave? Do we starve you? Are you made to bear burdens like the pack beasts? Ungrateful girl, if we left you in the mountains, you would be bones by now. There are black bears and wolves up here. You and your slave would not have survived more than a few nights.”

My eyes grew wide. Bears and wolves are not a problem in the desert. Poisonous snakes and scorpions were.

“What do you plan to do with us when you get home? Are we to be slaves to your tribe?”

He shifted his weight and looked around at a noise from the men. “I don’t know what your fate will be, the Gods are silent on that score.”

He scowled at me, trying to scare me, and he was succeeding.

“It’s not my decision. When we get to our tribe I will turn you over to our elders and they will decide what to do with you. We are Berbers, not demons. We do not harm women. They usually find a place at our fire, and sometimes a husband. Your luck could change.” He tossed me a smile and a wink and rose to his feet.

Standing over me, with my head craned back looking at him, he was an impressive man. He was named correctly, and his appearance seemed to bear it out. I was still prisoner, but it could have been worse.

 

Our travel across the mountain became a constant journey, for we were trying to avoid the start of the snow season. Already the nights were freezing, and frost made the ground stiff and brittle at dawn. We slept only a few hours and rose before the sun and still we climbed upward. We reached the top, walked across a plateau and started to descend, the snow already falling. Immel Uzmir pushed the men and beasts as much as he could. To be stranded in a blizzard, even an early one, could mean death. We did not stop to cook or make fires, and ate what could be eaten raw, mostly dried dates with camel’s milk. It was during the rise of the moon when we came in sight of a valley, and on the other side of that was the settlement where Immel Urzim and his men lived. It was half way up another mountain, but one he said was a small mountain.

I was glad to leave the mountain, and so was Niefa. She had a hard time with her feet on the slopes, for camels get sore pads with the rocks and stones. She was born in the desert and the soft sands were hot but did not cut her pads like the mountain terrain. On the descent, she talked and bellowed, and I realized even at this distance, she could smell other camels far in the valley below us. She was young, and coming into heat. A camel in estrus has her mind on only one thing. She was becoming a handful, and her gait suffered from the descent. Immel Uzmir saw that she was giving me trouble, and tied her behind another bigger camel to make her slow down. He placed me behind him on his large horse, and I was forced to hold on to him as we hit rock slides and uneven terrain.

We are a clean people, and ablutions are important to our culture, but the smell of a man so close was new to me. Given the fact he had not bathed in the mountains, the smell of male sweat and robes that had not seen a good washing was a bit ripe to my nose. Perhaps I smelled the same to him, but men seem to tolerate these things better than women.

We came out of the forest that stretched up the mountain and into a large valley. His settlement was across the wide valley and clinging to that other ‘small’ mountain range. We would make camp in the valley to give the pack animals, horses and camels a good feeding on the grasses. That evening, before the sun dipped completely under the horizon, I looked over to the next mountain where he pointed out his tribe’s distant ksar. I had never seen one before and was curious. My tribe was always from the desert. We lived in large tents, woven from the hair of camels and goats. The trees, oaks, twisted olives and walnut groves obscured the actual buildings, but the purple cast of the mountains before us, far in the distance, and long shadows thrown upon the valley was beautiful to eyes that had only seen sand and hot sun all their life. The stars were the same though, rotating across the sky from one side of the upended bowl of the universe to the other. The heavens could always be counted upon to be constant.

That night, Takama and I walked down from the men to a stream where we tried to bathe ourselves, but of course we did not strip off our clothing. The water was cold, and at least we were refreshed, exchanging our robes for the last of clean clothes. I was nervous what the next day would bring, for we would cross the wide valley and appear in the mountain village hopefully before sundown. I had no idea of our reception, but we both knew our lives now were no longer our own. We were at the mercy of a mountain tribe, and though we spoke the same tongue, we were strangers in a very strange land.

 

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2007-2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

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