Karima’s wise gift

Melchior came to the door of the tent, visibly distressed. He always astonished me, because he was so open in his emotions. I could not imagine being like that. It is perhaps easier for a man than a woman. If a woman wants to be free she must be always strong. Weakness and the men take over.

We had been down to two camels for days now, hirelings, since the raid on his own highly-trained string before we met. One of his killed, three stolen. He wept for the dead camel; not the servant who had died with it. Of course, he knew what camels could do, which was not at all what these hired camels did do, which was principally to go lame.

We had met at the caravanserai outside Najaf. He had seen me helped in by the eunuchs. He was astonished at a woman leading a journey. We spoke. Do not be shocked. Women are more free in my country, and I am a widow, and of course, the eunuchs stood behind me and my women sat either side. Melchior and I joined forces.

So he came to break the news that the last two camels were lame: ‘We cannot go on, Karima,’ he said, his face long, ‘for there is no camel for you to ride, and it will be difficult and dangerous and horribly uncomfortable on foot.’ He was a man who had lost the last shreds of the things that he thought he needed.

When my husband died … while my husband lived I knew I needed love, warmth, good food, fine clothes. When he died, warmth and food and clothes were empty. If I could stay alive without the love, then the other things meant nothing at all. I needed only enough food to give me strength. Clothes enough to protect me from the sun, the cold, the eyes of men. I have learned to take the other things up because they give me value in the eyes of the world: perfume that floats around me, dresses that rustle, gold jewellery, the solicitous care of eunuchs. I also know how to lay those things down.

I knew we could go on. Everything was sold at stupidly low village prices, and the next day we set off, me smiling to myself as I set the pace, because Melchior had imagined I needed the help I used to increase my importance. An importance in which I did not believe any longer. He and I carried our gifts, because we must lead and inspire the others, and the servants carried water, a little bedding, the star-gazing equipment. We were drawn on, as I knew we must be. We had just enough to keep going forward. Does one ever get more? Not for long.

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