This was simply meant to be a formality. A small requirement. A modest ceremony. Instead, they are watched by hundreds of pairs of eyes
The great chamber is decked with flowers, winding around the pillars and cascading down the walls so that even the mosaics are covered in tulips and hyacinths and carnations and roses, pink and white and yellow.
The odalisques march inside in pairs, and Bilhah’s heart quickens when she sees the mass of women assembled. A half-holiday has been declared, and instead of their usual duties, the entire women’s palace has come to see them declare their allegiance to Islam.
They are led to the front of the room. They stand, facing the crowd. The imam and the Sufi sage, dressed in robes embroidered with silver, stand at right angles, so that they face both the odalisques and the crowd. In the corner next to the entrance, a woman plucks the tanbur. Bilhah tries to follow the tune, but the notes seem to come at random and she cannot make sense of the rhythm.
The fragrance of the flowers is heavy. Bilhah’s head begins to ache and though she breathes deeply, it is hard to find air.
Azziza walks to the center of the room and she turns to face the odalisques.
“These flowers have been brought here today not only to show what you must aspire to as good Muslims, but to show you that when you do so, there is beauty and harmony.” Her eyes travel along the row, resting for a moment on Bilhah.
“The tulip symbolizes Allah, as it is a majestic flower that rises to the sky alone, thus symbolizing oneness.” She lifts her arms in emphasis and the gold brocade of her sleeves ripples. She continues. “Carnations imply devotion. The bowed violet is a sign of humility and the rose is the beauty of the Prophet’s word.”
Bilhah swallows. A formality. This was simply meant to be a formality. A small requirement. A modest ceremony. Instead, they are watched by hundreds of pairs of eyes.
Aziza steps aside and the imam stands up to speak. What will she do?
It is just words. Just so many words.
She has lied before, after all.
She thinks of Juan. Papa summoning her and informing her that they would be married. Juan sat next to him, wine cup in his hand, with the faintest trace of red dribbling from the corner of his mouth.
Like blood, she had thought when she saw it. Whose?
When they had said, “Will you marry this man?” she had nodded, and when that was not enough, she had croaked out, “Yes.”
A few days later, she had made a nest on top of the sycamore tree that hung over his yard and watched him. She had watched him spit on the ground and give the goats a kick as he spilled out their grain into the trough. By the time she climbed down, she had seen everything she needed, but her words, her words were still obedient, and they had stayed obedient until she had packed a little traveling bag and slipped out of the house on that moonlit night before the wedding was due to take place.
Her very soul, it seemed, is duplicitous. What do more words mean? Nothing. Nothing at all.
The imam has finished speaking. Now they are to be called up, one by one. Beside her is Katerina. A light veil covers her face, but she is clutching her hands together and even Bilhah can see her tremble. All her planning, to slip to the side and for Zefira to take her place — none of it will work, not in front of this great hall of witnesses.
Everything hurts. The first girl is ushered forward, walked by Aziza to the imam, where he is now seated at a table. He says something to her, and Bilhah strains her ears but cannot hear. The girl picks up the parchment that lies there. Her veil shivers in the breeze.
She opens her mouth and begins.
As she begins to speak, Aziza steps forward and holds up her hand. With the other, she ushers the hall to stand. What is this? Bilhah’s eyes flit from Aziza, to the crowd, to the door.
The great doors open and in walks the retinue of Hurrem Sultan herself.
It is Hurrem Sultan, regal in a gold tiara, a fine lace veil fluttering before her, but it is thin, so her face can be seen. The sight of her strikes Bilhah in her heart. Hurrem Sultan sits down on a throne next to the imam, and her servants kneel before her.
Bilhah stares. Hurrem Sultan, herself. Every eye in the room is drawn to her. There is an absolute surety about her, something in her presence that becomes the center of all.
A woman who has everything.
A woman who has nothing.
What was it that Hurrem Sultan said to her? That everyone around her is either a plaything or an enemy. Revulsion fills Bilhah, but it is mixed with pity. What does she want, after all, but to survive, and for her children to be saved from the sword of those who compete for the throne?
Bilhah reaches to her throat and plucks the fabric of the neckline, for it strangles her.
At the front of the room, the girl once again lifts the declaration. She calls out: Wa ash-hadu anna Muhammad rasul-Allah — I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
Aziza hands her a bouquet of roses and kisses her on the forehead. She take them and treads lightly to the other end of the hall. Next in line is Zefira, then Katerina, and then it will be Bilhah’s turn.
Yasemin is sitting in the front row, along with the woman who heads the embroiderers and the woman in charge of the laundry. Does she see Bilhah? For weeks, Yasemin has been calling her to the side under one pretext or another, trying to strengthen her faith. Trying to tell her — what? What exactly does she want Bilhah to do? This cannot be the first conversion ceremony she has seen. What choice does Bilhah have, even if she wanted it?
But still. Her words. What was it Yasemin had said? You are the ruler of the little kingdom that is your life.
Bilhah had wanted to protest. It is not true. Papa ruled me. Circumstances. Evil. Now, Aziza rules me, and you yourself, watered on authority that trickles down from Hurrem Sultan herself.
It would be easier if Yasemin’s words were false. But even within these prisons, Bilhah has still managed to wrest something of what she wants.
Zefira walks over to the imam, listens to his words and nods, then picks up the parchment and reads:
Wa ash-hadu anna Muhammad rasul-Allah.
Zefira holds her head high as she receives her flowers and Aziza kisses her on the forehead. From her throne, Hurrem Sultan claps.
Next is Katerina. All of her plans, for naught. There is no way she can escape this declaration, though it might issue from an aching heart.
Bilhah feels her heart quicken. What of her? What will she do? Does she have any choice? Katerina is slowly stepping toward the imam.
Hurrem Sultan leans forward slightly on her throne. Does she know? Does she know that this is Katerina, and that she is devout, and that this is tearing her to pieces? Hurrem, too, was a Christian girl when she entered the palace. Is she leaning forward in sympathy or in enjoyment of Katerina’s trial?
Bilhah squints and stares. Beneath the gossamer veil, Hurrem Sultan is smirking. Oh, she is enjoying this. Bilhah feels her cheeks grow red and her breathing quicken. The woman is a monster. She is like a plant that twists and turns to reach the light. There is nothing in it of straightness and beauty. It is bent and warped; its inner nature corrupted.
Is this what happens when one is given power? If so, it is not a gift, but a sword. Is this what happens when a person does not have the chance to be loyal to her word, her inner faith?
Aisha had told her — the more prominence, the greater the fear. Hurrem Sultan and her children may be killed at any moment, by others who are hungry for power. When the only thing that matters is survival — of herself, of her daughter, of her sons, then yes, all below you are your playthings and all around you are your adversaries.
She is not just angry now, but scared. What will become of her? If she will say anything, do anything to survive, then will she, too, become monstrous? Corrupt and warped and cruel?
Pain. There is pain in all her body. Her shoulders, in her back, her hips, her whole body hurts her but she does not know why.
What is the choice here, anyway? Either she says these words or…
She will be punished.
She will be slung onto the streets of Istanbul, far from this strange haven of safety.
She will be killed.
At the front of the room, the imam reads out from the parchment while Katerina listens, her head bowed: “G-d enjoins justice, the doing of good and generosity to the kindred, and He forbids all shameful deeds, evil and transgression, and He instructs you, that you may take heed.”
It seems so obvious, not so different from what the Torah tells them.
That if someone does not follow this — of doing good and generosity. Then what is he? Who is he?
Papa. The bang and thud of the printing press. The smell of ink, the curve of Hebrew letters hammered into iron. The terror as he loomed up in front of her. The way people talked to him, talked of him — the man who has saved the Talmud from destruction. Spain is gone, but the holy words written on Spanish soil remain. And all because of whom?
How can she declare allegiance to falsehood? How can she reject the True Creator?
But hasn’t He already rejected her? If He so loves Papa, then He must hate her, Bilhah. But if He loves her, then why does He give Papa life?
Sensations come to her. Cold. Rain. The sting of her father’s hand. Running, outside through a winter downpour, not feeling the cold needles that rain down on her. Not feeling anything but the furious pump of her heart. Bursting into the empty shul, shaking so badly that she ran over to the paroches and wrapped herself in the warm velvet. Slowly, she felt her body stop trembling and the warmth come.
After a bit, she became curious and opened the door of the aron kodesh. She removed the sefer Torah and placed it on the bimah, where she opened the silver and wooden box and let her eyes travel down the columns until they found the words.
Do not oppress the orphan.
Was she an orphan? She did not have a mother, but she did have Papa. Did that make her an orphan?
But if so, then how could Papa hurt her so? Was that not forbidden by the Torah? Were these not the words that he arranged in iron letters, straightening the paper, pulling down the plates, arranged the paper, ready to be read and observed and brought to life? Do not oppress an orphan.
But then, maybe her father was simply a beast. A beast, with eyes that read the words, and arms that inked the paper.
But maybe it was all her fault, maybe it was she who was broken, who did not deserve even the title of orphan, even that care. For was Papa not a servant of G-d, bringing His holy words into the world?
But then, what about the Almighty Himself? Do not oppress an orphan.
How could He have abandoned her to Papa’s fist?
The room is hot and airless, the air sucked out by everyone’s breathlessness.
Katerina stumbles over her words.
Wa ash-hadu anna Muhammad rasul-Allah
The room feels unsteady, lines blur, the people around her fade, noises grow distant. Soon enough, she will be standing before the imam. She will receive a prayer mat and told to make the declaration.
Katerina receives her flowers, is kissed on the forehead, and genuflects before Hurrem Sultan.
It is Bilhah’s turn. She takes one step forward, another.
She glances up toward the crowd, and though all is a blur, she sees Yasemin and hears the words that she has spoken or that she might speak, if she was beside her now. “Trust yourself. You can trust that your soul will tell you what is the right thing to do. It has done in the past, has it not?
Bilhah thinks. Perhaps. After all, it was that voice within in that told her to run. To avoid the marriage with Juan that was foisted upon her. To run from Papa’s blows. To find something strange or different or better.
Do not oppress an orphan.
If it was G-d who gave Papa life, it was also He Who gave her a spirit that would rise up and save itself. He led her here to Istanbul, a place where she is safe. And… she swallows, the tears rising against her will… he didn’t give her only Papa, but Mama, too.
She closes her eyes and tries to find an image of her mother, but there is nothing.
She is drawing closer.
She reaches the imam and all of a sudden, in the hollow where nothingness crouches, something appears. It is not a memory. It is not even a silhouette of memory. But still, it is present, and it is stronger than any of Papa’s blows.
She closes her eyes for a moment and feels the breath filling her. She is enfolded. Warm, comforted. Not alone.
And now here she is, before the imam.
“Pick up the parchment,” he tells her, “and recite the words that you see.”
Wa ash-hadu anna Muhammad rasul-Allah.
Bilhah opens her mouth.
Muslim. Jew. Muslim. Jew.
Hurrem Sultan. Papa. Yasemin. Katerina. Faces flash through her mind, then disappear, and she searches for that feeling again, the sense that she is enfolded in someone’s arms, but it is gone, a fleeting gift, and for a moment she despairs, but then sees that she can grasp it herself.
A slip of the tongue is all that it takes. She, a girl of words, can do this. Her mind works quickly. Instead of Wa ash-hudu, I bear witness, she could say La ash-hudu, I do not bear witness.
It is just one different letter. They sound so similar that no one will even notice.
Bilhah speaks. La ash-hadu anna Muhammad rasul-Allah.
A bundle of flowers. A kiss. And with a mixture of elation and relief, Bilhah strides back across the great hall.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 809)
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