In the year 999, when Ben Attar, a Moroccan Jewish merchant, takes a second wife, he commits an act whose unforeseen consequences will forever alter his family, his relationships, his business-his life. In an attempt to forestall conflict and advance his business interests at the same time, Ben Attar undertakes his annual journey to Europe with both his first wife and his new wife. The trip is the beginning of a profound human drama whose moral conflicts of fidelity and desire resonate with those of our time. Yehoshua renders the medieval world of Jewish and Christian culture and trade with astonishing depth and sensuous detail. Through the trials of a medieval merchant, the renowned author explores the deepest questions about the nature of morality, character, codes of human conduct, and matters of the heart.
About the Author
A. B. YEHOSHUA is the author of numerous novels, including Mr. Mani, Five Seasons, The Liberated Bride, and A Woman in Jerusalem. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, and he has received many awards worldwide, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Jewish Book Award. He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.
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In the second watch of the night, finding himself woken by a caress, Ben Attar thought to himself that even in her sleep his first wife had not forgotten to thank him for the pleasure he had afforded her. He brought the caressing hand to his lips in the deliciously swaying darkness, intending to plant another kiss upon it, but the touch of its dry heat on his lips soon corrected his error, and disgustedly he thrust away the hand of the black slave, who, sensing his master's revulsion, vanished. Lying where he was, naked and very drowsy, Ben Attar was once more tormented by anxiety about the journey. He reached out to check whether the youth, who had dared to intrude so far into his bed to wake him, had not also touched the belt full of precious stones, which he now hastily buckled on before donning his robe. Silently, without a word of parting, he slipped out of the tiny cabin and climbed the rope ladder onto the deck. Even though he knew perfectly well that his departure, however silent it was, would wake his wife, he was confident that she would have the self-control not to detain him. Not only was she aware of where his duty now lay, but it was even possible she shared his hope that he would be in time to discharge it before the dawn of day.
But to judge by the twinkling summer stars that filled the firmament, the dawn was still far off. The breeze that was gently clearing the sleep from his eyes as he climbed on deck was not the kind of breeze that blew up suddenly toward the third watch, but just a gentle billow that soon vanished into the void they had identified the previous day, by the intersection of the winds and the smell of the water, as the mouth of the River Seine, for which their hearts had been yearning ever since they first set sail from the Maghreb more than forty days before. So as not to miss the precise opening of the river that would take them into the heart of the Frankish lands, the captain had given orders before sunset to stop the ship, drop anchor, tie up the two steering oars, and wrap the great sail around the long yard that hovered about the gently slanting mast. In the space on deck, freed of the suffocating motion of the great triangle of canvas, the rope ladders became improvised hammocks for the crew, who, unable to abandon their curiosity even at this deep and intimate hour of the night, squinted drowsily to watch the Jew, the ship's owner, recharging his desire, anxious not to let himself down or to fail his second wife, who was expecting him in the stern of the ship.
Meanwhile, a faint tinkle of bells accompanied the shadowy figure of the slave who had woken his master with a long, impudent caress, as he slipped out now from among the baskets of merchandise, proffering without expression a basin of pure water. Surely, Ben Attar brooded resentfully as he freshened his face in the icy water, the slave could have made do with the little bells attached to his tunic instead of intruding into Attar's cabin to steal a look at his nakedness and that of his wife. And without a word of warning or reproof, he suddenly slapped the slave's black face with all his strength. The boy reeled from the blow but showed no surprise; nor did he ask for any explanation. Since the beginning of the voyage he had become used to the fact that no man spared the rod upon him, if only to restrain this son of the desert, who ever since he had been taken onto the high seas had lost his stability and, like a small, lithe wild animal, terrified the moment it is caged, had taken to roaming the labyrinthine crannies of the ship day and night to nestle up to any living creature, whether man or beast. In despair Ben Attar and his partner had resolved to put him ashore in some harbor and pick him up again on the return journey, but the fair wind that had filled the sail during the first two weeks had carried them far from the Iberian Peninsula, and when they stopped at a fishing village near Santiago de Compostela to take on fresh water no Muslim could be found to take the bewildered boy even temporarily under his wing. The Arabs refused to leave him in the hands of Christians, for they knew well that with the approach of the millennium they would not receive back what they had left, but a cowed little new Christian.
It was on account of the rumors that had been flooding Andalus and the Maghreb this last year, about a new fanaticism spreading through the Christian principalities and kingdoms, that the Jewish merchant and his Arab partner Abu Lutfi had decided to minimize their travels by land, so as not to endanger themselves and their merchandise by journeying among hamlets, villages, estates, and monasteries swarming with Christians who were feverishly yearning for their wounded Messiah to descend from heaven to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of his birth but who still feared that that moment would be a day of reckoning for accumulated sins, particularly for the stiff-necked Jews and Muslims who walked freely and calmly in their midst, not believing in the crucified godhead nor expecting any salvation from it. And so, in these twilight days, as faiths were sharpened in the join between one millennium and the next, it was preferable to restrict encounters with adherents of another faith and to be content, at least for the greater part of the way, to travel by sea, for the sea, which can reveal itself at times to be capricious and cruel, owes no obligation to what is beyond its reach. Instead of heading east through the Straits of Gibraltar and sailing northward along the Mediterranean coast to the mouth of the Rhone, and then going up that great river swarming with local craft, and thence seeking the distant harbor town along ruined roads thronged with zealots in search of sacrificial victims, they had decided to hearken to the counsel of an ancient, much-traveled mariner. This man, Abd el-Shafi by name, whose greatgrandfather had been taken captive during one of the last Viking raids on Andalus and had been compelled to accompany his captors for many long years upon the seas and rivers of Europe, had brought them two old maps painted on parchment, with green seas and yellow continents abounding in red bays and blue rivers on which one could travel almost anywhere. On close scrutiny the two maps were slightly different — for instance, the land of the Scots appeared on one but was missing from the other, its place being occupied by sea — but both maps agreed as to the existence of a winding northern river, although they called it by slightly different names, which would enable the North African traders to sail, without their feet touching dry land, from the harbor of Tangier all the way to the distant town of Paris, to which a year previously their third partner, Raphael Abulafia, had withdrawn himself.
And so, on the advice of that ancient mariner of captive pirate stock, who showed mounting interest in their journey, they had purchased in the port of Salé a big ship, old but built of sound timber, which had served in bygone days as a guardship in the fleet of the caliph Hashem the first. Without removing the old bridge in its bow or the row of rusting shields that adorned its sides, they prepared it for its civilian mission. They installed separate cabins amidships, cleared out the hold, reinforced the timbers with large wooden rivets, increased the height of the mast, and fitted a larger, triangular lateen sail. They waited for the summer to manifest itself, and then Abu Lutfi selected six experienced sailors to take the ship on a trial run back and forth near the Straits of Gibraltar. It passed the test, and so they loaded it with the great mass of merchandise that had accumulated in the warehouses over the past two years, and with further goods as well, jars full of pickled fish-cheeks and olive oil, camel skins and leopard skins, embroidered cloth and skillfully made brassware. Also sacks of condiments, and sugar canes, and fastened baskets full of figs and dates and honeycombs, and leather containers brimming with desert salt, in the depths of which they had concealed daggers inlaid with precious stones and flasks of rare perfumes. It was late June when they set sail, turning their backs for the first time in their lives on the rising sun and setting their faces to the west, to the great expanse of the ocean. Clinging cautiously to the coast of southern Andalus, they began to sail northward along the califate of Cordoba and the kingdom of Leon, turning eastward somewhat along the northern coast of Castile and Navarre to the port of Bayonne. From here, after a short rest, they sailed along the coast of Aquitaine and the duchies of Gascony and Guyenne, touched the coast of Belle Île, and turned northwest, into the heart of the ocean, so as to give a wide berth to the dangerous craggy headlands of Brittany. So weary were they from the long voyage that they momentarily disregarded the old pirates' map and hunted for the mouth of the river they were seeking in the big gulf that they had come upon. But they had been overhasty, and pressed on northward for ten long days more, skirting the great duchy of Normandy until at last they were able to turn east, into the crocodile jaws of a new bay that appeared at dawn in all its splendor, and into which flowed the longed-for river named the Seine, which would conduct them circuitously but safely to the place where their third partner had vanished, after submitting to his wife's repudiation.
Even though there was no reason why the Christian millennium should trouble Jews or Muslims sailing alone upon the universal ocean, the Moroccan ship, advancing at the pace of a fast horse, seemed to have absorbed something of the new religious fervor radiating from the nearby Christian coasts. How else are we to explain the fanaticism with which the sailors harried the black boy, who attempted occasionally to commune with his ancient gods, which the dread of the wide ocean was forcing out of the memory of his pagan childhood? Ben Attar sometimes thought that this panic-stricken youth might be able to find peace in his outlandish prayers, and even bestow it upon others. But this is not what the Arab sailors thought, for whenever they caught the boy prostrating himself in supplication to the sun or the moon or the stars or bowing down at the base of the old bridge, facing the animal head carved at the top of the mast, they would drag him to his feet and flog him for idolatrously polluting the worship of the one invisible God, who here, on the high seas, seemed to his worshippers not merely a necessity but the only rational divinity. Fearing that the young African might secretly betray them, they attached little brass bells to his coat, so as to keep track of his movements. And even now, as he brought Ben Attar the light meal he had cooked for him, the soft chimes dissolved the silence of the night.
On a round brass tray lay an earthenware bowl full to overflowing with a yellowish stew with some pieces of white cheese floating on it. Beside it was a fine silver basket replete with figs that had been picked and dried in Seville, on which lay a grilled fish that had been netted earlier in the night, its eye still gleaming in the dark as though it were not yet reconciled to its death. At such a deep hour of the night Ben Attar did not feel like tackling a full-scale meal, but he forced himself to swallow some of the scalding stew and picked at the white flesh of the fish, so as not to drink on an empty stomach the wine that the young slave was pouring for him, despite the rabbinic prohibition on drinking wine poured by idolaters. Even though he sought to temper his spirit, and even to befuddle it enough to encourage the carefree humor that gives rise to a proper desire, well balanced between shyness and assertiveness — like that which had guided him in his coupling earlier in the night — he still had to be cautious with an unfamiliar wine, whose effects had not yet been fully tested.
At first, out of consideration for the faith of his fellow travelers, he had thought of declining the large wine jar he had been offered in exchange for a jar of olive oil twenty days since in the port of Bordeaux, and to content himself with sipping the sweet spiced wine he had brought from home for ritual purposes. It was the ship's captain who had urged him not to turn down the Frankish wine, whose smell and taste were very seductive. For seafaring men, even if they are Mohammedans, the drinking of wine is not a sin, explained Abd el-Shafi, whose many years at sea had made him not only a tough old sea salt but also an expert in maritime law. If in truth all mankind may be divided into three classes, the living, the dead, and seafarers, who are neither living nor dead but merely hopeful, surely there is nothing like wine for inspiring hope. Therefore even now, observing the Jew tippling in the silence of the night, the captain leaned down from his hammock with an agile movement to inspire himself with a little hope, not for a waiting wife but for the mouth of the river, which he hoped the summer had left deep and wide enough to let the potbellied ship pass through without disgrace or mishap.
He did not venture to serve himself without asking the owner's permission. But once invited, he started to gulp the wine down so lustily that the young slave had to be repeatedly dispatched to refill the pitcher, until even Abu Lutfi, who was sleeping the sleep of the just among the sacks of condiments and the camel skins so as to keep an eye on the hidden swords and daggers, awoke at the sound of the swilled wine and emerged from the bowels of the ship — not, heaven forfend, to transgress against the Prophet's prohibition, but to content himself with contemplating the ruby liquid and perhaps sniffing its unfamiliar odor. Unable, however, to contain himself at the sight of Abd el-Shafi calmly drinking, he raised his eyes to the dark vault of the sky to discover whether at such a distance from his native country, on the threshold of a backward Christian land, unstable of government and possessed by vain beliefs, there was anyone who might rebuke him for tasting this beverage that was so beloved of the inhabitants of the place. Not for the sake of pleasure, he reasoned, but to judge for himself the nature of this juice that colored the thoughts and feelings of those whom he would soon be called upon to pit himself against. He closed his eyes as he raised the goblet to his lips and took a small sip of the cool liquid, and then his face paled as he understood how sublime the taste of the forbidden drink was, and how easily one might become enslaved to it. There and then he resolved to abjure it totally. But it was such a pity to throw the wonderful wine into the sea that he passed the goblet to the captain, who drained it delightedly and by way of thanks pointed to a pair of new stars that had appeared over the northern horizon to confirm how far they had sailed under the vault of heaven.
Meanwhile, the young slave was clearing away the remains of the Jew's meal. Before he threw the fishbones overboard, he could not help kneeling and praying secretly to them to have pity on him now that they had met their appointed end. The soft tinkling of the bells on his lithe body betrayed him to the men on deck, but they were all too weary to rise and cut short his forbidden prayer. Perhaps now that they were about to enter the Frankish kingdom, it would be best not to disdain any possible source of salvation, even if it was disguised in the form of a fish's skeleton. Straight ahead of them, not far from the place where the mouth of the river must be, a fire had been burning since nightfall, as though someone on the shore had already spotted the strange ship and was hastening to wreathe himself in fire in preparation for the meeting.
What form would this meeting take? The eyes of the men on the deck gazed fixedly at the bright red sign. Up to now the voyage had been pleasant and safe, as though the God of the Jews and the God of the Muslims had combined their forces upon the sea to supply each other's lack. Nature had smiled upon the travelers, and if occasionally the skies had darkened and the ship had been lashed by showers of rain, these had been short-lived and refreshing, and had not deterred the captain from spreading the great sail to the favorable winds and garnering their full blessing. Nor had they been troubled by the curiosity of passing craft, for despite the ship's unusual appearance, it was immediately apparent that she was a stray, threatening no harm. Even though the signs of her previous military career could still be discerned, her rounded belly betokened peace, and even those who had been so consumed by suspicion that they had come aboard to inspect what was truly hidden in the ship's bowels could find no menace in the camel skins or brassware, or in the dried figs and carobs that they were promptly offered. Taking the packet of salt that Abu Lutfi offered them wrapped in thin paper, the visitors would depart with thanks, not imagining the concealed daggers, curved and lovingly honed. True, the sight of a woman or two in colorful robes and fine veils, strolling on deck or sitting on the old bridge, might have aroused some unease in the minds of the curious, but even this was a personal, not a religious or military, worry.
Excerpted from "A Journey to the End of the Millennium"
Copyright © 1998 A. B. Yehoshua.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
The Journey to Paris, or The New Wife,
The Journey to the Rhine, or The Second Wife,
The Journey Back, or The Only Wife,
Read More from A. B. Yehoshua,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,
What People are Saying About This
"Extraordinary . . . Yehoshua is so graceful and eloquent that his work's timeliness also succeeds, paradoxically, in making it timeless."-The New York Times Book Review
"An immensely intelligent, humane book . . . A. B. Yehoshua is a world-class writer at the height of his powers."-The Boston Globe
"Wherever this innovative, erudite, suggestive, mysterious writer-a true master of contemporary fiction-points us, there can be no doubt, it is essential that we go."-Neil Gordon, the Washington Post