Paradise on Earth
by Dave Potter
The sun set orange and heavy over the rugged stony mountains of the South Arabian Peninsular. As it dropped slowly and noiselessly behind those jagged peaks, Wilfred Bannister sucked gently on his hookah, causing the water to bubble down the pipe and a pleasant aroma of apple tobacco to permeate the night air. He looked up and absorbed the beautiful scene. “Who needs Paradise when life on earth can be this perfect?” he remarked softly to no one in particular.
Hasan al-Sayrafi chuckled. “Maybe not your Christian paradise, no, but remember, when we die we have all this and seventy perpetual virgins to enjoy. Life is good now, yes that is undoubtedly true, but imagine all this with seventy beautiful virgins!”
Abdullah al-Qatta laughed. “Hasan, such things are not possible to imagine, for if I did, I should die of the shock and Inshallah, I would in that place anyway. However, what our friend here says is true, life here is good and there is no place on earth closer to paradise than these mountains. That is probably why Sam ibn Nuh – he whom you Christians call ‘Shem, son of Noah’ – the father of all the People of the Book, chose these mountains for San’a, the first city in the world, but even so, I should thank our friend from afar for the compliments to our land.”
The Arabs nodded, but Bannister frowned. “Why, even now, after all this time spent here, am I still your ‘friend from afar’ Abdullah? Surely by this time I deserve a different title?”
“Almost you do my friend, almost but not quite. It is true that – unlike all the other Britishers who stay walled-up in their mansions in Aden – you truly know Arabia, love our customs, speak our language and understand our ways. For six years now you have lived with us, helped us and been one of us, but alas, you know yourself that until you become a member of the One True Faith, until you submit to the Will of Allah, there will always be a difference.”
Bannister sighed. “Oh Abdullah, how many times have I said before to you? Submit to Islam, why not, I have no problem with it. Yes, I am a Christian, but I am not a religious man and there is as much truth in your faith as there is in my own, why by and large they are in fact much the same. However, how can I change? If the British found out I would lose my position, possibly even my right to live here and all that it would result in would be a string of missionaries coming to my door trying to reconvert me. Nay, it is impossible.”
A deep silence filled the air, and then the man who had hereto remained silent and unknown to us spoke up unexpectedly. “Wilfred, I see from your eyes and speech that you are a good man, that your heart is true. My friends here told me. ‘Look,’ they said to me. ‘We have a Britisher who is more Arab than Franc living in our town. Mullah, you must meet him.’ Well, I have met you and I see that you are as they said. I see also however that you are a man who is torn and because he is torn, s thus unhappy.
“What do you mean, Hajji Muhammed?” Bannister asked.
“You are as they said, half Arab in ways, yet also you cannot let go of your Britishness. You cling to Britain because Arabia does not quite fulfil you, even though you know also that your motherland fails to please too. You are between two worlds and let me tell you, sir, that until you enter one world completely and leave the other behind, then you shall never be happy.”
Silence reigned once more, broken only by the bubbling of the hookah. “Aye, you are right,” said Bannister at last, in a tone most dejected.
“I know that I am right, but I also know that if you have the courage to submit to Allah and to follow my advice, then I can solve that misery for good.”
Bannister looked at the Mullah and raised his eyebrows. “By converting?” he asked.
“Convert or not convert, that is not the issue. I can see, even though I am a man of faith, that you are not and never shall be. However, I see also that Allah is inside your heart whatever your religion might be. Yes, you should convert, but not for the reasons that you think. Not for the religious reasons, but for the practical, for unless you convert you shall always be an outsider here, an Infidel. Furthermore, you shall never taste our life as fully as you desire to because as an Infidel, you may never marry a girl from Arabia, and here there is not a man unmarried. To marry is a religious duty in Islam and our society is based upon a home with a woman within. You are an outcast in faith, race but also lifestyle.”
Bannister laughed. “Marriage! Aye, marriage, and a fine kettle of fish that is! I tried it once before, I am not fool enough to do it again.”
The Mullah however, was unmoved. “A mistake in choice, something you would not repeat if you married here,” he said softly.
“And why would I not repeat that mistake?”
“Because I would choose for you, Wilfred. I would choose a girl whom is suited to you exactly, who would enrich your life no end, who would give you the happiness that you crave.”
“And where would you find such a girl?” Bannister asked, half-jokingly.
“In my house,” replied the holy man. “For she is my daughter.”
“Yes, my only daughter, Fatima. She is twenty-five years of age and still unmarried, and furthermore, she is the apple of my eye. For many years have I looked for a man whom I could wed her to who I can trust to make her life a happy one, and now at last, I see that Allah has guided me to you. Yes, you are older, half a score so, but she is a mature girl and you are a good man. I do not doubt that you would be happy together, she is the missing element in your life and you are in hers. Therefore, Wilfred, please consider my offer. Convert to Islam and I shall give you my most precious treasure.”
The whole company fell silent at those astonishing words. To offer a foreigner his only daughter, truly it was a great honour! As darkness crept over the land, so too did shock. Then at last, the Englishman spoke. “Your offer is a kind and generous one Mullah, but alas, I must refuse. As I said before, if I converted, the British would…”
“Who said that conversions must be public, Wilfred? They need never know…”
“But that is not all, for unfortunately I never can marry your daughter, however perfect she may be, for as you know, I am married already and my wife, a Roman Catholic by faith, would never grant me a divorce.”
“But Wilfred Bannister, do you not know the laws of Islam? According to the Holy Qu’ran, a man may have up to four wives. You so far, have but one.”
“But I am not a Muslim.”
“But if you converted…?”
“…It would still be illegal under British law…”
“…and it would still be legal under Qu’ranic law, and besides, what if the British were not to know?”
“She could still never be my wife, not legally.”
“Not British legally, no, but under the Laws of Our Faith, if you are married in the Sight of Allah, then you are married regardless of what the British Queen says, and besides, if the British ever did find out and ask, you could just say that she was your mistress; I believe that many British officials have them.”
All the party chuckled at that clever little swipe at British immorality. All the party that is, except Wilfred Bannister. He instead, was deep in thought, his eyes staring out into the pitch black night.
Wilfred Montague Bannister was born in the summer of 1856 into a long-established family of scholars and diplomats. His father had served all over the globe in the service of Her Majesty and his grandfather was a don in Arabic History at Cambridge. Considering this, it is perhaps hardly surprising that after university our hero set off to India for three years to work in the Empire’s bureaucracy and study Mughal history in his spare time. That is not surprising. What is surprising however, is that after this adventure, he returned home with the express purpose of marrying one Isabelle Birks, the daughter of a Yorkshire doctor whom he’d met at a party in London before he’d left for foreign climes and whom had occupied his heart ever since.
Miss Birks was a pretty creature with blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes whose ambition to rise in life was surpassed only by that of her mother, a woman who had been born into a family of milkmaids and was now one of the most respected ladies in the small market town in which they lived. Ever since she’d first been invited to a ball as a teenager and seen the ladies in their fine gowns of silk, with bustles, trains and all other sorts of frippery she had decided that one day, she too would become a Belle of the Ball and Lady of the Manor. To that end she had submitted to a continued period of tight-lacing under her mother’s instruction and had refined her manners to such a point that she was indistinguishable from a nobleman’s daughter. And so it was, with a waist of merely fifteen inches and a gown to rival that of Elisabeth of Austria, Isabelle entered a party held by a friend fashionable and well-acquainted with the London Season and captured the heart of the very wealthy if slightly gawky young man who was about to be sent off to India.
And as I have already related, three years later he returned to the Sceptred Isle and a month after that they were joined for eternity as man and wife.
And three months after that, Wilfred Bannister began to suspect that he had made one almighty mistake. Whilst his heart still yearned for the exotic, for the call of the muezzin and rains of the monsoon, his wife showed no interest in anything save the latest fashions which she bought in great quantity much to the detriment of her husband’s bank balance, and the continual round of parties that London Society provides for its members. Whilst she loved preening herself like a peacock and catching admiring glances from the Nation’s finest specimens of menfolk, Wilfred soon bored of the falsity and sycophancy of it all. Within six months she was attending balls and gatherings alone. And within eight he was starting to hear tales of secret amours. Eventually, some ten months after their wedding day, an agreement was reached. Wilfred would settle upon his wife an allowance of several thousand pounds a year in return for no public humiliations and him being allowed to escape overseas for good. Isabelle was not happy with the sum, more was definitely required for her needs, but she knew a good deal when she heard one and besides, her latest beau, Lord Finneston, provided her with more than enough for her needs. Thus it was that a year after his triumphal return home, Wilfred Bannister slinked off in shame to the sub-continent once again.
He travelled first to Delhi from whence he went on up into the Muslim highlands of the Hindu Kush where he researched the ways of the local tribes and ingratiated himself into their societies. From there it was onto Afghanistan where, disguised as a local, he gazed upon the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the grand ruins of Kandahar before dropping into Persia, then onto the ruins of ancient Babylon before taking a reed ship built by the Marsh Arabs of the Tigris and Euphrates Delta down the Persian Gulf towards Oman from whence he rode a camel across the Empty Quarter to the mountains of al-Yaman, or ‘The South’ whereupon he realised that his travels were at an end and that he had finally found the paradise that he so yearned.
That was six years ago, and in the intervening years, whilst nominally working for the British as a consul, Mr. Bannister had kept himself busy learning Arabic to such a level that even the natives had trouble believing that he was not one of them, exploring the local countryside, investing and excavating hitherto unrecorded sites of world historical importance and writing his seminal tract, ‘A Complete History of the Cultures and Peoples of al-Yaman’.
And after finishing that great work, he returned to London to get it published and to manage his accounts. The visit alas, was no happy one. He discovered to his dismay, that his good wife Isabelle Bannister had not bothered to keep her amours as secret as they had agreed, and furthermore, that she owed money above and beyond her allowance at virtually every restaurant, dressmakers and tradesman in the capital. He of course, paid them off, chastised her, but could do no more and so returned a dejected and unfulfilled man back to his beautiful Arabia, empty and unsure on how to proceed in his life.
And it was at that point that Fatima, the daughter of Mullah Hajji Muhammed entered his life.
Wilfred Bannister sat on the fine Turkish rugs and sipped the sweet chai not knowing quite what to think. There before him, serving sweetmeats was a small heap of black cloth. Bannister had of course been in Arabia long enough to know that most women veiled and lived apart from their menfolk, but this was something else instead. The blank black figure in front of him whom Hajji Muhammed had introduced as his daughter Fatima left not an inch of her being available for viewing by male eyes. Unlike most girls she veiled even her eyes, not with a thin, half-transparent piece of fabric which gives the curious onlooker a glimpse of the heaven within, but with cloth so thick that not a trace of her features could be seen. And when she served him with his chai as he entered, the hand that emerged from under her equally impermeable carsaff was covered in black mittens of a similar material to the rest of her dress. Hajji Muhammed may have been prepared to let his British friend marry his only daughter, but he evidently was not prepared to go so far as to let him actually see her.
Nor converse either it seemed. When he thanked her and asked how she was, not a sound emerged from within that cocoon and instead her father answered on her behalf. “Fatima obeys the rules of strictest purdah, Mr. Bannister,” spake the mullah. “She will not speak to any male other than myself and her two elder brothers. I can confirm however, that she is well, and has been most excited about your visit, this session of ‘courting’ I think you British term it, and the possible results that may come out of it.”
Courting! Courting! Bannister felt like laughing out loud. It certainly was the strangest courtship that he had ever been through. Neither seeing nor speaking, only being in the same room. He gazed at the veiled enigma that was now sat before him, her eyes most probably scrutinising her future partner in life’s journey. Was she fat? Was she thin? Were her eyes dark? Was her skin smooth and olive-coloured? Did she have the bewitching face of a houri or the repulsive visage of a dog? None of this he could figure out, none at all. And yet there was something exciting, something intensely erotic about having one’s future spouse sat before one hidden and unknown in every respect. ‘Christ, I must be mad!’ Bannister exclaimed to himself. ‘What sort of person rushes into a marriage in such a strange fashion?’
Then he looked across at the man sat next to him, Fatima’s father. Then it dawned on him. ‘A man like him!’ he thought in astonishment. ‘An Arab! All Arabs choose their wives in this way! They go only on the words of the matchmakers or parents!’ He scrutinised the mullah more closely. Could he trust that man? Was that man good? Did that man have his happiness at heart? Was he selling him a worthless dud or a priceless gem? Ultimately, Bannister realised, it was the father that he had to know, not the daughter.
And something deep inside told him that Hajji Muhammed was to be trusted.
But trustworthy or not, did he really want to go into this, jump into the sea of marriage once more. Wilfred thought of his last swim in that ocean and shuddered. The immense financial cost, the arguments, the sleepless nights and the shame. And what were the plus points? A pretty girl at his side – yes, Isabelle had been dashed pretty, indeed, she still was – who smiles in such a way that the heavens open, and that body, that tiny, miniscule waist that he could encircle with his two hands. Yes, her waist was magnificent, but like the smile, that was fake, squeezed into those dimensions by a corset, an instrument of fashion and deceit. That corset, those clothes and that face had promised the earth, untold joy and happiness. Yet on their wedding night what had it been like? Had not Isabelle turned out to be more like a motionless log than a slithering, dextrous creature of love and desire. No, marriage was all a fake. It promised heaven and delivered hell.
Yet something told him that Fatima would be different, that he could trust Hajji Muhammed, that… that to live with the Arabs happily, one had to become one. And that meant marriage… Bannister looked once more at the bearded mullah and then at the figure swathed in black before him. Then he requested Hajji Muhammed for permission to marry his daughter.
Sweat poured from Wilfred Bannister’s brow as he stood before the heavy, ornate, intricately-carved wooden doors. Now was the moment of truth, now was the time to see if his judgement had been right or wrong.
Following his proposal to Hajji Muhammed that day six months ago, a proposal that was accepted on the condition that Bannister embraced Islam, life had been one whirl of preparations and ceremonies. Firstly, there had been the religious one, in which he had repeated that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammed is His Prophet. Then there had been the official engagement, and then the ordeal of moving house. Bannister had realised straightaway that his current lodging in a couple of rooms above a chai house were most unsuitable for a young wife of good family, so he had delved into his inheritance and purchased a large house near to the centre of the town.
Before buying, the Englishman had thought long and hard about this house, as he’d had several requirements. Firstly, it had to be of a certain size to suit his position and reputation, and that also of his wife, and secondly he wished it to be as traditional as possible so as to help him become as Arabian as possible. In the end he had settled on a spacious property set around a courtyard and built in the traditional Arabian style. Its walls were blank and forbidding to the outside world, but through the grand entranceway one entered a shady and pleasant domain with more than enough room to not only house his wife and her servants, but also the many relics and curios that he had picked up on his travels. Even with that though, Bannister did not feel that everything was quite how it should be. For some reason – and even he could not explain why exactly – he felt that he should do more for his new wife, perhaps give her some domain of her own, (possibly because hitherto he had only seen her living very much in her own private domain?), a space in which she could relax and make in her image. So, after much careful consideration, he then bought the small house that backed onto theirs for an extortionate price, then bricked its door onto the street up and knocked through from his own bedroom, creating a second, much smaller and more intimate courtyard complete with chambers surrounding it, one of which he decked out in sumptuous style for his new wife to use in the daytime to relax in with her friends.
That done there was then the matter of organising the wedding at the new house, ordering food, decorations and costumes and then finally going through with it all, an alien ceremony followed by a raucous party in which all his Arab friends (and not a single European) was invited; a ceremony and party in which he was united under the eye of Allah to an unknown woman draped in white who then sat by his side without saying a word for the entire celebration before she was taken away by her veiled mother, aunts and maids to be prepared for the most important night of her life.
The most important night of her life and the most important night of his, even if it was for the second time round. As his unknown wife departed, Bannister’s mind cast itself back to that first wedding night. The girl that he’d so long desired, whose face and figure had for so long enflamed his loins, whose waist he had encircled countless times that day and driven him wild with passion, was there, lying on the bed as he’d opened the wooden door, to find her clad in her white corset. “What took you?” she’d asked him. He’d smiled and nervously undressed. Then they’d coupled, the coupling that he’d looked forward to for so long. Yet that coupling was not what he’d expected, anticipated. Whilst he’d imagined entering the gates of heaven, all that happened was her lying there, her expression bored, asking “Haven’t you finished yet?” The best night of your life? You had to be joking! They’d been sleeping in separate beds but twenty minutes afterwards.
Is it any wonder that Wilfred Bannister hesitates and worries before opening the grand door to his bedchamber where his new, unknown, unheard and unseen wife waits for him to make her a woman?
The door creaked open as he pushed it to reveal a dimly-lit room of sumptuous furnishings behind a thin veil. Slowly he pushed back the semi-transparent cloth to reveal the bed that he’d bought and fabrics he’d chosen. And lain across that bed was the wife that he’d chosen also. There she was, long dark hair cascading down to her waist, a curvaceous figure straight out of one of Scherezade’s Tales. Long, smooth legs, olive brown in colour led up to rounded hips, before curving into a small waist and blossoming out once again into two rounded breasts. But the crowning glory of it all was the face; a rosebud mouth smiled to reveal gleaming white teeth whilst two piercing eyes looked into his very soul. He made his way over and noiselessly she undressed him whilst he began to explore her body, entirely hairless, shaved clean from the eyes down. Her smooth mons intrigued and excited him whilst her breasts were firm and round. Slowly and noiselessly, she lowered herself onto his aching member and as he entered they kissed and for the first time in his life, Wilfred Bannister genuinely did enter Paradise. “Ya habibi,” she whispered into his ear as the smells of exotic perfumes filled the air and the two humans truly did become one.
“Thank you,” Bannister whispered silently to Allah, the God which he had recently accepted, but until that moment, had never believed in.
When he awoke that morning, Wilfred wondered if it had all been a dream. Then he turned over and saw his young wife lying asleep by his side. For several minutes he admired her, her womanly curves, her peaceful visage. Then, silently he got up and went to the kitchen where he ordered the maids to prepare chai and sweetmeats. Then, dutifully and lovingly, he returned to his chamber, woke Fatima up and offered them to his wife.
“You made this for me!?”
“Well, err… yes. I thought that, well, maybe you would like it. You are used to living away from men, in your own space, and so well, I guessed that I should perhaps, well, provide you with that space.”
“Habibi, I do not wish to live away from men any longer, or at least, away from this man, but thank you, it is so beautiful and thoughtful and, well… I love you!”
“I’m glad, and…”
“And nothing. I shall decorate this, make it not my space but ours, our own private courtyard, away from the maids and visitors. I shall make it special for us both, I promise.”
That night, as Wilfred fell asleep in his bed, his beautiful wife’s arms wrapped around him, he knew beyond any doubt that the choice he had made, had been the right one, and that he truly could trust Mullah Hajji Muhammed.
One evening Wilfred was in his study developing the photographs that he’d taken that day of his wife. It had been yet another strange session and he’d chuckled as the images revealed themselves in the dark fluid. He’d explained to Fatima that he wished to make some pictures of him and her together and to his astonishment, she’d blanched and refused. “But why?” he’d asked in confusion.
“Because I wish for no one to see my face. I am yours and save my father and brothers, no other man but you may see me.”
“But Fatima, if you feel that way, I promise not to show anyone the pictures.”
“It doesn’t matter, I still refuse. Someone may see them by chance, accident or snooping and besides, you know that it is wrong to make images of humans. However, that I can forgive you, but breaking my purdah, I am sorry habibi, but please do not make me do that.”
The look on his wife’s face and earnest in her face had made him relent and so instead he had a series of photographs of him clutching a pile of black cloth, a living symbol of purdah.
Fatima’s purdah was an unsolvable mystery to her husband. When he’d first journeyed to India, he’d assumed that women lived in purdah – incidentally, a Persian custom, not an Islamic one – because their husbands’ forced them to, and that behind those veils they resented having their freedom curtailed and faces hidden. That belief, subconsciously, was one that he’d maintained throughout his many years spent in Muslim lands right up until his marriage with Fatima, (he’d even believed that she was forced by her father to live as a prisoner and that she too hated it), yet to his amazement, ever since their first night together, he’d begun to learn that not only did she accept her purdah willingly, but that she even revelled in it. Right from the start he had informed her that now they were married and that he was the boss, she no longer had to stay inside the house, she no longer had to veil outside of the house and she no longer had to keep silent in public.
“But habibi,” she protested, her eyes aflame, “do you not understand? I want to live in purdah! I truly do. It is wrong that I should talk to and inflame men whom are not mine to inflame, and as for the veil, do you not see that it protects me. Wearing my veils I am safe from the lustful gazes of menfolk, and as for leaving the house, why should I want to do so when you are not with me? Besides, it is my religion, is it not?”
“But Fatima, this is not Islamic,” Wilfred had protested. “It is a pre-Islamic, Persian practice and it is backward, not civilised. I wish you to be a woman, not an animal my love.”
“Habibi, still you do not understand. Of course, I am not as learned and worldly wise as you, and so perhaps you are right, and purdah is not decreed by Allah, but I am sure in my heart that He does not disapprove of it also. And you say that you wish me to live as a woman, not an animal, but in purdah I am still a woman the same and like I said to you before, I want to live like that. I want to veil and I want to stay at home and I want to stay silent.”
“Well at least, wear a veil that leaves your eyes free to see when outside,” protested Wilfred, almost admitting that he had lost.
“And let my eyes inflame men and cause sin!? Never! I might as well go around naked!” retorted she, not giving in an inch.
And so it was that he’d learnt to live with her purdah and in some ways, even began to like it. When he saw his shrouded spouse kneeling in the corner of a room full of men, he felt proud to know that she was keeping herself for him and admired both her faith and convictions. Nonetheless, it sometimes reached proportions that could not fail to surprise. Such as when they had first left the house together for example, to go to the bazaar to choose some rugs. “Habibi, I am almost ready. Please help me.” He had rushed to the room to find his wife stood in her abayah, with a strange ball in her hand. “Please fasten me up at the back,” she’d requested. The ball, made of rubber and attached to a leather strap, she then placed in her mouth and the strap she wrapped around her head.
“What?” he’d asked in puzzlement.
She’d taken it out again to explain. “The gag, I always wear it when leaving the house. It prevents me from speaking to strangers.”
“But darling, I trust you not to speak to strangers. There is no need for it and such items are barbaric. Take it off.”
“No, never. Accidents can happen, prevention is better than cure. Fasten me up, please.”
And so meekly he had buckled the strap behind his wife’s head and then helped her cover herself with her carsaff. And all that day as they had wandered about town, he’d felt strange about the knowledge that his wife was gagged underneath all that material. Strange and inexplicably aroused also.
Yes indeed, the purdah was a strange thing to have to live with, yet in its way it was pleasant also. Wilfred looked at the now dry and developed images of him and his heap of black cloth and chuckled. Then came a soft rapping upon the door. “Habibi, it is I, Fatima. Is it safe to enter?”
“Yes my love, come in.”
Slowly she entered, clad in her green harem pants and blouse. “Are these the photographs?” she asked.
“Yes, would you like to see them?”
“If you don’t mind.”
Wilfred handed them to her and she looked with interest. “It’s incredible,” she said in amazement, “what man can do these days. Do you have more?”
“Hundreds, from all over the world.”
Her face lit up in excitement. “Can I see, please?”
Fatima continually surprised Wilfred. Whilst on one hand she desired, fought even, to live in a narrow, enclosed, cocoon of a world, on the other she continually thirsted for knowledge of the earth at large. Willingly, he passed her his albums and started explaining them. “This is Delhi, the great buildings of the Mughals; here is the mosque n Isfahan in Persia; here a Christian in Jerusalem and this is a shoemaker in Kabul.”
“What is this?”
“Oh that is a woman in the North West Frontier Province of India. She is wearing what they call a burqa. It sits on her head and they are very beautiful with lots of embroidery and pleats at the back so it looks almost as if it floats. And they come in all the colours of the rainbow too.”
“They are beautiful yet they look like strict purdah too.”
“The women there observe very strict purdah.”
“Oh, I should love to wear one of those. They look much simpler and far nicer than my black carsaff.” Wilfred made a mental note to write to his friend the consul in Peshawar on the morrow. “But wait, what is this, now that truly is Paradise!”
Wilfred looked at the photograph. It showed Isabelle standing in the garden at his mother’s house. “It’s a garden, an English garden. England is famous for its gardens. We have flowers in all different colours that bloom at different times of the year.”
“Oh, how I should love to see such things. Alas though, it will never be possible. Here in the desert nothing like that can grow.”
“With irrigation it can. In some parts of Arabia, the British have channelled water so as to create fields in the desert. And not just the British too. The Ancients did it also. The most famous gardens in all history were in Babylon, thousands of years ago.”
“Oh, how I should love a garden like that, all of my own.”
“Would you truly love one?”
“Then you may have one. We can turn the small courtyard into a veritible Eden if you like. Next time I return home to England, I can buy seeds and plants and very soon we will have a Paradise.”
“Oh habibi, such a garden, it would be Paradise indeed!” She returned her eyes to the photograph and then asked casually, “And is the woman your first wife?”
“Yes,” replied Wilfred.
“She is most beautiful,” said Fatima, “most beautiful indeed. She should cover up and respect you more, but of course, it is not her culture, she knows no better.” She stared again at the picture. “Why is her waist so small?”
“It is small because she is wearing a corset.”
“What is a corset?”
“It is a garment with bones in that compresses the waist, makes it smaller.”
“Why would a woman wear that?”
“To… well, to make them more attractive. Men like tiny waists.”
“They wear clothes to incite lust, not dispel it!?” Fatima was amazed at such a notion. Then she added, again in a casual manner, “Do you like tiny waists?”
“Yes, I do,” Wilfred guiltily admitted.
“When you return to England, will you see her?”
“Unfortunately, I shall have to,” he replied.
“Shame on you husband! A man should look forward to being with a wife and should treat all wives equally. You are with me and neglecting her, you should go to her and furthermore, you should bring her back. It is wrong that she lives apart from you!”
“Well, I don’t know if she would like that…”
“Like or not like, it matters not. She is yours, and she should follow you. When you go to England you must meet her and you must make her obey you. Don’t worry, when she comes to live here, I shall welcome her as a sister…”
The sea surged steel grey below whilst the sky threatened ominously above. Isabelle Bannister looked at the man stood by the rail lower down the deck and scowled. If only a sudden gust of wind would blow him overboard! No one would see and that sea must be freezing. By the time that a man could be sent out to rescue him, he would be long dead. Alas however, such thinking was but wishful.
Mrs. Bannister had been informed by letter well in advance that her husband was coming back to England to settle some affairs. She’d always known that he would be returning again and was none too fazed by the announcement. Indeed, the only change that it had necessitated in her lifestyle was the banishment of Lord Whitchurch’s son for a month or two, something which was none too irksome anyhow as of late the young Romeo had become a trifle annoying to her and she was quietly looking for another lover anyway. No, before the event she had not been unduly worried. He’d come home before and he would come home again and each time she would deal with him in her own special way. When he eventually arrived however, things did not go as she’d expected.
“Isabelle, I want a divorce.”
“You want what!?”
“You heard me, I want a divorce.”
“On what grounds?”
“Whatever grounds I want I suppose. Adultery, estrangement, whichever I please.”
“You cannot prove any…”
“I can prove whatever I want and you know it. Now, I ask here an now, will you grant me a divorce?”
“Of course not, you know that. As a member of the True Church I believe firmly that marriage is sacred, and for all eternity. We have been united in the eyes of the Lord and…”
“Right then, if divorce is not an option then I wish to live as man and wife once again, just as the Lord intended us to.”
Inside Isabelle shuddered. She remembered their early days as a couple. Wilfie had been so boring, so obsessed with boring ruins and primitive uncivilised natives that he’d met in India and… and so poor in bed. She’d married a virgin and she’d got just that, someone who hadn’t a clue what he was doing. Life with him had been so dull. He wasn’t interested in parties and he didn’t want to become fashionable. Indeed, he didn’t even notice when she had got herself dressed up. All that he ever did notice about her in fact was her waist which he loved to encircle with his hands in a most annoying manner. No, living with Wilfie had been purgatory – she’d only married him for his money after all – and the prospect of dwelling with him as husband and wife once again was frightening.
“Wilfie, I’m sorry but it’s been a long time and I’m not sure…”
“Isabelle, I shall give you a straight choice. No living together and it’s no allowance.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“…but you are my wife and you should live with me.”
“Do… do we have to… to share rooms?”
“Of course not, if you don’t want to.”
Now that was at least a plus point. “Then perhaps, you could move into the guest room and…”
“Oh no my dear, not the guest room. You will be coming to Arabia with me!”
“Don’t worry, the climate is healthy and there is a British presence there.”
“But it’s so… so backward there.”
“I care not. The choice is yours. No allowance and divorce and you stay here. Allowance and marriage and we go to Arabia. My dear, I bid you good day. I shall allow you a month to make up your mind and will return here on July 5th to hear your answer. And if you do wish to come, I expect your bags to be packed ready. Good evening, Mrs. Bannister, I shall see myself out.”
For the entire night Isabelle could neither sleep nor think. Never in a thousand years would she have imagined that her kneadable lamb of a husband could have put such an ultimatum to her. But he had and she had to decide how to deal with it. One thing was certain, was that without her allowance she was dead. She had mounting debts all over the place and the scraps of money that her lovers threw her way were a pleasing extra income but not enough to survive on. But the alternative, living in Arabia with her loathsome husband! It was just too horrible to even consider!
On the morrow she had reached a decision. Important as her faith was to her, the alternative was simply too ghastly to consider, and so she resolved to get a divorce. However, Isabelle Bannister was woman to enough to know that that alone was not enough, that on her own she would not last five minutes. She needed a new protector and bankroller or to be straight, a new husband. Consequently, she took the first available train up to Shropshire and then a carriage to Lord Whitchurch’s estate whereupon she arranged a meeting with Robert Talbot, the son and heir of the estate and her love for the past five months.
“Marry you! Are you joking, Isabelle?”
“No, why? I love you and you love me, why not marry?”
“Issy darling, you know I have the family name to think of. I couldn’t marry a divorcee, it would be, well, unthinkable, and besides, you are not… not noble. And don’t you think that it’s just better to stay lovers. Marriage seems to extract the romance out of even the best of couples. I bet if Romeo and Juliet had stayed alive any longer they’d have grown to hate each other simply due to the fact that they were married. Let’s just stay free and easy and…”
So that was not to be. After him she tried Lord Finneston, Albert Machin, the Lancashire Industrialist, General Hartley of the Queen’s Own Fusiliers and all her other one-time lovers and each time the response was just the same. No way, not on your nelly, I’m sorry darling but I just can’t. The army officer even went further than that. “My dear, if you were a divorcee, I couldn’t even be seen associating with you, no respectable person could be, it would ruin them.”
“But Henry, the alternative is just too awful to contemplate!”
“A lady should get married and stay married whatever. And besides, Arabia is not all that bad. I was there myself a couple of times en route to India and I know some capital chaps who live in Aden. They say that the polo club there is excellent.”
And in the end, it was that that did it. Not the polo club of course, but the fact that as a divorcee, or even as a married but impoverished Isabelle Bannister, she would become a social outcast. It would be like an exile to Timbuktoo without even leaving London. And if one is going to exile, one might as well go the whole hog and actually go to Timbuktoo itself, or at least, somewhere equally exotic such as Arabia. Thus it was that a defeated Mrs. Bannister returned to the Empire’s capital, packed her bags with a heavy heart, laced herself into he finest gown and did a final round of balls and parties with a cheerful expression plastered across her face where she pretended to everyone that she was really excited to be ‘seeing a bit of the world’ and that it was she, and not her husband, who had insisted upon the trip. A week later, when her husband returned from his business, she was waiting at the door dressed in her finest travelling outfit.
Wilfred Bannister was pleased – but not unsurprised – to see that his wife had decided to accept his offer of a new life overseas. He knew of her debts (as he’d had to pay them all off) and of her inability to live without his money and so knew that it was the only option that she could have feasibly taken. Nonetheless, her presence by his side as they boarded the good ship Leviathan pleased him immensely. All in all in fact, there were few happier men on earth than Wilfred Bannister on that particular day in history. Firstly and foremostly, he was on the way back to his beloved Arabia and his beloved Fatima whose presence he had missed sorely every day that they had spent apart. Secondly, he had completed all his business in Britain with ease. He had tied up his accounts, paid all his debts and bought all the gifts that his wife had requested, namely a set of corsets, which for some inexplicable reason she had requested to wear; a multitude of bulbs, seeds, soil and cutting so that they may embark upon their project of creating an English country garden in Arabia and some yards of the finest material from Manchester. And then lastly he had his second wife, the woman who had deceived him, used him and spent his money for years. For the first time in their marriage he had scored a victory over her and what a sweet victory that one was.
Is it any wonder that Wilfred felt a content man as he leaned on the ship’s rail as they sailed through the English Channel.
And is it also any wonder that Isabelle’s blood boiled as she watched him?
If Isabelle Bannister had been told on the 6th July, 1884; the day that she sailed through the English Channel en route to Arabia, that her life was going to get considerably worse, she would not have believed it to be possible. Two months later, as she lay on her bed in the shady, empty room, she knew. Life could get worse than she could ever have imagined, a lot worse.
To be fair though, it had not started too badly. The voyage to the East, whilst stomach-churning at times, was on the whole, rather exciting. To her pleasant surprise, there was a number of very respectable families travelling, all bound for India, with whom she managed to ingratiate herself and enjoy many hours of refined conversation and company. Furthermore, right from the outset, she had realised that any future happiness in her life was now unavoidably bound up with her husband so she made the most heroic efforts to recapture any former intimacy and friendship with him. To this end, she talked to him, asked of Arabia and their new life and found him to be far more interesting and entertaining than he had formerly been, and even entered his bed to find that, incredibly, his performance there had improved to an extent that she would never have believed possible. So great were the improvements indeed, that by the time they sailed into the famous harbour of Aden, she had almost convinced herself that colonial life would not be that bad after all. From that moment on however, it all went downhill.
Firstly, it turned out that they were not to live in Aden itself, but instead in some small godforsaken town some several hundred miles distant that could only be reached by riding on a bumpy horse-drawn cart. Furthermore, when they got to that said town, even though for some inexplicable reason, Wilfred chose to enter in the middle of the night, she could immediately see that it was none too large and would not have much of a British presence and when she asked her husband about the European society on offer there, he replied with the words, “You’re looking at it.”
Then, as if to add insult to injury, it turned out that her husband’s idea of a home was some mud-brick shack such as the natives dwell in, rather than a proper, civilised house. That however, was not the real problem. The real problem came the following day.
“Wilfie,” she cried, swanning into his study dressed in her finest walking outfit. I wish to go out and have a look around this flea-bitten little place but the maid refuses to unlock the door and instead only jabbers at me in her barbaric tongue. Please tell her!”
Wilfred put down his work. “Isabelle, she does such because I told her to. She is under strict instructions not to let you out.”
“Oh don’t be silly, Wilfie. I need to go out, right now. I’ll go mad cooped up inside this chicken shed.”
“This ‘chicken shed’ is your home now, dear, and I’m afraid if that is the case, then you shall have to go mad. The local custom is that women do not leave their homes without a veil and a male escort.”
“But that’s for the natives Wilfie, not the British.”
“When in Rome, Isabelle, do as the Romans do.”
At first she thought that her husband was joking, but it very soon became apparent that he was not. Instead, he was expecting her to live according to Arabian laws and that meant veils and seclusion indoors. What’s more, it also became clear that there was absolutely nothing that she could do about it.
“Wilfie! I demand to see the British Representative now!”
“So where is he then?”
“He is talking to you right now.”
After that she went on a hunger strike that lasted precisely two days but when the smell of cooked meat caused that to fail, she simply shut herself up in her room, closed the shutters and doors, refused to see anyone, and sulked.
And that is where we find her, a fortnight into her self-imposed imprisonment, bored out of her mind and extremely miserable.
“But I can’t just lie here feeling sorry for myself,” she sighed hopelessly for the umpteenth time. Slowly, and reluctantly – for she knew that this final backsliding would mean her absolute defeat – she rose to her feet and opened the door. Light streamed into the dark room, but once her eyes had adjusted to the light, the sight that greeted her was most astonishing. What had previously been a bare courtyard, was now ablaze with colour. Where dry mud had once been, now flowers bloomed and a fountain trickled. “It’s like a small piece of Eden!” she exclaimed to herself in amazement.
“I am glad that you like it,” said a voice. Isabelle turned. There behind her, on a wooden bench, sat a woman, an Arabian woman, with long black hair and beautiful dark eyes. “You must be Isabelle,” said the woman. “I am so pleased to meet you. I am Fatima. I have studied English now for several months so that I can talk with you as a sister.”
Isabelle drew back in confusion. “Who are you?” she asked cautiously.
“I am mistress here, I am your sister.”
“Mistress? Sister? I don’t understand.”
“I am Wilfred’s second wife, you are his first. I want you to teach me how to be a gardener and how to wear a corset and in return I will teach how to live in purdah.”
“Purdah, garden, corsets, second wife? What does it all mean? I don’t understand! What’s going on?”
“Isabelle, I am sorry but your husband is not quite how you thought, he has adopted many Eastern ways. They will take a long time to learn but fear not, I am here, I will be your friend, I will help you be happy in your new life.”
Taken from the book ‘An Arabian Journal’ by Hugh Hamilton-Simmons, published 1901.
After exploring the great city of San’a where ancient Shem founded his town, I journeyed south through rocky peaks to a small city where I chanced upon a most incredible man. I have always marvelled how the Anglo-Saxon race produces such an inordinate number of eccentrics, many of which it scatter across the globe so that one comes across them in the most unlikely of places. None however, can match, in my humble opinion, Wilfred Bannister whom I stayed with in that place. Upon entering the dusty central square of the town with its mosque and bazaar, I was directed by a score of enthusiastic natives to the home of the British Representative there, the said Mr. Bannister. This extraordinary man resided in a large, native-style house, blank to the road, but homely within, which he welcomed me into and bid me stay in for a night or two. This I did gladly as I was much fatigued from my journeyings and furthermore, was glad of some company of my own race. Bannister it turned out had travelled widely in his youth and he showed me photographs and curios from all over Islam which he had collected. None of these however, was half as remarkable as his home itself, which was native in its entirety save for a gorgeous English cottage garden that he had recreated in a small courtyard at the back. It truly was Berkshire meets Babylon, a host of blooms and shrubs, complete with a garden pond and fountain and a small wooden bench such as one might expect to find by the village cricket field. Remarkable as that all was however, what topped it was in amongst the rhododendrons and fuscias, where I found sat three women, veiled fully in a most unusual style that I had not seen since entering Arabia where all women don the simple black carsaff or abayah. Bannister explained to my astonishment that they were in fact his wives and their dress was actually that of the Afghans and that his ladies liked to experiment with as many different forms of Mussulmanian clothing as possible. He went on to say that the eldest wife was in fact English by birth and had formerly been a fashion leader in London and it was on her instigation that the plain black carsaffs had been thrown away for more colourful attire. The other two were Arabs, one an older wife and the other brand new, a young girl of eighteen whom he had wed but a few months before on the insistence of his two elder wives. All this talk I found hard to believe, but Bannister insisted that his wives loved their strange mode of life, were the greatest of friends and that they got on with his six daughters also. I was particularly intrigued by the English girl and wished to speak with her of how it was to live as a girl in a harem, but she would not reply to my questioning and Bannister explained that, like the others, she had voluntarily decided to live in purdah and would not speak to any strange male. “So, she has gone entirely native then!” I exclaimed in delight.
“Oh, not entirely,” he replied with a wink. “All three of them wear corsets under those veils, laced to a size of but fifteen inches. I insist on it,” the old dog added.