The Bedouin Mind
Before we reached Ecbatana, the first major city of the Parthian empire, we had made several stops to feed and water the horses, camels, and mules, eat a frugal meal ourselves of dried pork, stale bread, and fresh dates from the nearby palms, washed down with well water and occasionally wine. Between the Roman fort and Ecbatana, we had one overnight stop beneath an overhanging rock, which provided security and shade. There was always a guard (usually Awud) watching me at all times and virtually no place for me to go. With Fawad watching me this time, I was allowed to explore the grotto in back of the overhanging rock. What I discovered reminded me of the caves Jesus and Simon had explored while he and Joseph of Arimathea visited Cyrene. I cherished my brother’s letters during his odyssey with this great Pharisee, especially his account of the ancient pictures scratched inside the caves. Here in the desert grotto, I discovered pictures of exotic creatures, the kind Jesus had seen when he and Joseph of Arimathea visited Egypt’s fabulous lighthouse, museum, and animal gardens. Long necked giants, creatures with long snouts and tusks, and that horned giant Jesus colorfully described were among beasts that no longer lived in this desolate land. I could also make out in the dim light the crude drawings of lions, hyenas, and dogs. In some of the drawings primitive stick-like men chased gazelles and boars with lances n or fought each other with spears and clubs.
“That looks like us during a raid,” Fawad quipped. “I see lions and dogs. What are those strange looking fellows on the wall?”
“Let’s see,” I answered, removing my turban and scarf, “I don’t know all the names, but my brother saw that fellow with the long snout, the long necked animal, and that horned creature in the museum gardens of Alexandria. The animals must have lived in this land before it turned into a desert. It’s hard to picture this dreary country as being well-watered and forested, but those patches of green and wells we stopped at in the desert are probably the remnants of their domain.”
“How do you know so much?” Fawad screwed up his face.
He was a mere youth, with a sprinkle of beard like me, probably younger than myself. I smiled mirthlessly at him, having no illusions that he might one day be a murderer and thief like his elders.
“I’m a Jew, not a uneducated Roman,” I answered flatly. “The rabbi Gamalial, in the pay of Samuel, my family’s friend, taught my brothers, friends and I about our history and even matters of the Gentile world.”
“Ho-ho-ho,” Fawad broke into chuckles, “no Jew would be marching in the pay of Rome. Hamid is right. That would cheapen your value on the block. Do you want to wind up as a laborer for some overseer? Do you know how long those poor bastards live?”
“No,” I gasped, recoiling at the thought.
Akhmid, who had been lounging on a cushion he brought along, joined in our conversation, as did Hamid, Uthman, Awud and other bandits resting in the grotto.
“He’s right,” the fat man chided, “we don’t know what kind of buyers will be at the auction. There’s all kinds. Your best bet is to keep your mouth shut and let us find you a good owner. Hamid and I like you. For a Roman, you’re not so bad. We desert people respect our beasts of burden and treat them well. You placed yourself in danger to save them. That makes you a good Roman, though they’re rare. I’ve watched how you treat your mule.”
“I tell you one thing,” he added, wringing his chubby finger, “your horses and mules will live a lot longer in our care than if they had stayed with you Romans. Have you noticed how often we stop to water and feed them?”
“Yes, I think that’s great,” I nodded enthusiastically. “My brother taught me that all life is sacred.”
“I was listening to you talk about your brother Jesus,” Hamid said thoughtfully. “To be taken on a trip with a Pharisee like this Joseph was a great honor. Surely his destiny is set for great things. I hope one day fate will be on your side too, Thaddeus, but now you must accept it for what it is.”
“You’re going to be a eunuch,” Awud taunted. “Snip-snip-snip.”
“No,” Uthman teased, “he was fearless against our men. He’s going to be gladiator.”
“He’s too small to be a gladiator,” Hamid replied irritably. “You men know that. Eunuchs are for wealthy potentates and princes. Ecbatana is not Antioch or Alexandria. There are no ships in harbor or fine carriages for such men. It’s an outpost for caravans where merchants buy goods, animals, and slaves.”
“Yes, for scoundrels and thieves like us.” Akhmid winked at me. “Leave poor Thaddeus alone!”
Once again, I sensed, Hamid was stretching the truth. I wanted to believe this rogue, but he wanted me to be calm and docile when we arrived at the auction. I sensed this before when he treated me kindly. What worried me now that we were close to our destination was the description Hamid gave Ecbatana. It sounded, as Akhmid implied, like an outpost for stolen loot and slaves. If he was trying to give me comfort, he had only made matters worse. What sort of men would want a slave at such a place?”
After building a fire, Malmut, the cook, sat preparing something that looked suspiciously like one of the mules. I immediately ran over to the portion of the grotto where the beasts were tethered to make sure Gladius was safe. Embracing the gentle creature, I almost wept with relief, but I was furious with the bandits for slaughtering one of the Roman mules.
“I thought we had plenty of food,” I protested to the dirty, misshapen little man.
“Hamid wanted our men to eat fresh meat,” the cook replied with a shrug.
“Mule?” I cried. “You’re eating mule? Aren’t they part of your profit?”
“Mules are worthless in these parts,” he explained patiently. “It’s camels the Arabs and desert merchants want.”
Walking up to me with a whip in his hand, Awud said through clenched teeth, “get away from Malmut. Let him do his work, you Roman pig.”
Hamid appeared suddenly, as Awud backed away into the shadows of the grotto, stating amiably, “I prefer mules as pack animals over those other filthy beasts. They’re smart, trustworthy, and predictable, but like lamb and pig, they’re also food. We have no fresh pork, mutton, even goat, only dried boar and fish. We didn’t kill your mule. Why’re you upset?”
“I think it’s barbaric,” I blurted. “I would rather eat grasshoppers than that poor beast.”
He gave me a menacing look. “If I didn’t need you looking good to buyers, I would let Awud give you a beating!” Shaking his whip in my face for emphases, he walked angrily away.
I felt completely miserable that moment, though relieved my mule was still alive. Would they eat him too? I asked myself, withdrawing to a far corner of the grotto. What about the remaining mules? I wondered, as Malmut sprinkled herbs on the meat. In Hamid’s own words they were dispensable. If they weren’t valuable for barter, it seemed likely they might also wind up as food.
Because of my inability to keep my peace, I had made matters worse for myself. Once more I was an outcast. I had refused to eat any of the cooked mule, and, thanks to Fawad’s kindness, was reduced to munching on a few scrapes of dried pork and fish. As a result of the insult I gave to the cook, I was forbidden any more wine and forced to drink water from my flask. Later when no one was looking, as we bedded down for the night, the kindly Fawad snuck me a cup of wine, which I guzzled down quickly in his presence before discreetly passing him back the cup. After relieving myself in the shadows and splashing water on my face to wash off the dust, I lie down afterwards on my saddle blanket and fell into a deep, troubled sleep.
As I tumbled into a dreamscape this time, I saw the image of Nazareth’s rabbi before me rebuking me for eating forbidden food. Behind this portly figure, however, was none other than Jesus, chiding the rabbi for rebuking a hungry man: “What is unclean, is not what man eats, but what he does. The law was made for man, not man for the law.” I awakened with a jolt in the darkness, profoundly moved by my brother’s words. This time there was no ominous message in my dream. Though it didn’t answer many other questions, such as why God allowed this to happen in the first place and why so many of my newfound friends died, the guilt of eating forbidden food was removed from me forever. From this point on, if starving—a strong possibility if I managed to escape, I would eat all manner of creeping, crawling things to save my life, with the exception perhaps of mules. My dream failed to wipe away the shock and heartbreak of that dastardly deed. Rising up, as if still in a dreamscape, I crept down to the crude animal enclosure built by the bandits to check on the horses and mules. Fortunately for me one of the guards watching the beasts, realized what I had in mind and allowed me a few moments to hug Gladius’ neck and comb his coat with a palm leaf I found on the ground. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I checked the hoofs and legs of all the animals stolen by the bandits, including the horses, which were being used as pack animals too. Though travel-weary like myself, the mules and horses were being watered and fed regularly. None of them seemed any worse off for the wear.
“For a Roman, you are peculiar sort,” the wizened little man declared.
“I’ve been told that.” I laughed nervously.
He reminded me of Ibrim, the Arab who befriended me during my first journey, except that this fellow had a grizzled beard and a cast in one eye.
“I’ve taken personal care of all of the Roman and auxilia’s beasts.” I motioned, patting Gladius’ head. “This one’s mine. He’s been with me through three battles. He’s my link to sanity in this world—my one faithful, true friend.”
“Then your also a fool,” he laughed softly. “Soon, after you’re sold at the auction, you’ll have no friends at all.”
I ambled back to my humble pallet and slept fitfully through the night until first light when I was kicked awake by Awud, who ordered shrilly, “Up, Roman pig. Our next stop is the slave auction in Ecbatana!”