Ahmed smiled. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her approaching. At the same time every day she got off the bus and walked past the café en route to her studies in the university. Her name was Yasmin and she was, quite simply, the most beautiful girl in the world.
He’d first noticed her weeks before. He had been sitting in the café drinking his tea when, looking up from his textbook by chance, a beautiful woman had been approaching. She was wearing a black hijab and long, flowing abayah, which accentuated her beauty and showed her to be a good, modest girl. Ahmed was smitten. He took to sitting in the café at that time every day in order to catch a glimpse of her as she passed by. Not only that, but he asked questions. He enquired of the waiter if he knew who she was and learned that she was a student at the University of Mosul, a fact that he knew because his niece was also a student there and he had seen her talking with the girl in question. With some baksheesh, Ahmed managed to get the waiter to talk to that niece and find out more. That was when he learned that her name was Yasmin al-Rashid and that her father was a lawyer in the city. She was also studying law, that she was Sunni and, most importantly, she was single and had confessed to noticing the handsome youth who sat in the café by the bus stop every day. Oh yes, and her favourite flower was the national bloom: the red rose. Which was why he had one such rose in his hand and, as she approached, he rose from his seat, walked up to her and presented it to his belle accompanied by the words, “A gift for the true Rose of Mosul.”
The following day they were sitting in the café together.
And the day after that, walking by the rivers of the Tigris, they shared their first kiss.
The months that followed were like a slice of heaven for Ahmed. Indeed, they were so fantastic, he felt as if they were not real and such happiness could not last. Sadly, he was right. One Friday, just as the month of June was beginning, Yasmin came to their favourite bench overlooking the river in tears. She’d had a meeting with her father who told her that, since she was due to graduate in a matter of weeks, it was time to face up to her responsibilities. “A woman your age should be married and I have had an offer for your hand. It is a good offer, one that we could never refuse. Yusuf al-Qassim has noticed your beauty and intelligence and wants you for his wife.”
Yasmin had gasped. Yusuf al-Qassim was a name known to everyone in Mosul. He owned several local factories and countless properties, and companies, including the law firm that her father worked for. He was close with important figures in the government, a supporter of numerous mosques and charitable foundations and rumoured to have a fortune worth billions of US dollars. None of that meant anything to Yasmin however, not with Ahmed.
“But father, he is old, in his fifties!”
“I am ten years older than your mother. Age is in the mind and it is said that he keeps fit and healthy.”
“But he is already married!”
“Your grandfather had multiple wives, and our Prophet, peace be upon him. There is no shame in being a second wife, indeed, you will doubtless end up as his favourite.”
“But he is so strict and religious. He wears jellabiya and a beard and his wives, or so it is said, stay within the home and cover strictly!”
“Bazaar rumours, dear daughter, that is all. I have spoken with him. He will respect you and allow you freedoms, I am sure. Besides, how can you refuse him? He represents great prosperity for our entire family; if you refused the company could be closed down and then how would we feed ourselves? No, darling, this is an order: you will marry Yusuf al-Qassim a month from today.”
“But, how can I?” she asked Ahmed, tears in her eyes. “I love you!”
“You cannot! It is again heaven! We will be together, do not fear.”
“We will elope together. We can go to Baghdad and hide in the slums there. We will marry and when that is done and sanctioned by an imam, your father will have to accept us!”
A week later they were in the capital, in the working-class district of Ghazaliya. They were lying on a mattress in the humble room that they had rented for a pittance. It was a rude hovel, but it was theirs and both were in bliss for, moments before, they had joined their bodies in mutual adoration. Thus, it was that they lay, naked, in each other’s arms, both thinking that life could not be more perfect. “We will stay together forever, my love,” Ahmed whispered to the woman who he was due to marry at the Jumma Mosque on the morrow.
But in a split second that perfection was shattered into a thousand pieces. Without warning, four figures barged through the door to the room and made their way to the young couple. Dressed in military fatigues, carrying AK47s and wearing masks, they were terrifying. Each of the lovers was grabbed by one of the heavies while another placed a damp pad over their faces. The chloroform caused both to faint clean away within seconds.
Yusuf al-Qassim stirred his tea slowly then, carefully, put down the spoon, smiled and looked up at his guest. “The folly of youth!” he exclaimed softly. “What are we to do?”
“I am so sorry, brother, truly I am,” said Mustafa al-Rashid, his face distraught and broken. “I am so ashamed. That she would even think about refusing your hand, then running away with that rake and then, then…”
“It is unfortunate that the men I hired located them too late, but at least they found them. Your daughter is safe, that is all that matters.”
“Safe, but shameful. How can I ever accept her back into my home, knowing that she has been with a man outside of marriage.”
“You do not need to accept her back into your home; she may enter mine instead.”
“But how can you accept her after such a crime?! Who would want a sullied wife?”
“Allah is merciful,” replied the businessman, raising his eyes heavenwards as if the Lord Himself was sitting there. “As I said before, youthful folly. She is not a bad a girl, although the crime is serious. I cannot marry her now, it is true. She needs to repent and understand the error of her ways. But, I made a solemn promise to you, dear friend, to take your daughter off your hands and care for her. I am not a man who breaks his vows and so that still stands. She may enter my household and I will provide for her needs until a suitable candidate for her hand can be located. But the dowry I promised you which, I believe, is to pay for your son to complete his studies, will still be provided. Half a million dollars I believe it was. You, after all, are not to blame.”
“Yusuf, you are too kind!”
“As I said, Allah is merciful. Besides, a stay in my home will do her good, morally.”
“That is too true, Yusuf; your morals are legendary!”
Al-Qassim nodded but did not say a word. He took another sip of his tea. Then, putting it down again, he said, “The boy?”
“What of him?”
“What do you want me to do with him?”
“Alas, our laws do not recognise what he has done as a crime.”
“But you feel that justice should still be served?”
“Of course, but how?”
“Trust me, I am an expert in meting out justice. If you place this matter in my hands, then I shall see your honour is restored.”
Al-Rashid smiled. As a lawyer, he knew the rumours about how people like Yusuf al-Qassim meted out justice. It usually meant taking the suspect to some location deep in the desert and putting a bullet in the back of their head. He could not think of a better end for the wretch.
Ahmed came around to find himself still naked, sitting in a chair in a white room. He tried to get up but found that he was firmly secured to it, straps going around his wrists, ankles, stomach and neck. He struggled against them, but it was clear they were firmly tied. He would not be escaping.
He turned his head and discovered, to his left, that his love was sitting in a chair next to him. Like him she was completely naked and firmly secured. It angered him that she was exposed to the world but then was thankful that she was still alive. Not that that meant much. He had no doubt who it was that had kidnapped them, nor what to expect from him. The rumours in the city said that Yusuf al-Qassim was a harsh man. They could expect no mercy.
After a few minutes, Yasmin came around. She slowly opened her eyes and took in her predicament. A tear fell from her left eye and then she turned to her right and saw Ahmed. He smiled at her and whispered, “Love you!”
“Together forever,” she whispered back.
“Together forever, eh?” Both bodies started as if shocked by electric. The voice came from behind them. Craning round, they saw a door open and a man walk in. A man called Yusuf al-Qassim.
He strode around the room until he was standing directly in front of them and then said with an evil smile, “Well, well, well, what do we have here then? Layla and Majnun perhaps?”
They did not answer. They knew they were at his mercy.
“I could have you both killed, you know. You have dishonoured my name and your father’s, young madam. Whereas you…?” He let the words linger and horrific scenarios form in their heads.
“However, I am a merciful man. Yes, Yasmin, you should have been my wife; yes, you should be pure, but I can recognise true love when I see it. It is rather beautiful. Together forever, eh? Well, if you wish it…”
“We do, sir, we do! We are sorry to have displeased you, and Yasmin’s father, but we cannot help how we feel. We love one another and…”
“Shh, young man. Do not state the obvious. I will not kill you and I will allow you to stay together until death do you part which, Inshallah, shall be many years from now. However, some things will change. That though, is for later. First things first, tea!”
Al-Qassim clicked his fingers and two of the hired heavies entered. They were no longer wearing masks but looked equally fearsome without them. They untied the belts fastening the two lovers to the chairs and then let them stand. Then they gave each a loose jellabiya to protect their modesty, before taking their arms and leading them out of the room.
They went down several corridors, each lavishly decorated in beautiful mosaics or murals, before entering a large room with a table in the centre. At the table were three chairs. Al-Qassim took the centre one with a lover on either side. Even when they were seated, the heavies stood behind.
A maid entered, veiled in black so that only her eyes could be seen. She set down a steaming silver teapot and three cups on the table. Then she methodically poured out the tea before handing out the cups to the three drinkers. “Go ahead, drink,” said al-Qassim, beckoning for his guests to go first. They did so, and he smiled. The maid poured them both a second cup.
“I should like you to meet my wives,” their host then said. “He turned to Yasmin. “It is a crying shame that you shall not be joining their number, but evidently, that was not the plan of fate. However, it is only correct that you should meet your would-be sisters.”
He snapped his fingers and a pair of double-doors in front of them opened. Standing behind them were three completely-veiled figures. Nothing whatsoever could be seen of them; they were like pillars of black cloth.
“Drink,” said al-Qassim. The lovers did as bid, both glad that Yasmin had escaped the fate of living her life in such strict purdah. The maid refilled the cups.
“From left to right there is my first wife, Someya; my second wife, Zaynab, and my third wife, Sara.” As he spoke, each of the veiled mounds nodded in turn. “There was Rashida too, but she passed away three months ago, freeing up a vacancy. A vacancy that I had hoped you would fill, Yasmin. However, it was not to be. Please, do you like the tea?”
“Y-y-yes, it is nice.”
“It is brewed from the finest leaves from the province of Hunan in China. $100 a cup. Please, drink.”
They did as they were bid although by now Ahmed had noticed that their host had not touched his cup.
“Hmmm, I tell you what. Since we are among friends and will be seeing a lot of each other in the future, why don’t I ask my wives to unveil in front of you?”
“Sir, I wouldn’t…”
But al-Qassim never let him finish. Instead the businessman snapped his fingers and the maid went over to the wives and, with a deft flick, removed the veil from each one. As the cloth fell to the floor, both Ahmed and Yasmin gasped.
Standing in front of them were three women. But these were no normal women. Their heads were. All three were beautiful – or had once been – with expertly applied make-up and finely coiffured hair. But below the necks something was wrong.
Their necks all protruded from ceramic pots. Ceramic pots that rested on pedestals. Each did not seem to possess a body. The pots were beautiful, covered in floral designs, rather like those old Assyrian, Babylonian or Hittite ones that Ahmed had viewed in the National Museum when he’d visited Baghdad, except for one small detail. In the front of each one, near the bottom, was a small window in the ceramics through which a set of denuded womanly lips protruded.
“What on earth…?”
“Bring over Sara!” announced al-Qassim. The maid went over to the youngest and prettiest of the wives and, using the two handles of the pot, picked it up and carried it over to the table. It did not seem to be heavy at all and was only about a metre high at most. Where was her body in there? And why were her most intimate parts exposed?
Yusuf al-Qassim stood up, leaned over and kissed the lips of his youngest wife. Then, using his hand, he brushed the exposed lower lips that protruded from the pot. Sara smiled but said nothing. Al-Qassim then turned to his guests and said, “I think it is time for a history lesson. I’m a history enthusiast, did you know? I actually use some of my extensive fortune to fund archaeological digs. Were you aware that I have a particular interest in the Hittite and Assyrian Empires?”
Neither Ahmed nor Yasmin had been aware of any of that, but what they were both increasingly becoming aware of was that something was seriously wrong. Their host’s line of conversation possessed a dark undertone to it and the entrapment of his wives in ceramic pots could never be normal. More immediately concerning though, was the fact that their bodies weren’t responding to the commands that their brains were sending them. Ahmed tried lifting his arm, but it would only move a few millimetres whilst when Yasmin tried to say something, her tongue felt heavy and only a groan came out. Either al-Qassim did not hear this groan or he deliberately ignored it.
“Yes, the Hittites and Assyrians. Amazing civilisations, world leaders in their day, yet we rarely talk about them today. Such a shame… we could learn so much. Their religion was particularly fascinating you know. They worshipped many gods you know, countless. As good Muslims, we understand their ignorance today, of course, but it still worth exploring their cultic practices for historical reasons. One deity that always appealed to me in particular was named Ishtar. Have you ever heard of her? No? Oh well, she was a beautiful creature, the ‘Queen of Heaven’ they called her, the goddess associated with love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, war, justice, and political power. Which, as chance would happen, are all the things that turn me on. Anyway, twenty years ago, when I was still a young man, a fascinating find was made in the mountains to the north-east of here, not far from Aqrah. In a cave, archaeologists unearthed a temple complex dedicated to her. It was a large place with some incredible murals, but what was most intriguing were huge quantities of pots with human remains inside them. Now, at first these were merely assumed to be funerary vessels; people died, and they were buried in pots. Such practices were, after all, common across the Bronze Age world. However, upon closer investigation at the University of Baghdad of both the pot themselves and also the inscriptions on the walls of the temple, an astonishing discovery was made: the occupants had all been interred within the ceramic jars whilst still alive!
Yes indeed, what a discovery! It turns out that, to honour the goddess, noble families chose to deliver one of their daughters, usually the second-born, to the temple. Once there she would be ceremonially inducted into the Sisterhood of Ishtar in a mystical ceremony during which she was plied with herbs that rendered her unconscious for a number of days and slowed her heartbeat to almost naught. Then, her body was taken to the main altar, stripped and her four limbs amputated before being cast into the eternal flame as an offering to Ishtar. After this the high priest would open up her chest and start taking away what was not required. For what they had learned was that living in a pot requires much less body mass, so most of the organs inside were either removed or reduced in size. The liver, stomach, bladder and intestines were reduced in size while one kidney and lung were removed. Most of the bones were also removed, leaving only the skull and some of the spine intact. The only thing that was left alone was the heart since that, as you two lovebirds know better than anyone, is more important than anything. After that, her skin was stitched back together and she was carefully fitted inside the pot that had been made for her, first the bottom and then the two top halves until they were all joined together and she was snug as a bug in a rug, with her head popping out of the top and her private parts accessible for waste disposal purposes. And thus, she would live out the rest of her days – which, according to the inscriptions on the walls, could be numerous indeed – standing on a shelf in the temple, reciting praises to the goddess and acquiring good karma for her family in the afterlife. What a strange yet marvellous practice, do you not think?”
Neither Ahmed or Yasmin liked the way that this was all headed, but they both liked far less the fact that they now seemed to be completely paralysed, their heads drooping against each other for support while their tongues lolled out of their mouths.
“Well, me being such a history aficionado, I thought, ‘Why not try and bring history back to life?’ and who better to start with than my unfaithful, nagging and thoroughly interfering wife, Rashida. So, it was that I contacted the finest – and least ethical – surgeon in the world, a man by the name of Martinez from Brazil, and outlined my vision and the amount I was prepared to pay him. He expressed some reservations as to whether she would survive, but I merely assured him that if the Assyrians could manage it then so must we, their descendants. And so, she was sedated and put under the knife and there before you is the result. Potted as she was, she gave me great pleasure and so, when it came time to remarry, I did the same with Someya, then Zaynab and then, ten years after, with Sara here as well. And you, dearest Yasmin, were to become my next potwife but, well, as we have said before, it was not to be. However, I am never a man to let a good opportunity go to waste and your love story touched me to the core and so I thought, why not? They want to be together forever; who am I, Yusuf al-Qassim, to stand in their way? But then I considered that you have both sinned grievously, against both me and Yasmin’s poor father, and, thus, a degree of punishment is necessary. Which is why I brought you here and gave you that tea. It is expensive and from Hunan Province, but what I forgot to mention earlier is that it is also laced with a large dosage of neuromuscular-blocking drugs which have the exciting effect of paralysing your entire body but ensuring that you stay awake throughout. I thought, whilst those ancient virgins in that Ishtar temple not far from Aqrah had the honour of becoming potgirls, due to the primitive technology of those times, they were denied the opportunity of watching their transformation take place. You two, however, are more blessed. Come, to the operating table!”
And with a click of his fingers, the two heavies lifted the inert lovers up from their chairs and carried them out of the room.
It was an ordeal of such horror than even a Hollywood filmmaker could not have conjured it up. Ahmed remembers every single minute of it; indeed, time seemed to pass in slow motion. He recalls being carried through the corridors to a lift which then descended downwards to a well-equipped underground operating theatre where a surgeon and his assistant in scrubs stood waiting. He was laid on the table and each of his limbs was sawn off with precision. Thankfully, the drugs had also deadened all feelings, otherwise he is sure he would have died from the pain.
After the limbs were gone, he watched the surgeon cut open his chest and start working on his organs. He gazed on in horror as a kidney and a lung were removed, and then the surgeon meticulously reduced the size of his liver, stomach, bladder and intestines. After that, he got to work on the bones, removing ribs and those around the pelvis. All the time, he was able to see every detail in a huge mirror placed directly above the bed on the ceiling. Then he saw the surgeon stitch the skin back together leaving him with a limbless, misshapen torso only slightly larger than his head.
And after all of that, his head was turned to one side and he watched the entire process be performed on his beloved. That hurt more. Mutilating him was one thing, but when he saw them lop off parts of her perfect, gorgeous body, and reach into her innermost recesses, tears flooded from his eyes. Never had he imagined that man could be so barbaric and all the while Yusuf al-Qassim stood watching, clad in scrubs, a medical mask over his face, his eyes smiling.
When they were done, he was carried over and placed alongside his love. She stared at him with defeated, scared eyes. What had happened to them both?
“That is enough for today,” said al-Qassim above them. “I like an element of surprise and so we’ll knock you out now, but I know you’ll both love what comes next!”
And with those words, a gas mask was placed over his face and Ahmed passed out.
He awoke to find himself in a warm, light room. There was the faint odour of frankincense burning and a breeze caressed his cheek from the right and sunlight flooded in from the same direction. As his head cleared, he tried to move. His entire body was totally immobile. Indeed, most of it had no feeling at all. Only two areas could he move: his face and his manly tool. As he accustomed himself to the surroundings, he tried out his new form. He raised his eyebrows and puffed out his cheeks. He tried to speak but only a groan came out. He sniffed with his nose and tried to turn his neck. There was feeling in the latter, but it would not budge. It felt like it was held in a vice. Down below, he could feel the breeze on his member. He tried using the muscles and it twitched.
Soon after he drifted off to sleep again.
When he awoke for a second time, Yusuf al-Qassim was standing before him smiling wickedly. Ahmed tried to speak again, and a faint croak came out. The smile broadened. “Don’t worry, your voice won’t be coming back,” said al-Qassim. “I had the vocal chords severed, although you will be able to groan a little.” There was a noise, another croak, to his left. Ahmed tried turning his head, but it would not budge. He could only look straight ahead.
“So, Layla and Majnun, you’re both awake at last! You’ll be pleased to know that the operation was a success; you didn’t die. Back in the Assyrian times, mortality could be as high as fifty per cent you know, but surgery is more advanced these days. Anyway, I suppose you’re itching to see what the finished article looks like? Well then, here we go!”
He clicked his fingers and two maids came in carrying a full-length mirror. What was reflected in it was like a vision from heaven and hell at the same time.
It was a pot. A large, traditional Assyrian pot, elegantly curved with a handle on each side and traditional-style artwork surrounding it. What was more shocking though was that, unlike most pots, this had not one neck but two and from those two necks protruded two heads: his own and that of his beloved. Both were immaculately made-up. On the top of his head, he wore a felt hat decorated with feathers. Yasmin wore her hair in long braids with a traditional-style headdress festooned with silver adornments. They looked like a pair of Assyrian nobles. Around their necks, reaching right up to the chin were severe gold collars decorated with writing. The only other parts of them visible were in two windows in the front of the vase. One revealed Yasmin’s womanly cleft that seemed now to be adorned by a gold ring while through the other protruded his – now erect after seeing the face of his beloved – member. That too had been pierced with a gold ring.
“What do you think?” exclaimed al-Qassim laughing. “Together forever, Layla and Majnun. Of course, you shall be; why, you even share the same pot!”
As the days, then the weeks, then the months and then the years, Yasmin and Ahmed learned the full depths of al-Qassim’s depravity. Entombed within their pot, they had no control over their destiny or bodies. Completely immobile, unable to even regulate the temperature of their reduced torsos, they were entirely at his mercy.
And he made the most of it.
They learned the main feature on that very first day. Taking a remote out of his pocket, al-Qassim pushed a button and, slowly but surely, their heads started to move. While their bodies still faced forwards, the golden collars – which he later told them had ‘Layla’ and ‘Majnun’ inscribed on them respectively – turned their necks so that they faced one another, gazing into each other’s eyes.
And there they were left, their faces only inches apart but unable to touch. All they could do was look at one another and reflect on their tragedy. And in that position, they were left all day, every day.
Except when he wanted to torment them further. On that first evening he came back to see them and, using his remote, turned their heads forward. He walked up to the giant pot and then he rubbed his hand over Ahmed’s penis. The touch was exquisite yet also humiliating. The thought of a man caressing him there. Despite this, it sprang into action. Ahmed was desperate for release, but then, al-Qassim smiled and left it, turning his attentions to his one-time betrothed.
And then, in the full-length mirror, he watched their captor unfasten his robes to reveal his own straining member, which he then carefully, and gently, inserted into her waiting love cavern. Against her will, she groaned in a mixture of pleasure and disgust and al-Qassim brought his lips to her and kissed her passionately.
Ahmed was forced to watch the entire rape.
Then, without a word, al-Qassim turned their heads back facing one another and left them, turning the light off as he went. The shame and guilt in Yasmin’s face was plain to see.
Al-Qassim visited often at first. Always to rape Yasmin and torment them both. He explained with glee how, as well as their names, their collars were inscribed with quotes from the famous Layla and Majnun poem:
“They tell me: ‘Crush the desire for Layla in your heart!’ But I implore thee, oh my God, let it grow even stronger…My life shall be sacrificed for her beauty, my blood shall be spilled freely for her, and though I burn for her painfully, like a candle, none of my days shall ever be free of this pain. Let me love, oh my God, love for love’s sake, and make my love a hundred times as great as it was and is!” around Ahmed’s collar and “Thus many a melody passed to and fro between the two nightingales, drunk with their passion. Those who heard them listened in delight, and so similar were the two voices that they sounded like a single chant. Born of pain and longing, their song had the power to break the unhappiness of the world.” Around Yasmin’s.
They both cried when he told them.
And on another occasion, he explained the pictures that surrounded the pot. In the style of ancient Assyrian art, they were a pictorial telling of how they’d met. There was Ahmed in the café, him handing Yasmin a rose, the kiss by the Tigris, her father’s order to marry al-Qassim, their elopement, the kidnapping and then the whole horrible ordeal at the hands of their tormentor.
And all the while he explained the images, he had one hand on her love slit, playing with its ring and the other was tugging playfully on the similar ring that impaled the head of Ahmed’s member.
They had other visitors too, but only al-Qassim ever spoke to them. The maid came several times a day to feed and water them. She would take away the little golden bowls that collected their liquid wastes and would feed them tiny spoonfuls of mush washed down with water. They never ate much as their reduced stomachs could not take it and, because their bladders had been similarly downsized, there was soon the tinkle of golden waters in their bowls.
And all the while they stared into one another’s eyes, together yet never touching.
Yes, for even inside the vase, they were separated. Al-Qassim sadistically explained that, when designing their captivity, he had ordered a dividing wall to be placed between them so that even their deformed and reduced torsos could not snuggle against one another in their prison. Even so, during those long hours when they were alone in that opulent room, they could both hear and feel each other’s hearts beating in tandem beneath the pottery shell. And when they did, they would mouth with their useless lips, the words ‘I love you!’ before puckering them in a kiss that could never be fulfilled.
Copyright © 2018, Dave Potter
 The Middle Eastern equivalent of Romeo and Juliet.