We Were Slaves: A Thought Provoking Short Story

Dec 29, 2018 | 2018 Articles, Tales of Diversity, Terrific Tales

by Ilene Schneider

This story has never before been published. It is an alternate reality story which makes you think. We Were Slaves looks at a possible alternate reality in which Isabella and Ferdinand’s army was defeated in the Iberian peninsula, leading to the fall of Christian Europe.

The man standing in the middle of the sidewalk blocking other pedestrians would have been handsome had his dark face not been contorted by rage as he screamed at the young boy. The man’s well-trimmed beard with its scattering of grey, his black hair curling around the edges of his lavishly jeweled turban, his beautifully tailored clothing told of his aristocratic lineage. The boy, on the other hand, was quite ugly with his closely-shorn red hair, green eyes made brighter by the tears he tried to suppress, and pale skin with its smattering of freckles. It was difficult to guess his age, as slaves were often malnourished and, therefore, small. When Fatima glanced over again, she noticed the black tattooed cross in the middle of his forehead, etched into every slave at the age of 13. So the boy wasn’t a child but an adult. The man gave the slave an open-handed slap, hard enough to leave a reddened palm print on his cheek. Tower

“Did you see that?” Fatima whispered to her best friend, Rivkah, as they swerved around the man and boy.

“It was pretty hard to miss. They were standing in our way.” Rivkah made a face at the thought of such rudeness. She wouldn’t have noticed them at all if she hadn’t almost tripped over an evening cloak lying crumpled in a puddle. As it was, she had barely glanced at the master and slave. They were no concern of hers. At the age of 20, she had more things on her mind than others’ domestic affairs, mainly whom her parents would choose for her to marry. The only reason she had not already been married was her insistence – and her mother’s – that she go to college first to learn a profession.

Fatima shook her head in perturbation. “Something has to be done about the way slaves are treated. It’s inhumane.”

The two young women were on their way to view the Victory Day celebrations from the penthouse apartment of one of Fatima’s aunts. This year, the Muslim religious calendar coincided with the secular one used for everyday date-keeping. Tonight was both Eid el-Fitr, the festive evening meal marking the end of Ramadan, and Victory Day, the commemoration of the rout by the combined forces of the Moorish Muslims and Sephardic Jews as they drove back the Christian armies from the Iberian Peninsula five centuries earlier. The Iberians then allied with the Ottoman Empire and destroyed the rest of Christian Europe, leaving it in ruins, its inhabitants impoverished and enslaved, its religion outlawed as pagan and idolatrous.

Fatima and Rivkah had argued more than once about slavery. It was a hot topic among their college friends, who were firmly divided between those who wanted slavery completely abolished as immoral and an abomination in a civilized society, and those who saw nothing wrong with it.

“At least they have food, clothing, shelter, and work,” Rivkah continued, repeating the oft-heard arguments from the pro-slavery supporters. “And our economy would be destroyed if we had to pay them a salary. We’d be in a depression without them, and our society would collapse. Who would clean our houses and cook our meals, sew our clothes, and work in the factories and farms without them? Are you going to work on an assembly line, or pick crops 16 hours a day, seven days a week? What will they do if they’re freed? They’re too dumb to be taught how to read or write or do mathematics or science.”

Fatima countered, “But….” She knew she was on shaky grounds with arguments based on philosophical appeals to act in an ethical manner, especially with Rivkah, who seldom changed her mind once she had decided on a stand. Rivkah might be her best friend, but that didn’t mean Fatima couldn’t recognize her weaknesses, such as stubbornness. Besides, as sundown approached, the street was becoming even more crowded and it was too noisy to have any kind of discussion. She gave up. “Let’s enjoy ourselves tonight. There’s plenty of time to argue other days.”

Fatima’s relatives lived in a modern building designed to look traditional. The predominant color of the exterior walls was blue, and they were decorated with mosaics and tiles with abstract, yet symmetrically-repeated designs. The roof was topped by a dome and the entry was an archway, the edges of which were covered with verses from the Koran written in elaborately rendered calligraphy.

The two friends had not spoken again while they walked to the building. The elevator was also crowded, so they stayed silent as they watched the floor numbers flash by. Once they entered the apartment and were removing their outerwear in the cloakroom, Fatima broke their silence, but in a whisper that barely registered.

“Listen, Rivkah, I can’t talk here about this. I don’t want my family to know what I’m doing, but why don’t you come with me tomorrow night? I’m going to a secret meeting of a group fighting for the rights of slaves and for abolition.”

As Rivkah started to shake her head, Fatima continued, “Before you refuse, think about it. At least hear the other side.”

Rivkah answered, “Okay. I’ve thought about it. No.”

Fatima was going to try again, but the door to the cloak room opened and the man they had seen on the street entered. The boy wasn’t with him, but another slave, much older, was, and helped the man off with his cloak.

“Hello, niece. I am sorry you had to witness that exhibition of mine in the street.
That boy – no, young man, now – has been a problem for a while. No respect. Carelessness. Insolence. And I actually had hopes I might be able to make something of him, that in time he could have become the head house slave. I should never have allowed his mother to raise him; I should have sent him to the farm or sold him as soon as he was weaned. But his mother is my third wife’s favorite personal slave, so I gave into her pleas. I won’t repeat that mistake.”

“Hello, uncle. I did not pay much attention,” Fatima lied, her eyes downcast in respect and submission. “What did he do that was so bad? Where is he now? What will happen to him?”

The man laughed. “Ah, Fatima, still as soft-hearted and curious as ever. He had only one job to do tonight, to carry my heavy cloak in case the weather turned cooler after sundown. And what did he do with it? Threw it into a puddle. He says he tripped and it was an accident, but it looked deliberate to me. He is currently heading back to the house to have the stains sponged out by hand before taking it to the dry cleaner tomorrow. The price will be taken out of his food rations. I cannot sell him – I wouldn’t get a good enough price for someone so disobedient. So I will send him to the farm. A few years in the fields will cure him.”far

Rivkah leaned toward her friend. “He’s your uncle?”

“Uncle, forgive my lack of manners. I would like to present to you my friend Rivkah.”

“As-saalam aleikum,” Rivkah said in Arabic.

“Aleichem shalom,” he answered in Hebrew. “You are as polite as you are lovely. And how do you two know each other?”

“We have been classmates since children’s school and best friends almost as long. We now go to college together.”

“Ah, so your parents are as modern as Fatima’s and insisted you go to a mixed school. I deplore your parents’ choice to allow you to learn with boys, but I am pleased that they have no problem with Jews and Muslims learning together and being friends. Especially today when we celebrate over half a millennium of our being allies. I know Fatima is studying to be a teacher. Are you, also?”

“No. I do not enjoy theoretical discussions as much as Fatima does. I wanted something in the sciences, but practical, so I am studying to be a nurse. I am doing a practicum in midwifery now and may choose it as my specialty.”

“Very commendable. Our women need medical care as much, if not more, than our men.”

He dipped his head slightly. “I will see you young women later, I am sure. The sun should be down soon. My sister has trained her slaves well in the art of fine cuisine. And I am hungry!” He left the room and Rivkah reached up to remove her head scarf. “No,” Fatima said. “Keep it on.”

“But your family is secular. I never cover my head in your home.”

“My parents may be more modern than some, but they aren’t completely secular. Many in the family here tonight are
very traditional. Including my least favorite uncle, whom you just met.”

“I thought he was charming.”

“So do most people, but he is autocratic and cruel. I have to be polite to him because he is family. But it does not mean I have to like him.”

The evening went by in a blur of fireworks and food and small talk. Every now and then, Rivkah would catch a glimpse of Fatima’s uncle. He was poised and polite and attentive to everyone he spoke with, and Rivkah was even more puzzled by Fatima’s dislike of him. Then she remembered the slave boy’s public humiliation.fireworks

The friends had no chance for a private talk during the party, but found they were alone for a few moments in the cloak room before they left for home with their respective parents. “Don’t forget what I asked you, Rivkah. You promised you’d think about it.”

“Think about what?” Rivkah’s mother chose this moment to retrieve her cloak, too.

“Oh, nothing much, Ima. Fatima is in a, um, reading group and suggested I go. But you know I don’t like to read much, so I’m not sure I want to join. And this semester is so busy, I’m not sure I’ll have time.”

“Yes, your studies come first. Aren’t you beginning your midwifery practicum tomorrow?”

“Right.” She turned to Fatima. “I’ll be following some midwives on their rounds to see first-hand what they do. And babies don’t get born on a schedule, so I’ll be on call for the next month. I’m sure you understand why I’m not able to attend your, um, club.”

“But do think about it.”

“I will. I promise. Maybe after the practicum.”

In bed that evening, Rivkah was surprised to realize she was thinking about it. She kept seeing the young slave’s terrified face. He did not look disrespectful or careless or insolent, as his owner had said. There was something jarring about the difference between Fatima’s uncle’s treatment of his slave and his public persona among his peers. Rivkah’s own family was a step below on the social ladder from the aristocracy, but they were relatively wealthy and did own slaves. So did all her parents’ friends. And some, she was sure, took advantage of their slaves and berated and even beat them when they did not follow orders. And they, too, were civilized and polite and pleasant people among themselves.

Her parents never physically abused their slaves or even yelled at them, but Rivkah suddenly remembered an embarrassing event she had suppressed. When she was about nine years old, one of the slaves, while dusting, accidentally knocked over Rivkah’s favorite doll. It cracked and Rivkah screeched at the slave and called her names. Then she slapped her face.

“Rivkah!” Her parents alerted by the screaming, had run to her room, thinking she had been hurt. Her father, as angry as she had ever seen him, yelled, “What do you think you’re doing?” Her mother slapped her.

Rivkah, shocked by her parents’ reaction, threw herself face down on her bed sobbing.

“Go back downstairs,” her mother said in a kind voice to the slave, “and put some ice on your cheek before it swells. Take off the rest of the day. I am sorry for my daughter’s behavior.”

Rivkah wailed even louder. “It’s not fair! She broke my doll and she gets a reward! I rebuke her and you punish me! She’s the one who did wrong, not me.”

Her father used his sternest lecture tones. “You did far worse. She broke an inanimate object, by accident, I am sure. You, on the other hand, deliberately struck another person.”

“She’s not a person! She’s a slave!”

“Is this how we raised you, Rivkah?” Her mother was almost in tears. “Then we have failed as parents. Slaves are human beings. Remember your Torah, your Passover stories. ‘Avadim ha’yinu,’ we are taught. ‘We were slaves in Egypt.’ We are admonished to treat others, strangers and slaves, well and kindly and fairly.”

“Then why are we allowed to own slaves, if we were once slaves? You’d think it would be forbidden in the Torah.”

“It is allowed,” her father said, “but we must treat them humanely. That is the meaning of ‘Avadim ha’yinu.’”

Rivkah was forced to apologize to the slave. She was not allowed to replace the doll, even when she said she would use her allowance money, but had to keep it as a reminder of how cruelly she had acted.

The lesson didn’t take completely. She managed to “lose” the doll after a few weeks. She continued to raise her voice against slaves for even minor infractions. She never thought about the incident again, until this evening. But she never again raised her hand against them.

Instead of walking the several blocks to the City Hospital, Rivkah took a cab. She had plenty of time before she was scheduled to meet with the midwives she’d be shadowing, but she wanted to be there early, to show them her eagerness and willingness to help. She knew she was starting at a disadvantage, as her grades put her near the bottom of her class ranking. She was determined to do well, though, and prove that lectures and reality had only a tenuous relationship to each other.

She tapped tentatively at the open door to the prep room. Two midwives looked up from checking the supplies they would be taking with them. Rivkah didn’t know if they were Jewish or Muslim, as they were dressed in nurses’ uniforms and their heads were uncovered. The younger one smiled and said, “You must be Rivkah. Barucha Haba’a. Come right in. I’m Hannah and this is Devorah. It’s good that you’re early. We just got a call that a slave woman has gone into early labor, and the baby may be in the breach position. We will need extra help. You will be thrown right into the midst of action on your first day. Lucky girl!”

“We will see at the end of the day how lucky she is,” Devorah, putting bottles of sterile saline solution into a large box, said. “You will definitely know if you really are cut out for this kind of work – and so will we.”

Rivkah’s excitement was giving way to apprehension. If she didn’t prove herself worthy today, would she be dismissed from the program? From the college? Hannah, as if reading her mind, assured her, “Ignore Devorah. She’s grumpy because she got called out last night for what turned out to be a false labor, and missed the fireworks. We won’t judge you based only on today. It will be difficult, yes, but don’t worry. We know some students never see as much as you will today.”

“Why are we attending a slave? I thought they gave birth on their own.”

Hannah shrugged. “The owner requested our presence. Either the slave is very valuable or a favorite or…who knows? You will learn quickly, Rivkah, that you should not ask questions unless they have to do with the pregnancy or delivery.”

The house they went to was close enough to the hospital to walk, even with the heavy boxes of supplies. Within a few moments, they were knocking at the front door and were greeted by a slave with hair so blond it was almost white. Her pale skin made the black cross on her forehead even more evident.

“Come with me, please,” the slave said diffidently. “The easiest entrance to the slave quarters is through the back of the house.”

The slave was stronger than she appeared, and took the supply boxes from the midwives. The three women followed her through a side gate into a landscaped garden, and then the wide expanse of the backyard lawn, dotted with shade trees. It was a huge plot of land for the middle of the city. The owners must be very wealthy, Rivkah thought. She managed without stumbling to descend a steep set of steps that led to a narrow door in the back wall of the main house. garden

Rivkah looked around the dark, damp, and dank interior. The basement was one large open space, broken up by cots. Commodes lined the back wall, and, from the aroma, were seldom emptied. A slave woman, looking to be barely into her teens, was on one of the cots. She was screaming and writhing.

Rivkah stood back, observing but not participating, unless Hannah or Devorah asked her to pass over an instrument. They spoke to the slave in soothing tones, and then gave her an injection to put her to sleep. They worked quickly, but efficiently, and sooner than expected, Rivkah heard a squeal from a baby.

“Poor little girl,” said Hannah.

“Now we know why the owner favored this slave. And baby.”

Rivkah couldn’t see the baby, now swaddled in a blanket. “Why?”

Hannah said, “In this case, we’ll allow you to ask questions. You need to learn about life outside your sheltered home.” She turned around and exposed the baby’s face. Her skin was swarthy, her features from sub-Saharan Africa. “It looks as though the owner or someone in his family enjoyed the mother’s company a bit too much.”

Devorah rummaged in one of the bags and found a tattoo needle and vial of red dye. “We bring this with us whenever we’re called to assist a slave. Just in case.”

“I don’t understand,” said Rivkah.

“She is too dark,” Devorah explained while preparing the needle. “If she is not tattooed at birth, she may try to pass. And we can’t use black ink or it would not show, so we use red.”

“Why did you say, ‘poor little girl,’ Hannah? Won’t the owner take care of her?”

“Very few slave children are allowed to remain with their mothers. The newborns are sold as soon as possible, usually to a family with a slave who has just given birth and can act as a wet nurse. And this family won’t want a reminder of one of their male relatives’ inability to avoid lust. She will likely be sold to a brothel, which is why I pity her. She has a hard life ahead of her, even for a slave.”

The midwives understood what a difficult first exposure Rivkah had experienced, and told her to take off the rest of the day and get a good night’s sleep. They would remove her from the on-call roster for the night, but she was expected to report early the next morning.

When she got home, Rivkah waved to her parents, said the day was “interesting,” and went to her room. She stared out her window at the park across the street. It reminded her of the contrast between the beautiful gardens adorning the outside of the house she had visited, and the squalor and horrors she had witnessed within.park

And she thought. She thought about the red hand print from the slap on the slave boy’s face. She thought about the new red tattoo in the middle of the newborn’s forehead. She thought about the meaning and underlying message of “Avadim ha’yinu,” “We were slaves.” Then she called Fatima. “I’ve kept my promise to you and thought about what you said. Something happened today that opened my eyes. Tell me where and when you will be meeting tomorrow night. I will be there.”

Retired Rabbi Ilene Schneider is the author of the award-winning Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries. She also wrote the non-fiction Talking Dirty – in Yiddish?, manages a website of questions and answers about Chanukah, and edited Recipes by the Book: Oak Tree Authors Cook.

1 Comment

  1. This is a great read, and a sobering look at what might have been, as well as an illuminating look at what is. Thank you.


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