Hiring a Teacher
A Story in the Kobekistan UniversePrologue
Those readers familiar with the history and geography of Kobekistan can safely skip this prologue and start at Chapter one.
The Emirate of Kobekistan is one of those wonderful places where a visitor feels that they have stepped back into a more leisurely, more dignified era of history, but without sacrificing any of the more useful gadgets of modern civilisation. Air-conditioning protects the inhabitants from the rigours of a sub-tropical climate. Motor cars whisk them from one building to another. Desalination provides ample water. The most modern medical advances are practised in the hospitals. Television shows umpteen channels. Education utilises the most modern computer-aided systems. Childbirth is no longer as dangerous as it used to be, even though eunuch doctors are the only ones available to the women of the harems. Becoming a eunuch is very rarely a fatal operation since it is carried out by experts in surgical conditions second to none. A girl being cut and sewn to make her incapable of sexual pleasure and virtually unusable by a man (except for sodomy) now has a less than one in a thousand chance of the patient contracting a dangerous infection. Moderation in all things is the watchword. Toleration extends to allowing alcohol to be sold to foreign workers in the country. Women are taught to read and write, at least in some harems.
Of course, these facilities are not all available to all the population, but for all those who matter, the better families, they are taken for granted. A field slave might not benefit from all of them, but the medical services ensure that a slave no longer has to be put down if an over-enthusiastic owner damages it somewhat while administering discipline.
The disadvantages of civilisation as it is understood in the West are nevertheless kept at bay. Advertising is negligible. Tourists are not permitted to enter the country. Women are not allowed to show their faces on the streets. Marriages are arranged by parents who are wiser in their choices than the impulses of youth would be. There is none of the political brouhaha since the country is ruled by the Emir, may he live for ever, whom Allah has appointed. His word is law, literally. Were he to say, “Off with his head,” the miscreant would be executed in public within the hour.
All of this is made possible by the oil on which the Emirate rests. When all the oil reserves have been extracted, in some centuries time, the level of the land will have been lowered by an average of ten feet. The oil is a ‘heavy crude’ which is dug out of the ground in lumps looking for all the world like treacle toffee. There is none of the messy liquid to process and no unsightly wells.
In 2005 the Emir, His Magnificence Ibrahim, and his heir Crown Prince Gamel were travelling together, which was unusual, in one of the Emir’s private 747s on the way back from a trip to Monte Carlo. The chauffeur delegated to collect them at the Kobek International Airport was a little over-enthusiastic and raced along the runway after the aeroplane. Air Traffic Control spotted it and panicked. The military also panicked and ordered the pilot to take off again, fearing an assassination attempt. The pilot did his best, but was short of room and as the aeroplane actually took off, it hit the lights at the end of the runway and cart-wheeled into an expensive shambles of broken and burning metal.
Some days later the new Emir, His Magnificence Mahmoud Abdullah, may he live for ever, (known in England as David Ransome) arrived in Kobekistan from Oxford, England where he had been studying advanced mathematics at the University. None of the more important personages in Kobekistan knew him, since it had always been assumed that Crown Prince Gamel would succeed his father or, if necessary, some other son would be selected and trained for the throne. Now, because of the odd succession laws in force and the unfortunate accident of the Crown Prince dying first, the Emir was succeeded by his eldest grandson. The boy was the son of the late Prince Abdullah and his English first wife (known in Kobekistan as Princess Zubedeh). Soon after her husband had died playing polo, the mother had left Kobekistan taking her son with her back to England, where he had lived from the age of four until his accession at twenty-three.
Author’s Note: It is difficult to portray multi-lingual conversation in works such as this. Since some of my readers may not be fully fluent both in French and in the Kobekistani dialect of Arabic, the convention used is that, where the distinction matters, all direct speech in English quotation marks is in English, thus “This is English”; French is in continental quotation marks, thus: «This is French»; Kobekistani Arabic is between tildes, thus ~This is Arabic~.
Chapter one Problem
The Indian who taught in the Golden Palace was tall and old, but he fell nimbly to his knees when His Magnificence, the Emir Mahmoud Abdullah, may he live for ever, known in his student days at Oxford as David Ransome, strode in to the anteroom of the harem in the Golden Palace in Kobekistan. The Emir stopped, a little surprised at the scene before him. Instead of the usual sparsely furnished room with a small dais in the middle of the floor and a few chairs against the wall, he was transported in memory back some twenty years. There were serried ranks of school desks and facing them a larger teacher’s desk and a blackboard.
“You have quite a professional set-up here,” he remarked, “Do get up; that must be very uncomfortable for an old man.”
“The Master is too kind,” said Gupta Singh, rising to his feet rather less nimbly, and adjusting his turban, “Politeness is not so easy as it was, but I thank my Master for using my native tongue.” A perceptive listener would have identified the Sikh’s origin not as India but Bradford in the north of England.
The Emir sat on one of the desks in the front row and asked, “You have a problem you wish me to solve?”
The teacher looked worried.
“Ask away. You will not give offence,” he added kindly.
“Master, it is the problem of Sharifa, your daughter,” the teacher replied.
The Emir smiled as he noticed that the old man had his fingers crossed; For luck, I suppose, he thought, He’s afraid I’ll have him beheaded, or worse. Aloud he said, “Why is she a problem? Does she disrupt your classes? Just send her back into the harem. She won’t be with you for long anyway; she must be almost twelve now.”
“She reaches her twelfth birthday in two days time, Master. That is the problem.”
“As Your Magnificence, may you live for ever, surely knows, it is the custom here in Kobekistan that a child is a child until their twelfth birthday, and then, arbitrarily, they are considered young adults. A boy may no longer live in the harem with his mother; while for a girl the exact opposite happens, she is confined to the harem, no longer seen by any males but her father, and later her husband.”
The Emir nodded. He had plenty of patience and pedagogues the world over delight in telling the obvious at great length. Doubtless the problem would appear somewhere along the way, and he had great respect for this man’s teaching abilities.
“The problem is that she wishes to continue with her studies, and custom decrees that I cannot teach her after she ceases to be a child. This is not a problem in the area of languages, since the women of the harem teach her those skills. Even philosophy is discussed therein at some length, judging by some of her comments in class. The difficulty is mathematics.”
David Ransome had been a post-graduate student of mathematics at Oxford University when a series of unlikely events had catapulted him to the throne of Kobekistan fifteen years earlier; the news that one of his children had an interest in mathematics intrigued him.
“What level has she reached in her studies?” he asked.
“I do not know how much Your Magnificence, may you live for ever, knows of these matters,” the teacher said, biting his lower lip in fear at his own temerity. He had seen the Emir only a very few times, and never before spoken to him.
“I read maths at Oxford and was preparing a Ph.D. thesis on the Topology of Non-Riemann Surfaces when my grandfather died and I was dumped on the throne here,” his master replied.
The Sikh’s face brightened, “She has already learned differential and integral calculus, Eminence, Master.”
“Oh,” said the Emir, quite taken aback. He had been considered brilliant, but he had been about fourteen or fifteen when he reached that level. Either my daughter is very bright, or very specialised in her knowledge. He thought for a moment and then stood up. “Come with me,” he said and strode to the door to the harem proper.
“Your Magnificence, it is death for me to pass that door,” the teacher queried, his voice rising an octave as his fear showed.
“Not if you are with me,” the Emir reassured him, “just don’t rape any of the women.”
The teacher was on tiptoe as he passed through the forbidden door into the harem of the Emir of Kobekistan; as far as he knew no whole man except the Emir had walked in there since it was first built. Eunuchs did all the work that was needed.
Chapter two Assessment
The unexpected and unannounced arrival of the Emir caused a stir among the women and the eunuchs rushed about like chickens when a fox approaches. The few women who knew who the man was with the Emir were even more flustered. Only one man had ever accompanied him into the harem in fifteen years, the Princess Ayda’s father; many of them had been offered as bed companions to honoured guests, but the arrangement was always that they were conducted to the man’s room, never that the man came into the harem.
“Sharifa,” the Emir bellowed.
The young girl came forward, clearly frightened half out of her wits. The only explanation she could think of, or any of the women could think of, was that she was to be given to the teacher as a present on her twelfth birthday.
Princess Alima, the younger of the English wives of the Emir started forward to protest but was held back by Princess Zubeydeh, the Emir’s English mother, who had more faith in her son’s good sense than any of the others. She knew he had tried hard to discourage the practice of child betrothals, and even marriages, before the girl was sufficiently adult to bear children safely.
The Emir looked the child before him up and down. Addressing her he asked, «Quelle age as-tu?»
Gathering her thoughts, the child answered, «Demain j’aurai douze ans, Maître.» Privately she wondered why he spoke in French; in her experience, when she overheard him speak to anyone in the harem he usually used Arabic or English. He had never, as far as she could remember, spoken directly to her.
Immediately he switched to English, “Why do you want to learn more mathematics?”
She froze. Is this a trick question? Would I, or my much admired teacher, be punished if I answer wrong? Is there even a right answer?
Her father beckoned Princess Alima forward. “Tell this foolish child that when I ask a question I want the truth,” he snapped.
Princess Alima whispered in Sharifa’s ear in Arabic, ~Tell the truth. He’ll know if you don’t, and that will mean punishment for you and probably other people as well.~
As she did so one of the other women rushed forward. The Emir held up his hand to stop her, but she continued to run towards her daughter. A nod from the Emir was all it took. Two eunuchs grabbed the woman and one held her effortlessly while the other gave her three sharp blows with his dog whip. Sharifa’s mother fell to the floor sobbing; it had been instinctive for her to try to help her daughter, but all she had achieved was to be whipped and to anger her Master, the child’s father.
“Tell me why you want to learn more mathematics,” he repeated.
The child was obviously too frightened to answer.
The Emir took a handkerchief from his pocket and gave it to her. “Do you know what this means?” he asked.
She nodded, “It means I can answer safely and will not be punished, but that only means me.”
The Emir smiled and said, using Arabic so that all would understand, ~I don’t have enough handkerchiefs in my pocket to give one to everybody here.~ The quip broke the tension in the room and even the girl smiled uncertainly. “Now please tell me, before I die of old age waiting for my answer, why you want to learn more mathematics.”
“It is difficult to explain. It is like an onion, only backwards. You learn a complete body of maths and it looks like everything there is, and then another layer appears which fits round that, and it seems complete again, but then there is another layer, and another, and another. I want to find the last layer, but I already know enough to know that so far I know almost nothing.”
The Emir nodded. This explanation seemed to mean something to him, though most of the women were at a loss to understand what on earth she meant.
“Later on, ask Princess Zubeydeh to tell you about me, when I was your age,” he said, “but for now I have some questions. First, what is the second differential of a formula?”
She was on firmer ground now, “It is essentially the rate of change of the gradient of the graph of the formula, sir.”
“Who was Zeno, and why is he interesting to a mathematician?”
The answer came with confidence, “Zeno was a Greek philosopher and his paradox is an apparent proof that a fast runner will never overtake a slower one, nor even catch up.”
“What does that signify?”
“That the sum of an infinite series may be finite,” she replied without the slightest hesitation.
“What is Chebyshev’s Inequality?”
She looked very worried, and finally said in a very small voice, “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter,” her father answered, “You will have to be accompanied by a eunuch and to wear an abaya.” Then turning to the teacher he asked, “How far can you take her?”
“Until she is ready for university, Your Magnificence, may you live for ever,” that worthy replied, and then fell to the floor grovelling in obeisance as he realised the implication of what he had said. It was voicing the unthinkable that a woman from a high status harem in Kobekistan should even consider going to university.
“Get up, you fool. Some of the women here have actually been to university. It is not heresy to admit that it is possible.”
He escorted the old man back to the door, and then turned to the Chief Eunuch.
“We will have to find some educated eunuchs or women to teach her literature and music and physics and chemistry. Find them and have a schoolroom set up. All the girls in this harem are to attend lessons the same as the boys from now on.”
“Master,” the Chief Eunuch managed to splutter in his shock at this amazing concept, but his Master had spoken and it would be done, though where he would find educated eunuchs was going to be a problem.
Then Sharifa piped up, ~Father, what is Chebyshev's Inequality?~
The Emir stared at her, then smiled broadly and switched to English, “It states that the probability that the outcome of a random variable with standard deviation sigma is no less than ‘a’ times sigma away from its mean, is no more than one over ‘a’ squared. How much of that do you understand?”
“Well, I know what a random variable is, and a standard deviation, but I would have to think about what you said.”
“What did I say?” asked the Emir, curious to test how retentive her memory was.
“You said that Chebyshev's Inequality states that the probability that the outcome of a random variable with standard deviation sigma is no less than ‘a’ times sigma away from its mean, is no more than one over ‘a’ squared.”
She thought for a moment and then added, “It sounds right.”
“What do you mean, ‘it sounds right’?”
“I can’t explain,” she answered, “It’s just that when something is true it seems to sound right and other things just sound wrong.”
“God in Heaven, an intuitive mathematician,” he said, “We will have to do something about you, young lady.”
The main topic of conversation in the harem that evening was what the Emir might have meant by that cryptic comment.
Chapter three Recruitment
The buying and selling of slaves goes on at two levels; there are harem slaves, mostly women, mostly young, bought for pleasure in its many and varied forms and eventually, when they are too old for their owner’s tastes, sold again, often to brothels, and there are what are known as field slaves who toil at various forms of manual labour. The auctioneer was completely flummoxed by the request from the Chief Eunuch of the Golden Palace for a female teacher of scientific subjects, age immaterial, appearance immaterial, virginity unimportant. That was four criteria he had never, ever, been given before, but like the true lover of money that he was he would try his best.
“That will cost money,” he observed, “A lot of money.”
“If she’s old and ugly, she will be almost worthless,” replied the Emir’s representative, happy that the auctioneer had not laughed, but had started haggling.
“But we will have to find such a one, and then take her, and then bring her here, and then feed and look after her, and then train her; the expenses will be endless.”
“Your profits will not be endless, nor will your expenses,” replied the eunuch, “She will need no training, because she will not be used in the harem. She will need no food, because she will come direct to the Palace. The only need is for speed. His Magnificence, the Emir Mahmoud Abdullah, may he live for ever, has decreed it, so be grateful that I pay you anything at all.”
After the Chief Eunuch had left, the auctioneer made several ’phone calls to his agents in Europe. They all reacted in disbelief, but the phrase ‘the Emir has decreed’ soon quietened them down. It was the Italian agent who solved the problem first. He was, to all appearances, just another indolent rich Arab living in Rome, but secretly he had a hand in a number of dealings with some Sicilian businessmen. He occasionally imported things for them in his private Learjet under diplomatic privilege and in return they did him occasional favours.
It was to one such friend that he mentioned the problem later that day.
“Let me get this straight,” his friend said, “You want a teacher of science, and age and appearance are unimportant, but she must be a female?”
The Arab shrugged his shoulders, as if to say ‘Who knows?’ and replied, “That is what I was told.”
“No trouble,” said the Mafia man, “When do you want her?”
“Would yesterday be too early?” asked the Arab.
“Have your ’plane ready at six tomorrow morning,” was the surprising answer.
Promptly at six the next morning a crate was loaded on the Learjet at a small private airstrip near Rome. The customs official would not be on duty until eight, so the manifest and flight plan were left for him in his office; the manifest did not mention the crate.
When they were safely in the air and well away from Italian airspace, the Arab opened the crate and checked that the woman was breathing freely. The drug would keep her asleep for the few hours the journey would take, but he did not want her to have any problems. He was surprised to find that his prisoner was a middle aged nun. The documents with her told him that she was Sister Annamaria and that she held a degree in Physics from the University of Dublin. A note from his friend told him that she had entered a teaching order after the early death of her husband, and taught physics and chemistry at a convent school in Naples.
Shrugging his shoulders, the Arab closed the crate and wondered who why the Emir wanted a school teacher, and what he would say when he found that he had bought a nun. Fantasies of being beaten by a school teacher were, he knew, popular on the internet, but would a nun play bedroom games like that? At least she had been married, so she would know the basic facts of life.
Chapter four Solution
When Sister Annamaria woke she was totally disoriented. She could remember little of what had happened, and nothing of how she came to be in what was obviously a hospital room.
A nurse appeared at the bedside and asked, “How are you feeling now?” in English.
As she sat up, she realised that she felt quite well and realised that her first thought, that she had been hit by a car, was wrong.
Using the same language, albeit with an accent, she asked, “I feel fine, but what happened? Where am I? Why am I here?”
“You sound well enough,” said the nurse, ignoring her questions, “You can dress if you wish.”
“Where am I, exactly?” she insisted.
“In the hospital wing of the harem in the Golden Palace.”
“What Golden Palace? I don’t know a Golden Palace? Harem?” she exclaimed.
“Calm down, get dressed and we can talk in a moment,” the nurse was all professionalism.
“Tell me now, exactly where I am!”
“Exactly? You are in room 273, in the Golden Palace, in Kobek city, the capital of Kobekistan. You will now dress and go downstairs where someone will explain everything.”
“But, but, but …” the nun spluttered to the disappearing back of the nurse.
She found her clothes in the small wardrobe beside the bed, neatly laundered and ironed. A few moments after she finished dressing she was on her knees praying for guidance when a large man wearing only voluminous trousers came into the room.
“Please come with me,” he said.
“Where to, and does nobody speak Italian?” she replied, not getting up.
“To see the Emir, and I don’t think so,” replied the eunuch, who was under strict, if incomprehensible, orders from the Emir himself not to antagonise or chastise this woman.
Sister Annamaria rose and followed him, thinking that perhaps now she would get some answers. She was led to a large, airy room which was quite empty, except for two gilded chairs near the door, and in the middle a low dais. As she looked around her, disgusted by the mosaics on the walls, all of which seemed to depict sexual acts or physical violence, the eunuch who had accompanied her suddenly threw himself face down on the floor. A man she judged to be in his thirties, with a vaguely Arab cast of countenance walked in.
“Please sit down, Sister,” he said as he took a seat opposite her.
When they were seated she leant forward and started to ask, “Where am I and what …?” but he interrupted her by raising one hand.
“Please let me explain,” he started, “Questions afterwards.”
She subsided back into her chair and waited.
“First, may I apologise for what happened to you. It was a mistake for which I am truly sorry. What happened was that I said I needed a female teacher of science, and that was interpreted as a wish to buy one in the slave market. My Chief Eunuch ordered one from a slave dealer, he asked one of his agents to procure one, so you were kidnapped and brought here. It never occurred to my staff to advertise in the educational press, nor to me that I would have to specify that they were to do that. That was three days ago, and the first I knew of what had happened was when they said you were here.”
“I demand to be returned to my convent in Italy immediately,” she replied.
“That’s an Irish accent?” the Emir remarked.
“I was born in County Mayo, but that is irrelevant,” was the tart reply, “I want to go home now.”
“You could fly back to Italy this afternoon, if you wish …” began the Emir.
“Good,” she interrupted.
“But first let me tell you my problem. In this country women live secluded lives in harems. Children stay there also, with their mothers, until they are twelve years old. Then the boys leave the harem and live out in the world, you might say; girls, on the other hand, cease to be allowed outside the harem at all, or at any rate only with a heavy escort and dressed in an abaya.”
“What’s an abaya?” she asked.
“Oh, much the same as a Poor Clare would wear, but with the face hidden also. To continue, I have a number of children in my harem who have been having lessons from a male teacher, in the Palace here, and one of the girls is now twelve and may no longer be taught by a male, but she shows great promise as a mathematician, so I want her to go to university. To do that she needs to be taught many subjects and it would be much simpler all round if she had a female teaching staff. Languages are not a problem, because there are several nationalities in my harem, and one of my wives is an English literature graduate, but we cannot handle physics or chemistry.”
“But how could a nun live in a heathen country?”
“Oh, that isn’t a difficulty. A convent could be built here, and suitable accommodation could be found while that is done. We already have a Roman church here, and the Monsignor has agreed to be chaplain to such an establishment. There is complete religious tolerance; I would allow nothing less, being an agnostic myself.”
“But, … but this is preposterous.”
“Your mother house in Naples has also agreed,” he added, neglecting to tell her that a large donation had been promised.
He snapped his fingers and a telephone was handed to her by the eunuch.
“The code for Italy is zero zero three nine from here.”
After speaking to her Mother Superior, Sister Annamaria returned the telephone and sat back.
“Well?” he asked.
“May I ask who you are?” she said.
“My title is His Magnificence, the Emir Mahmoud Abdullah. I am the absolute ruler of this country.”
“I am instructed to take up your offer, but that it had better be real.”
“I assure you that it is wholly real. I think I have a child genius on my hands and I intend to nurture that genius. Would you like to meet her, and your colleagues?”
As they walked into the harem proper, Sister Annamaria was shocked to see the near nudity of the women, dressed as they were in short satin dressing-gowns, reaching only to the tops of their thighs and without any buttons or belt to hold them closed below a collar button. Other than that she could see that they were completely naked, not even wearing slippers.
Watching her reaction, the Emir thought she took it well. He was amused by the women’s reaction to the nun’s dress, a severely cut dark grey suit with the skirt well below the knee, over a high-necked simple white blouse, and with her hair held in a severe wimple.
Addressing nobody in particular he said, “Sister Annamaria is here to teach the children scientific subjects. Please make her welcome. She will not be staying in the harem, but will soon have her own house.”
A quiet buzz of surprise greeted his last sentence, and those few women who recognised the title and the clothing she wore wondered how a nun from a teaching order had strayed as far as Kobekistan.
The author has asserted moral rights under sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between any of the characters depicted herein and any real person, living or dead is wholly a matter of Nature imitating Art.