I Was Sold on the Slave Block
by ‘Treadwell Martin’
as told to Harry Harrison (1956)
I tried to turn aside, but the guard behind me twisted the chain until the handcuffs bit into my wrists. He pushed me forward. The sharp edge of the platform cut into my ankles and I stumbled and almost fell. I received a blow on the head for my clumsiness and was barely conscious of being dragged forward. The auctioneer’s harsh voice ground into my ears as he addressed the prospective buyers. A hard-faced Arab in the front row leaned forward and prodded my leg muscles, the way a livestock buyer would examine a horse.
The whole scene seemed unreal and ancient like an illustration from Arabian Nights, a slave market right out of the dark ages, complete with smoking lamps, Arab buyers and chained rows of slaves. But this wasn’t history – it was happening right now in the year 1954, and it was happening to me.
I was being sold on the block as a slave.
Most American Negroes, like myself, are only three or four generations removed from slavery. My great-grandfather was a slave, but I know I never think of it any more than an American of Russian descent worries about his grandfather being a serf. We forget that there are parts of the world where people live just as they did 1,000 years ago. Places where there are only the very poor and the very rich, where people can he sold like cattle.
In the United States we like to think of the world as a civilized place, where things like torture and slavery are a part of the past. Anyone who has looked at the reports of the U. N. Economic and Social Committee knows that isn’t true. In Yemen and Saudi Arabia slavery is a flourishing business. It’s called the ‘Ebony Market,’ a secret business that every year deals in thousands of helpless people. The prices run from $570 to $1,I50 for men. Women are usually a bit more expensive.
When I first came to Lebanon I had never heard of modern slavery. I had been with the Fifth Army in Italy and had gone to school on the GI Bill after the war. For a while I was just drifting from one thing to another when I heard through a friend about a job in Lebanon. It seems there is an American University there, in Beirut, and they were looking for a laboratory assistant. I had only a faint idea where Lebanon was, but the idea appealed to me. A change of scene, the chance for a little excitement. I applied for the job and they signed me on. A week later I was on ship outward bound for Port Said.
I killed about three days in Egypt, seeing all the sights, before the next ship sailed for Beirut. This was the El Faisal, a rusty Mediterranean tramp that could do about four knots under forced draft. It gasped its way along the coast and finally landed me in Beirut.
Work in the Institute was easy and I had plenty of free time. The people here are Moslems, which means that they are thumbs down on alcoholic drinks. This doesn’t mean there are no bars, but they operate only by paying fat bribes to the police. They are pretty tough joints, but that’s what makes them interesting. In the evenings I usually wound up in one of these: sitting at a corner table with my back to the wall, and sipping arak.
My friends at the University tried to talk me out of this, but I have always been able to take care of myself pretty well. I had already been involved in a couple of fights, but I found out that a right hook will take the argument out of most people.
It was a Saturday night and I was at a run-down hole called Fatima’s. Fatima herself sat at the change drawer, cursing more than usual at the waiters as she wiped the sweat out of the folds in her fat neck. The sirocco had been blowing for two days. That’s the hot wind from the desert. The place was like an oven and tempers were drawn thin. I was drinking my arak – cool stuff, but damn potent. My feet were stretched out in front of me and I was just beginning to forget the heat when a sharp-faced Arab tripped over my shoes. There was murder in his little pig eyes when he cursed at me. His hand was inside his burnoose, evidently holding a knife. I speak enough Arabic to get around and I know all the curse words, so I told him what he could do. This made him so angry I thought he would swell up and explode, but his friend whispered something to him that I didn’t catch. He glared at me for a moment more, then the two of them turned and walked out
If I hadn’t been half-potted I would have paid more attention to the quiet that fell over the place and the look on Fatima’s face. Evidently the sharp-faced boy was some local bigshot sheikh something-or-other. By the time I left I had completely forgotten about the incident. I had walked about a block from the bar when I heard the soft sound of running feet behind me. I only time to half turn, to get a quick glimpse of the man from the bar, when something hard and heavy landed on the back my neck. I was out before I hit ground.
You don’t get over a blow like that right away. I remember waking up a while later. It was still dark and I was bouncing around on the floor of a truck. I must have passed out again because the next thing I was aware of was the sun burning into my eyes. It was shining through a crack. I turned my head to get away from the light and groaned out loud as the pain in my neck hit me. With the combination of the blow and a hangover I was foggy as to what had happened. I lay still with eyes closed until the pain ebbed away a bit and my memory of the night before came back.
Somebody had slugged me, then dumped me into a truck – but where had I been taken? I was lying on what felt like a dirt floor, next to a wall of rough planks. There were other men here too; I turned my head, carefully this time, and saw outlines of many backs. The man sitting next to me moved a bit. Something clinked and I glanced down and saw that his wrists were chained together. My own arms felt strangely heavy. I raised my own hands. They were in chains.
The whole thing had a nightmare feel about it, but I knew it was real enough. My head had never ached like this in a dream. In no dream could I have smelled the fear that hung over the crowded bodies of the men.
I became aware that the man next to me was watching me now. He was big and he looked like he had been in a fight. His burnoose was tom away; there were ugly cuts filled with dried blood on his arm and chest. His green turban was pushed to one side. My throat was dry. I had to swallow a few times before I could get out a few words of Arabic.
“Where am I? … What’s happened?”
He looked carefully around before he answered.
“We are near some town in Bisri Valley. I think it is Mu’ad Ajdal. As to what has happened – ” he stopped and I could see the muscles on his jaw stand out in anger – “we have been captured by slave traders! It is hopeless.”
The man chained next to me was named Awad. He had been returning from his pilgrimage to Mecca; he touched the tips of his fingers to his heart and lips as he spoke the name of the holy city. Many of his people had never returned from the long journey to Mecca and many were the stories told of the slave traders who preyed on the helpless pilgrims. He had scoffed at the dangers and made the trip, since he and his companions were well-armed and would have been safe if the caravan master had not betrayed them. The caravan master had let the slavers into the camp and the pilgrims had all been captured while they slept, then brought to this filthy place.
I had heard a lot of whispered stories about slave trading in Beirut and never really believed them. They had sounded too much like ‘tourist’ stories, the sort of big lie with which the natives entertained gullible travelers. Now, I knew they were true, but it was too late for the knowledge to do me any good. I was just another slave.
There was a rattling of chains from the single wooden door set into the mud wall, and I could bear a heavy bolt being pulled back. When the door swung open, the wave of brilliant sunlight burned into my eyes. I shielded them with my arm, just able to make out the figure of a man in the doorway. He wore an odd combination of European and Arab dress: jodphurs and high English riding boots, but with a burnoose over his head and shoulders. I stumbled towards him, anxious to get out.
“There’s been a big mistake made here – I’m an American. When the university finds out that I am missing they will cause a lot of trouble. You had better…”
My words died in the middle of a sentence. The man in the doorway was smiling and had half turned so the light hit his face. It was the man from Fatima’s, the one I’d had the argument with. He spoke in sibilant English mocking my clumsy Arabic.
“Ah yes, an American dressed in American clothes. But if we remove your fine clothes – ” his hand lashed out and tore my shirt – “tear off these fine clothes, you become just another man. You will be sold to some hill sheikh far from the coast where you never hear your language spoken again. The authorities may look for you for a time, but be assured you will never be found.”
He was shouting before he finished, his face knotted with anger. There was a coiled whip in his hand and he lashed out suddenly, striking me across the face with the butt. I fell back, my face burning like fire, then jumped forward shouting with anger. He laughed at me and slammed the door in my face. There was nothing I could do; I was trapped.
We spent the rest of the day locked in the building. They didn’t feed us, but there was a pail of stagnant water in one corner. I drank one dipper of the bitter stuff and poured another over my head. It helped a bit, but my skull still ached. There was nothing to do now except wait; I leaned against the wall and fell into a troubled sleep.
It was after dark when the sound of loud shouting woke me up. The door was open now and a man with a rifle stood in front of it. The prisoners in the room were being taken out three at a time. They didn’t return. My turn came soon. I was dragged to my feet and forced out into a hall. There was another door about 30 feet further down that opened into a high-ceilinged room. We were pushed onto a rough platform at the end and we stared out at the men who filled the room. They were all Arabs, rich ones from the look of their silk burnooses and jeweled rings.
The auctioneer was a burly man with heavy-lidded eyes and a raw- temper. One of the guards pushed me forward and his hand darted out like a striking snake, clutching at my neck. I started to raise my hands to break his grip but his fingers contracted like a vise. He knew how to grab a man and hurt him because his thumb clamped down on a nerve and pain shot through my body. I was helpless; I could only stand there limp while he shook me like a rag doll and called to the crowd of buyers.
It was like a cattle auction. He tore the rest of my shirt oft and let them see my arm muscles and pulled back my lips to show that my teeth were in good, shape. The guards pulled me off the platform and forced me into a different room than the one from which I had taken. I collapsed on the floor where they dropped me. I was no longer a man; I was a slave who had been sold for $850.
It was anger that finally brought me around. Anger at myself for giving in to these filthy slavers as if I were an ignorant savage instead of a civilized man. There had to he a way out – and I was going to find it.
The room was 20 feet by 40 feet, with a partition of heavy wire down the middle. On my side of the wire were four other men; on the other side were six women. While I watched, a door there was opened and another woman pushed in. There was only one guard with her and his pistol was in the holster. The germ of a plan formed in my mind.
I had to get the chains off my arms first. I held them up to the light and gave them a closer examination. They were obviously of native manufacture, heavy chains and a thick lock with a large keyhole. A lock like that can hold a savage, but not a guy with any kind of mechanical knowledge. All I needed was a piece of thin metal to pick it. The wire barrier – it was old and had broken in a few places – had what I needed.
I moved over casually and sat against it, my fingers working a strand of wire back and forth until it broke. it was the work of a moment to force the wire into the keyhole and work it back and forth until the lock clipped open.
My hands were free. I used the chains for a tool now, wrapping them around the wire of the barrier, one piece of wire at a time, then twisting until the wire snapped. The other slaves were too far sunk in despair to care what I was doing. I worked as fast and as quietly as I could until I had made an opening big enough for my body. Holding the sharp ends back, I wriggled through and a moment later I was on the women’s side of the barrier.
They pulled away from me, frightened, trying to cover their nakedness with the torn rags of their clothes. I whispered to them not to fear, that in return for their help in escaping I would notify the authorities and have them freed.
One of them, a lovely young girl no more than 16 years old, came forward shaking her head sadly. “Death will be the only escape for us; there is no other way out. If you wish to try, I will help you, but I do not think it will succeed.”
I took whatever clothing they could spare, a headcloth from one, a veil from another. It wasn’t a very effective disguise, but I hoped it would pass in the dim light. I sat against the wall, holding the chains as if they were still on my wrists, and prayed that the guards would take the women out first.
About an hour passed this way, though it seemed like ten, then there was a rattling at the door near me. The guard threw it open and motioned us out. I kept my head lowered and hunched over so he wouldn’t notice my height. He was a new guard, which helped, since he didn’t know many women should have been in room. When we were all out, he locked the door and herded us down the hall. Another door opened into a courtyard and I saw freedom.
There was a truck waiting to load the women, the driver sat in the cab idling the motor. Next to the truck stood one of the wealthy Arabs, evidently the purchaser, paying money to the booted slave master who had captured me. My heart was pounding as we shuffled nearer, but I forced myself to wait until we were at the truck. Then I made my move.
I ran toward the front of the truck. The surprised look on the slaver’s face turned to fear as my hands came up. There was no time to be polite; I used the chains like a flail, swinging them full into his face. He screamed and fell.
I was past them before they hit the ground, The cab door jerked open in my hands and the driver looked down at me, too surprised to think. I never gave him a second chance. I locked both hands on his arm and pulled. As he pitched face first into the dust I landed on the seat and jammed the truck into gear; it jumped forward just as I beard the first gunshot.
Something whizzed past my head and crashed through the windshield. I flicked the high beam on the headlights with my foot and saw that there was only one opening in the walled courtyard, and this was closed with a wooden gate. An Arab with a rifle stood in front of the, waving to me to stop. He just managed to leap aside as the truck charged down on him. I threw my arm over my eyes as the bumper crashed into the wood, but my foot was still jammed on the accelerator. There was a tremendous crash
the gate went down, the truck bumped over the fragments. About a mile
the road were the lights of a town; I headed towards them.
It took a while to convince the police that I wasn’t drunk. They only began believe me when they found leg irons in the back of the truck. By the time I led them back to the building it was completely empty.
I was taken back to Beirut and there were many official apologies. That was the last I beard of the whole matter. Apparently the slavers made a clean getaway.
On the courtyard dirt, where they had fallen, I found the chains, that had been on my wrists. I picked them up. I still have them hanging on the wall of my room. They remind me that in many ways the world still isn’t the place that it appears to be.
First published in Male (vol.6, no.4), April 1956, p.28-29, 74-76
Thanks to Phil Stephenson-Payne who sent me a scan of this one.