At once a muballir* on his left opened a copy of the Koran on a cushion on his lap and began to read from it in a nasal singsong. There were various degrees of devoutness, and even of inattention shown by those who listened. Some knelt and prostrated themselves. Others, including Anazeh, sat bolt upright, closing their eyes dreamily at intervals. Over the way, Jim Suliman ben Saoud Grim was especially formally devout. His very life undoubtedly depended on being recognized as a fanatic of fanatics. [A Moslem priest who recites prayers.]
But there were three Christian sheikhs in the room. One of them opposite me pulled out a Bible and laid it on the carpet as a sort of challenge to the Koran. It was probably a dangerous thing to do, although most Moslems respect the Bible as a very sacred book. The manner in which it was done suggested deliberate effort to provoke a quarrel.
Mahommed ben Hamza, dividing his time like a schoolboy in chapel between staring about him and attending by fits and starts, nudged me in the ribs and whispered:
“See that Christian! He would not dare do that, only on this occasion they like to think that Moslems and Christians are agreeing together.”
The man who was reading to himself from the Bible looked up and caught my eye. He tapped the book with his finger and nodded, as much as to ask why I did not join him. At once I pulled my own from my pocket. He smiled acknowledgment as I opened it at random. Certainly he thought I did it to support his tactlessly ill-timed assertion of his own religion. Very likely my action, since I was a guest and therefore not to be insulted, saved him from violence. Incipient snarls of fanatical indignation died away.
But as a matter of fact my eye was on Jim Suliman ben Saoud Grim. As the reading from the Koran came to an end amid a murmur of responses from all the sheikhs, the crooked-faced Ichwan sat upright. In his sullen, indifferent way, he stared leisurely along the line until his eyes rested on me.
As his eyes met mine I marked the place where the Bible was open with a pencil, and closed the book, suspecting that he might be glad to know where a pencil could be found in a contingency.
He did not smile. The expression of his face barely changed. Just for a second I thought I saw a flicker of amused approval pass over the corners of his eyes and mouth.
So I left the book lying where it was with the pencil folded in it.
“He will say next that it was he who set the stars in the sky over El-Kerak, and makes the moon rise!”
Ali Shah al Khassib was the first to speak. He was heard to the end respectfully, none interrupting. But it seemed obvious from their faces that not a few sheikhs were disposed to question both his leadership and most of what he said. Mahommed ben Hamza kept up a running whisper of interpretation, breathing into my ear until it was wet with condensed breath. I had to use a handkerchief repeatedly.