The Jewel Trader of Pegu: A Novelby Jeffrey Hantover
In the autumn of 1598, Abraham, a melancholy young Jewish gem merchant, seeks his fortune far from the imprisoning ghetto walls of Venice. Traveling halfway across the world, he lands in the lush and exotic Burmese kingdom of Pegu—an alien place, yet one where the jewel trader is not shunned for his faith. There is a price for his newfound freedom, however.… See more details below
In the autumn of 1598, Abraham, a melancholy young Jewish gem merchant, seeks his fortune far from the imprisoning ghetto walls of Venice. Traveling halfway across the world, he lands in the lush and exotic Burmese kingdom of Pegu—an alien place, yet one where the jewel trader is not shunned for his faith. There is a price for his newfound freedom, however. Local custom demands that Abraham perform a duty he finds troubling and barbaric . . . and thus Mya, barely more than a girl, arrives to share his bed. Gently banishing his despair, awakening something profound within him, Mya ultimately accepts Abraham's protection and, unexpectedly, his love. But great social and political upheaval threatens to violently transform the Peguan empire—with devastating consequences for Abraham and Mya and their dreams for the future.
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The Jewel Trader of Pegu
27 September 1598
I long to wake up on solid ground. The halcyon nests calmly on the waves, but I was born for the stones of our Most Serene City.
You should soon receive a large pouch of letters that I gave to Mordecai Halevi of Mantua, whose niece you know. Since leaving Masulipatnam, I have not encountered any Italian, Gentile, or Israelite with whom I could entrust my letters. Though it may be a year before you read this letter, writing it bears me closer to home. Like a lodestone, my words draw me back to where my heart desires to be. I live in two worlds: the world where I am, whether it be a bark floating down the Euphrates or this ship riding the waves in the Bay of Bengal, and the world where I wish to be, safe among kin and community. During the day I try to imagine where you might be at that hour. In the early morning as I watch the sails being hoisted to catch the wind, I see you dragging your feet slowly across the Campiello della Scuola and rubbing the sleep from your eyes on your way to the synagogue. In the early evening when the light fades, I think of you slapping your thigh to count the beat, calling out to youth more awkward than I the graceful steps of the galliard. Or unrepentant, are you slipping away to find pleasure in a forbidden bed?
Uncle will be proud that I have tried, as he instructed when we were young, to write a letter a day. I imagine those daily letters that traveled but a few feet from my bedroom to his eased him quickly to sleep with their dull depiction of days repetitive and uneventful. I could not twist andtwirl words with his dexterity nor lather my thoughts with allusions so rich and layered that a second letter would be required to make clear the first. If my letters now show some spark, it comes less from my skills as a humble servant of words and more from the strangeness of the world that lies beyond the Lagoon. I have seen enough wonders to turn the Grand Canal black with ink.
I turned twenty-eight at sea, a fact I kept to myself because it was no cause for celebration, especially among strangers with whom I have no history. Well over a year has passed since this journey began and we were together. Though now two years older than you, when I return I should be much more your elder cousin, as I am told one ages rapidly in these climes.
There are still no other Israelites on the ship, but my treatment has been agreeable. Some barely speak to me; but I take no offense because I think perhaps they fear the effort and influx of air may trouble even more their churning stomachs. There are a few, closer to home, whose eyes betray all the ancient fears. Yet for now we Europeans are equal—strangers made one by our discomfort and our hopes for shore and home. Equal in the amusement we provide the Gujaratis, Malays, Siamese, Peguans, and all the other brown-faced heathens aboard; and, if I could understand their tongues, equal, I imagine, in their disdain. We are, in their eyes, big-nosed, hairy barbarians, loud, clumsy, lacking in their quiet grace. Perhaps, cousin, if they saw you dancing the ballo del fiore, they might reconsider a portion of their prejudice and ridicule, but only a portion—you too would be lumped a barbarian with us all, Gentiles and Israelites. I have had to travel half a world away, but triumph at last: though my legs may wobble with the waves, I stand an equal to the Gentiles.
I know you would not be at ease among these heathens. You are happy where you are and were honest in saying that you would never journey so long and so far from all you have ever known. Even Uncle chuckled when you said you could not imagine living among strangers who would not smile when you entered the room or laugh at your jokes. I remember your impatience when Jacob Levi loudly boasted that he was ready for adventure and would gladly leave the next day in my place. You silenced him, perhaps a bit too sharply, saying he knew full well that tomorrow would find him safely at his father's side, under the blue awning of their pawnshop, and his only adventure would be flipping through the pages of the pledge book.
We hug the coast like a child his mother and put into harbor at the least sign of bad weather. North up the Bengal coast and now south along the coast of Burma—you can trace my journey on Uncle's map. Yesterday we lay becalmed near a headland thick with tall palms. The sailors stood upon the deck facing the stiff, lifeless palms and whistled for the wind. I guess they believed this would get the ear of their gods. At first they whistled softly, like aunts cooing over a baby. Then they stamped their bare feet on the deck and between shrill whistles cursed the heavens, or so it seemed by their bulging eyes and grimaces. Their gods remained deaf—or simply lazy.
In the ship's hold, among the tightly packed boxes of cloth we bought in Surat, is red Gujarati cotton I am told the Peguans value highly because the more it is washed the redder it becomes. How nature seems to reverse itself in this part of the world. Soon I shall find a people who are born old and grow younger with each passing year. I have seen on my long journey people who behave in ways fit for the asylum. I have seen people who bow down to cows and paint their houses with the cows' dung, and beggars, thought holy as saints, walking naked in the market, their fingernails long as knife blades, their uncut beards and hair covering their privates. Until you sail beyond the Mediterranean, you have not seen the fullness of humanity.The Jewel Trader of Pegu
A Novel. Copyright © by Jeffrey Hantover. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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