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Archaeology: Twelve Miniatures

Picture 

 

Adam has just tasted the forbidden fruit; he’s bitten into the apple and he’s condemned to roll it in his mouth for eternity. His mouth, wide open, is bitter. The gigantic size of the apple matches in scale the enormity of the sin. The same colour as the apple, a flower. Looked at closely, this flower is a face. What face? Sisyphus, who’s generally reduced in the mind’s eye, wrongly, to a stubborn boulder, was a crafty man, so crafty that the wordsmiths have claimed he was the father of Ulysses. Wily, twisting, labyrinthine, craftiness evokes nets, laces, snares, knots. And indeed, Sisyphus succeeded in chaining Thanatos who’d come to escort him to the kingdom of the dead. 

 

He’s the only mortal to have succeeded at this unheard-of exploit: cheating Death, ensnaring him, reducing him to powerlessness, to such a degree that the Immortals, jealous of their privilege, come to Death’s rescue and set him free. On a corner of the apple, a squirrel… no, a hobgoblin… or rather, a bird. It’s indifferent to the torments of Adam-Sisyphus and the symbolic implications of this picture. 

 

Indifferent, too, to the spectator. 

 

*

 

The Black Mantle 

 

After killing the Minotaur, Theseus succeeded in getting out of the labyrinth thanks to the thread of Ariadne – Ariadne whom he would abandon (the ungrateful wretch!) on a desert island.

 

These days, the labyrinth is empty and silent.

 

All the same, the shadow of the Minotaur floats there, disconsolate and threatening – all in vain. The shadow yearns to be set free, but it doesn’t know how to leave this sinister place and rejoin the kingdom of the dead. So it continues to wander, without respite, in the inextricability of the labyrinth. From time to time, it knocks into other shadows, those of its victims. 

 

On Olympus, the gods, gathered together on the occasion of a banquet, turn to Thanatos and ask him why he did he not escort the Minotaur to Hell. Wrapped in his black mantle, Thanatos timidly lowers his eyes and does not answer.

 

So the gods leave with a huge burst of laughter. They’ve understood: the god of death didn’t seek out the shadow of the Minotaur, because he was afraid that he, too, wouldn’t be able to leave the labyrinth and would remain a prisoner there for all eternity.

 

*

 

‘Upright, like a Stylite’

 

In the fifth century, Simeon invented a new form of asceticism, an original way of cutting oneself off from the world. Rather than burying himself in desert solitudes, as was the custom among hermits of his time, he climbed to the top of a column and refused to come down. For 37 years he remained there, standing firm despite the rigours of sun, wind and rain and the vagaries of heart and soul.

 

People came to visit him, even from very far away, to see how he was getting along and to check for themselves that his resolve was firm. They would settle at the foot of the column and the street sellers would spread out on the ground all manner of victuals, jumbled up with various cult objects. They took pity on him, they teased him, they threw figs, oranges and hard-boiled eggs at him. Some, judging his attitude to be unreasonable, tried to put him off; in reality, they were jealous and hoped to see him give up and lose his wager. Others, apparently more amiable, told him to be careful, especially while he was sleeping. But deep down, they wouldn’t have been disappointed to witness a spectacular fall.

 

He was canonised under the name of Saint Simeon Stylites and had numerous imitators, beginning with his son Simeon the Younger. He also had literary descendants: Franz Kafka’s acrobat, who didn’t ever want to come down from his trapeze; and Italo Calvino’s baron in the trees, who spent his life perched among the branches (the women he loved came to join him in the midst of the foliage). In cinema, we could cite Amarcord and Very Happy Alexander. Numerous, however, were the disciples of Saint Simeon who had never even heard of him. For instance, the character (evoked in the tenth century in The Reasonable Madmen by Abul-Qasim Nissabouri) who, until his death, lived standing on one leg on the roof of his own house. More interesting still is an eleventh-century grammarian named Abul Hasan of Basra: having one day seen a cat carrying food to a fellow cat who was blind, he renounced grammar altogether and, shunning the world, moved into a cell at the top of a mosque (nothing more is known of this story). He fell and died, his bones smashed to bits. Less rash, Simeon Stylites had his column fitted with a guard rail.

 

*

 

 Charismatic Powers

 

Hagiographic works tell stories, giving a great number of details, about miracles performed by saints. But a lofty genre inevitably gives rise to caricature (Greek tragedies were followed by a parody). On his deathbed, Don Quixote renounces romances of chivalry, regretting that time has run out for him to read ‘other books, which would be the light of the soul’. It’s not impossible that what he had in mind was hagiographic literature. What would Cervantes’s novel be, had his hero tried to imitate not knights, but saints? 

 

This story might give us a clue: 

 

A certain Abu Ali al-Sharmaqani (also eleventh century), saved from oblivion by chroniclers because he was an excellent reciter of the Qur’an, used to sustain himself on lettuce that grew on the banks of the Tigris. Saints, as we know, had special dietary requirements: to fulfil their asceticism, mortify the body and assist communion between the soul and God, they fasted for long periods, or else just ate weeds. But Abu Ali did not share this ambition; he ate lettuce either for want of anything better, or because he was completely destitute. Having learned this, his master talked to the vizier who, touched by compassion, ordered one of his servants to feed the Qur’anic reciter properly.

 

Since alms are more agreeable to God when offered with discretion, the servant secretly obtained a copy of the key to the cupboard in the mosque reserved for Abu Ali and, every day, left a chicken, white bread in abundance and sweetmeats. By and by, Abu Ali imagined he must have been granted divine favour, that the food he found in his cupboard was miraculous and came from paradise.

 

He had no doubt read hagiographic works in which miracles are common currency, and he believed he’d achieved sainthood. This inspired in him great joy, which he nonetheless compelled himself to hide: he knew very well that saints avoid disclosing their charismatic powers, so as not to succumb to temptation and risk forfeiting God’s solicitude towards them. But how to keep silent? How to resist the solicitations of vanity? Torn in two opposing directions, split between the obligation to keep quiet and the temptation to speak, Abu Ali opted for a compromise: allusion, insinuation. He behaved peculiarly, reciting verses of mystical contrivance which precisely emphasised, to anyone willing to listen, the restraint that must be observed regarding the Beloved. In short, he wanted the world to know he was jealously guarding a secret. This wasn’t really a problem, since in mystical literature secrets weren’t out of the ordinary. But what really gave him away was his body which, thanks to his new diet, was ballooning before everyone’s eyes. 

 

All this ended up exasperating his master. Even though he knew the whole story, he said nothing, out of consideration for the vizier, and so as not to claim credit for his role in bettering the fate of his disciple. One day, when he could stand it no longer, he pretended to be surprised at how plump his disciple had indeed become – as a way of putting him to the test. Then Abu Ali revealed his ‘secret’. Not a wise decision: the master, whose patience had run out, revealed to him the truth. Abu Ali was seriously put out. 

 

The same misadventure could have befallen Don Quixote. But with a twist: he would have openly adopted his role as saint right from the start and would have refused to play hide-and-seek. The ‘truth’ would have had no effect on him, and would certainly not have rattled him. As for his friends, dismayed by his stubbornness at not seeing the obvious, and to amuse themselves, they would have redoubled their subterfuge with a view to flattering his delusions and encouraging his madness. On his deathbed, he would have renounced hagiography and regretted not having dedicated his life to romances of chivalry.

 

*

 

The Other Scene

 

Every night, the inhabitants of a town in Idumea – perhaps the one evoked by Stéphane Mallarmé in one of his poems: ‘I bring you the offspring of a night in Idumea!’?– used to round up the beggars, vagabonds, performing artistes and foreigners and cast them out beyond the ramparts. At dawn, they would let them back in again. Commentators today are at a loss as to the meaning of this strange habit. What astonishes them most is this: at night, the inhabitants of this town in Idumea, known as Hostileville (this contradicts the deeper meaning of Mallarmé’s poem, actually entitled The Poem’s Gift), would come together on the ramparts to attend the scenes of murder, rape and horror taking place beneath them in the darkness. 

 

However, certain chroniclers report a different version: that it was in order to give themselves up freely to debauchery that the inhabitants of Hostileville drove out foreigners. Who, as a result, can’t get a wink of sleep: all night long they’re deafened by the echoes of orgies, organised under the shelter of the ramparts. Not true, retort the citizens of Hostileville: the foreigners are only pouring forth the confused stuff of their dreams.

 

*

 

The Shadowfolk 

 

It’s not uncommon, in the Thousand and One Nights, for people to ask other people, met with in some far distant region, whether they are humans or demons. They answer that they’re human, not failing to add, ‘But as for you, you are most certainly demons…’ And so, on one side and on the other the suspicion about demonic nature exists, a suspicion which verbal exchange admittedly soon brushes away. 

 

The same isn’t quite the case in a mysterious passage from the Travels of Ibn Battuta, in which the Land of Shadows is at issue. To reach it from the ‘city of Bolghar’, writes the astonishing fourteenth-century globetrotter, requires walking for 40 days in the midst of snow, on a sledge drawn by dogs. You orient yourself thanks to the leading dog who guides the pack and whose role is of primary importance; but it’s also imperative, at the moment when the food supplies are distributed, that the animals eat before the men, the leading dog first, otherwise he’ll become angry and take off, abandoning the men who, deprived of their bearings, are condemned to certain death.

 

Ibn Battuta himself hadn’t ventured into this dark region, reckoning that there was scarcely much profit to be drawn from it. He judged the adventure only in commercial terms – investment, benefits… But what did he have to offer this country? What did he have to exchange with the inhabitants? All in all, what profit did he draw from all his travels, if not for a book which he dictated late in the day, when he was far from imagining the extraordinary fortune that it would gain later?

 

So it’s only from hearsay that he talks of the Shadowlands. The merchants, he says, once they’ve reached their destination, deposit what they’ve brought and then withdraw. The following day, they return to the place and find, next to what they’ve left, other merchandise, deposited by strange creatures who never show themselves. They can then either accept the exchange, or take back their goods and leave the area.

 

It’s worth noticing that trust reigns between the two parties, each one honouring the contract honestly: everybody ultimately gets their due and there’s no evidence of a complaint or an altercation on record. The visitors are dealing with very discreet partners, for whom gold and silver have no currency, and whose economic system depends on barter. It is they who fix the value of the merchandise on offer to them; all in silence, without sound or fury; not a single word exchanged, nor a single face glimpsed.

 

It isn’t known how this silent system of communication was established. Whereas the merchants travel 40 days – and what a significant number that is! – before reaching their appointed destination, nothing is known about the movements of their shadowy partners. Do they live just over the border, calmly minding their own business, or have they themselves also come from afar in order to meet – assuming that is indeed the appropriate word – the visitors? To tell the truth, we have no precise knowledge about them, except that they sustain themselves on the produce of hunting and that animal skins provide their clothes. No doubt they haven’t a notion about agriculture: what could grow well in those wildernesses of ice? How was the border established? For there definitely is one, admittedly not officially fixed, but the result of an implicit pact. Rigorously respected, this border isn’t crossed, either in one direction or the other. If no ban has been expressly issued, the ban is in force in people’s consciousness. Nowhere has it been reported that a merchant, impelled either by curiosity or greed, may have slipped in among the Shadowfolk. Suppose he managed to pick them out in the darkness? They’d distance themselves and, knowing the lie of the land – since they’re on home ground – make him take complicated detours and easily shake him off. Alone in the darkness, without support or the possibility of going back, he will be turning round and round, wedded to blindness and trespass.

 

They won’t give him a single chance to turn back, for fear that he may reveal their jealously guarded secrets. Anyhow, they’ve an effective way of fighting off invaders: if the latter take it upon themselves to arrive in force, the Shadowfolk can kill their dogs and condemn them to wander forever.

 

They don’t tolerate any relations with foreigners; they insist on staying among themselves, without mingling. As nobody has seen them or had the opportunity to speak to them, their identity remains uncertain. Are they humans or demons? Ibn Battuta asks himself. But other questions come to mind. Do they conceal themselves because their ugliness is repulsive, or, on the other hand, because they are so beautiful they fear they might lose their brilliance, that by mixing with others, they might be blighted and decay? Are they half beasts, half men, like the populations of Gog and Magog that Horned Alexander confined to their mountains, according to the Qur’an, when he built a dyke that could not be crossed?

 

What is sure is that they wish neither to be seen, nor to be heard. They keep quiet, but they listen. They listen because they keep quiet. Have they taken a vow of silence? Or are they incapable of uttering a single word, indeed – but that is unlikely – of crying out? Perhaps they deny themselves speech in order not to reveal a weak spot and fall to the mercies of the merchants, who would then exploit them and strip them clean. Their attitude rather reminds one of those monkeys who, according to an old tradition, refused to speak in order not to be reduced to slavery.

 

But the greatest likelihood is that they don’t speak so that they will not be seen! As long as they don’t utter a single word, they’re shielded from sight, they’re protected. In fact, they do communicate, and it is for that reason that they demand that their visitors – but how did they get this message across to them? – withdraw after depositing their merchandise. You must not hear them, you must not see or hear them, you have never seen them, not even as furtive shadows in the midst of the ice (lovers of Tintin will inevitably think of the Yeti, the Abominable Snowman). Living at the ends of the earth, perpetual night protects them from all foreign incursions. Their territory is inaccessible, but it must be understood that for their part, they forbid themselves from engaging with the one opposite. 

 

 You do not see them, but they, they see. By dint of living in the shadows, they have acquired a special optical skill, they see and are not seen: an enviable position. Nearby and faraway alike, they preserve their mystery completely. If they keep strangers at a distance, it’s because they are warned by their instincts that proximity and familiarity are the source of misunderstandings, friction and acts of violence. From what it appears, they’re afraid of no longer remaining themselves, of losing their identity – which is perhaps nothing other than the mystery which envelops them.

 

But aren’t they deceiving themselves in thinking that by limiting the exchange to material goods and refusing to barter goods of another kind they come forearmed? In exchange for skins of marten and sable, squirrel and ermine, they receive foreign merchandise, the nature of which is not mentioned – foodstuffs, fabrics, tools? – merchandise undoubtedly haunted by the spirit of the strangers and imprinted with their consciousness.

 

This concession is doubtless not without consequences for them. It is hard to imagine that they lack curiosity and aren’t interested in the visitors. Perhaps they’re constantly in the process of waiting for them, watching out for their arrival, and that this is even their main occupation. Aren’t they afraid that they’ll no longer see them coming back, and, when they’re late in making an appearance, aren’t they tempted to set out to look for them? Don’t they organise a party, rejoicing, when they see that at last they have come back?

 

Furthermore, are they all agreed about not showing themselves? It does seem to be the case, no infringement having been recorded. But the young ones, don’t they ask themselves why they have to be content with waiting for the merchants, why they don’t go out likewise towards them? What do their elders answer? How do they explain the decision to live in hiding, what history, what foundation myth do they invoke to support their behaviour?

 

The reality is, murmur the oldest among the Shadowfolk, that it is the strangers who, refusing to make contact or communicate in any way, have established this strange and silent system of exchange. It has not been recorded that they’ve made an overture to the Shadowfolk. It is they who don’t want to show themselves and disdain any relation other than mercantile: furtively, they come to deposit their merchandise at the border, withdraw speedily, and come back the following day to take the precious animal skins. It isn’t out of respect, or out of shyness, that they don’t cross the border, but from lack of interest. And it is this indifference that disturbs the Shadowfolk who, in their immense ice-bound exile, wait for those across the way, humans or demons, to make the first step and come towards them.

 

*

 

Couples

 

 A woman called Asma lost her husband, Arus, whom she loved (Arus means the fiancé, the bridegroom). She remained inconsolable. All the same, a short while later she agreed to marry again. On the day her new spouse came to find her, he noticed in her house a perfume flask and he begged her to bring it with her but she replied, ‘After Arus, there’s to be no more perfume!’  This retort became a proverb. 

 

Another woman loathed her old husband so much she asked him to repudiate her. Put on the spot, he did just that (this took place in the summer season). A little while later, she came to request a little milk. He replied, ‘This summer, you lost the milk!’ This rejoinder became a proverb, too. 

 

As much as I love the first story, I detest the second. However the latter, according to a forgotten version, has a comforting sequel. Having suffered the refusal of her former husband, the woman stroked the shoulder of her new one (in between, she had married a young man) and said, ‘This one, even milk-less, is much better!’ This saying also passed into proverbial speech. 

 

*

 

Osiris

 

The vizier Al-Kunduri was charged by the Seljuq sultan Tughril (the eleventh-century champion of Sunni orthodoxy) with the task of asking, in the sultan’s name, for the hand in marriage of a princess from Khwarazm. Treacherously taking advantage of the situation, Kunduri married the princess himself. We shouldn’t forget that Tristan, with respect to Mark of Cornwall, was guilty of a similar act of treachery. It’s true that Kunduri didn’t have the excuse of a love potion, but the extraordinary beauty of the princess was more powerful than any magic. Her charms must already have been described to him; or perhaps he had glanced furtively at her from behind a curtain. In The Ring of the Dove, written around the same time, Ibn Hazm of Cordoba notes that when it comes to affairs of the heart, we cannot be wary enough of the messenger. 

 

The sultan didn’t kill Kunduri; in his clemency he just castrated him and kept him on as vizier.

 

According to another version, Kunduri didn’t marry the princess at all. Instead, having learnt that his enemies were spreading rumours about how he lusted after her, he got scared and, to save his own life, castrated himself. Then, the better to highlight his own subservience and return to the sultan’s favour, he also shaved off his beard – another symbol of virility (those on whom this punishment was inflicted used to hide themselves away until the hairs had grown back). 

 

Later on, the sultan ordered the vizier’s beheading. When the executioner announced his arrival at Kunduri’s house, he bid farewell to his family (which amounted to only one daughter). Then, handing a shroud to the executioner, he gave him a one hundred dinars to cover his body with it after his death. One can only assume that the executioner honoured this contract, since he had no valid reason to extricate himself. The only question is, which part of the body should be wrapped in the shroud? For Kunduri was dismembered and buried in several places: his blood was poured into the ground in Marw al-Rawdh, his body was buried in Kundur (whence the vizier originated), his head in Nishapur, his genitals (after having been stuffed with straw – a bizarre detail) in Kerman. 

 

Ever since he died, he has no doubt been putting himself to great pains, as futile as they are ridiculous, to regain the integrity of his body: to be reunited with himself again.

 

With variations, two historians, Ibn Khallikan and Ibn Kathir, have reported this story. The first sees an opportunity to meditate on the instability of mortal affairs and the transitory nature of power. The second orients his reflection more towards the resurrection, at the end of time, of the dismembered body and ‘attests that God will bring all his creatures together wherever they find themselves, whatever state they are in.’

 

And the princess of Khwarazm, what happened to her? Curiously, chroniclers observe a total silence regarding her fate. Evidently, it was of no interest to them. Could it be she who sought to reunite Kunduri’s body parts, scattered across the earth?

 

*

 

Metaphor

 

The ode, said the poets in former times, is a stray she-camel: you don’t know where she’ll end up. Lost in the immensity of the desert, she wanders looking for her nearest and dearest, animal and human. But it’s not certain that she’ll find them again. One day or other, the orphan will be taken in by persons unknown, who’ll adopt her and she’ll spend the rest of her days among them.

    

Unless she wanders off again.

 

Isn’t it the fate of an ode to wander, to be a stranger everywhere? 

 

This was something known to the Arab poet of the desert. But he thought that his odes would never be read other than in Arabic. He was far from grasping that his she-camels, centuries later, would have reached cities of which he had not the slightest idea: Berlin, Paris, London, New York.

 

Translated, interpreted, accompanied by commentaries, they now speak in foreign tongues. 

 

With time, they’ll doubtless forget the idiom of their origin. 

 

*

 

Mad for Layla

 

We take pity on Qays, mad for the love of Layla, we sympathise with his fate, but we forget that it was his choice, and his choice alone. He was in love with Layla, his cousin, and the story could have had a banal ending with a wedding had he refrained, as the custom at the time expected, from singing out his love and naming his beloved. Incapable of keeping his mouth shut, he couldn’t resist the temptation of reciting his verses. He was aware, however, that by making them public, he was violating a taboo and losing Layla forever. What is there to say, other than that his love of poetry was altogether stronger than his love of Layla? In another context, the author Al-Jahiz has affirmed – shocking though the saying may be – that a book is far more precious than a son to the heart of a writer.

 

*

 

The Weight of Poets

 

Monsieur Talbi the schoolteacher didn’t like the blind poet Bashshar ibn Burd. The day he explained one of his poems to us, he did nothing to hide his hostility towards him, and even flew into a rage when he reached the following line:

 

Inside my clothes, there’s a thin body; if you leaned on it, it would crumple.

 

Bashshar’, he exclaimed, ‘was an arrant liar. He describes himself as thin but in actual fact he was thickset and massive. Now, a man who lies about his physical appearance necessarily lies about his feelings. Bashshar expressed a passion that he never actually felt, that he was incapable of feeling, given the thick layer of blubber that enveloped him.’   

 

Monsieur Talbi believed, without explicitly stating it, that love is intimately related to thinness. Where did he get this idea from? Probably from the Thousand and One Nights and the poetic tradition that represents the lovers as not only insomniac, but also anorexic.

 

Consequently, a chubby lover seems a contradiction in terms, even an obscenity. And the height of ridicule is reached when the interested party is a poet. Monsieur Talbi was convinced that excessive fatness could only harm creative inspiration.

 

So, all because of a single wretched line, Bashshar was accused of imposture. In any case, even if he had never composed it, his physique would have condemned him not to be taken seriously when he sang of his love for Abda. His obesity put him at fault: the numerous poems he dedicated to Abda (whom, after Monsieur Talbi’s admonitions, I dare not call his ‘beloved’) are of great quality, but he never managed with her to form one of those famous couples who serve as compass points for the imagination, like Dante and Beatrice, or Petrarch and Laura.

 

Still totally indignant at Bashshar’s indecency, Monsieur Talbi had to answer a question asked by Fa, a schoolboy known to enjoy being the centre of attention, who seized the opportunity to ask him what he thought of the following verse by the great poet Al Mutanabbi: 

 

I am a man who is so thin that 

Were I not talking to you, you wouldn’t even see me.

 

The whole class burst out laughing at the evocation of this spectre who exists only in words. ‘Here, exaggeration’, said Monsieur Talbi, once the laughter had died down, ‘is so obvious, that it produces, it is true, a comic effect. It seems to me, however, that this effect was intended by Al Mutanabbi. Perhaps he wanted to deride both the cliché of thinness, and, thereby, a number of other themes from love poetry. Moreover, he only begrudgingly adopted the constraining habit of opening an ode with a hymn of love. Al Mutanabbi, who was more suited to the epic genre, felt that he was forced to imitate love in his poems. But once he became an established writer, he freed himself from this enslavement. Reflecting on this verse, which has provoked much hilarity among you, is more troubling than you might think. It perhaps has something to do with the esoteric beliefs with which Al Mutanabbi was not unfamiliar, such as those of the Hidden Imam. He presented himself in his youth, it is said, as a prophet, hence his name – or rather nickname, “He who prophecies” or “He who passes himself off as a prophet”. In his most extravagant moments, he must have considered himself to be some kind of supernatural, invisible being, who appeared only in words.’

 

With this unanticipated and, one cannot deny, brilliant remark, Al Mutanabbi’s verse took on a whole new meaning: it became the bearer of a particular purpose that only the initiated are able to understand and, from that moment, we were naturally flattered to count ourselves among them.

 

Around the same time, and by some strange coincidence, Monsieur Vondez proposed a parallel theory in class. Evoking great works such as The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost (‘which nobody reads, but which you should be reading’), he came round to discussing Hamlet, ‘the immortal masterpiece’, on which he had no doubt just read a study, that he summarised with the following words: ‘The problem with Hamlet is that he was overweight. But rare are the critics who draw attention to this aspect of his character. A stage director today wouldn’t even contemplate entrusting the role to an actor with a paunch. However, Shakespeare’s text is clear: Hamlet is overweight or, in his own mother’s unequivocal words, “fat”. Now, in Schlegel’s German version, fat is translated into a word meaning “enflamed”. Clearly, the Romantics couldn’t countenance an obese Hamlet. And the Romantics weren’t alone: André Gide translated fat by en nage, an expression meaning “bathed in sweat”. So in a way, translators have sought to correct, or improve, Shakespeare. They have betrayed him to save the image of a melancholic, lyrical, necessarily skinny Hamlet.’

 

Today, with hindsight, I’m surprised that Monsieur Talbi, who was at such great pains to defend Al Mutanabbi, made no effort with Bashshar. He could, for example, have mentioned that the latter’s intention was parodic, confirming how Bashshar’s mischievous spirit and buffoon-like ways prefigured Falstaff. (The historian Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, author of The Book of Songs, wrote at length about Bahshshar’s madcap adventures in the company of libertines like Hammad Ajrad and Aban al-Lahiqi.)

 

Seen from this angle, the offending verse would take on a whole new dimension. And what would become of this verse, were it interpreted according to the quarrel that pitted Bashshar against Wasilibn Ata (nicknamed ‘The Giraffe’ on account of his over-long neck), the celebrated dogmatic theologian who founded the Islamic school of Mu’tazilan rationalism? Finally, what would become of the verse, were the reader to take into account the fact that the person who composed it was flogged to death in the year 785, after being accused of heresy?

 

*

 

The Message of Forgiveness

 

The last trump on Judgement Day has just sounded. Resurrected, the dead are leaving their tombs. As they – most of them – are naked (the shrouds of the most recently departed are in tatters), they avoid looking at one another. During their long sojourn in the depths of the earth, they have lost their memory, but they know they will recover it thanks to a register, the one to which their good and evil deeds have been committed (the latter more numerous by far than the former). An angel will provide them with it, and they will have all eternity to meditate on the use they have made of their life here below. They will guard their register jealously. The reason for this is very simple: in the afterlife, there is no library, nor, for that matter, are there mirrors. Eschatological descriptions, even the most detailed, maintain total silence about reading and – it goes without saying – about literature. From this point of view, the blessed and the damned are treated equally; it isn’t possible either for one or the other to read anything but their register, a book which, strictly speaking, they haven’t written.

 

Some of them – certainly the most numerous – aren’t in the least bothered by this. But for others – those who are fanatical about reading, those who, here below, lived only for reading, this is devastating. Weary of consulting their register and disgusted with themselves, they yearn, they burn, to read new things. Then the boldest of them suggest putting the registers at everyone’s disposal. At first this proposal is considered attentively, but, on reflection, not everyone is pleased by it – or rather, it pleases no one. Indeed, if one sets aside a few exhibitionists, the idea of being read, or yielding oneself up, is intolerable. Each person feels they will be exposed like prey to the voraciousness of others, and stripped of their mystery.

 

In the midst of indignant and vehement protests, the wisest suggest the following solution: the books will circulate in an anonymous way, everyone keeping the first page on which their name is inscribed. This proposal, once accepted, establishes an immense library and everybody can then plunge themselves indefinitely into the delicious pleasures of reading.

 

But one day or other – supposing that the notion of day itself still has any value – the desire to re-read one’s own book will begin to be felt. At first it will seize a few; then, little by little, everybody. The great disappointment, however, will be at the meeting: in the anonymous mass of books, how to rediscover one’s own? Also, in the rage and feverishness, each and everyone will set out to find it, each and everyone will try to rediscover themselves in the immense library. An infinite task: unless they strike lucky in their quest at one moment or another, they will have to read all the books, and supposing that they succeed in this, the outcome isn’t clear because, in the interval, oblivion will have worked its ravages on their minds, and ineluctably there will come a day when they will be incapable of recognising their book, of recognising themselves.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a Moroccan fabulist and scholar, who writes in Arabic and French. He is professor emeritus in the Department of French at Muhammad V University in Rabat, Morocco, and has written extensively about classical Arabic literature, bilingualism, and issues of translation. His many books include The Author and his Doubles (1985; trans. 2001), The Tongue of Adam (1999; trans. 2018), Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language (2008), and The Clash of Images, a collection of tales (2010).  The Arabs and the Art of Storytelling: A Strange Familiarity (2004) came out in English in 2014. Je parle toutes les langues, mais en arabe (I speak all languages but in Arabic) was published in French in 2013. The twelve tales appearing here were first published by the DABA Maroc festival in Brussels in 2012.   has won Le Grand Prix du Maroc (1989), Le Prix Grand Atlas (1996), the French Academy Award (le Prix du Rayonnement de la Langue Française, 1996), and the Sultan Al Owais Price for Criticism and Literature Studies (2007).

Clare Finburgh Delijani is Professor in the Department of Theatre and Performance at Goldsmiths University of London. She has written and edited many books and articles on theatre from the UK, France and French-speaking parts of the world, including a special issue of Théâtre/Public on the Situationist International (2019), The Great Stage Directors: Littlewood, Planchon, Strehler (2018, with Peter Boenisch), Watching War on the Twenty-First-Century Stage: Spectacles of Conflict (2017), Rethinking the Theatre of the Absurd: Ecology, the Environment and the Greening of the Modern Stage (2015, with Carl Lavery) and Jean Genet(2012, with David Bradby). She is currently writing a book on theatre and performance in France that addresses the nation’s colonial past, and multicultural present.

Marina Warner writes fiction and cultural history. Her award-winning books explore myths and fairy tales; they include From the Beast to the Blonde(1994) and Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (2011). She has published five novels and three collections of short stories, including Fly Away Home(2014). Her most recent book, Inventory of a Life Mislaid (2021) is an ‘unreliable memoir’ about her childhood in Egypt where her father opened a bookshop in 1947. She contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books and to artist’s catalogues, for example for Paula Rego’s retrospective at Tate Britain (2021). She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, a Distinguished Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy.  In 2015, she was awarded the Holberg Prize in the Arts and Humanities, and in 2017 she was given a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. Since 2016, she has been working with the project www.storiesintransit.org in Palermo, Sicily, and is currently writing a book about the concept of Sanctuary. She lives in London.

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