PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover design: Marie Lane
(Ismail, the narrator, has been sent to take money to the poet Abu Nuwas...)
A small window opened in the door, and I could just make out a pair of eyes peering at me through the slot. The morose voice that belonged to them, however, was curt and unfriendly.
“We want no beggars here.”
“I am no beggar. I have come to see Abu Nuwas the poet.”
This did not meet with the welcome I had hoped for.
“We want none of your sort either. Bugger off.”
The window closed, and did not open until I had banged on the door for several minutes.
“I thought I told you to bugger off!”
“I bring a message from Ja'far al-Barmaki. If Abu Nuwas is there you had best let me in.”
As I hoped the name of the Wazir inspired the same fear I had seen in the guards. The slot closed again, but this time the door swung open to admit me.
I entered a courtyard, lit by flaming torches. A gang of rough-looking men stood or squatted on the sandy ground, armed with knives and cudgels. They were bare-headed, like Christians. The tension was palpable.
Behind me, the door was closed by a tall Pashtun. However, it was one of the gang who addressed me.
“Since when did the great Wazir use street urchins as messengers?”
He was a hulking man dressed in Syrian garb. At the centre of his face, instead of a nose, there was an ugly scar and a single dark hole. I ignored him and turned to the Pashtun.
“If you are master of this house, tell me where I can find Abu Nuwas.”
The Pashtun, who had a long, mournful face that suited his gloomy voice, gestured to where a staircase led up to a second storey landing, open to the courtyard.
“Up there, first door along. Much good it will do you though- he’s barricaded himself in.”
The man with no nose was visibly angry that I had not answered him, but the name of Ja'far made him tread carefully.
“What news, then, from the Barmakid?”
The Christian thugs all stared at me. I decided this would not be a good moment to reveal that I was carrying a fortune round my neck.
“The words of the Wazir are for the poet’s ears only.”
The Syrian gave up trying to elicit information from me, and waved at the door.
“Then you might as well go, boy. If Abu Nuwas has not paid me what he owes by dawn, we will smash into his room. You can come and give your message to him then- or at least, to what’s left of him.”
I noticed him glancing towards a closed door at one corner of the courtyard. If he had not been so terrifying I would have thought he was nervous. The Pashtun raised his hands.
“I’ve told you, Thomas. If you damage my property you will pay for it, or answer to my brothers in the Abna.”
Thomas, the Syrian, scowled, scratching at the scar where his nose should have been.
“And I’ve told you, Ghilzai, I have no quarrel with the Abna. It’ll be worth the price of a door to restore my reputation. This business is costing me dear. Why should anyone else repay their debts, while that cocksucker is laughing at me? I need to make an example of him.”
The Pashtun made no reply. There was a silence, then Thomas spoke again.
“He’s gone very quiet. Are you quite sure he hasn’t got out through the window, Ghilzai?”
“I am certain. The gap is too narrow for the poet’s big head.”
I had seen and heard enough. I told them that I was returning to Ja'far for further instructions, and the Pashtun opened the door for me with some relief.
Once outside, I did not head back towards the Round City. Instead I prowled the perimeter of the Garden of Delights. At the corner, I found a window. It was shuttered, but I could hear voices within. The first to speak I recognised as Thomas, speaking in rough Greek.
“You should not have come. There was a messenger from the Wazir here just now. You put us all in danger.”
The second voice was high, with an accent I
could not place.
“The traitor followed me! The oathbreaker spoke to him. I need your help to get out of the city. I am beginning to think this is all a trick.”
When Thomas spoke again, he sounded conciliatory.
“Have no fear. Abu Murra has the Bottle. If you have the Name, you can unleash the power of the Fire.”
Intriguing though this conversation was, it clearly had nothing to do with the poet. I continued round the corner, looking for the room the Pashtun had indicated. The windows on the second storey were unshuttered. Counting along, I identified the opening which I reckoned belonged to the room at the top of the stairs. It was indeed narrow, but I am thin. At least, I was in those days.
The climb, however, presented a different challenge. It was one thing to scale a sheer wall, but another entirely to do it weighed down by a sack of gold. After a moment’s thought, I unwrapped the turban from my head. Then I tied one end of the long material securely around the neck of the bag.
My first throw fell short, causing the bag to slam against the side of the building and thud back down to earth. Relief that it had not burst open, spilling golden coins everywhere, was quickly replaced by fear that the noise would attract attention. I froze for a moment, listening for shouts and footsteps, but heard nothing.
On the second attempt I swung the bag a couple of times on a length of my turban rope, before launching it upwards. The momentum carried it to the second storey, and through the narrow window.
I tugged on it a couple of times, and it seemed to have snagged. Quickly I grabbed hold of the material and hauled myself up hand over hand, as if I were back in the rigging of the dhow. It took me only a few seconds to ascend, but just as I came to the window, the rope came loose and I began to fall.
I flung one hand through the opening and managed to cling on as my turban fluttered to the ground. It had been untied from the bag of gold. For the third time that long night I found myself dangling from a window ledge, and my muscles shrieked their complaints. Once again I heaved myself up and tried to wriggle through.
The aperture was tight even for one of my slight build, and entering was harder because I could not push with my legs, which flailed uselessly in the air outside. I scraped my face and shoulders, and was bleeding by the time I flopped onto the floor. The room was lit by a single lamp, which blinded me for a moment, so that I could not see the source of the drawling, husky voice which greeted me.
“This is indeed a night of miracles! First God the All-Merciful overlooks my many transgressions, and causes the window to bring forth a bag of money. Then the same munificent crack gives birth to an angelic youth. All I need now is for it to start gushing wine and I shall never leave this place.”
The voice had a slight lisp, a weakness in pronouncing “r” sounds. As my eyes adjusted to the light in the room I saw a man reclining languidly on a farsh, long legs stretched out in front of him. He wore only qamis and pants, and held the Wazir’s gold in one hand, and a limp wineskin in the other. I sat up.
“I believe there are several men in the courtyard who might have their own views on when and how you leave this room.”
His startling blue eyes glittered with amusement.
“The Newborn talks! Truly it is a prodigy. But do not speak of those tedious men. Generally I adore Christians, for their liberal attitude to wine, and their willingness to lend money. They will insist on having it repaid though, and interest is such a bore. They should pay more heed to the words of their prophet, who told them to give to the needy without expectation of return.
“But that is enough theology. Let us instead discuss how you came to pop so lusciously through my window, and how we can pass the time together.”
He leaned toward me with a salacious leer, and I got to my feet.
“I am a messenger from Ja'far al-Barmaki, who sends you one thousand dinars. He commands me to say that he is buying your freedom, and expects your attendance at the house of Salam the Speckled One.”
The poet sighed.
“Like all powerful men, the Barmakid is so demanding and impatient. Sometimes I wish I was back in the desert with the Badawi. Then I remember the stink of the camels, the long dry days, and the endless boasting and
“Still, I seem to be out of wine. Perhaps it is time to leave this heavenly bower.”
He threw the empty skin into a corner of the room, and stood up. I had thought Ja'far handsome, but he would have looked plain next to the poet, who was perhaps the only man of whom I would have used the word “beautiful.” When I met him, he claimed to be thirty-two, but was probably a little older. Half Arab and half Persian, he had inherited the best features of both nations. High cheekbones framed a long nose and muscular mouth. His full lips curved in a sensuous half-smile, suggestive of both intelligence and cruelty. However, most striking was his long black hair, carefully teased and oiled into tresses that tumbled from his bare head like snakes. It was this that had earned him his name: Abu Nuwas, the Father of Locks.
The room was small and bare, and what furniture there was had been piled up against the door. The poet now began to clear the exit, carelessly hurling benches and tables to either side. I moved to help him. His response was to stand back and leave me to do the work, while he tugged on his boots and pulled a long embroidered coat over his underwear. I noticed, however, that he tucked the bag inside his coat, and picked up a long, thin package from the farsh.
By the time the barricade had been removed, there were scuffling noises from outside. Obviously the Christians had heard our labours, and gathered outside the room in readiness for our exit. Abu Nuwas put his ear to the door, then called out.
“How good of you to bring your friends, Thomas. I may not be able to see to all you big rugged men at once, perhaps you could bend over and wait in line for me?”
Even through the door I could hear the ruffians snarling like dogs.
“Don’t make things worse for yourself, scribbler. Give me my money, and I might let you off with a beating.”
“A beating sounds delightful. However, I have the means to pay you. If you can control your urges and not jump on me as soon as you see me, then I shall come out and discuss the matter with you.”
There was no audible response from outside. The poet looked at me and raised his eyebrows.
“Well, boy, we are both without turbans; perhaps we shall pass for Christians.”
He opened the door and stepped through. I followed him.
Thomas and his gang stood along the narrow landing, on both sides of the door. A couple of men waited below in the courtyard. Next to them was the Pashtun, watching anxiously in case any harm came to his boarding house. The Syrian raised his eyebrows when he saw me emerge from the room, but spoke only to Abu Nuwas.
“Where is the money, then?”
“Money, Thomas? Such tawdry stuff. I have for you something better than mere money. Oh, do not growl in that bestial fashion! It puts ugly lines on your pretty face.
“This ring on my finger is of great value in itself. The cabochon of ruby is set in finely wrought gold. However, its true worth is not apparent to the casual observer.
“This ring was given to me by Yahya ibn Khalid al-Barmaki, father to our illustrious Wazir. It comes from the highlands of Tibet, where icy mountains scratch the firmament, and the holy men summon demons, by chanting and playing trumpets made from human bone.
“One such demon is trapped within this ruby. To the man who approaches it with an open mind, it will show him his heart’s desire. This is why it is called the Ring of the All-Seeing Eye. Gaze into its depths, and see what wonders you may behold.”
Suspicion and fascination battled on the Syrian’s face, and he leaned over the ring on the poet’s outstretched hand, peering and squinting.
“I don’t see- BASTARD!”
Abu Nuwas had suddenly bunched his fist and driven the stone up into Thomas’s face. The Syrian staggered backwards, clutching his disfigured nose and cursing. The poet swung the package he had collected from the farsh, shedding its wrapping in the process. I was astonished to see that it contained a sayf, a long, straight, highly polished sword.
Behind me the ruffians had begun to respond to the abrupt outbreak of violence. One of them shoved me out of the way as he passed, slamming me into the wall. Abu Nuwas had slashed the chest of the nearest thug with the sayf, and turned to face this new threat. As the point of weapon jabbed at the Christian, he halted his charge and stepped backward. Without thinking what I was doing I threw myself behind his knees, causing him to trip over me and fall from the landing onto the courtyard below.
“The prodigy becomes more marvellous by the minute!”
Abu Nuwas's shouted praise for my intervention distracted him from Thomas, who had recovered from the punch and was glaring hatred from his watering eyes. He advanced on the poet waving a butcher's cleaver with disturbingly practised movements. I tried to shout a warning, but nothing came out. However Abu Nuwas must have seen my look of alarm, because without even turning towards the Syrian he jumped from the landing, his coat flying open as he fell, as if he had sprouted wings. Thomas stopped on the edge, contemplated the drop, and turned back toward the stair.
There were still four men in the courtyard. Of those one was the man I had tripped, who was lying very still. The other was the Pashtun, who was a wise enough old warrior to know a pointless fight when he saw one, and stay well out of it. That left two men to bar our exit. If you had asked me why I had taken the side of the Father of Locks so wholeheartedly I would have struggled to give an answer. In truth he was something of a disappointment to me. Instead of a high-minded discussion of aesthetics, I was stuck in a brawl over a debt he was quite capable of paying. However I was prone to gambling heavily on impulsive decisions, in those days.
My new ally had landed heavily, and was dancing around trying to test the damage to his right foot without putting too much weight on it. This allowed the two Christians to come from either side of him. Although the poet wielded his sword with surprising skill, he was in trouble. I launched myself from the landing toward the nearer of his attackers.
I was small and barefooted, but caught his head with my midriff as I fell, hurling him to the ground with a satisfying crack. I jabbed my elbow into his throat. While he rolled around in pain, I jumped to my feet and looked for Abu Nuwas.
The poet's injured foot was hampering his movement. The Christian danced around him, swinging a heavy cudgel which he barely managed to dodge. Thomas was now lumbering down the stairs, and soon Abu Nuwas would be outnumbered again. Seeing the danger, he waited until his enemy had heaved a meaty stroke that threw him off balance. Then he rolled underneath the club, spiking the ruffian's thigh with his sayf. As the Christian fell, Abu Nuwas staggered to his feet and limped towards the exit, bellowing at the Pashtun.
“Unbolt the door, Ghilzai! Open the door!”
The Pashtun looked appalled as he realised that neutrality was no longer an option. Thomas was now pursuing Abu Nuwas across the courtyard, threatening all manner of vengeance if the door was opened. I noticed a finely woven prayer rug in an alcove, and snatched a knife from one of the fallen thugs.
“Unlock the door, Pashtun, or I slash this carpet to ribbons.”
The furious landlord moved to seize me, but I dug the knifepoint into the rug, and he froze. As I had guessed, his sole concern was to keep his property safe. Reluctantly, he turned and began to draw back the bolts. Thomas howled, but had managed to get between Abu Nuwas and the door.
“I won't forget this, Ghilzai, and you can threaten me with the Abna all you like. As for you, scribbler, I'll chop off your pox-riddled organ and choke you with it.”
He launched a fierce assault on the poet, and sparks flew as the sayf and the cleaver clashed. I was unable to intervene. The Pashtun would have torn me apart as soon as I ceased to menace the prayer rug. Abu Nuwas was moving with more freedom, however, and began to taunt the Syrian.
“Pox-ridden, you say? Your mother should see a physician, then, it was she who gave me the disease. You need to get your son looked at as well, I've probably passed it to him by now.”
Thomas responded as the poet must have hoped, with a wild swing at his head. Abu Nuwas dropped to the ground and grabbed a handful of sand, which he hurled at the Syrian's face. As Thomas clutched at his eyes the pommel of the sayf rammed into his stomach, bringing him to his knees.
Abu Nuwas headed straight for the door. For a terrible moment I thought he was about to abandon me to the wrath of his enemies. Then he paused, with his sword aimed at the landlord's throat.
“Well, boy, are you coming? I believe they have a vacant room here, if you wish to stay.”
I scampered after him. As I left the courtyard I glanced back at the door in the corner. It was ajar, and I thought I saw eyes staring at me from the darkness.
The poet’s legs were long and my feet quick, and after a couple of streets it became apparent we had escaped. We slumped against a wall to catch our breath. I recovered first, and asked him the question I had been burning to ask since the fight in the courtyard.
“Why didn't you just pay him the money?”
“Pay him the money?”
Abu Nuwas snorted with contempt.
“Where would I be if I went round paying my debts? What would happen to my reputation? You might as well ask me to give up drinking, or blaspheming, or sodomy!”
There was no answer to that, so I tried another approach.
“So now we go to the Wazir?”
This time he laughed at my naivety.
“No, boy, we are not going to the Wazir. Ja'far al-Barmaki is a cultured and intelligent man, but he has a dreary obsession with duty and responsibility. Whatever he wants me for, it will assuredly not be fun.”
“Where, then, are we going?”
“Where else would we be going? We are young, and good-looking, and free, and have a small fortune in gold coins. You and I, boy, are going to a monastery.”
No. of pages: 332
Publication date: 12.02.2009
978 1 903517 76 5
978 1 907650 98 7
Indonesia (Pustaka IIMaN Publisher Inc)
Lithuania (Media Incognito),Turkey(Ithaki).