In 2014, Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez Eldin won the best-novel award at the Sharjah International Book Fair for her Emerald Mountain. It has since been translated into French by the celebrated Stéphanie Dujols (2017), and Ez Eldin will appear later this month at a book event in Paris.
In the book, there is a search for a lost tale from the 1,001 Nights amidst the upheavals of Egypt, 2011. The narrator, Bustan, seeks to restore the story of Mount Qaf, or the titular the Emerald Mountain:
I do not belong to myself… I was sworn to a mystery.
All I can do is go on and join with my fate
My name is Bustan.
Those who know me well, and very few do, call me “the Priestess of Black and White.” Others, well, they just think I’m peculiar. Someone writing about me might call me a Houri—black eyes, raven hair, coal-colored dress and so on. Mired in outward appearances, these descriptions cannot capture what burns inside me. No one can uncover what I conceal or what I am capable of. My life has been dedicated to hidden events from centuries past, events they’ll never learn about. That leaves it to me to author, or rather, narrate the story, filling in the missing parts of the tale and bringing the scattered pieces back together. I am not the protagonist, but this story would not exist without me.
Eleven years into the third millennium I sit alone in my apartment overlooking the Nile in Zamalek. Indefatigable, I write. An old world collapses outside, but I am completely occupied in the pursuit of elusive words that constantly slip between my fingers. Images of different epochs flit through my mind like fleeting summer clouds. Some I take down with well-placed shots, the rest manage to give me the slip.
I see myself as a child on the Daylam Mountains near the Caspian Sea back in the 1960s. I ramble along after my father in his morning meanderings. As we go, he recites Rumi, al-Attar, or Hafez. He gets a few meters ahead of me then notices me lagging behind, so he stops, patiently waiting, I see his breath as rising clouds of mist. I rejoin him, and he sets me on a boulder nearby so I can have a little break while he talks to me, telling me bits of the narrative of our home country like he always does. Despite the bitter cold, I feel warm all over, and when I fill in the blanks he leaves for me, he embraces me joyfully.
Every time the scrolls and codices came out from where he hid them, he would say to me, “We’ll always be outsiders.” Then he would warn me not to tell anyone the mysteries they held, seeming to forget the fact that he was practically the only one I ever talked to. I’d promise, and he would start teaching me to decipher the code that unlocked their secrets. He passed on to me everything he learned from his father, whispering that this chain of knowledge should stop with me. When I asked him what he meant, he said that the signs he saw predicted that I was the priestess they were waiting for; but he would explain no further.
I remember him now, as I sit at home in Cairo, the scents of Mount Alamut and its plants rise up around me; I can practically see the green-clad foothills, snow-capped peaks, and the plains surrounding the villages of the Daylam Mountains.
On a long-ago day, my father pointed to something he called the ruins of Alamut Fortress. His face was clouded with sorrow, though I never understood what caused it. He stood rigidly erect, tense as he contemplated the spot. I did not look where he pointed; instead, my eyes were fixed on his kind, thinly-bearded face and grey hair.
On the way down, he turned back from time to time, looking at the ruins that I did not—as yet—know anything about. Two days later, he had me sit beside him under a chestnut tree and told me about Hasan as-Sabbah and his band of hashashin, the origins of the legend of the assassins. “Only stories endure,” he said, “memories die with those who remember. Narratives take the place of memory, giving us a beneficial legacy.”
He taught me storytelling and writing early on, gradually showing me the duties that awaited me. He told me hundreds of ancient folk tales from the deep past and recited thousands of poems for me. I was ravenous, and he encouraged me as I devoured every book that came into my hands.
He took me almost everywhere he went. With him, I visited the grave of ‘Umar Khayyam, protected by roses and the hearts of lovers. I wandered the porches and alleyways of the holy city of Mashhad and explored the narrow passages in Nishapur, Shiraz, and Isfahan. “History lives and breathes in these cities,” he told me, “even so, we must not allow them to lull us into forgetting our beloved homeland.” He closed his eyes and drifted away inside himself, and it occurred to me that this homeland he dreams of is just a figment of the imagination.
“There is no way I can go with you, so I will be a companion to the dust of your road,” he used to recite this quote from Farid al-Din Attar. I know it was meant for me; I guessed I was the one who would have road dust for company, and the course of my life would be spent traveling the impossible road to a homeland that lives only in words. Fragile, exhausted, ravaged by thoughts, doubts, and misgivings, I was destined to march on with the dust watching over me.
When I was eighteen, I essentially had to leave; his plans meant I could not stay where he lives, and I had to start my solo journey. My travel pack had only a few articles of clothing in it, leaving the maximum room possible for manuscripts, books, and papers. I preserved hundreds of details in my memory; I have the names of cities in a small notebook. Some I flitted through like a spooked sparrow, for others, though, I chose the bird’s-eye view and passed by at a distance. I spent long years in a few, short years in some. The first city on the list is New York, where I had to finish my studies, and the last is Cairo where the signs and portents, scattered through the remnants left by the ancients, led me. Cairo was my final stop, where I would find what I was looking for. Cairo, where—thirty-two years after I bade him goodbye—I sit, knitting words together, weaving together the tale missing from the Thousand and One Nights.
“What tale is that? Everyone knows that lots of stories were added to the Thousand and One Nights, but we’ve never heard that any were missing. Besides, there is more to it than just one book; it’s an eternally shifting collection of stories; additions and omissions don’t make any difference.”
This will come to the mind of anyone reading what I write. But allow me to gather the fragments of my story together, forgive me if the shape of the whole thing is not readily apparent. You will see how hard it is to jump back and forth between times and dates and to reconcile events in the ancient past with the present day as you read. Patience is like the hunter, let patience accompany you in the same way that it has been—and still is—my sole companion along this rough road.
Patience accompanied me a few years ago as I traveled to that secluded country home, built so long ago. At that moment, I was suddenly self-conscious of how I continued to pursue what others would think was just a mirage.
But each time doubt crept in on me, I saw a sign or signal that would bring the world back into focus and bring meaning back to my journey. The sign I saw that time was the house, built on a plot just a few kilometers outside Cairo, perfectly matching the ancient description I found in my papers.
It was a mud-brick building surrounded by a thatch fence, shaded by a huge berry tree, and surrounded by camphors. The image etched into the house’s wooden front door took my breath away: a pilgrim boat, a palm tree heavy with dates, and an enormous bird ready to strike some prey that the artist had forgotten to include. I took hold of myself and approached the door.
I knocked just once, shyly. Then again, harder. The house’s owner and protector opened the door for me, looking just as I had imagined she would: dark, thin, with a flat gaze. Her head was wrapped in a black cloth and she wore a baggy jilbab of the same color. I didn’t know what to say, or how I should explain my sudden visit. Luckily, she spoke first.
“I’ve waited for you for a long time,” she said, then took the kerosene lamp down from a nail in the wall just inside and blew it out. “God’s light is enough.”
She looked at the cigarette I had lit, turned away and busied herself adjusting the folds of her voluminous robe. The whole time she examined me surreptitiously, my disheveled hair falling loose around my shoulders, my immodest clothing, my obvious need for the cigarette as I took a drag. I did the same to her, taking in her lean body and her wrinkled face. She had to be fifty, I guessed, and congratulated myself that my true age wasn’t as obvious; no one would believe that only a handful of years separated us.
I asked her about the room and she pointed to it. When I opened the door, I was overwhelmed by the bare walls and the pungent smell of incense. I took off my shoes as I closed the door behind me then stepped, barefoot, onto the small, clean, wicker mat.
There were no windows; the room was practically empty: nothing but a wooden bed and small table supporting a six-armed silver candelabra and a stack of yellowed, ancient books next to it. White dust coated everything, which I reflexively and unsuccessfully tried to wipe away by hand, then I stopped myself when I remembered the dangers of changing anything in the room or talking about my experiences there. I also remembered the fact that I must not leave the room until a full day passed after I entered, a day I would spend under a vow of silence.
My other self won out for a few moments. I was nervous, I regretted coming here at all. I smoked a second cigarette, hoping it would give me a measure of calm, then stretched out on the bed.
I pressed my face into the pillow, trying to escape the overbearing incense, but the pillow smelled of it even more than the room’s air, so I sat instead, my back propped against the headboard. I imagined I could hear my father’s braying laugh ringing from the surfaces of the room, even though I had not seen him for thirty years, and he had died several years before. I felt him there with me; I could even smell the tobacco on his breath as I conjured the calm timbre of his voice and the way he enunciated his words, giving the impression that he was wasting them on his interlocutor. I was amazed by how strong his presence was in this place, even though he had never been here. I didn’t know how, after spending his life isolated from everything, he was able to keep his shade close to me, no matter where I went.
I could hear overlapping, agitated voices arguing fiercely; I heard someone say my name—in its Persian form—from time to time. I couldn’t understand what they were saying; the words were indistinct. The voices eventually subsided, becoming whispers too soft to carry.
I heard my name: someone said “Bustan Darya” once and “Bagh Darya” (Bagh is Persian, Bustan Arabic, both mean garden) several times. As the evening came on, the six candles burst suddenly alight. I was neither hungry nor thirsty, and I no longer felt the need to smoke. My life passed before me like a film being played in slow motion on an endless loop. My memory was fully engaged; my recall was even clearer than usual. My memories of failures were highlighted, but contrary to what I would have expected, they did not fill me with remorse. It was like I was under the influence of some drug that slowed down my reactions and removed worry, fear, and emotion.
Completely calm, I undressed and lay down for a nap. As I slept I could hear my father singing, but the meaning of the song eluded me. I saw myself as a little girl, happy, in Saadi Park near the tomb of Saadi Shirazi, clambering up and down the stairs and playing among the pink marble columns. I moved away from the tomb so I could see its turquoise dome, then approached it again to examine the drawings carved at the entrance: the tree of life on a field of blue whose flowers and leaves reflected a riot of colors, and a golden frame decorated with calligraphy. Within, Saadi’s poetry looked like an amulet against time.
I left the tomb and its grove of cypress trees and walked straight towards the springs. Step by step I saw my life as I grew from childhood to my teens, to young adulthood until I finally become the woman I am today. I left the tomb of Saadi behind, but the thought that there was nothing like spring in Shiraz stayed with me. I remembered the loss of my ancestral homeland, and was overcome with sorrow.
I woke fully clothed with aches in several places. I was in a different room, this one had a window on the wall to my right, and there was no trace of the candelabra with its six candles or the old books that had been next to it, much less the wooden table. Someone must have moved me to another room. I sat up in the bed, getting my bearings and trying to determine the source of the faint pain. I stood slowly, put on my shoes, and dragged myself out of the room.
I found the house’s occupant sitting in the living room. I sank down to sit cross-legged near her on a woolen rug. I didn’t tell her what I had experienced in the room, and she did not seem to be waiting for me to speak—or to expect anything from me at all.
I picked up my pack and took the first steps of my journey back. A light rain was falling, and darkness was coming on. I decided to drape my black shawl over my shoulders; I held out my palm and felt a few raindrops land on it. Making a fist around the drops, I hoped they would become glittering emeralds as in the story of Emerald Mountain, which had been removed from the Thousand and One Nights for some reason.
Storytellers and compilers of tales ignored it. At first, they only altered it, and if someone was noticed one of their changes, the storyteller would slyly fix just enough to conceal the rest of the alterations. The tale eventually changed so much that it contradicted some of the original details; the soul of the story was fragmented, and the details were grafted onto other tales.
No one really knows why this story was fated to be twisted into something so antithetical to its origin. There are a few who say that some of the old storytellers found something intolerable about it when they would recite the Nights in alleyways and public houses throughout Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus. One could almost say it was a curse: a curse that infected the mind of the storyteller, attacking it like a vicious pathogen, until the monster of madness overwhelmed him. No one knows how many storytellers lost their minds and ended their days wandering aimlessly through the byways.
Some claim that the deviations invaded the tale out of a desire to quiet the spirit of Princess Zumurrudah of Qaf, daughter of Yaqout, King of Mountain and Gemstone. Those people claim that every time the story is told accurately, a dagger stabs the girl who was, like all princesses in the Nights, as beautiful as the unseen dawn; any who looked on her would suffer a thousand heartbreaks.
Others are absolutely certain that every word uttered by storytellers reciting the Nights forces the princess, she of the sweet smile and soft cheeks, one step deeper into hell.
Those who know the secrets of The Thousand Nights and the earliest commentators on the Nights say that the story of the daughter of the Mountain King was expelled from the paradise of the famous book as a matter of implacable fate, and as such, it was a kind of curse. Eventually it came to be known as The Curse of the Nights, that deadly book, full of the cries of the oppressed, the bewitched, the demons of men and jinn, packed with sinners, evil mummies, and every variety of black magic was itself cursed.
As all of the rest of the stories in the Nights conspired against this one tale to expel it from the compilation, Emerald Mountain took its own dark revenge. Zumurrudah’s father was an invincible sorcerer. He created a curse that would befall any who approached his beloved daughter intending her harm while she lived and even after she died. And so it was. The story itself, which holds the soul of the tortured princess, retaliated by cursing the entire book. The book became an outcast in its native culture; all who read it would die as they finished the last word.
Only ascetics and Sufis who had come down from Mount Qaf, those who were cast adrift—after the mountain vanished—and their descendants around the world, those who resisted the temptations of this life and chose, after decades of wandering, to settle and make their homes in the mountains and high places, only they could endure the burden of telling the story in its original form, and thus, reunite it with the Nights.
They do this because they want to prevent the curse’s evil from harming those who ignore it. They do it to restore the homeland of their ancient ancestors. They do it out of love for the story whose beauty is unmatched by any tale in the Nights, the Mahabharta, and the Shahnamah, or any other book produced by the ancients.
They are certain that this story was Shahrazad’s favorite from among all of her captivating tales, and that it was the magic charm that protected her from Shahriar’s wrath.
In secret records preserved in mountain caves, the ascetics wrote that Shahriar himself fell in love with the tale and its heroine. He would sometimes slip and call Shahrazad by Zumurrudah’s name. It didn’t make her angry, rather she would smile fondly and wish that she really was the daughter of King Yaqout, Queen and protector of Emerald Mountain. Shahrazad had often dreamt of being Princess Zumurrudah, more beautiful than Manar Al-Sana, Lady of the Feathers; the daughter of King al-Jan in the story of Hasan of Basra, more knowledgeable than Jaria Tawuddud and Princess Nouzha Zaman combined, and more courageous than Ibreizah, daughter of the King of Rome in the tale of Umar al-Noman and his son, Prince Sharkan.
In Emerald Mountain, Zumurrudah’s compelling presence added color to the story, filling the space with gentleness, courage and intelligence. Shahrazad did not know that Zumurrudah’s tale, as it came to her, and as she relayed it to Shahriar, was no more than a clouded, twisted version of the biography of a real princes who had lived long ago on the magical Qaf Mountain. Her life had faded away, leaving nothing behind but this endlessly distorted story. She was waiting for someone to save her from the effects of this disfiguration, to bring resurrect the parts of the story that had died, shattered and drowned in the fog of forgetfulness.
Over time, those solitary ascetics from Qaf began to dwindle. Up until several decades ago, only seven of them remained: one in a secret cave on Mount Qasioun in Damascus, another in the Zagros Mountains in southwest Iran, the third in the Atlas Mountains in the Maghreb, the fourth on Mount Saint Catherine, Egypt, the fifth is in the Himalayas, the sixth is at the summit of Mount Damavand, in north-central Iran, and the seventh near the Alamut Fortress in the Daylam Mountains. Each ascetic took care to choose another to take on the burden of the story before he died.
Every one of the seven knew everything about the others, even though there was no real correspondence between them. Each lived among their few disciples, waiting for their missing princess to emerge again. Their numbers rapidly dwindled; five died without passing the tale on to a new heir. The sixth left Mount Damavand with his only son, losing contact with the ascetic in the Daylam Mountains, who was believed to be the most knowledgeable about King Yaqout’s daughter’s life, especially since he had in his possession rare manuscripts filled with signs and portents—most of which were cryptic—that would lead, if the code was successfully broken, to the missing details of Emerald Mountain and would help resurrect the heroine of the story. He was convinced that I, his only daughter, Bustan al-Bahr or “Bustan Darya” – as he used to call me – would be the one to complete the mission, though it had resisted a solution for centuries.
The signs, recorded in the form of mysterious puzzles and poems, described an awaited priestess who would raise Zumurrudah from her ashes by restoring her story, clearing away the distortions and alterations inflicted upon it and restoring it to the Thousand Nights. At that moment, Qaf would rematerialize, Zumurrudah’s curse would be broken, and her people would return from their centuries in limbo.
The ascetic of Daylam sincerely believed in the magical power of words; he believed that a single word could cause kings and empires to topple and that inscribing letters side by side could end lives. Only Zumurrudah could walk with skill, eyes closed, through the minefield they represented, knowing good words from evil. Oh, how he had prayed that he would be a witness to the princess’ return. He would know it had happened the instant the emerald rain fell, droplets of green only visible to those who believed in Qaf. Everyone else would only see regular rain.
The lives of his ancestors, generations of ascetics, had been spent waiting for this emerald rain to announce the return of Yaqout’s daughter, reincarnated and awakened when with her true story is reassembled returning the facts to her history and allowing Qaf to rise once again and dance for joy. When that happens, emerald shards will drop from Qaf’s body like rain and fall over the whole world. The phoenix will rise, and the Mountain King’s surviving people will return to their rightful place. Rescued from the curse of concealment and limbo, they will be able to take up their lives from the moment everything stopped. The King will be their eternal patron, and the princess will rule with the wisdom and philosophy of Qaf which leads all people to self-awareness and eventually to an understanding of the world.
Tim Gregory is an ATA-Certified Arabic into English translator with over 15 years of experience as an in-house and freelance translator. Translating literature has long been his dream, and his current work on an MA in Translation from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is giving him the opportunity to expand in that direction.
Mansoura Ez Eldin is a multi-award-winning novelist. You can read a profile of her on ArabLit by Ahmed Salah Eldein.