Special Excerpt: ‘Voyage of the Cranes in the Cities of Agate’

Saudi Novelist Omaima Al-Khamis’ Voyage of the Cranes in the Cities of Agate was winner of the 2018 Naguib Mahfouz Medal and also longlisted for the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction:

The novel is forthcoming in translation from Hoopoe Fiction; this excerpt appears with their permission.

By Omaima al-Khamis

Translated by Nesrine Amin and Sawad Hussain

Chapter 1

Caravans driven away by famine…drawn back by wistful longing

Saturday, 4 Shaaban, 402 AH.

1st of March 1012 AD.

I’m heading for Jerusalem, the sacred city, but I’m not a missionary, a saint, or even a prophet.

Nor am I a murid, a novice of the Sufi order on the first leg of his quest for enlightenment, searching for my answer at mosque study circles or in the solitude of a hermitage. A mere bookseller is who I am, in this age of unrest, strife, where there are those who are lustful for the burning of records and manuscripts, cleansing themselves of sin with their smoldering embers.

Behind us is the town, Ayn Al-Tamr. We’re gradually advancing westward to Busra Al-Sham. The land is smooth, almost a plain really, except for some hills, valley passageways, and sand dunes which level out before rising and merging once more. Every now and then lofty craggy peaks suddenly emerge between them, as if they were giants standing in anticipation of an important matter. Freshwater brooks reflective as mirrors, with pebbles sparkling, wind their way below these peaks and between their curves. Intertwined palm and banana trees circle the peaks and among their boulders are a covey of skittish mountain quail shielding their young, a delicate rosary.

Coming to a stop, we take a midday nap at the foot of the mountain. We cook our meal and feed the animals we’ve been riding as well. When evening comes, some of us climb up to the caves to shelter ourselves from the bite of the cold wind. Once inside, we kindle a small fire. Our shadows seemingly dance across the cave walls, but upon closer inspection we realize that they aren’t our shadows at all, but those of people further on who we cannot see, masticating their dinner in utter silence. We greet them. No response. Instead, a gust of icy wind bursts forth from the mouth of the cave, making us invoke God’s name. Like a pack of wolves who sleep with one eye open is how we pass the night there, before we make our way back down the rugged mountain path at daybreak to our caravan, ready for departure.

Since that night, I dislike sleeping in caves. I prefer to stay close to my chest of books anyway, fearful that someone’s curiosity might get the better of them and that they’d grab a few to take a peek inside.

Before the sun rises, an icy Syrian wind rages against us, stinging my fingertips, rushing through dry enchanter’s nightshade bushes on our path, which quiver as the wind whistles through them. I wait for the sun to reach midway through the sky to warm us a bit, beneath a piercing blue under which even the flies wouldn’t think of flying.

The owner of the caravan orders the camel driver to chant even louder when directing the camels while we approach an oasis; they may get flustered by some of the Kalb ibn Wabara tribe camped around it.

The camels rest under the tribe’s protection for several days. Before we continue onwards, the owner of the caravan requests a tracker from the tribe to accompany us and lead us to the shortcut which crosses Wadi Sarhan and takes us down to Busra Al-Sham, cutting short our journey by four days.

I wind my turban tightly round my head, covering the frozen tip of my nose while I’m at it. Out from my sleeve I extract one of Galen’s books on medicine, it’s the only one that I risked bringing out of the chest. I lose myself in his unending descriptions: the imbalance of the mixtures in the body – dryness, moistness, heat, and cold; setting it off kilter are attracting, retentive, digestive and expulsive forces. All of which Galen pinpoints as reasons for sickness.

I fear for the balance of my own mixtures as my limbs have grown numb from the cold. I pull my Nabatean abaya round me tightly, its inside lined with lambswool and the outside a strong, striped woolen fabric, its edges woven with motifs: hoopoe heads.

All of a sudden the wind blows from the southeast. It’s as if the wind has small hands affectionately patting down my frozen limbs. Perhaps when I listen more intently to the southern breezes, I hear the din and racket of the Adnanite Arab caravans, leaving behind the remains of their abandoned camp on the Arabian Peninsula to get as far as the northern Al-Fayadh route.

Hundreds of passing caravans pursued by yearning, expelled by drought, heading for fertile pastures, verdant hills, where rivers flow, and fields yield harvest, while deep within each is a Bedouin aggrieved by the mirage of return.

***

A bookseller…this may be my actual trade, or perhaps it is the disguise behind which I seek refuge from the doubt and suspicion of the travellers in this caravan of perfumes headed from Baghdad to Damascus.

I make myself scarce during their evening conversations, not biting at the bait that they throw my way to entice me to join their circle of chatter. My words are short, concise. My movements quick and nervous. Will they realize that I’m on the run? Not only am I transporting the books of philosophers and heretics but also the commandments of the People of Divine Justice and Unity – or the Mu’tazila as their opponents call them. I know not which position I will end up in. I amstill a soul in limbo in an intermediary position – suspended between belief and unbelief – a limbo embodied by this age, labeled the golden age.

I am Mazid Al-Hanafi, son of Abdullah Thaqib Al-Hanafi and Shama Al-Wailiyya.

Everything I have is lacking and small. Even the fat on the ribs of my middle-aged she-camel is only as much as a shibr, the width of my hand. I named her Shibra on the advice of the Pharisee Bedouin that I purchased her from, below the southern wall in Baghdad.  He told me that Shibra is the name of a great jinn that lives in the Sahara and if I called my camel by that name, then Shibra would possess her and make her light and quick, easily swept up by the winds like her spiritual counterpart. And when this happened, she would cross desert after desert with me, one painstaking step at a time, and never disobey me!

But it seems that when the mighty Shibra jinn reached my camel, she loathed the idea of entering such a disheveled beast: protruding bones, droopy eyelids, split hooves. Falling behind the caravan, each step difficult, enduring the chest laden with books on her behind, eaten away by journey upon journey. Would that be due to the onerous burden of the books penned by philosophers and heretics on her back?

More than two years ago, we passed by the grave of Abu Tahir Al-Jannabi Al-Qarmati in Al-Ahsa. The caretakersof the tomb told us that the she-camel that had carried the black stone for the Ka’ba that had been snatched away to Al-Ahsa, knelt here and grew fat, and bore two calves every year. They told us quite a number of wondrous tales, the caretakers did, among them that the body of Hamdan Al-Qarmati never decayed in his grave because the worms were kept away from his holy body, and that there were towering men in green robes circling round his tomb nightly, worrying the tasbeeh beads, praising God. All this while the philosophy tomes on Shibra’s backside dug into her flesh one jolt at a time.

* * *

From Baghdad, I had intended to travel to Damascus. Its mosques, its scholars, its libraries, all seemed to have so much to offer me. The Damascus of Muawiya… I always picture him wearing Caesar’s crown rather than a turban, vainly strutting around in a loosely hanging cloak of red silk, his bright eyes betraying the shrewdness and lustfulness of a capricious king.

My grandfather was both the sheikh and imam of the mosque at the fort of Bani Al-Ukhaydir, in the town of Hajr al-Yamamah at the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. After each prayer he called out from the pulpit for God to grant the descendants of Ali long life, empowerment and rule on earth. All the worshippers accordingly responded with ‘Amen.’

Yet he never cursed Muawiya. He would only say: “The Shiites are Ahl Al-Bayt, the descendants of the prophet, and they are in disagreement with the people of Damascus, a disagreement which originates from a dispute over power. Muawiya was therefore an aggressor, but once he had established himself as ruler and his rivals had surrendered, he was a just Caliph, with an army and conquests which will be added to his good deeds.”

When I was born, he named me Mazid, after his grandfather. The men of Bani Al-Ukhaydir gathered around him and said: “Mazid is nothing but a rearrangement of the letters of the name Yazid Ibn Muawiya, may God punish him with what he deserves. How could you give your grandson this name?” He didn’t pay them any heed, refusing to change my name. Instead he asked God to give me a long life, blessings and knowledge.

***

Those coming from Damascus say that the last remaining original copy of Uthman’s Quran, which he had sent to different countries, was kept in the libraries of the Umayyad mosque, and that the pages of this very Quran had traces of his blood on them. In the markets of Baghdad, the booksellers mock this story and describe those who tell it as charlatans, since Uthman was killed in Medina and his Quran was supposedly in Damascus. So, how was such a story still circulating in Iraq?

I am eager to visit the libraries of the Syriac priests in Damascus, who haven’t left any book written by the Greeks untranslated. But this year, all the caravans heading from Baghdad to Jerusalem have avoided passing through Damascus. The news is that, despite a covenant between the Byzantine King Basil and the Fatimids, which has held for ten years, some mercenaries from his army have been disguising themselves as Arab merchants in caravans or as pilgrims heading for Jerusalem. They approach the Silk Road caravans coming from Persia, loaded with saffron and jade, or caravans from Iraq and Oman carrying perfume and frankincense, attack them and steal everything, even the robes off the merchants’ backs. Before fleeing, they brand the merchants’ backs with hot iron in the shape of a cross. Yet the Fatimid governor in Damascus has been turning a blind eye to them, with the excuse that the few soldiers he commands do not have the capacity to confront these foreign hooligans. In reality, he does not listen to or care about the complaints he receives, so long as these Byzantine and Roman caravans pay him the toll for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

***

Free-willed or of predetermined fate

In my heart are embers of sorrow that have not yet turned to ash. Baghdad has banished me; I did not leave it willingly. Baghdad is a wild temptress, a beautiful woman whose tent I stole into, from whose well I drank and whose fruit I picked, before she cruelly told me to leave at daybreak. In Baghdad, the great secret revealed itself to me, and the People of Divine Unity inspired my soul with their message. My departure from Baghdad has left me anxious, confused, as if a squall is stirring within.

***

Am I free-willed, or is my fate predetermined? On the day, when it was my destiny to leave Baghdad, I roamed among the caravans until mid-day, looking for one to join. Some advised me to go to the Anbar province, where I would find many caravans whose owners are skilled navigators and familiar with the routes. As for the caravans that reached Baghdad, they were owned by greedy men who, as some swore to me, shared the money of caravan merchants with the robbers lying in ambush along the route. I study the faces and their features carefully. Of course, a thief won’t come up to me, declaring: “Dear brother Mazid, I’m a robber, please don’t join my caravan.”

Caravan owners usually call out their routes and destinations, but my arrival at the marketplace coincides with the arrival of caravans coming from the desert, loaded with the desert hunt, including cats and birds, basketfuls of truffles, and colocynth – which is valued by the people of Baghdad as an antiseptic for their intestines. As a result, everyone in the market crowds around the desert caravans and nobody pays any attention to me.

I continue to walk until I am close to the riverside. The shouting of boat owners and the grunting of camels mix with the scent of damp river soil drenched in the smell of burned palm fronds.

Suddenly, I notice a man standing next to a large white camel, resting like a dune, with sloped wooden shelves hung over its saddlebag. The man is carefully placing small bottles side by side into the shelves, each bottle of a different colour. I have never seen more beautiful colours, or more elegant, delicate ornaments. Some are saffron-yellow, others azure-blue, or turquoise, all with carmine paper lids, and placed in boxes of the same colour. Some are labelled water lily, narcissus and pandan, others iris, lily and myrtle, or marjoram, citron and bitter orange, or basil branches and agar wood. When the man has placed all bottles neatly in their boxes, he wraps them up in a piece of linen, and a young slender boy skilfully stitches the sides of the linen over the boxes, as if he was born with this large needle in his hand.

I continue to stare at them until the man turns to me with an inquiring smile. His features are sharp; he has deep facial wrinkles and a neat beard streaked with white. Yet he is broad-shouldered and has the bearing and body of a soldier, which don’t match the lines on his tired, ageing face. He does not appear put off by my curious stare. Instead, he addresses me in his Daylami accent, cordially, as if he is merely resuming an extended conversation between us: “That’s the way perfume is. Like the lips of a virgin or the wing of a butterfly, it is damaged by air and light, the musk in particular. That’s why it must be wrapped up. It’s a long journey, you know.”

Emboldened by his warm manner, I ask eagerly, “Where to?”

“To Busra Al-Sham,” the Daylamite responds without hesitation.

“Will you pass by Damascus, perhaps?” I plead.

“I suppose you also wish to be branded on your back?” he retorts sarcastically. He then goes on to tell me the stories circulating about the attacks of the Byzantine gangs disguised as merchants. When he gets to the part about the hot iron with which they brand backs, he calls to a man who is strolling nearby, feeding the camels: “Hilal, come here!”

This translation appears with the permission of AUC Press.

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