This summer, we will run select pieces from summer issues of ArabLit Quarterly. This short story, by Moroccan author Muhammad Zafzaf, translated by Lily Sadowsky, ran in the Summer 2022 JOKE-themed issue of ArabLit Quarterly, guest-edited by Anam Zafar.
By Muhammad Zafzaf
Translated by Lily Sadowsky
In fact, it wasn’t people but History that Borges condemned in his well-known short stories. My, how many—across space and time—against whom judgments have been issued have been in need of a retrial! But death settles everything as far as the judge and the judged are concerned, not to mention the false witnesses, the military leaders, the rulers, and the vermin whose scuttling can be heard all around them. Borges, whose own lifetime was so short (only about eighty years), was incapable of condemning all such mortals passing through this long-drawn-out History. Just as his life was cut short, so too were his stories. If only he could have condemned more!
Well, as it turns out, he’s been given the chance to attend the after-death retrial of al-Afshin, commander of the armies of al-Muʿtasim, about whom Abu Tammam wrote:
Al-Afshin wore the sands of war
and feared the blade of a still-sheathed sword.
Amid spears and streams of red,
he rode his will like a horse—ahead!
While Borges, in his oh-so-short life, knew nothing of the great commander, he had been interested in the Abbasid era by way of the Thousand and One Nights. He’s therefore being brought to witness the trial of that one Afshin, charged with heresy. Throughout, Borges will hear strange accusations, many of which would never have occurred to his Christian mind but which have nonetheless been raised by compilers such as al-Tabari, al-Masʿudi, and others.
As Borges entered the courtroom in his elegant European attire (but not in the company of his much younger wife), he kept glancing at the gallery. Everyone was wearing black robes! By the way, he’d recovered his sight in the Hereafter, after losing it in the Therenow. It seems Borges—throughout his very short life—never quite understood the meaning of heresy. Certainly, he knew that anyone who defies the One Opinion is a heretic. He must also have known that anyone who says reason rejects that definition is, well, also a heretic. This has been the case in Sind, Hind, and China, in Arab countries, and in Latin America, where Borges was raised. My, how he witnessed—throughout his very, very, short life—the multitude of his countrymen who were accused of heresy then tortured or killed. It seems he was blinded from weeping so profusely over them.
“Don’t marvel, Mr. Borges,” said an attendee who was seated nearby. “It’s just trial-as-usual, not unlike what would have taken place in Latin America. The cases here in the Hereafter remain, beyond a reasonable doubt, the same as those in the Therenow. Isn’t that so, Mr. Borges?”
“I wouldn’t know,” he replied. “I’m newly dead and not yet familiar with your customs here in the Hereafter.”
“We hear everything,” said the presiding judge, “so say anything. It’s the Hereafter, and no reporters, police officers, or heads of state are here today. We’re all equal. We just want to entertain and remind you of the Therenow, where people still believe with absolute certainty that they’re immortal.”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. President,”—Borges coughed—“do you know my name?”
“Naturally,” the so-called president replied. “Everyone here in the Hereafter knows the name of everyone else. For example, I know that the man beside you is Yazdan ibn Badhan and that he was killed in the very same era and on the very same charge as our Afshin. I suppose that’s why he decided, upon hearing news of the retrial, to spend his day sitting in court instead of taking a stroll. He came to remember the past and to see for himself how heretics were condemned. Well, actually—to see how we were forced to condemn them, for fear of being killed ourselves.”
“But, Mr. President,” Borges cut in, “we’re already dead.”
“I know, I know,” he said, “and don’t call me ‘Mr. President.’ Here, there’s no ‘president’—only ‘precedent.’ We just want to entertain you and maybe right some wrongs in the process. What an absurd life it is! There in the Therenow, they never cease to toil, to battle, and starve one another. In fact, it’s he who dies and joins us here who rests. Look behind you, my brother Borges. Even though I lived in the Abbasid Era, I know that person there. His name is Haile Selassie. He was an emperor of Ethiopia.”
“I know him well. We lived in the same era,” Borges replied. “But he seems. . . worried.”
“Not at all! He’s just contemplating the next poem he’ll write about his dogs. Sometimes he goes to the Italian Wing and has a drink with those he warred against.”
“I didn’t know he wrote poetry in the Therenow,” said Borges.
“Everything is possible in the Hereafter. In any event, our chat has carried on too long, and we must return to the matter at hand.” The presiding judge cleared his throat and was met with silent approval from all around him. Then, turning to address Ahmad ibn Abi Duwad, Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Malik al-Zayyat said, “Briefly state the charges against al-Afshin, commander of the armies of al-Muʿtasim.” He paused. “By the way, don’t you think the two of them are off drinking together somewhere? They might have entered Paradise, for all we know! God is Much-Forgiving and Most-Merciful.”
“The charges are many,” stated Ahmad ibn Abi Duwad. “They include murder, abduction, looting, religious and moral transgression, scorching fields, et cetera. However, we could only attest to the six that are still committed to the Memory of those in the Therenow. We shall summarize them for the eminent Borges, who came to us from the twentieth century of the Christian Era. Naturally, others will also join him—join us—, even the writer of this story.”
“Go on, then. We don’t want to burden the eminent writer. Perhaps he’s got another appointment to get to.”
“Right away,” acceded Ahmad ibn Abi Duwad, who grated on Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Malik al-Zayyat’s nerves—even in the Hereafter. “As you know, we’ve already sentenced al-Afshin to death. The executioners are surely among us, roving this world so vast and infinite.”
“Surely they’re languishing in the lowest depths of the Fire,” Borges interjected, “with shackles around their necks and legs. Just like I read in your Book.”
The presiding judge laughed before repeating, “Recite the six charges leveled at al-Afshin.”
“We are seated in fraternal session,” Ahmad recited, “to welcome our guest, new to the Hereafter.”
“Okay, no matter. The charges against al-Afshin were six,” Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Malik al-Zayyat pressed on, “as Ahmad Amin has most recently set forth on the authority of al-Tabari and al-Masʿudi, each of whom are present here today.”
“First,” Ahmad finally began, “al-Afshin was charged with whipping two men until their backs were bare of flesh, because they—an imam and a muezzin—had destroyed the idols of a temple.
“Second, a book containing blasphemies against God was found in his home, ornamented with gold and jewels and satin brocade. In response to this charge, al-Afshin claimed it was an heirloom whose ethical model he cultivated but whose false intellection he discarded.
“Third, he was charged with eating the flesh of strangled beasts, alleging it was more succulent than meat ritually slaughtered with a swift knife to the jugular. This is incompatible with the precepts of Islam.
“Fourth, he was accused of receiving letters from the supposed ‘People of Mecca,’ in which they—in the language of his native Ustrushana—addressed him as ‘Lord of Lords.’ That heathen might as well have taken a page from Pharaoh’s book and said, ‘I am your Lord, Most High.’”
The presiding judge cleared his throat. “God forbid! Proceed, proceed, Ahmad.”
“As for the fifth charge,” Ahmad proceeded, “al-Afshin’s brother wrote a letter addressed to that pretender Quhyar, which read, ‘No one can bring victory to this pure religion’—Zoroastrianism, he meant!—‘if not I, not you, nor Babak. I have the cavalry on my side, as well as strong and valiant soldiers. If I send them to you, only three forces will be left to combat: the Arabs, the Maghariba, and the Turks. The Arabs are no more than dogs; toss them a crumb and bash their skulls in. The Maghariba are head-eaters; they’ll be dropping like flies of their own accord. And the Turks are children of devils; it won’t take more than an hour for them to run out of arrows, at which point our horsemen will surround and finish the last of them off.’”
A man came with glasses of water, distributing them among the attendees. Borges didn’t understand what was happening around him but asked Ahmad nonetheless, “Which charge sent al-Afshin to death?”
Ahmad took a gulp of water. “It’s as if you’re in a hurry, Mr. Borges,” he said. “The sixth charge, the one that spilled his proverbial glass, is as follows: he failed to be circumcised.”
Laughter broke out in the hall. Borges laughed too, until his eyes filled with tears, then said to Ahmad, “So? I too failed to be circumcised during the eighty years I spent there. Did he defend himself?”
“Yes, Mr. Borges,” Ahmad replied. “He said he hadn’t wanted to cut that member of his body for fear of death. He said he hadn’t known that skipping the snip was deviation from Islam.”
“Trials must have been so strange in that era,” said Borges. “What did you do with him after that?”
“They detained him,” said the presiding judge, “deprived him of food and drink until he died, crucified him, then set him on fire. Ask al-Tabari or Ibn al-Athir or Ibn Khaldun; they’re all present here in this First Level of the Hereafter.”
Borges stood and approached the gallery. “What good people you all are!” he said. “You sure know how to welcome the dead. If only I’d known how nice this world was, I’d have committed suicide ages ago. In any event, you should keep this story a secret, for if they discover out there that this world here is so nice, they’ll surely kill themselves en masse. Not that they aren’t already doing that one way or another. Poor souls!”
Lily Sadowsky is a technical editor and translator from Los Angeles, CA. She holds a BA in mathematics and classical languages from Macalester College and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Markaz Review and at the inaugural Bila Hudood: Arabic Literature Everywhere festival in 2021.
Muhammad Zafzaf (1945–2001), sometimes called “the Tolstoy of Morocco” because of his social-realist examination of modern Moroccan history and his attention to the significance of the everyman, is primarily remembered for his pioneering work with the short story genre. Throughout his prolific career as a writer, Zafzaf published more than twenty volumes of short stories and numerous novels. His works have reached audiences across the Maghreb and Mashreq, and have been translated into French, Spanish, and English.