Ba- Dal- Lām. Tinker with these Arabic trilateral roots and it will reveal many secrets. Those who believe language is a construct of the mind must look at Ba-Da-La; no human mind can conceive such mathematical order in such a complex language that organically sprang out of the bedouin as he recited poetry to urge his camel to move on. Ba-Da-La can both veil and unveil, deceive or reveal the truth. In terms of verbs it denotes exertion, substitution, exchanging and curiously, to prostitute. In terms of nouns it can be a suit, an allowance or it can refer to a person, a badal the plural being an Abdal.
In Damascus these Abdals are simply known as the Arba’een or the forty. In fact a whole mountain has been named in their honour, Jebel Arba’een. Of course, there has always been a great debate as to who they were in the past and who they are now. As I explain to my students, these Abdals are mentioned in some narrations of the Prophet. In Sufi lore they are walking saints who hold up the very framework of the universe with their prayers and service to God. They are entrusted with some of the gifts of their predecessors, the Prophets, and they continue their work still. Sufi lore will of course go into greater depth and explain that sometimes the Badal will not even know whether he or she is one. Many of these Abdals are chosen from three hundred of the best or as they are known Akhyar, (which comes from the same root that denotes goodness). Once a badal dies he is replaced by another which makes sense since as we have said, badal also has connotations of ‘replacing’.
Damascenes say that these Abdals are found in each continent of our planet but most of them are concentrated in Greater Syria. The head saint, the Qutb, resides in Mecca, in an unknown location and walks amongst the millions of pilgrims that visit the place. Be careful when you look down on that Sudanese fellow or the quiet Takruni woman who asks for nothing, for that may just be the very embodiment of sainthood.
Even a taxi driver will point out the tombs of the ex-forties as he takes you through the city. He might, when driving past Bahsa Square point to a derelict shell of an incomplete mosque and a car park and tell you that the government tried to replace an ancient mosque where one of the forty used to worship with a car park. And although they succeeded in bulldozing the mosque and erecting the concrete structure, they discovered that deep below was an untapped spring which, if the car park was completed, would threaten to flood the whole city. Forget David Hume or Ibn Rushd. Miracles happen in Damascus.
Most inhabitants will probably cite Sheikh Habbal as one of the elect. Certainly if one visits his work shop in Midhat Pasha where St Paul famously escaped his persecutors one can see why; an ancient man with a wispy beard sits working away; the very embodiment of piety, wisdom and industriousness. One of his numerous sons receives supplicants from the high and low, Presidents kill for that sort of adulation. Sheikh Habbal though spurns them, but they keep coming hoping that the blind man who sees with the eye of the soul will mention them in his prayer.
Whilst there is a degree of unanimity with regards to Sheikh Habbal the same cannot be said for Abu Muhammad. In the Old City at least where Time sits with you in the coffee shop, opinion is split. Some hold the blind beggar in high esteem. According to the party of Abu Muhammad as they are known, he is the ascetics’ ascetic having worn the same clothes for thirty years. he has been spotted in two places at exactly the same time, he was spotted in the Ummayyad Mosque whilst he was seen snoozing at Ibn al-Arabi mosque in Muhiyudin, his back turned oblivious to the tourists taking pictures of the address stitched to his back which read: ‘Peace be on You, if you see me lost take me to Abu Salih’s house in Qamariyeh, Damascus. May God bless you.’ On other occasions he squats underneath the minaret of Jesus spitting out sun flower seeds whilst passing tourists grimace at his uncouthness. Their revulsion doesn’t stop him from spitting out the seeds in their path. His eyes are in a dreamy opium like state, his face bearing an expression of joyous expectation as if the coming of the Messiah himself is imminent. His metal plate of food brought to him by his nephew’s children, is untouched. The sight of cats sharing his plate, those rough leathery feet unhurt by the scorching cobbled stones, the patched blue thobe, all give him an aura of eccentricity and a touch of the uncouth Bedouin. When the party of Abu Muhammad say he is one of the Abdals, they have their reasons, after all this is a city of prophets, apostles, saints and miracles why could Abu Muhammad not be of the Forty?
It is a proposition that his detractors do not deny. Abu Mazin, his foremost detractor, will tell you “course he could be an Abdal but is it plausible”, putting particular emphasis on the plausible, “I mean is it plausible? A man with an address stitched on his back is a quack.” He would tap his finger on his head, “plain loopy. How many saints do you know? We have to be rational about all this! He is the reason why we are so backward. Marx is right, religion is a drug.”
And the evidence, in fairness, is there for all to see. Abu Muhammad harangues them for their laziness at Nawfara café, he is restrained by the caretakers at the Ummayyad mosque for insulting rich Russians and their expensive wives whilst guiding total strangers and showing them nooks and crannies where no one else goes. Who is buried there, or what secret that part of Damascus holds only Abu Muhammad knows. “Bonkers” Abu Mazin repeats ,”bonkers. It’s his lot that gives Islam a bad name. It’s the likes of him that get towns all restless and rebellious.” What else can Abu Mazin and his party do but laugh and inquire into everyone who pays too much attention to him? “Why” he says, “if he is such a saint doesn’t he pray to God to alleviate us from the Iraqis coming here? Why doesn’t he pray for rain and sort out this drought in the countryside? Or reduce the prices?”
Whenever I return home, during summer recess, I am always pressed to approach his nephew, a childhood friend, especially, when Abu Muhammad becomes unbearable. I, being so far removed in Toronto and not so intertwined with the issue, am often asked to reason with his nephew, pressing him to keep his uncle in control using all the powers of rhetoric that an academic can muster. I always try to wriggle out of it but Abu Mazin always insists: “you are your father’s son! Speak to Abu Salih before his uncle turns this place upside down!” and so out of respect for my father’s old friends I am pressed into action. But even with me Abu Salih is tightlipped. He always says he is too busy making furniture to give it much thought.
“No one wants good furniture anymore” Abu Salih says and keeps working without so much as a glance in my direction.
One day though when I pressed him too much, after Abu Muhammad had embarrassed Abu Mazin to tourists and Damascene alike calling into question his very manhood- that is his integrity and trustworthiness. It distressed him greatly. So I urged Abu Salih to place his uncle in a mental hospital where he could be cared for properly. That is when he stopped working and walked me out of his workshop.
“Abu Hamza,” he said, “we have known each other since we were children, you have known my uncle ever since we used to play on the street gullies did you not?”
That was true. But my memory of him was often vague.
“Didn’t you study Frankenstein?”
“Of course we did”, I said, “it is part of our degree to study Gothic literature.”
“Did you ever study why the monster became what he became?”
“You wouldn’t,” I said, “get a good mark if you didn’t.” In fact one would fail if one did not at least broach the topic, you must try to understand even though one does not condone the actions of the promotheus.
“So why don’t you do that with my uncle? I have five mouths to feed, unlike you I don’t have the time to keep my uncle in check. Unlike you I didn’t get a scholarship and a cushy chair at a Western faculty where they have long holidays in between semesters. He is mad and God has lifted the pen of accountability on him. Leave him be.”
“Are you still sore about that scholarship after all these years?” I said surprised by my own temper.
“Me? Sore! No, not at all.”
“I scored the highest in French and English.”
“ I didn’t do too bad neither,” he said, “I was top in Arabic and I was the school captain. God didn’t write it for me.”
I don’t know why but it wasn’t the fact that Abu Salih had kicked me out of his workshop that made me angry. It was more the insinuations that I didn’t deserve my scholarship. That night, during dinner with the boys I complained to my wife about Abu Salih’s behaviour.
“He’s just jealous darling” she said in that English accented Arabic that she hadn’t managed to shed from the time I met her at McGill, “can you blame him? He is working away in the workshop and here you are, an academic at one of the most prestigious universities in the world!” Miriam turned round and pointed out the house that my father had made through sheer graft, despite the obstacles facing country bumpkins like him. Despite being a poor young man from Dera’a, he had worked and studied and now all I saw were framed certificates and pictures of past glory where father stands with notables from the highest strata of society, from the President to the politicians, from military men like Nasser to tea with Gaddafi, conservative Saudi princes and to Beirut literatis. I don’t know how he made it but he did. The square with the ornate octagonal fountain right in the middle of our house was proof of his greatness. My father had built this place. Planted the flowers and trees with his own hands and restored the colour of Umayyad brick work. The house that my father built was magnificent.
“Maybe” suggested Miriam “before pressing him again maybe you should get acquainted with Abu Muhammad’s story. Then he can’t argue with you can he?” So this is what I set out to do in the semester of 2009.
Abu Muhammad or Zaid was not a bad painter in the 70s and the 80s. Even in those days Abu Mazin kept a close eye on him. In the morning Abu Mazin would serve him fresh bread. In the afternoon Abu Mazin noted that he sat on his fold up chair with a white canvas painting an arched portal with a winding alleyway concealing an ancient door perhaps from the time of the Ottomans. He loved painting streets with cedar wood beams jutting out of clay, plaster and mortar supporting creaking and groaning windows, balconies and floors. His streets were framed within the Ummayad colours of black and pastel brown, sometimes there was a silhouette of a woman escaping into her home, perhaps after a secret tryst with her beloved. His paintings were beautiful. When inspiration seized him he’d paint the Ummayad Mosque itself. Abu Muhammad’s paintings earned him patronage, fame and wealth. Before the civil war Lebanese businessmen purchased his paintings to hang them in their summer homes in Jubail, where they would be talked over and admired by European yachtsman stopping over. In the late 70’s you could find him sitting in al-Rawdah café, smoking a pipe with the likes of Adonis, Marghout, and Tamer discussing the merits of some artistic movement or other. But after 1982, after Hama, things changed. His paintings had a certain darkness to them, the shades of dark became more prominent, the shadows in the alleyways became more profound. His women became veiled and his paintings took on a tinge of red.
Even in the Old City there were fluxes in the time and space continuum. Father Girges had an interview. Old Menhal to whom the caliphate had never ended woke up and realized that not only had it ended in 1924 but that his young nephew had vanished. Even Efraim the only Jew in Damascus was asked a question or two. But apart from that nothing much changed. Abu Muhammad, Abu Mazin noted, became more restless, more irregular in his work, it was as if a great thirst had opened up inside of him that could not be slaked. He was not seen frequenting Rawdah café any more. He would be seen skulking around at night or the early hours. In fact at one point, he was not seen for several weeks perhaps even months. No one in the Old City knew for how long but then many didn’t ask. Some said he had gone to Beirut to ply his trade. Only Abu Mazin, kept count of the days he didn’t buy bread from him. There were other rumours; Abu Muhammad was working on his master piece, the piece that would transcend all other pieces and everyone in the Old City awaited it expectantly. Abu Muhammad would always have his doors open for the locals to come in and view his work. He was a painter of the people after all. But the piece never came, all that emerged one hot Friday, was a broken young man, blind, blabbering, lips caked with ink and an expression which veered from sheer terror to ecstasy. That day he earned himself the epithet of The Possessor of Muhammad on account of the unspeakable things he said about the Prophet which would offend even the most hard hearted of persons. Abu Mazin said the authorities carried him away to save him from the angry mob and tried cure him. After he was released he was nursed back by his mother and older brother, Hassan. He emerged one day putting his bare feet on the sun bleached marble on the Umayyad mosque and declared that: “Zaid al-Haddad is dead and has ceased painting.”
It is difficult to shed light on the subject especially as his nephew, Abu Salih remains silent. No matter how much Abu Mazin plies him with tea and sweets, no matter how indirectly Hammad al-Kurdi, a close confidante of Abu Mazin questions him. The result of Abu Salih’s silence has meant that two narrations have emerged to fill the vacuum no doubt nourished by cigarette smoke and strong coffee.
Hammad al-Kurdi is a strong proponent of this narration. He is my father’s taxi driver and knows everything that goes on in Damascus. My father would employ him whenever he needed to attend some important function at the opera house. Whenever a young man wishes to hear a good yarn of the good old days they all go to al-Kurdi even in his retirement. Apart from a great story al-Kurdi also has a particular knack for geography. As a young man he worked in Bulgaria and is considered somewhat international in that respect. He’ll tell you, whether relevant or not, that the capital of Kazakhstan is Almaty. This fixation with geography stems from him failing his secondary school geography exam. But is al-Kurdi reliable as an authority? According to Abu Mazin he is, because he has the privileged position of being with Abu Muhammad days before he stopped painting so it would be plausible that his school has a firm grounding. The only thing that may detract from his testimony, is probably al-Kurdi’s reputation for profligacy in his youth.
I found him where he was usually found for the past fifteen years, talking with Abu Mazin after Friday prayer at the Nawfara cafe. He wore a checked shirt and beige trousers smoking a big Zaaghloul which coloured his bristling mustachio with a darkish tint of pure tobacco pipe. Whenever he saw me he got up and and gave me an affectionate kiss on both cheeks out of respect of his old patron. He inquired as was always the case about my family and reminisced about my late father.
“I tell you”, he said, “the Ministry of Education has not been the same since his passing, God have mercy on him! Look how backwards we are, all these kids sporting beards down to their legs! Monkeys! If your father was here this would never happen, God have mercy on him. Did I tell you he recommended me to Sharif Shami the Chief examination officer of Damascus?”
I knew that and I also knew how much Uncle Sharif used to complain about him to my father, but for some reason my father kept him on and so did Uncle Sharif. Uncle Sharif was a generous soul, when I got my scholarship, he personally came to my father’s house to announce the good news and presented me with the documents. No one had ever scored such a high mark in the exam. My father was pleased as if it was an inevitability. He never once doubted my academic ability, even when I did so myself and I remember the personal attention he devoted to my education no matter how busy he was.
Al-Kurdi told me that whatever happened to Abu Muhammad was premised on a jinx.
“You see it all happened on the last day of October, I remember the first cold winters breeze hit me and thinking that winter is here and my neck’s going to give me a grief. I was just about to start my shift and I was sitting in Abu Ali’s having a bowl of beans and a hot cup of tea when I sees Abu Muhammad at the round about “Zaid” I says giving him a wave “come over here”. He turns round and gives me a wave. I called him over, pointing to me pack of cigarettes and me bowl- Abu Muhammad never used to smoke cigarettes unless he snatched one off us. So he makes his way across the roundabout and he’s got one of his canvasses under his arm. I tells him to sit down and order another hot bowl of beans. He reaches for me packet straight away and lights one. I could tell that he wasn’t too happy. His face was all scrunched up and he looked upset. So I says “whats going on man? Things can’t be that bad can it?”
“Not at all,” he says with a shrug, “painting can get to you sometimes.”
“Oh? Your artist friends did a runner on you did they?”
“No” he says dragging on his cigarette “sometimes I get tired of painting the same old stuff.”
“He did have a point mind you, how many years can you draw arches, old buildings and all that at some point you’d get tired- I know I would. Even if like him, he’d do it in different ways. He must’ve been sick of it by now. Know what I reckon?” I says
“What?” he replies cynically, “that the capital of Bulgaria is Pristina?!”
“ It’s Sofia,” I says, “listen I’m giving you some advice here. I reckon you should change the stuff you paint.”
“I’ve just come down from Mount Qasioun. Winter’s arrived early, and I probably won’t finish my painting now because the wind will get into my bones and you’re talking about changing the subject?”
“That’s not what I mean.” I says, “why not draw animals and figures and wot not, like them artists in the West? You can be like that Leonardo. Do like a Mona Lisa or something.”
“It’s Leonardo da Vinci, I’m not doing that!”
“Why not?” I says.
“Because” he says raising up his hands as if he’s talking to a fool, “I’m from the East, we have our own ways- besides in Islam its haraam to depict faces and living creatures.”
“Since when did you suddenly get all religious and believe in all that?”
“Look,” he says, “I might not pray but I don’t think it’s right.”
“So you going to take on that commission you got about painting the President’s son?”
“What?! How did you know about that?” He froze up, he looked at me suspiciously, “who told you?! There’s ears everywhere these days.”
“Come on” I am the driver to the Ministry of Education and Culture I hear everything, “get with the times with all them loons in Hama rebelling what you expect? Everyone round here knows that Mr. Zayyat offered you the commission.”
“Rebellion to you maybe.”
“What you mean by that?”
“Nothing. Look, I swear I am never going to draw a living creature- and even if I were to, I’m not going to draw that arsehole- I’d rather accept a commission from Satan to draw his balls.”
“Even if the President commands you?”
“President? You mean dictator?! Never. My paintings serve the people not tyrants.”
“Alright, alright! Calm down! Never say never. Calm down! At least the Big Man is doing something about corruption.”
Abu Muhammad was having none of it, “Since when did you become an ardent supporter of the President?”
“Always have” says I.
“Even now?” He came closer and whispered it, “even when one of the most ancient cities have been flattened.”
“They are enemies of Syria. Terrorists that want to destroy Syria.”
“He bellows out a laugh and leaves me grabbing all me packet of cigarettes showering me with all sorts of affectionate insults. He shouts that maybe I could sort him out with some whore he could paint when I’m driving me taxi round Masakin Berzeh. “God knows” he says laughing “you supply it to the ministers.” I was rightthough wasn’t I? I always say never say never. Don’t test the powers that be. He was painting a market scene down Souk Sarrujeh one day and he came across this Yugoslavian girl working at the embassy and he must have been knocked out. I’ve seen her meself. Body like the Adriatic coast full of curves and waves, below the clear sea; a hint of submerged white coast line. I’m telling you, what ever it was underneath her dress was pure magic. I think he saw her for months and just disappeared like one of them Shi’ite Imams. When I did see him he showed me a drawing of her in his sketch book. He looked like a drug addict, eaten up from inside but when I saw that rough pencil drawing, I nearly went blind, she was a houri or something. I remember ribbing him saying that it was all haraam in Islam and all that. He just shrugged it off saying that he’s still not going to draw the President’s son. I tells him that he could get loads of money and maybe marry her. Then he disappeared again for weeks and then comes out like he is now, bonkers. From the gibberish that he told me it was case of Majnun and Laila. He painted her, probably slept with her, because how could you resist? We’re all human ain’t we? And those lot in Yugoslavia are not like us here. We’ve got honour and morals. He must’ve thought that all the shagging was a prelude to marriage. But she was having none of it and told him that she was going to return to Yugoslavia and she couldn’t marry him. She probably did it to make herself feel good. I mean every girl wants to be in a painting or a song? Women are fickle, they want to be little gods! All of them! He was gutted, probably painted her so well it seared into his brain and went mad like rabid dog frothing at the mouth. That’s probably when he threw a bit of turpentine in to his eyes or scratched them out because he couldn’t get her out of his mind. That’s how he became Abu Muhammad. Your father would confirm it if he was alive, he knows the story better than me because he made inquiries for his mother when he disappeared.”
I was surprised because my father never mentioned it, even when I asked him about Abu Muhammad he never said a word, he used to walk past him as if he didn’t exist even when Abu Muhammad threw him those long accusatory glances that was his custom to all those people he disapproved of.
The second account to Abu Muhammad’s candidacy for being an Abdal is Mr Rashid’s. He is his cousin and childhood friend. I must admit though he is a local, I didn’t know him even though my father did. There was a time when my father had appointed Mr Rashid to teach at one of the local schools. For a brief period he had even tutored me. My father, clearly appreciated his calibre, but for some reason those sessions stopped. Mr Rashid didn’t recognise me when I turned up on the steps and knocked on his metal door. He no longer looked like that slender young man but had aged much, when he saw me his face turned to a look of surprise that verged on terror as if he was standing in front of my father.
“Who are you?” he said searching my face as if he recognised me from his past.
“I’m Mr Ammar’s son,” I said, no response was forthcoming, “I am one of your students.”
“My son, forgive me but my memory fails me” he said.
I was surprised that he was letting me stand outside his porch when he was famous for his chivalry. Mr Rashid was not just a man of probity and piety, he was chivalrous to the point of ridiculousness. Abu Mazin told me that once he found 2000 liras on the Jisr Ra’is, the bridge where all of the city’s traffic congregated. Instead of pocketing the money or donating the money to charity like most sensible people, he placed an advert in all the newspapers announcing his find. Qamariyeh was swamped by hawkers, vendors and taxi drivers for days. Abu Mazin always says that he still lives in the era of Mutannabi. But Abu Muhammad spares him from his tongue lashings.
“Ustaaz,” I said “don’t you remember when you used to take me on a whirlwind tour of Arabic literature and history?” No response. “Don’t you remember the time when you explained my own house to me? You pointed to the wall and said: “We are not like the French who display everything beautiful to the outside world. They display their gardens, the charms of their woman all up front. We, on the other hand, are not ostentatious. When you walk past our home you will not come across showy gardens, rather a small door on a muddy wall, you have to bend to get into the home, to humble yourself, then are you let into a paradise, with the trickle of water, the shade of the tree, the light airiness of the stucco, the cedar beams. Hospitality is given and received. We are aware that all this worldly paradise is not for boast and ostentation. That is why our home may look miserly on the outside but they are certainly rich on the inside and that’s our philosophy.” It became almost an ode in homage of him. “Sir, I think it was you who prompted me, much to my father’s dismay, to switch to Arabic literature when I was at McGill.”
“Really?” his eyes came alive, “so it’s you?” He smiled at me like the sun and beamed. He hugged me warmly like I was that pupil many years back and brought me in through the narrow corridor. His warmth reminded me as to why I begged my father to continue our lessons but I was like a goat butting against a mountain. He just said that we Syrians needed to look forward and free ourselves from the slavery of our past. “We need” he said, “to think anew my son, look to the future. The reason we are where we are is because we became prisoners to our past and we have mongols knocking on our doors now both within and without.”
“But” I said, “ the past is beautiful father, its majestic. I love history, we can be like Baybars or Qutuz or Suleiman instead of being the monkeys that we are now.”
“Monkeys?” Father said and looked at me as if to say who taught you that? That was the last pronouncement he made on the subject and I was never taught by him again. In fact, he seemed to be wiped clean from my memory until I started digging.
We went through another door and entered through the courtyard into his study lined with magnificent tomes and books on all kinds of subjects. I had no doubt that some of his ancestors were mentioned in-between those sheets of paper. Mr Rashid belongs to to the illustrious Haddad family- the same one which Abu Muhammad belongs to. The Haddad’s are considered to be of the Shwam that is, from the original inhabitants of the Old City. Their ancestry can be traced to the time of Abd el-Malik the Ummayad, and some of their ancestors have even graced the biographies of Damascus. And their brilliance meant that the Haddad’s could be found everywhere in society, from the artists salon to the Ministry of Education, their brilliance meant that they could never be ignored. He poured me some tea with sage which had been quietly brewing on the sobia stove whilst I explained my objective. He was reluctant at first, saying that he didn’t want to rock the boat. That he didn’t want to be refused for a Hajj visa for the twentieth consecutive time. When I pressed him saying that this was for my ears alone he acquiesced saying that I said it the way my father did.
“My son, I found Abu Muhammad on the tenth night of Ramadan at al-Nabulsi’s mosque in Salihiyeh. The Sheikh had finished the Tarawih prayers and had begun on the book he loved covering during Ramadan; the Shama’il of Tirmidhi- a collection of traditions related to the way the Prophet looked. It documented the minutest detail from the number of white hairs on the Prophet’s beard to the way he behaved with children. The Sheikh always said that one could use the book to get such a detailed portrait of the Prophet’s noble countenance that some Saints once they comprehended its contents were blinded by his magnificent countenance. He was the moon. One look at the countenance of the Prophet, peace be upon him, would be like staring into the sun itself. You could go blind, the Prophet’s Companions could see him because they were men of different constitution to ours. We are weaklings used to soft living. Our eyes cannot tolerate such a vision. “He who wishes to stare into the sun- cannot” the Sheikh would say, “therefore” holding aloft the Shama’il of Tirmidhi, “let him stare in to the moon for it reflects the sun without its intensity.” The Sheikh had just finished reading the chapter on the way the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, wore his ring when I spotted Abu Muhammad sitting in the far corner of the mosque listening attentively, scribbling furiously in his notebook. It pleased me, it was proof of the healing of Ramadan, for during this blessed month even the Muslim who hardly ever prayed abstained from the world and turned to his Lord. After the Sheikh had closed his book I made my way towards him. Abu Muhammad was sitting on his knees deep in thought, he had a copy of the Shamaa’il on the rug. After exchanging pleasantries and inquiring into our respective families I asked him what brought him here to Salihiyeh. Abu Muhammad usually prayed at the Great Mosque in the Old City. He replied that he had wished to hear how the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, looked like. I was pleased by that- for the only way to know God is to love His Prophet. I invited him to accompany me to Maisat where we could refresh ourselves with some fruit juice and he accepted my invitation. As we walked, he asked me how my teaching was going and I complained that I was having some trouble with officials from the Ministry of Education. “they don’t like the way I teach the syllabus,” I said, “I thought they would like me teaching them the glories of the Arab peoples- but they are averse to it.”
“Isn’t that the way these days” he said.
I sensed that something disturbed him, because he was usually far more talkative than that. So I asked delicately: “I trust that the engagement is going well?”
“It is as it should be.”
“Praise be to God. So when will you hold the engagement?”
“I won’t” he said bluntly, “she has returned to Yugoslavia.”
“Only two weeks ago you were the happiest man alive” I searched his face looking for traces of emotion but his face was a corpse in a morgue, “Didn’t she want to convert?”
“No, she converted and I’m glad she remains one- No dear friend, I broke it off.”
I touched his forehead to check his temperature and said: “Do you remember when we used to talk about marrying a beautiful Circassian with green eyes, blond hair and pale skin?” He smiled as if he remembered those moments sitting in the inner courtyard of my house drinking iced mulberry juice, whilst the fig tree shaded us from the glaring sun. “And now God out of His grace grants you one and you send her off packing?”
“I don’t think you will understand the matter,” he said and changed the subject. He spoke no more of it the whole evening. I was not worried though he would explain in due course . He would find me when he needed to talk that had been his way ever since childhood. And he did. One evening when Mother and Father were visiting an uncle in Midan, I had just prepared some tea and was reading a novel in the courtyard, when the regular tap, the secret code of our childhood was heard. I went for the door without even marking the page I was on, I found him outside looking quite disheveled. His dark lank hair was greasy, his light blue shirt grimy on the collar and trousers creased as if he had slept in them.
“Ahlan!” I said looking round in case someone saw him, “come in. Come in!”
He checked to see if anyone had followed him and came in.
“Has anyone been here asking about me?”
“No of course not. If anything I should be asking you.”
“You sure? You didn’t see any one? A new street sweeper? Did Abu Mazin ask about me to you?”
“No,” I said concerned, “but why are you in trouble?”
“Tea!” he demanded waving my question away.
I lead him through the narrow hallway into the courtyard. I poured him a cup of tea. He sat down next to the fountain placed his copy of the Shama’il and his sketch books carefully on the table. I noticed that he must have been working for his fingers were stained with ink and paints and he had the faint smell of turpentine about him. He drank his tea appearing very pensive, his handsome face was tired, his cheek bones sunken and his gait slightly haunched as if the days of fasting had taken its toll. I watched him silently waiting for it to come out.
“Cousin I am tired,” he said, “tired of drawing market scenes, old minarets, and the ancient streets of the Old City. I need something different.” I concurred with this sentiment; all of us need a change of subject. “Yes but, I mean I am tired of it- I need something more beautiful.”
“Why don’t we visit my uncle in Homs” I suggested, “from there it is a short ride to Aphamiya or we can train it up to Lattakia. There’s plenty of inspiration there.”
“I have already painted that, they hang on the walls of the wealthiest in Beirut.”
“So what do you want to do?”
“I wish to paint life, living things.”
“You know our traditions are not like that. You know that God will surely hold Michelangelo to account for demanding his statue to walk?! How dare he compete with the Most Magnificent?!”
“Yes, but we have also done so, we have drawn animals and human forms- just go and look at the Great Mosque. There are depiction of trees, birds and deer.”
“Yes it is true, we do have that tradition but they were representations of the real, our artists deliberately strove not to draw it realistically. They were illustrators who aimed to draw out the meaning of the represented, so that the represented does not become the focus itself. Our artists killed their egos.”
Abu Muhammad did not accept my reasoning and he dismissed it with a kiss of his teeth.
“Why can’t I draw and paint like Leonardo Da Vinci? Even the Baroque artist Caravaggio?”
“I’m not questioning your ability, I have seen what you can do, truly there is something of the poet in your paintings, but I question your motives- why?”
“Because I need it. I need something more than old buildings.”
“Is this why you broke off the engagement? Is she not enough? Is she not beautiful? Everyone says she is.”
He glanced at me impatiently.
“It’s not that- you won’t understand.”
“Try. Make me understand.”
“Don’t you see?” He said excitedly, “when Michelangelo painted the Sistine chapel it was as if his very soul was speaking to God with his very being? It is proof that we have an angelic nature.”
“Yes, truly in the remembrance of God do hearts find contentment but he depicted God as a man. He crossed threshold of the Law.”
“Can’t you see that when Carvaggio painted Jesus it is as much a labour of love searching for meaning the same way our artists did with our Prophet?! Their journey is the same journey as that of the saints.”
“No!” I shouted him down “No that is a delusion! They do not know how Jesus looked like for they would be blinded by his beauty. It is true that some of our craftsmen depicted Muhammad, but they were done in the most unrealistic way, his face would have a veil, and painted for illiterate Turkish khans who wanted to know the story of our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, than to actually gaze at the real figure. They were illustrators. We do not do realism- those Renaissance painters will never understand the true meaning of Jesus!”
“There is no point in speaking to Philistines- there is simply no point.”
“Do not for a second think I don’t appreciate the beauty of their paintings, for I often loved to go through your books of the artists, but I always realized that they deluded themselves. Do not think that you can achieve sainthood by seeking a short cut to God. Our Saints worked hard. They were chosen. You must ask Him if that is what you are really searching for.”
I wanted to say more but he did not let me. He had already got up was gulping the last of his tea and excused himself on a pretext of getting some fresh yogurt for the evening meal. I did not stop him for I, too, was flushed and vexed at the insolence of artists to break the rules set down by the Law. I was too distracted to notice that he had forgot his sketch pad and his book. When I did notice, he had already left and the court yard was silent. I picked up the sketch book from the coffee table and casually flicked through it. In it were preparatory drawings of rings, turbans, swords, clothes, pictures from Topkapi palace in Istanbul of things having belonged to our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. My mind and heart began to race. I stared at the Shama’il, I opened its pages. To my horror I divined, through his copious notes his intention. I rushed out to catch him at home, I banged on the door and found his mother, Umm Hassan opening the door. “He’s out” she said, and seemed reluctant to invite me in. I left a message for him to call me. But he did not return my calls. For several days I visited his house only to be given the same answer. Realising that he was at home all along I informed her of his design.
“Your son is in grave danger!”
“What are you talking about? He’s been holed up here for days- there’s no Mukhabarat snooping around. What are you talking about nephew?”
“I have seen his notes, he’s trying to paint the Messenger of God!”
“I seek refuge in God” she said exasperated and I heard the sound of her footsteps descend down the steps, the bolt unlock, Umm Hassan lead me into the courtyard saying: “That good for nothing’s been in his room for days, I have hardly seen the fool.”
“Zaid” I screamed looking up on the first floor towards his room “Come out.” There was no response from his room on the second floor. “I know what you are trying to do- I have your notes.” Silence. “Brother”, I said, “you cannot stare into the sun for it will blind you, stare into the moon instead and you will appreciate the rays of the sun. Don’t do it for the love of God. Don’t do it.”
“Go away” said a muffled sound, it was a strange animal like sound, but nevertheless it was him. “go away” he repeated.
“Zaid listen to me, Zaid! If a houri descended to earth the world would go blind. This enormity, to paint him is not only a sin, but his beauty will consume you.”
I heard a chuckle, a crazy laugh of a drunkard who had been warned about Scotch whiskey after he had already emptied it. “Leave me.”
I left him having warned him. After two weeks Umm Hassan called me. She was hysterical. The three of us, me, and his brother Hassan managed to chase the half naked lunatic down, pin him down in Qamariyeh before the hard wooden police batons would find their mark on his body. I will never forget his expression, as I wrestled him, a blind wild beast with a tortured expression of ecstasy. He had gazed upon him! The police did swoop on us and after my release many months later, everything was in tatters. I lost my job and all I could do was to go to his room and with closed eyes and burn all the contents of that room. In the process perhaps I destroyed some of the best masterpieces that Damascus had ever seen. Perhaps even the world.
There were some questions that remained over Mr Rashid’s account. Stories that I had caught in passing. “isn’t it true Mr Rashid”, I said as gently as possible, that you were on a holiday for several weeks about the same time as Abu Muhammad’s arrest?”
“Is that,” said Mr Rashid as delicately as possible, “what your father told you? Did he tell you that the Ministry accused me of burying some banned books in the cemetery? Did he tell you about the hard labour? The screams from the best teachers that Syria has ever produced?” He talked to me normally but his eyes were crying as if they had seen things that the soul could not comprehend.
I realised that this had become personal. It became clear that the man had lost his mind and I did not want to entertain such gibberish. I left him to his quiet idyllic indolence. I concluded there and then, that there was no point in pursuing this line of inquiry. As the Prophet said: “The best of you are those who leave those things that don’t concern him.” I never bothered Abu Salih after that again. In fact, I consciously avoided him. As for Mr Rashid that was the last I saw of the old man. Even my wife wondered why I didn’t give him the courtesy to attend his funeral prayers when he died. My father had never mentioned the incident- ever. I am willing to wager all that I possess that my father had nothing to do with Mr Rashid’s arrest and the tortures he endured- or at least, he wasn’t the one who sent out the order.
But I couldn’t help it. Every summer whenever I saw Abu Muhammad sitting in that Grand Old Mosque, I fluctuated between those two accounts I had been told. Sometimes I inclined to the view of the youngsters who didn’t have the same deference of the old. They politely inquired as to why Mr Rashid’s had not been allowed to leave the country for pilgrimage since 1982. Perhaps Mr Rashid is as mad as Abu Muhammad himself and the story of the forty Abdals and Abu Muhammad’s candidacy was just a bit of nonsense keeping the people of Damascus sleeping. Other times, when I saw the old man with that turban wrapped just like it is found in Tirmidhi’s Shama’il, his hands raised to heaven, his eyes closed, face wrinkly sun burnt with an expression of painful pleasure as if he had just made love to his newlywed for the very first time, could he be an Abdal? Perhaps there was something to that old lunatic. Sometimes I told myself that these Old Timers know what’s what. Young scamps should mind their own business if they know what’s good for them for after all did the Prophet not say: “He who believes in God and the Last Day, let him speak good or remain silent.” And in this way I soothed my soul wishing at once to do away with Abu Muhammad who seemed so interwoven to my own past, and at other times, I wished to hug him and seek his for forgiveness and ask him to pray for me and my father’s soul. Every time Abu Muhammad sees me, he seems to understand that longing inside me. He is patient and waiting for me as if he knows that Ba-Da-Lām can both veil and unveil.
This is a short story that was published in CM|19 Hurst 2016 see here