A Fictional Story by abdu’Rashid Craig
(With acknowledgement by the author for the original concept from
a story related to him by Mustapha Dhada, some many years ago.)
‘One does not usually talk of such things, Adam Bey’ declared Yusuf Effendi dismissively, as he settled back on the couch. Inside his own home he was resplendent, but neither in the modern European fashion favoured by the new regime, nor in his preferred daytime attire, the sharply tailored style of the latter day Ottoman bourgeoisie. He was clad in layers. An embroidered top coat, long waistcoat and chemise hung over his voluminous silver-trimmed pantaloons. On his head, in direct defiance of recent Government edict, he wore a tall maroon fez around which was wound a green silk scarf. With amber prayer beads in hand, he epitomised the old Turkey of Sultan, seraglio and dark bazaar rumour.
The faint hint of triumph in his voice was reinforced by an amused upturn of the lips and a narrowing of the eyes that threw the laughter lines into even sharper relief. I conceded defeat gracefully, and adopted, as far as our bilingual conversation would allow, his own rhetorical turn of phrase.
‘You will tell me nevertheless.’ I really did want to hear the story, as he had evidently planned for me from the outset.
The conversation at dinner had been the usual exchange of pleasantries. Indeed, nothing more was possible given the splendour and array of dishes for whose paucity my host would constantly apologise. However, as coffee and sweetmeats appeared and the silver-chased hubble-bubble had been brought from its corner and lit with a coal from the stove, the callowness of youth asserted itself. Accumulated frustration with the endless circumambulations of daily intercourse, which persisted in the new Republic in spite of Kemal Pasha’s modernising manifesto, led me to make unflattering comparison with the more direct daily intercourse of my homeland. To compound this, superstition and incomprehensible intrigue seemed to rule the populace. Even the relatively sophisticated, such as the Effendi himself, would arm themselves with talismans against the influence of the evil eye. Misfortune was at once attributed to fate and to the baleful influence of spirits, a paradox for which my Calvinist upbringing had ill equipped me; although, to be truthful, an equal share of a more ambivalent Celtic heritage would not allow me to dismiss it entirely.
The brashness of my criticism was no doubt responsible for the Effendi’s somewhat censorious response and the pointed hiatus in our conversation that followed. I couldn’t be sure whether his reaction meant he was displeased at my latest woeful demonstration of ignorance and social ineptitude, or rather at what he considered my deplorable agnosticism. I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable, as one does when one has inadvertently breached some unspoken rule of etiquette.
He continued to pull gently at the amber mouthpiece of his pipe as if deciding whether or not his listener was worthy of further explanation. The water burbled softly in its gilded glass vessel as the smoke was drawn through it, a counterpoint to the calming melody of the fountain that was the centrepiece of his enclosed rose garden. A musky effusion of finest Latakia tobacco mingled with the scent of the blooming roses, and the faint inference of rebuke that still lay in the air was soon wafted away. The feelings of embarrassment and slight resentment which assailed me also subsided. I should have been used to the leisurely pace of my self-appointed mentor’s tutelage into the mysteries of the orient. I inhaled the fragrant tobacco smoke through my own mouth-piece, a gift from an earlier soiree at his home, and leaned back against the cushions. We would get to the point soon enough. His circuitous style of explanation was entirely appropriate to the mood of the summer night, and I entered a state of satisfied languor induced by our supper’s symphony of flavours and textures. As I sipped at the dense, syrupy coffee he broke the silence.
‘You should know our Creator is before all beginnings and after all endings, Lord of all worlds’, repeating the last phrase for emphasis in his Osmali accented Arabic. Even I, the ignorant fereng, could not fail to mistake the reference to the opening chapter of the Mussulman Holy Book.
‘All worlds. That means the world of the womb, the world we know with our ordinary senses and emotions, the world we enter after death, and a myriad of other worlds which exist whether we see them or not. These worlds we don’t normally see also have their inhabitants, just as ours does. You should recognise and acknowledge their existence.’ At this juncture he gave an authoritative jab of his mouthpiece in my direction. The accusatory tone had crept back into his discourse. It was as if his use of the conditional tense implied that this was a matter of inexcusable ignorance on my part.
‘Just as Allah, to whom is all glory, in his infinite wisdom created the Earth and all its living creatures from dust, so too he gave existence to those of the purest light, the ones we call Angels. Unlike our own, their nature is such that they can do no other than ceaselessly praise and worship the one who made them. He also made beings of fire. The Prince of these is Iblis, may Allah forgive us. The Amir of all Satans, may Allah grant us refuge, refused to bow down before your namesake, our first ancestor. But he has been spared from hellfire until the day of Resurrection in order to test the faith of the descendants of the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, and lure them from the straight path. Do you not think that we should seek by all means possible to try and protect ourselves from the action of such beings, who are both powerful and invisible to our normal senses, and bring them to the path of truth?’ He looked at me interrogatively, the set and twinkle of his eyes indicating I’d been neatly ambushed.
An entirely new theological concept seemed to have been offered me, though due to my post-prandial torpor I could not be quite sure. The thought that there might be a degree of free will in the spirit world was a novel idea, unlikely to appeal to my paternal antecedents. I had a brief recollection of our local Minister denouncing the doctrines and deviations of the Bishops of Rome from his pulpit, and from this I extrapolated as far as his likely reaction to this new and outlandish heresy. Still, the Kirk was far away. Besides which, my maternal Grandmother, who was well known in the community for possessing ‘the sight’, would probably have had no difficulty with the notion. I was thus able to confront the substance and direction of our conversation without being overly hampered by Presbyterian antipathy to the subject of the occult.
‘Do you mean to say, Yusuf Effendi, these creatures of fire are sentient like us, and have the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong? That must surely mean that not all are engaged in leading humanity astray.’ By this time I was obliged to maintain my end of the discussion entirely in English, since my Osmanli Turkish wasn’t up to dealing with the depth and subtleties of the present topic.
‘Of course’ he affirmed. ‘Many of these spirits serve the Almighty with diligence and are rewarded accordingly. Indeed, in doing so, pious jinn are often the vehicle through which Allah, to whom be all praise, rewards the deserving amongst mankind.’ This extraordinary assertion caused my sense of the rational to reassert itself. In those days, I was too callow to be other than direct in my challenge.
‘Now you are telling me fairy stories Yusuf Effendi. Do you seriously expect me to believe such tales? What proof do you have that these beings even exist?’ He feigned offence, and gazed at a point on the wall somewhere above my right shoulder, as if unable to countenance my shocking lack of faith.
‘There are many proofs Adam Bey. The evidence can be found within the Mother of Books and the sacred traditions of our beloved Prophet, prayer and peace be upon him.’ I detected a faint hint of sanctimony which was difficult to counter. Nonetheless, I was determined to make the rally last as long as possible. Neither was I so intimidated I could not resort to mild sarcasm.
‘Yes. But speaking as one who is manifestly ignorant of such truths, what evidence do you have to offer from your own experience?’ He gave me a quizzical look, so I pressed on with renewed hope of at least winning the point, even if the match was beyond reach. ‘Surely your Holy Book distinguishes between the ordinary revealed knowledge of Certainty and the actual Vision of Certainty which is granted to the true believer?’ Yusuf continued to gaze at me, puffing away. The smoke curling about his head seeming to embody the very wraiths to which he had referred. I realised at once that we had reached the very place to which he had intended to lead me from the outset.
‘You should know, Adam Bey, that I come from a once wealthy family in the East of Anatolia. My early childhood was not spent in the penury in which you witness me now.’ I let this pass. Yusuf Effendi was perhaps not the wealthiest merchant in Izmir, as I had now to remember to call the ancient port of Smyrna, but the very house which he now occupied was testimony to the fact that he had benefited from the recent unhappy exodus of Greek and Armenian traders. By no standards was he a pauper.
‘In my Father’s household we never wanted for anything. Our estate produced the finest wheat, the fattest cattle, the fleetest horses. No traveller would be turned away, no-one coming to my father with a tale of misfortune would leave empty-handed. Not just at Bayram and Kurban, but at every wedding, every name-giving, every funeral in the village a sheep would be dispatched and the meat distributed to the poor. Anyone who needed to go into town to see the new fangled German Doctor could count on their fees being met. My father and his family were loved and respected by all who knew them.
‘In the yard beside our house was a modest single roomed building which we used for daily religious purposes as well as family gatherings. It was common knowledge, or rather it was rumoured in the village, since’ – and here he uttered the words with which I first introduced this recollection – ‘one does not usually speak of such matters. ’ He cleared his throat of an imaginary obstruction gave me a meaningful look, as if to ensure I was aware both of the privilege I was being afforded and of my earlier lapse of good manners. ‘It was generally believed our little prayer room was also the chosen residence of a pious jinn. And it was this supernatural entity that had been chosen by the All Merciful as the agent of His bounty towards my father and his family.
‘The being’s nights were evidently spent in lengthy devotion, long after the last humans had retired. We children were warned by my mother in oblique but unmistakable fashion never to disturb its privacy. From time to time each in turn would be sufficiently overcome with curiosity to enquire as to why the room in question was out of bounds after evening prayers. The reply, that ‘one might be disturbed’ or ‘one might be displeased’ merely served to further pique our curiosity; but her manner left no room for discussion. We were naturally respectful of our parents’ wishes. Besides which, notwithstanding our wealth and status in the village, my mother had remained a humble and hardworking person throughout her life. Honed as it was by years of scrubbing, kneading and hoeing, we had a healthy regard for her right arm. It was a formidable instrument for delivering instantaneous and painful retribution for any display of recalcitrance on our part. And, of course, there was not one of us but who was in considerable awe of the secret our family chapel held.
‘We would, nonetheless, frequently speculate amongst ourselves, outside of her hearing that is, as to the natural appearance of our diffident house guest. But we obeyed her strictures dutifully. At least the others did. I was about nine years old when the influence of my personal satan finally overcame fear of both parental censure and the terrors of the night. I had entirely failed to notice it was also the beginning of Safar, the second month of the year. Our parents had taught us the absolute necessity of avoiding, through prayer and acts of charity, the attention of the legion of black angels who were sent down at this time to distribute the year’s misfortunes to the unwary.
‘It was my father’s particular custom to say the obligatory evening prayers at the village prayer hall, but he always left aside the supererogatory portion until he returned home. The last of the day’s worship would be shared with my mother.
‘One evening, after the rest of the family had finished their prayers and while my father was still at the Jami, I secreted myself behind the screen which we kept ready for those occasions when the presence of male visitors made it necessary to preserve the modesty of the women of our household. Through a small rent in its fabric I ensured a clear view of the room’s only entrance. In due course my father returned. My parents completed the three cycles of their voluntary observance, and left the room, dousing the small oil lamp which was its sole source of illumination. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the feeble light of the new moon that shone through the single narrow window. I was alone.
‘I don’t know how long I waited, but my apprehension at being caught by my parents, or something unimaginably worse, contrived to make the vigil seem without end. I must have dozed off, for the sound of the latch lifting suddenly brought me to full wakefulness. So great was the actual prospect of realising my plan, which had hitherto merely existed in my imagination, my heart was beating as if it would burst my eardrums. It must surely have been audible to whoever, or whatever, was about to enter. I could not bear to look, and covered my face with my hands. I heard creak of hinges as the door opened.
‘There was complete silence. It seemed, to my fancy, that someone must be standing at the entrance surveying the interior of the room. I waited an eternity, then opened my fingers a chink, and peered cautiously through the tear in the screen. The door stood open. Outside I could see only the empty yard, above it the sky, the stars and the pale bright crescent of the moon. A breeze gently stirred the leaves of the great fig-tree in the courtyard. The silence continued, but so did the sense of being observed.
‘After a long interval the door swung to, and the latch was replaced with a gentle click. Once more I was alone, but dared not move. Suppose the departed presence was merely lying in wait, ready to transport me to the spirit world? Suppose I woke my parents?
‘The next thing I remember was a cramped arousal as my father entered the room for our morning observance. I slipped outside to the pump to wash, wishing that I too had the quality of invisibility, though I had no hope of being unnoticed. The cold water of my ablutions numbed my physical extremities so they matched the numbness of my feelings. After the final salaam, I crept away to my bed and plunged into a confused and disturbing nightmare in which I felt rooted to the ground, while around me a whirlwind raged, sweeping away our house and everything in it in a cloud of dust.
‘The punishment with which I was subsequently inflicted was the worst imaginable, and entirely of my own making, for neither of my parents mentioned the matter at all. They continued to treat me with the gentle indulgence due to the youngest. My sense of shame was absolute. Unlike a beating, this form of suffering endured.
‘It soon became evident that besides disobeying my parents I had also breached the sacred rules of hospitality and thereby offended our guest, who never returned. That this was the case first manifest itself through a tacit understanding, which somehow transmitted itself to all of us, by which the night-time prohibition on entering the prayer room was lifted. I never talked of the matter to my brothers and sisters, who nonetheless, by that same unspoken process, knew of my shame.
‘That year, the crops failed; stultifying heat and prolonged drought following upon the hardest winter in living memory. Mares threw their foals, and a typhoid epidemic filled the village graveyard. Bandits ran off much of our remaining stock, and the threadbare Government soldiers sent to track them down merely terrorised the villagers and damaged or stole what little there was left. Both my parents aged visibly. Where they had been honoured and respected, they became, as if it were overnight, the target for the resentments of the local community. People we knew well, and who had had good cause to thank my parents on many occasions, would avoid contact with us. Were we to encounter them on the road they would glance away, making the sign to protect themselves from the evil eye. I knew, with a terrible certainty, that I alone was the author of these calamities.
Not long afterwards, my father became gravely ill with winter fever. I crept one evening to his bedside, barely able to speak for remorse and sorrow at the condition to which my actions had brought him, but, undeserving as I was, still craving comfort and reassurance. Haltingly at first, then in a torrent, I made my confession, until his coverlet became soaked with the tears of my contrition. He gestured for silence.
‘Go and fetch thy mother and thy brothers and sisters’ he commanded. Unable to meet his eye, I ran out of the room on his errand, still snivelling. When at last we were all together, he spoke. His voice was weak and barely audible at first, so we had to lean close to hear him. I remember his words as if it were yesterday, for they were my father’s true legacy.
‘Children, listen to me carefully for I have not long for this world. There is one close by who awaits to take me on the journey all men must make.’ He paused to catch breath, the sickness lying heavily upon his chest. As my renewed sobbing set off a similar reaction amongst my siblings, he grasped my mother’s hand. She sat straight, her only movement the rise and fall of her breast, her eyes dark and unreadable. I remember seeing the tears struggling to escape and finally trickling down her cheek, but in other respects her visible emotions had been checked.
‘You must understand that all that is good and evil in this world comes about through the decree of the Almighty. Mankind is merely part of his design, and it is here in this world that we are sorted, good from bad, according to our actions and intentions, just as a farmer separates his stock by observing their condition and habits.’ His breathing had grown less laboured and his expression appeared as that of a man experiencing great contentment rather than one struggling with mortality. The voice too grew stronger, until it was as I had remembered from his heyday, full of compassion and masculine vigour.
‘There is no blame upon your little brother’ he continued, ‘for what he has done arose in simple innocence, from his nature as a child, one without sin. Indeed, his action and its consequences are themselves proof of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful.’ Such words were beyond the ability of any of us to comprehend, but their sound comforted me, and for the first time since the dreadful incident in the chapel I felt the burden lift from my neck.
Every night thereafter we would all gather in his room to sit with him and pray, until the night came when a massive presence seemed to fill the room, reducing its occupants to insignificance. He struggled to raise himself from the pillow, and raised his right hand in greeting, letting go of my mother. ‘Selam Aleykum dear friend’ he declared to the empty air. Then he addressed us. ‘Our expected visitor has arrived – we must say our goodbyes now and not keep him waiting.’ He lay back and closed his eyes, whether from exhaustion or in meditation, then continued talking to us in such a mundane tone that we were no more alarmed than if he had been discussing a trip to market. ‘Our new guest has many others to attend to this night. So remember what I am telling you now, as it is the last time we will meet in this world.
‘There are many temptations and illusions on this earth, and the worst of these arise from love of wealth and status, and pleasure in the praise we receive from others. If you truly wish to enter the next world in the state in which you entered this one, you must be free of all worldly attachments. We are no more than custodians of Allah’s bounty, and yet few possess purity of heart sufficient that our vision of the hereafter is not clouded by earthly desires. Has it not been related that when the believing jinn met with a truly pious man and asked what he desired most, he answered “death”? It is only the prospect of death that can guarantee our poverty of spirit and remove us from the temptation to sin.
‘The wealth which I possessed was no more than a distraction, and the good wishes of those around me no more than a snare for the soul. Allah in his infinite mercy has allowed me to escape this trap. All that is left to me now is to beg forgiveness for the wrongs I have rendered to others and to myself in my state of forgetfulness, and ask permission to sit in the shadow of those who are the true friends of the Almighty. Come now and kiss me, and let us repeat the Names, for it is time. Always pray for me and take care of your mother.’ One by one we knelt beside him, pressing his hand to our lips and foreheads in turn, and embracing those dear emaciated features that seemed now to be glowing with an inner light. At his cue, we took up the recitation, its sound obliterating the moment, until the walls of the room seemed to melt away and our voices carried us to a place where self and sorrow had no existence. Even when he made a final ecstatic exhalation and his soul was drawn from his body, we continued our Remembrance. But for his unnatural stillness my father could have been sleeping.
We stayed by the bedside, reciting the Book and the Names until the cock crowed. My eldest brother Mehmet led our dawn prayers, as we had grown used to during my father’s sickness. Then my mother and sisters heated water on the kitchen stove. She produced a scrap of fine soap she had been hoarding since better days, a glazed pottery bottle of Zam Zam water which she and my father had brought home from their Pilgrimage years ago, and an ancient perfume bottle with a few drops of musk still visible inside. We carried the body to the courtyard and placed it on a bench under the outer awning. My brothers carefully covered it with a sheet and cut away his clothing, eyes averted in order not to inadvertently glance at his nakedness. We washed him from head to foot, removing all impurities, and rinsed him thrice with clean water, at the last sprinkling him with the Zam-Zam. As we dried him, my mother gave us the two pieces of unsewn white cloth he had worn in Mecca. We wrapped him reverentially, and dabbed the remnant of perfume on his forehead, on his palms, his knees and on the balls of his feet, the seven points which touched the ground when he prostrated in prayer. Our own roses had long since died of neglect, so my sisters picked wild roses and strewed their petals over his shrouded body. Their faint but sweet scent seemed to fill the house and lingered for days. Each of us, save for my mother whose embrace would have broken his state of ritual purity, kissed that beloved face for the last time.
Somehow the villagers knew, and people came, family by family, with small gifts of food and money as tokens of condolence. The men helped carry the shrouded body down the path to the cemetery, the pallet on which it lay borne high upon their shoulders. We recited the profession of faith in unison. Those who tired were replaced by others, and there was no break in the slow and dignified pace of the procession. It was a gloomy day, in keeping with our sadness. As we arrived, sunlight pierced the cloud and a breeze struck up causing the Poplars around the graveyard to spring to life as if they too mourned my father’s passing. The grave had already been dug, and the bier was placed on trestles beside it. We lined up behind and the village Hodja began the funeral prayer. The stark simplicity of the prayer, without prostrations and silent save for takbir and salaam, blended perfectly with the exquisite bleakness of the moment. Mehmet and Ali, my next oldest brother, leapt into the hole, and my father’s white sheeted remains were handed down to them. They gently laid him into the niche formed in the side of his tomb, covering his face having ensured it gazed southward towards the City of Miracles. Boards were leant diagonally across, to allow space for my father to sit up when the angels came for his soul. As our Imam recited from the Book, dry clods of earth fell from the gravedigger’s shovel, echoing with hollow finality on the rough planks. The bystanders were covered with fine dust.
As we turned towards home, Mehmet whispered to us not to look back.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because the angels are questioning our father about his faith and his deeds in this life. They do not like to be observed.’ Remembering my past experience, I kept my gaze firmly to the front until we had reached home. My sisters, who had stayed behind with their mother as custom demanded, were red eyed and distraught as I, and clearly losing the struggle to contain their grief. It was unseemly to weep at this time, when my father was in the hands of the angels, but it is hard not to when there is an empty space in your belly like the worst of hungers, a space which cannot be filled with food. My mother, however, seemed in a state of almost beatific excitement, and this lasted throughout the 40 days’ official period of mourning. During this time, if ever she saw one of us looking sad, and it was often, she would infuse us with joy, talking of our father as if he were still with us, or referring to his journey in the afterlife as if she were witnessing it in person. Indeed, from time to time we would observe her apparently holding conversations with him, as though he were physically present. My youngest sister also confessed our father visited her at night and sat by her bedside, but she would not divulge what he said. As for me, I never saw him, except in dreams, but I would sometimes sense his presence, and a feeling of security and comfort would overtake my grief.
Much later, when my own sorrow had subsided sufficiently to bring myself to ask it, I put a question to Mehmet, who was now the head of our household. It had been exercising me since the night of my father’s passing. ‘You remember when our father told us we had a visitor, and it seemed like there was a gigantic someone else in the room with us?’
‘Yes of course, how could I forget that,’ he replied. ‘What of it?’
‘Well, was that, you know, the one that used to be here before, you know, in our prayer room?’ I had my doubts, as the presence had seemed so much bigger than I had remembered from that fateful evening those many years before.
‘Of course not’ my brother said. ‘That was the angel Israil. He will come for all of us one day.’
In time my sisters were married and my brothers left for the city to find work. I stayed with my mother until the day she too departed this life.’
Yusuf Effendi paused, silent and solemn in recollection. Then he smiled, returning to the teasing mood which had characterised the earlier part of our evening. ‘I am keeping you from your bed with my stories I fear, Adam Bey.’ Taking the gentle hint, I made my leave with effusive thanks. My host brushed them aside with cheery diffidence. As we walked down the inner cloister of the house towards its exit, my eye was drawn towards the closed door of his private chapel. The question that formed in my mind never reached my lips. One does not, it would seem, usually talk of such things.
© 2016 abdu’Rashid Craig