Habib Abdulrab Sarori
Hind and Abu al-‘Ala’ Play Chess

 

An excerpt from the novel The Hoopoe’s Report

Translated by William M. Hutchins

 

Hind was the brightest and most beautiful of the pupils of “the philosopher of poets and the poet of philosophers”, Ahmad ibn Abdallah ibn Sulayman al-Tanukhi, who was known as Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri. Of all his pupils she was the one who was most likely to debate with him and the most disputatious. She was certainly also the one most enamoured of him and the student closest to his mother’s heart.

Before making her way to his class, Hind always began by kissing the hand and knee of the mother of Abu al-‘Ala’. Before leaving, she would bid her farewell by kissing her forehead. She would visit from time to time to assist her with daily chores and to exchange confidences, concerns, and gossip.

When accompanied by his mother, Hind was adept at picking the right moment to challenge her teacher, Abu al-‘Ala’, to a game of chess.

The blind poet was renowned for “never having been defeated at chess by a sighted person”. He was also said to be “the only blind person who played chess in the Abbasid era”. All his opponents stumbled with an unnatural speed and were defeated with a disgusting ease, which suited him perfectly.

Hind loved the ritual aspects of her battle on the chessboard with Abu al-‘Ala’. She derived intense pleasure from watching him place a hypothetical chess piece on the table of his mind as he mentally reviewed the moves and positions of the pawns and officials of his army, one by one.

She knew he could not visualize the chess pieces’ appearance any more than he could visualize other objects or most colours. The illness that had afflicted him when he was a boy of almost four had deprived him of his vision. The only colour memory that his brain retained was red. That was the colour of the saffron-dyed shirt he wore while he was ill, before he plunged into the sea of dark shadows.

For each chessman he substituted a word in his mind. He also substituted a word for each square on the chessboard. A match was a dynamic, square poem with words that moved across a ground of words, fighting and falling in a night of words. Perhaps for this reason he demonstrated a special facility, which excited the admiration of his acquaintances for remembering the “text” of all the moves of his matches with Hind or other players – days after a game – move by move, verse by verse.

Things, all things, were identified with words in the space of his mind, which contained only words. Some words were superimposed on other words – scattering, glittering, and winking at each other like stars.

In the night of his mind, the starless night did not differ from morning, the sun did not differ from the extremely remote star Alcor, and the only difference between meteors and pebbles was the different letters in the words. All the same, the contrast between these paired opposites did not escape him. He recited:

   How amazing it is that many a loser claims merit!

   What a shame it is that many a meritorious person exhibits a defect.

   Alcor told the sun: “You’re miniscule!” 

   The starless night told the morning, “Your colour is off!”

   The earth insolently contended with the sky,

   And meteors skipped over pebbles and stones.

   So, death, call on me, since life is nasty.

   Your era, earnest fellow, is a sick joke!

These paired opposites were transposed – head over heels – by sighted people, who were confused or blinded by the gleam of reality and its sparkle. Its mirage and snares blinkered them.

Nothing in existence excited him like a word, and the most important word for him was “word”. Next in order of preference came “nightmare”, which in his lexicon meant quite simply “Mother of the Stench” or “Mother of Putrefaction” – in other words: this physical world, this vale of tears.

The most beautiful word in his opinion definitely was “light”!

* * *

Hind contemplated profoundly his smooth, dense beard, tall, slender physique, long, flowing, fluffy, silver hair (which was concealed by a turban from everyone but his mother and Hind, and occasionally his secretary), luminous brow, and features that were endowed with sublimity, sagacity, intelligence, and a nobility befitting his status.

His eyes were completely still; a grey, unshakable sorrow and the shadows of a treacherous, illness long ago had effaced them forever. God knew how much Hind always wanted to kiss them!

She believed at times that if only she could kiss them with extreme gentleness nonstop for an entire year, vision would return to them, since Joseph’s shirt had that effect on his father, Jacob, when it was thrown over his eyes. “Then he could see again.”1 Abu al-‘Ala’ himself shared this belief and wished that the “shirt” of her kisses would adhere to his eyes for much longer than that!

She gazed at him; she gazed at him to the point of dissolution! She was adept at listening to his silence. She would capture, decipher, and gloss each of its inflections. She would imbibe all its expressions and grow dizzy at every witty, sarcastic jest or exquisite remark he uttered.

She adored him as a whole and in each particular detail.

He told her, looking toward her as if he saw her, “Please, if you don’t mind, let the black knight move from his place in the third vertical file and the fourth horizontal rank to stand behind the white castle, fully behind her.”

A faint gasp of innocent, embarrassed laughter escaped her when she heard him say: “Fully behind her.”

She wondered how he pictured her when he looked toward her. Did he like what he saw? Was she also merely a set of words for him? Was she a white castle whose heart he toppled a thousand times a day? Would he only be happy when she disappeared in his embrace? When the tips of his fingers touched her slender waist, which would ignite all his desires? When his lips kissed all the undulations of her spine, one vertebra at a time? When they roamed her entire slender body, slowly, gently, and reverently? When he drank her breaths, when he was fully before her, fully above her, fully below her, fully inside her, and fully behind her?

Like his mother, Hind knew how much he loved beauty and that the only thing that actually appealed to him in life was the embrace of a beautiful woman. She realized that he was fully aware that she was very beautiful, but what did the word “beautiful” mean to a sightless man? By the truth of heaven, what did this word mean? Did he want his girlfriend to be an extremely beautiful young woman who was extremely charming merely to desire what all other men desire, without knowing what the word meant?

For a long time his mother had described Hind to him using colour words, because she knew how responsive he was to the names for colours and how disconsolate he was that red was the only colour he could remember.

“Hind’s complexion is vanilla-white. She has black braids, red lips, honey-coloured eyes, and gleaming white teeth, which are perfectly aligned.”

“Mother, describe the colour of honey to me. Spell it out.”

The colour of a person’s eyes and teeth mattered a lot to him. He missed seeing colours and light, which is the source of colours, more than anything else in life. Life had stabbed him in the back when it deprived him of light. He felt that no one in existence knew as well as he did the value of the word “light.”

He felt a certain sense of victory whenever he heard this word uttered in casual conversation. This was nothing compared to his delight in hearing the phrase “light upon light”2, repeated in passing, because he had a profound understanding of the meaning of the expression “darkness upon darkness”.

As a child he had asked his mother repeatedly about all the different colours and their variants. Her answer had never left his consciousness for a moment; he termed it the Surah of the Colours: “Colours clothe existence, my son. They grant it beauty! If existence were all a single colour, it would be quite mournful and dull – the colour of death!

“Roses and other flowers have their special colours as do a water bubble, the parrot’s neck, the peacock’s feather, and a dappled beard.

“The butterfly’s wing, the fish, coral branches, gleaming crustaceans, dye powders, the horizon at sunset, and the rainbow all have their special colours.”

Approximately a quarter century after first revealing the Surah of the Colours, his mother added some new verses to it. Called “Hind”, they painted her with magical, glistening colours, and etched them into the cortex of his brain when she said:

“Hind’s complexion is vanilla-white. She has black braids, red lips, honey-coloured eyes, and gleaming white teeth, which are perfectly aligned.”

Oh, his mother knew full well how references to colours ignited his senses and desires and how invested in them he was.

* * *

His mother told Abu al-‘Ala’ one morning: “Hind is fiendishly beautiful!” She knew how he had mocked the beauty of houris in paradise and how cleverly he had dealt with that in his book Risalat al-Ghufran (The Epistle of Forgiveness) especially in the section called “The Tree of Damsels” when he described the carnal appetite of a resident of paradise named Ibn al-Qarih, who negotiated with the Creator, may He be Exalted and Glorified – between his prayer prostrations – about the size of a houri’s posterior. At first he begged for her slim buttocks to be enlarged a little, because he thought them too scrawny. Then, after her buttocks grew too large for his tastes, he asked Him to diminish them a centimetre at a time until they reached a size that suited his tastes and desires.

Ibn al-Qarih said to a passing angel: “Servant of God, tell me about the beauties with exquisite eye contrast. Doesn’t the Holy Book say: ‘We specially created them – virgins, loving, and the same age – for those on the Right.’”3 Then the angel said: “There are two varieties. God created one type in paradise, and they have known nothing else. The second type God transferred from the Perishing World as a reward for their good deeds.”

Astounded by what he heard, Ibn al-Qarih asked: “Where are the ones who have never lived in the House of Annihilation? How do they differ from the other ones?” The angel replied: “Follow me, and you’ll see a first example of God’s power.” So Ibn al-Qarih followed him. The angel brought him to gardens the essence of which only God knows. Then the angel told him: “Take any one of these fruits and break it open. This tree is known as the Houri Tree.”

He selected a quince, a pomegranate, an apple, or whatever other fruit God intended and broke it open. Then a beautiful maiden emerged from it. Her eyes were glisteningly clear and gleamed with all the beauty of the houris of the paradises. She asked: “Who might you be, you servant of God?” He replied: “I am so-and-so.” She said: “Four thousand years before God created the world I was offered hope that I would meet you!”

Then he prostrated himself to praise God Almighty. He said: “This is what the Hadith said: ‘I have prepared for Pious Believers what no eye has seen nor ear has heard.’ ”

As he was prostrating himself, it crossed his mind that this maiden, despite her beauty, was thin. No sooner had he raised his head from his prostration than he found her buttocks had grown as large as the sand dunes of Alij on the way to Mecca. So he was flummoxed by the might of God, the Gracious, Omniscient One, and said: “O Provider of the luminous, O Supplier of what is requested, O Maker of the impossible and awe-inspiring, I ask You to gradually reduce the buttocks of this houri.” Then he was told: “You may configure this maiden as you choose. Those buttocks can be reduced as much as you want!”4

His mother whispered to him each evening: “It’s time for you to marry, son. You’re over thirty! There’s no other girl in this world like Hind! She’s one of a kind! Besides, she loves you and wants you!”

His sighs and gasps would quicken and his “gaze” would retreat into nothingness when he heard his mother urge him to marry. He rejected this idea completely, because he feared procreation. The idea of marrying absolutely did not appeal to him. This onerous custom, which manners and traditions stipulate and which religions have tinted with rituals and cumbersome chains, was not consonant with his philosophy.

Abu al-‘Ala’ adored capricious, free, voluntary passion that inevitably led to the truest and most sacred bond: a voluntary union that renewed its pact freely and with conviction day by day as attachment and true desire grew ever greater.

Was this the love of the Ubermensch? Of the Twenty-first Century? The Thirty-first Century? The Ninety-first Century?

Besides, he realized that he would be a constant burden on anyone who married him. He would need her to become his second crutch at every moment – but he refused to rely on anyone. He did not want to represent more than a gentle breeze for anyone who loved him. He could accept the fact that existence would constitute a burden for him throughout the eighty-four years he lived; but he did not accept being a burden for anyone else – not even for a second!

* * *

The game heated up, and Hind’s desires for the person she gazed at without ever wearying became increasingly violent; this person had recited when he was young, without any reserve:

   If I were the very last person of his age,

   I would surely bring produce

   which those who preceded me could not!

All the same, she dragged out the game, challenging his legendary memory and insight, cleverly exhausting the genius of his brain, which remained on high alert throughout the match. She forced him each time to search for a new winning strategy and utterly deplete his mental capacities.

She did not feel at all relaxed until she saw his side-lock rest on his right palm and his forefinger and thumb seize a strand of the silver hair that flowed to his shoulders – fiddling and playing with it in an endless, spiral motion.

   The beast at the apex of reflection!

   Was some helicoid anxiety circulating through him?

    Some elegant form of nervousness?

He suddenly felt that a bull was awakening deep inside him, that he wanted to catch this young lioness who always knew how to exhaust him, how to make him give his utmost, how to squeeze dry all his talents and ignite all his hidden powers, and how to make him wait, even though she was burning with just as much desire as he was for the tips of her fingers to roam like a gazelle through the orchard of his chest and in the forest of his beard. She would die of desire to be his Gemini – he who had said in the heat of his youth and the bonfire of his vanity:

Is a bed prepared for me on the full moon?

Is Gemini my pillow?

 

 

Translated from the novel Taqrir al-Hudhud (The Hoopoe’s Report), Dar Al Adab, Beirut.

 

 

Author’s Notes:

1 Qur’an, “Yusuf” (“Joseph”) 12:96;

2 Qur’an, “al-Nur” (“Light”) 24:35;

3 Qur’an, “Waqi‘a” (“That Which Is Coming”) 56:35-38;

4 Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arri, The Epistle of Forgiveness: Volume One: A Vision of Heaven and Hell, ed. & trans. Geert Jan van Gelder & Gregor Schoeler (New York & London: New York University Press, 2013) pp. 223-225

 

 

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