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Nuha opened the first volume of her great-grandfather’s journal, and found the following quote written out in beautiful Persian script:
We were born out of love.
We were created out of love.
We are drawn to love.
Indeed, we are being held in love’s arms.
The Grand Sheikh, the Sultan of Gnostics,
Muhyi ad-Din Ibn Arabi
When she turned the page, she found a yellowed, folded-up piece of paper containing the name ‘Subhi al-Kutubkhani’ written in various kinds of Arabic script: Persian, Kufic, Thuluth, and Diwani. Examining the aging piece of paper, she found the calligrapher’s name – Saad or Asaad – at the bottom. She especially liked her great-grandfather’s name written in the Diwani script with its graceful, sweeping curves. It made her think of musical phrase marks. Enchanted by the various types of script, she could hear the letters singing – rustling like the leaves of a tree being washed by the rain. Every letter contained a hidden spirit, every dot a mystery, and every curve, a subtle allusion to another time or realm.
“It seems our ancestor Subhi had refined taste,” she mused aloud. “He was a connoisseur of calligraphy and art.”
She carefully folded up the little piece of paper and, with a mixture of dread and curiosity, made up her mind to read everything that her great-grandfather had recorded in these yellowed tomes with his plume pen and black Chinese ink. As she read, she discovered that he would at times conceal his identity by talking about himself in the third person, as though he were somebody who had lived with him and observed him and his closest companions, while at other times he wrote in his own voice. In a brief preface of just a few lines, he had explained what he intended to do, saying:
I, Subhi al-Kutubkhani, am confessing to these notebooks, which now bear the burdens of my years. I shall reveal myself, my passions, and the bitterness of my soul. I shall put myself on trial, hold myself to account.
He then launched into the content of his memoir:
And now to our topic: I’m alone, holed up in the tea storage room, immersed in the scents of tea from India, Ceylon and China . . . I can hear the cooing of the pigeons in the bitter orange trees, and perhaps in the date palms as well. I’ve been alone ever since I was a boy. I didn’t play with my brothers and sisters. In fact, I had no interest in playing. Even now, I’m still alone in this house. I tremble with grief, and ask my heart: “What will I do with my life amidst this stifling world and all my failures?” Even though I’m surrounded by my family in my own home town, I’m a stranger, an alien. What disaffection the spirit must endure when its loneliness becomes a never-ending fate! I’m divorced from everything around me. Like an exotic plant in a cactus field, I’ve rejected the customs and traditions that have been imposed on me.
I weep in regret over my spirit. I weep for my mother, my sisters and brothers, the guards, the immortalized nanny Umm Nu’man, and for all the people who are content with the inherited slavery in which they find themselves.
What I write has nothing to do with the recording of history and events in the country. Rather, I’m writing about people’s spiritual suffering, their stifled longings. I write about people’s dreams, their sins, and the madness of the heart. What’s written in my diaries about events and facts – which I see only from the outside – is nothing but a wooden frame for fogged-up mirrors like the old oval-shaped one in my sister Wafiqa’s room.
The facts I gather have been erased anyway. There’s nothing real about history and its recorded events. What’s real is the fact that we’re deceived by so many things. As for the events taking place all over the country, they’re the stuff of intimidation and exaggeration. The writing of history is a deceptive, misleading manoeuvre. People see events from a single side, dictated by their whims and desires. They write about them from whichever angle suits their inclinations, their sense of identity, their interests, their cruel designs. There’s nothing real in the world but the alienation of the spirit, love stories, loss, and the debilitating longing to rest in a time and place that are safe from harm. All that remains is but the deceptive games of sorcerers, the work of highway robbers, and the cruelty of those who strike people’s necks with the sword.
(This is what I wrote before travelling to Istanbul.)
. . . And now to our topic again.
I’m penning these lines after years and years of living. I’ve experienced life in its most splendorous forms. I’ve lived abroad, I’ve known hardship and privation, passionate love, self-denial, and adventure. Some times I’ve risen, and at others I’ve sunk to the depths of misery. Then I’ve put my life in order again after years of seeing things fall apart. According to what my father recorded in our family register, I was born in Baghdad in 1887 AD. But from the time I was a young child and then into adolescence, I saw that I myself was different from the closed society around me. It was a hopeless world steeped in superstition, greed and sin. I became a resentful, isolated, wayward son with a troubled heart and a suspicious mind.
I’ll let my writings speak for me, sometimes in someone else’s voice, and sometimes in my own. All I ask of those who read my memoirs is to think deeply about what I’ve written. My hope is that they’ll find some benefit in an old dusty book as they observe what’s happened to me – and to us – over the course of our lives.
And now to our topic . . .
I, Subhi al-Kutubkhani, was being buffeted back and forth between overwhelming desires, the murmurings of the spirit, the sexual urges of my youth, and my rage over the conditions that prevailed in the Baghdad vilayet. It was governed at the time by Namiq Pasha the Younger, who’d been appointed by Sultan Abdulhamid. I spent my nights and days immersed in clamorous dreams. I would wake up every morning intoxicated from the events I’d witnessed and the pleasures I’d known. I would then hurry to set them down in writing in a big gilded volume bound in black leather. Whenever I wrote down a dream, I would relive the ecstasy I’d experienced in the dream by imagining it all over again. I know how difficult it is to describe ecstasy. So how could I write about the tremors of delight, and pleasure’s nectar in the mouth? How could I describe the sweet purl that raced through my veins until I fell unconscious? How can anyone record the taste of ecstasy and the flavour of pleasures? There were no words to describe all the outpourings from my visions and the desires of my deprived youth. Yet, oblivious to this fact, I just went on writing down my visions of delight with Chinese black ink in the white book of dreams . . .
Nuha closed the first volume. Inside it she had found some loose papers that bore an earlier date. The handwriting on some of the pages was sloppy, while on others it was so faint you could hardly read it. There were also entire lines that had been crossed out.
“Have you looked at these?” Nuha asked her father.
“Yes. But I couldn’t make out the handwriting, so I’m leaving them to you! I haven’t got the patience to dig through it all and read the bits that are so faint.”
“I’ll try rewriting them. But first I need time to read through them carefully.”
“You’ve got all the time you need.”
A couple of days later, Nuha brought her father a number of pages that she’d typed out on the computer.
“This is what I’ve managed to rewrite out of forty pages of material. The pages are tattered, and some of the lines are all blurry. They’re about your grandfather Subhi’s years as a young man, his trip to Istanbul to study there, and his sister Wafiqa. Would you like me to read you what I’ve gathered from the material so far?”
“No, that’s all right. Leave it here and I’ll read it when I’ve got a quiet moment.”
“When will we open the other chest?”
“Everything in its time.”
“Here they are, then. I’m going to work on the other bundle of papers now. They have to do with his childhood and adolescence, so they’re earlier than the events we read about in the bound volume.”
* * *
1 The opening quote from Picasso is taken from a lecture he gave on Cubism with American critic Marius de Zayas in 1923. It was later translated with permission and published in The Arts as “Picasso Speaks”.
Excerpted from Lutfiya al-Dulaimi’s novel Ushshaq wa Fonograf wa Azminah, published by Dar Al Mada, Baghdad, 2016
A Selection from Banipal 62 – A Literary Journey through Arab Cinema
Click here to go to Banipal 62 contents webpage