Falafel and Shirazi Wine (2)

(My ancestor was a bad man but …)

My old heart is filled with joy every time I stand in the shade of this wild oak tree and see such a distinguished crowd gathered to hear one of my stale stories. You do me an infinite honour, I am not worthy of it.

Today I will not have recourse to fiction. I have often told you that truth is often stranger, stronger than fiction, but on this blessed Friday I am going to talk about my ancestor. When I’m done, I promise you that you will demand to know more about this man.

The little village near Jabal Haraz in faraway Yemen, from which the family moved two centuries ago, had not been one of Allah’s most blessed. They had a rocky soil and a dry climate, which meant that the hard-working villagers had to work twice as hard as the people in the village on the other side of the valley to harvest half their yield. On the whole the people, although they never had a full belly, were peace-loving and diligent, doing their best, minding their own business, but two neighbours, Ali Bin Musa and Musa Bin Ali, who in spite of their names, were neither related to one another, nor did they have much time for each other. There was one interesting difference though. Now my old Moallim Qayyum Ibn Qayyum, who instructed me in the art of story-telling, and to whom I owe everything including a constant pain just below my right ear, for the relentless beating he gave me to turn the stuttering fool that I was into, begging your pardon for beating my own drum, the finest hukawati south of Aleppo. He dwelled at great length on the difference between telling and showing. Idiot, he would say giving me a stinging clip on the ear, you will never become a hukawati! You’ll send an audience to sleep more likely. Who knows you can perhaps make a living curing the insomnia of the very rich. Show, don’t tell! There comes another.

I normally pretend to knock myself on the ear, and this raises a laugh.

Ali Bin was kind and considerate and hard-working, whilst Musa Bin was irate and selfish, and much preferred backgammon to back-bending weeding and watering. I cannot show this unless I had ten hours, when I would put to you instances illustrating this. So, please take this as a given, and by and by events what I will tell you will justify this.

In everything Moallim Qayyum Ibn Qayyum went by this motto: you do as I say, not by what I do. It makes me laugh at the number of stories he used to tell about the ills of drunkenness.

The channels they had both constructed to ferry water to their cultivations were well-nigh useless as the river had near enough dried up. Both men had to walk over a whole parasang to the well of the abandoned neighbouring village of Jabal Mansoor to fetch water. Whilst Ali often did this three times a day, Musa rarely did the same more than once. Or he might send his wife. It was therefore not surprising that whilst Musa had poor harvests, Ali’s were rather better. Not much better, because the terrain was rocky and forbidding. The explanation was simple enough, but Musa would scratch his head trying to find a reason which would reflect badly on, or even implicate his nemesis.

If the truth be told, Ali had not always disliked Musa. They had not been friends at medersa, but he did not give much thought to the rich neighbour’s son. From an early age he could detect an incomprehensible hostility young Musa reserved for him whenever their paths crossed. He could not understood the reason for this animus, but naturally, not being a saint he reacted to it.

He remembers exactly the first time he began entertaining bad thoughts about Musa. Coming home from school on that day, he saw some juicy ripe dates already dripping syrup, on a palm tree, and decided to climb it to serve himself. He had circled the trunk and had begun hoisting himself up. He was just about half way up when felt all strength drained from his puny muscles of his meagre arms and began slipping down. He had to work jolly hard not to fall flat on his arse with a bang, but fall he did. And there was Musa Bin Ali with his cousin, and they began mocking him quite heartlessly. From that day, Ali had said to himself, If you hate me so much, I’ll hate you back twice as much.

Ali developed jealousy for his neighbour because their family was much better off, you see, but really the jealousy was rooted in Musa’s ill-feeling towards him. Musa’s jealousy, however, was of the pure unalloyed form. It had always been there, based on nothing. Ali was skinny and had crooked teeth, and spoke in a rather unpleasant whine. No girl would dream about him. To be honest, although he wished bad things would happen to Musa, he was not schooled in the art of malevolence. He often wished that some minor misfortune might befall Musa, like a pigeon would shit on his head, or that his pocket would develop a hole and he would lose some of his coins and get his ear pulled by his father. One of his pet hopes was that Musa would develop an itch just halfway between his shoulder blades that would make scratching well-nigh impossible. The day he wished a fox would find its way to Musa’s coop and eat a chicken or two, he was filled with remorse, and recanted. May his hens lay fewer eggs, was his compromise.

If Ali sometimes wished Musa some ill-luck, it was not in his nature to do anything that would bring this about. He knew that Old one-eyed Um Haneefa would, for five fils, recite an incantation against anyone and cause them some mischief, but he had thought that such a concrete action would displease Allah.

Musa was an altogether different kettle of fish. He had often paid Um Haneefa to arrange for bad things to befall Ali. That his house might catch fire or be struck by lightning, that he’d get entangled in the rocks and break his leg, that he’d be bitten by a venomous snake and die a long painful death, that he might drown _ Haneefa wanted a whole dirham for this. And many more such things. Now dear listeners, I am not saying that Um Haneefa was a charlatan, she needed to make a living too, but none of these bad things happened. Which is why, inevitably Musa took matter into his own hands.

One day Musa had his first feasibly malicious idea. He would loosen the dug out trunks in Ali’s channel to mess up his irrigation, and at the same time cause a small flood. That would serve that ibn kalb Ali right! That’s son of a dog, mister white man. He woke up in the middle of the night. Blame not the beautiful moon, dear listeners, she can’t help it if thieves, cutthroats and traitors use her saintly light to help them in their villainy. Becoming aware that Musa was planning a dastardly act, she weaved a big dark cloud to hamper him, but sadly it was not enough. He directed himself towards Ali’s house. It did not take him long to get to the the channel. He let out a curse and pulled one of the hollowed out log, getting a splinter in his finger. Sadly, dear listeners, this did not lead to an infection, who understands the ways of Allah? Now, my friends, you and I, after committing such a wickedness would be gnawed by remorse, and we would toss in bed restlessly unable to sleep. We would get out of bed and walk aimlessly across our bedroom, maybe we would contemplate undoing the nefarious deed. But not Musa Bin Ali. That night he slept better than he had done in weeks. May his unborn children only have four fingers!

If this mishap had occurred to Musa, he’d have immediately started cursing Ali, and blamed him for it, but not Ali. A man who is not used to do wrong to others find it difficult to imagine that someone would knowingly do something dastardly to him. He believed that some fox was behind the mishap.

The fox was indeed involved in Musa’s next coup. My friends you surely did not expect that ibn kalb, to be satisfied with one misdemeanour. Better act while the Moon was still around. The following day, he again woke up in the middle of the night. What are you doing, Yusuf’s father, his wife implored. He simply pushed her aside and walked out. He again directed his steps towards his enemy’s farmstead. Ali had a really small and ungainly home, surrounded by a stable and a chicken coop. It was deathly silent, there wasn’t even a breeze. Ali had not thought it necessary to secure the stable door properly, probably because the cows and goats were not targeted by foxes. The chicken coop, on the other hand needed to be secured, as for those clever foxes, the smallest breach was enough for them to worm their way in and do their worse. Unknowingly the full moon, having run out of material to produce a dark cloud, shone fully on on the outside of the structure, revealing to the scoundrel a plank that could be dislodged without too much effort. The hypocrite then raised his head to the skies and said piously, If Allah in his wisdom thinks fit to direct the steps of one hungry vulpine to this spot to feed itself, He knows best, for nothing happens in this our world, not a pin drops, not a dog barks which He does not sanction! And he made his way home with not one misgiving.

Next morning, Ali tore his hair in despair as he saw the extent of the damage. A couple of days earlier his plantation had suffered through lack of water, now half his beautiful chickens had been butchered or had run away. Why, Allah, why? What have I done to deserve this divine punishment. Musa Bin Ali was not satisfied with his devilry. To a man like him, that was not enough. He needed to see with his own eyes the effect of his wretchedness. He espied his victim shortly after zohar prayer and shaking his head with counterfeit compassion he said a few words of pretended sympathy. When Ali raised his head to look at his nemesis, he immediately understood what had happened. He read Musa’s guilt in his eyes as clearly as one can see El Ouriyon in the sky on a starlit night. But he thought it wise to keep this finding to himself. One day, Insha Allah, I will pay him back, he thought. In the meantime may Allah make his penis shrivel when he tries to penetrate his wife. Whether that happened or not, your hukawati never found out.

Musa enjoyed his neighbour’s discomfiture rather less than he had hoped. I think, dear listeners, that humans are not wicked by nature. Some are kinder than others, obviously, but most people do unkind things because they are mentally lazy. Their bad actions are often the result of their not thinking out the consequences. How often have you meant to visit that elderly aunt and forgotten it until one day you hear she has passed? Happens to all of us. I know, I know, I am being didactic. My venerated master never stopped saying, Idiot, these people have come to hear a tale from you, and nothing else. If they wanted lessons on how to live, they’d go to the mosque on Friday and listen to the Imam’s khutba. Which did not stop him from filling his narration with advice and homilies. But I’m doing it again, shooting off on a tangent. Now where was I?

You get used to mischief-making. Like when you eat one deglet en noor you cannot stop. Only a man with strong will power will pour himself half a cup of Shirazi and cork his bottle. Rest assured dear listeners that this hukawati rarely _ eh_ never, as Allah is my witness goes near the bottle. I mean his whole being craved for more dastardly acts.

He was angry with himself when the next idea occurred to him in the middle of the night a few days after the fox incident. Why the hell did it take me so long? He had often looked enviously at the crops of Ali, not that they were all that luxuriant in view of the poverty of the land, but in his eyes they were the greenest, the plumpest. Ali’s soil must be less damned than his. Why Allah, why? What have I done to deserve your ire?

What was there to do if soil became tired after a couple of years? Few farmers could afford to leave it fallow for a season or two, you forged ahead in the full knowledge that however much work you put in, the result would not reflect your diligence. Not that he toiled all the hours like Ali did, you understand.

He was looking at Ali’s nicely tilled rows, scratched his head and asked himself, What does the fellow do that his seeds are always in advance of mine? And they will thrive and prosper whist mine struggle. He had given one whole dirham to Um Haneefa to put a curse on his plantations, but he was beginning to suspect that she was nothing but a charlatan. If you want anything done, his venerated father had said many a time, you do it yourself. His plan occurred to him ready-made. He would carry out a little sabotage.

He summoned his family in the veranda for an important decision. His two wives shuddered as they were sure he was going to announce that he was taking a third wife. The two boys and the girl thought that they were due for a beating. So they were all surprised when he smiled at them.

From now on, he said, you don’t shit and piss in the hole behind the date palm. They were speechless. And when you clean the cowshed, you don’t just collect their shit and throw it all away on the rocky fields. I want everything put in the earthenware pots.

Why? Seven voices chorused. His usual answer to questions was, Because it is my wish and my order, and he did not think the time had come to change his habit and words. They knew better than to insist.

That night he woke up his number two wife who was by his side, and enquired about the day’s harvest of excrement and piss, and was assured that the pot was half full. That container was folded back at its top, providing a sort of handle by putting a piece of rope around this neck. The stench coming out of the soil filled him with pleasure. The more unbearably nauseous the better for what he was aiming to do. As it was a bit fresh, he put on his camel hair jellaba and grabbing the pot of filth as if it was filled with gold dirhams, he set out on his malicious errand.

Inside their dilapidated hut, Ali and his two wives and three children were sound asleep. Ali used to thank Allah everyday. Rabbana Ya Rabbana, you may be withholding material things from me, but you have always showered me with generous gifts of sleep, and I can tell you that not all the diamonds of Golconda can compensate for insomnia. Misers lying awake in the early hours worrying about thieves would give half their gold if they could just have a good night’s sleep. The same with kings worrying about which of their sons are planning to assassinate them.

The black-hearted Musa was free to do as he pleased. Although his own field could benefit from a little more back-breaking work from him, his laziness was a big obstacle to that. Maybe it was the fresh night air, or perhaps his keenness to see Ali’s crops destroyed was bigger than his desire to see his own fields prosper, but he worked for a whole hour digging little channels along Ali’s seedlings, filling them with the vile contents of the pot, oblivious of the stench and the splashes on his prized mantle. A whole hour of this back-breaking work left him exhilarated and energised. He had rarely felt so happy.

Ali did not notice anything, nor did the tell-tale odours suggest to him that some mischief was afoot. Musa kept up his dastardly work until the moon decided that she would not be party to his villainy and disappeared from the sky. His hope and expectation was that his enemy’s seedlings would be poisoned and begin to wither, did not immediately materialise, but he did not despair. Perhaps it takes longer. About ten days after he had embarked on his malevolent enterprise he was forced to admit to himself that the growth actually seemed more luxuriant than normal, but he dismissed this. I am a bad jealous man, he thought, and I always think that other people’s cultivations fared better than my own. Interestingly Musa knew that he was not a good man.

Dear listeners, you would have understood that Musa had not realised this, but he had discovered manure. In these ancient times, nobody knew that a poor soil could be ameliorated by adding waste material to it. Ali could not understand why not only had his yield doubled, but the quality of his products was far superior to anybody else’s. Thank you, Allah, for showing your beneficence on your unworthy subject.

Thanks Etienne Boulanger for the pic. (Unsplash)

At first Musa did not understand the reason for this anomaly. But being evil does not stop someone from being intelligent. Could the waste that he had himself fed Ali’s crops with be at the source of this upturn in his fortune? He would not tell anybody, but next time round, he would try his method on his own crops.

Yes, my dear friends, my great ancestor was a bad man, but he had invented manure!

Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.