Insomnia

Falafel and Shirazi Wine

Old Bagdad (wiki)

Our beloved country with the wise and generous Saddam Hussein Abdel Majeed al-Tikriti …

may he rot in gehenna!

… at the helm, was not always so prosperous and so happy. When he is not on the scene, his sons Qusay and Uday, handsome as princes, who never sleep watch…

because the sons of dogs who deserve all the shoes of Baghdad on their faces, are roistering, drinking womanising or getting high…

… over us, with the many James Bond of the Mukhabarat, all with licences to kill, to keep us safe. The people can sleep peacefully in our beds, bar traitors and enemies in the pay of Israel and Iran, and our Rais Saddam, blessed be his name, enjoys the sleep of the just every night. But as I said, it was not always so. Time was when conditions in our beloved land of dates and honey were far from idyllic. No one slept peacefully in their beds. Not even the Caliph.

History books which happily have now been destroyed hinted that he had poisoned his own father in order to become Caliph, and was tormented by remorse, but new research have found that in fact the old Caliph had died of an incurable cancer. But you’re right my friends, that is irrelevant to our tale.

Caliph Hameed ibn Rasheed al Anbar had not had a single night’s sleep in 40 days.

The poets have called sleep everything from Death’s counterfeit to the soft embalmer of soft midnight, but my friends, who among you do not know the value of sleep? The poor used to sell one night’s sleep for ten gold dirhams to the rich, but discovered that the agony of sleeplessness could not be compensated by easy money, so the practice died out.

His majesty would soak himself in near boiling water for half an hour because they say that this softens the muscles and conduce sleep.

It did not help.

He imbibed quantities of bitter sleeping draughts from Wuhan, and the ensuing stomach pains chased away whatever sleep might have been induced.

No, it did not help.

He ran five times round the palace after supper because one hakim said this would tire his muscles and gently lead him into the arms of the sleep goddess, but the exercise made him hungry and want to eat some more. It did not help.

He got his old nanny to sing him a lullaby, he could feel his eyelids becoming heavy. Had she stopped at that point slumber would have won, but she carried on and chased it away. Next time she stopped too soon, and the half-closed eyelids angrily sprang open.

No that did not help.

The Caliph’s personal physician who was a direct descendant of Ibn Sinna of Hamedan. Mahmood Ibn Sinna, the most gifted of physicians in the whole of Arabia, nay, the whole world, said that he had no doubt that he would find a cure for his majesty. He made a mixture of valerian and hashish and gave it to the Caliph, but it was very bitter.

‘Are you trying to poison me?’ he screamed, spitting it out, ‘I’d have had you put to death, had you not been the descendant of the venerated Avicenna. Leave my court this instant.’ Mahmood had often wished to take his leave of the court of Bagdad, but feared that were he to do so, the Caliph would send his private guards after him, so he welcomed his expulsion. He knew that he would be welcome anywhere he went. So for him it was a happy ending.

After all those failed remedies, the Caliph decided that modern medicine was useless, and called the court magician. He too claimed that he was optimistic about a cure. He was a tall thin man who was a whole head taller than the monarch, He had a long beaked nose and dark sunken and piercing eyes. He had a lean pair of hands with long bony fingers. If truth be told, king though he was, the Caliph, who was not known for his bravery, was scared of him. The magician was well-aware of this, and besides knew that if he were crossed, he could wreak a terrible vengeance on the perpetrator. So he talked to the Caliph like a small child. He ordered him to sit opposite him, and with the whole court assembled to watch magic, he started humming a monotonous drone, reciting some words in Aramaic. He then placed two closed fists in front of the eyes of his patient, and suddenly opened them up, which made the latter jump with fright, for indeed his fingers looked like the claws of some sinister beast. Slowly he rotated them, increasing the volume of the hum.

‘You are now in my power, Oh Caliph,’ he said, closing and opening his fist. ‘Repeat after me, I am in your power now.’ The insomniac monarch repeated the words, ‘I am in your power now.’ But if truth be told, he was not. He was unable to expel visions of himself pouring poison in the cup of his old father.

I was a bit careless, now they are shaking their heads because they noticed the contradiction, I had better do something quick.

My friends, I know, I know, I missed out an important bit. We story-tellers are not infallible. A thousand and one pardons. I should have explained that the visions of himself pouring poison in his father’s cup was not based on reality. Some malicious courtiers had been circulating lies about his criminal involvement in his father’s death, and sensitive man that he was, he had allowed this to corrupt his memory of things. He knew very well that he was innocent as Habil_ Englishman, Habil is Abel to you _ but the brain can play tricks on one, and every now and then he had these clear but fake visions. The long and short of it all was that the magician had failed. The Caliph knew that he would take it badly, and might do something nasty to him, so instead of a rebuke, he gave him an apology.

‘Don’t take it to heart, Abu Sufian el Wahed,’ he said in his most humble voice, ‘it’s entirely my fault, not yours.’ The magician said nothing but without even a bow, he turned his back and left. His exchequer was a known connoisseur and indulger in Shirazi, and the Caliph summoned him.

‘Haroon Ibn Abdallah,’ he said to him, ‘I know that no one at court is a greater connoisseur of the grape_’?

‘Your majesty, what are you saying? I am a true believer, like you, and I do not touch the haram drink, may my throat burn in hell if one drop of the stuff corrupted my lips, may my tongue shrivel if I’m telling a lie_’

‘Haroun,’ the Caliph said, ‘cut the crap! The whole court knows about that vice of yours, so shut up and listen. So far I have always followed the injunction of our holy Quran…’

But my friends, I hate to admit this, but it was not true, he was a regular imbiber of the satanic beverage, but who are we to judge our rulers, eh? But back to the story.

‘All I am asking is for you to recommend the best, the strongest.’

‘Well, most venerable Caliph of Islam, if you put it like this, I will not only tell you, but present you with a basketful of bottles of Shirazi wine from Khollar.’

‘And you must drink with me.’

‘Of Caliph of Islam, if you so order, I know not how to say nay.’

So my dear listeners, Haroon Ibn Abdallah arrived shortly after the sun had set, and just as the Caliph emerged from his Maghrib prayers, muttering pearls of wisdom from the Hadith as he moved the beads of his tasbih one at a time, they retired into the Blue Room, and together emptied four bottles, and did justice to six plates of freshly fried falafel. They both became merry and swore eternal friendship. Shortly after midnight, the Caliph wanted music and sent a servant to wake up Ali the Oudh player. Ali entertained them for two hours, and the Caliph and his exchequer rarely had such fun. Only at dawn, when they heard the muezzin’s call to fajr salaat, did they reluctantly decide to end this one night of roistering. The exchequer thought that he had earned a few brownie points.

‘You must admit that we had a lot of fun, Oh Caliph of Islam,’ whereupon the latter looked at him sternly, and said: ‘I did not ask you over to have a night of fun, Haroun Ibn Abdallah, but to help me get a few minutes’ sleep if not a whole night, so don’t talk to me about fun. Begone.’

His body was aching, his head was bursting, but he didn’t feel the slightest bit drowsy. After morning prayers, he was sitting on his throne, looking sad, tired and angry when one of the cleaning ladies’ little girl saw him. She was only four and did not understand about courts and kings. Innocently she approached his majesty. ‘Why are you so sad, effendi?’ she asked, ‘Can I do anything to make you smile?’ The Caliph was touched by this little girl who did not know who he was, calling him mister, and who wanted to help. He usually had no time for children, not even his own. For one thing he never knew how many he had fathered.

‘Sweet little girl, I spent the whole night drinking wine in the hope that it would send me to sleep, but it had the effect of coffee on me, it kept me awake!’ The little girl looked at him thoughtfully, said nothing for a whole minute, after which she said, ‘Effendi, if drinking wine made you feel like you had drunk coffee, then you should drink coffee.’

‘Masha Allah, little girl, you’ve got a point.’ He immediately ordered an attendant to brew him some Yemeni coffee, and he drank five cups one after another.

Now my friends the way stories go, this would have cured his majesty and he would have given the little girl a handsome gift, but this was real life.

It didn’t help.

‘Get lost, girl,’ he shouted angrily at the poor frightened thing.

If until now he was irascible and bad-tempered, after the Shirazi wine episode, everyday he became more aggressive and unreasonable. He was taking more and more bad decisions. He prayed to Allah one day and the next he threatened Him. My friends, well may wonder how can a man challenge the Almighty.

‘If you do not cure me of this curse, Allah Ta’la, I will demolish mosques, I will hang a

muezzin or two.’ But happily the thought of the fires of Gehenna made him stop short of carrying out his threats. And, between you and me, dear listeners, it is doubtful whether there was a single man in this god-fearing land who would have obeyed the order if he did give it.

Some of his wives prayed that he would find a cure whilst many others prayed that he would grow weak and die.

One day a mendicant arrived at the palace and heard the guards discuss the state of the Caliph. As he was clothed in rags and had a ragged appearance, they did not stop when he came nearer.

‘It’s not that anybody will miss the old ibn kalb, sonofabitch,’ he heard one guard say, ‘but if his eldest son Umr became Caliph the country will go up in flames.’ The beggar listened carefully and was able to get a clear picture of the situation. Timidly he approached one of the guards and told him about Haroun-al-Rashid and Scheherazade.

‘If you fear for our Caliph’s life, maybe listening to some stories of magic and derring do might cheer him up and help.

Somehow the Caliph got to hear about this and despatched some men to go from east to west and from north to south to find accomplished story-tellers and bring them, by force if necessary, to Baghdad to tell stories every night. If sleep won’t come, at least for a few hours he might lose himself in tales of adventure and heroism.

When the man from Samarkand arrived at court there was a lot of excitement, for who doesn’t like to hear exotic tales from distant land? The Grand Vizier ordered a huge feast the first night. Aromas of spices rising from the grilling mechoui filled the grounds of the palace. Salads were made in vats bigger than bath-tubs, honeyed and rose-scented drinks were made in barrels, and baklava, lugaimat and halvas dripping in honey and butter were spread in large brass plates big as wheels. The people who were allowed in were invited to have their fill. When they were all seated and sated, the hukawati began.

He told a tale of a hunter who went after not only the king’s enemies, but bare-handed killed the marauding animals which had been terrorising the villagers. To reward his courage the king gave him his own daughter in marriage.

It must be said that the insomniac was beginning to feel drowsy near the end, so relaxed and contented was he. It is one of the mysteries of life that even the most cowardly, most selfish and unheroic person in the world loves tales of heroism and selflessness. But let me get on with my narration: The Caliph would probably have found some sleep finally, for his droopy eyelids were visible to all, but he demanded another story. After a few days it seemed obvious that the cure was worse than the condition.

No, it did not help.

With the advance in methods of communication, it took less than a year for the news of the Caliph’s condition to reach the court of Emperor Akbar in Delhi. Akbar summoned his trusted Hindu adviser Birbal and asked if he could help. It so happens that there isn’t a single mention in the chronicles of the sage having answered in the negative when such a question was posed to him.

‘Alam Pannah,’ Birbal said. That’s an urdu term of respect used in Delhi when addressing royalty by the way. ‘Alam Pannah, if you can spare me, I will travel to Baghdad myself to solve this little problem. The Emperor Akbar readily agreed, and again, travel had progressed to such an extent that in under three weeks Birbal’s camel train reached Baghdad.

The Caliph ordered that he be treated like the highest dignitary, and he was royally feted. He told the Caliph that he needed three days’ preparation, and he immediately set to work. He tested the bed, the windows, asked questions of the servants, the guards and even the residents both of the city and the villagers around, so that in the end he was able to build up a true image of the situation.

The people are getting impatient and want to know the resolution, but that’s not how the hukhawati works. I am getting there, but no one will force me to rush. My mentor Qayyum bin Qayyum specifically instructed us that when a big turning point in your story was within sight, a hukhawati must keep his audience dangling, awaiting the conclusion. But only the true hukhawati knows how not to overdo this.

Yes, yes my friends, you are in a hurry, you need to get home to massage the legs and shoulders of your wives, but I cannot chop off bits of my tale just to please you.

At this point they are in your power as only you know the ending, so they will accept a little rebuke from you _ for the heckling, the interruptions, the coughings and the mockery.

Bear with me as the elephant said to the monkey.

Yes, yes. Birbal told the Vizier Bandar al Kader el Medina that tonight he would like the Caliph n the forecourt, seated in a large cushioned chair in the presence of eighty-eight guests. Then, in front of this audience he would make the Caliph fall asleep.

Two thousand people queued outside the gates of the palace in order to make the list of eighty-eight. Fights broke out, but luckily there were no fatalities. The hand-picked ones were seated facing the Defender of Islam, and the buzzing rose to a crescendo until Birbal appeared next to his exalted majesty.

‘Alam Pannah,’ he began, listen to the words of my mouth.

The Caliph nodded and so did the eighty-eight.

The people having heard of Birbal’s wisdom gave him a rousing welcome, and he began.

‘Alam Panah,’ he began, ‘I’m sorry, I should say Your majesty, we’re in Arabia now.’ The eighty-eight guests chuckled merrily. One or two voices suggested that Alam Pana was a great way to address the Caliph of All Arabia. Birbal nodded happily.

‘I bring to your majesty and your people the good wishes, the friendship and the greetings of my own liege, the Shahenshah Akbar. He has ordered me to come to Bagdad and cure our illustrious caliph of his sleeplessness. And trust me, Akbar is my friend and master, and I will never disobey him.’ He had expected that the people, on hearing that their king was going to be cured, would have reacted joyfully and manifested their approval, but they seemed unmoved by Birbal’s determination.

‘Before getting to work on my mission, with your permission, I would like to tell you of a similar mission to Samarkand five years ago. The ruler introduced me to his eighteen sons and twenty-one daughters. First there was Abdel Qadir, his eldest who was nineteen years old, then, … Oh, that’s not quite right, he was nineteen years, eight months and seventeen days old. He was a handsome prince, neither tall nor short, he had two eyes, one nose, a pair of lips, black hair, a neck, two arms, two feet. Oh, I forgot the ears. Silly me. But you get the picture. Then came his eldest daughter Fatimatish-Zehra, who was also nineteen years old, but she was two months and nine days younger than Prince Abdel Qadir. The princess, like her brother who was two months and nine days older, had two noses, one eye … I beg your pardon, you will have understood that I meant two eyes and one nose, nose, zzz… zzz…’

You get the picture. Birbal went on naming the thirty-nine princesses and princes in the same manner, but it is doubtful whether anybody was still awake. In fact not a single pair of eyes stayed unclosed. Not any of the eighty-eight hand-picked guests, not the Caliph’s.

Our Muallim Quayyum bin Quayyum, may Allah forgive him his sins, warned us about the difficulty of telling a boring story in a manner which did not send the audience to sleep. Birbal meant his story to sound boring because that was how he planned to send the Caliph to the land of slumber, but I had to tell the same story in a manner to keep my audience enthralled. Did I succeed? Who knows?

And as I expected, and hoped, someone asks, And was the Caliph cured?

I am glad you asked sir. Was the Caliph cured, you ask? The eighty-eight had a good night’s sleep, but the Caliph never woke up.

Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.