The Undertaker and the Healer

Thank you, thank you most heartily, good friends, and Allah’s blessings upon you and your loved ones on this Sainted Friday morning. Greetings and good wishes to you all. It gladdens my aged heart, week in and week out, when I see you turn up in such huge numbers under the great banyan tree to listen to the ramblings of a decrepit old man.

A Coffin (Unsplash)

But then who in Baghdad is a better story-teller? As a hukkawati no man reaches up to my knee.

But you’ve come to hear a tale, not the history of my life_ although trust me, if pressed, I could tell you a story as full of drama as any it’s been my privilege to share with you.

Not that I am proud of much of what I have done. Or has been done to me. I owe my mentor Quayyum bin Quayyum too much to begin to spill the beans about his misdeeds.

Today my good friends, I will narrate the story of a carpenter_ no, not the hallowed one you may have in mind_ a carpenter called Ali Bassam Ibn Waleed. I might as well admit straight away that he was not much of a carpenter, and although his patch in the Al Firoze district was in one of the most prosperous part of the city, he had few customers ordering ornate furniture, which is where the money was. The rich denizens preferred to go elsewhere. But Ali Bassam did not starve, as he had found a niche in the death industry.

No, I don’t mean that he was a hired killer. He was very good at making coffins.

I know that my audience would grumble at this point, but with my mentor Quayyum bin Quayyum’s training, I was ready with an answer. You fail to tackle a heckler once, and your reputation as a hukkawati is shot for ever, he warned.

What’s that sir? Burying the dead in a coffin is haram in our religion you say? No, no, no, good sir. Not haram, only makrooh. Let me quote no less an authority than Sha’afa’i Khateeb in his learned Mughni a — Mukhtaj. “It is makrooh to bury a faithful dead in a coffin unless the soil is wet of soft.” Makrooh, you don’t need a semi-literate hukkawati like me to inform so many wise people here, that whilst haram is one hundred percent forbidden, makrooh is only to be discouraged. Eating pork is haram, drinking alcohol is haram_ except if you call it “a medicinal potion”. I joke. But eating shellfish, crab, nutmeg, honey, garlic and things of that sort … are makrooh. As is well-known, these stuffs heat the blood and encourage lascivious thoughts and acts.

Those who did not know that will rush to the market to get them now. I have put ideas in their heads. Which is why I am so popular with them. I am not a guardian of their virtue.

But I am deviating.

You don’t need an ignoramus like me to tell you that the south-west of Baghdad, where the banks of the Tigris are not strong enough to withstand the abundant flow, the soil fits the conditions that Sha’fa’i Khateeb says permit the use of a coffin. I say all this because I want you to understand the importance of coffins in that part of the world, at the time I am talking about, when small pox and plagues were rife.

With foreign travellers bringing in all sorts of diseases from Syria, Turkey, Iran, even China, our people were falling ill and dying like flies…

People are quick to believe that bad things like diseases come from outside the country. This being a notion propagated by the court officials of the day. Quayyum bin Quayyum taught us that by playing to natural prejudices of your audience, you get them on side.

… and Ali Bassam Ibn Waleed was doing so well that he had to employ casual labour to help him meet deadlines. Deadlines, ha! ha! ha!!

Let me give you a little background: The carpenter had often wanted to find himself a pretty young bride, but the girls of the city had reservations about a man who made his living on the back of the dead. Although he was not bad-looking, it must be said that he was not very bright. But not Lalla Khatoon, she had always been attracted to him..

She was handsome enough, but she was a few years older than him. And she had indicated

to him that she would not look with disfavour on a possible union between them. For over a year Ali Bassam had been non-committal, as he hoped that he would find a more attractive option, but lately he had become less disinclined to the idea of the healer. Yes, Lalla Khatoon passed for a healer, and was not only making a good living, plying her dubious trade, but had massed a small fortune on the backs of the credulous citizens of the city, which had started making her look younger to the coffin-maker.

She was a clever young woman, certainly not devoid of talent. She had aspired to study medicine man, and found an apprenticeship with Tabib Dawood al Chuphnah, a famous physician in Basra. She was only sixteen and took to medicine like a young falcon to the skies. But the elderly doctor gave a new definition to the notion of a young woman working under him. A thousand curses unto him! When she refused his advances, he pointed out that there was a price to pay, and that if she was unwilling, then she would have to leave. Lalla Khatoon had always had a fiery temper, and as she had a scalpel in her hand, in a fit of madness she slashed the face of the dirty old scoundrel as a thank you, knowing that she would never be able to pursue her dream. Which was how he earned the nickname of the scarred tabib.

However, Lalla Khatoon had picked some useful notions, and soon got the idea that there was nothing much to the practice of medicine. She laid hands on a couple of books on medicinal plants, and thought that she was sufficiently equipped, if not to save lives, at least to make a living. She invented a few incantations and practised esoteric gestures with her hands in front of a mirror to impress upon her potential patients, and to judge by the clientele that she ended up building, her reputation as a skilful healer grew and grew. Although most of what she did was not rooted in real science, she ended up convincing herself, and more importantly the ignorant folks of her neighbourhood that she did indeed have healing powers.

But let me assure you in no uncertain manner, dear listeners, that it was nothing but hit and miss. You know that very often when a child falls ill, not all parents have the means to take her to a doctor, and yet after a day or two she is completely cured. No less than the famous Abu Ali Al Hussayn bin Abdallah al Hassan Bin Ali bin Sinna al Bakhi al Bukhari_ who you all know as Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, in his learned tome Al Nijat, propounded the theory that our own body is the best pharmacy, that in each one of us there exists the means to combat the diseases that develop within us, although he was not saying that external medicine could not be beneficial.

What I am saying is that all the rigmaroles Lalla Khatoon went through, her dark abracadabras notwithstanding, however anodyne the powders, plants or herbs she prescribed, this did not stop sixty or seventy percent of her patients curing themselves. Nobody knew this, and her reputation kept soaring.

Now let us come to Hakima aibna Ali Mansoor. Able dispenser of traditional and modern medicine that she was, she had an enquiring mind, and was deeply interested, not only in curing diseases, but in studying their causes, and was always performing experiments to further her understanding and knowledge. For example she studied well-known natural products like honey, ginger, garlic, turmeric, vinegar, tamarind, and had produced a concoction of these which she hypothesised would be an effective prophylaxis against colds. She kept notes, and in the cold months, when people usually caught chills, she found that out of a hundred volunteers who agreed to try her mixture, only eight caught a cold, with just two dying. Of a hundred similar volunteers who had refused the concoction, sixty-five became ill with thirteen dying.

She also kept abreast of discoveries from China, India and Uzbekistan, and avidly read

whatever scientific monographs she laid hands on; she cured malaria with quinine, which the local doctors thought was poisonous.

One could rightly say that Hakima aibna Ali Mansoor was the single most effective warrior against death and disease in not just Baghdad, but in the whole of Iraq.

It cheers me up no end how attentive my audience has been, listening to dry facts in rapt silence. Which must mean one of two things: that they are really an intelligent audience, or, as I already know, I am a uniquely gifted story-teller.

The biggest calamity of the age, as you know, was, as you know, small pox. Over the years it has claimed millions of lives, and left many more millions scarred for life with pock marks on their faces and bodies, with many broken-hearted young maidens throwing themselves in the angry torrents of the Tigris. Verily it was a curse which no believer could make sense of, but nothing happens on our earth that Almighty Allah did not plan. Let us not question his motives or his wisdom, but accept the reality.

However _ we’re talking about two centuries ago, when news did not travel fast_ in faraway countries like China and India, Greece, Uzbekistan, progress was being made, and was slowly seeping into our regions. We know that one of our daughters Tabiba Quddussia was the first to try vaccines against small pox, saving millions of lives, when a virulent epidemic hit Baghdad.

Hakima who had the same enquiring mind had learnt about this procedure, but even in those days we had anti-vaxxers who went around scoffing at the notion that to fight a disease you began by causing it. Which, my friends you don’t need a semi-literate hukkawati to tell you, is the gist of variolation. The easiest example I can give you my friends is the link between cowpox and small pox, if you will allow.

It is true that a little science is not lost on this audience. There was a time when Baghdad was an acknowledged centre of learning and culture, and these people are the heirs of these traditions.

Cowpox is not a virulent condition and does not usually lead to death. Or even disfigurement. You catch it, and after a few days of discomfort it goes away. It is now known that if a person catches cowpox, they cannot become a victim of its more lethal cousin smallpox. So the thinking was give a patient cowpox, and save them from worse. Ibn Sinna taught us that the body is always finding means of healing itself. With virus-induced ailments, our bodies manufacture appropriate antibodies. Are you still with me?

Masha Allah, they are, Alhamdolillah.

We now know that the antibodies fighting the mild cowpox will also fight the small pox virus.

Fortunately for our city, Hakima went a long way in her struggle against prejudices against women practitioners, as well as modern medical techniques. Soon the Alfiroze district had acquired the reputation of being the most salubrious part of Baghdad. Fewer and fewer people were catching diseases which used to decimate the citizenry. Most people revelled in this reputation of their city, but there were two people who looked upon this development with a jaundiced eye.

Ali Bassam Ibn Waleed the coffin maker, and Lalla Khatoon the healer.

As fewer and fewer people were dying, coffins were not needed, and as Hakima’s reputation grew, fewer and fewer people sought the services of the self-styled healer.

The pair had made plans to tie the knot in the month of Safar, which follows the sad month of Muharram, when the beloved martyrs Hassan and Hussein were treacherously killed in the battle of Karbala. A thousand and one curses on Yazid ibn Mua’ia!

Of course this bit is irrelevant to my tale, but no believer is left untouched by a reminder of the fate of the two sainted brothers.

Pomegranates (Unsplash)

The pair were hoping to pool together their resources in order to build a nice little house on the bank of the Tigris, with a marble fountain and a rose garden, but instead, as neither had been earning, they had to eat into their savings which were dwindling by the hour. They decided that this disaster had to be met with head on. They fed beggars, did voluntary fasting, and spent hours praying, but deep down they knew that Allah did not look upon such efforts and prayers with favour.

They thought that they would find inspiration in bhang. This, as you know is very popular in Hindustan, and over the years it has been introduced in many countries, from Iran to Al Yemen, and our own people were not backward in coming forward to incorporating it in our culture, Allah forbids! Lalla Khatoon often treated her tense patients with that Indian drink when they were tense, and knew how it relaxed them.

The pair partook of bhang lassi one night, staring at each other for more than half an hour without exchanging a single word. Then suddenly, like Macbeth questioning himself about what to do with King Duncan_ many of you have seen the play on our Baghdad stage_ they both shouted, “It must be by her death!”

Hakima’s!

You knew that without my having to tell you!

Flatter your audience, Quayyum bin Quayyum used to tell us. If they think you think that they are an intelligent audience, you can make them swoop down and land smoothly on your gauntlet, without sinking their claws into your arm, and they will happily overlook any weaknesses in your narration. Not that even my worst enemy can fault my story-telling techniques.

But they still hoped that the dire situation they were in might suddenly improve. Allah always helps god people, they thought. And they postponed taking a firm decision.

However, in the following four weeks, Ali Basam was only able to make one coffin, and even then, when he approached the widow for payment, she told him a sob story about her dear departed leaving her with nothing but debts. Lalla Khatoon was not any luckier. So they met one evening, and agreed that Hakima had to be eliminated.

‘How will you do it?’ asked Ali Bassam, ‘I am an expert at sawing and planing, but have no talent in wielding a dagger,’ he said in his whining voice.

‘Naaa …’, said Lalla Khatoon, hiding her irritation, ‘we are not butchers who rejoice at the sight of blood, we are pious followers of Islam. We’re only doing this so we can make a living, marry and have beautiful children who we will educate to become staunch believers. It must be by poison.’

Ali Bassam Ibn Waleed breathed a sigh of relief. Lalla Khatoon knew about poisons, so Allah be praised, he might not be called upon to actively participate in the blood-letting. On the Day of Judgment, with any luck, he might avoid a stretch in Gehenna, thinking, wrongly, that Jibril would accept his plea that he was only a passive accomplice.

But you know, dear friends, that the angel Jibril is no fool. No one can pull wool over his eyes, he knows the inside of your head even before the thought is created, Allah be blessed.

It was clear that Lalla Khatoon was much cleverer than then coffin maker who, I remind you, could not even make the four legs of a table the same. He could not hold more than one thought in his head at a time. On most things, he was clueless. The healer, on the other hand, was a thinking person, even if she did not often use her brains doing good things. She, unlike the man she craved to marry, could look at five different ideas at the same time, and in a matter of minutes reject all but the one sound one. History is full of such clever but wicked people. Less than five minutes after having mentioned poison, she knew exactly how she was going to poison the woman standing between a happy marriage and destitution. She would introduce the poison in a fruit.

But let me tell you about the new plague that appeared suddenly. People who at one moment were fit and healthy, doing their own thing, felt an itch in their eyes which started turning red. This was followed by a fit of unstoppable coughing and wheezing. Within an hour they were convulsed, and after collapsing, in a matter of minutes they were dead. Hakima had expected that calamity, and although she had no cure, she was hopeful that a quinine-based mixture containing, among other things, artichoke leaves might be a useful shield against this pestilence. She invited people to partake of this, but few took the option. It will be revealed later that not a single one of her volunteers was struck down, when thousands were smitten. Unhappily, later they could find no record of the proportions, and her cure remained lost to the world.

But let Let us go back to Lalla Khatoon’s sinister plans. Sinister, but you’ve got to admire her resourcefulness. Some people kill one bird with one stone. Cleverer people kill two birds with one stone, but it takes a higher intellect to kill neither one bird, nor two, but to trap the poor flyer, and breed it so she can provide a continuous supply of eggs. Lalla Khatoon was of this ilk.

For some time she had indeed been thinking about branching off into another line of work as very few people were using her services, but she was so resentful of her situation that it sapped all her energy, and at first she could not be bothered to work something out. Now suddenly this thought struck her.

Yes, dear friends, as you have guessed: Fruits! Although Baghdad had the reputation of producing the best fruits in the region, it also imported portucalis or oranges, from Portugal or Al-Maghreb, Morocco. Apples from Spain, grapes from France. The rich burghers wanted Tunisian dates, the medjool, so there were plenty of those around. Lalla Khatoon would arrange to look older, as she did not wish to be recognised, not wanting the whole world to know that she was now engaged in what is thought to be a lowly profession. Furthermore, street hawkers tended to be older. She had already decided that she would pitch her wares in the area known as the Three Palms, which was at a stone’s throw from where Hakima received her patients. People, grateful to her for curing their loved ones would often bring her gifts of cakes and fruits in gratitude. She did not immediately find the means of introducing the poison in her wares, but after a sleepless night a foolproof method emerged. As an assiduous student of medicine once upon a time, she had learnt about Ammar-al-Mawsili, a famous eye surgeon living in Baghdad in the tenth century. In order to remove cataract from the eye, he had invented a hypodermic syringe to inject his cures, and when she was studying in Basra, Lalla Khatoon had laid hands on one such implement, and had kept it as a memento. She tried it and found that it still worked.

At first she relished the profits she was making, for she discovered that she had a knack for trade. If truth be told, she was a super-intelligent woman who could have prospered in almost anything she embarked upon. She had injected some seductive looking apples, oranges, pomegranates and dates with a hemlock based poison, placed them in a basket under her counter, hidden from view, and would only show them to people when she knew that they were after something to take to Hakima, for she preferred not to poison innocent folks, if that could be avoided. Obviously she imagined that Hakima might well share what she received with others, but she chose not to dwell upon this. Nothing in this world happens unless Allah wishes it. Ali Bassam was uneasy, but nodded weakly. Call this collateral damage if you will.

The occasion to put her plans into practice inevitably arrived. A grateful lady, accompanied by her ten year old son who was volubly vaunting the qualities of the tabiba to the whole of Baghdad, for having saved the life of her darling son, waddled in, claiming that no gift was too great for her. The healer turned fruit seller took an instant dislike to the boy. Maybe Hakima is doing a valuable job here, a little voice in her head whispered to her, maybe you don’t have to kill her. The grateful rich will buy your fruits and will make you rich. You will still be able to build that little house with the marble fountain and the rose garden. And for a fleeting moment the thought that as she could make a handsome living as a fruit-seller, there was no need to go ahead with her plans to murder Hakima. But dear friends, you know when Shaitan gets into your head, he is not going to let go. He will work his venom into you until he has you in his complete grip. Take heed, you believers!

Shaitan is as clever as he is evil. Lalla Khatoon, he whispered to her, think of it. If you had not had the misfortune of falling unto the crutches of that wicked bastard from Basra, it would be you who would be benefiting from all the prestige bestowed on Hakima. She isn’t half as clever as you. Why should you spare her?

Sad to say, Shaitan won.

The lady having picked some of the choicest fruits in the special basket, was so happy that she happily gave Lalla Khatoon twice what she asked for.

The boy rather rudely snatched a pomegranate, saying, Mine!

‘I brought them for the doctor who saved your life, Marwan dearie,’ she said, but fearing the onset of a tantrum, she relented. Don’t eat it all in one go.

The client waddled away happily. Lalla Khatoon saw Marwan begin to peel the shiny red skin of his prized possession off.

I hope the little bastard does not drop dead before they reach Hakima’s consultation, Lalla Khatoon said to herself.

My friends, I will spare you the details. All I will tell you is that Marwan had only munched a small mouthful of the little crimson gems, and so far was not experiencing any ill effect.

Hakima received them with courtesy and, for the one thousand and one times, the lady thanked her for saving Marwan’s life.

‘I’ve brought you some modest tokens of our gratitude,’ she said, offering the tabiba a silk shawl from Uzbekistan, a gold bracelet from Ispahan, and the basket of mixed fruits that she had bought specially for her. The best that money could buy. Luscious looking and equally lethal.

Hakima had only just accepted the gifts when the boy started vomiting. The mother began to panic, but Hakima said not to worry. The boy is definitely cured, she assured his mother, but sometimes the symptoms take time to disappear completely. She administered a thick white potion to him, and he said he felt better. He needs rest, the tabiba said. They left in a hurry.

Quayyum bin Quayyum taught us that it served no purpose, once the main thrust of the story had unfolded, to linger and waffle, and bring in new twists, which only leave the audience frustrated. When the wine is poured , he said, don’t waste time in rigmaroles of nosing, and causing whirlpools in your cup. Just drink it and enjoy it. Yes, he liked people to think of him as a pious man, but he had his weaknesses, may Allah forgive his sins.

Where is justice in this our world? No one had been more dedicated than Hakima when it came to looking after the sick. People would come to her in the middle of the night with minor ailments, and she would treat them without a word of reproach. She never accepted payment from the poor, and more often than not, gave them potions and pills free. But having indulged in one poisoned apple, she began experiencing such excruciating pains that she knew immediately that she had been poisoned, but she was too weak to do anything to save herself. The poor sainted woman died a painful death. It was the will of Allah.

Immediately there was reversal of fortune. The tabiba dead, people began flocking to Lalla Khatoon’s for treatment, and the death count rising, Ali Bassam Ibn Waleed was flooded with orders for his coffins. As people died, the coffers of the pair began to swell. They had already made an offer for a handsome plot of land on the bank of the Tigris. They had ordered the marble and building material. No power on earth was going to stop them. Allah was finally shining his munificence upon them.

Then one morning, as the cock crowed, Lalla Khatoon noticed that Ali Bassam’s eyes had turned red. She started telling him about this, but was herself overtaken by a violent bout of coughing and wheezing, and heard Ali Bassam say, “Habibi why are your eyes so red?”

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San Cassimally

Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.