Was Shakespeare Shaikh Asbeer of Baghdad?

Shaikh Asbeer or William Shakespeare?

Was Shakespeare Shaikh Asbeer of Baghdad?

May I begin by extending a very hearty welcome to you my faithful friends. For today I have reserved a treat for you. It is a little known story by no less than Shaikh Asbeer born in our fair city of Baghdad in the Middle Era following the Middle Ages, about whom I have spoken to you on previous occasions. He is not well-known in the country of his birth, because he left our borders after he had incurred the wrath of the Caliph, and disappeared. People thought that the Caliph had got him killed, but years later we began hearing of an Englishman called Shakespeare who soon became the world’s greatest dramatist, and although we do not have conclusive proof, many scholars have emitted the theory that the English bard was none other than the self-exiled Baghdadi. The plays of the Englishman are often produced on stages from Baghdad to Beirut, Cairo to Casablanca, Khartoum to Khorasan … I know many of you are avid theatre goers and as such are familiar with his works, Merchant of Venice, Othello, Hamlet etc…

Fact or fantasy? Who knows?

The events of story I am about to tell you took place in an unnamed country, but it is clearly in our part of the world, perhaps a neighbour of Iraq’s? Like us they had a Caliph, and their tastes in what they eat, their clothes, music, are similar to ours. Like us they are beleivers.

Caliph Amir Hussein Ibn Ableer came to the throne after his father Ali Hussein Ableer Bin Sultan Al Mohdi died in the fratricidal war with Saudi Arabia, which had invaded the smaller nation. Ableer had given an excellent account of himself, showed that he was a fine military strategist, and a brave general. So after the Saudis were driven out, the people greeted him with gratitude, admiration and love, and installed him as Caliph, and expected good times ahead. It was a great choice, for he did an excellent job rebuilding the war ravaged country, and it was soon flourishing again.

But …

Proud and jealous of what he had achieved, he was determined not to let anybody ruin his work. Fair enough I hear you say. But, he forgot that he was not infallible. Sad to say, whenever anybody disagreed with him, he began suspecting them of sabotage in the pay of Riyadh. Little by little the excellent advisers that he had initially hand-picked for their integrity and their great minds were gotten rid off, dismissed or banished, to be replaced by new sycophantic advisers, and they spoke out against banishment. They persuaded him that the exiles would rush to Saudi Arabia where the Emir was plotting revenge for his defeat on his country.

As a result, a few were despatched to dungeons where they were left to rot, but most were executed. The country, at one time considered a good model of government by its neighbours, soon drifted into authoritarianism, tyranny or worse. The people who had greeted his caliphate ecstatically at first had become wary of him, and the joy and enthusiasm with which they had welcomed this new king in the early days had turned sour, and a great pall of gloom had descended over the nation. People had lost its lust for life. In the tea-houses the erstwhile merriment and roars of laughter were no longer heard. Only chuckles as the wags pulled on the nargile and cracked jokes with Ableer their butt. There were new ones everyday, but I will give you just one example.

A certain Caliph had died and appeared at the gate of Jannat where he is met by the Angel Gibra’eel. So you’ve come to gain access to paradise? He asked, whereupon the Caliph shook his head. No, he told Gibra’eel, I’ve come to dethrone Allah!

There are many more, but you get the picture.

Ibn Ableer had four wives and an unknown number of concubines, he was reputed to be famous for his virility. However, he had only three offsprings. Abu Rayhan and Ali Jalil, with his official wives, and a daughter Fadila born to a concubine. At first he had expected to be succeeded by Abu Rayhan, but he often thought that Ali Jalil, six months younger seemed to have a stronger character, have more authority, and was cleverer, but there was no denying that he was fondest of Fadila who was a year younger, but he had obviously never thought of her as a potential heir. Whilst he involved the boys in the affairs of the state, he tended to keep Fadila away from such matters.

Which did not stop the girl who had an enquiring mind from learning about the intricacies of government. As she loved her father dearly, she allowed that attachment to cloud her judgment, misleading her into believing what Ableer said regularly, to the effect that he was the best thing that ever happened to the country. She had heard about his heroic struggles against a superior Saudi army, about how he had vowed to rebuild the country, and did. He made sure that no one discussed those who had disappeared for taking a stand against him in her presence. She became aware of the growing poverty and the discontent of the population, but when she asked about this, he cleverly twisted the facts and gave her to understand that as the world population was increasing owing to a lack of wars, it was natural for problems to arise.

‘You see, habiba, you have to be realistic. The pot contains a fixed number of goodies.

So, whenever you give some to a group, there’s less left for the others. There is nothing anybody can do about that. It’s a law of Mathematics!’ Fadila was uneasy about the logic, but had no argument.

‘But I have plans to address this huge problem, trust me.’

She nodded, but was unconvinced.

Her two brothers never really considered her their sister because her mother was a common concubine who had been a slave, but she dismissed their attitude as male arrogance rather than anything else. Because they readily mixed with Caliph Ibn Ableer’s courtiers and advisers, they were fully aware of their father’s handle on the matters of the state, on the injustice done in his name, often with his tacit approval. They discovered that although he never openly crushed the people who opposed him, he was a genius at turning a blind eye. They thought he was very smart and aimed to learn from the best. Fadila never knew any of this.

I have not mentioned about schooling so far, but I must. In those days there were few schools, where youngsters learnt Arabic, Mathematics, Geography and the Teachings of the Quran. Most well-to-do people had their children educated at home. Fadila had always been keen to study, and thoroughly enjoyed learning. She loved asking questions, and her mentor, Moallim Hamza Gaffour Ali Zubeir, a learned man from Hindustan who had settled in their country many years before, was a true fount of wisdom and knowledge.

Ableer had given the Moallim strict intentions to limit his teaching to Arabic and the precepts of Islam, but Fadila made it plain to the Ustad that she wanted to know more about Geography, History, Mathematics, Philosophy and Science. In the privacy of the study room, Ali Zubeir thought it safe to talk about the beautiful parts of the world that he had visited, about the great scholars, about Abu Sinna, who laid the foundation of scientific medicine, about Ibn Khaldun who turned law into a logical discipline, Al Biruni who was the first natural philosopher to claim that the earth was a globe which went round the sun. And that, even before Galileo Galilei. But what really thrilled the young princess was accounts of Emperor Akbar of Hindustan. A man who, according to Ali Zubeir, put the people of the country first in everything. He did not relish the pomp and the extravagance common in all the royal courts in the world, but instead used his power and influence in a different way, opening his palace to scholars and poets, scientists and philosophers. Above everything else, Akbar abhorred injustice, and promised that the only war he would fight against, was poverty. His closest adviser was Birbal, a Hindu peasant who had impressed him with his wit and wisdom. He never took an important decision before consulting Birbal. In a country where Muslims and Hindus lived together, not always in harmony, a Hindu adviser was a judicious choice.

Fadila was enraptured by her teacher’s discourses, and, inevitably she began making comparisons with Ableer’s court. Where were the wise advisers? The scholars, the legal experts, the poets? The musicians?

‘You only learn by asking questions,’ was the Moallim’s mantra, ‘strive to learn new things and to challenge ignorance and injustice.’

She thought that made a lot of sense, and began asking her father a few questions. She noticed that Ableer became very uneasy and she did not find his answers satisfying.

When she mentioned Emperor Akbar to him, he flew into a rage. ‘That Moallim of yours is a romantic, an embellisher the facts. I am informed that he never did any of these wonderful things he is said to have done. He is a hedonist, spending his time with musicians and dancers.’ She understood that she had touched a raw nerve.

Without meaning to, she began comparing the Caliph to Akbar, and was shocked when it became clear to her that her father did not measure up to the Indian ruler. Why did not he have sound advisers? It dawned upon her that whenever a good one appeared on the scene, soon after he disappeared. She began asking questions, gradually discovered the wicked practices of disappearing those who were considered thorns in the Caliph’s flesh.

To Fadila’s shock, after a confrontation with Ableer, on the next day the Moallim did not turn up. She asked Abu Rayhan if he knew anything about this.

‘That old fool ain’t coming,’ he cackled, ‘he’s been kicked out of the country by father.’ Fadila did not immediately believe him, but she decided to go ask the Caliph.

When she enquired of her father, he told her that the man from Hindustan had received word that his father was seriously ill in Calcutta and that he, the Caliph had arranged for a camel train to take him to the port in the south where a ship was waiting, to take him to Hindustan. Fadila knew the Caliph was lying, because Ali Zubeir had told her that his dear father had drowned in the Bay of Bengal trying to rescue a little boy during the monsoon rains a few years ago.

‘Abu Rayhan says you banished him_’

‘No! Why would I do that? He got … got … a message from Hindustan … I told you. Praise Allah the sick old man will soon see his son again soon.’

The Caliph had rightly seen that the Moallim from Hindustan was exerting a bad influence on his daughter. He was the one encouraging unwelcome questions. Because he really loved his daughter, he did not wish her to become aware of his failings as a monarch. So he had to go. Whether he was exiled from the country, or was quietly disposed of in the dungeons, no one really knew. She even suspected that her father might even have got him killed, and disposed of.

Fadila flew into a rage, for it was obvious to her that the Caliph was lying.

‘If you’ve thrown him in the dungeon, I demand that you release him instantly.’ Ableer

was not used to anybody demanding anything from him, and had to make a superhuman effort of rein in his anger.

‘D-d-dungeon? What dungeon?’ She had only recently discovered about the dungeons. One slave she had befriended had guided her to one, and she had heard screams and cries of despair with her own ears.

‘Father,’ Fadila screamed, ‘I am so ashamed of you.’ Ibn Ableer froze on hearing those words. He started blinking and trembling. He had grown ashen. He opened his mouth but no words came out of it. Proud man that he was, nobody had ever seen him in such a pitiful state. He took two steps towards the daughter whom he really loved with all his heart, his hands raised in a threatening manner, but stumbled, collapsed on the floor, and began foaming at the mouth. Fadila panicked and shouted for help.

*

Caliph Ibn Ableer had simultaneously had a heart attack and a stroke. Few people have survived this double whammy, but he was in a coma with his life in the balance. It was said that the Caliph had not revealed who he wanted his successor to be. According to palace rumours, he had only told the Paish Imam, a man of great integrity, who his heir was. Abu Rayhan and Ali Jalil eyed each other with suspicion, and each had been weighing the possibility and the consequences of a fratricide. But they had been friends since childhood, and decided to hold talks instead. Sensibly they agreed that they would respect their father’s wish, and promised that they would serve whoever was named, provided the other was amply rewarded for his loyalty.

In the meantime, they arranged for the Quran to be read round the clock, and had ordered Imams throughout the whole country to carry out special services to pray for the complete recovery of their father. It must be said that neither was a true believer who thought or hoped that all these efforts were likely to produce a miracle and save the old man’s life, but they knew that these measures would appeal to the people. Steeped in the art of dissembling, they went about pulling long faces, but they were in a high state of elation, which they cleverly concealed from the court.

It never occurred to them that the Caliph might have chosen Fadila. And the fact that she could have been said to have triggered the old man’s condition with her accusations, made it even less likely.

But, as you, my well-read listeners have guessed, they’d be in for a surprise.

A little flattery always work in favour of the hukkawati. Also it is not an untruth that Baghdadis are not uncouth and ignorant.

*

The time of Caliph Amir Hussein Ibn Ableer must have come. In his comatose state, he had completely lost touch with the real world, but the spiritual alternative had taken over. He found that he could think, he could remember the past, and although his lips never moved and no one heard his words, he had many conversations. His dead father came to greet him. I’ve come to take you away with me, he said happily. A military adviser he had ordered to be eliminated put in an appearance, mocking him, and promising him Allah’s retribution for his crime. He apologised, but his victim sneered and turned his back on him. His dead mother beamed a broad smile at him. We shall soon be together, she said happily. Dead soldiers dripping with blood, filed passed him reproaching him for launching unjust wars and sending them to an early grave. Then the Angel Gibra’eel entered chasing them all away. It’s not for you to judge him, he roared, that will be our task, and trust me, he shall get divine justice. And Ableer shuddered as he caught sight of Malik Al Mawt, the

Angel of Death by his side, glowering at him.

‘Am I really going to die?’ he asked the Angel Gibra’eel. He pursed his lips, shrugged, and pointing at Malik Al Mawt he whispered, ‘Ask him.’ But before he said anything, Mawt curtly said, ‘This is not a social visit. I’m here to do a job.’

‘Surely you’re ready?’ chipped in Gibra’eel.

‘I suppose I am.’

‘Do you have any regrets?’ asked Gibra’eel to make conversation.

They say that at your time of death, you become more lucid than you’ve ever been in your whole life. He breathed out a sigh of relief.

‘Of course I have regrets,’ he said, ‘there are so many things I did wrong. Perhaps if I had more time I could undo some of the bad things that I have done…’

‘So you’re aware of doing bad things?’ asked Gibra’eel, who was always trying to find the good in bad people, and before he could answer, Mawt shook his head and said his bit. ‘If I give you a little more time, you’ll make the same mistakes all over again. Trust me, I’ve see it before.’

‘No, I won’t. I know exactly how and when I went wrong.’

‘You promised much to your people_’

Ableer was not listening anymore, but saw himself in front of his mirror on the day he was being given the caliphate. He remembered his thoughts, and word for word every single sentiment he expressed at that moment. Ya Allah, he had said, you are placing on my shoulder the biggest responsibility any man can have. To govern my country justly, to make the people happy, well-fed, respected. I am fully aware that the country is not my personal playground. I see as clearly as I see your bounty everywhere that my first duty is to the country. Am I deserving of it? I am not sure. But I know I gave everything in my power to rid my country of its invaders, and I also know that this power came from you. You gave me gifts of organisation and leadership. I was always aware that my power came from you. I swear that I will always be guided by justice and put my people first. I shall show neither fear nor favour to any man or woman, from the most powerful to the lowliest of my people. They shall all be treated equally.

You made me an honest man. I take no credit for this, but thank you. May I continue on the path of righteousness. I do not want riches for myself, may you ensure that I never fill my lungs and puff my chest with the air of haughtiness. Let me always remember the Day of Judgement, when I shall have to account for every single one of my actions on earth. Guide me in every decision that I will take. May I strive to keep my country free from disease and pestilence, as well as from hostile invaders. May I never send away those who come to me to seek justice. May I always defend the weak against the strong.

Ya Allah, I have seen good men tempted by riches, I pray you to save me from material desires. Keep my mind pure and banish from it unwholesome desires. If ever I entertained unhealthy desires for another man’s wife, may you castrate me. I have seen good men wallow so much in their power and authority that they imagine others are plotting to take it away from them, and act wickedly to preserve earthly grandeur. I know that with your help this will never happen to me. I thank you for the strength of character that you put in my heart and muscles when I was born. May I never have one good hour’s sleep if I sanction the death of a single innocent man because he disagrees with me. If I steal one dirham from the country’s coffers, may I never enjoy the fruits of my theft. May I shit snakes every morning if I deviate from the path of righteousness that I am swearing to

you as I embark upon my caliphate.

Of course both Mawt and Gibra’eel could read what was going on in his mind. Mawt

stopped his reverie with a hollow laugh.

‘But you had not been in power for more than one week than you got an innocent man arrested and tortured, admit it.’

‘Yes, but I was following bad advice_’

Gibra’eel shook his head.

‘You picked the adviser, knowing that he was flaky.’

Ableer knew this to be true.

‘I was in a hurry to get a team together so we could begin tackling the problems_’

‘And also his wife had caught your wicked eye.’ Mawt sneered.

‘Yes,’ conceded the dying man, ‘I always had a weakness in that department.’

‘And what,’ asked Gibra’eel, ‘will stop you doing the same thing if we let you live a

few more years?’

Ableer forced himself to chuckle.

‘Well, at my age my flame has somewhat abated, wouldn’t you agree?’

At this point Gibra’eel took Mawt by the hand and moved away a few steps, for a consultation. The dying man strained his ears but could not hear anything. He saw them nodding, and then they moved back to his bed.

‘I’ll tell you what we’ll do,’ Mawt said, ‘Gibra’eel has talked me into allowing you to live a few years more, but we will be watching you.’

And so, Ableer was allowed to live.

*

I do not doubt that I let power corrupt me, he admitted to himself. I never planned to use my power to do bad things, but on the spur of the moment one is blinded. Having taken the wrong decision, I’ve always admitted my guilt to myself, promising to be more judicious next time. It’s power that exerts a corruptive influence on one. I need to strip myself of power if I am to do any good. I have two admirable sons and a wonderful daughter.

Sadly his sons were far from admirable, as we know, but a doting father, he was blind to their weaknesses and faults. Also king though he was, he might not necessarily have been very discerning. Or even, just discerning.

His counsellors ordered the nation to rejoice at the news of the Caliph’s full recovery, and unaware that the show of love came from an order, Ableer was delighted. It proved to him that he was still loved, because, he thought, the people recognised the many good things that he had done in the early days of his caliphate. He will make himself worthy of that love.

Dear listeners, I think I can say that his biggest flaw was that he thought that he understood human nature, that his judgment was infallible

Sadly, as you will see, he did not, and it was not. He summoned his three children for a conciliabule. On a big wall he had ordered a large map of the country to be pinned.

When the trio came in, they all embraced their father with a big show of love and respect, and praised Allah for his recovery.

I never doubted their love for me, the Caliph mused for himself.

As I said, he could not tell the difference between a put-on act of love and a real one.

I have asked you to come here because I have an important decision to communicate to you. Take a look at this map of our beautiful country, this earth of majesty, this other Jannat, this demi-paradise, these mountains, as a moat defensive to a house against the

envy of less happier lands, peopled with a happy breed of men… and women…

‘Methinks, he’s inspired,’ whispered Ali Jalil to Abu Rayhan.

If you study it more closely, Ableer continued, you will notice three lines of demarcation. Here’s the North-East with all its lakes and rivers teeming with fish, its copper deposits, and of course plenty of water for agriculture. Here the North West we have the forests with valuable trees and cattle, the best dates in the land, and of course coal. In the south we have trading ports and excellent pastures, horses and camels, and orange and lemon groves. I have decided that after my brush with death, I need to withdraw myself from active duty, and occupy myself by growing three garden. We will instal you each on a throne, and fit you each in a palace and I will then spend four months with each of you. But I will take no part in the running of the country. The three siblings looked at each other, perplexed and apprehensive.

‘I have given this matter much thought, and this is what I have decided. You, Abu Rayhan, will inherit the North East, you Ali Jalil the North West, and you Fadila the South. I am sure that you will be excel_’

It was the boys who stopped him short.

‘But venerable father,’ they said together, ‘we can’t have a mere girl with no experience running a country_’

‘And she is the daughter of a slave,’ continued Abu Rayhan casting a venomous glance at his sister.

‘A black slave!’ Ali Jalil added sourly.

The boys looked at each other and reading each other’s minds echoed, ‘And she is a girl, and girls can’t be caliphs.’

‘And remember she disrespected your authority, which caused your heart attack.’

‘And your stroke!’

The Caliph had not expected any resistance to what he thought was a virtuous act of self-abnegation, and was greatly shocked. He had never had his orders and decisions questioned before. He took a deep breath and paused before speaking in the calmest voice he could muster as he did not wish to sound angry, and said:

‘But you too, my princes, are questioning my authority,’ making an effort to sound conciliatory.

‘We will be the laughing stock of the Arab world,’ one of the princes said.

‘What about Bilqis, queen of Saba’a? Was she not a girl? And was she not a great ruler?’ the man who was still caliph said.

‘Y-y-yes,’ said Abu Rayhan, ‘but … but, I mean _’

Ali Jalil interrupted his brother, ‘I mean venerated father, we are a modern nation, and as such we need a strong man at the helm.’

‘I do not see the logic.’

It soon dawned upon the two young men that the Caliph was determined that his plan

was non-negotiable, and they made a pretence of being convinced.

If Fadila had any reservations about the legacy, she did not voice it. But she had fully subscribed to the views of her erstwhile mentor from Hindustan, Moallim Abu Zubeir, to the effect that the people must have a say in the policy of governance. She kept quiet, but as she was going to become the uncontested Queen of the South, her father having given the undertaking that he would not interfere, she planned to implement laws that the Emperor Akbar had adopted for his country, which had seen spectacular rise in literacy, fall in poverty and general contentment of the nation. The practice in most countries was to tax the most vulnerable people because they did not have the wherewithals to resist. The rich had power and it was best not to antagonise them, some of them even had armies, so the Caliph’s tax collectors often saw it fit not to press them too hard. The first step Queen Fadila took when she took power was to declare that folks would be taxed according to the size of their land, the number of cattle or goats they possessed etc …

You get the picture.

She promised that irrespective of how much tax they paid, they would all benefit from the bounty of the state in the same manner. The very rich grumbled, but there was little they could do.

Ableer had decided that he would spend the first four months in the South, and as Queen Fadila implemented her policies, he saw with his own eyes, the effect her policies were having on the country, and was greatly impressed. The people in the South, who, like the rest of the once unified country, had been disappointed by his erratic style of governing, but were full of admiration for his daughter. He laid out plans for his garden, and loved working on it every morning after fajr prayers. He had clear plans of replicating them when he would go to his two sons.

Meanwhile, in the north, the two brothers, convinced that the South which their step-

sister had inherited was a much richer land than theirs, discussed on the possibility of conquering her realm, and sharing the land between themselves, but they were in no hurry.

Whilst Fadila did nothing to reinforce her armed forces, instead committing resources in projects like irrigation and education, her two brothers strengthened their fortresses, spending a lot of resources and energy training their swelling armies.

As for Ableer, strangely the people who had come to hate him at the end of his reign for his heavy-handed rule, now had a change of heart since he relinquished power. They chose to remember the early days of his caliphate when having driven away the Saudi Arabian hordes, he was trying to rebuild the nation, and they conveniently forgot the reprehensible things that he did latterly, the harsh treatment of his critics, the proliferation of sycophantic officials and courtiers, the disappearances, the executions. Fadila had found that when her people grumbled at her taxation laws, Ableer made them see reason, otherwise he kept away from the running of the country.

At the end of the first tranche, he left his garden in the charge of the head gardener who shared his enthusiasm for the plot, and prepared himself for his move to the North East to stay with Abu Rayhan. His brother Ali Jalil was visiting, when a messenger from the South arrived.

‘The old fool plans to be here next week,’ said Abu Rayhan making a grim face. Ali Jalil said nothing, but seemed deep in thought.

‘I know exactly how I am going to fob him off,’ Abu Rayhan explained. ‘I will tell the old fool that I plan to receive him with great pomp, make sure his accommodation is the best we can organise, but that alas the refurbishment isn’t complete. I will ask him to postpone this happy event.’ He looked at his brother, who he knew did not think that he was too bright, hoping to find admiration in his eyes, but saw none. He only shook his head.

‘No, Abu Rayhan,’ Ali Jalil said, ‘this is an excellent occasion to deal with the old fool.’

‘You mean throw him in the dungeon and kill him?’

‘They say that killing one’s own father is something which denies you entry into Jannat for ever.’

‘But we need to neutralise him.’

‘And beloved brother, neutralise him we will, Insha Allah.’

‘How?’

‘First, send word that you have been filled with joy on hearing the news of his

forthcoming visit. Assure him that he will receive a fitting welcome, tell your messenger not to spare the superlatives, convey to the old man how much he had been missed, and that the he should consider staying the whole year, or at least until Bairam.’ Abu Rayhan was uneasy about that bit.

‘Suppose he takes me at my word?’ At which Ali Jalil cackled with laughter, I must say, in a manner unbecoming in a caliph.

‘The moment he arrives, clap him in chains and throw him in the dungeons.’

‘What about the people? They won’t approve, they’ll want to see him, to cheer him.’

Poor Abu Rayhan, thought Ali Jalil, he needs everything spelled out for him.

‘We’ll say that he became seriously ill after the banquet and we’ll get Tabib Al Hind to say that he needs a long period of rest and cannot be disturbed.’

‘Al Hind will never agree_’

‘Then we’ll pull his nails out and clap him in the dungeons too. Beloved brother, you were always timid.’

‘No,’ said Abu Rayhan in an authoritarian voice, ‘I am not. Watch me.’

My friends, you and I know that it’s when they are accused of being soft that weak people act hardest. They want to prove to the world that they are tough. My dear listeners, I’ll give you the best example: When President Bush was hesitating about invading our country, it was Mr Blair, wanting to show that England was a tough proud country, who urged him on. If America feels unable to go into Baghdad, then we the Brits will go it alone, he said. But they both came, and we gave them both a bloody nose.

Obviously most people wanted Saddam out, but even his hardened enemies hated the Americans and the English more.

‘I’ll tell you what I will do,’ Abu Rayhan said looking at Ali Jalil in the eye, to show how tough he really was, ‘you say killing a father is out of question_’

‘The Hadith of Forgiveness says that Allah will forgive all sins on the Day of Judgement if the sinner shows remorse and contrition, except when one raises a hand to the ones who had given them life.’

‘What if we incapacitate him somehow?’ Ali Jalil shook his head.

‘No, people will take pity on him, and you will lose their allegiance.’ Abu Rayhan saw what he will do in a moment of inspiration.

‘We will blind him,’ he said, ‘then he will be completely at our mercy.’

‘How to do this without raising a hand to him?’

‘You will see.’

‘Fadila might be upset_’

‘What is she going to do? My spies tell me that her army is depleted. Women can’t

fight wars.’

*

Ali Jalil knew how to manipulate his brother, and in the end, Ableer arrived in the North-East within a week. He appeared on the balcony of the palace with his two sones, the people gave him a rapturous welcome, after which he was never seen again. Abu Rayhan met the notables, the Imams, the rich merchants and informed them that the old man had had a stroke and was in a coma. Tabib Al Hind, after losing only one finger nail agreed to their demand to confirm that the old Caliph was seriously ill and had to rest.

In the meantime, the brothers decided to deal with the old man. Unexpectedly Ali Jalil had started feeling uneasy about hurting the old man, troubled by the Hadith of Forgiveness. He was always pretty fearless, but the one thing he dreaded most was going to Gehenna. Abu Rayhan was mighty pleased that the man who had always claimed to have a heart made of iron was less than committed to the plan they had elaborated together, but he reassured him. We shall not even touch the old fool, he said, let alone lay a finger on him. He relished the seeming reversal of their positions. For the first time in his life, he was in charge. Abu Rayhan ordered his guards to tie Ableer to a chair so tightly that he could hardly move his head. Then he ordered his men to light a fire and heat the end of an iron poker. Ali Jalil shuddered.

‘But Abu Rayhan, when you poke this into his eyes, that’s worse than laying a finger on him.’ His brother shook his head, saying, Watch me.

When the end of the poker had turned red, he said Bismillah, in the name of Allah, took it by the other end, wearing the glove he used when he went hunting with falcons, to protect himself. Everybody watched him in awe. He did not know he had it in him. He then approached the hot end to his father’s head. They read fear and horror in the eyes of the old man, whose scream could not be heard as he was gagged. He then manoeuvred the red-hot rod in front of Ableer’s eyes, keeping it one finger’s length away, making sure not to touch them. The image of Ableer’s eyelids and eyelashes igniting would stay with Abu Rayhan for as long as he lived.

When Fadila was informed of her father’s sickness, she immediately guessed that Ableer had been neutralised in some way. Imprisoned or killed. She sent a messenger north to tell her brothers that she would wend her way to see their ailing father, and then take him back South.

The brothers were ready for her. The moment she arrived, Abu Rayhan got his guards to seize her, and throw her in prison, to join the old Caliph.

When Ali Jalil heard that he screamed at his brother.

‘You fool,’ he said, ‘you shouldn’t have done that, ‘couldn’t you have put her in another cell?’

‘Well,’ said Abu Rayhan meekly, ‘let’s go and arrange that then.’

It was too late. When they got to the dungeons, father and daughter, and the three guards who were supposed to watch them had disappeared.

*

Abu Rayhan summoned one of his generals.

‘Take some fifty men and go after the two criminals,’ he ordered, ‘and do not bother to return to the palace if you do not find them, unless you aren’t afraid of being hanged.’

They had little chance of success, for the moment the people saw what had been done to the king they once worshipped, their old allegiance was re-ignited, and they did everything in their power to mislead the soldiers. Wherever they appeared, people came to greet them and complain about the harsh regime of Caliph Abu Rayhan, and many stalwarts vowed to join them. In no time at all this small band grew to incredible proportions, and as the news spread, people from Ali Jalil’s North West crossed the borders to join them. Many of the commanders of the North defected, making Fadila’s army well-nigh invincible.

It became obvious to the two brothers that their goose was cooked. They ended up quarrelling, blaming each other for the dire state they were in.

At the Battle of Barabella, they were roundly routed, with both beheaded by their own generals.

*

‘I think your idea of dividing the country was ill-advised, father,’ Fadila said.

Ableer nodded.

‘I think the best course is for you to re-take the caliphate. I can become your vizier.’

‘You know, Fadila habiba,’ he said, ‘only now do I realise that it’s the idea of a king or caliph which is flawed. You studied history with your Moallim from Hindustan. What qualities did we have to rule our fellow countrymen? Are we wiser? No. Are we virtuous? No. What made me make your brothers caliph, and you queen? I will tell you, stupidity, blindness. Only now that they have taken away my sight do I see the situation clearly. With my sight gone, my vision has become enhanced. I can see things now which I could never have seen before. The world is full of good people, cleverer than me, more learned, wiser and therefor more capable. I was never fit to govern a herd of sheep let alone a nation… no, don’t contradict me_’

‘I wasn’t going to,’ said Fadila in her forthright manner.

‘You must become queen of the re-unified nation, because a country needs a leader, and you, at least have acquired some wisdom, but do not govern by yourself. Surround yourself with the best people in the land_ and there are many good people, as I said_ and let them advise you. I foresee that one day a time will come when we do not need kings and queens to govern the country.

‘Do you think so, father?’

‘It must! But remember the world is imperfect, and above all never forget that you are not infallible.’

I am happy to say that my tale is not finished. I need to remind you that as we speak, the general elections in that country which is now a republic, saw the defeat of the ruling party, and the new government will be a coalition of the parties who were in opposition. The international observers have expressed satisfaction with the way the ballot was conducted, and have said the transition would be peaceful.

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San Cassimally

Prizewinning playwright. Mathematician. Teacher. Professional Siesta addict.