Friday, December 25, 2009

The Skull of Idris Kadeer

I was taking flummery in my rooms at Lampeter when came a knock at the door. At my weary summons Szczackowsky trailed in and draped his limbs over my prie-dieu.

"Sorry to trouble you, Boyo, but I wonder whether I could pick your brains on some heathen lore."

"A pleasure, " I replied, proffering the spoon that heals. Szczackowsky took a listless sip. After some pleasantries about the disposition of my mistletoe, he told me a tale the like of which I had long feared to hear.

"I gather the swart Mussulman does not bury his dead in a decent coffin, but rather winds him in the poor fellow's own headgear before consigning him to a shallow grave and having done with it," he began.

"Not entirely the case," I garbed my distaste in the mildest of rebukes. "The Mahommedan does not despoil our holy oak through entombment, it's true, but is most solicitous towards the memory of the departed, with commemorative feasts on the fortieth day of his kinsman's sojourn in Paradise and its anniversary. Alms and sweetbreads are offered to the indigent. Heathens perhaps, but certainly not barbarians."

My Polish colleague grunted, and cast a lashless eye at the sleet that slathered the windows of my set. "Always happy to acquaint you with the latest research," he muttered. "You remember my field trip to the archives of the Emir of Bokhara?"

I nodded. Szczackowsky's discipline was the heraldry of his itinerant homeland, with particular interest in the hitherto elusive enoblement of his ancestors. The few versts of palsied peasantry that bore the Szczackowsky name near Gszmak were too little and too far.

"Well, I tired of the musty indices and decided to take the air on the outskirts of that sand-girdled satrapy," he continued. "Soon I found myself on broken ground, alone but for some carrion birds. It must have been some forlorn battlefield, for I nearly tripped over a bald rock that, on closer inspection - well, a kick, I admit - turned out to be a skull."

"A human skull?" I mused.

"That of a local," he replied hastily. "It was round like a water-melon, as is common among the Sarts."

"Of whom there are few in Bokhara, a city of Tad-jeeks," I remarked. "But do go on."

"I mean it was not elongated to fit a honey-melon, the measure of the Turcoman." I swore his duelling scars grew fevered in the peat light.

"A welcome discovery for the historian of the lay of Tamburlaine's campaigns," I concluded. "I shall mention it to Deakin. Now, I must dress for Calennig, and I fear my garlands have swollen since last year -"

"Please hear me out, Vortigern, for pity's sake!" My guest all but grasped the lapels of my jerkin.

"Sit down, Wozzeck, and pray a little more candour this time." I loaded the hookah as he puffed impatiently on a biddi.

"Very well, it was no battleground, and I wasn't taking a break from my work. Far from it - this was to be the acme of my academic achievement. Tell me, have you heard of Idris Kadeer?"

I set the mushrooms down for a moment, and drew a manuscript from my Khwarazmian cabinet. "The Tareekh of Buyouk-Muinack," I gently brushed the dust from its grey leaves. They seemed to whisper as I traced a path to the seventh chapter, the one that treated of Kadeer the Mad, and of His Curse. I translated aloud from the Tchaghatai:

"...and he who had walked gladly without the Light of the Merciful, who had passed through dunes and vaulted cisterns in the company of serpents and djins, now he met justice at the hands of the Prince's guards. Before his head rolled in the pious dust before the Kalyan, Idris fixed both eyes upon the crowd. His lips did not move, but all heard his words -"

I replaced the fading folio, as Szczackowsky's head had slumped in his hands. "What did you do?" I asked quietly.

"I'd heard the story of the great Necromancer of Bokhara, and how possession of his remains could bring unimaginable wealth and power -"

"Yes, unimaginable, and only to the adept," I interrupted.

"I know now." His voice was barely audible above the twilight patter of ravens in the courtyard below. "A chest of piastres had bought me an audience with a blind Maulana at Lab-i-Khawz. Imagine my delight, my exhilaration at being told where to find the tomb of Idris and all it contained!

"I ventured out at midnight, bribing the guards at the Ark to let me pass, and soon struck the path to a ruined medrassa on the very edge of the desert. The key I'd bought so dear let me down steps to a vile vault almost submerged in a sulphurous brine. And there I found it.

"I shan't bother you with the details of my nightmare of horror - the sounds, the sluggish movement of half-shadows, the underwater whispers - or my deranged flight across broken walls and cracked tombs until I piled sobbing on my rude bed, the prize in my hands. Merely to think of it robs me of nights of sleep.

"All I had found in the tomb was a handful of dust and a skull."

"The skull of Idris Kadeer?"

"I had no doubt, and less now." Szczackowsky lit another spindly cheroot, unaware of its sibling that still smouldered between his blanched lips. "I was disappointed to find the remains already reduced to powder, but felt grateful that at least the skull was intact."

"How do you feel now. Powerful? Prosperous?"

"Don't mock me, man!" A sickle moon spun unwholesome skeins across his brow. "I brought it out of Russia on a packet from Odessa, packed in a samovar, then by wagon-lit from Constantinople. It's fair to say I've not really slept since. At first I put the dreams down to fatigue, the ague, whatever, but soon the incessant clanging of gongs, the choking cloying fumes, the screams that surged into one endless shriek, the throbbing, indescribable colours, they all began to take on a shape - oh God, if you can call that a shape!"

"You know the curse," I asked as he covered his face again. Meeting only silence, I took up the manuscript of the Tareekh once again.

"... Who owns my bones shall have dominion over those who scattered them to the corners of the world, and over all that passes between, but woe upon those who divide me! The Two-Horned One shall greet them at the gates of Jahann-Am, and endless will be the burning blizzard of their torment. And then they shall behold my face..."

"That wasn't the tomb of Idris was it?" sobbed Szczackowsky.

I shook my head. "It was the Maulana's own ruined academy, the one that the mob had destroyed when they learned of his ungodly pursuits, the one where he had put out his own eyes rather than see what had been promised to him."

"He had been tricked into taking possession of the skull and becoming - how did Kadeer put it?- "

"One of 'those who divide me' - literally." I replaced the manuscript. "Until he passed it on to you."

"What am I to do, Boyo? You're my last hope."

I pointed skywards with a faint smile. "We ought to consider 'benefit of clergy', don't you think? Look, I know an imam - a Moslem cleric - as learned and devout as any of those Low Churchmen at St David's. He'll give the skull a decent burial, something that's clearly never occured to anyone. I take it the, er, object is here in your set?"

"Yes," he gabbled, "It's in a cupboard under my washstand! Of course I'll make it presentable, and - "

"Here's what you'll do. The whole college will be attending Calennig in an hour. If you stay at home, burn a good fire in the hearth and leave your door ajar, I'll send my fellow up. No one will see you."

"I don't know how to thank you," wept my colleague.

"Just go, and stop worrying." I pressed his hands, and led him to the door.

A while after he'd gone I set aside my nargileh, tapped at the connecting door to the next set of rooms and eased it open. It was dark inside, but warm and still. My neighbour sat in a high-backed chair by the empty hearth. I took his hand in mine, and traced calligraphy on the parched palm.

Across the square. The Frank has it. You will feel the warmth of his fire on your breast, and hear his breath in your heart. His fear will hang heavy in your throat. And soon you will see again, and speak - Master.

Idris Kadeer rose, and I followed him to the stairs.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Cum mortuis in lingua mortua

Like God, I am regularly disappointed by the people of the Near and Middle East.

The Lord granted them a hot and dusty climate, languages that make Welsh sound like birdsong, an array of ghastly, antagonistic religions and ready recourse to firearms, but all the hairy little bastards can do is complain and belt each other around the withers with Righteous Swords of This-And-That.

It comes as no surprise that people who want to enjoy themselves are the region's chief export, and that it attracts a pretty glum type of tourist. The only foreigners you see wandering around at their leisure are bumfaced women with short grey hair, their stooped and willowy husbands in sleeveless jackets and tweed hats, the occasional heretic-hunter, and members of the European Parliament.

This is a shame, as the Levant and its sandy hinterland preserve one of the chief joys now denied to most Europeans - two-fisted, bat-lunged smoking. If I were the tourism ministry of Syria, for example, I would ditch the posters of stylites, waterwheels and poetry-reading in favour of a large bucket of cigarettes with the words "And They're Cheaper Than A Basingstoke Bunk-Up" engraved thereon.

A poster campaign could follow, showing cheery moustachioed dads celebrating the birth of their masculine children with a smoke-in at the local maternity clinic.

But no, Syria has instead decided to ban smoking in public places. So far so typical for the joyless, slab-skulled Baathists, but the real punch to the pulmonaries was to hear that Turkey had brought in a smoking ban some time earlier.

Readers of this web blog will be familiar with both my enthusiasm for smoking and my admiration for the Turk - a square-headed pragmatist in a region of rat-eared madmen.

It is true that not even a Maoist can approve of everything the Turks have done along the pointy lance of their history, but on balance they've managed to dispense with religion, random hats, curly alphabets and tyrants with a higher degree of success than any of their neighbours to the south-east.

In the meantime they have given us ciggies, the assisted bath as a means of relaxation, and a prison system generous enough to accommodate all the whining druggies the West can spare.

I hope the broad-trousered Turk will defend his right to shroud the wine-dark Eastern Aegean in an absinthe-green haze. If not, the preachy types currently trying on the mighty boots of Atatürk will fetter his remaining freedoms in a fundamentalist firman.

For next comes membership of the European Union, which would oblige the erstwhile Ottomans to hyphenate their moustaches and drink watery coffee from bowls.

One of my formative smoking experiences happened in Istanbul. In pre-uxorious days I spent my leave on city breaks of an improving nature. I would chose a city of culture, book a long weekend, and spend it drinking heavily within sight of some of the finest buildings and richly-endowed art galleries of Europe and beyond.

A literally purple passage in Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani once launched my drunken barque in the general direction of Stamboul. I've always been jealous of people whom Dirk Bogarde represented on screen, and none more so than Paddy.

In the great man's tsikoudia-laced reverie, as I recalled it, the Patriarch of Constantinople leads a restored Byzantine fleet up the Hellespont as the Turks slope back to the howling steppes of Tartary. A bejewelled Pophyrogenitos acknowledges the cheers from mackerel-crowded streets ashoreiarioi and logothetai,manglavitai and spatharokandidatoi unfurl the cross-and-betae flag in the shade of Haghia Sophia.

Vibrant and diverse, but not in a Whitechapel way.

In fact, Leigh Fermor wrote nothing of the sort, and his mild imagining of Dunkirk flotillas of Greek fisherman huddling in Anatolian harbours concluded with the cadence "But in the City itself, the throne of the Emperors was vacant..." (New York Review Books Classics edition, 2006, pp44-45). Old men forget, middle-aged ones spice it up.

Istanbul itself was bigger-hearted and smaller-headed than its imperial predecessor. It rained for five days, so I spent my time in nightclubs and catacombs. On the last day I tired of slouching in Western and Byzantine ruins, so flapped squeaking from the Basilica Cistern in urgent need of some bracing, ballbusting Turkish culture.

My cherished copy of the oft-banned "Discerning Gentleman's Guide to The Golden Horn" by Conrad Latto (Editions du Crépuscule, Maison Blanche, Algers, 1938) had recommended a nargile kiosk near the university as a "discrete and discreet entrepôt on the Forum Tauri, where herbal salves may be bargained from a Smyrniote Hebrew of saturnine mien".

Some enquiries among the tabacs maudits of Beyazit Square led me through a portico of booksellers to a raised wooden hexagon in a quiet courtyard. I slipped into a world of smoke and shutters, where leaden-lidded Anatolians tugged on serpentine hoses, a world of stoic near-silence.

Little troubled the hush but the rush of bubbles through water jars, the thrub of thoroughbred hooves from the televised racetrack, and an occasional click of tongue on teeth as a favourite fell behind.

The smokers sat on a bench that ran around the room, leaving a carpeted expanse to fill with their fumes. I perched, and a boy scurried to my side with hookah, apple tobacco and a light. The recumbent Turks flicked glances my way, and were as reassured as I when the coals started to smoulder and heavenly vapours invaded my head.

Carpet-toters, sheep-shavers, wood-carvers and copper-rattlers plied the route from hookah to bookmaker and back, backgammon sets unfolded like odalisques in state rooms, back vowels brushed against labials, and everyone was very male.

The tea boy would poke his cropped skull through the door every 20 minutes and chirrup "çay?" He'd count the barely-arched eyebrows and return with a matching tally of steaming tulip glasses.

Except in my case. He'd make a special journey across the kiosk to me, and ask in elaborate Ottoman whether I would honour his urn with the slaking of my thirst. "Er, gosh, thanks, a pleasure - no sugar!" I'd stammer, turning all Joyce Grenfell as Brits do when confronted with Levantine flummery.

An hour passed pleasantly, then in came a group of students from the university across the square. Two young men in what a cad would call "Balkan preppy", and a couple of blondes who must have been among the city's avid Harpers readers. They ordered hookahs and began a loud conversation. Within 15 minutes the nargiles lay neglected, their plates serving as ashtrays for the Crusader's Malboro Lights.

There's a moment in Billy Wilder films when the character achieves self-awareness - rather like the machines in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Comade Garbo trying on the fancy hat in Ninotchka is my favourite.

Something similar happened in that Bosphorus fumidor. The artisans cast a cold eye at the Young Turks, with their pastel shades, pashminas, filter tips and chit-chat, then considered the taciturn Frank in their midst. I toked the smoke, drank the tea and firmly did not talk any talk.

The sign that I had been accepted in a conditional way came from the teaboy, the Mini-Mabuse of this Expressionist mime. He strolled over to the students and asked whether they would like anything else. Then he turned in the doorway and gave the rest of the room a casual "çay?"

Although I boast two eyebrows, this time one of them was among the silent chosen. Never ask me which.