Being The Beginning Sunday January 23, 2011
1 The Exchange Sunday January 30, 2011
2 bildende Kraft Saturday February 5, 2011
3 Gossamer Wings Friday February 11, 2011
4 Nemesis Saturday February 19, 2011
5 Odd Shoes Friday February 25, 2011
7 A Love Supreme
8 The Three Cornered Light
10 The Watchman
11 The Upright Way
13 The Cave of Montesinos
16 The Perfect Square
18 The Uncontainable
19 The Ear of Malchus
20 Mauvais Pas
21 Sinan Qua Non
27 The Vanishing Point
28 The Cat Walks
29 The Approximate Likeness of Being
Becalming Unscientific Postscript
Nothing, can alter the truth of me,
I am earth’s dream,
A sleeper ending his sleep
Will see when he wakes,
Real darkness beyond.'
Flanagan scrolls back to re-read the last two pages but his fingers twitch. He decides to quit and after closing the laptop stoops down to retrieve the letter from the floor and place it underneath the computer. It is 4.00 am and his eyes hurt. He has some difficulty draining the dregs of the malt. He thinks about and then decides against another cigarette before crossing to the CD storage unit. He pulls out Ry Cooder and Manuel Galbán’s, Mambo Sinuendo, places the disc in the machine, selects the tenth track and waits for “Secret Love” to begin. He then switches off the lights and unsteady in the darkness he trips taking the steps before leaving the living room door ajar so that he might hear the music waft across the narrow hallway to his bedroom.
Teeth washed Flanagan lies in his bed, naked beneath the sheets of fresh cotton, probing with his tongue a large nerve-dead cavity plugged with the mint toothpaste and looking wide-eyed at the blank canvas of the ceiling. It is illuminated by a projection of moonlight flickering through the branches of the plum tree outside the bedroom window. As Cooder’s riff on the last track, “María La O”, fades, he hears his mobile phone ringing from where he had left it on the hallway table. As he drifts into sleep, he thinks back to another call.
Flanagan’s mobile phone vibrated in his pocket as he climbed the small set of steps up through the Gate of the Engravers that would bring him into the courtyard of the Booksellers. Extracting the phone he checked the number on the caller-display, pressed the answer key and then held it to his ear.
‘Mac! It’s good to hear from you. How are you?’ he said breezily.
‘It was there all the time, Jaffa. Symmonds –’ Mac said excitedly.
‘What?’ he interjected before furtively looking around him to make sure there was nobody listening. The courtyard of second-hand booksellers, which had conducted its business just to the side of the Beyazit mosque since the early eighteenth century was an island of relative peace in the sea of bedlam that is the market quarter of Istanbul. There was nobody in earshot.
‘Listen to me Jaffa!’ Mac shouted. ‘It was there all the time. Symmonds must have missed it when he went through the contents. No wonder we never found it.’
‘I see,’ Flanagan said quietly as someone passed nearby.
‘See my arse! Where are you?’
‘Where am I? Istanbul. Working hard, don’t you know, trying to turn a dollar. How did you –’
‘Let me tell what has happened here. Will you?” Mac interrupted again.
Cormac McMurragh then spoke for about five minutes before hanging up. Flanagan replaced the phone in his pocket and entered the Kitabevi Kaabiz bookshop at the top of the flight of steps. Once inside, a heavily built man, with a well lived-in face, grey unruly hair and a light dusting of cigarette ash and dandruff on his shoulders stood up to greet him.
‘You are welcome, Jaffa, my friend.’
‘I got your message, Ismâil. What is it you have for me?’ Flanagan said, somewhat distracted by his conversation with Mac.
Ismâil Ibrahim, the proprietor of the bookshop, barked an order to a young assistant – who immediately darted from the shop – before fixing him with indignant and bulging eyes. ‘Have I not always been honest in my dealings with you, Jaffa? Was not the Ptolemy proof of that? Are we not partners?’ he wailed in a child-like voice, extending his arms.
‘Of course! Excuse my rudeness, Ismâil. I’ve had no official response from the Chester Beatty to my e-mail on the Ptolemy and it worries me somewhat. I have just come off a call with a friend in Dublin and he thinks the library will not bite. Some problem with one of the trustees – the old fart. I thought that they would have learnt a lesson by now and jumped at the offer but I may have to look elsewhere for another buyer,’ he replied wearily before slumping into a small chair, covered by a high quality but very worn Kashan kilim rug.
‘Do not worry, Jaffa, my friend. Allah will provide. Anyway I have come across something of even greater value which I think will remove all that fatigue from your heart,’ Ismâil consoled, slapping him on the shoulder before retaking his own seat.
‘What is it?’ Flanagan asked with more caution than was necessary.
The bookshop assistant returned at that point carrying a large, bubble-lined envelope and a small, artist’s portfolio case. The bookseller took them and after unzipping the portfolio carefully extracted seven or eight plastic transparent pockets. Each pocket, Flanagan could see, contained a sheet of loose-leaf paper, which appeared quite fragile and on which there was faded but beautiful Arabic script.
‘This my friend. These!’ The bookseller held up one of the pockets, in tender triumph and proffered it.
‘Let me look at – shit!’ Flanagan suddenly grunted. As he reached across the table to take the plastic envelope the muscles in his left hand started cramping and he was unable to grasp it. The envelope floated to the ground.
Ismâil bent down and retrieved it but kept his eyes on Flanagan, questioning.
‘It’s happening more often,’ he explained trying to rub the stiffness out of his hand.
‘Did you go to see my friend the specialist?’ the bookseller asked.
‘Tomorrow. I’ve made an appointment. Probably nothing. Vitamin lack or something! Pass me the envelope please, Ismâil.’
The cramping eased after a minute or so and Flanagan was finally able to prise open the envelope, and inspect its contents carefully. The paper he could see was of high quality linen-rag manufacture, of likely Italian origin he deduced, and appeared to be in reasonable condition, with no evidence of rust or mould. He then looked at the penmanship and frowned slightly. The language of the writing was not Arabic but Ottoman Turkish, he realised, and his ability to read this was poor.
Ismâil smiled knowingly. ‘Would you like me to read what it says, Jaffa?’ the bookseller asked as he reached for another folder to pull out a loosely bound series of typewritten pages. He fanned these in Flanagan’s direction. ‘I’ve gone to the trouble of translating it for you, putting in punctuation, capitals and inverted commas for direct speech.’
‘Please Ismâil, don’t tease.’ Flanagan grinned thinly as he handed the sheet of linen paper with its densely packed lines of calligraphy back and watched as Ismâil replaced it with the others in the portfolio case before starting to read the typescript. This ‘facility’ he knew then, was going to cost him dear.
‘It is dated 1080AH, approximately 1669 years after the birth of Christ, and is a letter composed by one Iskender Aga Sidanli to his son. It has quite an interesting story to tell,’ the bookseller said, explaining the context.
‘Ismâil if my hands wer’nt cramping I’d strangle you. Get on with it!’
‘Ha! Patience, my friend, patience. Time will reveal all. Would you like a coffee?’ Ismâil smiled indulgently, extracting future value, starting the negotiation.
‘Turkish or Nescafe?’
‘Turkish, medium sweet,’ Flanagan answered as he pulled out a box of his favourite Petit brand of small Sumatra cigars made by Nobel in Denmark. He offered one to the bookseller, who declined in favour of a more pungent Turkish cigarette.
‘To Heki, my beloved son,’ the bookseller began reading, ‘in the hope that someday you will read this and come to know your father. Judge me not harshly for I loved your mother and you more than life itself and willingly give that life to protect you from its harsh – ’
‘Sentimental! Why should this be of such interest to me?’ Flanagan asked in a distracted way as he accepted the coffee from the bookseller’s assistant.
‘Why? You ask? Because, my doubting Irish friend, Iskender Aga Sidanli was one of the greatest calligraphers of all time. You know him better as Karabatak Iskender Aga.’
‘Karabatak, the cormorant?’
‘Exactly. Shall I continue then?’
‘Please do!’ Flanagan exhorted, inhaling impatiently on his cigar.
‘It was early afternoon on one of the last ten days of the month, that the Christians name April and others Nisan, in the one thousand and seventy-fifth year since the Prophet Mohammed – Praise be upon his name – had abandoned his clansmen in Mecca. I was eighteen years old –’
‘Abandoned? That’s an unusual word to use Ismâil,’ Flanagan interrupted again.
The bookseller looked up at that point slightly exacerbated. ‘Jaffa, my friend, despite your expertise, there is much of the nuance in Middle Eastern terminology you have yet to appreciate. It is better to use the word “abandon” rather than “flight” to explain the hidjra of the Prophet, because, as my expert and orthodox friends tell me, the Arabic verb hadjara means a deliberate breaking-off-of-relations-with, or emigration from one’s tribe, rather than fleeing from an enemy or danger. The predominant emotions of hadjara are loneliness and elation, not cowardice and fear; a crossroad of opportunity not impasse; a familial disruption as old as time. The Glorious Prophet was not running away but moving towards something better and to do this he needed to abandon his tribal ties.’ Ismâil drew deeply on his cigarette, satisfied with his indulgent explanation. ‘A little like your self, Jaffa.’
‘With respect, Ismâil, would it be possible to give a summary of the letter? I can read the transcripts again later.’ Flanagan grunted, stung by the bookseller’s observation.
‘Of course my friend! The letter begins with a description of the times, and the trouble that the Ottoman’s were having with Count Nicholas Serini, Serinogli, of Croatia, the trouble with the new Chmil or leader of the Cossacks, Yuri Boganzade and the internal difficulties in the city which had caused the Sultan Mehmet Han to remove himself to Edrine. It then goes onto describe the circumstances how Iskender Aga Sidanli first met his future master Abazade Effendi, a Vizier of the Divan and a personal friend of the chief minister Fazil Pasha Koprulu; how Iskender was taken to the Koprulu library to be trained in calligraphy by Abazade, who like Fazil Pasha was a student of Dervis Ali, the honoured successor to Seyh Hamdullah, the greatest calligrapher of them all.’
‘Very interesting,’ Flanagan said.
‘I think you will find the next section more so, if you might allow me read it in full.’ Ismâil pulled out the third page and searched for his starting point.
‘Abazade Effendi explained that I was to become his pupil because he had been informed of my skills as a linguist, calligrapher and archer. I told him I would rather join the army to fight, as I was anxious, as all young men are, my son, to prove my valour on the field of battle. He asked me at that point how long I had been in the school and I told him that I went there when I was eight year-of-age and that my family were Christian. I told him about my grandfather, your great-grandfather, my beloved son, and his people who were followers of Nestorius the Christian and who were employed as interpreters in the Divan of the Shah of Persia. I told him how my own father, your grandfather, became a valued administrator in the house of the Emir of Sidan, in the Sanziack of Saphet and how it was the Emir who sent me to the Sultan’s palace as part of a tribute payment. "And you are now content to be a Muslim instead of a Christian?" Abazade asked. I simply said yes with my eyes.
He then asked me about my facility in calligraphy and I told him that before being taken to the city that my father, your grandfather, had begun to teach me the sulus and nesih scripts as well as an old kufic type known only, in those times, to my grandfather and my father. In the palace school they wanted us to concentrate more on the divani style so the others suffered. Your great grandfather died in the conquest of Baghdad, my son, but my father, your grandfather still lives in Damascus. Allah be praised. I told him all this and then asked him why I was being brought to the Koprulu library instead of to the new palace at Odout Pasha, near Edrine. He said to me, “You, my clever and alert young friend, are to be trained here by me and under the patronage of Kopruluzade rather than the Sultan. That is where the power in the land now lies. That is both yours and my destiny.” I waited there . . .’
The bookseller suddenly stopped as he searched for the next page, which appeared not to be not in proper sequence and blamed, with his eyes, everyone in the shop except himself.
‘There is a point to all this, is there not Ismâil?’ Flanagan sighed.
‘Be alert, my friend. The next part is the most important,’ Ismâil scowled as he searched for the next page.
‘It was at that point, my son, sitting in the dusty unfinished library of Kopruluzade, that my destiny, your destiny, all our destinies changed forever. “Read the colophon,” Abazade Effendi instructed as he handed a very old and fragile calf leather-bound book, with horsehair tassels for closure, to me for inspection. I opened the cover and held the book upwards to the light from a nearby window and as I read, tried to keep the surprise from my face. The pages were made of very old parchment and were coloured with age. There was little in the way of decoration and it was written in an old script similar to the kufic type of my grandfather, which my own father had begun to teach me before I was sent to the palace school and I was able to understand it. The colophon was written in the religious script of my grandfather: the letters of the Syriac Christians. It was a very old book filled with verses from the Qur’an, but very beautiful in its simplicity.
I remember the words as if they were burnt on my forehead:
This is the kitab al-dhikr al-Rûh, the Book of the Warnings of the Messenger Spirit, in whose ear the white dove revealed the Infallible formula for happiness, the secret of which lies within these pages.’
The bookseller read the lines with feigned indifference before looking up to watch for his visitor’s reaction. There was a momentary silence before Flanagan suddenly stood up, and with a look of wild excitement on his face, shouted, ‘Jesus Christ, Ismâil. It exists! It god dam exists. I knew it.’ Flanagan then began pacing the floor of the shop before stopping in front of the bookseller’s desk. ‘Where did you get these, Ismâil? I must know!’ He leant forward and made a sudden grab for the loose pages.
The old bookseller, with surprising speed, slammed his hand down on top of them. Dandruff, dust and ash fanned in all directions. ‘Not so fast, Jaffa, my friend. Now that I suddenly have your interest you will favour me with some continued patience. Please sit down.’ Ismâil failed miserably in suppressing his obvious satisfaction as he watched Flanagan meekly withdraw his hand and retake his seat. ‘Let me finish it first. Where was I? Oh yes. Iskender goes on to relate his emotional confusion of surprise and fear when Abazade gives him the signal that he, like Iskender, is one of the Mu’shirin; a secret Sufi and semi-Christian lodge that existed within the palace school. Iskender writes his son that he suspected a trap and that he was being tested as part of the Sultan’s plan to eradicate secret lodges.’
‘What was the signal?’ Flanagan asked quietly. He had been waiting for a moment like this for many years and needed urgently to confirm the authenticity.
The bookseller searched down the page. ‘The true secret is with us. That was the password.’
‘Read the full section please, Ismâil,’ Flanagan asked, concerned that the document might be a fake. He needed to be certain, to be reassured. The words and the sense of the words were important in this assessment.
‘If you insist,’ Ismâil said with a knowing smile before returning his eyes to the page and continuing,
‘Abazade Effendi said, “I will be your pir or teacher in many things including the journey through those last two gates. From me you will finally learn the Secret but along the way you will also learn to be fully proficient in each of the six main calligraphy scripts as well as the ilm-i-abjad, the science of the letters. You will learn to prepare and cut your reeds, to size and burnish your paper, and to make your ink of soot and gold. You will watch how the tanners prepare the leather, how the binders bind, how the paper makers prepare their pages, how the illuminators pluck the neck fur of white kittens for their brushes, how ink colours are extracted from what is all around you. Finally, as an exercise to strengthen and steady your hand, you will learn to fly your arrow further than ever before or what you thought possible. You will learn to make your own bow and pick the pine for your arrows as well as from where to pluck the peacock for your flights and how to weave the silken threads of their loosening. By the discipline of these paths and the final gates of the Mu’shirin you will know the Spirit of the Truth. From intelligence and will your soul will be found. You will know everything because you will know what is superior.”
I was very overwhelmed, my beloved son, by all these events and even more so by what followed. It was at that point that Abazade Effendi said he was giving me a new name, the name that you now carry. He said he would call me Karabatakzade, the black arrow of the cormorant: the arrow that disappears and then suddenly appears again. I liked my new name as Abazade explained that it was a question of unity in spirit and action and I accepted. I was still unsure, however, why he was willing to grant me my freedom and I asked him about this.
“Ah that,” he said as he stroked his beard, a beard you could lose yourself in, and looked at me, “Because you will be the next guardian of this book.” He pointed to the leather-bound book I still held in my hands: The Book of the Messenger. “It is the only one in which the Secret is recorded. The warnings or the al-dhikr of the Messenger are hidden in the understanding of the secret letters of al-Muqatta‘at. That is its power and its glory. You will learn how to uncover the secret but that is a lesson for another day. Are you prepared to learn?” he asked of me and I agreed.
That is the story, my son, of how I came to meet the great and glorious Abazade Effendi and touched the Book of the Messenger Spirit for the first time. My destiny from that day on was determined and I want you to understand that, my son. It is . . .’
‘Go on, Ismâil,’ Flanagan implored.
‘I’m sorry. The letter ends there my friend, abruptly. The other pages are missing,’ the bookseller said apologetically as he handed the last loose page over for Flanagan to look at.
‘Shit,’ he groaned.
‘It still is a very important document and very rare given the personal nature of it. Valuable I think.’ Ismâil tried to be positive.
‘Forget the personalities Ismâil! Of more importance it tells us that the Book of the Messenger existed in the mid-seventeenth century. Don’t you realise, that is almost a 700 years after its last previous reported reference. Where did you get these? Tell me now!’ Flanagan demanded picking up the rest of the pages. This time there was no obstruction.
‘From a collection of the personal papers of Leon Arsan.’
‘Leon Arsan…I know that name,’ Flanagan replied distracted, trying to engage his brain.
‘A book dealer in this very market in the 1930’s. It seems he sent a number of the pages to an intermediary in Cairo who was then instructed to show them to a collector.’
‘Who? Which collector?’
‘Why, Chester Beatty of course, at his winter house in Bait al Azrak in Egypt. Leon Arsan was a friend of Behir Nushet Bogac, Beatty’s guide in Istanbul.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ Flanagan almost shouted.
‘Listen, Jaffa. I’m hungry. Why don’t we go and have something to eat?’ the bookseller pleaded.
Flanagan looked at his watch and then shook his head. ‘I’m sorry Ismâil. I’m meeting Alanna at 9.30. Tomorrow? We can meet here at say . . . 6.00.’
‘That is fine by me.’
‘Good. I'd better be going.’
‘A word in your ear, my friend.’ Ismâil stood up and directed him by the arm to the doorway of the shop, pausing to whisper out of earshot, ‘Be careful there . . . with Alanna, I mean.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She is not a friend of the military.’
‘What have you heard Ismâil?’
‘They dislike her politics and are almost certainly watching her . . . and you too. Just be careful.’
‘I will. Thanks Ismâil. See you tomorrow.’
‘Insha’ Allâh, Jaffa my friend. Insha’ Allâh.’
Flanagan suddenly sits up in his bed, as if still living the dream. Half asleep and half awake he imagines that the shadow cast on the bedroom wall by the moonlight, the cadenza light, is Mac. The shadow mouth, in profile, moves, speaking to him:
A paralysis of
The shadow loses its substance, as if afraid, and the wind causing the rattle of the plum-tree branches against the window eases off. At that moment he is fully awake. ‘Jesus,’ he whispers, feeling his heart pound and skin moisten. He switches on the light, picks up the clock, and looks at it: 6.30. His hands are cramping again, locking around the clock. He is unable to leave it down. ‘Nothing can be done,’ the Turkish specialist had said. ‘We can do nothing,’ the Dublin specialist had said, giving him nothing. Alanna had once given him a card with poetry by a Kurdish poet written on it. The card sits on the bedside table and he re-reads the words:
nothing, can alter the truth of me,
I am earth’s dream,
a sleeper ending his sleep
will see when he wakes,
real darkness beyond.
He remembers all. He remembers the pain and embarrassment of coming home from school and seeing his mother drunk for the first time, with a man who was not his father – the first of many – standing behind her, equally drunk, fondling her breast with a dead smile on his face. He thinks of Rio’s mother. He then thinks of Kundera’s Franz: a twelve year-old boy walking the streets with a mother wearing odd shoes. He had never wanted to hurt her, but did, just by noticing.
‘Why are you here, Jerome?’ his mother had asked as she lay dying.
‘I need to confront my dreams,’ he had replied.
Still holding the clock Flanagan clumsily switches off the light with his free hand, closes his eyes on the darkness, sinks back on the pillow and lets a deeper level pull him in.