The Book of Saladin
I have not thought of our old home for many years. It is a long time now since the fire. My house, my wife, my daughter, my two-year-old grandson – all trapped inside like caged animals. If fate had not willed otherwise, I too would have been reduced to ashes. How often have I wished that I could have been there to share the agony.
These are painful memories. I keep them submerged. Yet today, as I begin to write this story, the image of that domed room where everything once began is strong in me again. The caves of our memory are extraordinary. Things that are long forgotten remain hidden in dark corners, suddenly to emerge into the light. I can see everything now.
It comes to my mind clearly, as if time itself had stopped still.
It was a cold night of the Cairo winter, in the year 1181 according to the Christian calendar. The mewing of cats was the only noise from the street outside. Rabbi Musa ibn Maymun, an old friend of our family as well as its self-appointed physician, had arrived at my house on his way back from attending to the Kadi al-Fadil, who had been indisposed for several days.
We had finished eating and were sipping our mint tea in silence, surrounded by thick, multi-coloured woollen rugs, strewn with cushions covered in silk and satin. A large round brazier, filled with charcoal, glowed in the centre of the room, giving off gentle waves of heat. Reclining on the floor, we could see the reflection of the fire in the dome above, making it appear as if the night sky itself were alight.
I was reflecting on our earlier conversation. My friend had revealed an angry and bitter side, which had both surprised and reassured me. Our saint was human just like anyone else. The mask was intended for outsiders. We had been discussing the circumstances which had compelled Ibn Maymun to flee Andalus and to start on his long fifteen-year journey from Cordoba to Cairo. Ten of those years had been spent in the Maghrebian city of Fez. There the whole family had been obliged to pretend that they were followers of the Prophet of Islam. Ibn Maymun was angered at the memory. It was the deception that annoyed him. Dissembling went against his instincts.
I had never heard him talk in this fashion before. I noticed the transformation that came over him. His eyes were gleaming as he spoke, his hand clenched into a fist. I wondered whether it was this experience that had aroused his worries about religion, especially about a religion in power, a faith imposed at the point of a sword. I broke the silence.
“Is a world without religion possible, Ibn Maymun? The ancients had many gods. They used their worship of one to fight the supporters of the other. Now we have one god and, of necessity, we must fight over him. So everything has become a war of interpretation. How does your philosophy explain this phenomenon?”
The question amused him, but before he could reply we heard a loud knocking on the door, and his smile disappeared.
“Are you expecting someone?”
“Only the retainer of a powerful man knocks in that fashion,” sighed Ibn Maymun. “Perhaps the Kadi has taken a turn for the worse, and I will have to see to him.”
My servant, Ahmad, walked into the room carrying a torch that trembled in his hands. He was followed by a man of medium height, with undistinguished features and light red hair. He was wrapped in a blanket, and walked with a slight limp in his right leg. I saw a sudden flash of fear cross Ibn Maymun’s face as he stood and bowed before the visitor. I had not seen this man before. It was certainly not the Kadi, who was known to me.
I, too, rose and bowed. My visitor smiled on realising that he was a stranger to me.
“I am sorry to intrude at such an hour. The Kadi informed me that Ibn Maymun was present in our town, and spending the night in your illustrious house. I am in the house of Isaac ibn Yakub am I not?”
“I hope,” said the stranger with a slight bow, “that you will forgive me for arriving without warning. It is not often that I have the chance of meeting two great scholars on the same day. My thoughts were floating undecided between the merits of an early night or a conversation with Ibn Maymun. I decided that your words might have a more beneficial effect than sleep. And here I am.”
“Any friend of Ibn Maymun is welcome here. Please be seated. Can we offer you a bowl of soup?”
“I think it will be good for your constitution, Commander of the Brave,” said Ibn Maymun in a soft voice.
I realised I was in the presence of the Sultan. This was Yusuf Salah-ud-Din in person. In my house. I fell to my knees and touched his feet.
“Forgive me for not recognising Your Majesty. Your slave begs forgiveness.”
He laughed and pulled me up on my feet.
“I do not care much for slaves. They are too prone to rebellion. But I would be grateful for some soup.”
Later, after he had eaten the soup, he questioned me on the origins of the earthenware bowls in which it was served.
“Are these not made from the red clay of Armenia?”
I nodded in surprise.
“My grandmother had some very similar to these. She only brought them out for weddings and funerals. She used to tell me that they were from her village in the Armenian mountains.”
Later that night, the Sultan explained to Ibn Maymun that he needed to engage a trustworthy scribe. He wished to have someone to whom he could dictate his memoirs. His own secretary was too engaged in intrigues of various sorts.
He could not be fully trusted. He was quite capable of distorting the meaning of words to suit his own future needs.
© Tariq Ali