The orchards of Basra

The orchards of Basra

Publication Date: 2020

Publisher: Dar al shourouq

Country of Publication: Egypt, Cairo

Pages: 163

Basatin al Basra

Hisham Al Khattab is Yazid ibn Abih. At least he thinks he is. Some 13 centuries separate the two, but in the despaired mind of Hisham Al Khattab, and through the magical power of dreams, Hisham is Yazid.

An unemployed skillful young man, Hisham, like so many others, could not be hired anywhere after he graduated from the chemistry department. He didn’t have the connections needed to secure a position in one of the large oil companies. And so Hisham lives with his frustrated mother, making ends meet through finding and reselling old and rare books. A passion that leads him to the nicknamed “Al Zanidq” (or “The atheist”).
Al Zandiq is a fervent defender of a modern revisionist view of Islam — though his appearance, and that of his wife and daughter, would say otherwise — and he therefore lives under constant threat. Soon Hisham and Al Zandiq become close associates. Hisham gradually becomes his informal research assistant, finding rare books for his mentor’s work and papers, and sometimes even sharing his valuable insights. At first, Hisham feels proud that someone finally seems to value his worth and intellect. But soon, as with all the others, Hisham is given no credit, his ideas are stolen and and his work is taken for granted. Yet, it is through his work with Al Zandiq, that Hisham gets to know more about Yazid ibn Abih.

He dreamt of him one night. He had dreamt of falling jasmine flowers, a recurring dream, but this time, this man was in his dream, he knew his name, he knew who he was. More than that: He was this man.

“Where have you heard of him?” asked his mentor suspiciously. The question was hard to answer, and Hisham was evasive. But a few days later, Al Zandiq allowed him to consult an old manuscript where the life of Yazid was in part told.
Somehow, Hisham knew more about Yazid than the book revealed. A more intimate knowledge. And an even more intimate connection.

Similarly to Hisham, Yazid was a poor man with an appetite for knowledge. In the Basra (Iraq) of the 8th century, Yazid got to attend the gatherings of the most luminous and respected men of knowledge of his time. Their company would enlighten him. Yet, Yazid, a poor basket-maker, belonged to a completely different world, with no hope of riches or power.

As Yazid and the men of his time, Hisham gives a lot of importance of dreams and their interpretation. Yazid’s close wealthy friend, Malek bin Oudi, the copyist, is a famous dream interpreter of his time, and would be consulted by many on the meaning of their dreams. Like Hisham, Yazid also has a recurrent dream of jasmine flowers on the grounds of the orchards of Basra. According to The Great Book of Interpretation of Dreams attributed to the Imam Muhammad bin Sirin, jasmine flowers are a bad omen. And when Yazid told his dream to his mentor, the latter was taken, as jasmine foretold worry and sadness, “The Ulamas, or men of knowledge and science, are gone”, he added. This is the beginning of the end, for Yazid and Hisham, both of whom commit crimes that will bring their life to a halt.

In this almost historical fiction, dream and reality are one and the same, and the boundaries between reason and madness are dangerously shifting. Similarly to the life of Yazid bin Abih, the life of Hisham is tainted with violence. A violence so crude, it strangely gives reality to the tales of the 8th century.

With her fluid writing, Mansoura Ez Eldin beautifully shifts from contemporary Egypt to ancient Iraq, fleshing them both out with few but so specific details, that the scenes come alive in the reader’s mind. Like the jasmine that repeatedly falls to the ground, there seems to be no end to the downfall of the likes of Hisham and Yazid, or to the fall of Ulamas, the men of knowledge.

Translated by Paul Starkey

Yesterday I ate a moon.
I remember a street on which a few people were scattered, like extras in a silent film in which I was the only hero, spying on them through a hole in a wall separating me from life. I remember raising my head toward the sky and seeing a double moon, or to be more
precise, a moon with its own reflection beside it, the two clinging together as if there was a hidden mirror joining them.
Afterwards, I noticed two other reflections of the pair, one on the right and the other on the left. I was surprised that my sky should have six moons in it, or rather, three pairs of moons, but it was only a mild surprise, like opening the door to our apartment and finding a black cat waiting on the stairs.
I didn’t notice until later that the sky the previous night was coloured with a touch of turquoise worthy of a precious stone, and only then did it occur to me that I had eaten the moon. I had a loaf of bread in my hand, on which I had put the moon (or was it a boiled
egg?). I folded the bread and started to eat until I had finished it. I didn’t dare look upward afterwards. Dark settled in, and I concluded that the light of my life had disappeared with the eaten moon.
I stretched out on a stone bench, not far from the wall with the hole looking out over the street. It was shaded by a tree with flowers like orange bells, whose presence dominated a scene from which green leaves were absent. A familiar voice rang in my head, telling me that the tree was called a Bombax and that it flowered before it became green again. I don’t know where this piece of information came to me from. I was just aware of a warmth deep inside me as if a moon was lighting up my inner darkness.
At that moment, I connected with my paper self. I wasn’t that ‘hopeless’, ‘useless’ fellow who inhabited the words of my mother Leila when she directed her curses at me; then again, she wasn’t my mother at all.
The moon that had settled deep inside me told me this, and a lot more. It urged me to ignore the headache and the fever and the nausea. It returned me to my identity and to a past dream of which I was both the subject and the dreamer. A dream that some of you may perhaps have come across between the covers of The Great Interpretation of Dreams attributed to the Imam Muhammad ibn Sirin, without being bothered about who saw it and told it to al-Hasan al-Basri.

In that distant vision of mine, I witnessed angels plucking jasmine from the orchards of Basra, and the Imam explained my dream as meaning the departure of the ulema from the city. I felt guilty, as if it was I that had brought this fate to them, or even as if I were their
murderer or the angel of death sent to harvest their souls. I didn’t tell my sheikh and imam that the dream had kept coming back to me for some time and that I had seen bushes stripped of their flowers and jasmine beyond counting covering the paths and trampled underfoot. Then Basra appeared to me, with no jasmine and no orchards, as a sterile, lifeless space, the mere recollection of which frightens me.
I was a human being, with flesh and blood and nerves. Then my vision found a place for itself in the book attributed to Ibn Sirin, and I became a paper being. Recently, I have taken to observing myself, frozen in the form of letters and words between the covers of the
book, and I am sometimes overcome by pride, and at other times consumed by indignation.

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The orchards of Basra