Worlds Apart: Tales from the Land of Aden

Timucin Toprak – “Bir marti oldum suzuldum ista...”

During the storied reign of Abbasid Caliph Jafar Al-Mutawakkil, AD 850 in the Christian calendar, there lived in the bustling port town of Aden a family of poor fishermen.  Malik caught fish by longboat; his eldest son, Suleiman, dried and salted the catfish, turbot, and mackerel with bare hands on the wharf, while Said prepared fine meals for his family.  Malik had aged rapidly: time at sea hastened him beyond his years.  Still, the toil provided for his boys and offered quiet time to reflect in peace.  He did not miss the frantic street noise of Sana’a, fortified capital of mosques and minarets, congested with the commerce of Persian rug-makers, Abyssinian potters, and Indian spice-sellers, the source of those hot, pungent smells in the central bazaar.  The Land of Aden/Al-Yamaniyah, Sheba or Saba to the ancients, was richly blessed with desert and jagged mountains, green plateaus running till the cliffs and, above all, vast coastline.

Initially, the family foraged through the old cities of Karna and Marib, public squares in Dhafar and Al-Muza, chaotic suqs of Jibla, Shibam and Zabid, each with their wandering packs of famished goats, donkeys, and camels blocking narrow lanes of the immigrant quarter, grunting and spitting at whim.  Settling at the very tip of the Arabian Peninsula had been a smart decision as far as Malik was concerned.  The Bay of Aden made his hard voyages worthwhile.  Every morning the breeze from the sea conquered the harbor, washing away sorrowful memories of his life left in Bethlehem, the dark orange sun now painting his round belly and face, gray hair seeping into soft crevices of his leathered skin as seagulls swooped in gliding arcs over nearby mountains.  In these moments Malik ibn Quraysh cast his wiry nets then looked to the clouds, wishing for the day his life’s secret was shared with those closest to his heart.

Suleiman loathed his job and fish altogether.

“They stink and slip all over the place!” he often complained, cursing under his breath.  It was not uncommon for Suleiman to be found relaxing on the coastline in the afternoons with Rasul, smoking their lungs’ share of qat, the local narcotic shrub, and sipping coffee or cardamom tea with goat milk.  Loyal companion from childhood days, Rasul also dealt in all manner of intoxicants and resins, especially myrrh and frankincense – formerly the source of Sheba’s commercial fame.  Skinnier than Suleiman and slightly taller, Rasul fancied himself a philosopher, stroking his triangular beard and smooth bald head.  They passed hours ruminating about political intrigues and history, wondering aloud how much longer relative isolation would protect Aden and all of Al-Yamaniyah from violent factions tearing at other parts of the empire.  As night fell they headed for town, marveling at enchanting belly dancers coming alive to the melodies of flutes, the thick air filling with passion and sensual charms.

Said for his part was satisfied with life, being an expert cook with a distinguishing palate, matching as many spices as possible in his dishes.  Paprika and yellow curry were preferences, but for his father’s sake he made ample use of z’houg paste, that fiery concoction of ground-up green chilies, coriander and parsley.  Along with hilbeh relish and salouf flatbread, the Friday night feast included hawaij mix, blending turmeric, cumin, cardamom and garlic to enhance soup or poached flounder.

Most evenings Said spent in town at his favorite spice stall run by Abbas the Egyptian, not only to replenish his stock of seasonings but to catch up on the latest gossip of the growing Mongol threat in the east.  Abbas was convinced the fledgling Asian tribes would one day advance into Arab lands.

“They have set their slanted sights on an empire!” he warned, drawing closer curious ears of market-goers and fellow merchants.  “If not for our superior horse breeds they would surely thrust deep beyond the borders of Asia in wild hordes with no earthly force to outmatch them!”  While few took Abbas seriously, his vivid routines ignited the frightful imaginations of youngsters and immigrants who generally dwelt in fear of brewing trouble anyway.  That none had ever heard of these “Mongols” was irrelevant.  It took little to incite commotion in the Land of Aden, where everyone dreaded political hardships creeping into their special corner of civilization.

A higher cause kept Said perched on a wobbly wooden stool next to Abbas as the sun escaped.  A certain enchantress named Aliya, more beautiful than the night sky full of stars, more seductive than even the sound of her name, was the niece of Abbas, often seen helping arrange his coffee bean display.  How such an exquisite, goddess-figure could be kin to an unkempt boor such as Abbas, with that recurring twitch of his left eye and pieces of mangled lentil wedged eternally in his lower teeth, was incomprehensible.  None cared, so long as they got in a few extended looks at Aliya or, better yet, more than a passing glance from her.  Said came to earn her approval not by charismatic advances, but for his reserved, observant nature.  They strolled along the pier late at night when religious authorities slept, occasionally camping in the hills to gape at the crescent moon and recount old fables about Bilqis, Queen of Sheba or the noble Caliph Harun Al-Rashid.

One day the brothers were having one of their periodic arguments, unaware their lives were about to change forever.

“You are only jealous because I have Aliya and you must get your pleasure from fat belly dancers in dark rooms at night.”

“They are not fat, Said!  They are well-proportioned and limber.”

“Fat and they are also old!  They go to every man who grins at them, drooling like a fool.  In the dark you cannot even tell how hairy they are!”

Just then Malik entered the house, visibly disturbed.  Suleiman and Said approached and inquired.

“The Khalifa just issued new regulations for non-Muslim citizens of the empire.  They are being posted in every major city square.”

The boys noticed how difficult it was for him to continue.

“You are dhimmis,” he whispered slowly, carefully revealing the secret burdening him over a generation.

“Dhimmis?  You mean Ahl al-kitab?”

Malik nodded, reaffirming Said’s confused look.  “We are what Muslims call People of the Book.”

“Christians,” Suleiman realized, explaining to his brother even as he was shocked to discover the fact.

I am Christian.  Your mother and I agreed you would follow her tradition, may she rest.”

Said glanced at Suleiman, each mirroring the other’s sheer puzzlement.  Was father ill and mumbling gibberish, was the heat tampering with his mind?  Had he been overindulging in qat?  His eyes were too steady and intense for madness.  He was in complete control of his senses.

“You are sons of slaves and kings.  You are Jews.”

The brothers bartered looks of utter astonishment.

“The Khalifa originally demanded non-Muslims wear yellow headgear.  Now this new decree, mandatory yellow badges on our garments.  He also requires we nail wooden images of devils upon our doors.”

No longer could Said hold his temper.

“Who cares about the Khalifa, lounging with ud players inside his luxurious palace??  All he cares for is finalizing his Grand Mosque!  He is in distant Samarra, eating purple grapes he didn’t pay for, romancing his harems!  Why should his laws affect us here in Aden???”

“It isn’t the Khalipha’s laws I fear; rather his wrath that follows.”

Suleiman offered what to him was most obvious.

“We have always been Muslim; now it is far too dangerous to change.  It is a practical matter.  We can’t afford the jizya poll tax.  We struggle as is.”

“I don’t intend to surrender any blood ransom, payment for the right to live!” Said insisted, saliva spewing.

Malik closed his window shutters with haste.

“Keep your voices down.  The authorities patrol streets between prayer times.  Listen carefully.  It is time you knew who you are.  What path you choose from now on lies in your own hands.”

Not one among this family of poor fishermen slept that night.

Said set out straightaway to find Aliya, stunning her with the news. She fidgeted with her copper bracelets.

“Dhimmis are forbidden to marry a Muslim woman.  You may not even touch one without grave penalty.”

“You are the only person I thought to tell, Aliya.  What should we do?”

To his amazement, Aliya said nothing, simply walking away.  He was unaware he would never see her again.

Rasul sat in quiet contemplation, digesting Suleiman’s sudden admission.  He puffed on his roll of qat, smiling as smoke billowed between narrow crevices in his stained teeth.

“What is little known in Aden is the Khalifa, the ‘fearsome’ Al-Mutawakkil, is a puppet of his Turkish soldiers who were not long ago mere slaves.  He does as he wishes so long as they are not offended.  The capital moved to Samarra because the Persians would have overrun the Khaliphate had the Turks remained in Bagdad.”  In all their hours together, Suleiman never heard his friend discuss politics with such candor.  “Al-Yamaniyah has been Muslim for two hundred years since the time of The Prophet.  But then we were all Arabs!  Conquering Persians, Copts, Turks, and Berbers has only brought instability to the empire.  Revolts.  Power struggles.  One dynasty pitted bitterly against another.  Like every empire before us, bound to disintegrate.  I am proud the Arab has had his turn at the helm, though it is absurd to believe it can last.”

Suleiman took his leave and soon found himself standing on a familiar street corner.  He stood there staring down the mountain slope, looking to the harbor with a sadness previously unfelt.  The fullness of his sorrow was such that when Said caught up with him, he noticed immediately.

“What do you think of, Suleiman, with such a tortured face?”

“It was on this very spot, years ago, that I was playing among friends when a Jewish boy came by carrying two loaves of braided bread and a small jug of wine.  My companion used a stick we were toying with to trip the boy, causing him to drop his goods down the hill.  The jug shattered and spilled.  The bread rolled in the dirt; other boys stepped on them for fun.  These were for his family’s Sabbath meal.  The boy was afraid and crying, while the rest of us laughed or did nothing.  I…don’t know which was worse.”

Said bit his quivering lip, not knowing what to say.

Suleiman fell to the ground, sobbing in his palms like he had as a child.  He did not refuse the tears as he had then.

Before long Malik gathered his sons, considering seriously what to do.  The situation had deteriorated greatly, much like Malik’s health.  He knew that on the sea of life, he was sailing on the return journey, homeward bound.

“There are those like us in poverty, who have come to accept dhimmis as part of the community and would stand beside us against tyranny.  Unfortunately, our Sultans, Emirs and Imams bow to the Khalipha, who at the moment is an intolerant, fanatical, sadistic man.  None wishes to incur the fury of his agents in the region.”

“If only the Khalipha was a just man, like Harun Al-Rashid.”

“Harun himself murdered as he pleased, Suleiman.  He killed his best friend and none knows why.  Every man whether important or ordinary leaves a legacy to time.  Al-Mutawakkil may be a patron of science, literature and art, he may have built the grandest mosque in the world and turned Samarra into a center of culture and government, but what else he has done will not be forgotten by his victims nor by time.  He threatens his own engineers, his personal physician he jails.  He will have his due, in this life or the next.”

At this the brothers saw their father weaken, coughing painfully.

“My sons, I am not long from the grave, with yet much to recount about your heritage and mine.  Though I lack strength to discuss matters at length, I promise to answer your most burning questions.”

The brothers looked upon another with urgency in their eyes as Malik laid back to rest.  Finally Said stepped forward.

“Where is mother buried?”

Malik felt his heart burst, the bitter wound reopening and flooding out years of private truths he could no longer suppress.

“Your mother Zohar…rests on a hill on the outskirts of Jericho beside her parents Solomon and Naomi Abulafia.  An apple orchard nearby.  Suleiman, you are named for your maternal grandfather.”  Taken aback, Suleiman felt the prick of irony.  “Then the legends are mistaken.  It was Solomon who left his kingdom to visit the land of Sheba.”

Suleiman caught Malik’s pained grin.  Having too many questions from which to select a single one, and sensitive to his father’s increasing discomfort, he simply squeezed the old fisherman’s hand and left.  Said crept close to his father, kneeling bedside.

“Give me too a name reflecting my ancestors.  From the people that are the root of my destiny.”

“I do not doubt you will renew our family’s identity.  Like the ancient Hebrew prophet Elijah, also forced to wander from persecution.  Today is the anniversary of his death, the hillulah of that righteous herald of redemption.”

Inspired, Said saw his future clearly.

“I want to see where it is we come from, father.  If Allah permits me to reach the Land of the Hebrews…I will answer to the name Elijah from that day forward.”

Within days, Malik was dead, his home emptied and sold.  Suleiman and Rasul carried his unburdened body aboard his trusty fishing vessel as Said watched from the pier.  Suleiman returned to embrace his brother goodbye, handing him a sac of coins.

“This is your portion of our life in Aden.  My half goes with me to Abyssinia, a Christian kingdom where father will be buried in a proper cemetery not degraded in any way.”

“Mine will provide for caravan passage north to the tip of the Red Sea and beyond.  From there I’ll find my way as best I can.”

Each brother was true to his word.  After Suleiman paid for his father’s burial, he and Rasul explored the ancient city of Axum before returning to Aden where Rasul disembarked, wishing his old friend well.  Tired of coffee displays, Aliya began belly dancing in town.  Before long, she and Rasul were engaged.  Abbas eventually sold his spice stall and became an official government informant.

Suleiman sailed northward to reunite with his intrepid brother, last seen leaving Hebron, his hot sandals withering, marching upslope towards a hill on the outskirts of Jericho.  Caliph Al-Mutawakkil was soon murdered in AD 861 by his Turkish guards at the instigation of his own son.  The Abbasid dynasty reigned until 1258…when Hulagu Khan led wild Mongol hordes into Iraq and crushed Bagdad.


© – Brandon Marlon 2014

Image by Timucin Toprak. Click here to view more of Timucin’s work of to contact him.