“What the Storytellers did not tell” A short story by Iraqi writer Lutfiya al-Dulaimi

A man has an all-consuming interest. His dreams – doses of intoxicating poison – his energy, his surging emotions, power, oscillating temper, intuition, driving spirit, loneliness, and his time, all converge and dissolve in a single maddening passion for a woman from another time.
Many women crossed paths with his, and in the midst of his longing they glowed then fizzled out, leaving behind fallen momentos from which he made a wax monument of the woman he coveted. His deep passion, confused but solid, began with a painful obsession with a woman he called Sheherazade, the one perpetually beyond reach. His infatuation gave way to a slavish resignation that came with the expected pleasures but drained the soul in a series of attachments to women where he sought some of Sheherazade’s glamour.
The reigning woman captures his soul, showering his prime years with tales, mythology, secrets, and surprises, and sends him, body and soul, into a clash with today’s discontents. In complete passivity, the man celebrates the bondage in his passion, for he’s nothing without it. Lonely and reclusive, steeped in music and literature and art and the genealogies of solitude and hunger, his captivating pursuits override his everyday reality. He seeks refuge in her imagined times, and scribbles something, adds a book or two to the hundreds that have already appeared about her.
Inside the confines of the passion enslaving him, the man nurtures the fragile emotion and surrenders to the mechanism of love. His desires are stirred and rebuffed, his dreams shattered and once more revived with a fresh and larger illusion that sweeps away his history, his job, his memories and women and pains, and carries him to a hypothetical time where he abandons all other events, passions, desires. He writes about her, and reads and studies and compares what others wrote and said on her, feeding his crave with new discoveries and conclusions, including trivial ones. In this cycle of bondage, he rejects all faces and names and possibilities, and frees his body and soul from what captivates them, and disappears in an endless carnival.

A friend told me the man had taken a quotation from one of my stories and had it written in gold Kufic calligraphy on a marble plaque in his house. “Life entices, and when it entices, it enslaves, and when it enslaves, it obliterates, and when it obliterates, it produces its miracle of realizing endless beauty in the pleasure of dying.” When I happened to meet that man, I knew him without introduction. His The lust for dying oozed from him like sweat from our mortal bodies. He had a precarious presence, vulnerable to a dominating ghost that destroys all his attempts to break away. I saw his hypnotized walk, his eyes fixed on the emptiness, his body more like a moving agony spreading the smell of approaching sunset.

Everything around him leads nowhere but to the One Thousand and One Nights, and he has eliminated all possibilities of escape or departure. His era, which is luxurious, turns to visible ruin and what remains of his life are days fraught with dark possibilities. He tries to re-enter the furious festivities of daylight, but can only come as a stranger shackled with synopses of books and decadent ideologies and trends. He enters daylight, but the legacy of Sheherazade besieges his world, filling it with her tales and deeds and wiles. Her artful language and seduction, her lows and highs, her wisdom, piety, vanity. Of all this and of what storytellers had related of her, he gives a living idea a celestial female body that takes form in successive rhythms. Stunned infatuation devoid of the mundane surrounding. Replicas of her celestial body invade the mirrors of his imagination and form all the scenery he could behold.
It would be a lethal mistake, he’s positive, to give up the long painstaking pursuit of her trail in what has been written on her. Through correspondence and intermediaries all over the world, he has approached universities, theaters, music institutions, opera and fashion houses, and collected all relevant monographs and dissertations, not to mention drama and opera and music scripts and sets. His obsession entices him to buy perfumes merely because their designers claim they have been inspired by her sensational and exotic scents.
He devoted himself to the study of what he has collected on the talented beloved who achieved through cunning what an entire people failed to achieve, even when the heads of their daughters were at stake, and who tamed lust for blood with the artfulness of storytelling. In her endeavor to postpone her foretold destiny, she overrode the king’s times with times derived from her imagination and, infatuated with her narratives, the king had to wish secretly for her survival. She gave him three sons.
This man has knowingly fallen in love with her for one reason: that she might offer her last miracle for his own sake and in his own time. His passion has entailed a particular life style that postpones living to a fantasy tomorrow that might not come. In abandoning the women of his times, he invents alternative pleasure in a vacuum and seeks refuge in Rimsky-Korsakov’s music to redeem the temporal gap stretching between him and Scheherazade.
That escape route extinguishes the noise of the world of the living around him and unites him with her reigning voice as she unlocks the secrets of love. Intoxicating verbal pleasures embodying the power of love and lust, the waywardness of promiscuity and abstinence, superstitions and magic and metamorphoses, the feats of jinnis. Love stories of a man and a dove, a duck and an emir, a monkey and a queen, a youth and a deer, and love for him becomes not an experience of the living but an illusionary trick to breach the distance between humans and other creatures. An impossible gap that Sheherazade’s tales bridge with chronicles and possibilities.
Discarding the passions of the possible, the man becomes a believer in a fantasy love. No worldly woman has ever satisfied the maddening passion for Sheherazade, and hence his continued forays into the world of despotic monarchs and lustful princesses and vain old men and virile slaves. Endless scenes of rolling severed heads, spilled blood, drawn swords,  conspiracies and poisonous potions, and lurking shadows possessed by the pursuits of flesh and power.
The man gives up the sense of awe for a moment and soberly traces Sheherazade’s journey, starting with reading about her risky venture of marrying a murderer for whom the pleasures of love and bloodshed were inseparable. He’s horrified by the possibility that the king might have beheaded her, but is nevertheless tempted by imagining the scenes of that hypothesis, fast forwarding to her foretold demise, the pending bloodshed that feeds the king’s pleasures with intoxicating nectar.
But he also imagines a destiny for Sheherazade other than the one in the books. A death that puts an end to everything. Had she died, then the whole myth would have died, and with it all the tales and tomes and the musicals and operas, not to mention decades of enchantment and slavish passion. He would have lost everything.
So what? He would have been liberated and joined the world of the living, worked, done things. In a spell of dazed pleasure, he looks closely the outside world, finds a job, has fun, joins a long queue for loaves of bread, loiters on the streets, and courts pretty women, relishing their ringing laughs and copying the contours of their femininity onto his blank slates. And when he comes home, he eliminates their shadows one after the other, cleanly breaking with the world and its noises and dirt to preside on a throne of tormenting purity. But does he really want to part with that sweet misery, as he would if he were to sacrifice it to the hypothetical slaughter of Sheherazade?
The curtains flutter, their fabric moves gently. A beam of light explodes, a dawn the colour of fiery oranges brings with it a form veiled like a giant bud emerging to embrace the light. Oh, no! This must be an illusion, a vision or a reverie. The form approaches him as he burns by what he beholds, and as Rimsky-Korsakov’s music dies out, he almost whispers, who are you? But instead of committing the folly of utterance, he blesses the moment with silence.
Another step towards him would have brought her face to face with him, but she stops. Again he tries to say something; she moves and his lips make the effort, but only ashes of a voice materialize. The invisible woman moves, or, rather, her right hand does. The hand gets close to him, covered by a delicate net of gold threads, almost one with the skin. An incomparable ornament that becomes her. Her first words emerge out of the orange body like flashes of lightning.
“I came.”
The man staggers, holding on to a table in front of him for support. For a split second he wants everything to disappear ; he longs to melt suddenly into the night and tries the trick of fainting but his brain won’t co-operate.
“Shouldn’t you welcome me?”
Her voice electrocutes him; traps him like a tiny laboratory mouse injected with shots of fantasy and exotic love.
“What, you don’t recognize me after all these years of books and music and passion?”
“Yes, … you, … but,” he tries to speak but his words are frozen solid.
“You don’t recognize me, of course, because your image of me is not quite what you see now. Your image is one shaped by storytellers, cut out of their fantasies of a woman desired by starved multitudes. You’re one of them. You failed to break away from the multitudes’ shackles of imaginary pleasure.”
“No, … I,  … no –”
Her hand motions him to silence. “What do you know about me, then? My body? Voice? Words? Or just your lust for me?”
“I know everything, everything about you.”
“True, all that was said and written, but you know me not. You deceive yourself, and the more you think you know, the less you really do. Like the others, you misrepresent me. Nobody knows me.”
“Yes, I do. I know your virtues, wisdom, skills. Your dignity and piety and industry. I know your family – your father is the king’s vizier and your sister Dunyazade, and I know you bore the king three sons. And I know more.”
“You say I gave the king three sons?”
“Yes, am I not right? Didn’t you bring the three of them to the King’s assembly the evening you concluded the tale of King Maarouf and begged him to release you from the threat of death for their sake?”
“Nonsense. Preposterous lies. I bore him no child, because he, … well, he never touched me.”
“All those one thousand and one nights?”
“This is a secret no teller has ever known, and I’m revealing it to expose a lie that has deformed the entire text.”
“That changes everything, then.  Will you tell me what happened to your – “
“Voice?”
“You’re reading my mind.”
“Have you forgotten who am I? Listen, you man. It was that voice that I lived on all those one thousand and one nights, and it was the one thing that increased the distance between my survival and the executioner’s sword. And it was the contours of that voice that gave life to those tales of wonder and miracles about monarchs and lands and jinns and love and lust and levity. That voice carried the world to a mesmerized and insatiable king from dusk until silence fell when the truce cockerel broke the night. My sister Dunyazade would then nourish the broken voice with drinks and potions and extracts, boiled or soaked, and would put on my throat bandages soaked in medicines and balms and ambergris and wine, and leave me to sleep shrouded in fear and silence. That voice was a heavenly gift that brought me miraculous survival. What remained of it after three trying years was the shadow of a voice.”
“I have to apologize for stirring up the past. Please forgive me. But now, why this smoky veil that keeps me from seeing your face.”
“Wait, I’m not finished. I bet your image of my face is also derived from what those liars wrote. Those books you cherish are worthless, and the secret I have revealed to you proves that. You have read all those books?”
“I spent a fortune on these innumerable books about you.”
“What a pity! A life wasted on a falsehood. Those books!”
“You can’t judge all books so harshly! Many of them taught me a lot.”
“Judging from what I see, they only make you what you are not.”
“How much have you seen?”
“I have walked around a number of times and seen a number of cities. Your twentieth century is closing on a depressing note.”
“Since when have you been here?”
“Long enough to read a lot of your books, and you know what an avid reader I am. All sorts of books, all sorts of lies. Worthless pages and ink.”
“What books do you like?”
“Those by creative and imaginative minds. Tales that go beyond your familiar world.”
“Just like yours?”
“Perhaps. The ones whose events  cascade from the imagination at the moment of telling. This was what I did in those one thousand and one nights, I created as I narrated. During the day I recalled what I had read and heard, but when night fell I forgot everything and could tell only new tales.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“It’s a matter of true creativity versus falsehood. In all ages, history books don’t tell things as they happen; they tell what powerful people want them to tell. And the result? A mountain of books that blunt the mind and soul.”
“I think this is too sweeping, but tell me one thing! Why did you go through that grueling labour of storytelling for a king whom you knew wasn’t really manly.”
“Life deserves narration.”
“Your life?”
“And the lives of other women, had I not put mine on the line.”
“So yours was a mission of salvation?”
“Not that. You aren’t even close to sensing my intentions. In preserving myself, I paid tribute to the love of life. Postponing my death was a bloody duel that lasted for a thousand and one nights and my resilience was a form of madness. Perhaps accepting the challenge of marrying a murderous monarch was lunacy itself. But –”
“But we all have our own brand of madness. They call me the Sheherazade lunatic, for example, and when you think of my infatuation with you, all these books, music, paintings, statues, isn’t this madness?”
“Or rather, an inexplicable postponement of life. I have dodged my demise, you dodge your life in a the march towards death. How many years do you have left to make your life worth something worthwhile?”
“That depends on you.”
“On me?”
“Right. You were pardoned after a thousand and one nights, a reward for your travails. You came to the end of narration and crowned your work with saving your life. I, too, wonder how I’ll be rewarded for my abiding passion for you.”
“Look at my hand. What do you see?”
“A net of gold threads, exquisite gossamer veiling the blessed hand. What a truly royal ornament! Is it of your own creation?”
“Do you think I’m an everlasting creature?”
“Is there one more deserving of immortality?”
“This is just a hand and whatever ornament it adorns it is the labour of tens of thousands of nights and days and events. It’s a tale more than a thousand years old, woven by the sun and the moon and the stars; the tragedies and catastrophes, loss and tears, suppression and deprivation, arms and blood, fear and unquenched desire, love and joy and pleasure and intimacy, the quiver of locked bodies, their promises and bounty. Water and air and dust and heat and nectar and perfumes and rain and gazes and touches, the longing of males and the scribbling of females and the imagination of storytellers. This net, woven of time’s tested gold, is my current identity as my voice was my past identity. The hand is me.”
“You blessed woman, I’m your final destination and the tribute to your hand will be my caresses and tears.”
“Endless illusions. That’s what you are, an embodiment of male illusions. I won’t be your –”
“No, don’t judge –”
“You’re interrupting me. My work is only half done. A few women had been saved when I mobilized my voice against one murderer a long time ago. What about all those killers in your own time? Who’s going to tell stories to postpone human demise?”
“The world has changed, Princess, changed beyond the redemption of storytelling.”
“And murder is on the loose, mapping the entire world with blood.”
“There you go again. Is it a mission of salvation that brought you here?”
“You have not . . .   You’ll never know me.”
“Yes, I will, and I do. Then and now.”
“Ignorant self-importance. I came here to . . .”
“Aren’t you going to lift the veil and let me see your face?”
“Is it my face that rules your thinking so much? Hasn’t my talk so far revealed enough of my features? Eyesight continues to direct your faculties rather than insight, intuition or the imagination.”
“What is it that holds you back?”
“Perhaps your tendency to judge beauty according to your usual standards.”
“Then you won’t dazzle me?”
“Maybe you won’t be able to handle the truth. Do you think I’m the same after all those centuries and their horrid metamorphoses?”
“Why not? With all your talents and wisdom?”
“Aren’t you tired of all this nonsense? I certainly am. All the people I chanced to see during all these centuries have reiterated it. No one asked me who I was or what I wanted. What attracted them were the masques, not my fragile humanity, anguish, deprivations or fears. And you, you haven’t asked me why I have come.  All you ask for is to see my face. Do you know what the veil hides?”
“The Sheherazade glory and its many manifestations. Feminine beauty and the charm of immortal women.”
“Good bye, then. You can’t understand my argument. I’m tired of what I have seen and heard from men.”
“What? I won’t let you go now that you came to my time. Bless me with the sight of your face. I beg you. I want you.”
“Good bye. You never asked me what brought me here.”
“Your arrival has put an end to all questions.”
“No use, no use.”
“No, please don’t go. You won’t abandon me. I beg you; nay, I order you! I’ll leave you no choice. I’ll lock all exits and stop you leaving.”
“I told you, you know nothing and you’ll never learn. You’ll never grow, or know what you want to be. Haven’t I told you that before?”
“Don’t leave me to this emptiness, out of time and out of place.”
“Adieu, adieu.”
His hand, feverish and trembling, reaches towards hers. The hand that rebelled and betrayed barely touches her hand, but it is enough to spread for a split second the gold threads over the dark earth. Night turns into specks of gold and ash, and a long, tortured sigh quietly withdraws through the window in a swirl of smoke. An invisible quiver that dies in the darkness of the city.

Translated by Shakir Mustafa

“Maalam Yaqulho al-Ruwaat” is translated from the author’s short story collection of the same name Maalam Yaqulho al-Ruwaat [What the Storytellers did not tell], Dar Azmina,  Amman, 1999

 

 

 

First published in Banipal magazine – republished here with perlission

www.banipal.co.uk