H. M. Al-Rayes
[A séance, or “maqāmah” in Arabic, also translated as “assembly,” is a form of poetic prose invented by Badi’ Al-Zamān Al-Hamadāni in the tenth century and developed most famously by Al-Ḥarīrī in the eleventh century CE. It combines rhymes and rhythms, often mixed with traditional verse, to narrate a sort of morality tale whose protagonist is a mystic-scoundrel. The séances below were written in Arabic. There was no use trying to preserve the rhymes and rhythms of the original in this translation. The reader is instructed to lend her generous attention to the sequence of imaginings.]
Séance of the Gerbil in the Desert
And there I was, God have mercy on your soul, a gerbil catapulted by the Mountains, ashen-faced and supplicating for the Creator across the heavens, without solace. No sooner had “night like a sea swarming dropped its curtains over me, thick with multifarious cares, to try me,” than it hurled my limbs by the wayside of the galaxy, leaving me to transcribe the shuddering with a stylograph of pus and hang my manacles on evening’s womb, time and time again. What else could have extracted me from the cozy vortex, I beseech you, except the longed-for drink from the distant source, warmhearted, everlasting, and ever-abundant? My, how the mirage of deceit shimmered in my eyes, like Holy Scripture lifted up on the tips of spears:
- For in genocide you’ll see the Lord at work if you discern
- And: breathe-in the sandalwood of the scepter to save your kin from the slaughter of the wild
- And: why do you denounce the blessing of extravagant shackles, you ingrate?
Here, where the stars are rubbed out even when the clouds depart, and nothing is left but the corpse of bitterness crippled with stabs, and night is everywhere as frightening as the morning, and the seism hisses and rumbles, and under every earthquake is a labyrinth of Holy Writ — bursting with a nomad dusk which still persists: I telegraph you to quickly send over the sleeping pills! For it is at bedtime that tomorrow’s carnival convenes, as bedsteads inhale toxic sulfur and burn with thirst in a quagmire of petroleum and iron. And there’s no one to face the disappearance of the person. And the fluttering branches sound like a deathrattle… and all around the cheering crowd:
- More abuse upon our necks!
- Bless us with your manacles, O Beneficent One, grant us the salvation of shackles!
- Oh when will I fill my belly with styrofoam until my eyes at last become heavy with sleep?
- And when will I take my place among the family of martyrs in Paradise?
Séance of the Arab Kings
[Unfortunately, only two passages survive from this text…]
[…] I said to him: O exalted wing, let us stop here where all expeditions come to a halt and survey the penal colonies to our left and the kingdoms to our right, where the fates lay in wait for us mortals. At which he kicked me down a nearby slope along with the witnessing few and the slumbering Mamluks, then pushed me out a razor-thin slit. As I tumbled down I rabidly exclaimed: I took you for the escort of ḥūris, and here you are shoveling me into Hell!
When I came to, I found myself in a netherworld of crystal. The Temple of Lights shimmered in the distance, donning its phosphoric mantle, obscured only by the silver moonglow. Tenderly I called to him:
“O sublime bastard, O comfort of my eyes, ahoy!”
At which the Temple started, then rolled over to his right side.
Forty centuries passed me by, examining sandgrains, weaving traps for the Angel of Beauty. Perhaps one day its lips would flash or part for a word. But words are so far-removed from what I witnessed… as figments of doubt are removed from truth.
“My Lord! Grant me a measuring-stick… a few meters on the map, O Benefactor! A spot — Lord of Majesty and Beneficence! — a sliver of purpose… a shop.”
After a couple of days or more, I felt the cracking of the whip upon my skull. “The sword put an end to all uncertainty,” as they say. For my trouble I was given a salty bog. Dutifully I lilted:
“O Alpha and Omega, O grapevine and the grapevine’s wine, healer of the sick and beloved of every wanderer: I say, any news about the shop? A tavern would do just as well. And may I also receive a doctor to hold me intact with sedatives, by Your will, at the ineluctable hour of cancer? Sultan… O Sultan… hello? Hello?”
[…] Back in those days I was an outcast of the grand pilgrimage, strutting about with a handful of teeth before the guards and the other inmates:
“Look here, this one’s Mohamed, and that one’s Mohamed, and this is Ahmed…”
The Diagnostic Séance
Perhaps the pain in your chest is misplaced. It is your neck that is afflicted, to be specific. Feel the gentle yoke of the ever-receding hereafter, the tickle of tomorrow’s charms, where we will roam the streets absolved of the burden of our heads, and knock on nearby doors only to be greeted warmly by settlers, who will invite us to have a seat and forget about our enduring dreams of being, at long last, released. They will offer us coffee and we will politely decline. There is no need any longer to stay alert. The head is a blood clot at the foot of a mountain of plastic. Far be it for me to gloat.
But turn on the TV for me, will you? I must bask in the radiance it bestows upon the faithful. Any merchandise for me to peruse? Some glittering froth to distract myself with while soldiers overrun the bridge? A tank, perhaps, to intercede on behalf of a back hunched-over from prostration? A weapon I can use to kill the wrongdoers?
For the children are visited by thoughts of disobedience. And as you know, the lords can do without the news of discord. But tell me how were you able to affix a head upon that spotless collar, and may I follow suit and copy this elegant innovation? Some days I long for my orphaned skull, I long to fill it with soil and worms. And I used to, whenever I came upon a worm, reminisce about the primordial dream… back when one’s highest hope was to wander about the evergreen oaks, and with the fireflies and fairies await the arrival of the age-old future, replete with turbans and stock options.
Eh, tell again, how did you keep your head together, dear guest? Can you spare a crumb to feed a timid soul?