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Death of a Monk – Excerpt

© 2004, Random House UK. All Rights Reserved.

I had no love for Father and Father had no love for me and the two of us had no love for one another, or any other way there is of restating and reshaping the sentence of our non-love.

He had, Father, a pair of large, pendulous testicles, a holy staff that gave off a pleasant fragrance, and when the maids bathed him in our home these would be exposed together as a couple, dripping thousands of drops of many waters.

He had swarthy, expressive feet which he would cross one over the other on the small stool next to the courtyard of our spacious home, and occasionally he would rout about between the toes and sniff with pleasure the bit of scum that clung to them.

I almost never saw Father during the day; it was his custom to rise early, pass quickly through the avenue of fruit orchards on the grounds of our home, which invariably caused him to grumble about the delay involved in walking its length, and attend to his thriving business concerns: lending with interest to peasants, releasing from customs goods that arrived from the far-off countries of Europe and taking care of his interests as far as his eye, which was never satisfied, would counsel and lead him.

Only at eventide, when the maids opened before him the carved wooden doors, would he return home, his presence filling the rooms at once like the blast of a ram's horn at the conclusion of a fast day. Straight away the members of the household would encircle him, excitedly dancing attendance on him, Allah yatik ela'afia, May God grant you health, and they hastened to recount for him the day's news, starting with all manner of tales and accounts to vilify me.

Maman, Father's statuesque, long-haired, amply-bosomed wife, bedecked with golden rings and chains, who throughout the day pretended to be my good friend and dress me up in silk clothing to prance about in her room, would lecture him about things I had said to my cross-eyed sister, Alkhola, for example that I had teased her about her deformed eye and her grating voice, and my grumbly sister of the blue eyes and pure white skin would affirm it all, teary-voiced, adding her own evidence, blasphemous notes that I had supposedly sent her and blessings I had bestowed upon her wishing a slow recovery for that malformed eye and, at the apex of her account, her pupils rolling like buttons fallen from tattered clothing, she would add that I had teased her with the words, Imek muvhama alleh eljamous, which is to say that while pregnant with her, my mother had gazed upon a water buffalo, which explained her perpetually angry countenance.

And while Maman and Alkhola embraced and consoled themselves in one another's arms, the younger brother Meir would recount, each evening, each time in a different manner, how Aslan had confiscated his playthings, how Aslan had taken his garments and how this Aslan had a finger in every pie and a pie in every finger, and lo, I can picture Father's eyebrows contracting, the hairs protruding and erect, as he loosens his belt, the siblings grabbing hold of me in my tunic, which was always clean and pleasant as were all the garments I loved, and they convey me to wrathful Father, to his belt that is lashing my tiny feet, stroke after stroke, to the accompaniment of a long and vociferous string of curses, from the mild 'Stupid,' to blessings of 'May God take your soul,' ' Allah yela'anek,' or ' Allah yah'dek,' after which I would not cry nor shed a tear, rather, I would merely walk sniveling to my room, shoulders stooped and head bent, leaning for support on the arms of one of the servants.

My happy friend, while I impart these words to you, and as you record them from my mouth with your industrious fingers and with expression in your large brown eyes, I would ask your indulgence in reviving for a few moments the former, innocent image of Aslan, the image of a hollow-cheeked youth whose days were as roses, plagued by persecution at the hands of members of his household; still, it is incumbent upon you to recall that his excessive wickedness is yet to come, and that you must not be bound to him by bonds of love, and further, you must establish no hard and fast hatred for his enemies, rather, take extreme caution to avoid his infectious, burgeoning wickedness.

Let us return to memories of my father in young Aslan's eyes, who is steeped in senseless hatred. Indeed, when Father's shoutful voice arose from one of the rooms during one of his frequent disputes with Maman - the two would quarrel nearly every evening, after I had been given my lashing, about matters of great importance, such as why it was that his turban was once again stained and dirty, and why there was insufficient water in his narghile, and why once again the septic pit at the edge of the fruit orchards was filling the air with a putrid odor - when their voices rose and overwhelmed me, I would return there, to the date palms with their succulent fruits, a pure and cloudless desert day, and the sound of hooves reaches my ears and I am riding a wild stallion, tall leather boots on my feet and a sickle-shaped sword brandished in my hand, my arms no longer thin and spotted, but thick, firm, hardened, and my legs are no longer blighted and evil, they sport the light calves of experienced riders, and they push into the ribs of the horse and cause him to gallop and increase his speed, and my eyes do not covetously drink in all the beauty and grandeur of the world; instead they are generous and pure and appreciative, and I ride there, bare-chested and bronzed, exposed to the sun, my trusted ally.

I would bathe alone, never at the hammam in the Jewish Quarter with the other men, but with a bucket of hot water in the room at the edge of the fruit orchards, so that no unfamiliar eye could catch sight of me, and I could gaze in wonder at the parts of my feeble body: the pale and bloated belly, which had not seen a ray of sunlight for some time and was always hidden behind thick clothing; the toes, as separate and distant from one another as a band of brothers in hot dispute; the brittle fingers, unfit for labor, spotted in pink and red; the shoulders, made like two marbles that roll and sway in every direction. And in summertime, when a tardy sunray flickered suddenly through the window and lit up the small room, tiny pores that covered my skin in flocks would reveal themselves and I would regard them without comprehending their meaning.

The long days and weeks when Father was absent from the city, traveling to Aleppo or Sidon and from there by ship across the sea, were my moments of happiness and pleasure; upon returning from the Talmud Torah school, when my evil and angry sister had turned her blue eyes to her games and my little brother was preoccupied with matters in his room, I would encircle the large apricot tree that stood in the center of the alkhosh, the courtyard, tossing crumbs of bread to the goldfish sailing the fishpond at the foot of the tree, and then with hesitation tinged with anticipation I would ask one of the servants to request an audience for me with Maman, and when the response came - that she awaited me in her room - I would walk slowly to her, close the door behind myself, and give myself over to her cursory kisses and sugary hugs.

Then we would spread about the costly bolts of fabric she had had sent, by special delivery, from shops in Europe, and, alongside those, garments and dresses she had obtained from sharp-eyed local traders or from the traveling merchants who visited our estate on occasion. There were long-sleeved dresses adorned with feathers, and dresses ornamented with shiny beads and shells, and then I would draw the choice cloths to my chest and inhale their fragrance, and when Maman was certain that no evil eyes were watching us, waiting to tell Father about our forbidden acts, she would remove, in one swift motion, the brooch pinning up her tresses, and she would free her hair to flow its full length to her waist, and then she would remove my tunic, momentarily fearful of my naked body dotted with the unexplained pores, and she would wrap me in an evening gown of her own choosing, a gown that covered my legs all the way to the toes and twisted around my arms and, in order to enhance the excitement, she would slip a pair of black, patent-leather shoes over my small feet with the disputatious toes, commanding me to sit upon her bed while she passed a variety of powders and colored lotions over my face, after which I would stand facing her glowing visage.

Not a soul knew of the garments I would don from time to time, not even the servants toiling in our home. Once, only once, while we were under the mistaken impression that he was off somewhere tending to one of his numerous business concerns, Father returned home early. His shoes hammered the marble floor as he rounded the fishpond, while Maman rushed frantically to strip me of my gown and remove the spots of makeup, nearly ripping the expensive fabrics from my body so that Father would not see all these and catch us in our misconduct, and when he entered and found me in the room, sitting upon his bed, he grabbed hold of me at once by the forearm and faced us, awaiting our explanation.

She would not grant me the wink of an eye confirming our complicit secret, not even the quickest flash of mischief between conspirators: Maman rushed to inform him of my conduct during his absence, how I had come to her and bothered her and recited coarse poetry to her learned from the boys at the Talmud Torah, how I was uncouth and uncultured, more evil even than the wild Bedouin who plundered our caravans, and that my place was not in the pampering bedroom of my childhood, but in the dungeon beneath the Saraya, where the cries of tortured prisoners could be heard nightly. And when Father had heard of all these matters, his eyebrows became enraged once again, and he said I was worse even than the Harari brothers, may their name and memory be blotted from the earth, and he pushed me outside the room, toward the marble fountain standing in the shade of the apricot tree, and shoved my head into the small fishpond, the permanent residence of the goldfish, and pressed upon my neck until I choked and suffocated and did not know what was to become of me, and she called to him from behind, her breasts ample, protruding: Harder, deeper, teach him a good and bitter lesson.

I fared no better at the Talmud Torah, in spite of the good name of my family. Father and all the uncles were important personages, pillars of the community, and our family name - Farhi - stirred up envious whispers, though the exception was and always would be Aslan.

Farhi - yes, these were the sons of wealth, of roses, of merry days, but as far as Aslan was concerned: no, and again, no. Of Lazy Aslan it was said, Alvaga varda valtiz farda, His face was as a rose, his ass like a pillow; Aslan was weak of character and quick to cry, Aslan had a strange way of walking, prancing about and wiggling his bottom, Aslan was thin and fragile and quick to fall, Come, let us push Aslan, let us prod his ribs with dark objects, let us press upon his eye sockets and break his teeth.

My only friend throughout all my years in the Talmud Torah was Moussa. He, too, was narrow-boned, dreamy, his eyes blue and his hair fine and light unlike the Jews; he, too, was despised by many pupils and together we would remove ourselves to the corner of the room during recess, and while the other children were tugging on one another's sleeves and teasing each other and stirring up quarrels and strife, Moussa would gaze into my eyes and I into his and we would recite poems that we loved, old, forgotten poems, poems that would never pass the lips of a soul in Kharet Elyahud, the Jewish Quarter, lovers' poems telling of succulent fruits in the orchards and the sweetness of nectared flowers in full bloom and sometimes, when no one was about to see or hear, Moussa would begin to hum, and his humming voice would rise to song, and in a clear and tender voice he would sing to a distant lover who had passed beyond the hills and mountains, never to return:

Min badak ahgor khali

Ya a'aeb an aynya

To you I will depart from myself

You, who are far from my eyes .

And Moussa would gaze into my eyes and I into his and our eyes would fill with tears and we would sob, and on slips of paper we would pass between us we drew small, weak figures, females, grasping and clinging to one another, large yellow flowers on their left and right.

Once, when we believed we were hidden from view, I held Moussa's hand and he held mine and we regarded one another, drawing closer and diving deep into the other's eyes, but the other children took notice of us and began to call us names and in no time the rumor that Moussa and Aslan were beloved and congenial with one another like David and Jonathan spread through the Jewish Quarter, and from that moment on they did not leave us alone or take respite from us, from the morning they would mock our love and pinch our bottoms and throw stones from the River Barada and muddy dirt from the streets at us, and from behind this shower, this downpour, I am there, at the head of a bare-chested merchant army on its way into blood-drenched battle, a hoisted flag and a lance and dagger in my hand, poised to behead my frightened enemies, to rout them from my patch of desert, their decapitated heads the path I tread on my glorious way.

From my bedroom in our spacious home I hear Maman and Father speaking in low voices of my disgrace, for the rumor about Moussa and me has reached their ears as well, though this time his shoutful voice is not heard, Father has a different method, and I know nothing but this: that at the end of seven days from the time Moussa held my hand and I held his and we spoke words of goodness and grace, Moussa ceased coming to the Talmud Torah and even when I asked and investigated I heard no mention of his disappearance, the only sound that of children's laughter as they hurled taunts, mud and slander at me.

I had three uncles, Murad, Meir and Joseph, each potbellied like Father, their bodies covered in short, frizzy hair, their shoulders broad and thighs fat, their eyebrows arcing from one to the other and their eyes always scheming, their laughter vulgar and their conversation insipid.

On Fridays, when we met in the private synagogue the brothers built near Joseph Farhi's home so as to avoid mingling with the poor and wretched Jews, they would send evil looks my way regarding my stooped and crooked back, my long and spindly frame; they denounced me for abstaining from eating meat and other delicacies, for their own children were large and healthy, each one boasting a pair of chins, and Father joined in their laughter and they threatened to blow me down in order to demonstrate just how feeble my grasp on solid ground was, for I was sabakh balah ravakh, a shadow devoid of life.

After days such as these I would descend to the cellar of our home, beneath the kitchen, where a large and gloomy pantry stood teeming with clay pots and glass jars filled with the very best of everything, and I would open lids and stuff apricot marmalades and date jams into my mouth, heedlessly shoveling the sugared fruits between my lips and swallowing them without desire or pleasure in order to add fat to my body like theirs, and from there I would move to the beans and lentils and other legumes, even though they had been neither blanched nor boiled and had stood for months in their cool glass jars, and I would take handfuls of them and chew them and be on the verge of vomiting, yet I would force, compel and will myself to swallow the foul-tasting mixture, and I imagined that I could discern, between the walls of the dim cellar, pairs of snake eyes boring into me, for they were fattening me up in preparation for their early summer feast.

During holidays I was compelled to see the faces of my relatives and watch as they occupied themselves in yet another orgy of drinking and eating, swallowing the ma'udeh and the sfikhah without pausing to chew and, on occasion, in spite of protestations by the Khaham-Bashi, chief rabbi of the Jewish Quarter, they would invite Jewish women, dancers and singers, to strut and sing before them, but worst of all is the Seder night of the Passover holiday, when I must watch them all for many hours on end and listen to their collective whispering, and I shoot unrequited glances at my beloved mother of the black hair, willing her to hide me between her breasts and save me from the claws of the avaricious women my uncles have taken for themselves, but she turns her face from me, and here is Aunt Khalda, Meir's wife, thick-fleshed and thick-voiced, calling to me in the presence of the uncles and the cousins and the brothers and fathers and mothers: Aslan, Allah yahdek, ta'el hon! And she queries me and poses difficult questions and if I answer she is quick to mimic my voice, small and weak, in her sharp and mocking tone, after which all present respond with a chorus of laughter, and I am horrified to see Maman among them, her skin shining and her jewels sparkling, adding her own taunts about my manner of speech, which is dissimilar to that of other boys and not at all in the way of men, but rather as though I were a featherless chick, bald and blind as he emerges from an unfamiliar shell, and the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the preparation of the matzah, the bread of affliction, and the words of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Eliezer in Bnei-Brak as recited from the Passover haggadah mix with slanderous exaggerations about Aslan, Aslan, Aslan.

What sort of life was this and what was its purpose and toward what was it flowing; these I did not know, and lo, I pictured myself hanged in the large square at the entrance to the Saraya for a crime whose nature I did not know, or plunged into the River Barada to drown in its chilly waters or escaped to the hills of Lebanon, climbing to the summit of Mount Tzalkhaya from which, like the young virgins married off to old men against their will, I would throw myself down, down, pitching my body into the void to bring to an end these days of senselessness.

At the outbreak of a plague in the city I would try to become infected, and when snow covered the streets I would attempt to roll about in it and grow ill, and when the governor of the city, Ibrahim Pasha, would pass by, I tried to mock him, so that he would find me guilty, but none of this ever came to pass, and Aslan remained alive and his health remained constant.

In the wretched days following the springtime Passover holiday, when a thick, desert dust covered the city and the smell of summer clung to one's nostrils, it was my custom to leave my little room and make my way through the trees of the orchard then in full and glorious bloom and pass through the opening in the wall that encircled our home and continue from there through the narrow alleyways from which arose the stench of sewage, skirting the passersby and donkey-drivers past the crowded houses and pushing on from there to the main street of the Jews, passing the beet-seller and the greengrocer and the butcher hawking their wares, bypassing Teleh Square, which was always teeming with people and merchants and shoppers and hordes of beggars, and from there straight on to the chicken market, where feathers blew in the hot, heavy desert wind and the blood of chicken stained the mud walls, and I would come to the filthiest corner at the edge of the suk, lift the lid on the rubbish bin used by the slaughters, and grimace, poised to empty my innards outwards, down, toward Elnahar Alaswad, the Black River, wishing to deposit there vomit and bile and evil smells, might they depart from my body and descend and drain into the sewage canals of Damascus, but these clung to my chest like sinews and would not acquiesce to the convulsions of my throat and gullet, and for a moment, when the sun appears through the haze that comes before the great hot days of summer, I am gripped with terror at the appearance of black figures visible in the filthy waters swirling beneath me, and I can see the slaughtered chickens screeching at their untimely deaths and the knife that slits their throats without mercy, and a fresh wave of convulsions pushes to expel itself but does not spew into Elnahar Alaswad; all but a single dangling drop of food swallowed but only partly digested falls downward and drowns in that water, and lo, it travels far away from my father's home and my mother's home and the homes of my uncles and their children and their evil laughter, to the villages of the simple farmers outside the borders of Damascus, to the desert, where the nights are cool and the hills naked and a wild mare is waiting there and I mount her, armed with a sword and lying in ambush for a caravan of heavy-hoofed camels laden with goods, their humps bursting, and I am waiting to plunder their wares and kill their guides with the sword, and from there, with great exultation, to gallop into the clear air, and suddenly a man is holding me from behind, and he raises my chin and wipes clean the remains of saliva, Ya walad, shu am bitsavei hon, Child, what are you doing here, and he returns me, feeble and dependent, to my father's home.