Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Second Sultan and the Same Secret

The Year is 1905, and can be characterised in Turkish history as the culmination of generally ridiculous times. In these ridiculous times, foreign interests came to court with ridiculous propositions which they offered with much ridiculous smugness. Gone were the days when Europe shook in her boots at the mention of the Turk. Sultan Abdulhamid Han II had inherited an empire which was sick, creaking under heavy debts and besieged on all sides by rebellions. And the Rebellions were spurred on by the same foreign powers that came knocking at his door with self-interested solutions to the problems they stoked like leering pyromaniacs.
After the Turko-Russian war, England had leased out Cyprus, because this was apparently a fitting payment for having fought the Turkish corner at the Congress of Berlin. It had served only to whet their appetite. Four years later they marched their troops into Egypt and Sudan on the pretence of restoring order. Abdulhamid knew what they were up to. They'd so far done an excellent job sowing seeds of conflict among the simple and generally joyful Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots who had previously been living peacefully together for centuries, with minor brawls over goat thievery. Things were looking dark for the dear-fledgling nation.
Meanwhile, Eastern Europe was already lost to him, and the Russians would soon be showing the newly independent states they'd liberated a good time. But the Middle East, a region predominantly Muslim, that's what hurt the most. His struggles to salvage what he could were near futile, but struggle he did.
This particular afternoon in 1905, Abdulhamid Han II was struggling yet again. The current quandary concerned property sales in Palestine. And it was relevant among all the other political palaver he had to deal with because of a certain man named Theodore Herzl.
Several years ago this man had come to Istanbul with an offer to pay a substantial sum of the Ottoman debt in exchange for Palestine. He’d communicated his offer via the Austrian, Philip Michel Newlinsky. At the time, Abdulhamid Han had stated his sentiments with heartfelt eloquence. They’d gone something like this:
“If Mr. Herzl is as much your friend as you are mine, then advise him not to take another step in this matter. I cannot sell even a foot of land, for it does not belong to me, but to my people. My people have won this empire by fighting for it with their blood. They have fertilized it with their blood. And we will again cover it with our blood before we allow it to be wrested away from us. Let the Jews save their billions. When my Empire is partitioned, they may get Palestine for nothing. But only our corpse can be divided. I will not agree to vivisection.”
Abdulhamid’s response was relayed to Herzl, who had experienced a fleeting pang over the tragic beauty of the Sultan’s fatalism. And then he’d gone back to the drawing board to hatch plan B. Everything from bribery, to threats, to various forms of leverage concerning various political figures ensued. But with every attempt, Herzl and his lot hit a brick wall. Eventually, and years later, the man himself was granted an audience with the Sultan to broach the topic one more time.
"We want to give the Jews a home," he'd said with tear-jerking dramatization. Abdulhamid Han didn’t have to take a discerning look at Herzl to know that his interests had nothing to do with the plight of the Jews. This dude was a card carrying Zionist and Abdulhamid wasn't born yesterday. History probably would have forgiven him, nay, cheered him on in fact, if the Sultan had turned to Herzl and told him quite simply to piss off. But the Sultan had too much breeding for that.
"The Jews, as you know,” he said instead, “have been our valuable subjects for many centuries. They found safe asylum in our country after the Spanish expulsion, and have always been welcome, as they always will be."
"But they need a country of their own, your highness. Palestine is ideal."
"Palestine is not mine to give," Abdulhamid had cut him off severely, growing impatient with the man's audacity. "It is the Palestinians'. You are welcome to chunks of Anatolia, if you want to make a country for your people. But Palestine I cannot sell you."
“Perhaps I’ve failed to communicate the gravity of the situation. Your Empire is in a shambles-” In that moment Abdulhamid very nearly did tell him to piss off, but his overwhelming anger stifled the words. The royal hand made a royal gesture instead, and Herzl was escorted out immediately, with his pride crushed, fist shaking and that fat, repulsive beard in tow. Here was a vengeful, Zionist piece of work if Abdulhamid had ever seen one. Not only was he bound to return, but his backers had probably already begun hatching alternative schemes to get what they wanted.
Immediately Abdulhamid had deployed his spies to the region in question to keep a close eye on the goings on. It wasn’t long before they struck gold. A lot of the locals had started selling their land to strange, wealthy buyers that we're offering big money. The buyers were Arab, by all accounts, but no one quite knew where they'd actually come from. This called for an emergency countermeasure. The Sultan couldn't very well tell people not to sell their own property, even if they were foolish, greedy peasants that were digging their own graves. And yet the national treasury had no funds to spare.
Out of desperation, Abdulhamid Han resorted to using his personal wealth. He started buying up all the land available before Herzl's lot got to it, and until he could afford to buy no more. This was completely possible, of course. Even a Sultan’s wealth has its limits (particularly in such ridiculous times.) And Abdulhamid Han’s comparatively modest wealth (in comparison to his royal contemporaries and the Sultans of old) reaches its limit on this particular afternoon. As the Sultan sits for a brief breather before commencing with another appointment, he personally owns about 3% of Palestine, and realizes it’s not nearly enough to save a country.
Placing an empty coffee cup on the tray by his side Abdulhamid picks up the second. It’s the Sultan’s custom to be served two Turkish coffees in one sitting, and most of the time, he drinks both. With the saucer in one hand and the demitasse cup in the other, he takes one sip, and then replaces the arrangement to light himself a cigarette.
Turkish coffee and cigarettes (the latter made exclusively for him by an artisan tütüncü) are among the few personal indulgences he allows himself. Behind the facade of Sultan, Abdulhamid is a simple man with simple pleasures, like music and woodwork. Indeed, a lot of the furniture in his homes were handmade by himself.
Another pleasure he generally allows himself is an hour of nap-time at noon, because rising daily before the sun does, and often having to work late, puts a real strain on his body and mind. Today though, Abdulhamid has forgone his nap-time to deal with the aforementioned Palestinian property issues, and also to make room in his busy schedule for some Venetians (the next appointment) which are waiting outside his door at that very moment. What they are there for, he doesn’t know yet. But why they are there, he does. They are there because Mahmut Şevket Paşa, that unimaginative, R-rolling tool, beseeched an audience on their behalf. Abdulhamid doesn’t even want to wonder which bodily part they'd got him by, because England had already called shot-gun on his balls. With so many shady characters he associated with and so little to go around, it was worrying.
When the Sultan’s coffee reaches its dregs and his cigarette is stubbed out, enter the Venetians, single file. Upon laying eyes on them, Abdulhamid is possessed by a strange sense of dejavu which feels oddly like it doesn't belong to him. There are three men, in understated but expensive attire that could easily be described as stylish if it weren't for the hat one of them is wearing. It's funny.
The tallest among the three waffles on a while with the preliminary ceremonials in accented Turkish. The Italian interpreter stands by idly, a tad slighted by the lack of need for him. Not that there ever really is a need for him. The interpreter is a front after all. Abdulhamid is fluent in Italian, as he is in French, and various other European tongues. He simply likes making foreign delegates sweat occasionally.
"Gentlemen," the Sultan speaks. "We welcome you in our court, and wish to make your visit worthwhile. Please do not hesitate to express frankly any requests or grievances you might have."
"Great Sultan," funny hat speaks up for the first time. His accent is much stronger. "We do in fact come to your great city, seeking something very dear to us." Here it comes -Abdulhamid thinks. They’ll have the shoes from my feet if they could. Bring it on. "It is an ancient relic." Funny hat says, matter of factly, and then says nothing more.
"Efendi,” Abdulhamid ventures, when he realises that no other particulars are forthcoming, “you'll have to be more specific than that.”
“It is a religious relic.”
“Hmmm,” Abdulhamid hmmms, because in actual fact he’s beginning to lose patience. He’s also noticed their matching signet rings, which has immediately made him even more bias towards them. “Where is it?"
“I aimed so near. Underground, I presume?”
“’twas a lucky guess. Where abouts?”
 “In the catacombs beneath Fatih,” the man says, and Abdulhamid’s impatience dispels suddenly to be replaced by a curiosity he sees fit to conceal. Relics in the catacombs of Istanbul rings a sinister bell with him.
“And you know that it is there, how?” 
 “We once had access to it, but this hasn't been the case for many millennia. We wish to reclaim it."
"Reclaim it?" History repeats itself and Abudlhamid cocks an eyebrow. He wants to say 'Is it your father's registered property then?' but doesn't. He decides to play the amiable fool instead, which often helps to catch people off guard so you end up learning more in the end. "Can I know how it was lost to you?"
The men look at each other uncomfortably and then eventually funny hat speaks, "The basilica cistern was our access point."
"Ah." The proverbial penny, which had been precariously balancing on the precipice of comprehension, finally drops. Abdulhamid has a clearer idea of what they are now, but he's still in the dark about what exactly it is they're after. Nothing a bit of historical detective work won’t reveal though. "You're asking me for permission to excavate in the heart of Istanbul?" He continues to play the fool.
"Retrieving it will not be so complicated as that. We know exactly where it is."
"Oh that’s good. So, where is it?"
"It’s…difficult…to say."
"I see. And why come for it now?”
“I mean to say, it’s been nearly five centuries since the Basilica Cistern was made off limits to shady characters such as yourselves," Abdulhamid’s wit rears its head a tad.
"I beg your pardon?” Funny hat is thrown off by the sudden change in the Sultan’s tone. The tall one comes to his rescue, “Uncertain times are upon us, great Sultan.” He says. “We wish only for it to be safe."
You bull-shitter -Abdulhamid thinks. You're here because you think we are weak and stupid and you can have your way with us. The look he gives the men also says as much, but his words don’t. "I will convene with my council," is his response "you will have my response within a fortnight."
The Italians vacate the meeting room hopefully and with profuse bowing. Little are they aware that the Sultan has already made his mind up about the matter, and his decision is not in their favour. He has, after all, no council –in the general sense of the word- which he can truly trust. Most of the nobility and politicians which surround him are crooked, back-stabbing pawns, each at the beck and call of a different foreign power. He avoids convening with them as often as is diplomatically possible.
He does, however, have instead a motley handful of politically unremarkable friends, who are cultured, world-wise and very capable. If this were a superhero comic, they'd each have distinct and invaluable super-powers, veiled beneath a carefully crafted facade of humble alter-egos. They range from Paşas, to spiritual men, to complete apparent-nobodies. One of them is Esvapçı başı İsmet Bey, who reads mystery novels for Abdulhamid at night times, to help the sultan forget the worries of state and fall asleep. Another is Abdul Halil Bey, otherwise known as Torajiro Yamada. He has been enjoying minor-celebrity status as a token Japanese in Istanbul this year, because his country of little people with giant courage, recently kicked Russian ass in the Ruso-Japanese war.
How Yamada came to be in Istanbul is a rather long-winded story. It’d all began with the order of the Chrysanthemum, gifted to Abdulhamid by Emperor Meiji following the visit of his nephew to Istanbul. And then came the wreck of the goodwill frigate, Ertuğrul, which Abdulhamid had sent to the East to further cement Ottoman-Japanese friendship. On its return the ship encountered a storm off the coast of Wakayama. The rest was historic tragedy.
Two years later Torajiro Yamada appeared in Istanbul, bearing aid funds collected by his sympathetic countrymen for the families of those Turkish sailors who’d perished. Naturally, everyone had regarded the man as an endearing curiosity at first. They were grateful and deeply moved, but at a loss for what to make of such a noble gesture from a land so far away. Also, the then 24-year old Yamada quite liked Turkey, and decided to stick around on Abdulhamid’s request. He began frequenting the court a great deal and was charged with teaching Japanese to a group of military cadets. Everyone went along with it, but they never really got why.
Now though, things were different. Now Turkey regarded Japan as its Asian brother with mutual enemies. Shops across the capital were being re-named ‘Nogi’. There was even a small side-street in Istanbul called ‘Togo’. And as if overnight, Yamada became a hero. This made him rather embarrassed. Generally.
On the evening following Abdulhamid’s meeting with the dodgy Venetiants, embarrassed is Yamada again, when the shy Japanese man pops by to pay the Sultan a visit. On his way in, he ran into a Paşa who asked if he was looking to take a wife soon, and if so, the eldest of his own daughters was now of marriageable age. Naturally, her beauty hadn’t seen the light of day, etc. and so forth.
"Ve Aleykum Esselam,” Abdulhamid returns Yamada’s greeting as the man enters his study, with a tell-tale blush across his face. “Konbanwa," he adds, taking opportunity to make use of one of four Japanese phrases he's recently learned. The other three are Sumimasen, and rather curiously, korosu, and shine. These translate as, pardon me, I'll kill you, and die! Respectively. “How does it go, Yamada Bey?”
“Elhamdullah, nothing new. Same bowl, same bath house.” By comparison, Yamada's command of Turkish is not only flawless, he’s also developed a knack for using local idioms. Ten years in Turkey may have had something to do with this. "Sultanim,” Yamada says with some concern, “your face is very white."
Abdulhamid leans back in his chair and rests his hand on the scroll he’s spent a considerable amount of time examining since the day before. It’s a record dating back to Sultan Mehmet’s reign, of an obscure incident which is relevant to his recent encounter.
“Only an hour before you arrived I received some news,” he offers eventually as Yamada takes a seat. “Yesterday I dispatched a team via the Yildiz Intelligence Bureau on a mission to explore the catacombs beneath the city.”
“…” Yamada says nothing. He wasn’t even aware there were catacombs beneath the city until now. Abdulhamid gathers as much from his inane expression.
“You know of the Basillica Cistern, no?”
“Ah yes,” Yamada’s face illuminates. Of course.
“Do you know anything of the Medusa?”
“Nothing at all.”
“I see.” There is silence, and then, “Perhaps I should lend you some Greek classical literature.”
“I would like that very much.”
“In any case, there seems to be a demon beneath the city.”
“The team discovered its sarcophagus. They were foolish enough to decide to take a peek inside, which was no easy feat, considering how big the thing is and how heavy its lid.”
“The Akuma was inside?”
“Whatever was inside, it caused two men to lose their faculties to speak.”

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Pixi and the Proper Return of the Boy

“What the fLuck happened to you?” Editor asks Pixi the morning after, veiling his very real concern with flippant attitude and obscenity.
“Upset tummy.” Is Pixi’s understated response, as she logs in to her computer. Pretending not to notice Editors scowl, she gets started on her article on the Fairmont’s Marco Pierre White Steak House and Grill, now overdue because she missed a day of work.
“It better not be cooties. I don’t want you making the office sick,” he remarks, and then goes to the kitchen to make her some peppermint tea, because he’s thoughtful like that. “I’m going out for an interview,” he says when he returns, placing the mug next to Pixi’s Haruhi figurine on her desk. Pixi looks up at the cuddly-fat Lebanese man in his long shorts, flip-flops and Metalica t-shirt. She realises then how much she’s going to miss his mock-impatience, and fowl mouth. Editor is interviewing for his replacement. This is his final week.
“Ok,” she says. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“FLuck up and get to work!” he profanes, and then as an afterthought, “Do you guys want anything from Zatar W Zeit?” The collective response is no. Exeunt Editor, his flip-flops slap-slapping as he walks like the most comfortable fat man that was born into Lebanese skin.
"Pixi, do you have the wifi pass code?" The M&N Editor asks from behind the desk partition that saves Pixi having to see her when she sinks way back into her chair.
"Yep, I've written it down, I'll just find it for-" Pixi starts, but is no sooner cut off.
"I do! I have it! I'll give it to you. Here it is!" the Sub interrupts desperately from her corner across the office.
"Thanks Hun," M&N Editor chimes, walking over to the thoroughly satisfied Sub’s desk. Putting away the notebook she was flicking through, Pixi starts rummaging hastily, like a man searching for a life-line. It’s her headphones she’s after. At work, she keeps them on to block out, as much as possible, the toxic atmosphere in the office. With Editor on his way out, she mostly shares her job with these two. One of them (the M&N Editor) is a professional bitchy-gossip, and the other (the Sub Editor) is a professional bitchy-grouch. Both have wealthy, successful husbands, they’ve only recently become married to. And both are young and comfortable. Nonetheless, both are also miserable and suffer from low self-esteem. They seek succour in getting smashed more frequently on weekends, flirting with male colleagues in Dubai, and ogling pictures of Ryan Gosling. It makes no sense.   
Together, M&N-Editor and Sub white-whine. They also bitch and back bite and bitch some more. The irony is that whereas Sub will bitch and gossip about the world, its wife and extended relatives, she's under the illusion that there is a sacred trust between her and M&N-Editor. Never will she say a bad word against her partner in crime. The M&N-Editor, on the other hand, is under no such illusion. She's a professional, after all, and takes the opportunity to back-stab her colleague at regular intervals. Pixi knows they also take a stab at her. She doesn’t care. She does feel a little sorry for the Sub though, with her misbeliefs. But she doesn’t dwell on it and tries not to get involved. It's a dog-eat-dog bitch-eat-bitch universe after all. And on this particular morning, over crippling tummy-pains that are rapidly increasing, Pixi is finding it even less tolerable than she usually does.
"I had a manicure yesterday and the girl made a mess of my cuticle. See," M&N-Editor pouts. The White-whining starts.
"Oh that's terrrrible!  Don't you just hate that?" Sub feeds her accomplice the sympathy she came asking for over. And then she wants some of her own. "My husband's brother is visiting. I told you right.”
"That's right, you diiiid."
"Well this guy is such a narcissist. It’s like the universe obviously revolves around him, so he thinks every small thing that goes wrong in his life must be a huge deal everyone else as well. For the life of him, he just can’t understand that no one cares. And he goes on and on and…"
"Oh God, thats soooo hilarious!" M&N-Editor giggles with satisfaction.
"But it’s so exasperating! And he sings! And he just doesn't get it. He's so self-unaware, you know!" Whines Sub. Meanwhile, an eye-rolling Pixi has located her headphones and is trying to untangle them.
"I know! It's like, yeaaaah." M&N-Editor responds convincingly, even though she doesn't really, because she quite frankly couldn't give a shiKt and is still engrossed in her cuticle to boot. "You know this morning," she decides to divert the attention back to herself, "Sale's-guy pissed me off!"
"Oh. My. God! What'd he dooooo?!" Sub leans forward at her desk with the keenest enthusiasm, because she lives to hate the slightly awkward Sales-guy.
"He comes up to my desk, and says-" Pixi finally puts on her headphones, and on the other side of her music, the two savour their words as if they were salivating around a mouthful of something delicious they couldn't get enough of chewing. Even though she’s become a pro at ignoring it, the zealous tones, which are so telling of the pleasure they take from bitching, are disturbing in themselves.
"Oh my actual God! He's such an ass-hole! It's disgusting!" Sub hyperboles with venom that’s more disgusting than all the Sales-guys in the world could ever manage to be if they got together for that purpose exclusively, and tried real hard.
In that moment, something happens for Pixi while she’s hiding in a temporary haven of Florence + the Machine.  She beholds, for the first time, the Alt key on the left side of her keyboard. It is upside down. Pixi becomes overwhelmed by the jarring realisation that she's spent the past 11 months tapping away at that keyboard without having noticed it before.
And now that she has, the Alt glares at her, with its non-conformist stance. It glares fixedly, disappointedly, Expectantly. As if to say, ‘Well, you stupid girl?’ It reminds her of Al-Aqazaam. It awakens in her subconscious the slumbering seeds that the Boy’s words sowed, when he whispered his wisdoms above her in her sleep. She decides then and there that she doesn’t want to stick around to see how much shiKter things will get when Editor leaves. She opens a new word document and starts typing up her resignation letter. But then the nausea hits.
As nice as Editor’s intentions were, the tea does little to help Pixi. In fact it provokes the persistent vomiting which empties out her stomach and has her going back to the toilet repeatedly to retch up stomach juices. Within the hour, the pallor that had Editor cocking his eyebrow has turned into a light shade of green. By the time he gets back from his interview and lunch break, Pixi is not only empty, bowel-gut-and stomach, she’s started shivering, and her office-blanket doesn’t help.
When a member of his team is feeling under the weather, Editor usually remedies the problem with a YouTube link. If he had a dirham for every time the Dramatic Chipmunk video helped to cheer up a pre-menstrual member of his all-female team, he’d be a rich Lebanese man. Yet looking at Pixi now, he can tell that off-beat humour isn’t going to help. Neither are Lol-Cats or his monkey dance. Editor admits defeat.
“Right, fLuck off to the hospital.” He stands above her desk mock-threateningly, arms on hips. “Go on, and bring back a doctor’s note tomorrow or I’ll report you to disciplinary for self-neglect!” Pixi can barely respond to him, her throat is so dry and soar from the vomiting. She packs her stuff apologetically and gets out of there on unsteady feet.
At the hospital they ask her stupid questions, diagnose her with dehydration, stick a needle in her to stop the nausea, and then put her on the drip for an hour. For that hour, and then some, Pixi sleeps. And in that sleep she dreams again.

Of the place bled of colour.
Where the black earth is soft like soot thinner than the grains in an hourglass against Pixi’s nakedness. Every fibre in her body are aching to be swallowed into them. But it doesn’t happen. On her back, trembling wretchedly she brings her hands to her face to seek refuge in the dark of her palms. Through her fingers the sky is grey and solid as tarmac. Her wrists and ankles still ache from the tight clasp they’ve been held in. But it doesn’t compare to the hollow defilement in her tummy. Pixi cries, hiccups welling up through tears, from her throat. But there’s no sound. It’s like the air is absorbing her wails. There’s only a one sound. One word: ‘harvesting.’ Harvesting. Harvesting. It whispers over and over again on the wind.
If a bird could fly over this scene, the view it’d lend us would be that of an endless chalk-board expanse. Across it, five, dark cloaked figures walk away with purpose. And in their wake, they leave behind a waxy, naked body, like a drowned corpse beached on the shore. Ophelia on the face of the moon.
But what’s this? One of the figures breaks from the synchronised walk of his fellows, and then falls back. He turns to take another look at the girl who is now lying on her side, curled up like a maggot. With a fleeting hesitation that is uncharacteristic to his gait, he walks back to her. Removing the cloak from his shoulders, blue-eyes crouches over Pixi and covers her with it.   

When she comes to, Pixi is surprised to find herself in a hospital room. And then it all comes back. Tagging along behind is also the realisation that her nausea has passed though some tummy pain still lingers. And then she notices the Boy, sat in a chair he’s pulled up beside the hospital bed. A copy of Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, in one hand. The look in his face is more impatient than it is concerned. So is his excuse for a greeting.
"If you tell me you're fine one more time,” he says, “I'm gonna tear off your brassiere and strangle you with it."
"Do people still say brassiere?"
"I don't give a shiKt what they say."
"When did you become so short-tempered?" Pixi frowns.
"A lot has happened in two years."
"So it seems."
"I'll start,” the Boy leans forward in his seat like a man about to deliver some unfortunate news. This is precisely what he does, “Al-Aqazam is on his deathbed."
"I'm sorry." Pixi is genuinely.
"That's alright. It's his time after all."
"You know, my dad had a heart attack and his wife left him," she partakes in the pitty-party.
"I know," the Boy responds sorrily.
"What does that mean?"
"That the world’s going to the dogs?"
"No, I mean, that Al-Aqazam will die."
"The world’s going to the dogs.”
“Yeah, but what does that mean?”
“Well he wasn't a perfect king, but he was a good king," the Boy offers. "He helped to maintain an essential order for millennia. Things are bound to fall out of balance. Perhaps they already have."
"Basically the world is going to the dogs,” Pixi stares at the ceiling miserably.
“Things haven't been the same since the Year of the ShiKt," she alludes to the passing of her spiritual guide.
"We are losing mountains."
"Are you the heir to his throne, then?" Pixi observes that her drip is empty, and has a strong desire to get the thing out of her hand. She reaches for the nurse call button and pushes it.
"Pish! Are you having a laugh?"
“My cousin is.”
“I see.” A silence follows, in which Pixi pushes the nurse call button again for good measure. When nothing happens, the Boy has a go. And then he pushes it for a fourth and fifth time because it’s vaguely satisfying. He’s about to push it for a sixth when a Filipino lady in white scrubs appears. She has a name-tag that reads Madonna. Madonna looks a tad annoyed, and Pixi suffers the consequences of this when the woman is removing her drip.
“All done maaam,” she says through gritted teeth. “When you ready, you can go.”
“Thank you,” Pixi calls after Madonna, who wastes no time sticking around.
"Did you know?" the Boy says, just as the door shuts in Madonna’s wake.
"Know what?" Pixi takes the opportunity to eye him over properly. She notices his build, somewhat harder features and even a more prominent Adam's apple. She also notices that he looks slightly uncomfortable. “Know what?” she asks again.
"That you..." the Boy is verbally constipated, “that 夢幻…”夢幻’s name sounds like something raw and in grave peril between his teeth. Something he could sink his fangs into if it weren't for fear of hurting Pixi more.
"What about夢幻? What's up with that look?"
"You know."
"I do not."
"That you were with child!"
“...” Pixi is flabberghasted. Her jaw drops open but the customary ‘Eh?!’ doesn’t come out. She has to close her jaw, and redo that bit. “Eh?!” she manages, and then, "Pissssh!" Pixi starts chuckling in spite of the pain in her belly.
"Damn, that's precious!" her chuckles turn into full-fledged laughter that smarts.
"You're not very clued up on human biology are you?"
"What's that mean?" The Boy asks embarrassedly. Pixi is still chuckling. "What was it then? What happened to you?"
"Owww-uh-uh-uargh!” she coughs and holds her stomach with some satisfaction. "That hurt but I think I needed it. Thanks.”
“What’s wrong with you, Pixi?” the Boy is red in the face with irritation and a building temper.
“How should I know," is the offhanded response that pushes him off the proverbial edge. He gets up from his seat and tares Pixi's sheet off her with one swift move.
"Oi!" she squeals. "I'm cold!" the Boy says nothing. "What're you doing? Oi!" He puts his hands on her tummy, which freaks the shiKt out of Pixi so she starts fighting him. The Boy grabs both her wrists with one hand and pins them above her head. Still struggling against his minimal effort to hold her down, Pixi looks pathetic. She also looks like a trapped animal that's lost its faculties to think clearly and is thrashing against itself.
The Boy places his free hand on Pixi's belly and closes his eyes to concentrate. Pixi shuts her eyes too, but because she’s trying to will the situation away or distance herself from it. But trauma has a memory. And it brings back the glow of those bluest of eyes. "Stop it please!" Pixi wails and then after a minute it's over. The Boy takes his hands off her and steps back. Pixi curls up and buries her face in her hands, trying to normalise her breathing.
"Harvesting...” the word comes out like a rasp, the Boy’s voice failing him. “I’m sorry," he clears his throat. “I’m sorry.” Pixi opens her eyes and glares at him. He’s shaken, and almost as pale as she.
"Don't ever do that to me again."
"I’m sorry,” he says. “I need to get you out of here."

Friday, 26 October 2012

A Great Victory and a Hidden Loss

The year is 1453. Three years before Sultan Mehmet sends the shady Italians back home empty handed, the same shady bunch (though not specifically those particular men) are worming about a warzone, bidding their time. Simultaneously, the Turk is proving to be an epic thorn in the side of Christendom. Soon the city will fall, and Sultan Mehmet will ride his horse into the Hagia Sophia as a Ceaser. Dealing a final, disrespectful blow to the Greek Orthodox patriarchy. –So speaketh history, though we pay it no mind, because half the time it speaketh out of its ass.

History cannot know what went through Mehmet the conquerors mind as he raced his horse into the holy church. It rarely makes mention of the multifaceted face of reality at any given period, and the numerous powers at play. Search its annals, and you will not find how the last Patriarch of the Haghia Sophia met his end that fateful day, and for what purpose or at whose hands. Neither will history tell you of two other men who played a leading role in that episode. The first, Şeyh Ubeydullah Ahrār. The second, and where we pick up our story again, was Şeyh Ak Şemseddin, the spiritual guide of Mehmet the Conqueror. The legend goes like this:
As with all the sultans since Osman, Sultan Murat also aspired to become that celebrated Muslim ruler who’d been prophesised to take Constantinople. When he sought the council of his Şeyh and spiritual guide, Hacı Bayram Veli, the response was in the negative. “That honour, Sultanım,” Hacı Bayram pointed at the baby Mehmet, “will belong to your little one in his cradle, and...” he cocked his head in the direction of the door at which a young dervish stood clasping together his hands over his navel, “my beardless student, Şemseddin.”
Now picture this: Twenty three years later, Mehmet rides his horse halfway into the sea as if he would give chase after the ships of his own fleet, if it weren’t for the unwillingness of the animal under him. Jumping up and down in his saddle, fist in the air, he yells at the men who have just failed to stop the Vatican’s aid ship from entering Constantinople. The ship was carrying provisions from Rome for the inhabitants of the city who have barricaded themselves in to keep out the surrounding enemy. This in spite of political and doctrinal differences which drove the Beyzantine Patriarch to once claim that he’d rather be subjugated by the Turks than be subject to the Roman papacy.
After months of siege, however, the Byzantians risk starvation and all sorts, which means that they were too desperate to be proud. And which also means that commandeering the aid freight could have won Mehmet the war and put an end to a struggle which still refused to shift in any one direction.
Mehmet’s 200 massive siege canons (partially designed by himself) were among the most advanced artillery of the time. But Constantinople had four near-indestructible walls and one moat. The city’s defence was as legendary as the Turk’s madness, and the canons were only able to fire one shot every 8 hours due to overheating. After every shot the soldiers had to wait for their canons to cool down before they could reload, during which time the citizens worked at rebuilding the damages. The Byzantines were as unyielding as the Turks were relentless. And Mehmet was pissed.
That night, the fleet returns to shore and drops anchor dangerously close to the coastline, as they’ve been ordered to. Terrified of the restless, young Sultan’s temper, some of the men are half convinced he intends to sink them.
“Olive oil,” Mehmet declares without greetings, as soon as he strides into the tent. Though slight in build and height, he has a dramatic stance and a daring walk. The steps he takes are like stomps, and he has the appearance of a man who is aggressively walking downwards. His presence stirs all the tired generals out of their evening stupor.
“Sultanım?” someone dares to question.
“We smear the canons in olive oil. They cool faster then,” he says briskly with a wave of his hand, as if the outlandish though ingenius discovery were but a minor detail. Many a general’s eyes light up. ‘Does it really work?’ and ‘Actually, that makes perfect sense, why hadn’t anyone thought of it before?’ they mutter to each other delightedly.
“As for the ships,” Mehmet resumes more severely this time, so that the three captains present, hang their heads in a mixture of shame and fear. “We get them into the Bosphorus,” hands behind his back he approaches the map he’s spent every night for the past five weeks, glaring at till daybreak. If his eyes could bore holes, the thing would look like a sieve. “There is only one way to enter that city, and that’s through here,” he stabs his index finger at the spot which depicts that section of the fort where the wall is weakest. For emphasis, he stabs it again with a violent thud so that some of his audience think, that had to have hurt. The ones that don’t think it venture an interruption.
“Sultanım, we’ve tried this already.”
“And we’ve nearly lost two ships in the process. It is impenetrable,”
“What is?” Mehmet quips, surprising everyone.
“Well, the Golden Horn of course...the chains beneath the water surface are-” the speaker halts when he notices the hint of a smile on Mehmet’s lips. These men haven’t seen their Sultan smile in weeks. They are terrified of any change in his mood. The speaker realises then that spelling out the issue as if Mehmet didn’t know it already, was disrespectful. But Mehmet couldn’t care less about the man’s unintentional disrespect. He’s thinking of those blasted, Beyzantine chains across the mouth of the Golden Horn which have made the Bosphorus inaccessible to his fleet. He is thinking of his lunatic plan to bypass them. “I’m sorry,” the man stammers with a slight bow of his head.
“No. No, go on. You were saying,” Mehemt encourages him good humourdly.
“I was saying?” the man is evidently frightened.
“About the chains,” his excitement is building up.
“What of the chains?” the man shrinks away.
Precisely!” the Sultan yells with triumph, nearly giving the man a cardiac arrest. “What of the chains?! We sail over the shore!
“Eh?!” this sound is emitted communally from everyone present. The only individual who remains unshaken is Seikh Ak Şemseddin who dislikes taking part in such meetings, but complies when the Sultan requests his moral support. He is now observing sagaciously from a corner, as composed and tranquil as Mehmet is frenetic and intense. Nothing fazes the sage.
“Again, with lots of olive oil,” Mehmet adds. “I was reading Sura Al-Teen today, when the inspiration came to me,” he refers to the Qu’ranic chapter which opens with the Al-mighty swearing by the olive and the fig. “Praise be to God!”
“You mean,” the oldest of his captains speaks up. “We will hoist them onto land and pull them along the shore until we’ve passed the Golden Horn, and then deposit them into the Bosphorus?”
“Exactly!” the Sultan looks very little next to this big, burly fellow. So when he slaps the man’s back with friendly approval the sight is a tad endearing. “We will need lots of man and horse power. A great many planks, oil and also rope,” he begins to list away, and his generals, in a mixture of awe and bemusement over the bizarre plan, nod earnestly with wide eyes. “We work under the cloak of night.”
“One night?!” the voice of doubt raises its head as it often does before men embark on glorious feats.
“No man,” Mehmet silences it with a fair swoop, “tonight!”
The next day the first Beyzantines to wake nearly choke on their tongues at the sight of the entire Ottoman fleet sailing up the Bosphorus. The alarm is raised. The citizens pour out into the streets in a panic. Some join the effort to defend the city, others join a mass prayer procession bearing an icon of the holy virgin, others still who have gone mad with fear, strangle their own children and hurl themselves from the city walls to avoid an actual encounter with a Terrible Turk. Still, the city doesn’t fall.
Now late into the month of May, Mehmet’s armies are weakening. The hopes of his men hang from a tether, and doubt has crept into the hearts of his generals. Mehmet himself is sparking and skipping this way and that like an agitated cricket. On the morning of the 29th, after a long and sleepless night, he requests an audience with Ak Şemseddin. The sage doesn’t need to be a sage to tell that the Sultan’s spirits are finally broken. He has reached that place where a man has exhausted all his resources, and powers and options only to find that he is still futile. It is the moment Ak Şemseddin was waiting for.
“Şeyh,” Mehmet lowers himself onto a cushion with a defeat he has never before tasted in his life. He is fully aware of how pathetic he looks, and the reason why he’s sought refuge in this tent is because he doesn’t want his men to see him so broken.
“Sultanım?” Ak Şemseddin comes to sit in front of Mehmet, their knees nearly touching.
“Did you, or did you not tell me I was destined to win this war?” his words are nearly a whisper.
“I did, Sultanım,” Şemseddin whispers back.
“And did you or did you not tell me that I would take Constantinople this year,”
“I did Sultanım,”
“And did I or did I not follow your advice and guidance to a T?”
“That you did, Sultanım.”
Then why the hell am I still out here, and the city in there!?” Mehmet flares up and jumps to his feet in the process. His face is shot with red and his chest is heaving violently. A single vein becomes prominent on his forehead when he works himself up into this state. It is saying hello now.
“Perhaps because Allah has not willed it yet,” Ak Şemseddin resumes his whispering tone, unmoved by Mehmet’s outburst.
“Well when will He will it?! What do I need to do?!”
“Nothing more,”
“You’ve done it already.”
“What have I done?”
“You have realised your helplessness. We all have.” Ak Şemseddin continues to speak in a low voice, so that Mehmet sinks before him to listen more closely. “We have found that without His will, we can achieve nothing.” Mehmet is quiet. “We are tools, Sultanım. You believed that all along, but the heavens were waiting for you to know it, and know it with the empty desperation with which Moses gazed out at the Red sea. That is what miracles are made of.”
Mehmet’s mind follows the process of enlightened comprehension, the sorrowful bliss of epiphany, the peaceful contentment of resignation, and then eventually the restlessness of his character makes a gradual return. In that order. And then he can’t resist speaking.
“I know it, Şeyh,” he says. “I know it so much that I wish to gather these men and go home tomorrow.”
“Good,” Şemseddin nods approvingly. Mehmet also nods. Ak Şemseddin nods again. There is brief silence.
“So now what?”
“Now I must ask for assistance.”
“From the Pole of the age. From the Saint of saints.”
Mehmet looks confused, and then leaning in tentatively, whispers with some unsurity, “I thought you were the Pole of the age...”
“No way!” Ak Şemseddin nearly emits a chuckle. “I’m among the 40s but not nearly that high up.”
“Oh,” Mehmet looks disappointed and a little short-changed. “So who is he?”

In the early hours before the Azaan for Fajr wakes Samarkand, 19th ring of the golden chain, hidden Pole of the age, grand master of the order of Naqshiband, Şeyh Ubeydullah Ahrār is conducting a sohbet with his disciples. A tall man of delicate features, he has bronze skin and a beard so white one could count the dark hairs amidst it if one wished. He is 57 years old and on that very day he is about to be medium to a little known miracle.
Straight of posture but with bent neck, Ubeydullah has sat on his knees all night without moving a finger. Just as some of his more tired students begin to wonder when they will get to rise for prayer, their Şeyh displays strange behaviour. He raises his head and inclines it in a manner which suggests he is listening to something. Then he shuts his eyes and keeps them shut for about five minutes. His disciples do not notice at first, but when they do eventually, they fall quiet and turn to him with concern. Noticing that the conversation has died around him, Ubeydullah opens his eyes and looks at them as if to say, what?
“Efendi Hazretleri, may I fetch you some water?” says Hâce Muhammed Yahyâ, the newest and least mannered of his students. The Şeyh has had trouble with this one, but he loves him nonetheless. Raising his hand and clearing his throat, he rises to his feet just as the azaan sounds. Instantly, the dervishes rise with him. Nervous and demure, they are on tiptoes in the presence of their master. In flowing robes and a natural state of discipline, they’re like mystical knights without weapons. They share a mutual bond, and very sore legs that have been aching to be stretched all night. It is a good feeling to finally stand.
“Please, effendis,” Ubeydullah speaks. “Pray and be seated to continue amongst yourselves. I have an urgent matter I must attend to. I will return to you shortly.” With that, he quits the room. The Ikhwan remain standing for a few moments, and stare blankly after their teacher. They want to form the line for prayer, as they’ve been instructed, but each is struggling with the funny-pain of natural circulation being restored to their legs.
Now Hâce Muhammed Yahyâ being so green and curious, is occupied with something else altogether. He’s convinced the Şeyh has gone to make ablution before praying, and is suddenly filled with the urgent desire to be the one to pour the water for his Master to wash with. Before anyone else gets the chance to have the same idea, he slips out the room and then out the front door.
Outside, a lightness still invisible to the eye, has already stolen into the early morning air. The birds have woken from their feathery slumber, and are speaking to each other. The neighbourhood strays, which had given voice to a chorus of howling to accompany the azaan moments ago, have now slinked off somewhere in pensive silence.  And Ubaydullah is leading his speckled mare out the stable.
His student, when he comes upon this odd spectacle, pauses in his tracks. Though caught off guard the Master remains calm and looks at him as if to say, ‘Why are you here, Muhammed?’ Muhammed’s mouth turns dry with nervous embarasment. And then Ubaydullah turns and mounts his horse with these words:
 “Speak nothing of what you see here today, until I pass into the next life.” They resonate with a warning which seals Hâce Muhammed Yahyâ’s lips so tight, he will only reveal his experience a week before his own death, many, many years from now. The student barely responds with a tentative nod, when the mare breaks into an instant gallop. And before the Şeyh has reached the distance of an arrows throw from his house, horse and man disappear.
Moments later, they rematerialise on a horizon where Anatolia meets Europe. Mehmet and Ak Şemseddin have just prayed Fajr and mounted their own steeds, to join the troops in a final assault. Ak Şemseddin, sees the man first, and lays a hand on Mehmet’s shoulder. He points out the distant speck to the boy Sultan, and the two sit staring with some bemusement as it grows and grows until it is a fully formed rider & steed, trotting up to where they wait.
“Assalamu alaykum,” Ubeydullah greets
“Wa Alaykum Salam,” Ak Şemseddin bows deeply with his hand on his breast. Mehmet is too flummoxed to react. He stares at Ubeydullah a bit stupidly.
“Have I come on time?”
“Right on time,” Ak Şemseddin says. “Have you prayed?”
Ubeydullah nods.
“You’ve, come for the battle?” His faculties for speech restored, Mehmet nonetheless proves that his characteristic astuteness is still lagging behind somewhere. Smiling Ubeydullah nods again. “Maniac!” Mehmet exclaims with surprised pleasure, but then looks deeply troubled. “Just you?” there’s a childish disappointment in his tone. Ubeydullah smiles again and cocks his head to indicate the direction from whence he’s come, at something neither Mehmet, nor anyone else can see.
“I’ve come with assistance.”
                At noon that day, as the Ottoman army finally enter Constantinople, the Haghia Sophia is being ransacked. And not by the Turks. Looters are running about shoving treasures and relics under their robes; the milk of Marry, the shroud of Christ, the bones of various saints. And then they’re legging it for their lives. On the way out, they must fight a barrage of civilians who are flooding the great church, seeking sanctuary from the enemy. One guy, who’s fleeing with the gold-encased hand of John the Baptist, runs into a deranged farmer’s cow. The collision with the beast’s horn sends him to his maker, and the relic sinning to the floor. Some of the priests are trying to keep the crowds out. Others are inviting them in. A couple of faithful are standing by their flock, at the altar and leading a communal prayer. The meek are praying along. The not so meek are pocketing valuables.
                Simultaneously, somewhere near the city walls, Ak Şemseddin is interrupting his disciple’s moment of glory with a very pressing matter. “Ride my Sultan,” he tells Mehmet. “Ride quickly. Perchance we can save more souls than the lives we have sacrificed for this victory.” As Sultan Mehmet is trying to understand his Şeyh’s words, the Ecumenical patriarch, Athanasios II is making his wobbly way to the altar for what will be his final service, when two men obstruct his path. One is dressed in a priest’s habit, but the patriarch doesn’t recognise him. The other is a soldier with one lazy eye.
“Your holiness, we must remove you from this place,” the priest grabs his arm as if to guide him.
                “I will not leave my flock,” Athanasios exclaims, his bottom lip quivering a little.
“You must, it is not safe,” the man presses, “we cannot afford to lose you here.”
“The Turk sent word,” Athanasios tries to resist, “that those within the house of God would be protected. That if we put up no fight, we will be unharmed.” In spite of his protests his feet are nonetheless allowing himself to be lead away.
“The infidels aren’t to be trusted,” lazy eye speaks, “the first head to roll will be that of the emperor’s, the second is bound to be yours.”
Weaving through the mad crowds, the three make their way up through the narrow, ramped passages. When they emerge on the top gallery, Athanasios notices they’re missing someone. The lazy eyed soldier is gone and he has been replaced by another, rather shifty looking character. This man grabs the Patriarch’s elbow when Athanasios unwittingly slows down while looking about for the soldier. “We must hurry, father,” he leads the patriarch forcefully towards the Southern gallery, and eventually the entrance to the secret passageways which will serve as their escape route. 
Meanwhile, Sultan Mehmet is riding like the wind through his new city, with some of his generals following close behind. His instructions were clear, find the patriarch and protect him.  Though he’s not privy to any other particulars, his faith in his Şeyh is immovable. If Ak Şemseddin,, that normally calm and peaceful sage, has indicated an urgency, then there must hang in the balance something very urgent indeed.  
Burrowing their way through the narrow passages, said patriarch and his two ‘protectors’ have reached the tunnels beneath the main hall. All this action has gotten Athanasios’s blood pressure soaring. And his gout is making it more and more difficult for him to walk as fast as his companions are urging him to. He wishes they could take a little break, but it’s not to be.
It is said that when the Byzantine Emperors wanted to travel unnoticed by their subjects, they’d use the underground tunnels that extended between the Haghia Sophia and the Great Palace. Other tunnels among the rabbit-warren network beneath the holy church, also lead to the Palace of the Prophyregenitus, the Hypodrome, the Acropolis, the market, the Anemas Prisons, the Bassilica cistern, Theodora cistern, the Philoxenos cistern …and various other cisterns. And all this was really just the beginning.
Having substantial knowledge of the subterranean networks, Patriarch Athanasios II expects their escape route to head in the direction of the city walls. This is not what happens. They head towards the hypodrome instead, and from there the basilica cistern. Athanasios voices his opinion, suggesting an alternative route. When his companions do not respond, something dark like anxiety and fear lodges in the pit of his stomach. He tries again. And again, the silence of the two men are telling of something unwholesome in their intents.
Athanasios halts, “Where are you taking me?” he swallows. “What do you want?”
“To relieve you father, of your great burden,” the priest speaks.
“You’ll never get it all out of here in time,” Anathanasios starts backing up with his hand at his breast, where under his robes hang the keys to Beyzantiums hidden treasures. He knocks into the sinister guy behind him. The man places his hand’s on the patriarchs shoulders.
“Time is immaterial,” the priest speaks again. “We have all the time in the world. We simply need the keys and your peerless wisdom.”
“Do you think it’s so simple. There are guardians here. There are powers you cannot begin to comprehend, let alone overcome.”
“Oh, we have some inkling,” this time it’s the man behind Athanasios who speaks. “The lady has made herself known to us. And oh what glories she doth promise.”
When Sultan Mehmet finally comes galloping through the giant doors of the Haghia Sophia, the service halts, the frightened faithful fall silent, the delirious cower into corners soiling their pants, candles blow out, gas lamps shatter to the floor, and Athanasios breathes his last under the tunnels beneath the city. His death is blamed on the man who couldn’t save him. His body, never found.