The Project is Commissioned
‘You’ve been highly recommended’, the caller said before going on to identify herself as the personal assistant of a certain Professor Y, who pending the results of the investigation, preferred to remain anonymous. ‘We were impressed with your work on Zuleika, Potiphar’s wife’, she went on to tell me. I admit, I was flattered that someone was following my research, although that journey into Biblical, Qur’anic and Sufi poetry had seemed more like a detour, rather than a new direction for my enquiries in invocation and possession. The Y project had proceeded through a process of lucid dreaming and haunted dérives searching for Zuleika in Alexandria, Baku, Kuala Lumpur, New York and Nicosia. I developed a mysterious virus and had to take to my bed for a fortnight after I’d finished the Zuleika dream project, or rather the Zuleika dream had finished writing itself through me. I don’t like to dwell on the matter of ghosts for fear the process will sound like some kind of otherworldly séance nonsense, which it is not at all. My research is about finding a way into the buried metaphors in the field of the narrative and to putting those metaphors to work again and thus unleashing their transformative force through performance and publication. Don’t take me for a mystic. Much of this is solid scholarship, close reading, interpretation and reinterpretation. However it cannot be denied there is a part of the process that is about dreaming, and dream writing, twilight-writing, sneaking up on the subject, the self as subject as well as the subject-object of scrutiny.
A slight cough at the other end of the line made me realise I was thinking out loud. I shut up and listened carefully. I didn’t want to come across as a rambling eccentric. I was intrigued. No conventional research body has shown interest in my research to date, so I couldn’t help being flattered by this Professor Y’s interest, even if it was thus far a rather mysterious request, and by proxy at that, to use my lucid-dream-invocation method to produce some sort of writing, to produce insight into the life of Aisha, the Prophet’s beloved third wife. ‘A short story or essay’, the professor’s assistant said. I made it very clear my work was phenomenological research of the most inhabited kind. ‘I am not in the business of producing fiction so much as inhabiting metaphor’, I told her, rather haughtily, ‘and this is new territory for me.’
‘Professor Y is certain you are up to the task Dr Adil,’ his assistant assured me smoothly, ‘in fact he insists you’re the only person for the assignment’, before hanging up so swiftly that my lack of a response became a de facto assent.
Later, during the long afternoon rains of spring and early summer, I was to wonder why I had taken on the job. My specialism is goddesses, those of my birthplace and surrounding regions particularly: Astarte, Aphrodite and Inanna, but also Cybele, Artemis and the muses – especially the mother of all muses, Mnemosyne. I’ve been studying them academically, as well as evoking them through poetry for years now. Lately though, I’ve been invoking them too, inviting them to inhabit the moment through me. The process has been quite exhausting, and whilst I am aware of my friends’ concerns for my health, I believe it has been worthwhile. I am still at a slight loss as to how to express, qualify or quantify the knowledge produced by these invocations. Like those closest to me I too sometimes wonder for my sanity. So much of life is spent in exhausting storm-tossed preparatory dreams, lone prowls, maps, solipsistic soliloquies: words, words, and crazed one-off performances. Nevertheless I’m onto something. I’m sure of it.
I dream for a living, that is my current profession. I am dreamed into being through the visions that ensue. I admit this way of being I’m trying to describe is somewhat unorthodox as a research methodology. Let’s be very clear I am not a theologist. What follows is not theology. Not history. Not fiction. What follows is somewhere in the cracks between all of those. A seed germinates and blossoms where the breeze takes it. A small wild flower insinuates itself between great slabs of stone, grows out of the mouth of a dead cannon. What follows is interpretation and invocation.
The Research Process Begins
My work thus far has been in the field of deposed gods and goddesses. To venture into the interpretation and invocation of the unstable, metamorphosing metaphors at the heart of Astarte/Aphrodite worship and her continuing presence in contemporary life is not, of itself, dangerous work. Whilst she still has powerful political and economic weapons at her disposal, the people who no longer worship Aphrodite still assert their prerogative to oil fields in her name; not as much is as stake as in the domain of a deposed goddess. Here I am pitching my dreaming tent in the field of a living God, the God, Allah. Aisha is heavily contested territory. Fatwas have been issued for coming to the ‘wrong’ conclusions about her. She is a controversial figure. For devout Sunnis, criticising Aisha is akin to criticising the Prophet himself. They believe she was his favourite wife. Intelligent and spirited, she was a disciple as well as a companion. Aisha played a leading role as a teacher, interpreter and exponent of Islam. More than two thousand hadiths are attributed to her, some two-thirds of Islamic Shari’a is based on reports and interpretations that have come from her.
For Shia Muslims she is a much more problematic figure, a meddlesome widow who should have stayed quietly at home instead of making mischief as chief instigator of the Battle of Jamal at Basra against Ali Ibn Abi-Taleb’s Caliphate. Those outside the faith are most troubled by her age at marriage. In truth, many within Islam are troubled too. There are fierce scholarly debates. The Sahih al-Bukhari, one of the six major hadith collections of Sunni Islam, compiled over twenty-four years and completed in 846, considered the most authentic text of Islam after the Qur’an, is clear that she was six at the time of her nikah and nine at the time of her wedding.
This estimation of her age remained unchallenged until the Islamic scholar Maulana Muhammad Ali’s Urdu translation and commentaries on Sahih al-Bukhari in the 1920s and ‘30s put forward the hypothesis that Aisha must have been much older, more like nine or ten when she was betrothed and a less alarming fourteen or fifteen when the union was consummated. Subsequent scholars make her even older. Abu Tahir Irfani estimates she was fourteen or fifteen at betrothal, nineteen at marriage.
I try to begin at her beginning, but it’s unclear when that was, even whether was she born before the Call or after. Nevertheless, after their betrothal when the Prophet came to visit her he let her play with her dolls in his presence. Her friends scattered at his approach but he called them back to come and join her in her games. Yet only a year after that marriage we see her helping during the Battle of Uhud, her ankle bracelets visible, her robes tucked up out of the filth of war, as she hurries through the throng with a water skin on her back, offering sustenance to the wounded. My reading proceeds in several different directions simultaneously – biographies, fictionalisations, hagiographies, hadiths. I quickly get bogged down in history, in detail, in genealogies and chronologies. I become addicted to a website, www.searchtruth.com, a digital archive which you can search for any word in the Hadith from Sahih al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim, Sunan Abudawud, or Malik’s Muwatta. Before beginning the dreaming process I feel I need more facts to hand, but the facts undulate, shape-shift, accumulate and then disappear, like sand dunes, clouds, faces in the moon. The problem is not solely one of verifiability. There are too many facts.
Aisha is given to over-sharing. In her hadith fragments she tells us about washing semen spots from the Prophet’s clothes, that he goes to prayers with the water not yet dried upon the stains; she passes on his postcoital clean-up routine, his advice for menstruating women… She’s bursting with hygiene tips. No other Prophet has had his private life described so intimately and in such domestic detail, how he did his share of the household chores, milked the ewes, mended his own clothes, dealt with squabbles amongst his wives. Aisha is also very cheeky. The Prophet notes that when she’s pleased she says, ‘Yes, by the Lord of Muhammad,’ but when she is angry, she responds ‘No, by the Lord of Abraham.’ Always playing tricks, for instance she persuades him another wife’s honey makes his breath foul, Aisha is forever getting the Prophet to confirm she is his Special One. They drink from the same cup; they play together and race each other. Her bitterest jealousy is reserved for his first wife Khadija, because the Prophet mentions her so fondly and frequently.
Much that Aisha has to say relates to the domestic sphere but she has a keen sense of politics too, and how the two are intimately related. She says, ‘The things which annul the prayers were mentioned before me. They said, ‘Prayer is annulled by a dog, a donkey and a woman if they pass in front of the praying people.’ I said, ‘It is not good that you people have made us women equal to dogs and donkeys. Allah’s Apostle prayed while I used to lie between him and the Qibla and when he wanted to prostrate, he pushed my legs out of the way and I withdrew them.’’ And when she wanted to get up she would, and slip away, stepping between the Qibla and her praying husband.
I on the other hand am neither praying nor sleeping. Thus far I’ve been staying up until the early hours collecting too many stories. This is frustrating because I don’t aspire to the truth, these hadiths however impeccable their lineage can’t be any more than hearsay, they’re archived hundreds of years after the events they describe. I don’t want to produce more cheap fictional clutter. Orientalist soft, poor corn about jewels and medinas repels me. I must return to my methodology, and move beyond these narratives through dream, sleep-gleaning the stories for particularly sharp or intriguing metaphors. Metaphor drives and gives form to every idea from hard science to poetry; it is the engine of actualisation. It is through metaphor that metamorphosis occurs. Yet I am nervous. For days on end I chain smoke and forget to eat. I forego sleep to stay up late, collecting fragments from the hadiths and taking notes. What metaphors will Aisha reveal to me through these shards?
In the Small Hours
A man, he has dark eyes, but they’re flecked with amber when he gazes down at you, because he really looks at you, in you. There is flurry in the household. The child is told to bring a cup of cold water. An important visitor has come. She balances the cup carefully on a tray, taking care not to spill it. He is smiling and indicates she should sit on his lap. Such a beautiful child, they all agree. The man strokes her head; her hair is very short and fluffy, just growing back. You can tell from her pallor that she has been very ill. He tells her parents not to discipline her.
I wake up, and find I’d fallen asleep slumped over my desk. Hunting in the mess of cups and papers for a pen I write ‘Why? Do they hit the child too much? How did he know – were there marks on her? Or rather is she a mischievous or willful little girl? Which hadith is this? What was she sick with? Cross check sources’. My face is sore, a pen and the corner of my laptop have left red lines on my face. My back aches. I feel like I’ve been on a long haul flight. I’ll go to bed in a minute, I tell myself. I just need to find the source for this. No, there’s nothing in my research notes about this event, just a reference to websites with furious online debates about whether and how hard Muhammad hit/slapped/pushed her, later, when they were married and she followed him out unbidden to the graveyard in the middle of the night.
I’m ready to go to my bed too when my laptop begins emitting that little tune, something between the rhythm of a nursery rhyme and an ambulance siren, that tells me Nilüfer is Skyping me.
‘Hello Alev abla’ she booms, her voice is clear although there is loud music in the background, live I think. ‘What are you up to? You should be here. We’ve just come from a read-in, a sit-down protest at Taksim Square. I’ve posted some pictures online, take a look.’
A link, a tiny URL, pops up in the speech box. I click on it and it takes me to a website called kaldırım taşlarının altındaki plaj which translates from Turkish as ‘the beach beneath the paving stones’. The photographs are of Nilüfer and her friends sitting in Taksim Square holding up books.
‘See the one of me?’ Nilüfer says, ‘I’m holding up Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie, just for you cuz.’
Most of the images on her site are from various Gezi Park protests. The images I find most intriguing are of street dogs hanging out with the protestors, even defending them in the riots.
‘Sweet. Thank you janim. How’s your work going?’ Nilüfer is an artist, mainly sculpture and installations, her most famous piece Family is an installation of domestic furniture, a facsimile of her childhood living room, the pastiche Baroque furniture covered in giant upholstered tumours. Her installation was exhibited in the Istanbul Modern in 2010 and met with international interest. She was really going places, but since last year both her head and her heart are only in one place – Gezi Park.
‘We’re preparing for the anniversary demonstration. I won’t say too much online…’
The camaraderie of protest has consumed her and given her the glow that you see on the faces of pregnant women, those who have just fallen in love, gone mad, or found God. I can’t begrudge her that happiness and newfound sense of purpose. But I’m less enamoured of the righteous indignation that comes with it, too close a dialectical reflection of Erdoğan’s belligerence. It’s not that Nilüfer and I disagree entirely but even when we agree she makes me feel I don’t agree enough. I worry about her.
‘And what are you doing? Why have you had your Skype switched off for the last week? Why are you up so late? Have you been eating?’ She worries about me too.
‘I’m doing a new project. Another one of my invocation things…’
‘But abla, I thought you were going to stop this, last time you became so ill. You’re not taking any weird pills or anything?’
‘No, no, just vitamin B6 and lots of chicken. I haven’t started yet though… I’m still preparing, researching. It’s about Aisha.’
‘ No, not our auntie – Aisha the Prophet’s wife.’
‘You’re kidding? Abla, have you gone nuts? Have the Gülenists got to you?’ She makes an impassioned speech about Muslim piety that is partly drowned out by the music and the time delay on our call. Her image keeps pixelating, freezing, reforming. It’s not just the corruption and repression, the relentless neoliberal profit driven brutality of the current government. It’s not just Erdoğan’s arrogant responses to the death of Alevi children in the riots and the horrors of the Soma mining disaster that enrage her. She goes on at some length about the small-minded Muslim puritanism that makes everyday less joyful, making it harder and more to expensive to appreciate the view over a raki or three, about people being arrested for kissing in the street. Then her discourse gets darker and roams farther, the woman stoned to death by her family outside the courthouse in Pakistan, the pregnant woman, about to give birth, imprisoned in Sudan, the kidnap of hundreds of school girls in Nigeria… Whatever Islam is/was supposed to be, face it, it’s never good news socially or politically these days. Where is Shari’a Law anything but barbaric?
‘This project is not about contemporary Islamic politics, or about fundamentalism, terrorism, it’s not about any of that. It’s about Aisha, the metaphors that sing out from her words across the centuries. It’s about the poetics of dreaming.’
‘Well, you can take to your bed and ignore the world all you like, but all this is not about to disappear. The place of women in Islam is unavoidably a part of that story. And didn’t he have sex with her when she was six?’
‘I know. Though some scholars….’
‘These could be very heavy dreams. And what will you do with them when they’re dreamt?’
‘I know. I don’t know.’ It’s time to hang up. Nilüfer and her friends are off for breakfast by the Bosphorous.
I prepare for the dreaming time with vitamin B6 supplements and chicken at every meal, bananas at bedtime. I have also developed a morning and evening yoga and meditation sequence. But it is very difficult to direct the dreams, to conjure them up. After the fugitive dream of the glass of cold water Aisha refuses to appear at all in my thin dreams. My sleep is poor. I fidget and tangle the sheets up night after night and try not to worry, after all Aphrodite refused to properly and vividly appear until three months into the project. After two months an email arrives from the efficient assistant. Professor Y wants to see a preliminary report. I request an extension and ignoring all the unanswered messages in my inbox, I turn off the laptop and give myself to the business of dreaming. However it is more than a week later when the shriek of a car alarm wakes me from the first dream.
I am tightly swaddled in a rough blanket. I have a fever. I am not sure who I am. I am a child. There is a sandstorm outside. My blanket is cochineal coral. The light around the woman’s dark braided hair is golden. I hear the palms thrashing outside. ‘Hush now my precious one’ she presses her cool long rough fingers against my forehead. ‘Where am I?’ I ask her. ‘Who am I?’
‘Yathrib, my beloved. You are the beloved child of Yathrib. Watch the movement of the clouds, of the branches in the breeze. Listen carefully to your dreams.’
I wake up realising I really do have a fever. I am bound up in my duvet. As I drink the dream soiled stale water by my bed I wonder, was that Aisha? Or was it the Prophet himself? I had no sense of being a boy or a girl. Perhaps that was Aminah who held me in her arms? She took the Prophet to Yathrib as a child. She was to die as they returned to Mecca. The child was six. Somehow I know that from the dream, the child is six.
I make coffee but my throat is sore and it tastes burnt and bitter. I can’t drink it. I take two Paracetemol and gulp down some water. I press my forehead on the windowpane. London is lush and green outside my window; a blossom-laden branch wags a gnarled finger at me. A steady sleet of light summer rain is falling. Turning back into the room I begin a list of metaphors thus far gleaned:
A cup of cold water (stone cup?)
The movement of the clouds
The movement of the branches in the breeze
The sound of wind in the palms:
The fever child of Yathrib
is six years old.
I am burning up and go back to bed.
I have the same deep coral blanket wrapped around me, rough against my cheek. There is a copper bowl of water before me with fragrant rose petals in it. I lean over it and catch my reflection; it is I, not Aisha. The woman with the healing hands comes in, the fragrance of crushed thyme about her she takes me in her arms as though I was a child.
‘She was his most beloved they say, but such childish competition is meaningless. And if we were to compete, I would say I won – I loved him the most.’ She pours me a sweet cold drink of diluted honey and vinegar. ‘I had already built up my business when I saw him, I made a good living. I was happy to pay the bills and to raise the babies, those that survived. I wanted to marry and support him not just because I loved him when I saw him, but also because I believed his dreams were divine. I knew from his eyes.’
‘What about Aisha? What do you know of Aisha? ‘ I ask her.
‘Why Aisha? Why don’t you even ask my name? I am a tree of a woman; she was a twig of a child. He was nurtured by me alone for twenty-five years, slept in my arms alone. The Apostle of Allah slept by her side for nine short years, and not even every night, but taking turns, in a shared throng. Is it because I didn’t cause trouble? Are you only interested in women who start wars?’ Her voice is gentle but I feel ashamed I have not shown her the respect that is her due.
I wake up without any sense of what day or time it is. It is twilight outside, but whether it’s early morning or evening I have no idea. I pad barefoot to the kitchen and search for vinegar and honey to make myself a hot drink. I have run out of honey but find some Basra date syrup and use that instead.
‘We are the Ansari women, we come to speak of her’. The most remarkable thing about this dream is its rich auditory qualities. Their voices sound like a single voiced multiplied with a slight time delay, an acapella echoey disorientation like Bulgarian choral folk music.
‘Ā’ishah bint Abī Bakr, A’ishah, Aisyah, Ayesha, A’isha, Ayşe, Aishat.’ The Ansari women are a wedding party, they sing and sway these ululating vowels and the sound becomes the rhythm of a rope swing between two palms.
‘He will bend her but no one will break her.
The young branch bends and bounces back
in a greenstick fracture.
Her hair has grown back; it has passed her ears.
We have passed more than three times
through the cycle of the years.
Dress her with silk, dress her with stone.
Child-woman came from Mecca in the Call
to Yathrib, you are to be His alone.
Hurry now, you can bring your doll.’
Aisha is about fourteen when I next see her, her hair is a wild tangled storm. She is feverish in her bed and wakes still searching for the lost necklace she now holds in her hand. She won’t plead her innocence. Since Allah is all-seeing He knows she is innocent. She throws herself at His mercy, not the Prophet’s. He consults the Ansari women. Buraira steps out of the wedding chorus to bear testimony and the others sing too in their echoing uncanny misharmony.
‘Her only faults are those of her young age,
she is so easily moved to laughter, jokes
that turn to sulks and tears, even rage.
The thing we’d complain of most though,
is how she neglects her household chores
and lets the goats wander and eat the dough.’
I am in a cave. There is pile of bones in one corner. Flies congeal over a freshly killed goat. A television is on. A report on fresh atrocities from the war in Syria is being broadcast on a large television. A figure rises out of the corner with a lion at her side, a palm frond in her hand. Of course, I should have known… Still, I was not expecting to see her here.
‘Weren’t you now?’ she laughs. She can read my thoughts. ‘Perhaps I can say the same. Once you sought me out in my birthplaces as Astarte/ Aphrodite and now I find you sniffing around my grave.’ She is a huge, naked warrior and she turns, leans over me emits a terrible torrent of awful wailing, the deposed goddess of love and war, caught always in the midpoint between the two, the goddess of lament. Her lion roars with her.
‘You’re worried about the Desert Princess, the Mother of the Believers? You’re snooping around for her in dreams?’ She grabs me by my hair. Her lion looks at me quizzically. ‘You want to know whether she was innocent or guilty? Is that it? You’ve come to me for her war record?’ She turns my head to television. ‘Many would say that’s her war record too.’ The lion sniffs me. I can smell his meaty breath. ‘ When the Christians deposed me in your birthplace they smuggled me into the heart of their religion as Mary. My lament for Adonis became the Pieta. They veiled my power in royal blue, stuffed my mouth with suffering. But her Muhammad had my temples razed. I am Al-Lat of Taif. Ask your Aisha about me, about what they did to my followers in Taif.’
Who knows, I’m really not sure. I have consulted my calendar but I am still not sure how many days I lost in those fever dreams. When I’m well enough to log on to my email again I find a slew of new messages, most are group mailshots from galleries, theatres and publishers, some are phishing exercises requesting my bank details, three are from Professor Y’s assistant and one from Nilüfer with the subject line ‘happy birthday?’.
‘Alev abla, how are you? I’ve been offline for a while. I’m fine but some of my friends were arrested last night during the anniversary demonstrations. I would have been too, but just as I was about to follow them one of the wild dogs I’ve been photographing in the park started howling madly, and distracted me; I thought he’d been wounded. In the confusion I lost my companions in the crowd. Then the dog gave me a look as if to follow him, and trotted down a side street away from the riot unguarded by the cops. So I did. I slipped away. I escaped.’
Nilüfer had attached an article on the history of street dogs in Istanbul. I read it as I search the kitchen for something to eat. It has been days since I have shopped or eaten properly. Over toast and more Basra date syrup I read a chilling account of the Ottoman practice of banishing the dogs to barren islands in the Marmara Sea. In 1911 the governor of Istanbul released tens of thousands of dogs onto Sivriada, a tiny island to which Byzantine rulers once exiled criminals. A yellowed postcard shows hundreds of dogs on the beach. The citizens of Istanbul complained that they could not sleep because their haunted howls could be heard even at great distances. An earthquake occurred a few weeks later and was taken as a sign of God’s displeasure. The dogs that had survived were brought back to the city.
In the Rain
I am shaky on my feet, my nerves jangled. I call Qais and ask if he can meet me. He’s in the British Library. I haven’t been outside for days and can’t face a crowded café. I suggest we meet in Tavistock Square. I misremember it as having a cute little tea kiosk, which it doesn’t. That’s Gordon Square. Tavistock Square has the statue of Gandhi and the tree planted as memorial to the victims of Hiroshima. It’s raining hard and yet the canopy of leaves protects us from the worst of it. We shelter under a large Beech tree near a small lugubrious bust of Virginia Woolf. Qais is a scholar of Ottoman and Persian literature and the person I know who is the most knowledgeable about Aisha.
‘So let me get this straight, this is another of your crazy poetic projects? Will it end with a performance like the Aphrodite project? Have you recovered? Has London?’ Qais roars with laughter whilst puffing on something that looks like a fat pen, he keeps pressing a small button and then exhaling clouds of vapour.
‘Ah yes, do you like my little portable nargile? An e-shisha they call it. Amusing no? Try it.’
‘So what do you think Qais? Nilüfer thinks I’m just asking for trouble. I can’t get my head around all the history, or get past the whole child marriage thing…’
‘Well, she might have been lying about her age? Women are always lying about their age.’
‘Oh Qais, come on. Granted she might have been hazy about her birthdate, even underestimated her own age a little, but still, there are so many references to her youth and playing with toys, all that. And who would lie about being nine when they were nineteen. She must have been a child.’
‘But she wanted it. The Prophet didn’t take her against her will.’
‘Are a nine year old girl child’s desires anything but crushed if they’re acted upon?’
‘Mary was twelve, Joseph an old man.’
‘Why is that relevant?’
‘Well they are both virginal portals to the divine my dear. An angel has one, the Prophet the other. Are you sure you should you visit your twentieth century political correctness on all this?’ he exhales a calligraphy of vapour, poems that vanish in the rain.
‘Of course not, you’re right. I’m not interested in judging him, or turning her into a passive victim. I just want to find out…’
‘Lesley Hazelton’s books, which are very good about Aisha, are The First Muslim and After the Prophet. The second will serve your purpose particularly well.’
‘I’ve been proceeding more through dreaming than reading but I did read Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Prophet.’ Qais raises an eyebrow and stares back sadly at the bronze visage of Virginia, ‘There’s rather a good hagiography, Hadhrat Ayesha Siddiqa: Her Life and Works by Allamah Syed Sulaiman Nadvi. You could consult that too for your story.’
‘It’s not a story. I’m not interested in fictionalising or providing neat narratives out of the hadith fragments but in having a sense of the presence of this woman, who I already feel, through my hadith readings, was vigourously and assertively worldly – driven by a muscular sense of entitlement through her aristocracy, her rightful place through birth, marriage and love at the heart of Islam.’
‘Which translation of Bukhari are you consulting? I can give you some guidance on the pros and cons of the various translations.’
‘Actually I’ve been using www.searchtruth.com. You can do word searches of the entire Hadith. It’s really brilliant.’
‘Hmm. I really rather doubt that. So the point of this is neither fiction nor scholarship? Or both?’
‘I want to discern what was divine about her. She was the only woman in whose bed the Prophet received divine revelations. He loved her the most of all his wives. He died in her lap. She was his child-bride, in fact or at heart. She was the girl, not the woman (that was Khadija) of his life, that too I find very moving.
The girl I glimpsed was very un-Lolita-ish, this Aisha girl-child who unlocks a very special divine tenderness in the Prophet. His love for her was remarkable and remarked upon then and is transgressive now.’
‘A love story then?’
‘No, I can’t. I find the Prophet’s married life so alien. He’s monogamously married to a woman he loves deeply, then after she dies, after the age of fifty he takes on, is it ten, more wives, one still a child?’
‘It was political.’
‘Yes, very. Anthropological, historical and hysterical. They seem to have been a handful for him to manage too.’
‘It seems to me that most important thing about her, if you think of the consequences for Islam, is her part in the Battle of Jamal. Whether she is really guilty of bringing about the schism in Islam.’
‘I guess you’re right. I’ve been so caught up in thinking about how she helps the Prophet reach the divine; that she is a threshold to the divine, like you were saying.’
‘And yet you find that in her day to day life she is the desert Arab version of (almost) any other spirited Byzantine or Borgia princess?’
‘You put it so well Qais.’
And then I hail a taxi and we go for tea at the Wolsey because we are damp from the rain. It is to be my treat for we have encircled the statue of Gandhi and been glared at by Woolf, both of whom Qais detests, many times that afternoon.
The Last Dream
I hear her voice, just her voice and the wind. All I can see is a heavy woven curtain flapping in the wind. ‘He had returned from a war, was it the expedition to Tabuk or Khaybar? I cannot be sure. He brought the wind with him. The draught raised an end of the curtain that was hung in front of my cupboard, revealing some of my toys. He asked me, ‘What is this?’ Perhaps he thought I would have disposed of them by then, I was sixteen or seventeen. He picked the horse with wings made of rags, and asked, ‘What is this I see among them? A horse with wings?’
‘Have you not heard that Solomon had horses with wings?’ I teased him and the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) laughed so heartily that I could see his molars.
Then I rise from my bed, the wind seems to be coming from an open window, and the rain has soaked the curtains. I lean out of the window, the moon is full and low and golden on the horizon. I see a slim figure walking down the street in a long dark shift. I rush out of the house and follow her down Southampton Row. She grows thinner and taller as she glides towards the Kingsway. A pack of dogs slink out of the side streets and accompany me padding silently towards the river. She is taller than Bush House as she reaches Aldwych. Aisha turns as she reaches Waterloo Bridge.
‘The hounds of Hawab, Allah’s Apostle warned us, I thought the interdiction was for another, but he said it for me. “Turn back when you hear the hounds of Hawab howl”. I understood that when I heard their unearthly cries.’
I am surrounded by hundreds of dogs but they don’t make a sound at all.
Dear Professor Y,
Apologies for the delay in completing my report. My research methodology proved particularly physically taxing, hence the delay. Qualitative and quantitative data will follow shortly but below is the key data that has emerged from my dream investigations:
The fever child of Yathrib,
the girl on a swing strung between two palms
is a greenstick fracture,
spirit undaunted, will unbroken,
fighting her corner,
Some horses have wings.
He died in her lap.
A bride, a widow, never a mother,
she was always a fighter when cornered.
The hounds of Hawab howl to warn her
the warrior in her has wandered too far,
as is her destiny, as the widow-queen of Islam
who learnt his dreams by heart.
Greensticked spirit, will unbroken,
fighting her corner,
How they howl.