The Muezzin's Ascension
Harun ran barefoot over the cool stone and rushed into the bookstore, too fast for the sharp turn at the door. The young man's hand grabbed onto the door frame in order to adjust the direction of the swing. This way he came darting into the store like an arrow, approaching his unsuspecting uncle who sat in the back at the wall on a soft mat, his left side leaning on a cushion, and who now looked up from his book in surprise. There were no flatbreads he could detect in the lad's hand, and neither were the ordered goat cheese or the green olives.
Harun came to stop just before the uncle's considerable belly, rowing with his arms to keep his balance.
"Abu Taiyib!" he uttered. "Abu Taiyib has disappeared." He breathed heavily.
The uncle did not lose his calm and remained sitting there quietly. Only the look on his face revealed he had altered the focus of his attention.
Now Harun noticed that, despite the early morning hour, three, no, four customers populated the shop already. They stood by the shelves and one of them was writing at the desk in the front of the room. They all had turned to him, waiting to hear the news.
He stepped back a pace, bent over and stabilized his body with his hands resting above the knees until he caught his breath. Then he shook his head: "Nobody understands how this could happen. Abu Taiyib, the prayer caller. He went up the minaret, but he did not call. He did not come back down, either. I saw it with my own eyes, for I had stopped by to listen to his beautiful voice at close range. As you know, Abu Taiyib is one of the most virtuosic callers and I have harkened to him often. As prayer time arrived and nothing happened, one of the believers plucked up courage and went looking to see what was going on.
After a short while we heard him climb down the stairs again until he stood before us, gasping and shouting: "Abu Taiyib is gone!"
People were shocked, it was a miracle to them how such a thing could be possible, and they surrounded the minaret. Some more men entered the tower and a turmoil swelled. Then, after they were unable to locate the muezzin, they ran away in all directions like fleeing chickens to break the news to others. - Like me, too," he added.
Upon that, Abu Yusuf Husain ibn Galil al-Masri al-Warraaq, called the Calamus, straigtened up until he had reached the full length of his body.
Harun's command of the Arabic language had improved a lot during the just less than three years of his residence, he thought in an approving way. He almost talks like a local. He recalled his nephew's very first arrival through that same door one night. He was exhausted and unsettled after the long journey from the city of Aachen in the distant land of the Franks where his parents had lost their lives in an accident. Much more self-aware and grown-up was the twenty-year-old today.
"Come, take me there!" demanded the Calamus and underlined his words with a gesture.
On leaving the library he called out to the customers: "Just write it down if you want to purchase or order something. I will get back to you later."
But the customers wanted to know more about this strange story too, and so it was that five men and a woman left the house with hasty steps, reaching the morning alley under the curious gazes of some of the neighbours.
Before they entered al-Mu'izz Street, which divided the Old City from Bab Zuwaila in the south to Bab an-Nasr in the north, the group stopped in a side alley where the bookseller interrupted his employee Bilal's breakfast, assigning him to watch over the shop until he returned.
The Ibrahim Mosque was about a quarter of an hour away. The group passed loaded donkeys that unhurriedly did their work, early pedestrians and some playing children. Harun led the way, followed by the Calamus in his plain white robe and the others. The closer they got to the mosque, the more crammed the place became and the louder the voices.
Finally they reached the minaret, which stood in some distance from to the mosque, and in front of it was a crowd that the Mamluk security forces had difficulties to keep under control.
The Calamus approached one he knew. "Hajj Omar!" he called him, "What is going on here?" The addressed man looked up and left the masses to reach him.
"Abu Yusuf," he said, "did you not hear the news? The muezzin has disappeared while everybody was watching. He climbed up the minaret and never came back."
"The boy told me," the Calamus replied, "but what are all these people doing here?" He almost had to shout to be heard.
"They believe that Abu Taiyib ascended to heaven and they think it is a miracle," said Hajj Omar. More than three hundred people had assembled, encompassing the tower on whose balconies policemen could be seen when the Calamus turned his gaze upwards.
"And what do you think?" he asked the Hajj who raised his eyebrows and shrugged. "I have no explanation."
Harun intervened, "He did not ascend to heaven. I was standing right here all the time and saw no such thing."
The Calamus pointed to the entrance of the minaret: "Tell me again what exactly happened this morning after the scout had proclaimed that Abu Taiyib was not on the tower."
Harun closed his eyes for a moment to concentrate. "He kept on calling"‚He is not there! He is not there!' and then many of the attendees raised their arms and touched their heads in disbelief."
The Calamus interrupted his nephew: "For exactly how long did the scout remain standing in the doorway?"
"He stood there the whole time. A ring of men surrounded him, chattering to him. Some of them climbed up the stairs themselves to make sure. When I and some others dispersed, he was still standing there with them in the middle of the turmoil, involved in heavy discussions." Harun tried to remember every detail.
Suddenly, the imam stepped out of the minaret and was instantly approached by the storming crowd. This granted the Calamus a glimpse into the shadowy side street. He entered it. They were only a few steps, and behind him followed his entourage, now augmented by the Hajj.
In the middle of the street was the bakery where his nephew was to procure the breakfast bread. The loaves there were of special taste. The group saw women and men watching the scene from windows. They also stood in doorways, whispering.
"What are we doing here?" someone from the entourage wondered aloud as they arrived at the baker's shop and the Calamus ordered five loaves without bothering about the question.
Instead, he addressed the man at the oven: "Didn't you see the muezzin, either?"
"No, Sir, I do know the man and he did not come down this street."
The Calamus received the bread and pondered. Then he made his nephew pay with the dirham he had given to him for that purpose and went on his way back home, murmuring something about having to eat now.
Someone was slicing aubergines. The two men entered the kitchen and saw that Nadya had already heated olive oil in the pan. "You cook for me?" The Calamus laughed in amazement.
"Good morning, Husain. Of course I do. I did not find you here, and the state of the kitchen told me that you did not have breakfast yet. Or did you buy something on the way?"
With a sharp sizzle, the thin aubergine slices skidded into the simmering oil. She dispersed the oil with a racloir so that all slices got equally fried.
"How nice of you! No no, I only brought some bread. We are late, indeed, the lost muezzin kept us busy."
She nodded. "The whole quarter talks about it." She chopped a garlic clove in diminutive pieces while delivering regards from Bilal who had some errands to attend to.
Nadya lived three houses away. Seven years ago she had lost her husband and her children to the pest, the Black Death, which had also taken the Calamus's wife. There hardly was a family in Cairo unaffected by the plague. The whole street had knowledge of the mutual affection of the two early-widowed spouses, and from time to time one of the neighbours encouraged her or him to venture another marriage. Yet, until now there remained a safe distance which none of the two was willing to give up.
Grinning shyly, Harun moved his face away when he detected the fire in their eyes which mysteriously appeared whenever the two came together.
In order to avoid starting to chuckle, he said to Nadya who gave the garlic into the pan with the point of the knive, turning the slices that had already become crisp and brown at the bottom, "Isn't the garlic supposed to be roasted first?"
She turned to him in thought and said in the same motherly way in which she used to talk to her children: "In principle, yes. But it takes a while until the aubergines have absorbed the oil and are finished. By then the garlic already gets all burnt and black." She added salt and continuously turned the slices that now lay crusty and dark brown in the pan.
The Calamus fetched plates and some lemons, which he cut, while Harun took place on the reed mat, and Nadya served the meal.
"My favourite dish!" hummed the Calamus and streched his neck in an attempt to preserve the scent from the pan in his nose while moving closer to the cook.
She smiled, sat down with them and watched the men tearing pieces off the flatbread and using them to divide the fried, lemoned aubergines into bite-size portions which they pleasurably shoved into their mouths.
Nadya added a small bowl with white yoghurt to the scene, salted it and poured the remaining fat from the pan onto it. Dipping some bread into the bowl she explained that she already had breakfast and that it was still too early for her dinner. Then she resumed the discussion about the news.
"It was only yesterday that Karima spoke about him. You remember Karima, Abu Taiyib's sister-in-law. Her house is in the vicinity of the minaret, right ahead in the side street."
The Calamus, chewing and biting off a piece of green onion, asked, "Why? Was there anything wrong with him?"
The woman pulled a face and wished he would not speak with his mouth full. "I don't know. She told me that he had not seen his brother much in recent times, and the two seemed to be avoiding each other. A pity, Abu Taiyib being such a nice man - and this exceptional voice!"
Meanwhile, the Calamus had finished chewing. "Maybe he ascended to heaven. We did not have that in quite some time." He grinned broadly and Nadya nodded:
"Indeed, last time it was the Prophet himself, ages ago."
Calls for the noon prayer emanated from the many minarets of the quarter while, in the cool library, Harun was familiarizing himself with a new piece of work: the transcription of a booklet on the art of engineering, with commentaries and drawings. In a fortnight the buyer, a rich Mamluk, would come to get it.
Harun had a talent for handwritings and calligraphy, and the Calamus found in him a teachable and diligent student who by far exceeded all expectations and hopes. Some hours earlier, master and disciple had gone through the foreword and the first two pages of today's booklet, word by word, so that Harun could acquaint himself with the handwriting and the style of the text with all its technical terms. He dipped the bamboo quill into the ink and started with the pages he already knew.
Never would he have imagined the metropolis of Cairo to be so huge when he was still in Aachen, which was itself after all one of the biggest cities in the German empire, with a population of more than twenty thousand. But then - Cairo with its half million!
Everywhere there was noise, everywhere there were people. Incredible amounts of goods were stored and transacted. The culture shock had hit Harun heavily when he arrived in Cairo one day, without money, without language, only with a bag on his back. He had not expected to find happiness here, but it seemed achieved all the same.
His uncle had been a good teacher and a true friend. He had immediately taken the boy to his heart, taught him the letters and then language and calligraphy simultaneously.
Harun was fascinated with all the books his uncle owned and, right from the start, felt an urge to fathom the contents of all these works. And then there were all the outdoor adventures!
Differently from Aachen, the streets of Cairo were crowded non-stop, like in a dream, and in the evenings lanterns in front of every shop would burn the whole night through. The nocturnal light shows: torches, lamps, colours wherever you looked were beyond comparison.
Exploring the city, Harun constantly discovered something exciting and sensational. This could be the dish of one of the thousand flying traders and barbecue sellers, or a tightrope artist, a shadow player, a story-teller or a snake charmer. Ever since his departure Harun had kept a diary in which he collected the memory of each encounter as well as some character sketches. One year ago he changed the language and continued in Arabic.
The Calamus returned from noon prayer when Harun had just finished copying the first page. He sat down by the opposite wall, cogitating. The second page was finished and the Calamus was still meditating, gazing at his writing nephew in thought until he looked up, answering the gaze. He hoped the uncle would not regret he did not accompany him to prayers. Sometimes he joined, but usually he kept away from religious affairs. The uncle would let him, too.
"What is it?" Harun finally asked, and the uncle responded without hesitation and without raising his voice: "Two things. The first is that Officer Tubay who has just reprimanded me because our store is too large according to the new building regulations. Secondly, I do not believe that Abu Taiyib has ascended to heaven."
He stood up and poured himself a cup of water which he drank right away. "You have to help me here," he continued, and Harun put his writing utensils aside.
His hands entwined behind his back, the Calamus paced up and down the room. Harun knew this behaviour and waited.
"I have just come back from the Ibrahim Mosque where it all happened," he commenced. "Of course Abu Tayib was the main topic of every conversation. It is remarkable how people act when they have no explanation for something they urgently desire to understand. How can a man get lost on a minaret?"
Harun lifted his finger, "Maybe there is a hidden room up there or he climbed down with a rope."
The Calamus shook his head, "No, there is no hidden room and there are no traces. I had a thorough look myself. Our sole clues are the scout and his friends. It was he who broke the news about the missing muezzin. Would you recognize his face?"
Harun did not understand. The only thing the mentioned man did was checking, and he did not find anyone. "Maybe," he said, "but there are so many faces around that a second encounter is not probable."
With a low voice, the Calamus mumbled something unintelligible, while he was still walking up and down. Then he changed the subject, and Harun and he pondered about a plan to save the bookstore from being downsized.
The sun burnt mercilessly on the metropolis while people were crossing it like ants. There hardly was a bigger city in the world, despite the fact that the plague had raged in Cairo several times, strongly reducing the number of its inhabitants.
There was a huge portion of the inheritance of the deceased that came to the Mamluk state, which invested an enormous sum in new, representative buildings. Thus on the one hand many houses were empty or completely vanished and replaced by holes, and on the other hand new prestigious objects came into being, like the Khan al-Khalili, a market in the Old City, not far from the house of the Calamus.
The city had grown almost continuously over the centuries, expanded areas, new streets, new quarters, far beyond the original core which the dynasty of the Fatimids some four hundred years ago had named "al-Qahira", the Victorious.
The Calamus sat on the stone bench in front of his shop in the shade and observed the people on the road.
An almost naked man, wrong way around on a donkey, passed him by, heading for the main street, followed by four soldiers with whips and a small, hooting and smirking crowd.
"The Barbarians!" thought the Calamus, referring to the Mamluks and their public punishment rituals. They were ruling over the land and not only this land. Theirs were the most important areas of the Islamic world, including the Holy Sites in Mecca and Medina. They were sultans and emirs of Turkish origin who started as slave children and passed a military education. They constituted the ruling cast and were so strong that they had managed to expel both the so far invincible Mongols and the Crusaders. To the ordinary people on the street they kept a distance most of the time, for despite all the admiration, the Mamluks were regarded as arbitrary, dangerous and bureaucratic - and alien.
The lost muezzin was on the Calamus's mind. The police had searched the minaret. Contrary to the magnificent buildings in the surroundings, the Ibrahim Mosque and its minaret were of modest proportions. Fragments of two perpendicular walls around the minaret indicated the existance of an original area, the mosque area, only that the wall was either never completed or had been demolished, for in recent times people have known nothing more than these ruins of a structure, accessible from different sides.
What was the secret that engulfed Abu Taiyib? He could not help it and went to see the place again. Harun and his other scribe Bilal were in the shop, caring for the customers. The demand was rather big during the day, for at the Calamus's library one could obtain rare books and even borrow them for a small fee, provided that one was not a stranger.
Mamluk, Arab scholar, scientist or friend of literature - everybody enjoyed the place. Whenever it was too much turbulance for the bookseller, he retreated into the back rooms where he also slept. Until now, that was, for he would have to fight with the bureaucrats over the back rooms shortly.
On his way the Calamus saw a trader carrying conical dishes on a shining silver plate. It was Kubba, a pastry dumpling with a filling of minced meat and roasted pignolia. He was unable to resist and bought five pieces which he had consumed on arriving at the minaret, minus the one he had handed to a female beggar on the street.
Giving alms was one of the central pillars of Islam, and he took his religion seriously. Maybe not in a way that would make him say each and every prayer, but in this situation, which the Calamus recognized to be the chaos of his times, he was honestly concerned about the values that had brought about this great civilization of which he felt to experience the endpoint.
In true Islam, he thought, there is order. Neither will things be left to be decided by coincidence, nor will you find dark spots. Of course he was aware that this was an ideal and not the things he could see around him: the thinned population, the unleashed, pleasure-seeking crowds, the inflation and the intrigues that radiated from the court deep into the families.
The Calamus lived in a world of his own. He was known for his amazing memory - a welcome gift for a man acquainted with so many books. Moreover, he was an acknowledged master of calligraphy, and this was the basis of his modest prosperity. Whether it was about certificates or about art: his calligraphies were treasured, even by the Mamluks who originally kept a sceptical eye on everything connected with Arabic, except for the religion. In this idealized world which Husain ibn Jalil al-Masri, called the Calamus, was unwilling to leave, there would not be any muezzins disappearing before the morning prayer.
He only had one concrete clue and that was the house of the brother which was situated in the direct vicinity of the minaret in the secluded side street. Nadya had spoken about it, and his investigations before and after the noon prayer again brought him back to the brother.
So he knocked on the door. A youngster of about fourteen years opened and informed the Calamus that the mentioned brother of the missing muezzin had left for Alexandria around noon to see the grandmother.
The lad was about to close the gate when he heard, "You might know me. I am Abu Yusuf and own a bookshop not far from here." The boy hesitated, but did not close the gate. "Abu Taiyib is your uncle, is that right?" The boy nodded. "Can you bring me to your mother? I want to find out what happened to your uncle and I reckon you want to know, too."
The boy, who intruduced himself as Ali, waved the visitor in. They crossed the front garden, which was not visible from the street, and reached the multi-storeyed building in the entrance hall of which there were two figures squatting in the semi-darkness.
Via a stairway they accessed the first floor where they disposed of their shoes. Ali asked the visitor to wait before he disappeared through a door into an adjoining room. The place was unostentatious and yet obviously part of a house owned by wealthy people. He went over the carpet to the window and surveyed the wooden grid, tinted in a dark reddish brown, masterly carved and aesthetically embellished. Through the window grid he saw the alley and there was the scene of the mystery, the minaret.
Bilal stood at the rack and ran his finger over the book covers.
|"as-Salam 'alaikum, Abu Yusuf, what a pleasure it is to see you. Nadya has told me all about you."
Silently, the lady of the house had approached, one of her children on each side. She wore a black veil that covered her face completely. Her voice was determined, but gentle.
The Calamus returned the salutation politely and then pointed through the window. "What happened there this morning?" he asked without taking the tone of friendliness out of his voice.
Karima hesitated and breathed deeply, sounding like a sigh: "If only we knew! My brother-in-law must have been kidnapped."
The Calamus sat down on the carpet and crossed his legs while she walked up to the window, laying her hand into the grid. Then she said softly: "Or he really ascended into heaven, just like his mother saw it in a dream."
"His mother?" He was surprised. "Yes, long before she went to Alexandria, where she is spending her remaining years with friends by the sea, she woke up one night and roused the whole house to tell her dream in which her son Abu Taiyib was illuminated by a white light and absorbed by the sky. This must have been about twenty years ago, I think it was the time of Sultan Mansur Salah-ad-Din. It happened here in this house, the gardener remembers it, too. So clear was the mother's vision that it made everybody jump and nobody dared to contradict her. She did mention her dream again later from time to time."
"There is something I do not understand," the guest interrupted, "and that is the timing of your husband's departure. If my brother disappeared just like that I would want to find out what happened. I surely would not go on a long journey only hours after the news that he is missing."
Karima turned her veiled face in his direction and did not stir. The children moved away from her side and started teasing each other. "He found it important to be with his mother and to tell her the news. But now, after your words, I find it a bit strange, too."
She ordered the children to bring tea and sat down on a cushion on the other end of the low table.
The Calamus asked her: "Do you know about the group of believers who were the first to notice Abu Taiyib's disappearance und who stood close to the entrance of the minaret when things happened?"
She answered in the affirmative. "My husband was among them, too. Afterwards they came over here, agitated. I had just finished the morning prayer and entered this room. My husband was vociferously debating with two others and reported to me what had happened. Our neighbour Muhiy ad-Din was present. He now accompanies my husband. They are godly people. They stayed until noon when my husband decided to ride to Alexandria."
The Calamus received his tea that was served on a saucer and put it down next to him. Scratching his head, he said: "If Abu Taiyib was abducted, then your husband must be involved."
Upon that, Karima took the corners of her veil with both hands, lifted it high above her head like a ventail and looked her visitor firmly in the eyes. "What are you telling me, Abu Yusuf, this is impossible."
He held out against her look and, after a moment, sipped his tea. "My nephew Harun witnessed the muezzin climbing up the minaret, and he was still standing there when your husband and his friends publicized the loss. The minaret has no other exit, so the missing man must either still have been upstairs or he was abducted in the scrimmage of the crowd.
Let me ask you: when your husband returned home after the event, did one or two of his friends appear a little later than him?"
Now Karima pulled the veil away from under the headband and put it next to her on the cushion.
The guest finished his tea and gained permission to inspect the front garden.
"Go right ahead," said Karima, "if it helps solving the mystery. You can also interview the gardener."
The gardener, cleaning his tools, sat with his grandson in the shade of one of the two palm trees that stood on the inside of the wall. The Calamus had met the two when he first entered the half-light of the entrance hall where the black faces of the two workers were undetectable. Now he realized that they were Nubians, from a land many days up the Nile.
"Salutations to the guest," the old man uttered in his dialect without looking up from his activity.
He did not have many teeth left. The grandson cowered next to him, wordlessly staring at the Calamus.
"Tell me, good man, what happened here this morning when the landlord came with his friends?"
The old man seemed to stall and murmured something unintelligible. His grandson helped. "We were still sleeping," he said and pointed to the canopy next to the second palm tree under which they had stashed some blankets and other belongings.
Taking a look around, the Calamus noticed the idyll of the front garden with its marble paving slabs, the flowers and beds. Everything was kept in perfect order. Over there by the fig tree the house melted against the neighbouring house. He re-entered the entrance hall, pacing it out.
Karima came down the stairs towards him. She explained that behind the doors and curtains there were storage rooms of different kinds, and yes, one of these rooms would be empty at the moment, and of course he could take a look.
She pulled away one of the curtains, granting a view into a windowless chamber, just big enough for a man to comfortably stand.
"Do you know where Abu Taiyib was last night?" he asked.
"He sleeps in the mosque where he has got a room," she said.
The room was known to the Calamus. He had inspected it after the noon prayer. The imam had permitted him entrance, but there was nothing to detect except for some carefully kept clothes and other property. Nothing unusual.
"I will positively find out what was going on here," said the Calamus when he parted.
Karima am Fenster © Anis 2011
"What is he reading at the moment?" he asked Harun who was writing. Then he discovered a book next to the place where the Calamus used to sit and read the title.
Harun looked up. "What is it?"
Bilal smiled. "'The Escape from Hardship' by Tanukhi. I know it."
Bilal knew most of the books in the Calamus's library. Many of them he had procured himself. He was also responsible for the catalogue which regularly had to be updated. Apart from him there were other employees, most of them scribes, but they usually only delivered their work from time to time and took new work home with them.
Bilal was five years older than Harun, and he supported the Frankish lad in his orientation in the new world. He taught him what he knew and encouraged him to go further on his own.
He admired Harun's patience. The writing process appeared to be especially joyful for him, in such a way that he often forgot to eat and what time of the day it was.
Sometimes, Harun would read to him parts of his diary, and Bilal realized that the Frankish lad not only copied well, but also created ideas of his own. Maybe one day Harun's books would stand on the shelves and be copied hundreds of times. Therefore he acquainted Harun with his future colleagues every now and then. "Tanukhi's stories deal with people who fall into a calamity and who finally find an elegant way out."
Harun laid down his quill, cautiously removed the still wet paper in front of him and took the hardback manuscript from Bilal's hand. Skimming through the book, he asked: "Can you give me an example?"
Bilal thought about it and then recounted the story of a dropsical man who found no cure until he happened to ingest cooked locusts, leading to his wondrous recovery. His doctor found out that the locusts had eaten a medicament called Mazariyun. It was considered toxic, but by cooking it twice - in the stomach of the locusts and in the cooking pot - the poison disappeared.
Harun liked the story.
On his way back home the Calamus recapitulated his case. To this end he entered a tea house and watched the men playing board games: The dream of the mother. The departure of the brother. It just did not make any sense. There must be a plan at the bottom of it, a scheme that had made the muezzin mysteriously disappear. Otherwise no such spectacular performance would have taken place. But who had an interest in that? No one from the group of witnesses could be found, and there hardly was any evidence.
He did not really believe in an abduction. Abu Taiyib was a trustworthy man who had no enemies, according to Karima's account. Even as a child he used to enjoy singing, and he obtained an education in a kuttab, an Islamic school, where he found his way to specialized teachers who taught him the recitation of the Qur'an. Despite his young age of merely thirty years, Abu Taiyib had already successfully completed the pilgrimage to Mecca and seen several countries while accompanying his father, a merchant, proud to have a son who dedicated his life to pious deeds. For almost a year he had been working and living as a muezzin in the Ibrahim Mosque, and there was a promotion to the great Azhar Mosque to be expected. Abu Taiyib was a chary man with a soft artist's soul and received lots of plaudits and recognition, seemingly without having any vices. Apart from the music, in which he sometimes indulged.
The Calamus did not like music. Worst was this squawking wind instrument, audible across whole neighbourhoods whenever there was a celebration. The thought of the instrument's name alone meant a bad omen for the bookseller. His own art was the gentle, discreet calligraphy.
No one else but Nadya was able to convey music to him, when, in certain moments, she produced her little flute and played one of the melodies brought down to her by her ancestors.
The Calamus arrived home and said hello to the neighbours who sat on benches in front of their shops. Squatting on his bench was an ochre speckled cat. It escaped into the alley in a flash as soon as it became aware of him. Next to the night lamp above the door Harun had written the four Arabic letters for "Calamus" on the beige wall with black paint and a red drop around it with sundry decorations.
Upon entering the library, Harun welcomed him with the words: "Perhaps Abu Taiyib was in a calamity and found relief." He waved with Tanukhi's book. His uncle was stunned and smiled: "That is absolutely …" - he faltered and then completed: "… mumkin!" Possible!
"Come to prayer! Come to prayer!" The voice of the muezzin coated the roofs of the Old City and its streets. It melted with the voices of other muezzins into a meditative choir, a waking call and a timer. Five times a day Cairo paused for a couple of minutes and with it all business. There was no other place in the world with so many mosques and minarets.
It was afternoon, the time of the day when many were preparing for their siestas, an hour or two of calm, before the cooler evening stimulated them to move again. Today's tension still was clearly perceptible in and around the Ibrahim Mosque. More than double the number of believers streamed from every direction into the building with the cupola roof. Some people were standing in front of the minaret, with a look on their faces as if marvelling at the pyramids of Gizeh or the Sphinx. The call was long trailed away when the muezzin exited the minaret, heading for the location of prayer. It was the second time that he conducted the procedure in place of Abu Taiyib.
"So?" whispered the Calamus to his nephew.
"Yes, this is the man who noticed Abu Taiyib's disappearance first. How did you know?"
Instead of giving an answer he dragged Harun with him while approaching the muezzin, cutting him off. Without greetings he started talking to him in a low voice. Harun could not understand. The man startled and then nodded before he resumed his way slowly.
The bookseller looked Harun in the eyes: "I will pray. Are you joining me?"
The nephew by no means wanted to miss anything of what was going on. He said yes and swallowed down his burning questions. After all, there he was in the centre of everything and he would doubtlessly learn what he wanted to know.
The Calamus uninterruptedly stepped to the round well that dispensed water from dozens of beaks. On the way he took off his sandals, put them with the others and performed the ritual washing from head to toe. Harun followed his example and soon found himself with hundreds of others on the giant prayer-rug where everybody did the same: whisper some formulas, bend forward, kneel, pray.
It is calming to exactly know what the people around oneself are doing, Harun thought after prayer. His eyes were watching out for the new muezzin, but it seemed futile in the crowd.
The vivid conversations about what happened today confused him. Some people continued praying, as if by doing so they could reach the spirit of the missed one - if he was seriously missed at all.
Apparently, the idea of an ascension was so fascinating that it became much stronger than all the facts. Some groups gathered around preachers who circulated theories about the influence of God's hand on the matter.
The Calamus called his nephew: "We will meet him where I have talked to him."
The muezzin was already waiting outside and nervously rubbing his fingers.
"Let us talk undisturbed," Harun heard the Calamus say as he pointed up to the minaret. Inconspicuously, the three advanced to the round tower and climbed, one after the other, up the spiral staircase.
When they reached the first balcony the man halted, but the Calamus wanted to be sure and pushed him further to the very top.
They stepped out onto the third balcony and perched themselves on the ground around the cupola, next to each other. Harun's eyes widened and he became slightly dizzy when he looked onto the roofs and streets from this perspective.
The muezzin began: "So you are saying that Abu Taiyib is in trouble and the Mamluks have arrested him?"
Harun gulped and did not move.
The Calamus hung on to the balustrade, still gasping from the steps.
"What can we do now?" he said evasively.
The muezzin shook his head: "It is a catastrophe," he moaned, "what shall become of Amina now?"
Several horsemen trotted and stomped by underneath, chasing away a woman who watered the ground with a ewer in order to fix the dusty sand for a couple of moments.
"Amina is my sister," he proceeded, "and Abu Taiyib's fiancé."
"He is engaged?" Harun could not help shouting.
The man was silent for a while. "Well," he then said, "not really. She does want him and I, too, could not think of any better brother-in-law. Abu Taiyib's brother is also much in favour of this marriage and so is his mother. Amina visited her in Alexandria last summer. Only Abu Taiyib could not exactly bring himself to do it."
Harun gulped again.
"Go on!" said the Calamus. "Well, pressure was building up for Abu Taiyib. Two weeks ago he finally conceded and agreed to the marriage. But he only told her, me and his brother, to settle the argument they had. The older brother wanted him to marry at last and to obtain a better position. He used his contacts to the Azhar Mosque where people had already become aware of the beautiful voice, anyway. And a few days after Abu Taiyib had decided for the engagement the invitation of the Azhar arrived. But instead of being happy about it he became more and more anxious and seemed to suffer great pain. Yes, he even fought against thoughts of suicide, God forbid!
He was unable to break Amina's heart and to disappoint us, yet this state made him very ill, even if he did not let anybody notice it except for his brother and me."
The Calamus concluded: "And so you looked out for an escape from the hardship."
Harun was overwhelmed. How did his uncle know?
The muezzin continued: "Abu Taiyib explained to us in tears that there was a place in Acco on the beach of Palestine where people chanted and dined and where he was celebrated as a singer. Every night he would dream of this tavern. He had visited the spot twice and disclosed to us that there was no other place in the world where he felt so good. And also that there was a beloved woman waiting for him in the tavern for years."
Now the Calamus understood Abu Taiyib's dilemma. No matter how you twisted or turned it, the muezzin with the beautiful voice could never have achieved happiness.
And who came up with the idea of the ascension?
"That was me," his successor admitted. "We have been friends since schooldays, and I knew about the dream of his mother as well as I knew the awestruck look on my sister's face whenever someone would mention this story. You have noticed it yourselves: nobody is looking for him. Everybody is paralyzed."
Almost everybody, Harun thought.
"The scheme was actually quite simple. When I went down this minaret and told people in excitement the news about Abu Taiyib's disappearance, two more allies entered, while Abu Taiyib was upstairs changing his clothes. He then left the tower with them, pretending to confirm the news. We were five co-conspirators, and he was in the middle of the group when we walked the short distance to his brother's house. His clothes we carried hidden in our caftans.
Then his brother fetched Abu Taiyib's travel bag from inside the house and three of us escorted him safely down the alley and finally through the gate out of the city. This, at least, was the plan. He was supposed to leave for Palestine today while the brother and his garrulous neighbour headed for Alexandria until the situation was over and done with. So they could not blab. This trick was the only way to reduce damage for all involved parties."
The bookseller and his nephew listened closely. A breeze came waving from the Nile, drying the sweat on the muezzin's forehead.
"But now everything is lost." He laid his head in his hands and started lamenting.
"Do not worry," the Calamus calmed him down, "I just did the same thing you did and fibbed a little."
The muezzin looked up: "What?" he asked in confusion, "Abu Taiyib was not arrested? So why did I tell you all these things?"
With an effort the Calamus got up, rapped the dust off his garment and reconfirmed: "Do not worry. We will not tell anyone."
Harun could not contain himself any longer. Before they descended he whispered to his uncle: "But how did you know that you would meet him here?"
He replied: "I only knew that a man like Abu Taiyib would take care of his replacement and choose a trustworthy person. But I could only reach this thought after your decisive clue." His nephew laughed with perplexity. So it was not traces, clues or evidence that led the uncle to the solution, but the study of Abu Taiyib's personality.
When the thousand muezzins of the city called for the evening, Abu Taiyib was not among them. "Did you ever see Acco?" the Calamus dreamily asked Nadya who sat with him, Harun and Bilal on the cushions of the library, drinking hot red carcadé.
"Acco, no, why, do you want to travel there?" She smiled at him, vainly trying to decipher his face.
"Yes, with you," he responded. "They say the service is good there."
Harun put the book in his uncle's hand. "Read us a story," he begged, and the others also wanted to hear it.
So the Calamus read out to the three one of Tanukhi's stories about wondrous rescues from hardships, then another one and finally a third one.
In between Bilal left the room to light the night lantern in front of the house.
"You do know what happened to Abu Taiyib, am I right?" Nadya looked at him. It was difficult to pull the wool over her eyes.
"Well, I think so, yes," the bookseller replied, and scratched his neck.
"Abu Yusuf is a great explorer who finds out everything," Harun said. His intention was to divert the general attention with this sentence, but he realized it did not work.
"So?" she insisted.
The Calamus sipped his hibiscus tea. Then he glanced at her seriously and said: "It seems as if the muezzin indeed ascended to heaven. Lo and behold!"