I used once to have a calligrapher’s booth in the marketplace. Bridegrooms came and I blessed their marriage certificates with the name of God in gold-leaf. I provided decorative alphabets for elementary schools and delicate pillow-prayers on silk for the superstitious. The old came to my booth and detailed their sins and their virtues. I inscribed them into a list on parchment soaked in ambergris and sealed them into a tube of bamboo. So when the old were dead, their Sins and Virtues were burned with them.
I was the only calligrapher in the city who possessed the franchise to profit from Sins and Virtues. It provided great business but precluded me from marriage and fornication. That was the custom and the regulation. The sin-lister must be free from sin.
Later, when business superseded religion as the preoccupation of our people, I decorated shop fronts and designed letterheads for ambitious greengrocers and ice-vendors. I prepared boastful posters for the first cinema, ornamental scrolls for lofty institutions and fancy gateplates for embassies. My work on parchment was etched and woven and carved into more durable materials by craftsmen in Europe. I extended my booth and employed an apprentice to mix my inks and to deliver my work. But that was long ago. Now I am nearly dead. The acacia which my uncles planted in their village at my birth (its name in Siddilic signifies ‘Patience’) has almost lost its leaves. Only one branch draws sap. The rest is the home of ants.
I do not now go into the market. I spend my days almost entirely within the walls of this echoing and lizard-infested house. I start work each day at my Morning Desk, which faces eastwards towards the river. At noon I dine on some delicacy – a modest snack of grilled perch or, when they are seasonable, locusts. I no longer eat red meat or drink wine. My head and my stomach are too vulnerable. A little honey water is sufficient. Or some sweet mint tea. I sleep for an hour or so beneath my one fan. My house gecko joins me, lying across my bare chest like a damp medallion.
In the afternoon I move to my Afternoon Desk, facing into the sun of the courtyard and the evergreen of the oleander. I burn a stick of fine cinnamon to keep the devils at bay. An old habit. I work until moonrise and then eat again: some tomatoes or beans with a little sour bread, followed by a mango or guava or a fruit milkshake from the machine at the shop on the corner. I change my white day clothes – now soiled with pips and juice and crumbs – and put on heavier evening wear for my third work shift at the Evening Desk in the inner room. If I want some ink, perhaps, or some small delicacy, then I send Sabino, who was my boy apprentice and is now my factotum, to the market and to the new air-conditioned stores.
I myself have withdrawn from the marketplace. I am now too grand for marriage certificates and shop fronts and lofty institutions. What I did for the price of an olive in my youth I will not now consider even for an orchard of olive trees. I have made my small fortune and, in what time there is left, I am looking for inner meanings. I am the last and certainly the most distinguished of calligraphers in the old Siddilic script but I am done with weaving and ennobling letters, of chasing their edges into the corner of the page. Now I am a doodler. Every leaf of gold-foil counts for me as an acacia leaf. I am in no hurry to use up my supply. I work three shifts from habit, from boredom and to exercise the arthritis in my hands. My mind is elsewhere, searching out material for my last work to be burned at my funeral.
They call my craft Art these days and pay great sums for it. Last month a collector from Chicago offered Duni the ironmonger three thousand dollars for his ancient shop front with my flaking age-old letters. I went down to the marketplace on Sabino’s arm to witness the dismantling.
‘We’ll take great care of it, sir,’ the American told me, cracking my frail hands between his own. ‘We’re going to restore it, right? We’re going to give it a fresh lick of paint and we’re going to put it on show in the Museum of Ethnography. The people of America will be able to see your work. Back home, artists and historians are just beginning to appreciate the subtleties of Siddilic. This is such a beautiful piece.’ He stood back and admired Duni’s shop front. ‘Wonderful,’ he said. ‘Sir, I am proud to be acquainted with you.’
Three thousand dollars! Duni had paid me for the work with cooking-pots. ‘DUNI EMPIRE,’ I had written on his instruction, ‘POTS, TOOLS, SEEDS. BICYCLES AT FAVOURABLE PRICES. TOILET SUPPLIES.’ I pray for the people of Chicago.
Word has spread that Americans are buying up shop fronts. Enterprising businessmen have purchased them and are storing them for museums and universities abroad. Old ladies have been digging in their treasure trunks for old marriage certificates marked in gold by my brush. Embassies have placed guards on their gateplates. The cinema manager is cursing his lack of foresight. Backstreet charlatans have turned their energies from pimping and fortune-telling to forgery. The market is full of false shop fronts: fake greengrocers, tinkered tailors.
Visitors from America and Europe can buy mass-produced pillow-prayers in warped and clumsy Siddilic. In the marketplace, as in Chicago, the ancient characters of Siddilic have lost their meaning. The only care the forgers take is with my signature and, because their hands are young, these signatures are now better than my own.
Sabino is growing rich on the pickings from my waste-basket. Dollars cannot tell doodles from the name of God.
There has been some excitement in my small street. A government minister has come expressly to see me. First of his entourage to arrive was his head of protocol, a young gum-chewing aide-de-camp. He was a stickler for procedure. First, he distributed with a sweep of his arm a handful of coins to the beggars and children of our quarter. He shook some hands. He kicked some backsides. Nothing was too much trouble for him. He would be back in twenty minutes, he explained, with the Minister and with more handfuls of cash. Ministerial protocol demanded an eager crowd.
I was taking my siesta. ‘Do not wake your employer,’ he instructed Sabino. ‘The Minister likes surprises. But tidy the house.’ He placed one of his men outside the front gate to my house and another in the back yard. Then he radioed from his army jeep that the street was now ready for the Minister’s casual arrival. I slept peacefully and dreamt of my booth.
Sabino conducted the Minister into my room. I woke to their whisperings and shufflings and the scrape of the proffered chairs. But I kept still and listened. The Minister sat, chewing some of his aide’s gum and waited for me to stir. My gecko backed furtively up my chest towards my throat. The Minister was a patient man. He enjoyed the advantage of arriving unannounced and being kept waiting.
I tired quickly of dissembling. I opened an eye – quite an effort for an old man long past winking – and focused first on my gecko, then my toes with their fossilised toenails, and finally the Minister. Our smiles were hollow.
‘No, no, please don’t get up,’ he said. ‘We can talk here.’ He watched my white lizard, now shuffling squat-legged down my stomach towards the dark safety of the bed sheet which draped my legs and loins.
‘You live modestly for such a wealthy man,’ he said at last.
‘A millionaire by now, I should say.’
I said nothing. The Minister was talking monkey-shine.
‘You have been selling your work abroad at great profit.’ He took from the inner pocket of his handmade suit a thick wad of paper and tossed it onto the bed.
‘Evidence,’ he said. ‘There is an article about you in the New York Times by a man who spent many thousands of dollars on your shop signs and pillow-prayers. There is a list there of over a hundred foreigners who have paid great sums for your works in the market and have taken them out of the country.’
‘I have sold nothing for nearly ten years,’ I said. ‘I live on my savings. If any of my works are for sale then they are being offered by their owners, the people I worked for many years ago. Not me. Not guilty. I’m too old and lazy to be interested in trade.’
The Minister was convinced. Nothing about me or my house suggested wealth or dishonesty.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘It has to stop. It is illegal. The country’s resources are being illegally exported under our noses. We are being exploited. You too are being exploited. Collectors in New York are growing rich while your own people are scratching for termites. So ... it has to stop.’
I shrugged. I had nothing to say. Export control was his affair.
‘Tell your friends in the marketplace,’ he said, ‘that the next one caught selling your work to a foreigner will be in contravention of our trade and export laws. We’ll have to find a place for them in the penal village. Anyone who has works of art to sell must sell them to the government. It is a matter of principle.’
He stood up sharply and towered above me as I reclined beneath the sheet and lizard. ‘A travelling exhibition is to be arranged of your work. And an auction sale is to take place ...’
He sat at the end of my bed and mentioned Paris and Vienna and Toronto and Sydney and, of course, Chicago. He looked pleased on my behalf. ‘Naturally, this is a partnership,’ he explained. ‘You gain, we gain. We gain foreign currency from the sale of your work. Your government will have some ... discreet money. We will pay it into a safe bank account. In Europe. In Switzerland. That’s by far the best. So, you see, if there is an emergency – some medicines are required, for example – then we have the money to buy them. Everybody gains. For you, there is security in your old age. A government house.’ I shook my head. ‘A car, then, whenever you need it, with a driver. Good food. Comfortable clothes. Fame. We will provide it all.’
‘I like good food,’ I said. ‘I like comfortable clothes. A driver and a car would be most useful. Don’t imagine that I am ungrateful or unpatriotic. But there is nothing to exhibit. All my work has gone. It has either been burned with the dead or eaten by parchment lice or shipped off to America by export racketeers. There are a few ornamental gateplates outside embassies and that is all.’
‘What we want,’ insisted the Minister, with the single-mindedness of a deaf man, ‘are canvases decorated in Siddilic script. Ornamental pieces, works of art, not shop signs and the like.’
‘But there are none.’
‘Make some. You are a craftsman. It should be simple.’
‘If it were that simple,’ I said, ‘then you would not need to come to me. You could buy what you wanted at every booth in the market. It would be like shopping for potatoes.’
‘Well, make an effort then. Meet the grand challenge.’
‘I’ve outgrown challenges.’
‘Try,’ said the Minister’s head of protocol.
On Friday I visited my uncles’ village in some comfort. I now have a Ministerial car at my disposal. And a swarthy driver. We swept across the scrub at the end of the Italian road and bumped on the saloon’s hydraulic suspension over the last few kilometres to the village. Never before had I been so cool. It is cold at night, of course, in the house. But here in the car I was cool and dry in sunlight. Outside, the sun blistered the paintwork. Goats were too parched to lift their bodies and scurry away.
‘Air-conditioning,’ said the driver. He peeked in his mirror to enjoy my response. I nodded. I looked impressed.
‘Electric windows,’ he added. The windows on either side of me hummed down like melting sheets of ice and the daytime heat curled into the car.
‘Stereo cassette,’ he said and pushed more buttons. A woman sang to me in English. ‘Electric windscreen wipers.’ A soapy spurt of liquid ejaculated from under the car bonnet onto the windscreen, turned the dust there into mud, and was whisked away by the silent twin-armed wipers. I am an old man and my problems are multiplying. I had never been so hot and cold, so cossetted and so bothered.
‘Reclining seats,’ said the driver, ‘for siesta.’ The leather cushions beneath me began to hum and tip. My legs were lifting, my back was falling, all at government expense.
The people at my uncles’ village were not impressed. All they wanted was tobacco. The driver handed out a packet of cigarettes. But nobody wanted a light from the car’s automatic cigar-lighter. Nobody wanted to smoke. They wanted to hoard their fortune. The driver gave out ice cubes from the icebox in the car. Children held them and watched them slowly disappear, like fool’s gold. Nobody remembered my uncles, though our family name was familiar. They pointed me towards the trees. They were superstitious enough to respect the acacias of old men. They waited patiently for the firewood.
I come once a year – once a year only – to pay my respects at the acacia in the village of my uncles. I come after my birthday and tie a twist of white linen to a branch, a strip of cloth every year.
The tree was now a ragamuffin of flapping tatters, from white to grey to nearly black. There was more linen than leaf. In the old days I came by donkey and then later by bus and now by air-conditioned limousine. In the distance, beyond the walls of the acacia wood, I could hear the stereo cassette of my driver and the shrieks of the children. A touch of reality amongst the reveries.
I took the fresh, newly-laundered strip of linen from my pouch and carefully wound it twice round the one living branch. I tied it with a firm knot and stepped back with the delicate care of an egret. Slowly – and not without some pain – I urinated into the earth at the roots of my tree. I had carried out both the written and the private rituals. Then I sat and prayed. I prayed – even at this late dry stage in my rigidly geometric life – for Lily Death.
This is what we were taught as children, that when God created Death he created two sorts, Lily Death and Moon Death. The choice is ours, depending on the way we live our lives. The lily is gregarious. It thrives amongst its own kind. It sends out shoots which replace and survive it after death. The moon is solitary and childless. It has no offshoots. But when it dies, it rises to live again. I had lived a moon life. Was I to die and rise again? Was the reward of solitude on earth immortality of some kind?
These days, of course, the choice is not the same. They have cleared the lilies from the river. The moonshine is damped out by street lights and car lamps. Nowadays, one selects either cremation or interment. It’s ashes or bones. We choose the nature of our death by the way we live our lives. Accusations are made against cigarettes and alcohol, animal fats and partners in bed.
So back to the limousine and a cool drive to the city, praying in the stench of button cloth and recycled air for deliverance from Moon Death. So back across scrub to my Evening Desk in the inner room.
Starting a piece of work is a simple matter for those with purpose: a desk, some fine inks and brushes, a little chalk dust (blotting-paper is untrustworthy) and a good light are all that are required.
Exercises first. The calligrapher’s hands are tense from mixing his inks, perhaps, or from oversleeping with bad dreams. They must be relaxed. The nervousness must be worked out on scrap-paper until the pen and brush strokes are unhesitant, firm and decisive. Then he can embark on the warp and weft of design, on the complex challenges of reconciling the age-old rules which govern the placing of diacritical signs with the vexatious oddities of Siddilic orthography. And now the letters must be worked again to develop fully the equilibrium of dimensions, to reveal balance and rhythm, to express meaning through form. Then the calligrapher should leave his work and eat a little, walk perhaps to a friend’s house, bathe, sleep a little. Let the letters brew. He is seeking beauty of the highest intellectual order, the most contemplative, the most civilised and sophisticated. There can be no haste.
Then, refreshed, the calligrapher looks at his first drafts again. He studies them at another desk, under a new light. The decorative themes curl around the letters under his gaze. The kufic and cursive debate before his eyes and present their conclusions. He sits with clean parchment, newly mixed inks, his head not spinning but calm with certainties. This is the easiest and the final draft.
I have not been so fortunate. The Minister’s head of protocol came today, chewing gum. He inquired about the progress of my great work. Exhibition dates, he said, had been arranged.
‘Well,’ I explained, ‘I have nothing to show you.’
‘Then start quickly. You don’t have time.’
‘I am an old man,’ I said. ‘I have lost my talents.’ I held up a (frankly) excessively shaky hand. ‘I’ve sat at my three desks for two weeks. I have wasted a ream of paper and a half-kilo of ink. Nothing comes. I don’t have ideas any longer. You’d better cancel your exhibitions.’
The aide-de-camp looked severely discountenanced. He rolled his chewing-gum round his mouth. He looked around the house for some evidence of deceit.
‘The Minister isn’t going to be pleased,’ he said eventually. ‘We had an agreement with you.’
I shrugged. I hadn’t agreed to anything.
‘You’ve been using the government car! You’ve been using the government driver! Corruption! Fraud!’
I shrugged again. My hand was really shaking.
‘You’ll die in prison,’ he said. ‘We’ll burn your house.’ He extemporised dreadful fates for a few moments. Then he put up his hands, palms out, at chest level, to indicate that he had discovered a solution and that the threats were now ended. ‘Say nothing to the Minister,’ he said. ‘The Minister has made it my responsibility. You understand. I can make it easy for you. You won’t let me down because I can be a very cruel man. Call your servant.’
Sabino came through from the yard and sat down, as instructed, on the tiled floor. The aide-de-camp lit a cigarette and drew on it a few times until its ash burned bright. Then he stubbed it out on Sabino’s head. The odour of burnt hair joined the smell of tobacco. Sabino did not seem to feel anything except fear and apprehension. The aide-de-camp and head of Ministerial protocol took the gum from his mouth and ground it, too, into Sabino’s scalp. ‘There,’ he said.
‘This is just to give you an idea,’ he explained. ‘Now, to business.’ He placed a thick envelope of banknotes on Sabino’s head. It balanced there. A fortune. ‘That should help you find inspiration,’ he said, and left my house with only a fraction of the ceremony with which he had entered it. I have seen many strange things in my life and met many foolish men – but this was the strangest and he was the most foolish.
I was spending more and more time on my bed, in the company of my gecko. I could think of little but work. But I produced nothing at my desks except doodles in geometric arabesque, mockeries of script. I slept on my back as recommended by the great calligrapher, Mir Ali of Tabriz. He had been thus inspired to devise Nasta’liq, the hanging script of the Muslims. A partridge had appeared to him in a dream and instructed him to shape letters like the wings of a bird. But all I dreamt of was young, young girls. Should I shape letters like young girls for the Minister’s great exhibition?
Sabino has fled from me. He fears for his life. Now I have no one to prepare my food, to wash my gowns, to walk into the market for my few provisions.
I walk each day at dusk, just as the moon starts to show itself low on the horizon, to what remain of the market booths. I enjoy myself. People call out to me as they used to when I had a booth of my own. I am a celebrity here, now that the Minister has visited me and Americans have made off with my shop fronts. I buy some fish and a few vegetables. I sit in the Syrian’s bar and drink tea while small boys, on hire for a few coins, run to fetch my clean washing or to purchase some heavy item. The Syrian sits with me and complains bitterly: custom is bad, too many laws, too many taxes, the young are disrespectful, an honest man cannot make his honest fortune, thieves everywhere, nobody knows how hard he works, life is cruel and expensive, the heat.
‘Tell me, sir,’ he asked me one day. ‘What must a businessman do? He must follow the market, am I correct? Supply and demand. You are involved in this, so you will understand ...’ He paused to order fresh tea and to wet my curiosity. ‘When that first American bought Duni’s shop front, my ears were prickling like any good businessman’s. Three thousand dollars! For a shop front? Well, I saw a chance. The market was full of tourists. My bar was full of tourists. All they talked of was you, your work, Siddilic script. I sat with them at these tables, to improve my English. Did I know you, they wanted to know. Did you have any work for sale? Not shop fronts. Shop fronts were too big. Something small. Something that could be rolled up and taken home in a suitcase. Well, no, I had nothing. But a businessman never says no. “Come back in three days,” I told them, “and then, maybe. I will have found something. But it will be expensive, of course.” “Never mind ‘expensive’,” they said. So ...’ The Syrian smiled at his own cunning. ‘I went to somebody – let us not say who – and told him: “I can pay such and such for good Siddilic script. By the master, of course. Nothing too large, mind. With the master’s authentic signature, naturally!” And in two days my friend returned with a parchment. A very nice piece. A good clear signature.
‘I wasn’t fooled. The design was beautiful but the ink had been applied by an amateur in a hurry. The ink was poor school ink and had dried unevenly. It was a copy. But a skilfully signed copy. I paid my friend such and such. And one day later I sold to an American for such and such and such. Good business. Perfectly legal. What am I, an expert on scripts? How should I know?
‘So, I told my friend: “Good, quite good, bring me some more, but sell only to me.” This is also good business practice: control the supply, establish a modest monopoly, wait for the price to rise, sell. Simple. Second nature to a Syrian. Imagine, then, my store room full of your beautiful work, rising in price day by day, minute by minute. I was going to be a rich, rich man. Already my friend was a wealthy man from the money I had paid him. Already I was dreaming of dying in Damascus, of seeing my brothers in Aleppo for the first time in twenty years, of sitting with my toes in the Euphrates, of waving goodbye to business for ever.
‘Then what occurs at the airport? They arrest my American. They seize his parchment. They let him fester at the police barracks for a few days while they threaten him with evading their new export regulations. Control of Antiquities and Artefacts (Backdated). They insult his wife. They frighten his children. The American ambassador makes visits to the Minister. An aid deal is agreed on. The American is released and sent back to his big house in Massachusetts. The Minister’s man visits me. “Never again,” he tells me, “sell a work of art to a foreigner. If you do, you’re in big trouble. You’re in big trouble anyway. Tread lightly.” Maybe my trading licence won’t get renewed. Maybe my passport will be required for scrutiny at the Minister’s office. Now I’ll never die in Damascus. Why? All because I am a businessman. Supply and demand.’
We went, two old men with waning dreams, to the storeroom behind the bar. There, beside the crates of cola and fruit drinks, the bottles of wine and beer, was a canvas case full of parchments. Indecipherability was the keynote to these forgeries, with every stroke over-ornate and uneven. Misplaced accents hovered uncertainly over misspelt words. All were signed with my name.
Finally I dreamt my dream of inspiration. I dreamt of a large gallery full of smart Europeans in their best clothes, walking slowly round the exhibits with expensive catalogues. I stood in a European suit, a young man once again, pointing out some fine detail to a beautiful woman. ‘Here,’ I was saying, ‘I have misplaced the vowel sound so that this word reads “Moon” instead of “Man”. And here are letters which do not exist in Siddilic and which no one can decipher. And there I have pressed so hard on my pen that the nib has snapped. So that sign there is not an accent but a blot.’ The woman smiled appreciatively. The gallery applauded. Rich men shook my hand. The Minister shook my hand. I saw the Syrian rinsing his toes in a wide river. I saw Sabino in my courtyard. I saw my acacia throwing out new shoots.
When I woke, the envelope of banknotes was lying unopened at the side of my bed. I dressed and hurried to the Syrian’s bar.
‘Your story moved me,’ I told him. ‘It was my fault that you lost your money. I carry the guilt.’
‘Well, maybe,’ said the Syrian.
‘Here, take this envelope. Give me the scrolls.’
The Syrian saw the thickness of the envelope and did not haggle. He promised me free tea at his bar ‘until the angels take you up to Paradise in recognition of your kindness and your honesty’. He put the envelope into his safe and hung the key on a gold chain at his throat. He put his finger to his lips. ‘Say nothing,’ he told me. ‘This is between friends.’
Now the Minister has his exhibits and I am working to contribute just one genuine piece of my own. My last work of calligraphy, the work which was intended to be sealed in a tube of bamboo and burned at my funeral, is now to go instead to Vienna and Paris and Chicago. It is my Sins and Virtues.
I sit at my desks, intimate and scholarly, plaiting knots of kufic script, the stems foliated, the heads floriated. I curve patterns of letters, leaves and tendrils. Tightly disciplined parades of verticle strokes march across the parchment to come to attention at undergrowth concealing fabulous animals. Blooms and blossoms fall amongst key-words in plain geometric patterns.
I have divided the paper into four squares and there in each square is a virtue embracing a vice. I plead guilty to Lust, but I name Virginity in mitigation. I admit to Selfishness but call upon Self-Awareness in my defence. I decorate with half-palmettes the verticles of Misanthropy and list the names of those I failed to help. But I claim, too, the virtue of Tolerance and display an empty nameless list of those I ever intentionally harmed. My greatest virtue has been the virtue of Talent. I inscribe it large and plain. Simplicity is the mark of the craftsman. Talent shares its box with Deceit, the same word in Siddilic for Forgery. ‘ALL THIS WORK IS FALSE,’ I have written and decorated in gold. Now my Sins and Virtues are complete. I leave the manuscript unsigned ...
The Minister’s man tried to persuade me to follow my exhibition to all the galleries in the world, to give talks and interviews, to be present at the great auction. But I explained that I was too frail for travel and the aide-de-camp was not insistent.
The Minister is very pleased. He came to compliment me on my exertion and to repeat his promise of luxuries in my old age. He inquired about the possibility of more works. But I explained to him Supply and Demand. Flood the market, I told him, and the price goes down.
‘You are famous worldwide,’ he said, sitting at the end of my bed, watching the gecko in the folds of my bed sheet. ‘Our country is now highly regarded. Art is so important in Europe and America.’
He rose to leave. ‘One small point,’ he said. ‘There is one parchment which is unsigned ...’
‘Does it matter?’
‘For the price, the value, that’s all. Art buyers like to know that they are buying the genuine article. If there is no signature ...’
‘Sell that one cheaply, then,’ I suggested. ‘That is a good practice in business, too, to have something cheap amongst the more expensive.’
‘Excellent,’ said the Minister. ‘You are more worldly than I had imagined.’
I have left instructions with the Syrian and with Duni, the ironmonger, and all those that know me in the market that when I die they should burn my body and take my ashes in a vase to the village of my uncles. There they should bury me beneath the acacia. Duni asked me about my Sins and Virtues, but I explained that I had lived such a solitary life that I had none.
‘What, not even a little minor failing once in a while?’ he asked.
‘No, nothing,’ I said. ‘My conscience is clean.’ The sin-lister, I reminded him, must be free from sin. It is the custom and the regulation.
I pass between my various desks with very little purpose now. Occasionally I take out ink and paper, just for old time’s sake, and doodle for a while. But I am not interested in letters. The quest for Meaning in Form belongs to an age long past. I often draw a forest of trees, almost bare and leafless, with the moon hovering on the horizon. Is it dawn or dusk? Soon we all shall know.