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from the July 2006 issue

The Sultan’s Flotilla

In ages of old, Jalu was a port city. People called it the "jewel of the seas." Its waters teemed with the ships of pirates and traders. Caravans arrived at Jalu laden with elephant tusk; its markets were replete with spices, slaves, sandal-even Chinese porcelain. All of the people of Jalu lived like Sultans, except the Sultan himself, who was condemned to endure a bizarre sort of apocalypse, a living nightmare so awful, he couldn't bear to rest his head on his pillow or close his eyes at any time of day or night, for fear of dreaming of a certain black dog.

The dog was a hideous sight, putrid, offensive, with gouged-out eyes. Invariably it appeared to the Sultan above the hills of dry sand which spread behind Jalu's ramparts. It reared its ugly head, howling in such a crazed state that the hills themselves appeared to drown in its odious inhalations. Upon some unknown cue, the black dog lunged at the bare heels of the Sultan, who then ran for his life, crossing parched sandy hills before vaulting himself over the walls of Jalu, whereupon he then was forced to jump over vine-trellices and row upon row of houses. In the Sultan's dream, the enemy chased him as far as his marble castle, itself encased by ten iron walls.

In the Sultan's early dreams, the outermost wall kept the black dog at bay. Then on one New Year's Day it reappeared, and broke through the first wall. Exactly a year later the black dog returned and barrelled through the second wall. The Sultan watched all of this from his bed in a state of abject terror, his eyes wide open.

The Sultan's dream stumped every last wise man of Jalu. They came to the palace, one after the other. Some branded the Sultan's head, others muttered incantations and created all manner of talismans, all to no avail. None was able to relieve the desperate Sultan, who by this time had lost all desire to sleep, took up drinking by night and by day staggered through his marble palace in a state of exhaustion. On the fourth New Year's Day, the Sultan fell to the ground in a drunken stupor, then dreamt of the black dog howling above the parched hills. Screaming in fright, he awoke and summoned the last of the wise men who had requested an audience with him. He took it upon himself to cut this man's head off personally, then retired to his room to bemoan his wretched fate.

On that same day, there arrived to Jalu two strangers. One was a well-known Fagih1; the other, a lame farmer. The Fagih entered the city on a white mule from the Western gate; the lame farmer entered from the Eastern gate. The two met in the middle of a square on the road to the Sultan's marble castle. Believing the Fagih was from Jalu, the farmer stopped to ask him the way. He then noticed that the farmer was barefoot, and that his lameness was of such severity that he was bending at the middle. Moreover, the farmer was carrying nothing more than a sack of date pits. Concluding the man before him was in fact a foreign beggar not worthy of his attention, he struck him with the belly of his white mule, which he then steered at a clip towards the Sultan's palace. The lame farmer stood before the retreating Fagih, bade him goodbye and long-life, "Keep in mind, ya Mawlai2, nothing disgraces the wise man except holding back good advice from his lord and master. It's been said since ages of old that wisdom is the chief of all virtues, and that the word of a judicious wise man is sharper than the sword."

The sultan began to bite his nails. He had gotten used to indulging this bad habit in front of the endless line of strangers coming from near and far to offer their services. He became so engrossed by this activity that the diwan decided to hire His Majesty a slave especially to chew his nails. The slave was not present just then, unfortunately, so the Sultan decided there was nothing to do but to chew them himself.

The Fagih then resumed his speech, "Ya Mawali, I have heard about your unhappy lifestyle and this dream of a black dog. So I consulted the ancient books, and looked up the wisdom of the righteous forefathers. I became one with the advice of the keepers of the most great secrets until such a time as I understood the root of your illness and its cure. With God's permission, ya Mawlai, in my hand is your cure, your health and your happiness . . . "

The Sultan took a moment's break from his nail chewing and said, matter of factly, "O respected one, O man of great learning. I have heard this line a thousand times, and I have severed the heads of thousand Fagihs. I have done this to the point that I am thoroughly sick of listening to Fagihs and cutting off heads. Do not let the devil deceive you, for I will cut off your head as well, if you brand my scalp in vain."

The Fagih kneeled between the oustreached hands of the Sultan and replied, "Not all that glitters is gold, ya Mawlai, and not all who wears a turban has the ability to cure a Sultan. I did not cross the wadis and deserts separating Jalu from the way-far kingdom of Zanzibar in order to brand your head. I came but to grant you a bit of advice and good consultation. I came to tell you that the black dog which you see in your dreams, ya Mawlai, is a warning of an apocalypse sent to you by the Great Destroyer3. "

"I have come to warn you from a coming catastrophe, a catastrophe manifested in your unconscious . . . "

The Sultan bent forward in astonishment to ask, "What catastrophe?"

The Fagih remained silent for an instant, then raised his head to speak, "Mawlai, we have read in the books of our wise and learned forefathers that Jalu will be destroyed at some point past its Golden Age. God will send upon the town searing wind from a blast furnace, a scorching hellion that will train through Jalu for a period of seven days and seven nights. Not a single plant will remain breathing, for they will have all perished, their roots shrivelled up in the clay. There will not remain on the vine trellices a single grape, nor a single apple in the orchards. All that will be left is a dust-swept, barren wasteland. There will be no more dwellings in Jalu, and God help whatever remains. Everlasting God be praised.

The Sultan cupped his mouth with his hand in horror, then said after a moment, "When will this happen, exactly, O learned one?"

"After seven years," said the Fagih, cooly.

" . . . After seven years, when the black dog breaches the wall and arrives to nip at your heels. Henceforth, you will not see the black dog except once each New Year's Day."

The Sultan started at this news. "Only once each new year? Only one time, you are sure of it?"

The Fagih confirmed it, "Yes, Mawlai. The black dog will appear only to mark the passage of years, and on the seventh year, it will break through the seventh wall, ready to bite your heels. That, ya Mawlai, will be the bite of misery and wretchedness that marks the vicissitudes of time."

The Sultan interrupted the Fagih yet again, "And what would you recommend us to do, ya honored Fagih?"

The Fagih raised his hand to his head, kissed the ground between the hands of the Sultan and then said firmly, "The idea and the wisdom are yours to offer, my lord."

After a short moment, he continued. "However, Mawlai, I have read in the books of the sage forefathers and listened to words of the great keepers of secrets, all of which indicate that Jalu will be destroyed from top to bottom. They say that God will forgive the city its sins and transgressions with the help of a decent man vested with a certain trust. Jalu will again be populous, and the caravans will come again on schedule. Its markets will once more bustle with slaves and spices. My opinion, ya Mawlai, is that that you make for yourself, your subjects and your army a thousand boats, as preparation for whatever contingency. When by the order of God the apocalypse arrives, you will load these ships with your luggage and possessions and sail out onto the wide sea, far from the wind and the heat, until the days of ghibli4 and despair pass. You will then return to your city, which will celebrate its time honored glory by rebuilding."

The Sultan honed in on a one point, "And this decent man, ya honored Fagih, this man in whose heart trust settles, the man who is destined to save the Sultan from the searing wind--where is this man now?"

The Fagih bowed his head humbly for an instant, then said matter-of-factly, "Ya Mawlai, we have read in the books of the sage forefathers and heard from the great guardians of secrets that this man will arrive in Jalu seven years before the calamity. Consider in your eminent wisdom who that might be."

From that moment, the Sultan understood the implication of the Fagih's words--that he was this man, in the flesh and blood. The Sultan did not allow himself to believe it, however, until he had fully investigated the truth behind the Fagih's words.

The Sultan retired to bed, instructing his servant to wake him if it were apparent that he had begun to dream the odious black-dog dream. The sultan did not that night dream of the black dog. Rather, he slept the remainder of the day a heavy sleep, a sleep so profound it kept him in bed through the following day. When the Sultan finally awoke, he was so pleased that he summoned the Fagih, clasped him close between his arms, then kissed him between his eyes. So happy was he that he even married the Fagih to his daughter. As the Fagih sat beside him in a seat of honor, the Sultan announced to the people of Jalu the news. He asked them to begin building a flotilla. All of this is what ensured after a stranger arrived through the Western gate on a white mule.

Meanwhile, the lame stranger with the bag of date pits hadn't budged from the spot in the middle of the city where he had met the Fagih who struck him with the belly of his white mule. He lingered there until late in the afternoon, when he finally managed to pull himself together to gather up the dates, most of which had scattered on the ground. The lame stranger spat on the people of Jalu, then limped up to the parched sandy hills, whose summits he managed to reach overnight. Once he'd arrived to the tops of those hills, he did not sleep, but began immediately digging in the sand with his fingernails and pouring date pits into the resulting holes. The next morning the lame stranger dug a well, and made himself a bucket from his sack. He then proceeded to carry carrying water in this bucket to the palm groves, which were of course still just shriveled pits sitting in sand. The lame stranger heard of the Sultan's command, and from his little sandy hill he observed the people of Jalu scurrying about in every direction, carrying planks of wood and carpentry tools. He saw them cut the material crafted for the sails, and work on building the boats, but he did not go to work with them.

News reached Amir al-Haras5 that one of the inhabitants of Jalu had been blithely ignoring the Sultan's order. With a hundred of his best horsemen, the he rode up those parched hills of sand, where he found the lame stranger. He stripped the shirt off his back and whipped him a hundred times. He then ordered the stranger to prepare himself to return to Jalu to work on the Sultan's flotilla, but he paid no attention. Despite the lashing he had just received, he simply slipped his shirt back on and went back to the task of carrying water from the well and pouring it onto the palm orchards.

The Amir al-Haras returned the next day and whipped him yet another hundred whippings, before commanding him to return to Jalu to work on the Sultan's boats. The lame stranger simply donned his shirt once more, and returned to the work of carrying water from the well and pouring it over the palm orchards to-be. On the third day the Amir visited him and set about throttling him, a great anger in his eyes.

"I will beat you to death, you crippled stranger. What gives you the right to countermand an order from the Sultan?"

And the lame stranger said simply, "I do not want to work on the sultans boat, O Amir al Haras. I am just a farmer, I know no calling other than the cultivation of palms."

The soldiers traded quizzical looks; Amir al-Haras opened his arms in an uncomprehending gesture.

"What is this 'palm' of which you speak, O lame stranger?"

For indeed, not a soul in Jalu knew what a palm tree was, having never seen one. From top to bottom, there was a not a single palm tree in all of Jalu. The lame stranger bent forward for a moment, lifted his head, averted his eyes from the glare of the sun, and said, "The palms, O Amir, are brides whose earrings are made of ruby. Their crowns are fashioned from corundum that sprouts from the depths of the earth. They grow to the height of the clouds, so that those who are parched by thirst may see them, drink their fill and find their way home."

When they heard the lame stranger's words, the soldiers laughed so hard they almost fell from their saddles. Amir al-Haras shook his head as he observed the lame stranger resume carrying and pouring water. He ordered his soldiers back in the direction of Jalu, and called out, "Let this pig alone, as he is possessed by one of the devils. It is not worth the effort to burn his skin with a whip." On the Amir's mind was the fact that, having once whipped a man similarly possessed, his son died the next day.

So a year passed, with Jalu's people working on the Sultan's flotilla. A second year passed, but the work was still not finished. The Sultan had been forced to press-gang most of Jalu's workers, and the orchards and vine trellises were totally neglected. Even the traders locked their shops shut, so they might work on the flotilla. The Fagih himself oversaw the massive effort, urging on the carpenters and boat-smiths with passages from the sura of Noah. The third year passed, then the fourth. Slowly but surely, one vessel after another sailed out from the port of Jalu.

The inhabitants of Jalu that evening observed a spectacle unfold. The lame stranger was also a witness, but he did not care for these large boats. He spent most of his time on top of the parched sandy hills, where there was to be found but one well, from which he constantly brought water to his palm nurseries in a bucket he made from his sack. The palms began to rise from the ground, unfolding massive fronds over the high hills. Not one of the citizens of Jalu saw any of these trees, so busy were they with work on the Sultan's flotilla. The fifth year passed, then the sixth, and by now most of the boats had risen in the port of Jalu. The Sultan's daughter bore the Fagih six children. At the end of the seventh year, she bore him one more son. It was then that the Sultan dreamt again of the black dog. He looked on as the dog broke through the final wall and came barreling down upon him with gouged out eyes to bite his heels with his poisonous tooth. The Sultan shouted out from his dream, his eyes wide with terror. He immediately summoned the Fagih, who issued the signal for the exodus to begin. The Sultan's flotilla sailed quickly from the port of Jalu, spreading its sails against the blue sky like a thousand white-winged hawks. The sight prompted the lame stranger to stop and watch in amazement from the heights of his sandy hills. He was now alone in Jalu.

Listen well, children. Listen all you little men, as you stand above each sandy, parched hill watching the Sultan's flotilla. There came the scalding wind, as the Fagih had foretold, and whipped the streets of Jalu for seven days and seven nights. As the Fagih prophesied, afterward not a single grape remained on the vine trellices, nor a single apple in the orchards. Nothing was left but a barren, wind-blown wasteland. The sea itself dried up and retreated from Jalu, leaving the Sultan's flotilla to settle on the sand dunes.

Listen well, children. After seven days and seven nights, the wind abated, as the faqih had said it would. Jalu was decimated from top to bottom. God did then forgive it its sins and transgressions, and the caravans did return, and the souks again buzzed with the trade in slaves and spices, again-all as the Fagih said they would. But the Sultan did not return, for the ships could not sail on the surface of the desert. Know thee then well, if you turn your back on Jalu, Jalu will turn its back on you.


1. Learned man 2. My Lord 3. An epithet of Allah, or God 4. a hot desert wind 5. Commander-in-Chief of the Sultan's guards

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