Hamzah From Fansur

Translated by: 
George Fowler

At the harbour of Indian Malabar, I was taken aback by a very dirty fellow who was willing to give himself over in slavery if anyone succeeded in guessing what was inside the cloth-covered birdcage before him. 


At that time, the ship that brought me from Lamuri had just docked. From the Malabar harbour I was to continue my journey to Istanbul by land. My father, the harbourmaster of Lamuri, doubted his sixteen-year-old child could proceed with the journey alone. A colleague of his, Hamzah by name, would be waiting for me at the harbour and would guide me until I was ensured a safe arrival at the gate of the School of Navigation in Istanbul. For two days I waited, but the man described by my father never came. I thought that perhaps something had happened that prevented him from keeping the appointment. 


The performance of guessing the contents of that cage drew me into the midst of a throng of onlookers. I made my way to the front and heard the grimy man say that within the cage was imprisoned the most wretched creature on the face of this earth. I tried to guess, for who knows whether, if I guessed right, this filthy person would accompany me on my journey. I said that what was in the cage was a devil from from the bottom of the sea. ‘No,’ said he, ‘This creature is more miserable than an accursed devil!’ The people laughed to hear his reply, forgetting that they, too, had failed to guess what that creature was. 


By the third day, despair and boredom had caused all the spectators to leave, one by one. They felt they had been tricked. But they couldn’t be angry, because he had not robbed them of their money for simply guessing. 


I regretted how quickly the performance had ended and began to wonder what I would do if Hamzah didn’t come after a few more days. I asked around the port if something had happened on the road to prevent travellers from getting in or out. Of course, there had been a big storm, but that had occurred seven weeks before. In the meantime, the gang of highwaymen who normally pounced on groups of traders from the interior of Arabia had not been a frightening threat ever since their leader, Samoothirihad, had been poisoned by a prostitute. 


‘The dangers always come from the sea, from the Portuguese,’ said Azedine Balansi, one of the people I asked, after meeting him in a little coffee shop. He was a trader from Tunisia who owned several warehouses for storing spices at the Malabar harbour. The moment he found out I was the son of the harbourmaster of Lamuri, Azedine generously offered me tea and makla, a kind of African snuff. ‘About a hundred years ago,’ he went on, ‘someone from Tunisia who for many years had supplied spices from Malabar to the ports of the Mahgrib lands, was startled, not because the harbourmaster of Malabar had come to his house, but because he brought several Portuguese along with him.’ 


According to the Malabar harbourmaster, Azedine continued, these Por­tuguese were lost and, unable to speak Arabic, had been brought to the home of our trader, who was renowned for his command of many languages. They were the first Portuguese to come to this port. But the trader didn’t believe they were lost. At Al Gharb, the southern land of the Portuguese, our trader had long heard that the Portuguese authorities were endlessly sending out convicts who were of no use in their own country to explore the lands of China and Malaya. When these convicts returned safely, they would become the ‘eyes of the sails’ for the Feringghi armadas being prepared for those destinations. 


Sensing that his footsteps were being followed by the Portuguese, the trader asked one of them, ‘What Satan has brought you here?’ And the Portuguese replied, ‘The smell of spices.’ 


In the middle of our conversation – and before I had the opportunity to answer Azedine’s question as to what the Portuguese were now doing on the Malayan peninsula – the unwashed fellow, who since that morning had been deserted by his spectators (and how sad he looked, wrapping up his birdcage that no correct guess had ever penetrated!) suddenly approached our table. 


‘Where are you going, Si Ujud? I have been looking all over for you. Take your things and we will leave right now!’ the dirty man said to me in Malay. 


For a moment I stood there, flabbergasted. Azedine didn’t understand Malay, but quickly realised what had happened and guffawed loudly. The Hamzah that I had awaited for three days was this filthy man! 


‘And so? Did anyone succeed in guessing what is inside the cage, Hamzah?’ asked Azedine after his laughter had subsided. 


‘Perfect, Azedine the Generous,’ replied Hamzah. ‘For years no one has known what is hidden in this birdcage. I have to depart now and take this child as instructed by his father. You and I will meet again some day.’ 


Azedine smiled, stood, embraced first me and then Hamzah, and then bade us farewell. 


In my heart I cursed Hamzah for making me wait. And by the third day of our journey I still hadn’t spoken a single word to him. I was going to stay silent until he apologised. But what could I expect from someone who didn’t feel the need to ask about a person he had just met, the son of his respected colleague? 


Throughout the journey, Hamzah frequently lagged several dozen metres behind me, merely asking people whom he met on the road if they knew or recognised what was inside the birdcage he was holding. He was very satisfied when no one could guess, and that showed when, his eyes sparkling, he kept repeating, ‘Perfect!’. 


‘Is there really something in that magic cage?’ I, no longer able to bear my silence, finally asked this on the fifth day. 


Hamzah put the cage down and stared at it with unfeigned sadness, and then, looking all around to ensure there was no one else about who could hear his secret, replied. 


‘Hamzah from Fansur.’ 


I couldn’t help bursting out laughing. 


‘Then who is holding Hamzah up with his hand?’ 


‘Hamzah’s God.’ 


I let out another laugh and cursed everything I had seen at that time. 


As my father had requested, Hamzah delivered me right to the gate of the Istanbul School of Shipping. He gave no explanation at all as to where I had to stay while I was in Istanbul, how I would begin my days as a student, and who I should meet. He was busier with his other self inside the birdcage than with whatever captured my imagination in the magnificent city of Istanbul. And on that very same day, he vanished from sight – perhaps because he felt he had fulfilled his promise to my father – without telling me where he would be going. 


After that, according to the news from the dervish lodges scattered throughout Istanbul, I heard rumours that there was indeed someone from my country who lived in Tabriz and was learning how to love God from one who loved Him. And in the coffee houses and rakitaverns, places where passersby and travellers stopped to shed their weariness, I often heard from them that, on the road they had just travelled, they had met a man carrying a birdcage who asked them to guess what it held. Whenever I heard these tales, I could only burst out laughing as I recalled the man who had played a trick on me at the Malabar harbour. 


Five years later, one midnight near the beginning of spring during my final year at school, someone pounded very loudly on the door to my room, as if all of Istanbul had caught fire. 


I opened the door and there was Hamzah. His face was more doleful than the first time I had met him. He was shaking all over, and the cage he held shook too. 


‘Do you have a little bit of raki?’he said. 


I gave him a blanket. 


‘Not a blanket, Si Ujud! Only lion’s milk can calm down the creature in this cage,’ he said, raising his birdcage up high. 


I gave half an earthenware pot of rakito this pesky midnight caller. He did not drink first for himself, but poured a large part of the liquor on to the top of the cage, so that the black cloth that veiled it became soaked through. 


‘Something’s happened in Lamuri,’ Hamzah said. ‘Something that will make Hamzah leap out of the cage in rage.’ 


This time I couldn’t laugh, and was taken aback by the behaviour of Hamzah the Odd. He had mentioned Lamuri, the home I had not seen for six years. Vague reports had reached me that Sultan Maliksyah was being threatened by his son, Nurruddin. 


‘All the powers-that-be in Lamuri were replaced three months ago.’ 


It was now my turn to shiver and shake. 


 ‘Nurruddin has not only destroyed the people closest to the sultan, but also has wiped out the birds and flowers they were raising and cultivating,’ added Hamzah, as if he could tell what I was imagining. 


I was awash in tears, thinking of the fate of my mother and father at Lamuri, especially because of my father’s closeness to Sultan Maliksyah. By now Hamzah, perhaps due to the influence of the raki, or from something else that had replaced his anger, became calm again, as he’d been when I first met him at the Malabar harbour. 


Hamzah was still standing at my door. We were rendered mute by the sadness that enveloped us. The alleyways of Istanbul rang with the howls of starving dogs. 


‘If something has happened to my father and mother.. ..’ That idea suddenly sparked a light in my mind, in the midst of my anger and uncertainty. ‘I will kill the new sultan, whoever he is.’ 


‘For that you’ll need to kill a lot of people,’ replied Hamzah, as if able to guess my innermost thoughts. ‘If that happens, I will warn you with bread and raisins.’ 


I said nothing. After that, there was no more talk between Hamzah and me. I cursed the birdcage Hamzah carried because it had finished off the raki that I was sure would have calmed me at least until the next evening. Meanwhile, Hamzah was busy cursing his other self for being shut up in a cage and who, according to him, had kept trying to leap out ever since hearing that bad news. Sometimes he persuaded himself in the cage not to destroy the bars that imprisoned him, because that would be very dangerous. This went on for almost half the night. Just before the call to the dawn prayer from the Istanbul mosques, Hamzah left my room without explaining where he was going. 


I have never run into Hamzah again. 


Many years later, when I became the watchman of the Tower of Fog at Lamuri Port, I heard from the traders who came down to the port the news that Hamzah was in Gujarat and was still carrying around that empty birdcage. He no longer asked people to guess what creature was in the cage, but claimed that he was subduing a kind of creature that was soiled by rage in the cage that imprisoned him. According to Hamzah, the creature that had been with him for years had stopped being attracted to women and wine, but still could not control the lust for murder that kept blazing up within him. 


One or two years later, according to the news brought by the traders, Hamzah had been seen around Goa. He was begging for bread and raisins from anyone who cared about the creature suffering in that cage. Bread and raisins were a transitory opiate that subdued the creature’s rage and sadness. Because, according to what Hamzah told the people from whom he begged raisins and wine, the creature believed that freedom consisted of two tastes, the bland and the sweet, two kinds of flavour that always released the creature from the bitterness of this world. 


When I was readying my plan to utterly exterminate the secret brother­hood of the Bearded Turtle, I heard that Hamzah, who previously had been begging for bread and raisins for the creature in his cage, had now been seen in Koromandel, where he had burnt the creature’s cage. There were even stories that swore of seeing Hamzah drinking wine which he’d mixed with the ashes from the burning of the cage, much like the Portuguese, who added gunpowder to their wine. 


And, added the travellers, Hamzah was ready and waiting for the right time to cross to the Lands Below the Wind. Approximately a year later, when the brotherhood of the Bearded Turtle was under my control and I was preparing the murder of Sultan Nurruddin, there was little further news of Hamzah. People supposed he was in a new place to love God in a new way. Or perhaps, as the poets tell us, he had been swallowed up by the frequent rages of the wide ocean, unimaginably deep, like the mind of the Hamzah the Odd. 


And then, one morning, a white crow flew into my room. The bird looked at me sadly. Surely some person must have trained the bird to radiate so perfectly that sadness from its eyes. It dropped bread and raisins on my bed. Perhaps Hamzah was sending me his warning because I had wiped out too many of that secret brotherhood as one of the roads I had to take to kill Sultan Nurruddin. 

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