Here’s a piece of what I’ve been working on. It’s part of the first chapter of a novel I started writing while I was taking care of my mother when she was sick. I still need to do some more research, but I think there’s potential in this story. My aim is to be better than Stephenie Meyer, at least in terms of writing capability.
I haven’t named the work yet; I’m just going with the flow right now, per Steven King’s advice, letting the story tell itself. Let me know what you think. 🙂
Chapter I: The Pariah and Ashes
…casting his eyes downwards, towards the scorched earth–thinking, wanting, lamenting–while ashes and time shift beneath his feet. Behold, O youth! Within every green tree there is a fire…
From inside the labyrinthine walls of Madrasah Ṭūlūn, a voice so drab and boring that it could put the most dead of dead to sleep droned on. Lucky for us, the source of this voice is not the focus of this tale. We draw our attention instead not to the lector, nor even the teacher’s pet, but rather to an orphan, who, though surrounded by scrolls, scholars, and sages and without so much as a bit of shame, was fast asleep and lost in a dream, snoring all the while.
As was often the case for him, the boredom of a monotone and disheveled guest lector combined with a dull topic got the better of the academic decorum, and, to the dismay of his instructor and the amusement of his fellow students, provided the perfect catalyst to induce his sleep. Some of the more merciful students around him whispered to wake him up while the others, indifferent in the matter, sat waiting for the inevitable rebuke from the imam. One student to his left took the initiative of prodding him with a dry ink quill in an attempt to arouse him. Another student to his right even tried shaking him. But, the whispers, the prods, even the shakes, well-intentioned though they were, did nothing to rouse the young man from his slumber. With legs akimbo on the floor underneath the long desk-table and his arms serving as a cushion for his head, he slept and dreamt the dreams of forlorn waifs.
If there were no guest speaker, perhaps they would have ignored him as they had done on many prior occasions. In fact, for many of the students, his snoring became as much a part of the classroom environment as the rustling of papers, the flapping of books, or the scratching of chalk against the chalk board. Even the scholars, who were seldom wont to let a student sleep during class, had also grown accustomed to his snoring.
The bounds of tolerance, however, do have limits. For Imam Nishaaj, the head instructor of this particular classroom, snoring in the presence of a guest, even one as drab as this speaker was, breached those limits. He raised his hand, signaling the speaker to halt, and shouted with a voice that would make thunder envious. “Iyās!”
Thereupon, Iyās was summoned back to reality with a sudden jolt that caused his body to jump from underneath the table. His knees struck the underside of the desk-table with such force that the entire length of the table flipped over, dumping all the contents atop of it–papers, ink wells, quills, and books–on the carpet. To make matters worse, he found himself, much to his chagrin, to be the object of snickers, sneers and stares from the merciless among the student bevy. Iyās stood up, his bronze skin bright red from humiliation, bent down to flip over the table and collected the fallen items on the floor. The scholars stroked their long beards and busied themselves with their tomes and scrolls as they waited for the ineluctable rebuke of the student.
“By the Apostle! You would sleep through the eschaton if you were given the chance.”
Iyās looked up from the pile of papers he had collected and responded, “I’m sorry, Imam Nishaaj.”
The imam ignored the apology and continued to chastise the boy. “I don’t suppose, Iyās, that you could enlighten us on different modes of recitation and their effects. That is what our guest has been lecturing on. I just assume you had intimate knowledge of the subject, seeing as how you found it fitting to sleep through it.”
“No imam, I can’t.”
The imam let loose a long sigh of exasperation. “I didn’t think so.” He removed the spectacles off his wizened face, massaged his temples and, following suit with the rest of the hoary men in the room, stroked his beard.
Iyās had, on many occasions, put him in an awkward positions such as this, but the imam was a soul whose mercy often preceded his wrath. Somehow, he always found the capacity within his heart to forgive Iyās, perhaps because he knew, more than anyone else in the madrasah, the child’s situation. The burden of knowing, coupled with the insight in the circumstances of plight, plus a soft heart, can temper the ire of any person with a sound mind. That alone kept Nishaaj’s anger at bay. Truth and mercy, he thought to himself as he placed his spectacles back on face, such a difficult balancing act!
“See me after class is over,” he said to Iyās. He turned to the lector. “A thousand pardons for the interruption. Please, sheikh, continue.”
The sheikh fumbled with his notes, dropping some on floor, as he collected himself to resume his lecture. He was just about to continue, but then he paused once again as if an uncanny force compelled him after a few furtive glances at his offender revealed calligraphic markings on his hands and a feint, yellow glow in his eyes. He turned towards the head instructor and asked, “Nishaaj. Why didn’t you tell me that there was a half-breed among us?”
Nishaaj looked at the sheikh with worry in his eyes. Oh no, he thought, I’d best forestall this now before Iyās…
“Had I known so I would’ve come more aptly prepared. They are nothing but trouble, as I’m sure you are well aware. Why, I’m even surprised you let that half-breed around the other students.”
The remarks were of no surprise to the imam nor to Iyās, who, throughout the course of his young life, had grown accustomed to having insults hurled at him because of his stigmas. He had learned early on to steel his mind and heart whereby he could disregard some of the affronts thrust at him in silence. For all other matters, however, he had learned that a caustic wit, married to a silver tongue, provided the best defense for situations like this. Iyās decided the insults from this sheikh would not be among those digested in silence. His lips formed into a devious smile. Nishaaj knew that smile, knew what was about to transpire but also knew he couldn’t stop the oncoming onslaught.
Too late. Here we go again.
Iyās let the papers he was holding flutter back to the floor, glared at the sheikh with his piercing, radiant eyes and riposted, “Well, sheikh, as boring and disorganized as you are, I’m surprised the imams let you teach. It’s no wonder I fell asleep. You could put the Western Gales to sleep with your so-called teaching.”
The students began to giggle, the scholars looked up from their tomes.
The remark caught the sheikh off guard. “Y-y-you watch your tongue, you miscreant!” he replied.
But Iyās paid the sheikh no heed and continued unperturbed: “In fact, had I known that such boring teacher was coming, I would’ve just stayed home. I mean, I could’ve slept there instead. It would’ve been more comfortable.”
The giggles grew louder.
“H-H-How dare you mock me you, you senseless, half-breed maggot!”
“H-H-How dare you call yourself a scholar you, you clueless bigot!”
The sheikh turn to the imam. “Control your student, Nishaaj!”
Iyās likewise faced the imam. “Imam Nishaaj, control your guest. He obviously has no business teaching if he’s going to throw insults at students.”
The sheikh’s face grew red with anger. “This is outrageous! I will not be disrespected by the likes of this–of this–demon-child! I’d much rather leave!”
“What a coincidence,” said Iyās, “I would much rather you leave too. In fact, why don’t you do us all a favor and just go before you put someone else asleep.”
“Fine,” the fumbling sheikh said as he collected his copious lecture notes. “Ṭūlūn’s reputation certainly has diminished if it’ll let half-demons within its walls!” The sheikh intended to head towards the exit with the rest of his dignity intact, but as he stormed toward the exit, his foot got caught in his long thawb. He stumbled to the ground right at the threshold of the exit, spilling his notes into the adjoining hallway. Had Iyās been the type to let conflicts subside as they may, the affair would have ended at the sheikh’s announcement of his departure. But Iyās seldom missed an opportunity to have the final say in a bout of words. Moreover, the sheikh’s clumsiness presented him with the perfect chance to take advantage of the situation. Yes! I’ve gotta make this one good…
“Ya sheikh, make sure you don’t trip on the way out.”
The entire classroom erupted in a crescendo of laughter so loud that students in adjacent classrooms began peering into the hallway. The laughter proved to be contagious, as the peering students also found the humiliating state sheikh hilarious. Even the phlegmatic scholars found it difficult to restrain their chuckles. The sheikh, having lost the remnants of his dignity, picked himself up and left, leaving his notes as litter in the hallway.
With the departure of the sheikh, the laughter abated until silence and order descended upon the hallways once more. The other instructors had by that time gathered their students back into the classrooms like shepherds herding a flock of young lambs back into a pen and resumed their lessons as if nothing had ever occurred. The students in Iyās’s class had settled as well. They heard the teachers resuming their lessons and assumed that Imam Nishaaj would continue lecturing in the absent sheikh’s stead. Nishaaj, however, decided not continue with today’s lesson. He hadn’t prepared an alternate lesson for the unlikely event of his students running off a guest lector; he didn’t even consider the outcome plausible. But with Iyas ibn Saffiyyah, the implausible becomes the likely outcome. He shook his head. I should’ve known better.
“Okay class,” he proclaimed, “I’m going to let you go home early today.”
Nishaaj’s proclamation exhilarated students, filling the classroom with murmurs of glee, but the sounds of delight were soon transmuted to moans when Nishaaj announced, “Tomorrow we will have an oral examination on the different methods of recitation and their effects, so it would behoove you to come prepared.” The students shouldered their satchels and amassed at the exit, their ebullience dampened by the notion of an upcoming test. Iyās quickly grabbed his cloak from the wall and tried to hide himself in the horde of students to escape his admonishment. The effort proved fruitless as Nishaaj spotted him in the thicket of students and called him. “Iyās, you stay behind.”
Upon hearing Nishaaj’s summons, Iyās walked back into the classroom and stood before Nishaaj with an expression on his face that revealed both his respect of Nishaaj and contempt for the nature of the relationship that existed between them. Nishaaj knew that face well, knew the hidden, complicated layers of emotions behind that look. He had known the young man since his childhood and had observed the trials of his progression from childhood to adolescent-hood. He knew the young man and the young man knew him; yet the circumstances of Iyās’s birth relegated their relationship to one of student and teacher. Would that I could be more for him, he thought, I most certainly would…but he is not my child.
Nishaaj issued another one of his long sighs, massaged his temples once more and motioned for Iyās to sit down on the floor in front of him. Iyas obeyed and sat cross-legged in front of the venerable imam, with his head down, ready for rebuking. When the imam spoke, he did so with a gentle voice, a voice known only to Iyās. “Iyās, this is the fourth time you’ve slept through a seminar this week. Sheikha Aminah got so upset with you last week that she almost dumped her glass of water on you. And I had to apologize to Ustazah Aaliyah the other day because you were also snoring during her language lessons.” Nishaaj stopped and put his large, desiccated hand on his wizened forehand. “And last week, there was the fiasco with the bugs that you put inside Sheikha Yasmin’s podium; the poor dear was shaken for hours on end afterward. And let’s not forget your fist fight with the Badawi twins: you sent one home with a broken nose and the other with an eye so black it looked like a piece of coal had been sewn onto his face. Now there’s this. Ibn Saffiyyah, what am I to do with you?”
Iyās concocted a proper defense against Nishaaj’s question. “What did you want me to do? Just sit there and let him talk to me like that? In front of everyone?”
He held up his branded hands before the sheikh’s eyes. “You want me to wear gloves all day so people can’t see my markings? Or should I just stay at home and hide because they make people uncomfortable?”
He pointed at his glowing eyes. “What about these? Should I just wear a blind fold all the time and pretend that I’m blind so people won’t see my glowing eyes?”
He crossed his arms and looked away from the sheikh. “I’m tired putting up with people’s nonsense, and I’m sick of being talked about like I’m some kinda freak show.” His eyes turned towards Nishaaj. “The little, powerless, crying kid you used to babysit isn’t so little anymore. I’m older now. I’m bigger now. I’m stronger now. I’m not gonna let anyone – and I mean anyone – insult me, Nishaaj.”
Nishaaj responded, “The sheikh was indeed out of line Iyās – I’ll give you that much – but that does not excuse your folly of sleeping during his lecture. Perhaps if you hadn’t been snoring, he wouldn’t have singled you out in the beginning. I should not have to tell you at this point that it is disrespectful to sleep during a lecture, should I?”
Nishaaj knew how to corner him and Iyās knew it. He set me up again! “No Nishaaj, you shouldn’t.”
“That’s what I thought. Now listen, young one: I know of the hardships you are going through: I have heard the whispers, the chide remarks, of both the scholars and the students; I have seen the stares; I have seen the finger pointing; and I know that the people give you a hard time because of what you are. This is because they know little and understand even less. But, Iyās, you must understand that your actions are only making it harder on yourself, and on me as well. I gave my word to Saffiyyah that I would see after you until you became an adult. If you keep this up, I fear I will be unable to keep my promise to her. Being on your own has taught you how to fend for yourself, with both words and fists. Now, Iyās, you must learn hold yourself to higher standards or you will be dragged down to the abyss which the ignorant ones attribute to you. And you must learn it quickly! There will come a time when a quick wit will earn you fists and knives, not laughs.”
“But Nishaaj, you still haven’t answered my question! What would you have me do?”
“I am requesting a hefty order from you: to be patient, endure and forgive. This what I would have you do. That and not fall asleep during class.”
“But why should I have to be patient? Why should I have endure? Why should I have to forgive? I didn’t ask for this!”
“No, you didn’t. But it’s not a question of what you did or did not asked for. Nor is it one of fairness. It’s a matter of how you handle yourself in the face of your crucibles. This alone matters and nothing more. Understand?”
Iyās conceded to Nishaaj, nodding his head. “Alright Nishaaj, I got it. Can I go now?”
A warm smile graced the old man’s face. “Good. Glad to hear it. Now, before you leave, I’d like you to finish what you started and pick up the papers on the floor and in the hallway. You must receive some sort of reprimand for your behavior. After that, you can go enjoy the rest of day. And don’t forget to study! I suspect that since you slept through today’s lecture, you’ll have plenty of it to do.”
Iyās rolled his eyes, got up and did as the imam commanded. He first collected the mess of papers in the classroom and discarded it. Then, he gathered the papers scattered in the hallway. Iyās was going to throw them away, but the thought of the looming test made him reconsider. (He was in desperate need of study material, after all). Iyās stuffed the papers in his satchel and walked down the hallway, towards the spiral staircase that lead to the exit.
As he reached the edge of the staircase, Nishaaj called him once more. Annoyed, Iyās turned to face him. Nishaaj hesitated for a moment, then continued but with caution. “Though inappropriate, your retorts were excellent displays of wit. Well done.” At that Iyās returned Nishaaj’s smile. He drew the cloak over himself, concealing his eyes and markings, and descended the staircase. He made his way out of the madrasah and into a large corridor. Finally! Thought I’d never get out of here!
While he walked along the corridor, high above numerous domed rooftops, from atop of the seven minarets, towering edifices dwarfing the other buildings in their vicinity, muezzins performed the sacred summons for the midday salaat, the communal prayer. Though separated, they sang the summons in perfect unison, and their voices resonated throughout intricate passageways that were designed in such a way as to channel the hallowed call into every madrasah, library, home, nook, and cranny. For the few impious, the rhythmic melody of the call alone was grounds enough to halt all affairs for the moment, but the devoted inhabitants–the young and old, the scholar and layman, the women and men–set aside their tasks to respond to the invitation. The corridors became flooded with the peoples of the world, variegated in speech and hue, stature and girth, dress and culture, yet all flocking to their destinations–some to the mosques, some even to empty corners clothed with janamaz prayer rugs–with the intent to offer their supplications.
Iyās pushed through the amalgam of peoples in the corridors with a different destination in mind, one he knew only a few could access. He rounded a corner into a dark, narrow alley way. When no one was looking, Iyās braced himself against the two buildings with this hands and feet. He began inching his way up the height of the two tall buildings, being extra cautious about his footing. The climb was arduous, but over the years, Iyās had grown accustomed to the intense burning sensation in his muscles, the wheezing of his lungs, the sweat that lined his hood and fell from his forehand, the loneliness of the whole ordeal. He was half way to the apex when he stopped to give his arms a reprieve, leaving himself suspended using only the strength of his legs. Aloft between the two buildings, he thought about his first attempt at this climb as he had many time before, an attempt that ended in failure.
As a child, Iyās had tried to scale the height. He had made it half up, but his legs, at that time, too weak to support his weight in such a manner, surrendered to the agony of fatigue, and he fell. Pushing against the walls with his hands and with the remaining strength in his legs decelerated his fall, yet it wasn’t enough to prevent his ankles from breaking when he hit the ground. Some people in corridors, upon hearing his cries for help, came to investigate, but when they discovered his stigmas and his strange eyes, they all abandoned him there writhing in pain, except for a Faravahari, the majestic and noble race of avian people, who was not held sway by the prejudices of humans. He picked up the boy, spread his wings and flew to the nearest infirmary. There, the nurses and doctor were reluctant to treat him, until they say the imposing form of the Faravahari who brought him in. They administered the necessary care and informed Nishaaj, who, throughout the duration of his recovery, had upbraided him Iyās for his carelessness.
The whole incident reeled in his mind, over and over again, leaving him abashed and abased. I thought for sure I was gonna to die…all alone.
From that day onward, he promised himself that he wouldn’t ever let his failures get the better of him. He inhaled, placed his hands back against the buildings and resumed the climb. With each move upward, the burning, the panting, and the perspiration intensified to where his body began to shake, his lungs began to hyperventilate and his cloak began to drizzle. Nevertheless, he persevered.
Come on. Gotta keep going. Almost there…
With one last grunt, Iyas pushed himself to summit of the climb, an open rooftop rivaling the heights of the minarets. He climbed over the ledge with a lethargic roll that left him on his back, his arms and legs sprawled. Laying there quiescent, staring into the heat of the day, quenched the flames of fatigue that set in his body. After a moment, he got up and pulled a set of ornate tasbih beads that Nishaaj had given him from his satchel, preparing himself for the devotions. He ran the beads through his fingers, admiring their beauty.
According to Nishaaj, the beads belonged to his mother. She imparted them to him with instructions to give them to Iyās when he was old enough to perform to the prayers. “Keep these close at hand, Iyās,” Nishaaj had instructed him. They were his only keepsake he had of his mother; he had nothing else, not even memories.
As the muezzins drew the sacred call to a close, rooms with bookshelves as tall as trees, all filled gems of knowledge and bezels of wisdom from ages past to present, were left empty; contraptions, large and small, were left unattended; and works of art, calligraphy, paintings, and sculptors, were left unfinished. Silence superseded the bustle of arguing scholars and the tinkering of machinery and fell upon this place as the inhabitants formed their ranks, their eyes turned toward the heavens, beseeching As-Samad, the Eternal.
This place, an enclave for the faithful, a haven for men and women of scholarly caliber, a bastion for knowledge and understanding, al-Mursi.