Bruce Sterling | from:English

Dinner in Audoghast

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, "Autumn", 1573

 

Then one arrives at Audoghast, a large and very populous city built in a sandy plain … The inhabitants live in ease and possess great riches. The market is always crowded; the mob is so huge and the chattering so loud that you can scarcely hear your own words … The city contains beautiful buildings and very elegant homes.”

—Description of Northern Africa.
Abu Ubayd Al-Bakri (A.D. 1040-94)

 

 

Delightful Audoghast! Renowned through the civilized world, from Cordova to Baghdad, the city spread in splendor beneath a twilit Saharan sky. The setting sun threw pink and amber across adobe domes, masonry mansions, tall, mud-brick mosques, and open plazas thick with bristling date-palms. The melodious calls of market vendors mixed with the remote and amiable chuckling of Saharan hyenas.

Four gentlemen sat on carpets in a tiled and whitewashed portico, sipping coffee in the evening breeze. The host was the genial and accomplished slave-dealer, Manimenesh. His three guests were Ibn Watunan, the caravan-master; Khayali, the poet and musician; and Bagayoko, a physician and court assassin.

The home of Manimenesh stood upon the hillside in the aristocratic quarter, where it gazed down on an open marketplace and the mud-brick homes of the lowly. The prevailing breeze swept away the city reek, and brought from within the mansion the palate-sharpening aromas of lamb in tarragon and roast partridge in lemons and eggplant. The four men lounged comfortably around a low inlaid table, sipping spiced coffee from Chinese cups and watching the ebb and flow of market life.

The scene below them encouraged a lofty philosophical detachment. Manimenesh, who owned no less than fifteen books, was a well-known patron of learning. Jewels gleamed on his dark, plump hands, which lay cozily folded over his paunch. He wore a long tunic of crushed red velvet, and a gold-threaded skullcap.

Khayali, the young poet, had studied architecture and verse in the schools of Timbuktu. He lived in the household of Manimenesh as his poet and praisemaker, and his sonnets, ghazals, and odes were recited throughout the city. He propped one elbow against the full belly of his two-string guimbri guitar, of inlaid ebony, strung with leopard gut.

Ibn Watunan had an eagle’s hooded gaze and hands callused by camel-reins. He wore an indigo turban and a long striped djellaba. In thirty years as a sailor and caravaneer, he had bought and sold Zanzibar ivory, Sumatran pepper, Ferghana silk, and Cordovan leather. Now a taste for refined gold had brought him to Audoghast, for Audoghast’s African bullion was known throughout Islam as the standard of quality.

Doctor Bagayoko’s ebony skin was ridged with an initiate’s scars, and his long clay-smeared hair was festooned with knobs of chiseled bone. He wore a tunic of white Egyptian cotton, hung with gris-gris necklaces, and his baggy sleeves bulged with herbs and charms. He was a native Audoghastian of the animist persuasion, the personal physician of the city’s Prince.

Bagayoko’s skill with powders, potions, and unguents made him an intimate of Death. He often undertook diplomatic missions to the neighboring Empire of Ghana. During his last visit there, the anti-Audoghast faction had mysteriously suffered a lethal outbreak of pox.

Between the four men was the air of camaraderie common to gentlemen and scholars.

They finished the coffee, and a slave took the empty pot away. A second slave, a girl from the kitchen staff, arrived with a wicker tray loaded with olives, goat-cheese, and hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with vermilion. At that moment, a muezzin yodeled the evening call to prayer.

“Ah,” said Ibn Watunan, hesitating. “Just as we were getting started.”

“Never mind,” said Manimenesh, helping himself to a handful of olives. “We’ll pray twice next time.”

“Why was there no noon prayer today?” said Watunan.

“Our muezzin forgot,” the poet said.

Watunan lifted his shaggy brows. “That seems rather lax.”

Doctor Bagayoko said, “This is a new muezzin. The last was more punctual, but, well, he fell ill.” Bagayoko smiled urbanely and nibbled his cheese.

“We Audoghastians like our new muezzin better,” said the poet, Khayali. “He’s one of our own, not like that other fellow, who was from Fez. Our muezzin is sleeping with a Christian’s wife. It’s very entertaining.”

“You have Christians here?” Watunan said.

“A clan of Ethiopian Copts,” said Manimenesh. “And a couple of Nestorians.”

“Oh,” said Watunan, relaxing. “For a moment I thought you meant real feringhee Christians, from Europe.”

“From where?” Manimenesh was puzzled.

“Very far away,” said Ibn Watunan, smiling. “Ugly little countries, with no profit.”

“There were empires in Europe once,” said Khayali knowledge-ably. “The Empire of Rome was almost as big as the modern civilized world.”

Watunan nodded.”I have seen the New Rome, called Byzantium. They have armored horsemen, like your neighbors in Ghana. Savage fighters.”

Bagayoko nodded, salting an egg. “Christians eat children.”

Watunan smiled. “I can assure you that the Byzantines do no such thing.”

“Really?” said Bagayoko. “Well, our Christians do.”

“That’s just the doctor’s little joke,” said Manimenesh. “Sometimes strange rumors spread about us, because we raid our slaves from the Nyam-Nyam cannibal tribes on the coast. But we watch their diet closely, I assure you.”

Watunan smiled uncomfortably. “There is always something new out of Africa. One hears the oddest stories. Hairy men, for instance.”

“Ah,” said Manimenesh. “You mean gorillas, from the jungles to the south. I’m sorry to spoil the story for you, but they are nothing better than beasts.”

“I see,” said Watunan. “That’s a pity.”

“My grandfather owned a gorilla once,” Manimenesh said. “Even after ten years, it could barely speak Arabic.”

They finished the appetizers. Slaves cleared the table and brought in a platter of fattened partridges, stuffed with lemons and eggplants, on a bed of mint and lettuce. The four diners leaned in closer and dexterously ripped off legs and wings.

Watunan sucked meat from a drumstick and belched politely. “Audoghast is famous for its cooks,” he said. “I’m pleased to see that this legend, at least, is confirmed.”

“We Audoghastians pride ourselves on the pleasures of table and bed,” said Manimenesh, pleased. “I have asked Elfelilet, one of our premiere courtesans, to honor us with a visit tonight. She will bring her troupe of dancers.”

Watunan smiled. “That would be splendid. One tires of boys on the trail. Your women are remarkable. I’ve noticed that they go without the veil.”

Khayali lifted his voice in song.

“When a woman of Audoghast appears
The girls of Fez bite their lips,
The dames of Tripoli hide in closets,
And Ghana’s women hang themselves.”

“We take pride in the exalted status of our women,” said Manimenesh. “It’s not for nothing that they command a premium market price!”

 

In the marketplace, downhill, vendors lit tiny oil lamps, which cast a flickering glow across the walls of tents and the watering troughs. A troop of the Prince’s men, with iron spears, shields, and chain mail, marched across the plaza to take the night watch at the Eastern Gate. Slaves with heavy water-jars gossiped beside the well.

“There’s quite a crowd around one of the stalls,” said Bagayoko.

“So I see,” said Watunan. “What is it? Some news that might affect the market?”

Bagayoko sopped up gravy with a wad of mint and lettuce. “Rumor says there’s a new fortune-teller in town. New prophets always go through a vogue.”

“Ah yes,” said Khayali, sitting up. “They call him ‘the Sufferer.’ He is said to tell the most outlandish and entertaining fortunes.”

“I wouldn’t trust any fortune-teller’s market tips,” said Manimenesh. “If you want to know the market, you have to know the hearts of the people, and for that you need a good poet.”

Khayali bowed his head. “Sir,” he said, “live forever.”

It was growing dark. Household slaves arrived with pottery lamps of sesame oil, which they hung from the rafters of the portico. Others took the bones of the partridges and brought in a haunch and head of lamb with a side dish of cinnamon tripes.

As a gesture of esteem, the host offered Watunan the eyeballs, and after three ritual refusals the caravan-master dug in with relish. “I put great stock in fortune-tellers, myself,” he said, munching. “They are often privy to strange secrets. Not the occult kind, but the blabbing of the superstitious. Slave-girls anxious about some household scandal, or minor officials worried over promotions-inside news from those who consult them. It can be useful.”

“If that’s the case,” said Manimenesh, “perhaps we should call him up here.”

“They say he is grotesquely ugly,” said Khayali. “He is called ‘the Sufferer’ because he is outlandishly afflicted by disease.”

Bagayoko wiped his chin elegantly on his sleeve. “Now you begin to interest me!”

“It’s settled, then.” Manimenesh clapped his hands. “Bring young Sidi, my errand-runner!”

Sidi arrived at once, dusting flour from his hands. He was the cook’s teenage son, a tall young black in a dyed woolen djellaba. His cheeks were stylishly scarred, and he had bits of brass wire interwoven with his dense black locks. Manimenesh gave him his orders; Sidi leapt from the portico, ran downhill through the garden, and vanished through the gates.

The slave-dealer sighed. “This is one of the problems of my business. When I bought my cook she was a slim and lithesome wench, and I enjoyed her freely. Now years of dedication to her craft have increased her market value by twenty times, and also made her as fat as a hippopotamus, though that is beside the point. She has always claimed that Sidi is my child, and since I don’t wish to sell her, I must make allowance. I have made him a freeman; I have spoiled him, I’m afraid. On my death, my legitimate sons will deal with him cruelly.”

The caravan-master, having caught the implications of this speech, smiled politely. “Can he ride? Can he bargain? Can he do sums?”

“Oh,” said Manimenesh with false nonchalance, “he can manage that newfangled stuff with the zeroes well enough.”

“You know I am bound for China,” said Watunan. “It is a hard road that brings either riches or death.”

“He runs the risk in any case,” the slave-dealer said philosophically. “The riches are Allah’s decision.”

“This is truth,” said the caravan-master. He made a secret gesture, beneath the table, where the others could not see. His host returned it, and Sidi was proposed, and accepted, for the Brotherhood.

With the night’s business over, Manimenesh relaxed, and broke open the lamb’s steamed skull with a silver mallet. They spooned out the brains, then attacked the tripes, which were stuffed with onion, cabbage, cinnamon, rue, coriander, cloves, ginger, pepper, and lightly dusted with ambergris. They ran out of mustard dip and called for more, eating a bit more slowly now, for they were approaching the limit of human capacity.

They then sat back, pushing away platters of congealing grease, and enjoying a profound satisfaction with the state of the world. Down in the marketplace, bats from an abandoned mosque chased moths around the vendors’ lanterns.

The poet belched suavely and picked up his two-stringed guitar. “Dear God,” he said, “this is a splendid place. See, caravan-master, how the stars smile down on our beloved Southwest.” He drew a singing note from the leopard-gut strings. “I feel at one with Eternity.”

Watunan smiled. “When I find a man like that, I have to bury him.”

“There speaks the man of business,” the doctor said. He unobtrusively dusted a tiny pinch of venom on the last chunk of tripe, and ate it. He accustomed himself to poison. It was a professional precaution.

From the street beyond the wall, they heard the approaching jingle of brass rings. The guard at the gate called out. “The Lady Elfelilet and her escorts, lord!”

“Make them welcome,” said Manimenesh. Slaves took the platters away, and brought a velvet couch onto the spacious portico. The diners extended their hands; slaves scrubbed and toweled them clean.

Elfelilet’s party came forward through the fig-clustered garden: two escorts with gold-topped staffs heavy with jingling brass rings; three dancing-girls, apprentice courtesans in blue woolen cloaks over gauzy cotton trousers and embroidered blouses; and four palanquin bearers, beefy male slaves with oiled torsos and callused shoulders. The bearers set the palanquin down with stifled grunts of relief and opened the cloth-of-gold hangings.

Elfelilet emerged, a tawny-skinned woman, her eyes dusted in kohl and collyrium, her hennaed hair threaded with gold wire. Her palms and nails were stained pink; she wore an embroidered blue cloak over an intricate sleeveless vest and ankle-tied silk trousers starched and polished with myrobalan lacquer. A light freckling of smallpox scars along one cheek delightfully accented her broad, moonlike face.

“Elfelilet, my dear,” said Manimenesh, “you are just in time for dessert.”

Elfelilet stepped gracefully across the tiled floor and reclined face-first along the velvet couch, where the well-known loveliness of her posterior could be displayed to its best advantage. “I thank my friend and patron, the noble Manimenesh. Live forever! Learned Doctor Bagayoko, I am your servant. Hello, poet.”

“Hello, darling,” said Khayali, smiling with the natural camaraderie of poets and courtesans. “You are the moon, and your troupe of lovelies are comets across our vision.”

The host said, “This is our esteemed guest, the caravan-master, Abu Bekr Ahmed Ibn Watunan.”

Watunan, who had been gaping in enraptured amazement, came to himself with a start. “I am a simple desert man,” he said. “I haven’t a poet’s gift of words. But I am your ladyship’s servant.”

Elfelilet smiled and tossed her head; her distended earlobes clattered with heavy chunks of gold filigree. “Welcome to Audoghast.”

 

Dessert arrived. “Well,” said Manimenesh. “Our earlier dishes were rough and simple fare, but this is where we shine. Let me tempt you with these djouzinkat nutcakes. And do sample our honey macaroons—I believe there’s enough for everyone.”

Everyone, except of course for the slaves, enjoyed the light and flaky cataif macaroons, liberally dusted with Kairwan sugar. The nut-cakes were simply beyond compare: painstakingly milled from hand-watered wheat, lovingly buttered and sugared, and artistically studded with raisins, dates, and almonds.

“We eat djouzinkat nutcakes during droughts,” the poet said, “because the angels weep with envy when we taste them.”

 

Manimenesh belched heroically and readjusted his skullcap. “Now,” he said, “we will enjoy a little bit of grape wine. Just a small tot, mind you, so that the sin of drinking is a minor one, and we can do penance with the minimum of alms. After that, our friend the poet will recite an ode he has composed for the occasion.”

Khayali began to tune his two-string guitar. “I will also, on demand, extemporize twelve-line ghazals in the lyric mode, upon suggested topics.”

“And after our digestion has been soothed with epigrams,” said their host, “we will enjoy the justly famed dancing of her ladyship’s troupe. After that we will retire within the mansion and enjoy their other, equally lauded, skills.”

The gate-guard shouted, “Your errand-runner, Lord! He awaits your pleasure, with the fortune-teller!”

“Ah,” said Manimenesh. “I had forgotten.”

“No matter, sir,” said Watunan, whose imagination had been fired by the night’s agenda.

Bagayoko spoke up. “Let’s have a look at him. His ugliness, by contrast, will heighten the beauty of these women.”

“Which would otherwise be impossible,” said the poet.

“Very well,” said Manimenesh. “Bring him forward.”

 

Sidi, the errand boy, came through the garden, followed with ghastly slowness by the crutch-wielding fortune-teller.

The man inched into the lamplight like a crippled insect. His voluminous dust-gray cloak was stained with sweat, and nameless exudations. He was an albino. His pink eyes were shrouded with cataracts, and he had lost a foot, and several fingers, to leprosy. One shoulder was much lower than the other, suggesting a hunchback, and the stub of his shin was scarred by the gnawing of canal-worms.

“Prophet’s beard!” said the poet. “He is truly of surpassing ghastliness.”

Elfelilet wrinkled her nose. “He reeks of pestilence!”

Sidi spoke up. “We came as fast as we could, Lord!”

“Go inside, boy,” said Manimenesh; “soak ten sticks of cinnamon in a bucket of water, then come back and throw it over him.”

Sidi left at once.

 

Watunan stared at the hideous man, who stood, quivering on one leg, at the edge of the light. “How is it, man, that you still live?”

“I have turned my sight from this world,” said the Sufferer. “I turned my sight to God, and He poured knowledge copiously upon me. I have inherited a knowledge which no mortal body can support.”

“But God is merciful,” said Watunan. “How can you claim this to be His doing?”

“If you do not fear God,” said the fortune-teller, “fear Him after seeing me.” The hideous albino lowered himself, with arthritic, aching slowness, to the dirt outside the portico. He spoke again. “You are right, caravan-master, to think that death would be a mercy to me. But death comes in its own time, as it will to all of you.”

Manimenesh cleared his throat. “Can you see our destinies, then?”

“I see the world,” said the Sufferer. “To see the fate of one man is to follow a single ant in a hill.”

Sidi reemerged and poured the scented water over the cripple. The fortune-teller cupped his maimed hands and drank. “Thank you, boy,” he said. He turned his clouded eyes on the youth. “Your children will be yellow.”

Sidi laughed, startled. “Yellow? Why?”

“Your wives will be yellow.”

 

The dancing-girls, who had moved to the far side of the table, giggled in unison. Bagayoko pulled a gold coin from within his sleeve. “I will give you this gold dirham if you will show me your body.”

Elfelilet frowned prettily and blinked her kohl-smeared lashes. “Oh, learned Doctor, please spare us.”

“You will see my body, sir, if you have patience,” said the Sufferer. “As yet, the people of Audoghast laugh at my prophecies. I am doomed to tell the truth, which is harsh and cruel, and therefore absurd. As my fame grows, however, it will reach the ears of your Prince, who will then order you to remove me as a threat to public order. You will then sprinkle your favorite poison, powdered asp venom, into a bowl of chickpea soup I will receive from a customer. I bear you no grudge for this, as it will be your civic duty, and will relieve me of pain.”

“What an odd notion,” said Bagayoko, frowning. “I see no need for the Prince to call on my services. One of his spearmen could puncture you like a waterskin.”

“By then,” the prophet said, “my occult powers will have roused so much uneasiness that it will seem best to take extreme measures.”

“Well,” said Bagayoko, “that’s convenient, if exceedingly grotesque.”

“Unlike other prophets,” said the Sufferer, “I see the future not as one might wish it to be, but in all its cataclysmic and blind futility. That is why I have come here, to your delightful city. My numerous and totally accurate prophecies will vanish when this city does. This will spare the world any troublesome conflicts of predestination and free will.”

“He is a theologian!” the poet said. “A leper theologian—it’s a shame my professors in Timbuktu aren’t here to debate him!”

“You prophesy doom for our city?” said Manimenesh.

“Yes. I will be specific. This is the year 406 of the Prophet’s Hejira, and one thousand and fourteen years since the birth of Christ. In forty years, a puritan and fanatical cult of Moslems will arise, known as the Almoravids. At that time, Audoghast will be an ally of the Ghana Empire, who are idol-worshipers. Ibn Yasin, the warrior saint of the Almoravids, will condemn Audoghast as a nest of pagans. He will set his horde of desert marauders against the city; they will be enflamed by righteousness and greed. They will slaughter the men, and rape and enslave the women. Audoghast will be sacked, the wells will be poisoned, and the cropland will wither and blow away. In a hundred years, sand dunes will bury the ruins. In five hundred years, Audoghast will survive only as a few dozen lines of narrative in the travel books of Arab scholars.”

Khayali shifted his guitar. “But the libraries of Timbuktu are full of books on Audoghast, including, if I may say so, our immortal tradition of poetry.”

“I have not yet mentioned Timbuktu,” said the prophet, “which will be sacked by Moorish invaders led by a blond Spanish eunuch. They will feed the books to goats.”

The company burst into incredulous laughter. Unperturbed, the prophet said, “The ruin will be so general, so thorough, and so all-encompassing, that in future centuries it will be stated, and believed, that West Africa was always a land of savages.”

“Who in the world could make such a slander?” said the poet.

“They will be Europeans, who will emerge from their current squalid decline, and arm themselves with mighty sciences.”

“What happens then?” said Bagayoko, smiling.

“I can look at those future ages,” said the prophet, “but I prefer not to do so, as it makes my head hurt.”

“You prophesy, then,” said Manimenesh, “that our far-famed metropolis, with its towering mosques and armed militia, will be reduced to utter desolation.”

“Such is the truth, regrettable as it may be. You, and all you love, will leave no trace in this world, except a few lines in the writing of strangers.”

“And our city will fall to savage tribesmen?”

The Sufferer said, “No one here will witness the disaster to come. You will live out your lives, year after year, enjoying ease and luxury, not because you deserve it, but simply because of blind fate. In time you will forget this night; you will forget all I have said, just as the world will forget you and your city. When Audoghast falls, this boy Sidi, this son of a slave, will be the only survivor of this night’s gathering. By then he too will have forgotten Audoghast, which he has no cause to love. He will be a rich old merchant in Ch’ang-an, which is a Chinese city of such fantastic wealth that it could buy ten Audoghasts, and which will not be sacked and annihilated until a considerably later date.”

“This is madness,” said Watunan.

Bagayoko twirled a crusted lock of mud-smeared hair in his supple fingers. “Your gate-guard is a husky lad, friend Manimenesh. What say we have him bash this storm-crow’s head in, and haul him out to be hyena food?”

“For that, Doctor,” said the Sufferer, “I will tell you the manner of your death. You will be killed by the Ghanaian royal guard, while attempting to kill the crown prince by blowing a subtle poison into his anus with a hollow reed.”

Bagayoko started. “You idiot, there is no crown prince.”

“He was conceived yesterday.”

Bagayoko turned impatiently to the host. “Let us rid ourselves of this prodigy!”

Manimenesh nodded sternly. “Sufferer, you have insulted my guests and my city. You are lucky to leave my home alive.”

The Sufferer hauled himself with agonizing slowness to his single foot. “Your boy spoke to me of your generosity.”

“What! Not one copper for your driveling.”

“Give me one of the gold dirhams from your purse. Otherwise I shall be forced to continue prophesying, and in a more intimate vein.”

Manimenesh considered this. “Perhaps it’s best.” He threw Sidi a coin. “Give this to the madman and escort him back to his raving-booth.”

They waited in tormented patience as the fortune-teller creaked and crutched, with painful slowness, into the darkness.

Manimenesh, brusquely, threw out his red velvet sleeves and clapped for wine. “Give us a song, Khayali.”

The poet pulled the cowl of his cloak over his head. “My head rings with an awful silence,” he said. “I see all waymarks effaced, the joyous pleasances converted into barren wilderness. Jackals resort here, ghosts frolic, and demons sport; the gracious halls, and rich boudoirs, that once shone like the sun, now, overwhelmed by desolation, seem like the gaping mouths of savage beasts!” He looked at the dancing-girls, his eyes brimming with tears. “I picture these maidens, lying beneath the dust, or dispersed to distant parts and far regions, scattered by the hand of exile, torn to pieces by the fingers of expatriation.”

Manimenesh smiled on him kindly. “My boy,” he said, “if others cannot hear your songs, or embrace these women, or drink this wine, the loss is not ours, but theirs. Let us, then, enjoy all three, and let those unborn do the regretting.”

“Your patron is wise,” said Ibn Watunan, patting the poet on the shoulder. “You see him here, favored by Allah with every luxury; and you saw that filthy madman, bedeviled by plague. That lunatic, who pretends to great wisdom, only croaks of ruin; while our industrious friend makes the world a better place, by fostering nobility and learning. Could God forsake a city like this, with all its charms, to bring about that fool’s disgusting prophesies?” He lifted his cup to Elfelilet, and drank deeply.

“But delightful Audoghast,” said the poet, weeping. “All our loveliness, lost to the sands.”

“The world is wide,” said Bagayoko, “and the years are long. It is not for us to claim immortality, not even if we are poets. But take comfort, my friend. Even if these walls and buildings crumble, there will always be a place like Audoghast, as long as men love profit! The mines are inexhaustible, and elephants are thick as fleas. Mother Africa will always give us gold and ivory.”

“Always?” said the poet hopefully, dabbing at his eyes.

“Well, surely there are always slaves,” said Manimenesh, and smiled, and winked. The others laughed with him, and there was joy again.

 

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