by Joshua Gage
My friend, do not be tempted by the billowing fragrances of cumin, the crimson piles of pepper, the syrupy perfume of fenugreek that my neighbors offer. Come here, stranger, and look at this. Were a woman powdered in crushed cloves and cinnamon, were her temper blazened with the finest fruits of capsicum and softened by, she would not be half the treasure that I hold. Look, here, in my hand, traveler–salt.
See here, these crystals, so pink they could be a bride’s cheeks on her wedding night. This comes from the southeast¸ from the seas of Debal. And look here, these thick, black flakes come from the far south, an island in the middle of the sea known only for its bronze mines and these gems, which they say is blackened in volcanic fires by men whose soles are so thick with calluses and scars that they cannot feel the burn of the flames beneath them. No? Then smell this, good sir, and inhale the secrets of the southwest. Can you feel it? The cool winds of the sea surrounding you. This comes from a sea that they say is so rich in salt that a man cannot drown in it. They say the queens of Fustat boil this salt in oil to add to their bath waters nightly, letting the salt itself permeate their skin. Some even rub the oil directly on their bodies, allowing the crystals to cleanse them of any dust and grime which the winds may have brought through the day. Oh, sing me a song, minstrels, to praise these miraculous gems, worth more than all rubies or sapphires or diamonds in the treasury of the caliphate, may his reign endure forever and all eternity.
Oh ho, so you dismiss me, do you? Do not walk away, good sir, but stay a while longer and let me explain myself to you. Come in. Come in. You are so fresh from the desert the dust still clings to your cloak, and the sun is hovering overhead like an eager vulture over a slow caravan, waiting for some poor beast to collapse. Let us not appease its belly, my friend. Enter, please. Pull the hood from your head, unleash the dust from your scarf, and let the shade cool your face. No? Then please, my guest, at least be seated. Here, this cushion I bought years ago off a trader from the south. See the fine zardozi work, the delicate strands of silver against the blue silk? Garbage, I tell you, refuse against my salts. Look at this teapot. I bought this from a merchant who travelled all the way from Chang’an itself. He swore it was found by a fisherman, who pulled it up in his net instead of his perch or sturgeon. See, you can tell it is from the distant east by this leaf etched on the side, thin and delicate, against the sturdy pottery and its heavy brown glaze. You may be in Merv, Mother of Cities and Soul of Kings, Baghdad of the East, but no tree here grows leaves like that. No, this is a rarity among rarities in this city of wonders. Look at how the salt water of the ocean has given the crevices a fine crust, enough to catch the light and glisten like a rainbow. Even this crack along the side, this thin seam that would otherwise make this pot damaged, has been beautified by the crystals of salt. Still, I would smash this pot instantly, I would cast it back into the sea from whence it came, for a jar of the salt that I sell.
No no no, my friend. Wait. You are guest beneath my tent, humble though it may be. Do not drink this first cup, for it will taste like water. Allow me to return it to the pot. And this second cup, my friend, this would taste like tea, plain and ordinary that you could get at any cafe. This is not a beverage for guests such as yourself. No, this, too, goes back into the pot. Now, my friend, this cup will taste as rich as butter, and will fill your veins with a warming fire like the richest of wines, but without dulling your senses. Do you see? Good. Now, my friend, settle in and listen, for the sun will last long enough, and we should not be so bold as to challenge it with our presence. It is a time for rest, and a time for stories.
There was, or there was not, in the oldest of days and ages, in a time cast now into shadow and memory, a sultan by the name of Umar El-Amin, who had two daughters. This sultan was as honest as his name suggests, and his lands and people flourished under his reign. However, as his wife had died, he treasured above all else his two daughters, and pampered them with presents, glittering baubles and beads set in gold to adorn their necks in the same way the sun adorns the horizon at dawn, Ersari and Salyr rugs in every room of his palace so their bare feet would never be forced to touch the ground, even emerald peacocks to ornament their gardens and nightingales in golden cages to lullaby them to sleep at night. I tell you, his daughters wanted for nothing, my friend, and had every treasure you and I could imagine if we put our heads together and thought of nothing but gold and rare stones for a year and a day. But this sultan was plagued by doubt, and wanted to ensure that his daughters, in turn, treasured him.
To test their love and devotion for him, he summoned both his daughters and told them to each ask for a gift, any gift they could imagine. They were then to each cook a meal for him, a meal from their heart that would represent their love and devotion for him. For his part, he would bestow upon them their chosen gift equal to his pleasure in their presented meal.
His older daughter, Zulekha, was a young lady that could be described as beautiful, but only if that word itself should prostrate itself before the Almighty that it ever be worthy enough to be applied to her. Poets of the time, men who had never seen her face or been in her presence, were so taken with her beauty that they penned odes to her, filling whole libraries with ghazals and rubiyats of longing. Gardeners in the palace competed against each other, spending their whole careers cultivating rare breeds of orchid or lotus in the hopes that their offerings would be allowed to grow in her private gardens. Perfumers would ponder the works of al-Kindī and Ibn Sīnā, hoping to compose a new fragrance that they could name for this princess. It is said that any man who heard her name would immediately soften and pine for her, that any man who actually was honored enough to see her would weep for days, knowing nothing that their gaze could fall upon would be as beautiful. Being older than her sister, it was Zulekha’s privilege to ask for a gift and prepare a meal for her father first.
“Father,” she said in all sincerity, “all I wish for is a garment of silk and gold.” The sultan nodded in understanding, and watched as Zulekha left to prepare his meal.
And, my friend, such a meal neither you nor I have seen, I promise you. Plates and trays overflowed with such a delicious feast that the sultan could hardly taste everything. Fresh loaves of naan steamed, still warm from the oven. Plump manty were stuffed with onions and tender lamb, the yoghurt delicately seasoned with dill, the red sauce balancing the fire of peppers against the coolness of crushed mint leaves. Gutap were piled high, their garlic and scallion fillings pungent with parsley and ajowan. And her plov! Oh, my friend, the plov was succulent, with tender chunks of lamb and rice gold with saffron, the carrots sweet and juicy, and everything tinged with the soft taste of the oil. “Father,” said Zulekha, “I want this meal to fill you as my love for you fills me.” And filled the Sultan was, to the point that his crimson caftan was so swollen that he could have been a ripe melon waiting to be sliced.
“Thank you, my daughter. You will have your new clothes by this week’s end.”
My friend, to call his gift clothing, even a royal costume, would be like calling the great Kyz Kala a humble trader’s shack. The chemise was a pale gold. Some say it was Muga far away from the south, some say it was even more rare, enchanted so that when Zulekha walked past, it would whisper the darkest secrets and most hidden desires of those around her, giving her ultimate control over their hearts. There were three coats, and I tell you, each one could have bought an entire corner of this market and have had enough thread left over to tie all the bundles together. The first was a deep emerald songket from islands in the far east, shimmering with silver flowers. The next layer was a heavy crimson lampas swirled with vines and song birds. The top layer was a pale blue damask with a simple spiral design, but its modesty only served to heighten the magnificence of the cloud collar. It is said, my friend, that Umar El-Amin paid every embroiderer in the city to work on the collar, demanding that each stitch be perfect.
Can you imagine, hundreds and thousands of mothers and grandmothers hunched over, each one pulling the most expensive and rarest of threads, fibers that their fingers would never feel again, simply for the collar of one garment? On the princess’s left shoulder, a warrior in green, surrounded by gold and sapphire angels, hefted a mighty spear. Down her back tumbled a dense forest with tangled trunks of burgundy with viridian leaves, their branches swelling with peacocks and leopards. On her right shoulder snarled a great dragon, its scales spotted and tail coiled into the very edge of the forest. Each step that Zulekha took was adorned with the vibrant sigh from the garden known only to dreamers and fools. Such was the sultan’s pleasure in Zulekha’s dinner, his trust in her love for him.
Now, Umar El-Amin’s younger daughter, Suha, was as wise as her sister was beautiful. She was simple, certainly not horrific to look at, mind you, but not the beauty that was Zulekha. But when her tongue spoke, it was as though it conjured spells that djinns would wrestle with. Great judges in court held her as a physical manifestation not only of fairness but justice. It is rumored that even Al-Buruni, Alhazen and Ibn Rushd consulted her before writing their great tomes. Truly, Suha was a remarkable woman, and so it surprised her father when he came to demand a gift from her that she spoke as simply and plainly as she did.
“I want nothing,” she said, bowing as would a servant, “but your love.”
“Daughter,” spoke the sultan, honestly, “you have that and in treasuries full. Look at me, daughter. I am round and fat, like a fowl waiting for the feast. I tell you that this is because my heart swells every hour with love for you and your sister, and my body needs to grow to accommodate. Please, tell me, what can I give you to prove my love for you.”
“Father, if you insist on a physical idol of your love, I ask for a glass jar with a tight lid. If my meal, and my reason for it, pleases you, give me that and nothing more.”
Though slightly confused and taken aback by his daughter’s plain speech and simple request, Umar El-Amin was bound by his word, and agreed that his daughter would receive what she wished. That night, he and Zulekha waited while Suha cooked.
Let me pause, my friend, for a sip of tea and to tell you that my wife cannot cook. She is the love of my life, the mother of my children, and I should roll out my prayer rug a sixth time every day in thanks that I have been blessed with such a beauty and patience in my life. Still, I swear to you when the woman enters the country of stove, she becomes foreigner with neither currency nor language. I am lucky if the meals that I eat are hot and filling, let alone if they taste like anything worth putting across one’s tongue.
Compared to Suha’s shurpa, my wife is a cook worthy enough to head any caliph or sultan’s kitchen. The stock was weak, as though it was water and salt only. The turnips and chickpeas were there, yes, but hardly and not enough to be filling. The lamb was obviously dried, not fresh, and soaked up so much of the broth of the soup that it was almost too salty to eat.
“What,” snarled the sultan, slamming his spoon on the table, “is this mockery?”
“Father,” whispered Suha, “I love you. My love for you is as the love this meat has for the salt. Do you see how consumed it is, father? So am I consumed with love for you.”
The swell of rage that flushed over the sultan’s cheeks, I tell you my friend, was as crimson as the breath of Falak. “Such insolence,” he sputtered and bellowed, “such contempt. Never, never speak to me again. You will pack your things, immediately, one bag that you can bear on your back, and one suit of clothes that you will wear. That is all that you may take from my palace. After that, this building is forbidden to you, this city is off limits to you, and this kingdom is off limits to you. You will join the first caravan that will accept you, and leave my lands immediately.”
Well, Suha was on the verge of hysteria, ready to rip her hair from her head and scream herself hoarse, but she held her composure as tightly as a mother holds a newborn baby, packed her sole bag through tears, donned one meager traveling outfit, and left the palace, but not before her father’s courier handed her a small item wrapped in silk. “The sultan, may he reign forever and a day, may his borders end only where the land itself becomes water, will neither speak to you nor see you leave. However, he bade me give you this, as fulfillment of his promise.”
Inside the silk was a jar that, I tell you, were you to go to the glassblowers’ quarter of the souq in any city, from Namadan to Kashgar, Mathura to Sarai and every occupied place in between, you would never find its equal. Honest as his name, Umar El-Amin had upheld his end of the bargain, and given his daughter the second thing she had asked for in place of the first. It is said that the glass was black, pure and opaque, until it was held up into the light of the noon sun, when it would shine iridescent deep emerald and amethyst hues, as though the gems themselves had been blown into the glass. The stopper was shaped in the emblem of Umar El-Amin, a simurgh with its wings spread, one taloned foot clenching a map, the other suckling an infant at its breast, the tail radiating like a peacock in full display.
And so it was that Suha left the city. No one knows exactly what became of her, and while all tellers of her tale agree upon the beginning of the story, no one is quite sure of how it ends. There are those morbid souls who insist that her caravan was overtaken by bandits, that she was slaughtered and all her worldly possessions, including her jar, were stolen and are now lost to the sands and winds that even you keep your face covered against. Still, such fools entertain young men eager for a bit of blood with their legends, and are not to be trusted.
Then there are those who say she wandered to a neighboring kingdom, where in an attempt to disguise herself and her true nature, she donned rags and took on a menial job. Some say she became a goatherd or shepherdess, others the washer of clothes. In one way or another, Suha hides herself in these tales, refusing to let the world see her for who she really is. There are those story tellers who insist that she refuses to talk at this time, or only speaks in riddles so as to appear half-mad. Somehow, she finds herself in the presence of a prince, they say, be he lost in the woods or needing a quiet place to sleep for the night during a long and arduous hunt. The princess, still in her rags mind you, prepares a meal for the prince. Some gem–a ring, some argue, or a stone from a locket, finds itself in the prince’s meal. He bites it and, lo and behold, discovers that the source of his succor is not a simple beggar woman but in fact a princess in disguise.
And as in such tales, they immediately fall in love and are married, usually to his parents’ chagrin, for what royal family would want their son to marry a peasant, even if she is secretly a princess. Some end their tale there, happily ever after, assuming that the couple grow old together, raising lovely children who have many adventures of their own. Still others end with the wedding itself, to which all sorts of nobles have been invited, including Umar El-Amin. The bride instructs the cook to not put any salt in Umar El-Amin’s food, and to serve him nothing but sweet treats and tangy delicacies all night. This the cook does, and when asked by the bride how he enjoys his meal, Umar El-Amin compliments it, as any guest would, but suggests that it could have used a bit of salt. Suha immediately reveals herself, and Umar El-Amin, having learned his lesson, embraces his daughter.
What do I think? It’s a touching tale, and one that I tell my daughter some nights when I want her to sleep, but it’s too neat, too tidy to be true. What intrigues me is the jar, that black sphere of glass. Every storyteller agrees on one thing, the beginning of the tale. However, every salt merchant I have met from every caravan I have bartered and bargained with outside these city walls, agrees on another fact. Our tales end with the jar, the sultan’s final gift to his grieving daughter. They all insist that, her heart being so broken in her exile from her father, Suha weeps each night, collecting her tears in the jar. By morning, of course, the tears themselves have evaporated, leaving the faintest film of salt.
Day after day, month after month, Suha sobs, filling the jar, until it is full of the most precious and rarest salt in the world, salt that isn’t mined from the earth or boiled from the sea, but salt that is pulled from a broken heart and is flavored with its ache and misery; her heart is so broken by her father’s mistrust that she cannot even let go of life and die. We purveyors of salt know that Suha is still out there, wandering, joining caravan after caravan, peddling the remnants of her tears. Some say they make any meal taste so rich and delicious, the flavors of the food sprinkled with but a pinch of her salt so intense, that anyone who eats it weeps with the joy of each taste, but once the meal is complete, they cry a second time, sobbing that their tongues will never again taste anything as perfect. Some even say that Suha has a second jar in which she collects these grieving tears, a lesser version of her own salt, purified by its desolation. Then there are those who say that Suha’s salt is not for meals, but for cleansing. They say that, mixed with the right oils, the skin of even the filthiest begger with a body which has not been touched with even water for years, whose hair is so rough and matted that it makes the tangled strands of wool on the back of kharoof seem like silk, will come clean and be so soft and smooth it will be as though he were pampered by a sultan’s harem thrice daily.
Then there are those, and this is what I wish to be true with all my heart, who say that Suha is not a merchant of food or bath products, but a healer. Her salt, wrought in a mine of torment, calcified under the pressure of endless sorrow, and harvested in daily grief, is so powerful, so potent, that a single pinch will treat the most egregious of wounds, lacerations that even the most learned of physicians confess beyond their powers of healing. Some even say that, with enough of this salt, Suha has even raised the newly dead from their bier.
But what do I know? I am an old man, a seller of salt amongst stalls of spices. Come, good sir, the sun is well past us now. Do not allow me to hold you any longer. I have salt to sell, and it is yours for the buying if you’re interested. At discount, even, as I thank you for the time spent listening to me ramble. Oh, but why do you remove your hood now that you…
Oh, I beg a thousand pardons, madam. Please forgive me. Had I but known, I would have not spoken in such a way and beleaguered you with my tale. Please, here, a pouch of my finest bathing salt, all the way from Tyre, saturated with fragrant oils of citrus peel and lemongrass to not only cleanse but perfume your skin. Please, madam, take it with my apologies as a gift for my impudence and boldness.
No, madam, no…I expect no gift in return. Such a lady as yourself needs not pay for…
Oh, by the bread and salt, by my life and the life of my mother and father, it does exist. Oh, praise the Almighty, it is as beautiful as they claimed and more, as though the sun itself were an angel teaching a new language across a delicate tongue of glass.
Your majesty, I bow before you. Forgive me, yet again, for I have not only taken up your precious time, but probably slandered you with my tale. I humble myself before you. Please, clearly the sun has not passed as far as I thought. If you are willing, allow me to make another pot of tea, for you have truths and tales to tell, and I, your servant, have ears to listen.
BIO: Joshua Gage is an ornery curmudgeon from Cleveland, His first full-length collection, breaths, is available from VanZeno Press. Intrinsic Night, a collaborative project he wrote with J. E. Stanley, was recently published by Sam’s Dot Publishing. He is a graduate of the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Naropa University. He has a penchant for Pendleton shirts, rye whiskey and any poem strong enough to yank the breath out of his lungs. He stomps around Cleveland in a purple bathrobe where he hosts the monthly Deep Cleveland Poetry hour and enjoys the beer at Brew Kettle.
The featured and remixed photo from Merv is by Башлык, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.