Inside the mosque, it occurred to me that God and Allah are two names for a single inconceivable Being, and I prayed aloud that I be freed from my burden.
AMUSLIM CHILD is familiar with the miraculous spider who played her part in the major Hijrah—Prophet Muhammad’s escape from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD, the journey that begins the Islamic calendar. During the minor Hijrah of 613 AD, when many Muslims sought refuge in Abyssinia (what is now Eritrea and Ethiopia), Negus, its Christian king, saw their faith as being in continuity with his and sheltered them—but there was no such protection during the major Hijrah. A direct divine intervention was needed.
The prophet and his closest disciple, Abu Bakr, were hiding in a cave in Jabal Thawr before heading north to Medina. When Mecca’s rulers sent their best trackers to follow the two men to the exact spot where they hid, one of the “invisible soldiers” who God enlisted to aid his messenger was a spider. As the bounty hunters approached the cave, the spider wove a web obstructing the entrance. The bounty hunters paused: surely, they thought, too little time had elapsed for a spider to have spun such intricate work. They turned back to Mecca empty handed. And schoolchildren today learn about the holy spider and her miraculous, protective web.
But more recently, the spider attended to by westerners interested in Arab or Islamic culture is not the one who saved Muhammad. It is another mentioned in the twenty-ninth surah of the Quran: “The likeness of those who choose other patrons than God is as the likeness of the spider when she taketh unto herself a house, and lo! The frailest of all houses is the spider’s house, if they but knew.” Paul Bowles takes that verse as an epigraph for his 1955 novel, The Spider’s House. As the scholar Hosam Aboul-Ela writes in his critical book Domestications, Bowles’s novel pits the “authentic” Moroccan against the disillusioned, anticolonial one. The former is allied with a romanticized recidivism and idealized simplicity (of the noble savage) in the American narrator’s mind, while the latter is tainted by the corrupting desire for a sovereign state, a complicated ailment only the radical American might comprehend. This is how Bowles’s American expatriate describes the Moroccan protagonist who has allied himself with the flimsy spider’s house and its yearning for an autonomous state: “Outwardly Europeanized but inwardly conscious that the desired metamorphosis would remain forever unaccomplished, and therefore defiant, on the offensive to conceal his defeat.” A Muslim spider, so to speak, is employed by Bowles to tell Arab Muslims what and where their allegorical house of God should be in the age of decolonization.
J.L. Borges treats the spider allegory differently in his crime mystery story “Ibn Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth” (1949). Borges begins with the same epigraph from the Quran: “is the likeness of the spider who buildeth her house.” He then weaves a murder riddle set in medieval times, with an eye on the “artifices of the genre.” Through the space-time continuum, his exploration eschews political and moral judgment in favor of the thrill of reconstructing a mystery. Ariadne is invoked, as is a spiderweb that metamorphoses into a dream of vipers during the sleep of the irredeemable sinner, Ibn Hakam, the alleged perpetrator of an enigmatic crime. Borges explains: “I shouldn’t be surprised that the spiderweb (the universal form of the spiderweb, I mean—the Platonic spiderweb) suggested the crime to the murderer.”
As with Bowles, there’s no echo of the holy spider of the Hijrah in Borges’s Labyrinths. The “Platonic” canopy is not convincing. The absence of the holy spider is more peculiar considering that the two texts were published six years apart. Was this Islamic insignia popular among the literati of the time? Neither man seems to have been aware of the spider that saved Muhammad’s life, a spider that ushered in light, who stood for communion with the natural world, who prevented murder and chaos rather than heralding them, a spider whose God enters a child’s heart. The verse quoted by Bowles and Borges points to the iconic spider insofar as that spider’s home was a house of God. The inversion escapes both authors.
In 2002 I served with Doctors Without Borders in Maheba Refugee Settlement in Zambia. Maheba was a sprawling agrarian project. Spiders of all sizes and shapes commanded a range of habitat: in dew-laden morning webs that seemed to dissolve from sight by midday, in latrines where flies were kept at bay, in sunflower and cassava fields, in Whitman’s “vacant vast surroundings” tossing their filaments about, and in our expatriate house. Over months I watched the spiders live their labor. At times they appeared playful as they honed their skill in our spacious, largely unfurnished living room, with its thatched roof and beams, our lonely coffee table flanked by foam cushions and straw chairs. That’s when the invisible agent of God, the spider in Jabal Thawr of nearly fifteen hundred years ago, paid me a visit.
What happened to the spider after the bounty hunters turned away from the cave? What was the fate of the house she built in alliance with God? It would be too ironic, perhaps too cruel, to tear down the home a spider built to protect humans who were forced out of their homes by other humans. Didn’t the Prophet, a refugee, watch her spool the web back into her belly after all was safe?
Parables and allegories evolve, containing within them the force of life. Before the Hijrah, King David found refuge from King Saul in the Cave of Adullam. In our time, Palestinians have a name for the year of Israel’s creation and Palestine’s Nakba: Hijrah, migration. Hijrah is an ethic taken up to preserve life. Hijrah is despair but also a balm for an immeasurable mourning, not defeat or shame. Hagar, Ismael’s mother, takes her name from the word-root of “migration,” of being abandoned. In Arabic poem and song, a lover deserts another through Hajr.
Let’s walk into a larger cave. In “Averroës’ Search” (1949), Borges reimagines one of the stories with which modern westerners represent Arabic and Islamic cultures in a single swoop. Thanks to his critical analysis of Aristotle’s works, the great medieval philosopher and physician Ibn Rushd (Averroës) became posthumously known in Europe as “the Commentator.” It is a curious title for someone who so influenced the development of philosophy on the continent, from Thomas Aquinas and Siger of Brabant all the way to the Enlightenment. Despite having been born, raised, and buried in Spain, Ibn Rushd, a Muslim Arab, couldn’t be transformed into a westerner, as Aristotle was. Borges’s story focuses on one tragicomic “error” in Ibn Rushd’s treatment of Aristotle’s Poetics.
How is it, wonders Borges, that a man of Ibn Rushd’s intelligence, his prescience of the secular mode, failed to understand what Aristotle meant by “tragedy” and “comedy”? Why did an Arab monoglot perpetuate the translation of a translation (from Greek into Syriac into Arabic) of the two terms as “panegyric” and “satire” respectively, limiting both to the genre of poetry? What prevented Ibn Rushd, a physician who’d conjectured the retina’s role in optics, from seeing theater as an art form? Was it a problem of the genealogy of sources? Was his text of Aristotle’s work incomplete? Or was there a more ominous deficiency, an ethnic and cultural one?
In “Averroës’ Search,” the philosopher needs a break from what he can’t quite reconcile in the Poetics, and he meets up with two friends. Chatter takes them down winding Borgesian paths, where they encounter the usual Borgesian doubles. At the end of the story, Borges catches himself in a reflexive mode, insisting on a simple representation of Averroës in the guise of a complex one. No reversal or discovery seem possible. The philosopher, author of the “monumental work that would justify him to all people,” has become a vessel for stereotype, a tragicomic figure of western representation of the Arab or Muslim, whichever conflation serves the purpose best. Borges concludes his story:
In the preceding tale, I have tried to narrate the process of failure, the process of defeat…. I recalled Averroës, who, bounded within the circle of Islam, could never know the meaning of the words tragedy and comedy. I told his story; as I went on, I felt what the god mentioned by Burton must have felt—the god who set himself the task of creating a bull but turned out a buffalo. I felt that the work mocked me, foiled me, thwarted me. I felt that Averroës, trying to imagine what a play is without ever having suspected what a theatre is, was no more absurd than I, trying to imagine Averroës yet with no more material than a few snatches from Renan, Lane, and Asín Palacios. I felt, on the last page, that my story was a symbol of the man I had been as I was writing it, and that in order to write that story I had had to be that man, and that in order to be that man I had had to write that story, and so on, ad infinitum. (And just when I stop believing in him, “Averroës” disappears.)
And just as Borges (through doubt, dubious humility, and parody) acknowledges the obstacle of anachronism—as he transparently lists the orientalist scholars who’d reintroduced Ibn Rushd to European thought with affected objectivity—Borges suspends his verdict, satirically, parenthetically.
So much literature has come from this mystery of mistaken literary and cultural identity. The fixation was launched in 1861 by Ernest Renan, orientalist and philologist par excellence, as he completed a study on the Arab philosopher. Renan, who needed to expunge the telling effect a revered Arab or Muslim might have had on his portrait of European dominance, rejects Ibn Rushd entirely for his “failure” and “defeat.” This erasure is a long way from Dante’s divine days of acknowledgment, when he placed the-man-who-couldn’t-be-Greek—and other honorable Muslim Arabs and non-Arabs—alongside the Greeks in Limbo, the first circle of his Comedy’s hell.
Does so much depend on a spider’s web? Borges’s illusory reappraisal of Averroës comes nearly a century after Renan’s verdict. A circus of minds (including some eager, echoic Arabic ones) continued their opportunist exegesis of the great Commentator’s costly blunder: what would have become of Arab-Islamic culture had Ibn Rushd discovered (or rediscovered) theater for Europe (and for Arabs and Muslims)? Would an everlasting cultural bridge have been built? Would the Arab-Islamic world have evolved its imagination differently? Might it have offered the world its Shakespeare, or understood ours sooner?
Even toward the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, those who set out to guard Averroës from the theatrics of ridicule, methodically emphasizing the triviality of the “error” relative to his great works, often hold Averroës captive as a native informant, “one of the Cretans’ own.” Ibn Rushd, we are told, thought Arabic poetics inferior to Greek. More profoundly, his rational genius was rejected by his own people but embraced by the West. These simplifications wobble between the ahistorical and culture-industry careerism. Carved in the stone of scholarly legend, Ibn Rushd’s “error” is no longer used against his person, though his person remains of use against Arab-Islamic representation. It’s as if western culture (insofar as such collective constructions are rooted in invention) must reconcile Averroës, the adopted son, with his eastern genes, from which he must be saved. Only then can we revive our western debt to him in more palatable terms as we confront our vexation at “what went wrong.”
The compulsion to examine a fall from grace, a reversal of fortune, exhumes fear and awe, compassion and revulsion, empathy and schadenfreude. At best, Arabs and Muslims are consigned to medievalism, kept lovingly out of modernity, for that’s become their commodified purpose within a history of progress. At worst, they persist as an impediment to the propagation of heteronomous western cultural waves.
It’s difficult to embrace an Arab’s or Muslim’s critique or clarification of the West today. In America, we have a complicated history of dealing with any “copious literature of protest” that is the “flagellation of our civilization,” as William Buckley put it in his debate with James Baldwin at Cambridge in 1964. It’s important for many of us, Buckley said, to acknowledge and alleviate the “psychic humiliation” of those who have had imperial wrath visited upon them. Likewise, we find it paramount that any disadvantaged group to whom we furnish material, political, or intellectual advancement expresses serious gratitude for our generosity. And after such gratefulness, we expect that a minority’s transparent self-examination will follow: don’t Muslims and Arabs in the West live better and freer lives than those who live elsewhere? A minority that fails to express such appreciative sentiments and insists on “iconoclastic” tendencies risks affront to the “fundamental decency” of American or western people, inviting their resentment, if not reprisal.
Spoken more softly today, there is no evocative recognition of the physical destruction the foreigner endures. The menacing language used by conservatives to whitewash domestic American injustice and violence is the same language used by American moderates and liberals to describe foreign bodies on foreign land. The Arab and Muslim, separate and overlapping as they may be, are seen as a threatening alien presence, whether on or away from “native American soil.” The process of their domestication, while underway, is nascent. Racial ideology, or its cover-up in sectarian masquerade, is undeniable in America’s function toward them. If Malcolm X were alive today, what might he have to say? That’s perhaps a subject for a satiric novel or tragic play.
What erasure takes place when Arabs and Muslims are made interchangeable? And what schism is inflamed when they are made distinct? A glimpse can be found in Edward FitzGerald’s introduction to his translation of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859). FitzGerald informs us that Khayyam, yet another poetic genius disinterred by westerners from the oblivion to which his people had consigned him, was not an Arab. This influenced FitzGerald’s choice positively, as did Khayyam’s Islamic secularism. Khayyam was not a Sufi like other Persian mystic poets, “Votaries sunk in Hypocrisy and Disgust.” His was a veritable pantheism. For all of FitzGerald’s affection for Omar, it is disturbing that the English poet concluded his introduction with such vitriolic words. (And how ironic that a century later, one of those “Votaries,” Rumi, has been transformed into a true pantheist, much beloved in English translation.) In 1937 (the year Rumi popularizer Coleman Barks was born) the preface to a new American edition of the Rubaiyat picked up FitzGerald’s thread more boldly, telling us that Khayyam had “little use of Arabic,” that “mongrel language” (of the Quran) with which several great Persian mystic poets, narrow adherents to Islam, frequently “embroidered” their compositions.
If a secular Muslim can escape the cynical judgment of belonging to Arabic, can an Arab, “bounded within the circle of Islam,” as Borges put it, escape being an Arab in the West? An Arab in America is a minefield of entangled ethnicity, race, and religion. A Muslim is, too. Their heterogeneity remains immense. The forces that reduce this immensity are those of absorptive domination.
What Tolstoy said of the debate over God’s existence, others have said about politics and literature. Attempts to disprove their inseparability prove it all the more: a reification of reiteration. To speak of Arabs in English today is overwhelmingly to gravitate to sectarianism (between Muslim Arabs, non-Muslim Arabs, and non-Arab Muslims; Islam versus Christianity; and certainly within the question of Palestine as it is the question of Israel, the foreign versus the domestic). To speak of Arabs ethnically today might impair the domestic mindset of American decency as it struggles with racial narcissism toward a national one. “To speak is to commit tautologies,” as Borges wrote. Out of these cavernous sinuses, I return to the cave I alluded to in Borges’s story.
During Averroës’s meandering conversation with his two guests, one of them arrives at the parable of the seven sleepers of Ephesus. His attempt to explain theater to his interlocutors—as “a house of painted wood in which many persons lived,” pretended to eat, or ride an invisible horse—meets with blank faces. He adds:
Let us imagine that someone shows a story instead of telling it—the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, say.* We see them retire into the cavern, we see them pray and sleep, we see them sleep with their eyes open, we see them grow while they are asleep, we see them awaken after three hundred nine years, we see them hand the merchant an ancient coin, we see them awaken with the dog.
To act out the chronicle of imagination, to perform a narrative in the mind, a silent mime, is perhaps the first step toward realizing theater. I am, however, most interested in the asterisk that the wonderful translator Andrew Hurley injects above. It leads us to his “Notes to the Fictions” at the end of Borges’s (and Hurley’s) Collected Fictions:
“The seven sleepers of Ephesus”: This is a very peculiar story to put in the minds of these Islamic luminaries, for the story of the seven sleepers of Ephesus is a Christian story, told by Gregory of Tours. Clearly the breadth of culture of these gentlemen is great, but it is difficult (at least for this translator) to see the relationship of this particular tale (unlike the other “stories,” such as the children playing or “representing” life and the “if it had been a snake it would have bitten him” story told by abu-al-Hasan) to Averroës’ quest.
This attains perfection. In his crystal and humble note, Hurley unintentionally becomes Borges’s double (and Borges probably rejoiced in his grave). The seven sleepers of Ephesus is also an Islamic narrative. The detail of the “three hundred nine years” comes from the Quranic version of the tale, as does the dog. The dog was always a powerful meditation for me as a child. A righteous and faithful companion of the faithful and righteous, with a weighty tenderness, he slept in the guard position, “his front paws flat and straight.” The story of the seven sleepers is another incomplete narrative. It was first written down in Syriac. Hurley misses the analogy of a story that must be performed in the listener’s mind, which in turn makes reenactment on a stage possible. Yet Hurley shares with us his vulnerability and doubt: he, like Borges, suspects that the work (Borges’s in this case) is thwarting him. Hurley’s note to “Averroës Search” is now inseparable from the story in the translator’s English. The translator can’t imagine Islam in communion with Judaism or Christianity. Islam’s great ecumenism toward the other two major monotheistic religions deserves contemplation. It would have taken Hurley little effort in 1998 to find out that, as with the spider, the seven sleepers have an entire surah in the Quran named in their honor: Al-Kahf (The Cave).
The sleepers in the Quran are three, five, or seven, plus the dog. God instructs Muhammad not to engage in controversies over accuracy or veracity (of the Quran’s retelling of events from the holy books that preceded it), especially when those narratives have multiple versions among the People of the Book, and the truth can only be known by God. In the Quran, the sleepers are not Jewish or Christian but believers in one God. Perhaps they were Nestorian, since they lived before the first Council of Nicaea. And once they woke up from their deep slumber (through which God had turned them to the left and right, to preserve their bodies from pressure ulcers), they found out that the world around them had become filled with the word of God. The following day they and their dog died.
Islam decrees itself inseparable from Judaism and Christianity. Islam’s followers believe in the Book. For God’s word is one Book that is revealed in various human languages so that its recipients may comprehend it. And this one Book, whether evolving or fixed, requires repetition, recurrence. It was thus that God chose Muhammad as messenger for the Arabs, to return them to God and to spread his word again, this time through them. To be sure, this account doesn’t lack judgment that favors Islam. Muhammad is the final prophet and messenger. After him, God decided to be done with editing his words, with revising. And perhaps this finality coincided with the firming up of translation’s evolution in the human brain, and God trusted that things would take care of themselves from there. The Semitic languages contained just the right variability to open up onto the world. Islam is the last manifestation of the heavenly word, the final transfiguration of God’s message to humans. To be a Muslim, however, is not the same as being a Mu’min, a Believer. Islam is a general state of faith that requires its followers to embrace the Abrahamic way, with all its prophets, messages, and narratives, inclusive of Muhammad. To achieve faith requires a deep serenity, as opposed to mere submission. In the Quran, Moses is declared as the first Believer (and his encounter with Muhammad on the latter’s ascent from Jerusalem to meet God isn’t without commiserating camaraderie).
Judaism and Christianity see themselves as separate from Islam. In 1143—five centuries after the Prophet invited the Najran Christian delegation to hold their Sunday prayers in his mosque in Medina—the first Latin translation of the Quran was completed. The Law of Mahomet, the False Prophet, a poisonous text, was republished in 1543 with an introduction by Martin Luther. Up until the turn of the twenty-first century, it was normal to refer to a Muslim as a Mohammadan, a title no Muslims would use to refer to themselves. To do so would be to deny the contract with the divine: a Muslim is one who submits to the will of God, not the will of Muhammad. This expression appeared in prominent American literary works (sometimes coupled with a reflexive mention of the veil) as recently as 1990. Its mutable, muted substitute has become “radical Islam”: a metonymy for a synecdoche. Along these lines that bind nomenclature to distortion, “the Moor” comes to mind. How do centuries of Arab-Muslim prominence in Al-Andalus reside in the western imagination? What’s become of that golden age and the Spanish Inquisition that followed it? And then there’s this: the irreducible horror of the Muselmann in Auschwitz—the word that described prisoners who had become so emaciated and listless that they no longer resisted death.
There is a crisis of antecedence. Its vehicles and ideologies vary. Here, it’s the antecedence that has affected Jewish and Christian relations and the antecedence that’s necessary to understand Islam’s ecumenism toward them. Judaism and Christianity, while not superimposable, tessellate and intersect. For the two to accept a third in the partnership of God is to risk ceding more of God’s province. For Muslims to accept commonality with Judaism and Christianity is to gain more ground. Monotheists no longer have to contend with the extinct Gilgamesh, Akhenaten, or Canaanite mythologies that taint our version of the Book or the One. (And we concern ourselves with Zoroastrians or Druze, for example, only to the extent that advanced societies are inclusive and tolerant of all those who don’t notably disturb their dialectics of power.) Still, if Islam is a consequent of Judaism and Christianity, continuous with them, as Islam declares, then Islam can be denied by Judaism and Christianity, and its claim of belonging ruptured. In anticipation, Islam—through the phenomenon of finality, of being God’s closing edit—creates its own antecedence. If you are true, then I am also true, Islam says to its two siblings, and adds that if Islam is true then the siblings are as true as Islam says they are. In this sense, the nineteenth-century term “Judeo-Christian,” as an ethical link between the “original” antecedent and the “original” consequent, has since merged as a two-in-one, incorporated antecedent whose consequent-to-be-denied is Islam. And yet Islam does extend its arms to People of the Book.
Total denial is countered with conditional acceptance. An open-hearted examination of Islam’s early days will find that Muhammad’s faithful belief in the People of the Book was far more concerned with establishing a unitarian accord than preeminence among them. Islam’s ecumenism begins outside the swamp of history—in another cave, Hira’, with the miracle of the first revelation of the Quran. In that awesome encounter with the Divine, antecedence disappears and oneness endures.
Back in surah Al-Kahf, there’s a remarkable story that pits the faith of Moses against that of a mystic figure. God instructs Moses, who has momentarily become conceited about his own piety, to seek a certain holy man and learn from him. As they journey together, the holy man asks Moses for patience and silence. Three times, the holy man does something Moses finds reprehensible, and finally Moses breaks his vow. Before they part ways, the holy man explains the knowledge behind the visible, sensory world.
This allegory is a foundation of sainthood in Islamic thought. It reorients a person of faith toward the possibility of a deeper learning of God, no less than that of prophets and messengers. The mystic figure in this story is known as al-Khidr. In some Islamic literature, he transcends linear time and place. Ibn Arabi, known as the Great Sheikh, perhaps the greatest saint in Islamic history and a contemporary of Francis of Assisi, encountered al-Khidr several times. (Ibn Arabi also met with Averroës—dead, alive, and in dream—but if Borges knew anything of this, it didn’t entice him into lyrical essayistic fiction.) Ibn Arabi was born in Spain and eventually emigrated to the east of the Muslim world to fulfill his mission among its people during the pandemonium of the Crusades. In his formative years in Al-Andalus, he endeavored in Jesus’s path, seeing it as one of the orders a seeker of Truth may embrace. The Great Sheikh was a prolific writer, a phenomenal and metaphysical thinker. In one treatise he theorized that Muhammad, who concludes the line of prophets and messengers, doesn’t negate the possibility of a later definitive guardian of the word of God who would fulfill the trust. In Ibn Arabi, a totality of faiths were convened. His heart contained within it pastures for deer, monasteries for monks, a temple for idols, a Kaaba around which to parade, tablets for a Torah, and a Quran, as he said in one of his famous verses: “I follow the religion of love wherever its caravans go.”
Islam is more ecumenical toward Judaism and Christianity than either is toward it. Recent popular recognition in the West of the shared Abrahamic family tree amounts to little more than gesture. To unlearn antecedence through greater embrace of Islam’s ecumenism may be liberating, an evolutionary step. Western secularism’s rejection or willful neglect of this ecumenism exacerbates the reluctance: its critique of Islam is quite different from the generally considerate positions it articulates toward Judaism and Christianity, perhaps because their adjacency to western secularism allows for some deference. Islam, however, is detained in alienating nuance and exotifying exception. (Has western secularism, in its diversity and discontent, taken on the role of the antecedent in the new age?) Western fascination with non-monotheistic eastern religions, fraught as it is with colonial history, is another instance of subtotal reason. In search of the lost God, many westerners feel no need to engage with Islam, as Islam seems to offer little new to the consciousness of their spirits or the spirit of their consciousness. Perhaps it’s in return—to the more ancient and antecedent Hinduism or Buddhism—that a new self can be found (or annihilated).
Borges, who had become blind by the mid-1950s, believed in the existence of “one book” that is continually rewritten, resynthesized. Not the “Book-Man” whose “librarian is analogous to a god,” but the one book that’s the “catalog of all catalogs.” For Borges, the universe is the Library (or vice versa), as he tells us in “The Library of Babel” (1941). Some have argued that if his one book could be named, then One Thousand and One Nights, Don Quixote, or Dante’s masterpiece would be on the shortlist. No single member of this constitutive circle can stand alone as the one book, though each confuses origin, transforms in time, proliferates in memory, and disintegrates “the certainty that everything has already been written”—the certainty that “annuls us, or renders us phantasmal.” Borges’s imaginary one book doesn’t preach the end of history, doesn’t grant history supremacy over time.
Shakespeare’s Memory (1983) was Borges’s last short story collection. In the title story, Shakespeare to the Argentine author is not an “official religion,” as he is to the English, but a quiet privacy, an elegant hope. A person who possesses Shakespeare’s memory must lose it forever if she is to pass it on. To tell this story, Borges begins in the east, in Punjab, where the German narrator, less an acolyte of Goethe than of Shakespeare (and English, “to its credit,” has two registers, Germanic and Latinate), informs us that “Islamic legend apparently has it, you know, that King Solomon owned a ring that allowed him to understand the language of the birds.” The ring was now in the possession of a beggar who understood its inestimable worth, refused to sell it, and died “in one of the courtyards of the mosque of Wazir Khan.”
“Would you like to own Solomon’s ring? I offer it to you. That’s a metaphor, of course,” and what it “stands for is every bit as wondrous as that ring. Shakespeare’s memory.” Later, the German protagonist speaks: “A man’s memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities. Saint Augustine speaks … of the palaces and caverns of memory. That second metaphor is the more fitting one. It was into those that I descended.” There, possessed of the cavernous and comparable riches of Solomon’s ring and Shakespeare’s world, the Muslim beggar is equal to the Shakespearean scholar, or to Borges himself. Each holds a “dead man’s magical memory.” What happened to Solomon’s ring? Was it found on the beggar’s person? Is rupture possible within an epistemology without risk of irretrievable loss? What happened to Solomon’s memory?
An answer can be found in an earlier Borges story. The same beggar whose death was announced in “Shakespeare’s Memory” makes a critical cameo in “Blue Tigers” (1977), in the same mosque where he would die six years later. A Scotsman, “professor of Eastern and Western logic,” is the protagonist of the latter story. With one pounce, he references Blake, Chesterton, Kipling (all tiger specialists), and the Sunday seminars he consecrates to Spinoza. This professor is in search of blue tigers he was told existed in some Punjabi village. A mischievous, succinct passage follows: “The people who lived in the village were Hindus. I did not like this, though I had foreseen it. I have always gotten along better with Muslims, though Islam, I know, is the poorest of the religions that spring from Judaism.” The clarity of that statement, in 1977 no less, is not to be taken lightly or deflected onto Borges, “the imperfect librarian.” It’s a representational itch that Borges impishly scratches for many western hearts. The Scotsman can relate to Muslims mostly because they relate to and validate Judaism and Christianity.
In his hunt for the blue tigers, the professor of dual logic encounters the primitive, infuriating villagers and their fantastical stones: “the only objects that contradict that essential law of the human mind.” He finds that the blue tigers are “stones that spawn,” whose blue is the blue the villagers are permitted to see only in their dreams. Malignantly, devoid of apoptosis and inhibition, the stones proliferate on contact with human skin. The Scotsman had broken the trust and commandment of the Hindu villagers, whose chief refuses to touch the magical item under a revolver’s threat. “A bullet in the breast is preferable to a blue stone in the hand,” he says sagely to the professor. The professor has blasphemed. A curse has been cast. He’s terrified and returns to Lahore. Ever the philologist, Borges tells us that these stones that resisted arithmetic and physics (“their weight was constant, and light”) reminded him of “calculus,” and he wonders if Pythagoras encountered the stones. Nothing can release the professor from his torment, until on February 10, he finds himself “at the gates of the great mosque of Wazir Khan. It was the hour at which light has not yet revealed the colors of things.”
A beggar appears out of nowhere and says, “I am here.” The beggar knows the professor has in his pockets something to give and wants it. The professor warns the beggar that what he has might be a curse meant only for him as long as he possesses it. The beggar replies: “Perhaps that gift is the only gift I am permitted to receive.” Soundlessly the blue stones fall “into his concave hand” as if into a bottomless sea. The beggar adds: “I do not yet know what your gift to me is, but mine to you is an awesome one. You may keep your days and nights, and keep wisdom, habits, the world.” It’s a beautiful scene. The antecedence declared earlier in the story dissolves into a profound ecumenism. The beggar appears only after Borges’s Scotsman accepts that “God and Allah are two names for a single inconceivable Being.” Only then was his prayer heard and answered in the mosque. (Did Borges and the Scotsman know that the Arabic word “Allah” predates Islam, and that Jewish and Christian Arabs also speak it?) An appreciation of syncretism in the catharsis of “Blue Tigers” is appropriate here. The truth that the Hindu villagers believed about the stones, the Muslim beggar embraced.
When Spinoza resurfaces six years later in “Shakespeare’s Memory,” where there’s neither tiger nor stone, he speaks thus: “the wish of all things is to continue to be what they are. The stone wishes to be stone, the tiger, tiger.” The imaginary blueness of both is done with. The beggar in “Blue Tigers” is the beggar of Solomon’s ring in “Shakespeare’s Memory.” God is Allah, the mosque, the mosque, and the erudite narrator, himself: “Simply the thing I am shall make me live.”
There’s no denying that Borges is mesmerizing: his encyclopedic, whirling, lyrical synthesis, his magical dispersive logic, his facsimile of the world’s memory. Despite his sublime amalgams, he renders Arabs in particular, and Muslims in general, phantasmal. Too often, they’re trapped in a fabulous time capsule whose wisdom and mystery serve to palliate our future: a wormhole only Borges (and his doubles) can shape for them. In his fiction there are no contemporary Arabs to speak of, no modern Baghdad, Cairo, or Marrakesh, and his non-Arab Muslims are assigned to the treasures that remain of the recent colonial “universality” that writes them (as the colonial shape-shifts enzymatically into the “global” and other names).
Of course, the energy of the ring that fell into Borges’s lap is incalculable, ineffable. The importance “Islamic legend” attributes to King Solomon is equally boundless. Five centuries after the Quranic narratives of Solomon the Wise (cited mostly in The Ants surah), the Persian mystic Farid Edin al-Attar composed his philosophical masterpiece The Conference of the Birds, in which thirty birds, led by a hoopoe, must cross seven valleys toward God. Seven centuries after al-Attar of Nishapur (who shared a birth and burial place with Khayyam), the seven valleys influenced the founder of the Baha’i faith. And more than a century after that, Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish composed his lyric epic “The Hoopoe” (1990). In it an evolution of our modern subjectivity’s primacy and disillusionment, in the era of the commercial nation-state, soars high to touch the liberated ground.
Was Borges, the textual spider and author of Seven Nights, aware of these avian travails? Borges disappears within the library’s “everlasting, ubiquitous system of hexagonal galleries.” The sleepers in his caves rise to become other sleepers in other literary caves of new illusions and elisions. He toiled toward a saving grace in his reconfiguration of a Viconian fantasy: “[i]f an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder—which, repeated, become order”—this entropic hope.
I like a story in the Quran about a blind man. He came to listen to the Prophet proselytize to the condescending dignitaries of Mecca. The blind man was a commoner. His sharp auditory intellect was keenly present. He engaged Muhammad, asked him questions, was willing and curious. The Prophet felt annoyance at this blind commoner and kept his replies increasingly short. He had had enough of the meek following him, and the powerful in the room had begun to sneer. Then God reproached his prophet and messenger for this lapse (addressing him in the third person): “He frowned and turned away, as the blind man came his way.”
Fady Joudah is a poet and translator whose honors include the Yale Younger Poets Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Griffin Poetry Prize. His newest book, Tethered to Stars, is forthcoming from Milkweed.