A SUBLIME PORT
A text by the 2018 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow and CapitaLiterature participant Taymour Soomro
I start forgetting things. Sometimes I remember that I'm forgetting but sometimes I don't so I keep a list. I note the consequences because I think that may provide an incentive for me to remember in the future.
Forgot: to wear sash.
Consequence: beaten on soles of feet and pay docked for three days as couldn't work.
Forgot: to salute the Valide Sultan when she returned to the palace after an excursion to the Sweet Waters of Asia.
Consequence: beaten on the backs of knees with cane and pay docked for two days for insolence.
Forgot: to appear for dawn prayer.
Consequence: beaten on the ribs by mufti with bare hand and severe punishment undoubtedly to come in Afterlife.
Forgot: words and motions of midday prayer.
Consequence: no one noticed as initially forgot prayer time and so was at back of congregation. Punishment in Afterlife of course much worse – beg forgiveness from Almighty.
The man who sleeps beside me in our barracks – an Assyrian with sad eyes and a handsome face that condemns him to the most menial jobs in the palace – provides me with kind and useful prompts when he sees me.
'What should you be remembering right now?'
'To have lunch.'
'To deliver the note in your hand –' (here he taps the package wrapped in an embroidered handkerchief that I am holding at my side)'– to the Sultana that the Master of the Robes gave you only minutes ago. Then to have lunch.'
I never forget lunch. Especially on the days we have aubergine and pilav.
An important doctor comes to see one of the Sultan's mistresses, a Venetian princess who was abducted by a Turkish corsair when a child and then sold to the Sultan.
On such a visit, we stand in parallel rows to form a corridor through which the doctor may pass into the harem without seeing the sick woman. She inserts a hand in a gap between two of us for the doctor to inspect. He is not permitted to speak in her presence and so, in the dark passage outside the Chamber of Favoured Women, he provides her prescription – invariably a sherbet of some sort.
On this particular occasion, in error I wear my ceremonial hat in place of my turban and as a result I stand out from the others. The doctor assumes that I am senior and gives me the Venetian's prescription. I take the opportunity to tell him about my forgetting.
'Impossibly common,' he says squinting into his eyeglasses. 'Of course I remember everything. Seven almonds with breakfast every morning. And a sherbet of roses and –' he raises one thick eyebrow, then the other, '–another ingredient.'
The Assyrian continues in his efforts to help me. He whispers as we lie on our mats looking up at the tiled ceiling in the dim light of the moon and stars late at night.
'What is your name?'
'They gave me the name of a flower,' I say.
'Rosebud,' he says. 'What is my name, Rosebud?'
'You are the Assyrian with the sad eyes.'
'I am Egyptian,' he says. 'Do I have sad eyes?'
On another occasion, 'What is the year?'
'What is the name of the Sultan?' This question very softly.
'His Sacred and Imperial Majesty, Emperor, Sovereign of the Sublime House of Osman, Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe, Custodian of the Two Noble Sanctuaries–'
'Mehmet the Fourth,' he says.
He asks me about my life before the palace. I can't remember a moment, a sound, a taste. 'In my mind, there is a wall on every side,' I tell him. I ask about his.
'I've told you,' he says. 'How many times we lay beneath this starry ceiling, and talked of home, of our villages, of our parents, our livestock, our fortunes and misfortunes, and our journeys here.'
A bird sings outside the window and I hear myself say, 'I remember that!'
'What?' he says.
But there are no trees outside and the bird flies away. 'I don't know,' I say.
He continues, 'I don't know the name of my village. My name before I came here was Kekkol which meant peace in my language. I was the seventh child in my family and my father sold me for what would be twenty Aspers today, not enough to buy a barren goat. I went by boat up the Nile and then from Grand Cairo to Alexandria at the back of a camel train. I was auctioned to a man who brought me to the Sublime Porte and here they paid three hundred Aspers for me. I may not have your face but I am strong and obedient and people see it in my eyes.'
'But what do you remember?' I ask him.
'I remember the smell of a man who was sick and then died in our boat. It was a smell that reached deep down the back of the throat and twisted itself into a knot. And when they tossed his body out, he floated away on the currents, not even food for crocodiles. I remember,' he continues, 'that the sand when they buried me up to my neck burned at the surface but was cold beneath. I remember a dish my sister made of curdled camel's milk sweetened with the sap from a date palm. It coated the tongue like fur.' He makes a noise – tchanp – with his tongue against the roof of his mouth. 'I remember the heat of my mother's stomach against my head.' Our voices crack with age, but here his breaks in a different way.
Taymour Soomro is a British-Pakistani writer. He read law at Cambridge University and Stanford Law School. He has worked as a corporate solicitor in Milan, a law lecturer at a university in Karachi, an agricultural estate manager in rural Pakistan and a publicist for a luxury fashion brand in London.
He has an MA in creative writing from UEA for which he received the Curtis Brown Prize in 2016. He is currently a Chase doctoral fellow at UEA. He was a 2018 Sozopol Fellow and a Bread Loaf Writers Conference 2019 Contributor. His short fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Ninth Letter and The Southern Review. He has published a textbook on law with Oxford University Press and has written extensively for the Pakistani news media.
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