Song of the Soul: rough draft

 

A rough draft, but let me know what you think. 

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Stories from the Arabian Nights by Edmund Dulac

In medieval Persia,  a time when myth and magic reigned supreme, in which men feared for their lives from evil djinn, and explorers searched for hidden caves full of treasure, there was a great kingdom in the middle of the vast desert.

The sultan of this kingdom was rich. In his treasury were ebony statues of warriors that could come to life and fight for him in a war. There were exquisite flying carpets which soared high into the heavens. Birds carved out of jade feasted on trees that grew emerald leaves and bore ruby pomegranates and diamond figs. These were just but a few of the marvelous treasures that the sultan owned, and he gave thanks to Allah for his bounty.

But outside the palace walls, the people didn’t fare so well. They majority of the population lived in rundown buildings, and tried to live their daily lives either by cobbling, sewing, vending, or in the worst case living on the streets. The fortunate ones were the rich merchants, to which the lower class merchants struggled against. However, not all of the lower class and homeless were miserable.

Despite his old age and his life of hardships, Payim was still happy. He had his chang (a harp) that his mother had given to him before she had died. Whenever he ran his fingers through the strings, he could hear his mother’s voice singing sweetly and softly, bringing serenity to his soul. At age eighty, he stood on the street corner of the main market, making music to sooth the souls of the masses who had lost humanity in their will to survive. Among the greedy hands, hungry for merchandise, starving for fine material possessions, or just the humblest of the dust, who desired nothing more than a decent meal, there were those who heard his music, the voice of the siren’s strings, and were elevated to a moment of pure bliss. They would put aside their petty squabbles at the stalls, and make their way over to listen to Payim where they would be further enraptured by his gift, blessed to him from Allah above.

But not all appreciated Payam’s gifts. These were mainly the rich merchants. Because of the deafness of their ears, they esteemed the old man’s music not as a lullaby to sooth the beast that bellowed in their hearts, but as the braying of a donkey. They wanted nothing more than that menace of the musician to cease. The sultan agreed with his money-driven subjects, issuing a decree that music must not be played in, or anywhere near, the marketplace. The only music appropriate for the market were the ballads of the auctioneers naming the prices and the jingle of coins landing on counters. Many also found it to be an inconvenience that Payim stood in the only green area of the kingdom, on the corner arrayed in palms and fruit trees and bright flowers. A little oasis had also formed where Payam played, a small silver mirror surrounded by a sea of sand and stucco. There were merchants who coveted that area to peddle their wares.

One day the sultan’s guards caught Payam playing. “You have been a burden for long enough, old man. You have been asked time and time again to not make such noise.”

“Would you take joy away from the people?” asked Payam.

“Let him play,” protested the audience and the poorer merchants.

“You know the law,” the guard said. “Let this be a warning. Play at your own risk.”

But Payam ignored the warning as though it was just the buzzing of an irritating fly. He kept his corner and from there he played his harp. One day the merchants had enough and summoned the guards. “You know the sultan’s decree. Do your job and put an end to this riff-raff’s playing.”

What was once a sweet symphony became a harmony of discord as the old musician’s instrument wailed and groaned in pain, splintering into many pieces on the street. “You were warned,” said the guard curtly.

Payam rushed to gather the broken fragments. His harp was in splinters and so was his livelihood. Cradling the pieces in his hands, he took them back to his hovel, built of mud and sticks. Cracks ran through it, welcoming the insects that shared Payam’s straw bed. Inside, under the sickly yellow rays, swarming with dust, Payam worked on fixing his chang. But he didn’t know how to. He tried repairing it with wattle and daub, but those weren’t meant for repairing instruments. Even if he managed to fix the frame, the strings were had been torn asunder. Be that as it may, the broken strings of his instrument were a trivial matter compared to the broken strings of his heart.

There were many who missed Payam and his playing, but not the wealthy merchants. The majority of them fought for the right to sells their wares on the green corner where Payam had played. In the end, only two of the richest merchants were given permission from the sultan to plant their stalls among the fronds and near the water. However, shortly after, the small oasis sunk down into the earth, withdrawing to its home for a long slumber. Without the water, the sand ruled as king and tyrant, and the plants bowed in submission to it, turning back into the dust from whence they came.

Meanwhile, unknown to Payam, skilled hands were crafting him another chang. For not all merchants were enslaved to pouches of gold. A few, like Arman were content with their own golden hearts. A middle-aged merchant with a bellowing laugh, a bushy mustache resting comfortably under a bulbous nose, and a bulging belly that burst forth in bellowing laughter, Arman was as pious as he was jovial. His life was guided by the Quran, particularly by Quran 34:39 about whatsoever someone spent on anything, God would replace it. But God didn’t work alone. From using Muhammed, peace be upon him, to give his vision to the whole of humanity, Allah expected all of his children to be give back generously in his name. Allah had played the strings of Payam’s life as effectively as Payam had played his chang; music springing forth from the same fountain. Soon that music would pour out freely again, giving life to the desert.

Finished with the chang, Arman wasted no time in delivering it to Payam. But the old musician just looked at the chang without any music in his eyes. “I am a broken man, though I thank you for the offer,” Payam declined the gift.

“Brother, there are those who are in need of your gifts,” Arman said, trying to force the chang in Payam’s hands.

“For what purpose? My chang was more than a harp. It was a reminder of my mother who gave it to before she died. I saw her die once, only to see her die a second time.”

“It is true that I wield not the soul of your mother,” Arman said, looking at him with understanding eyes. “But Allah is good, and he has guided me in creating you another harp. Please, give it a try.”

Payam looked at the instrument. The harp was carved most gracefully, the curves like a maiden in movement. He strummed the strings and the sound that soared forth was that of a chorus of angels. Music was once again made manifest in the musician’s eyes and his countenance again became like that of youth.

“You do realize that if play this music, the guards will smash my harp again. Maybe even imprison me,” warned Payam.

“If you don’t bless the world with your music, then we are all imprisoned,” countered Arman.

Knowing that what the merchant said was true, the musician carried out his chang to the corner. But the wealthy merchants were there, and they glared at him. Payam was forced to find another corner, one he hadn’t performed on before. He took a deep breath and began to play. His fingers glided across the strings like a fish through a stream. The stared at him with coals for eyes, angered at the loss of their customers. Everyone else stood transfixed to the message that the music promulgated, a message devoid of words, but not of meaning.

Then, down the streets, two golden camels, one in the front, one in the back, trotted up. Opulent sofa covers, blue sapphire like the evening sky, crowned their humps. Between the camels, on a set of poles, was a palanquin. It glittered golden under the sunlight. The servant, dressed in rich embroideries, leading the camels came to a halt at the sight of the old musician. From inside the palanquin came a voice of anger, and not even the curtains, decorated in geometric patterns, could muffle the disapproval.

“Who dares disturb the peace?” the sultan boomed.

“Forgive us,” said one of the guards, kneeling at the palanquin. “It’s a musician we had problems with before. We broke his chang, but he now seems to have a new one.”

“Is that so? Such insolence! If he wishes to be stubborn like a mule, let’s behead him.”

“You shall do no such thing,” another voice said from inside the palanquin. It was gentle, but firm; a soft voice that could halt an army and set the coward’s heart aflame in courage.

“But, my canary, my starlight, this man broke the law, not just once, but twice,” the sultan said, but his voice wavered.

“Tell me, father, is money law or justice law?”

“Well I” –

“Deviate from the path of righteousness and justice and you shall answer to God.”

“It’s just” –

“With your hoard of treasures, some magical and some mundane, you refuse to contribute to zakat. Imagine what Muhammed would say to you. With your enchanted stone warriors who move, your carpets that fly, and your treasure chests that magically replenish themselves with treasure every full moon, Muhammed would condemn you of idolatry, like the idols at Mecca he destroyed.”

“But dear,” and the sultan, his voice losing strength, “he’s just a vagabond with a harp.”

“A harp that is more magical than any of your treasures,” pointed out his daughter. “Allah has blessed him, and in turn this man has blessed the people, turning their hearts from riches to the heavens.”

There was a pause, a long drawn out sigh, and suddenly a concession. “As you wish, Firuzeh, dear. I make a promise never to harm this man and to let him play music to his heart’s content.”

And so it was. Payam was allowed to play. When Payam left for the evening, grass had sprung under his feet, and a small trickle of water burst forth from the ground, accompanied by the sapling of a new pomegranate tree.

From then on, the old musician took his music all throughout the kingdom, and wherever he played, the plants and the waters, which lay in a deep slumber in the earth, woke up, roused by the touching music that issued forth from his harp. The kingdom began to bloom as a rose, transformed into an oasis in an ocean of never-ending sand and all were made rich.

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