Tales from Book of the Palm in Bassoura

While the ancients wrote many volumes about the palm tree, the book of Bassoura is unparalleled among them for its structure and its sources, the tales of farmers and harvesters. Yet when forged copies appeared in Bassoura, the city known as Basra today, wars descended upon it, and so a new version of the book was created, by the sweat of every bard and storyteller’s brow. Every descendant of the men who owned palm groves had the right to claim a copy of the original for himself, while the builders, the seasonal workers, and the slaves of the salt flats owned simple forgeries of the book their masters had locked within their libraries.

Let me – a migrant worker, one of the young craftsmen – tell you about my copy. I ask no goodwill or recompense for my tale though I would be content with a few dirhams for the road ahead. Bassoura was once a land of palm groves and imagination, a land where words were forged with tranquility, devotion, and dreams. Palm trees lined my copy of Book of the Palm just as stories alighted on the shoulders of those carrying the tome, before they disappeared beneath floods, epidemics, and wars. Creating a new Book of the Palm was the work of legends.

No one knows how far back these lines of lore date, although the shape of the palm tree had appeared on Sumerian clay tablets well before the flood, the day the gods divided the world’s arable land between themselves and humankind. Long, long after the dawn of dynasties, people wandered far from the lands of the Arabian Peninsula, the heart of the palm tree, and began to plant palms in the alluvial plain, the land that had pulled itself up out of the floodwaters. Yet the tales of this exodus, migration, and transplantation have all faded with the heroes of old, those who drew the first lines on tablets, walls, and statues.

Sawad, or the “black land,” which came to be known as Iraq, was the cradle of the palm tree, of writing, and of Babylonian creation myths. Bassoura lay in the far south of Iraq, atop the ruins of the old kingdom of Michan. Yet this young city too fell into accursed ruin, and just a single copy of Book of the Palm arose from the depths of its destruction. The book set out on the old road, the one that blazed through the palm forests, searching for vast stores of ancient dibis (date molasses), dusted with pollen. Once, you met one of the first mythmakers, at a bend in the road through the palm grove, and though he offers you a copy of the book for sale, it is, of course, a forgery.

It came along this very road, a road paved in stories, fingers sticky with what trickled out of dates, picking up a thread of the tales spun by these first tongues, grasping onto the last line, woven in with books by great scholars like Al Asmai, Al Sijistani, Hafez, and Al Hariri, untangling the words and then winding them up again, all under the crushed palm.

The words for the date’s germination were written in Book of the Palm: first as seedlings, then growing taller as palm trees do, then finally tapering off and ascending through seasons, years, and ages. You need more than a single life, a single word, a single line to finish Book of the Palm, with its farming and fruits, with its seasons of harvest and trade, with its tales of men transformed into animals, centuries old.

You need more than just a road, an eye, and a feeling to follow the way it emerged and traveled, how it mirrored and mingled with other elements, and how ultimately it was crushed beneath the wheels of time and against the armor of conquerors and invaders. Persian, Seljuq, Mongol, and Turkish warriors have all sought after the original Book of the Palm, but only forgeries fell into their hands, reclaimed by the slaves and peasants, passed on by their penniless masters.

Sawad, this fertile and prosperous land of Mesopotamia, was torn asunder; wars waged upon her herds, provinces, and feudal order, upon her carved clay slabs. Cycles of migration and devastation slowly pushed her books back into oblivion. Then a bundle of pages appeared once again, bound in twisted twine, its cover painted with the resin of immortal branches. Book of the Palm is as old as this transformation, author after author, natural and legendary.

The palm tree left the lines of the river and the paradise of the orchard to seclude itself in a house in the city, walled in by stones of fear and isolation. It traveled on, living in Souk Al Waraqeen, the manuscript-maker’s market, in theologians’ corners in mosques and monasteries, in the libraries of collectors and scribes.

Doors were closed upon the palm tree’s trunk, the road to its stories severed. It squeezed into a column, inscribed with the words of its inner thoughts, in a Babylonian–Semitic dictionary and a book of native vegetation. Most stories withdrew inside their palm trees, or wandered off like the plants themselves. Nature’s mirror fills another chapter, and migration turns back on itself, to the start of the first line, to the beginning of the first tale.

Ancient unripe dates were slipped under the brown man’s skin, tears of dibis trickled down from the folds of dictionary pages, and the smell of pollen emanated from their edges. An elderly man goes to place his book back on the shelf and forgets where it belongs. The book returns to its place in the abyss. The effect of the pollen is lost, the source of the book has vanished, and it must be transcribed anew.

The palm tree entered the house of thought and the home of legends. It entered the home of Nintu, Mami, and Ishtar, the venerable fertile mother, her three names derived from the names of the palm. In the farthest house from the city, behind the thundering fumes of machination and the speeding cars, rituals are held to lift the curse, and thus the story begins again, told by guest after guest as they arrive from the age before the flood. The storytellers sit before you in their pressed city clothes, but under their skin they hide the marks of stories from Book of the Palm.

At times, you may seek refuge in the house of the Al Abaliya tribe – the primal mother, mother of laying hens – at the birth of a story none have told before, hoping to steal it for your own. You do not know how old the tribe is; perhaps she is the granddaughter of Mami Ishtar, mother of fertility and war, mother to all born in Bassoura.

Book of the Palm branches off in secret, in the language of the first beings, in the language of Ziosdra and Otrahaces, the Mesopotamian kings of immortality. The jungle entices the traveler’s spirit; it lures in immigrants and those who gather stories from across the world. The idea grows and bears the sweetest fruit. Words of creation and evolution, memories of hard work under the flame of the austral summer, the birth of the chickens in the shade of the palms – this is all that is left of lines of green and the age of the rivers.

The heroes of the old stories gather around the great midwife like the empty trunks of palm, sustaining their incantation at the base of the tree, a fertility ritual of July. A broken council meets under the shade of the palms; the ambassadors, poets, bankers, and traders all listen, and the story begins again.

Here was a palm tree, here was an orchard, harvest season, date processors, the threshing floor, and a press; a season of joy and dance and song and of staying up until sunrise. One voice echoes in another. One song is entangled within the melody of another. Here were the Zanj, who stripped the marshes of their salt and made the land arable, who planted seedlings and built their homes. Here was revolution and the capital that rose up for it; here was Ali Bin Mohammed, leader of the Zanj. Here was the city he named Al Mokhtara, “the chosen one,” here were the tales of the legendary. And then there was ruin. The spirit of Bassoura departed, to a land named Muwafaqiya on the one-eyed Tigris, governed by Ottoman rulers, the Al Zind, and the Afrasiab, and then passed into the hands of Sheikh Khazal, the Abbasid Al Kowaz, and the Bash Aayan. Another round of this tale, another line for Book of the Palm is penned.

Hypothetical Fathers

Every storyteller, eunuch, and bard who lent his craft to Book of the Palm has one true father and countless possible fathers. You may trace your roots back to a great man, watchful and wise, but you may need more than his blood alone to be welcomed into the family of green creatures, dwelling in the loins of the true fathers, fully and forever, their tales forfeit to the crown, a practiced revelation for your copy of Book of the Palm.

I was born the son of a mechanic, a man who toiled in a workshop repairing steamship motors. The ships belonged to a British trade company called the Hills Brothers, which had opened a branch in Basra to export dates, as had a number of companies that entered Iraq after the occupation of 1914 and settled along the coast of the Shatt Al Arab, the Arab Gulf. I spent my childhood between the workshop where my father labored and the wooden bridge, the seaport across from the company’s head office where its ships were moored. I would gaze out at steamers anchored on the river and their huge patrol vessels, while nearby smaller boats and skiffs unloaded their cargo. The boatmen and porters survived on the steamers’ refuse: the tinned foods and drinks, lumber, clothing, and illustrated periodicals. When these great ships raised their anchors, when the river was emptied of them and the skiffs and gulls had bid them farewell, our slender bodies surrendered to the waves, hoping to touch the traces of the parting steamers. Sharks lay lurking in the waters below, and were it not for the river’s merciful heart, we would have been offered up to the gods of the ships, who were never sated with the dates of our palms and the blood of our fathers. But on the days we went fishing with our long wooden poles, we retreated into meditation and whispered with the river’s depths, hoping to discover secrets of the riverbed beneath its receding waters. The ebb and flow of the tide, unclothing the river’s body before covering it again, was the most magnificent of nature’s daily feats, and the river seemed to us, the dreamers who dreamed of waking it, ecstatic in moments of discovery and revelation, guarding its delitescent depths from us, bringing us little thrills, and sometimes even sending us its fish, in an innocent ruse of the waters.

The British company owned a number of date presses along the banks of the branching rivers, in gardens on the other side of the Shatt Al Arab. It was during trips with my father to these processors that I first entered the jungle’s villages, those that had slipped back among the palm trees. And just as the ruddy faces of the company’s masters evoked dominion and might, acquisition and satiety, the simple disposition and natural pallor of the village faces – a woman veiled on the boxes of canned dates, gloved with single dates between her fingers – filled my adolescent memory with the features of kindness, tranquility, beauty, and brotherly love, all pulsing beneath her perspiring skin. Each split date birthed a potential revelation, a sweet crackled vision in the mind of a boy, flying over the treetops and the harbor, past the date presses and the shipyard with their crews, over the young boys and the women down below. Shadowy whispers snuck into his heart, as did melodies after dark and the everlasting brotherhood of the green river’s creatures. And so he received nature’s first lessons in a stranger’s tongue before he learned them at his desk in school. The fingers that rend the dates and arrange them like tiles in boxes would press against the seedlings of new words, enveloped in sweet, elongated date orbs themselves. The callused tips of these very fingers, as they press against the seedlings of words, together with the date flesh, articulate the codes for a language not yet written. Long before I entered primary school, I had found all I would one day read and write in the murmurings of the river, the whispers of its denuded rocks, and in songs that flickered among the ship’s lanterns and stoves under cover of night, heavy with silence.

The Last of the Abbasids

A horse-drawn carriage stopped on the orbital road, alongside the wall surrounding the Al Kowaz family’s mosque, and darkness wrapped its wings around it. The coachman, sitting high in the driver’s box on the carriage, fixed his gaze on a faint light in the low doorway of the prayer room, which had swallowed the last of the Abbasids just a few minutes before the evening call to prayer rang out. The coachman had brought the sheikh to lead prayer, just as he did every Friday night, and remained outside alone, waiting for him to emerge after prayer was over and everyone had dispersed.

The coachman’s mind wandered toward his aunt’s house while he waited, toward her home in the palm grove on the Abbasid family’s property in the Salahia district on the eastern bank of the Shatt Al Arab. He watched his father the farmer, saw his body stretched taut across the trunk of the palm tree by the house, flogged in front of his eyes, in front of his aunt – punishment for failing to pay the debts of the mugharisa. Debts must be repaid even after a father’s death, and so the son joined the Abbasid family stable, prolonging his own life with the sheikh and the horses that stood each Friday evening on the dark street by the old mosque wall.

The coachman thought the sheikh was tarrying in the prayer room; the clear silence of the night filled him with suspicion, playing tricks with his eyes and deluding him with the image of a trunk – not of a tree, but of a man. There was someone moving through the dark courtyard of the mosque, perhaps leading him toward an end to the long throes of debasement and arrearage. It appeared to the coachman that this end might indeed be closer than he had imagined; his sheikh sank to his knees in front of the men praying, and the trunk seemed to be walking toward the low entrance of the prayer room, under the vaulted arches of gypsum and stone, it passed by the cylinder of the minaret, a statuesque pillar sloping down from the heavens, descended the stairs, and stopped under the prayer room lamp. The figure cautiously approached the kneeling sheikh, who had dismissed the worshippers behind him, and whispered over his head: “Your prayers are long tonight, my sheikh. I trust your prostration will not last beyond this evening.”

He spoke from behind his cloak, and a stammer escaped the sheikh’s lips, which the torso, having drawn close, ignored. He flung off his cloak, unsheathed a dagger from his waist, and, waving it, cried, “My sheikh, your day has come! Take this blade!” The torso’s towering shadow was cast across the vaulted arch of the mihrab, flung over intricate details in the Qashani designs and script, and then swept down, down with the weight of his arm upon the man’s vertebrae, the blade cleaving the slender white column like a tender palm heart. The coachman was stricken with fear in his seat, aghast at how soft the flesh was against the dagger’s sinking blade.

The coachman awoke to the sound of the sheikh ordering him onward. He helped him raise the footplate at the back of the carriage and withdrew under the belly of the awning. Yet by the time the carriage had made it partway along the road, the coachman could suppress his question no longer: if only the Abbasid sheikh could explain the dream that had emerged above the lines of palm trees along the Shatt Al Arab and encircled him in those moments between wakefulness and sleep; he could see it now, shorn like the slaves’ heads. He had not received an answer to his question; the carriage’s awning had buried his words along with the sheikh’s cadaver. “Conceal it within your chest, and hasten onward.” The coachman urged his horses forward with his whip, and the carriage coursed through the city’s empty streets, toward the outskirts that held the remains of the Al Kowaz family’s houses.

Accompanied by his wife and children, the coachman returned to visit his aunt one scorching day in Ramadan, to explore the site of the dream that had haunted him while he waited in front of the mosque. He saw that the palm tree had grown taller and begun to taper off, ascending in an elegant line like the neck of a thoroughbred. A water jug was tied to its beaten trunk with the rope that had bound his father, the rope that had whipped him before he fell from its highest branches. His aunt had slowly lost her wits and was now doubled over with age; she leaned against the date clusters and then crept up to the palm tree with nearly silent footsteps to splash a handful of the jug’s cold water onto the hem of her dress. The children were delighted by the pigeons’ feathers drifting down from their nests, descending from the small windows high in the walls of the mud house. Their mother grew weary of the orchards’ heat and of how viscous and rubbery the nectar of the bambar fruit was. Meanwhile, their illiterate father read a passage on planting and fatigue, and in every mote of dust scattered by his bare feet lay the same conundrum: “If the hour has come and in your hands lies a seedling, you must plant it.”

Yet we have not come to the most important detail in our tale of the last of the Abbasids: that the growing stone cities, fortresses, and observatories’ texts overwhelmed the lines of palm trees and riverbanks. Feudalism’s creeping designs did away with the seasons of planting and harvesting, pressing and trade, with the stories of the watchmen, vagrants, madmen, and thieves that the farmers had exchanged on the Al Abla River, just as it quashed the coachman’s hopes of explaining his dream. Castles and fortresses overtook the virgin earth, and with it the palm tree, the earthen jug, and the spade; the pigeons’ nests, pomegranate flowers, and grapevine trellises. The coachman allowed his horses’ reins to fall slack, hoping their hooves would lead him to a line by which to interpret his dream. He had paid the rest of his father’s mugharisa debts and delivered the Abbasid sheikh to his doorstep unscathed. Yet was debt on paper the same as debt in land?

The coachman awoke to his sheikh’s feet ascending the carriage footplate and plunging into the curtain hanging down behind his back. The horses ran wearily, and he raised his whip, urging them forward with lashes that brushed the air. When the carriage had made it some distance down the road, the coachman reminded his sheikh about his dream and the severed palm tree, and the sheikh repeated his words from the previous night: “Conceal it in your chest, and go on.”

The Date Storehouse Guard, a Folktale from Basriatha

In a forgotten spot on the edge of the tender green strip of the Shatt Al Arab, I heard the tale of the date storehouse guard, told by the captain of a ship that transported dates between Basra and various ports along the Persian Gulf.

The sailing ship on which the story begins was making her return voyage after unloading her cargo of dates in the emirate of Umm Al Quwain, when the captain succumbed to a fever kindled by the horizon’s yearning. The ship ran aground on the shoals at the mouth of the Shatt Al Arab, sunset grasping at her masts, darkness drowning her three navigators with the thick fabric of its jubbah.

Words swirled in eddies on the river’s air, the slower ones lodging in cracks in the clay bank, and the men on the ship gazed out, clinging to the weak light fading behind the riverbank and the line of trees. Obeying their captain, two sailors descended in a small boat to search for food in the nearby palm grove. Night passed, dawn peeked out between the trees, and the sun rose over the edges of the palm fronds, but the two messengers had not returned to the ship. And so we shall hear the rest of the tale from the third man, the captain of the stranded ship.

The tide lifted the ship off the sandbar, and the skilled captain steered it to anchor on the opposite bank of the river, then returned in a small boat the next day to search for his two fellow sailors. The captain imagined that the men had wandered into trouble on a fork in the river; having anchored their boat on the bank below a hut lost between the trees along the river, where the guard of the date storehouse lived. They would have tied the boat to a tree, ascended a ladder made of smooth palm trunks, and approached the door of the hut, where a lamp cast out the faint light of a life forgotten behind a fence of bristling trees. After rowing for half a day, the captain would reach the same hut, where the last traces of the sailors and their trip two nights before ended at the door. Instead of a ladder made of wood, the captain found a ladder of spongy black stone and a boat tied to a huge tree, which had showered its plumose yellow blossoms upon the river. He was awestruck by a wide mouth at the base of the tree that gurgled with green water before swallowing it down its deep gullet. The captain found the hut empty except for a woven straw mat, a jug of water, a heavy stick the guard must have used to bolt the door from the inside, and a hanging lantern. He went out to the long storehouse and walked around the palm trees, whose trunks grew more slender as they ascended. He saw piles of dates scattered around the grove, each covered with a straw mat, but found no sign of life. The dates were dark; the culmination of long months and seasons, washed by the rains of many years. On one side of the grove the captain found a date press, and some sticky black dibis was left in the furrows carved into the earth. In that moment, the whole storehouse revealed itself around the date press, where no one had set foot since the last summer of a bygone age – the scorching heat had desiccated even the shadows of its former peasants and then swept them into the river.

The captain returned to the hut and leaned against a wooden post in front of the door until nightfall had slowly crept up and draped itself over him. Had the hut eluded his companions, just as they eluded him? Or did their footsteps end here, buried with the footprints of wanderers before them? Whatever luck he possessed at that moment, he felt that these riddles were born of the isolation of the palm grove. Indeed, this was more mysterious than the vast expanse of the ocean, or the long nights of waiting at harbor, or the pursuit of an ever-fleeing horizon. A man could live his life twice over and yet still lose himself in this stretch of green. The captain was pondering this new enigma when he felt a slight shadow drawing close. An elderly guard darted past him and strolled into his hut, and a moment later, the lantern’s light trickled out of the open door. The conundrum was a simple one, if indeed the guard was blind, which is what occurred to the captain when the shadow had rustled by, nearly knocking into him. He decided to make sure, and when he examined the face stretched out on the mat he saw withered features and vacant, dull eyes like those of Luqman Bin Aad’s vultures.

This is where the rest of the story becomes muddled, either in the captain’s telling or because I have forgotten how it ended. The weary guard sank into a timeless slumber as soon as he lay down his head, and so it became my right to change the story, as the peasants of Bassoura do, and compose two endings for it. In the first ending, the captain went to the abandoned storehouse and found the remains of the guard, who had lain slumbering in his hut since time immemorial – he was no more than a pile of bones, the color of the ancient dibis. In the second ending, the captain returned to his ship and found his two companions three years later. They told him they had been guests of the date storehouse guard the night they left him, in that hut whose location they couldn’t remember precisely, and when they had returned the next day they did not find their ship stranded on the shoals. They told him the guard had been a slave, fleeing with a small group of Zanj after the battle of Al Mokhtara, and a landowner in the small town of Abu Al Khaseeb had offered him work as guardian of his orchard. When the curved scythe of death had come for his benefactor, the guard hid away in the hut and lived the rest of his days in seclusion.

Bassoura’s Report

This is the revised copy of Book of the Palm, although many copies of the report exist, distributed across the Internet on websites and blogs. Bassoura’s report was first published by a group of citizens, the Friends of the Environment, who came to Bassoura Square to protest against uprooting palm trees, bulldozing orchards, and selling off pieces of the land for informal housing. There are those who think the report’s creators are an imaginary group, using aliases to sign a document condemning the massacre of the palm forest, in which the artillery of the Iran-Iraq war had claimed thousands of lives across the eastern bank of the Shatt Al Arab, three decades before the Friends of the Environment had begun their protest.

The new report replaced the old book, enabling modern media to distribute virtual copies filled with embellished narration and more vivid depictions of the world of the palm, whose craftsmanship and natural beauty had by now faded into shadow and legend. Just as in Naguib Mahfouz’s Before the Throne, a fictional trial was held on the pages of the new report, and war generals, orchard owners, and land dealers responsible for the palm massacres on the eastern coast and in the deep green south were all brought before the court. The old book was filled with stunning images of nature, which the new report replaced with documentation of da Vinci’s inventions throughout the ages, machines the palm-butchers developed to decapitate a tree and dice its trunk in a matter of hours, raze whole lines of trees, level the topsoil, and annex it for the city’s residential zone. Horrifying copies of Bassoura’s report were written in the trial transcripts, under titles of machinery invented to destroy the green earth: Gurdlan knives, Antar shovels, and Bassoura tractors. Between metal and words, my report on the palms of Bassoura was born: The Black Report.

Its name is derived from Ali Bader’s novel The Tobacco Keeper, in which a journalist ghostwrites a report called “Black Writer” about a fictional musician killed in Baghdad in 2006, and I realized I could create the fictional biography of a date farmer and hide behind him with the name of the black writer.

In my report, the farmer believes he is a palm tree, born from it, married to one of its saplings, and the father to five daughters, named after the date palm and its fruits. The black writer arrives to wed the eldest daughter, named Jomarrah after the heart of the palm. The next three daughters were named Leefa after palm fiber, Shoitha after dates, and Saafa after palm fronds: three widows, their husbands killed in the Gulf Wars. The youngest daughter was named Um Al Dahn after palm oil, and she married a date trader from Bahrain and traveled away with him. My report begins on the day the farmer-palm died, as his daughters gathered around his deathbed, and before he drew his dying breath, the last thing he bequeathed to them was the words he repeated: “An eye for an eye, a head for a head.” The farmer’s daughters charged the black writer with interpreting their father’s bequest. At first, the only meaning that presented itself was “a tree for a tree”; he needed time to delve beneath the surface of the words, for the stories of the palm to emerge, for it to drape its shade and revelation over him, revelation that would form the backbone of his report.

Sleep did not find the black writer on that night in the summer of 2010 when the Friends of the Environment began their protest, moving between the report’s fictional characters, all gathered together before the Bassoura Council. Their faces were lit by the candles’ flames, glowing like ancient honeycombs; and as wax spilled onto the papers, they stamped it with a small silver seal, engraved with the names of their aliases. The black writer stood apart from them, with a farmer he presumed to have come from the last of the date storehouses, which had been razed by the Bassoura tractors’ wheeled knives, and so he asked the man what the farmer-palm’s dying words might mean. The man paused for only a moment, and then the wax poured down, a honey signature on the black writer’s report.

This farmer had come to the protest-filled square bearing the markings of his asceticism, a man far removed from the strange space of the city. He had a suspicious-looking sickle tucked into the leather belt tied around his waist, and he patted it fondly, saying, “In our day and age, you might say that a governor, or a butcher, or a cattle-driver thinks he’s no match for a palm. Why wouldn’t he be better than something he can chop down?” He drew his sickle and examined it in the dim light of the candles, slices of light that shone through between the protesters’ bodies. “But if you were walking alone in the desert, as searing hot as the Devil’s own frying pan, you’d be sorry to meet them instead of a palm. Imagine, all of a sudden you see the outline of a single palm tree, or a group of palms all together, and you’re so weary with hunger and thirst and the weight of your travels. Their sweet shade washes over you, so you lie down and dream of a plate of dates and a glass of milk, and when you wake up, they’re lying next to your dreaming head.”

The farmer lingered behind the protest for a moment and then explained what he had said. “So now you see that ‘a head for a head’ is a dream for travel. What does the palm stand for? Travel. And what does the dream stand for? Hope. And both are Bassoura’s inspiration, her border of green.”

Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

 Mohamad Khudayyir is a writer from Basra, Iraq, and the author of Al Mamlaka Al Sawda (Black Kingdom), Fi Darajat 45 Miawiyyah (At the 45th Percentile), Basrayyiatha: Sourat Madina (Basra: A Picture of a City), and Korrasat Kanoun (December Notebook).

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