“Why a poet?”
The words floated out over the empty quarter of al-Hamad, south of Damascus. It was the heat of the afternoon, and the diggers had retired to their trenches. Only the guards with their assault rifles kept a watch for the hazy horizon.
“Because,” the grey-bearded man said from deep within the tent. He did not look up from the stone inscription as he examined it, “poetry was the earliest form of Arabic literature, taken directly from the oral poetry traditions that predated Islam. It is often forgotten - or, perhaps, lost - to us today, that in the original Arabic the Al Azif was rendered as a poem - something relatively difficult to render in Latin or English, though you can get a sense of it in the infamous couplet that is so often recalled from the Necronomicon. Indeed, the form of Al Azif is very similar to the qasida poetry which predated the creation of the Qu’ran; its language is direct and colorful, avoiding metaphor and simile, and there can be traced the influence of that great collection of poetry, the Mu’allaqat, which come from the pre-Islamic period of Arabia, the so-called Days of Ignorance.”
The professor grunted after this little lecture and made some marks on a pad of paper with a pencil. A light breeze stirred the tent, and Sarah leaned out into it, watched the dust blow over the rectangular trenches they had been digging. Sweat gathered in dark circles under her arm pits and collar on her shirt. She’d had to go without a bra after the first week, due to a rash, but kept the hijab for propriety.
“Why Sanaá then?” she said. “Why not Baghdad, or Mecca, or Damascus?”
“Sana'a was a great city under the Umayyad Caliphate,” the professor finally set down the piece of stone and stared at her, framed in the flap of the tent. The glass ovals on his face flashed as they caught the light. “A tumultuous time, around the Second Fitna, or civil war, and Abdullah al-Azrd would have pursued his studies under the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705), who among other acts formalized Arabic as the language of the official language of the Caliphate and centralized its administration. The Al Azif was actually composed in Classical Arabic, the language of the Qu'ran, even though al-Azrd himself probably spoke a Yemeni Arabic dialect, and possibly South Arabian languages like Mehri or Soqotri. This speaks of both al-Azrd's background - a poet versed in the literary language of the Caliphate - and for his intended audience: fellow intellectuals who expected to read such texts.”
Sarah nodded, and leaned outside a little. Nothing and no-one stirred in the rocky desert, nor would they for hours. She glanced once at the golden band on the professor’s left hand, and the line of script inscribed on it, then back at the dig. Piles of rubble marked each excavation, the low pits that professor al-Kalbi had scouted the year before.
“So if Sana'a was so great, why Damascus? Not fleeing from a jealous husband, I hope.”
He snorted, and reached and leaned back. Sarah appraised the view, tongue just touching her lips. Despite his years, al-Kalbi was still a field archaeologist, not one of those deskbound relics whose tanned leathery hides turned pale and their muscles to fat. One who walked the desert, and knew the heft of shovel and spade.
“You should know better. We know so little of his life…but Sana'a was the regional capital of Yemen, Damascus was the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate until 744 - and it is important to recall that Muslims were the minority in Damascus, despite the rule of the Umayyads, and it was predominantly inhabited by Christians and pagan Arabs. The decision to make Arabic the official language of the Caliphate gave Muslims an advantage over the rest of the population - which principally spoke Aramaic - and it is likely that al-Azrd found the cosmopolitan city an excellent location, easy for an 'indifferent Moslem' to hide his impiety while finding a place for himself as a trained, Arabic-speaking poet, probably catering largely to Christians and others who needed to interact with the Umayyads through letters or bills that must be written in Arabic. Of course, such a position would also allow al-Azrd to interact freely with various peoples that might otherwise raise the suspicions of both the secular and religious authorities.”
She slunk toward him, let her hips sway just a little as she came up beside him. Al-Kalbi froze as she laid down on the tent’s cot.
“So who circulated the manuscript?” she asked. She smiled, because she knew his eyes followed her.
“It's hard to impress how valuable manuscripts were, back in the days before printing - and this was several centuries before Gutenberg and movable type.” He leaned back again, stared out of the tent, at the little graveyard in the middle of nowhere. “Manuscripts rarely changed hands, and then for huge sums of money. At this point in the Middle Ages in Europe a library was a sealed wooden box or chest that held the books - possibly as few as four or five manuscripts for a monastery. It's why Christian monasteries focused so much on the production and copying of books, with a full illuminated manuscript representing the work of years and several scribes and artisans. Given the contents of the Al Azif, and the labor that went into making it, al-Azrd probably wrote no more than one to three manuscript copies during his entire life - if, indeed, he did copy out the whole thing, and the work was not compiled after his death by some anonymous scribe or acolyte from his surviving papers. Damascus might have been a good place for a wealthy individual to hire non-Arabic scribes to make copies of the manuscript - it was not uncommon for a scribe to work in an unfamiliar language such as Greek, if their task was only copying, though the stranger symbols and illustrations probably would have given some trouble, so the work would likely have been broken up. It is romantic to think that the manuscript or manuscripts would probably have passed largely among educated occultists, but a more likely survival is that it was sold to a scholar or clergyman and made its way to the Byzantine Empire, possibly the University of Constantinople.”
“Where Theodorus Philetas translated it, right?”
“Right. You remember my lectures. Well, probably. Certainly, the Byzantine Greeks were critical in translating European Classical works for the Islamic world, and for transmitting Islamic science and philosophy for a European audience. It's one of the natural places for an Islamic manuscript to be translated into Greek - and from there for the Greek manuscript (which, again, might be copied several times) to find its way into various Christian monastic scriptoria or private libraries, especially after the Patriarch Michael decided to suppress the Necronomicon - much better for an owner to sell or trade a valuable manuscript than consign it to the flames! So too, the vellum might have been scraped clean as a palimpsest, so some ancient gospel might have been penned on a sheet that once was inscribed with the contents of al-Azrd's book.”
Sarah carefully removed her hijab, her dark hair fell free, not so long as he had imagined, and the sides of her had were shaved, so that it stood out like a hyena’s crest.
“Then it was Wormius’ turn.” Her voice little more than a throaty whisper from the dark of the tent. The professor was half-turned in his chair now, his eyes on that shadowed corner of the tent where she lay.
“More or less. The Greek manuscripts of the Necronomicon might have filtered through a couple of Medieval monastic libraries, blindly copied by monks that knew no Greek. There remains the question of where Wormius - who was certainly not Ole Worm of Jutland, but some other author that had a similar name, or was identified with him - might have made his Latin translation. The first, perhaps obvious, choice would be Venice, which had close trading ties with the Byzantines, and most of the Greek Necronomicon manuscripts likely would have passed through Venice, or at least through the hands of Venetian merchants to other places. Some traditions have it that the translation occurred in Toledo, a prominent center of learning and occult tradition, though this might be a little too in keeping with the romantic notion of an underground network of necromancers. A third possibility is, of course, a northern city like Lübeck or Copenhagen, which could at least partially explain the identification of the author with Ole Worm.”
Almost abruptly, he stood, and took a step toward the tent flap. “You are tired. I will leave you to sleep for a while.” The afternoon sun glinted off the ring on his left hand, but he stopped as she grabbed him from behind, her arms wrapped around his chest, breasts pressed into his back. He did not pull away.
“Wormius included a prefatory note, didn't he?” She whispered into his ear.
“He did. And this is another thing people don't always think of when they consider the Necronomicon, all the little bits that must have been added as it was copied and translated through the centuries. Book curses, prefaces, corrections, expurgations, and all sort of messages that might have been added to the colophon, marginalia that the scribe might have dutifully copied or included as glosses in the original text - heck, errors that the scribe dutifully copied - each manuscript for the Necronomicon is unique, an expression of its history of transmission. It's one of the things I don't like about the modern Necronomicons, the hoaxes - they're reproduced a little too faithfully, there's no additions, no modifications...except in some of the foreign translations, which can be a bit interesting, but are just as often quite lacking.”
“And here we are…”
“Digging for dead men’s bones.”
“Al-Azrd’s grave. You know how long I’ve been searching for it, after he died in Damascus…all the sources agree on that, but no one says what happened to his body.”
With one heavy arm, he reached out and closed the tent flap. In the sudden darkness, Sarah smiled. He did not resist as she slowly dragged him backwards to the cot.
“But you never told me why you thought it would be here.”
“We have no proof of him, you see.” He spoke, almost to himself, as her hands fiddled with the buttons of his shirt. “No evidence there was an al-Azrd, an Arabic original, before the first Greek manuscript appeared in Byzantium. Some say there never was one, all a fiction, an artificial mythology cooked up by some Medieval scribe to lend authenticity and an exotic air to a work of blasphemy – it was done before. The Hygromanteia and Key of Solomon, the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses… Many Arabic occult manuscripts made their way into Europe, like the Picatrix. Would not some bright scholar have capitalized on that, they say? But I found it in the genizah in Aleppo…”
Strong hands slipped his shirt off. The closed tent was like a sauna, dry and stuffy without the breeze, and her nails scraped lightly through a sheen of sweat as they stroked his chest, traveled lower and lower down.
“…a record, a fragment of a letter. No honest graveyard wanted him, no-one would do the rites, but there were educated men that wanted nothing of al-Azrd to remain after he died. So they took what was left of him out to the desert…ten days on camelback, the insects singing every night…”
“Not directions then, just a hint.” She nipped lightly at his neck, as she undid his belt. “A direction. Just enough to get looking.” His pants slid down to his knees as she sat him on the edge of the cot. “Don’t turn around,” she said, as her hands disappeared, leaving him shivering in the heat. “While I get undressed.”
“…I have often wondered about the Al Azif, you know.” the professor’s right hand grasped his left ring finger and twisted, the flesh resisted for only a moment before the gold band popped free. “In Medieval Islam, it was not a heresy itself to report on heresy. There were books of idols, on the old stone gods worshipped before Mohammed. We know so little of them, now, and even then they were little more than memories, kept alive in a handful of names, traditions, and myth. How much a part the ifrits and djinns might have played a part in the lives of the ancient Arabs, we will never know. When they gathered around their campfires at night, and looked up at the bright stars, crafting their poetry…what did they see, in the darkness between the stars? What voices did they hear from the empty quarters, where men did not dare tread, in the buzzing voices of insects that spoke of worlds beyond this one? They believed there were monsters in the world then. Even the ghūl, the seizers of the dead…”
The sudden tightness of the beltstrap at his neck caught him by surprise. His hands clawed, fingered worked to hook beneath the band of leather, and Sarah allowed herself a little growl as she pulled and pulled, the strap tightening another notch. In the darkness her eyes flashed, like those of a dog, and muscles corded and bunched in arms and shoulders. On his knees, as the strength failed him, al-Kalbi managed one final glance back and saw her too-wide grin, the too-sharp teeth. She whispered into his ear.
“‘…the ghūl’s throne, which had once belonged to Sas, son of Shith, son of Shaddad, the son of ‘Ad…’ And who was the tribe of Ad, but that which dwelled in Irem of the Pillars? Where did al-Azrd go for his instruction, and with whom did he bargain there? Now his price will be paid at last.”