Mustajab VII: The Countryside Photography of Khaled Al Shoura

Blessed is he who lays a flower on a tomb or a palace or a breast, is he who is born in the seventh month or the twelfth, is the throat become gorge, is he who slaughters his only horse out of kindness. Blessed is he who sinks to his knees pleading forgiveness or overcome with lust, is he who bears a cross upon his back, is he who boils a porridge of cement to hoodwink his children’s hunger, is the sniffer become snout, is the time when a wife could gather together the pieces of her helpmeet’s corpse and he would live, are the truths cowering in the crevices of falsehood, is the nation that feeds on the chatter of the worthless, is the nation that feeds on the prattling of the powerful, is the gulp become gullet. Blessed is he who fashions an ear from clay and an ear from dough until his head is severed, is a sun that still rises in the East, is a star that shines through on a cloudy day. Blessed be this tale, which would not have be told of Mustajab VII were it not for that incident, revealed to the world by a wordsmith whose father laboured as a screenwriter, wherein Mustajab VII secretly murdered Mustajab VI, sold his body to students studying dissection and with the proceeds erected a sumptious pavilion replete with dazzling lights and microphones that resounded with proverbial wisdom, to outfox foes and keep in remembrance the glorious exploits of Clan Mustajab, ancient and modern, then stood at its entrance to receive the sincerest of condolences. This is a slander against the man, which lays the very heart of truth to waste and strikes at the crux of our tale, the point at which it joins with what took place thereafter, for which reason we set over this incident an upturned water jar, and kept it hid.

The Seventh of Clan Mustajab despised three things: Blood, music, and fermented milk. Blood visited him in the train of a bespattered history wherein one of his early ancestors had butchered his brother, dismembered the body limb by limb and distributed it about the village until his tormented widow gathered the sundered members from the dung piles where they lay. Blood visited him in the form of a female ancestor who had sliced open a man’s belly then, grief-stricken, chewed on his liver. And blood visited him in the coils of hangman’s rope, dipped in the intoxicating liquors of fear and courage of men who had chanced on their village in the time of Mustajab II. As for music, it was the unbridled voice of Satan, afire with rapture, bouncing about in the veins of lust, and which possessed the body of Mustajab VI to turn him into a rampant bull that assaulted women, dumb rocks and cattle. And music was the raging frenzy in the guts of his sister, running away from home in pursuit of an imbecile servant who could make the mountains dance with his rabab. As for fermented milk, its imbibers are weak and sluggish, their bellies filled with gas, their hearts with docility, their minds with apathy and filth: Mustajab IV, a fermented-milk devotee, set up his throne by a lavatory (the mention of which tale you’ll find elsewhere) and so great was his addiction to this drink that his suspicion of people and laws, of the unfolding days of the week, fermented within him, and he came to doubt colours and friends, newspapers and magazines and the sayings of the righteous forefathers.

Moreover, Mustajab VII had, from the very dawn of his youth, been enamoured of three things: Justice, hunting, and one other matter of which we’ve no desire to speak of here. He would be overcome by wailing and weeping should word reached him of a student expelled from school for not paying his fees, news of a woman who’d suffered at the hands of the mill’s clerk and the overseer of waterwheels, reports of a neighbor with Eid approaching and no new clothes to hand, of a female Mustajab fallen on hard times without a sop to eat, of a camel, its old back broken by the pack, of a girl kept from her mother or of a crow kept from her chicks, of a young woman whose sap had soured, her verdure rotted, of a cloud robbed of its rain by the wind, or of a rich man afflicted by retention—for the Seventh did not sleep easy as others do, but made his rounds at night, alive to the pain of the households, to the people’s want. Even out on hunting trips he would never fail to dispatch his men to see how things stood with his family. His mind would ever withdraw from the pleasure of coralling gazelles and return home, surmounting the sills of doors and windows, just to make sure. His noble senses would ever absent themselves from the pursuit of lions and the ensnaring of wild beasts and slip back to the hiding places of infants, orphans and widows, that his mind might be easy.

However, the Seventh’s fortunes—and it is the Seventh who is before you now—did not pan out we might wish; did not (as did the tales of the forefathers) pass safely over the pitfalls of time. One night, on his way back from his rounds, he met with Satan in the guise of a wretch and the Seventh threw out a bark of laughter, rough as palm fibre—I take refuge with God from Accursed Satan—and thought to take another road. But the Devil so twisted and turned about him that a vexed Seventh was moved to shout: What do you want, O Enemy of God? And the Devil, having shed his wretched guise and clothed himself in splendor and placed his elegant hand—affectionately—on the shoulder of Mustajab VII, said: Your wife gives her body to your slaves. Each night—so Satan said— the music pounds in the very stronghold of your honour, until the fermented milk bursts forth from its hiding places, as blood.

At that—and how terrible is this world!—the world spun the Seventh about, till morning wore the tattered rags of night, the soft rays of the early morning sun broke into the crossed wires of sieves, the Seventh’s head-cloth unraveled into guts, the wind raged against his upstanding human hide, and the Seventh drew his sword and split Satan’s head in two. But the world remained unchanged: a still, unstirred waste distantly brushed by the faint rays of a morning sun that had never yet touched a devil.

Mustajab VII—like me, like you—was reluctant to rush in, out of a sense of justice and to guard against slippages. How many drums have beaten over your and my heads alike and yet we have not lost our composure lest people mock us? And so it was that the upstanding Seventh returned to his great house and made sure not to look upon his slaves; that he ascended to his majlis and avoided gazing at his wives. Which of them now deserved to have her beautiful head cut from her evil body? Which of them had, but hours before, been steeped in the sticky barrel of betrayal? Must I now summon up a devil to bring clarity to the disaster, scrupulousness to this tragedy? The sullied Seventh asked for a little warm water and drained it with a calming pill, then rose and prayed to God (may He be exalted and glorified) the two rak’as of Unease, then grew calmer and prayed the two rak’as of Fear, and then the two rak’as of Mercy. He sipped a cup of warm milk and grew quieter still, but the countenances of his children began to take shape, remorselessly, in the faces of his slaves, and his slaves’ features began to steal into the lineaments of his offsprings’ heads and necks and bodies, into their ears and incisors, their temples, the arc of their chins, their cheekbones’ lines and the curve of their necks. Hell opened its gates, suspicion’s whisper joined terror’s blaze, the Seventh went back to pray two rak’as for which there is no name, and that very afternoon he declared that preparations would be made to leave that evening on a hunting expedition. And so his men began to made ready the mounts, prepare the panniers, and whet the arrows.

It was the first expedition Mustajab VII had ever undertaken at day’s end (he was unable, as you know, to wait out the hell of another night) and the first expedition he had ever undertaken unaccompanied by one of his wives (he was unable, as you know, to gaze on any of them without the flames assailing him). The drums were beaten, the village rang with celebration and farewells, and the party—fully equipped, in finest array, the boldest of men—departed, the Seventh at their head, smiling through the agonies, the flames, the conflagration: Take heed, O Seventh, that you do not become a byword for foolishness, no matter how hard the test! Thus—he told himself—I enter my trial through mercy’s gate: I shall grant my wives the chance to be alone with the servants and any who partake in trifling with my honour, whether by commission or omission, whether intimidated or intimidating, or just facilitating, I shall maim. The women of Clan Mustajab, each and every one, shall be a lesson to women down the ages; the virgins of Clan Mustajab, each and every one, both distant cousins and closest relatives, the engaged and the expectant alike, the unwed and the abstinent, shall pay the price for this falseness: he would surprise the sin in the act—should it have taken place—and thereafter every virgin must ready herself as an offering to Mustajab VII: he would take her on the saddle of night, murder her on morning’s bosom, bury her in the noonday heat and in the early evening prepare himself for another.

The hunting party took the familiar road, bickering, teasing and laughing back and forth—all but the Seventh, huddled in his hunting garb, in his get-up of grievance, distress, repression and vengeance—until a day had passed, then two, the party slowing as they passed places where the men had previously taken a fine share of game and a goodly portion of cheer and joy. But the Seventh had resolved that he would let his women fulfill his desire to thwart the Devil’s charge, and on the third day his signal came to set up camp. He left the men in charge of the site and swapped his horse (well known to all) for another, pretended to his companions that he was off to do his business, and he settled on his mount and loosed the reins to wind and flame. He took a track untrodden for fear that some eye might see him and news of his return would reach his wives before him, and anyway, all roads, however long and twisting they might be, shall lead to the truth that lurks in the lair of Clan Mustajab, with its wives and slaves.

In later times—and not breaking the flow of our tale—gloaters, glib fools, journalists and poets would tell how they, with their own eyes, had seen Mustajab VII in the far off lands beyond the valley selling lanterns and sandals and sickles, repairing pack-saddles and donkeys’ bridles, buying hides and horses’ tails and palm fibre, trading in brooms and feather dusters, renting his nag to rubbish carts, pattering ointments, eye-drops, pinches of snuff, and worming powder around the marketplaces, preparing aphrodisiac concoctions and sour milk ferments, setting out newspaper galleys, editing magazines and designing covers, chanting poems and quatrains and hymns in defense of ancient honour, applying hot cups to the heads of orphans until the blood rose neck-high, cleaning floors, laying bricks, repairing heaters, washing dishes, banging drums, twanging rababs, dancing ecstatically at weddings, reading reflections and coffee cups and star signs for the displaced and downtrodden, riding frogs and fighting rabbits for sporting gentleman, fixing blackboards, seats, TVs, video machines, shoes and women’s problems…

All of which is untrue—would only occur to the envious, the mad or the ill—and yet it is here, at this critical juncture, that our reports of Mustajab VII cease. His friends still wait for him between the billowing trees, making ready to bring down a buck or a tiger, a rabbit or a snake; his wives are still their in their dwelling place with the slaves, awaiting their long absent man.

Blessed is he who pauses before he speaks, who speaks before he acts. Blessed is he who does a thing once without fear, who lays a flower upon a breast or a palace or a tomb, who meets with Mustajab VII, who is born in the twelfth month. Blessed are the offspring of Mustajab in whose countenances the slaves’ features grow ever more pronounced.


This short story from Muhammed Mustajab‘s collection Qiyam wa Inhiyar Aal Mustajab (or “The Rise and Fall of Clan Mustajab”, Maktabat Al Usra, 1998), translated by from Arabic by Robin Moger, is reproduced here from Moger’s site