The poet of Baalbek translated from the Arabic story of Khalil Gibran

 

Part 1
In the city of Baalbek in 112 BC, a emir sat upon golden throne, peering out from behind his wall to behold the hot breath of the sun that foamed into the air above the sea; his soothsayers and commanders of his soldiers sat in their seats, stunned, baked still in the harsh sunlight. The soldiers and slaves were standing before the emir spread their fingers over their faces to block out the glaring sun.
After a time, the soldiers of the palace guard took up a song. In time the night fell over them and eclipsed the harsh light, as if in response to their song of entreaty. The chief minister then spoke to the emir, in his quavering, aged voice, saying: “The city is now host to very wise sages of India who know of changes that follow death and beliefs we have not heard where we live. I am honoured to be with you as you call the people to the faith that teaches the body enshrines the essence of a soul, that each soul will pass through many generations until it reaches perfection, to finally evaporate into the universe, no longer an individual constrained by vain illusions, vanishing into the divine ether. But I fear that the city is a buffer to purity that prevents our quest along this road to redemption through renewal.”
The emir smiled gently, and shook his head, telling his minister, “I have come by way of crows, passing through strange wonders to hear the arguments of this man.”
For a time, the emir paid no attention to the events around him. But emerging from his thoughts he observed the dismal dullness in the eyes of those in the bright sunshine where there was no hint of mystery or wisdom. But in time he allowed himself to raise his gaze, shining with hope.
Remembered words pierced the emir’s memory, as the Indian priest recalled the doctrine of the karmic transmigration of souls: “Souls that leave a corpse manifest moving from body to another, pious phenomena that traversed an ethereal medium; free essences that could scale celestial heights, liberated from the marshy constraints that binds the living man to the earth, to a particular life. Transient spirits pervaded the atmosphere with glory and purity that raises them heavenward and intensifies the joy of the exalting being, just as the song of the flute can fill the heart with a sensation of love, happy that the hearer is loved. The wise man reflects on how the soul could ascend or descend from one body to another, the more liberated if untrammelled by the luxuries that shackled the non-believer. The non-believer is trapped in the present for the sins committed in the past, or destined to a more difficult span of a lifetime; his soul is destined suffer because of the madness that that imprisoned him in his time and his country, in a time and place.”
The emir, listening to one such long speech was obviously exasperated; boredom showed in his features. The chief minister, his vizier, reputed for his wisdom, approached him.  The vizier whispered in the emir’s ear, saying: “Have you heard enough of this sage’s teachings, now?  Is it time to seek another answer to your question now?” The wise minister then wove through the courtiers among the soothsayers shielded by heavy eyelids, as if they were entranced by a secret, numinous presence. Like a knife the emir cut through their collective trance, into their consciousness.
Emir raised his arm and pointed to a soothsayer who sat to the left, asking, saying: “Where is the poet who has been of our time; has he passed from us without our seeing him take his departure?” He paused, waiting for an answer. None was forthcoming, so he went on: “What happened to him? Can you not tell me after we have been sitting with him in our council every night? How can you not know where he is when you know the place he holds in my heart?”
One of the priests, emboldened by the emir’s insistence spoke up: “I saw him a week ago, sitting in the gallery of the temple of the goddess, Astarte structure. His eyes were fixed on two columns of clouds, streaming in the sky like two serried battalions, floating towards the distant twilight, a pageant of his poetry that was resigned to vanish into the ether along with the soul of their author.”
One of the emir’s commanders added, “I saw him standing still between two groves of trees, one of cypresses and another of willows co-ordinated. I did not want to call out to him, to break into his reverie for he seemed remained mired in a sea of engrossing abstraction and fascinating dreams.”
The head of the eunuchs now bore witness: “Today I saw him in the vicinity of the palace garden. When I found him I was alarmed to note that his countenance was suffused with a pallor that was tinged with an unhealthy yellow. His frame was wracked with tears that burst through his closed eyelids; his grief gushed forth as if it must take away the breath of life.”
The emir’s voice, haunted by a guilty yearning to soothe his friend, eagerly rose to his feet and issued his command to the colonel who stood waiting his command: “Find him and take him out of Egypt under your watchful eye. I will authorise your passage out of the country.”
Immediately, the colonel urged his soldiers out to the palace garden to find the poet. But even as they were leaving the hall of the palace, the emir and his courtiers were struck dumb.  The assembly remained silent as their own confused souls became alert and vigilant sensing the presence of an invisible ghost who stood erect and insistent in the centre of the hall.
Moments later the chief of the eunuchs scurried into the throne room, remaining on his feet.  He put an arrow from the bow of a bird hunter on the royal dais. The emir cried out to him, forgetting for the moment the dignity of his majesty, “What news … what has happened?”
Now on his knees, the Negro raised his head, shuddering with fear, knowing that he brought grievous tidings. He told his master, “We found the poet dead in the palace garden.”
The Emir straightened up, imperiously raising the arrow towards Heaven; his face was filled with sorrow and distress mixed with indignant rage at God, yet he remained silent.  He went out to the royal park on his litter carried by his bearers, followed by the officers of the court and his soothsayers. The strange procession made its way to the outskirts of the park, where almond trees and pomegranates were glossy in the rays of the sun. Here the emir stepped from his palanquin. He went to the corpse of the poet which had been abandoned by his spirit. The lively sunbeams bounced uselessly from the lifeless body cramped in the agony of its death amongst the lawns and foliage of the palace garden.
It was as if the divinities that the poet believed to dwell among the planets did not know him; as if his saviours had abandoned him to ignominy in death.
The archpriest suggested to the emir, “Tomorrow we will prepare a barrow for him in the shadow of the temple where we will carry him in a solemn procession, accompanied along the way to the Holy City.
He did not answer the archpriest. Holding the lifeless body of the poet whom he loved like a brother, the emir recalled how it was than Cain, fratricidal son of Adam, burned with a jealous rage because his offering of game he had hunted was not received with the same favour as the sacrifice made by his brother, Abel, who only gave grain and fruit.  For God would only smile on the gifts of those who were righteous. In his fury Cain killed his brother but wanted to hide his crime from the eyes of God when he asked him to tell him where he had last seen Abel. Likewise, the emir felt that he was responsible for the death of his friend. It was as if God was laughing at him in the same way he had mocked Cain thousands of years before. For he sent two brother crows who fought over a scrap of food. One died, and it was as if the victor was consumed with shame. Looking at the earth, the crow began to dig a grave for his brother; so the emir saw that he must release his friend; he was ashamed that an evil bird had taught him his brotherly duty.
At last, the Emir turned his head towards the archpriest, shaking it in refusal without removing his eyes from the face of the poet, veiled though it was with an intense ghostly pallor. Slowly, he told the priest, decisively, “No, no. He must remain in the earth of the place where he was at peace; even as a ghost he must breathe the familiar perfumes of the land he knew and loved. I will not allow that the gods will laugh at him in his final moments, to treat us as their puppets in the rituals of death.” He paused for a moment before turning his mind back to the waiting cleric. “We will bury him here,” went on the grief-stricken ruler, while cradling the shell of the departed poet in his arms. “Let those who would honour him be welcome in the house of his sons even though it may be said that his emir did not honour him; that he died alone, passing his final moment in a bleak solitude, neglected by me.”
Looking around the garden, the bereaved emir wanted to know where his foreign soothsayer was. He asked, “Where is Indian philosopher? I want to ask his advice.”
The philosopher was close by and immediately came to his grieving lord. “Here I am, O great Emir.”
“You who are so wise, tell me how a soul, especially a great soul like that of the poet of Baalbek, leaves the earth. Does the goddess come into this world to lead such a poet to Paradise? Does the soul of a poet who has died transmigrate into a spiritual body that clothes him in equal honour as that afforded to the spirit embodied in the soul of a great king? Do those who died the day before stand for a moment before the just countenances of the eternal judges who decide the supplicant’s eternal afterlife? Are those who have commemorated others in poetry blessed with a happy reincarnation so that they may rejoice their hearts the verse they wrote in their previous existences? Are they rewarded with bountiful gifts?”
The philosopher thought for a moment before answering, “The context of each spirit’s life informs the gods differently when they determine how he will continue after his most recent death. In accordance with the eternal laws he may be restored to the joy of renewal in a new spring following the winter of decline in which he expired his soul. The condition in which a soul is returned to the earth is rarely the same as the condition in which he died. A great emir may be reincarnated as a great poet; a poet may be born as an emir.”
The words of the sage cheered the Emir who found himself recovering from the shock of his grief as he walked out of the park towards his palace reflecting on the words of the wise Indian. He was renewed as he contemplated that it was the context of one’s life that shaped the reinvigoration of spirits that enthused other bodies in their quests for eternal joy.
II
 
Two thousand years had passed. The story continues in the city of Cairo, in Egypt in the Year of Our Lord, 1912.
The moon rose in the night sky showering down slithers of silver moonbeams that showered onto the River Nile like messages of faith. The Emir of the country sat on the balcony of his palace looking into the net of space around him. He reflected upon the long line of generations that had lived and died one after the other on the banks of the Nile. Their passage through time was recorded by works builders and conquerors who had stood proudly in front of the impressive Sphinx; the rulers who had reviewed procession of peoples and nations who had worked for them and paid them homage. They had left the pyramids and the palace that honoured the servants of the goddess of the moon.
Staying within the circle of those he knew, among those who did not oblige him to widen his ideas, or to build theatres in his mind when his dreams could unwind themselves, he turned toward Nadim who sat near him, and said, “My spirit needs to be soothed by song. I would hear heavenly poetry of turned into some pleasant song; a gem from ages past made recognisable for today.”
Nadim bent his head to look into his satchel and pull out some verses by a poet from long ago. The Emir exclaiming, “More recent compositions! More recent!” Nadim bowed and looked again among his scrolls. He retrieved a greener work from among his small library which he began repeating aloud. But once again the Emir interrupted and demanded something more contemporary. Again, Nadim crooked his neck and rummaged for a modern poet. He anxiously retrieved the writings of an Andalusian.
The Emir told the cantor, “Recite a poem by a contemporary poet.” Close to despair, Nadim raised his hand to his forehead as if to conjure from his meagre portfolio some composition he had placed there from the present. Then eyes relaxed and his face registered a happy relief.  Confidently he recited verses of fantasy about an enchanted reindeer that roamed the land covered in a veil of gossamer. The Emir complimented Nadim on the nice metaphor the divine gift of peace of mind that and surround the hearts of those they favoured.
The Emir remained sequestered in his exquisite garden, where he had become engrossed in the verses and rhythms of the poets’ works. Immersing himself there it was as if he was in their presence, putting himself into their hands as they delighted him with their stories, as if he found that he was in the stories they created.  When Nadim had ended his recitation of his most recent offering, the Emir asked, “Have I heard these verses before? Who wrote them?”
Nadim answered him: “The Baalbek poet.”
“The Baalbek poet; the Baalbek poet!” Those few words echoed wonderfully strange in his ears. It was as if they gave birth within him to the ghost of noble poet’s spirit born within the spirit of the noble whose words that were ambiguous came to him with a new clarity, like the morning that brings certainty after the dreams that pervaded the mind in the dark night. He stood up and walked around the courtier, circling him with his arms folded on his chest, over his heart, repeating the words of the prophet from Arabia: “You will look for Him and you will look for Him; then you will return to Him.”
The Emir turned towards Nadim telling him, “We are pleased that the Baalbek poet has come into our kingdom. We would like him to come near so that we may honour him: We are pleased at the presence of the Baalbek poet in our kingdom and we would have him near us so we may honor him.” Almost immediately a deep, cawing voice echoed a warbling song from a corner of the garden, though the poet, as the emir was sure the numinous presence must be, was in the form of a wondrous bird. He was like some creature that had escaped to this world from the upper, celestial spheres. The crow did not so much seem to honour the Emir when it opened his wings as greet him as an equal and a compatriot in the realm of poesy and art, as a brother he had rejoined from the ether. Together, the emir and the marvellous poet-bird passed the night. The ruler stripped off the robes of state, wearing only his shirtsleeves, as he studied the stars that dimpled the sky, until it was lit up by the rays of the morning sun. So it was that the Emir was admitted to the arcane wonders loved and understood by the Baalbek poet.

 

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