In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the All-Merciful, I tell my tale. For there is no god but Allah; and Mohammad is His Prophet.
When I was ten years of age, my father took me aside and told me that the name I had borne all my life until then, Jarji, was false, and that before God I was called Asim, that being the name my father had whispered in my ear before I was baptised in the Christian rite. Moreover, I learned, the Christian faith held sacred by the rulers of Hauteville Egypt was a foul perversion, a distortion of a purer, though still misguided, faith taught by the prophet – not Messiah – Jesus. On that day I began my instruction in the true faith, the practice of complete submission to God, or islam in the holy language.
My father was a stern task-master; by the time I was fifteen, I could recite no less than 77 suras, and my father was resolved that before my sixteenth birthday I should learn the remaining 37, thus becoming a qari at an earlier age than his brother’s son, my cousin Lukhum, whose true name was Masrur. This I was willing to try, for I found Lukhum overbearing and would have been glad to show myself his better; but when for the third time in one night – with four months remaining in my sixteenth year – I stumbled over the ninety-eighth sura and my father whipped me, I decided that the prize was not worth the pain, and I ran away to the north. Egypt in those days was not a hospitable place for a secret Moslem, especially a young one travelling without companions; I did odd jobs when I could, stole when I had to, and kept moving until I reached the border of the Georgian Propheteocracy, where my faith did not mark me for flogging with barbed whips. Nor did I stop at the border; I moved north, following a stream of humanity, to the great city of Gora Dzhimara where the High Speaker holds his court, to seek my fortune.
Allah held his hand over His servant: My literacy gained me a job as a most-junior clerk in a Speaker’s house, and by dint of hard work and measured flattery I rose in his service to become an inspector, charged with travelling about the realm, and even into Egypt and Byzantium, to ensure that his merchant-agents in other cities were accurately reporting their profits, and his share thereof. This work was perfect for me; for in Gora Dzhimara there was a thriving Moslem community, and I was accepted into their number, and given honour there for my learning in the Koran – although I never did complete that pesky ninety-eighth sura. Because my travels took me far about, I often carried messages to the hidden Moslem communities in the Christian realms where our faith was forbidden. We were no grand conspiracy; the messages never amounted to more than “The faithful in City Aleph send greetings to their brothers in Beth; next year we make the Hajj. Thus-and-so has married, the other is dead; a small inheritance awaits the third if he will come to claim it.” So it went, and we kept the Faith alive through the long years of waiting.
I was happy in my work and my life; I even returned to my father’s house, and reconciled with him, in part through bringing him gifts of rich clothing, enabling him to dress better than his brother. Alas! Allah orders our rising and our going down, and when my master fell afoul of one more deft than he in the game of intrigue that the Speakers play, and was accused of cheating on his taxes (and candidly, there was truth in the charge, although my master was never among the worst offenders), I was not swift enough to denounce him and be pardoned. Thus I shared his punishment: He was stripped of his house and most of his goods (although there are yet merchants in the south who would be quite surprised to find where their payments ultimately go), and sent to the furthest north, to be an ambassador to the barbarians.
(To be continued.)