Authors: Pico Iyer
Table of Contents
Acclaim for PICO IYER’s ABANDON
“Heartwrenchingly beautiful . . . delicious . . . wise.”
“Radiant and mysterious. . . . A passionate novel about the hunger for completion.” —Los Angeles magazine
“Convincing and moving. . . . The book launches a powerful critique against American pop cultural mysticism. . . . Fans of Iyer’s travel writing will recognize
’s keen sensitivity to what is lost and gained when two cultures meet.” —
“Genuinely startling . . . electrifying . . . impressively volatile.”
“An astonishingly original novelist whose books (both fiction and nonfiction) explore the subtle interactions and interdependencies of culture, character and place. . . . Iyer is still doing what he does best, charting unfamiliar territory in an inventive way.” —
“Lovely. . . . The writing is beautiful and appealing in its own right, reminiscent of the infectious, romantic style of Michael Ondaatje.”
“A remarkable novel that tackles such deep themes as sacred and profane love, self-denial, and the abandonment of hope and desire.”
“Get swept away by Pico Iyer’s swoony romantic novel,
ALSO BY PICO IYER
The Global Soul
Cuba and the Night
Falling Off the Map
The Lady and the Monk
Video Night in Kathmandu
Pico Iyer is the author of several books about the romance between cultures, including
Video Night in Kathmandu, The
Lady and the Monk, Cuba and the Night,
. He lives in suburban Japan.
Fire is the most tolerable third party.
He reached for his alarm clock in the dark, and then realized that the sound was coming from somewhere else. All across the city the long, slow, heart-torn cry of love—
ilaha illa ’Llah”
(There is no god but God)—rose up, as if from a widow in her grief alone. Pulling back the curtains, he saw the high-rises with their rickety antennae in the brownish light, pictures of Assad the size of six-story buildings, green-lit minarets standing sentinel across the town. Nearby, on the hill, a scatter of lights, and then the desert began.
He went down, as was now his custom, to the lobby—two women slumped enigmatically in chairs—and saw a pair of taxis idling under the line of trees. He walked up to the first, tapped at the window, and the man, startled from his sleep, reached back a lazy arm to open the door. Then they drove through the hushed, still-darkened streets to where the suq began, inside what looked to be a Crusader castle.
Even now the smell of cardamom and spices, as if, he always thought, he were walking into a curry. The store where they’d shown him a manuscript, two days before, that came, they said, from Isfahan; the other stall, where the owner, it was rumored, was a member of the secret orders. Everywhere, thin alleyways trailing off into silence, and then, five minutes later, out again into the faint light to see a few huddled figures slipping into the great mosque through its northern entrance. He followed them in, and a huge flock of pigeons took sudden flight, lit up against the blue-black sky, and settled around the minarets like guards.
Inside the prayer hall, everything was hushed. But everywhere, across the red-carpeted space, was a sense of murmurous chant, as if the building itself were muttering prayers under its breath. Mullahs sat here and there, thirty or forty before them, and delivered soft talks on the faithful’s duties. A woman sat on a raised platform at the center of the hall, reading her Quran while her son banged his legs impatiently on the step. Under the great dome, tall students from the desert countries paced back and forth, reciting their holy verses in a quiet singsong.
He’d been told that someone might approach him here, in the safety of the sacred place at dawn. No one knew who the Sufis were, of course—not even their partners or their children—but if anyone were to make contact, his adviser had told him, it would most likely be here, under cover, as it were. He watched a gang of elders walk across the carpets, clapping rough hands on familiar shoulders, telling their beads. Not far away, a young man was sitting in front of a mihrab, so motionless and alone it looked as if he had taken flight himself, and lost himself in the silence all around.
The visitor watched and watched, but no one showed any sign of acknowledging him. Defeated, he got up and slipped out, through the southern entrance this time, into the riddle of lanes that snake around the Old City, this way and that, like a theological argument. Passageways so narrow that opposing houses seem to touch on their second floors; alleyways that lead to alleyways, and then under archways too low for a man to walk through without bowing. Colorful checkerboard doors in the low walls, and, now and then, in the distance, the outline of a fruit tree, a minaret.
The streets were always deserted at this hour, no sound to keep him company but the fall of his own footsteps. Following a dusty alleyway—a woman in black emerged from a door, and looked at him—he turned a corner, and found himself amidst a blaze of lights and stalls and shouts: children running under carts, men calling out prices, a press of women, all in black, pushing their way across a marble floor into a courtyard guarded by a golden dome. He followed them in—the marble cold on his bare feet—and stepped into Iran. Ten years before, after Khomeini’s triumph, his followers had built two mosques here in Damascus, white and gold and blue, to house two Shia saints.
Across the marble space there was a small door, and when he went through it he found himself inside a space as hectic and overlit as a casino in the desert. Like walking into a kaleidoscope as it was being shaken, the low chandeliers, the tilework and glinting mirrors, the pieces of colored glass in the windows throwing off an ecstasy of reflections. Everywhere, people were sitting or standing, tears streaming down their faces, or hunched over (even the roughest men) as if they’d lost everything they cared for in the world.
Grown men came up to other men, and patted them on the shoulder, then began to cry, to cry again. Younger men, in light black jackets, as if they’d just stepped out of a restaurant in Los Angeles, sobbed and sobbed, wiping away their tears and then collapsing once again. Around the grille of the shrine, where the great-granddaughter of the Prophet lay, women were running their fingers along the bars and then running the same fingers along their faces, as if to pass on the sympathetic magic. Men sat with heads buried in their hands, and at the center of a great group on the floor, fifty or sixty perhaps, a young man, lightly bearded, with an elegant rosy face—the kind of man you might expect to see emerging from a nightclub—was singing, in a beautiful, high, and quavering voice, as if he’d lost his sweetheart yesterday.
The scholar’s habit is to take down everything as it happens, before the moment flies away. But this time, the weeping men bent over beside him, the women running their frenzied hands along the bars, as if to pull back a two-year-old now thirteen hundred years dead, the young couples reading from their Qurans, he reached for his notebook, and held back. A few hours later, the people around him would be merchants and housewives and butchers once again; now, for a few moments, they could let their real selves out.
As soon as the sun was fully up, he returned to his hotel room and packed his few things in his case. He’d hoped Khalil would call him in response to his letter, but the long days had passed and his small room had remained silent. Now, with only a few hours before his departure, he realized he would have to take the initiative himself.
The phone didn’t work, of course, and in any case he remembered what Sefadhi had told him about the old professor’s need for privacy. Since Fatima had died, the rumor had it, he scarcely left his apartment, and stayed inside the circle of his books like a medieval hermit. Besides, a scholar of Sufi poets must always be circumspect in Assad’s Damascus. “Go and visit him one day on a whim,” his adviser had said. “Make nothing of it; don’t even make a plan. If you don’t know when you’re going, they can’t, either.”
He went out into the street, the sun already high and hot, and walked around the square, stopping in at the bookshop, and looking around the lounge of the Umayyad Hotel, as for a friend. Then, consulting a map he didn’t need, he walked deliberately in the wrong direction, doubled back, and then crossed over into one of the quieter streets, all doctors’ signs and dusty Plymouths. Scanning the map, as if a lost tourist, he walked past the house he had scouted out before. Then, as if suddenly struck by a question, he went back and walked up to the door and rang the bell.
The professor opened up a few seconds later—he moved slowly, but clearly there was not much space to move through—and the visitor said quickly, “Professor Sefadhi,” and was ushered in. In the low, dark hall the man looked him over to see what he had brought in, dust clinging to his own dark clothes, as he patted his thinning white hair.
“John Macmillan,” he said, extending a hand. “I hope you got my letter.”
“Of course,” said the man, inclining his head a little, but not returning the handshake. “Come.” And led him through the corridor into a small room which obviously hadn’t been cleaned in a very long time. Now and then, he had heard, Khalil visited his daughter and son-in-law in a distant quarter of the city; otherwise he stayed at home alone with his research. There were three black-and-white photographs in silver frames beside a cabinet. Where another man might have kept bottles, he kept books.