Illustration by Boris Pelcer for The New Yorker
(Short Story from the June 1, 2015 issue of The New Yorker)
In the year 1195, the great philosopher Ibn Rushd, once the qadi, or judge, of Seville and most recently the personal physician to the Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub in his home town of Córdoba, was formally discredited and disgraced on account of his liberal ideas, which were unacceptable to the increasingly powerful Berber fanatics who were spreading like a pestilence across Arab Spain, and was sent to live in internal exile in the small village of Lucena, a village full of Jews who could no longer say they were Jews because they had been forced to convert to Islam. Ibn Rushd, a philosopher who was no longer permitted to expound his philosophy, all of whose writing had been banned and burned, felt instantly at home among the Jews who could not say they were Jews. He had been a favorite of the Caliph of the present ruling dynasty, the Almohads, but favorites go out of fashion, and Abu Yusuf Yaqub had allowed the fanatics to push the great commentator on Aristotle out of town.
The philosopher who could not speak his philosophy lived on a narrow unpaved street in a humble house with small windows and was terribly oppressed by the absence of light. He set up a medical practice in Lucena, and his status as the ex-physician of the Caliph himself brought him patients; in addition, he used what assets he had to enter modestly into the horse trade, and also financed the making of tinajas, the large earthenware vessels, in which the Jews who were no longer Jews stored and sold olive oil and wine. One day soon after the beginning of his exile, a girl of perhaps sixteen summers appeared outside his door, smiling gently, not knocking or intruding on his thoughts in any way, and simply stood there waiting patiently until he became aware of her presence and invited her in. She told him that she was newly orphaned, that she had no source of income, but preferred not to work in the whorehouse, and that her name was Dunia, which did not sound like a Jewish name because she was not allowed to speak her Jewish name, and, because she was illiterate, she could not write it down. She told him that a traveller had suggested the name and said it was Greek and meant “the world,” and she had liked that idea. Ibn Rushd, the translator of Aristotle, did not quibble with her, knowing that it meant “the world” in enough tongues to make pedantry unnecessary. “Why have you named yourself after the world?” he asked her, and she replied, looking him in the eye as she spoke, “Because a world will flow from me and those who flow from me will spread across the world.”
Being a man of reason, Ibn Rushd did not guess that the girl was a supernatural creature, a jinnia, of the tribe of female jinn: a grand princess of that tribe, on an earthly adventure, pursuing her fascination with human men in general and brilliant ones in particular. He took her into his cottage as his housekeeper and lover, and in the muffled night she whispered her “true”—that is to say, false—Jewish name into his ear, and that was their secret. Dunia the jinnia was as spectacularly fertile as her prophecy had implied. In the two years, eight months, and twenty-eight days and nights that followed, she was pregnant three times and brought forth a multiplicity of children, at least seven on each occasion, it would appear, and on one occasion eleven, or possibly nineteen; the records are vague. All the children inherited her most distinctive feature: they had no earlobes.
If Ibn Rushd had been a scholar of the occult arcana, he would have realized then that his children were the offspring of a non-human mother, but he was too wrapped up in himself to work it out. The philosopher who could not philosophize feared that his children would inherit from him the sad gifts that were his treasure and his curse. “To be thin-skinned, farsighted, and loose-tongued,” he said, “is to feel too sharply, see too clearly, speak too freely. It is to be vulnerable to the world when the world believes itself invulnerable, to understand its mutability when it thinks itself immutable, to sense what’s coming before others sense it, to know that the barbarian future is tearing down the gates of the present while others cling to the decadent, hollow past. If our children are fortunate, they will inherit only your ears, but, regrettably, as they are undeniably mine, they will probably think too much too soon and hear too much too early, including things that are not permitted to be thought or heard.”
“Tell me a story,” Dunia often demanded in bed in the early days of their cohabitation. Ibn Rushd quickly discovered that in spite of her seeming youth she could be a demanding and opinionated individual, in bed and out of it. He was a big man, and she was like a little bird or a stick insect, but he often felt that she was the stronger of the two. She was the joy of his old age, but she demanded from him a level of energy that was hard to maintain. Sometimes all he wanted to do in bed was sleep, but Dunia saw his attempts to nod off as hostile acts. “If you stay up all night making love,” she said, “you actually feel better rested than if you snore for hours like an ox. This is well known.” At his age, it wasn’t always easy to enter into the required condition for the sexual act, especially on consecutive nights, but she saw his elderly difficulty with arousal as proof of his unloving nature. “If you find a woman attractive, there is never a problem,” she told him. “Doesn’t matter how many nights in a row. Me, I’m always horny. I can go on forever—I have no stopping point.”
His discovery that her physical ardor could be quelled by narrative had provided some relief. “Tell me a story,” she said, curling up under his arm so that his hand rested on her head, and he thought, Good, I’m off the hook tonight, and gave her, little by little, the story of his mind. He used words that many of his contemporaries found shocking, including “reason,” “logic,” and “science,” which were the three pillars of his thought, the ideas that had led to his books’ being burned. Dunia was afraid of these words, but her fear excited her and she snuggled in closer and said, “Hold my head while you’re filling it with your lies.”
There was a deep, sad wound in him, because he was a defeated man, had lost the great battle of his life to a dead Persian, Ghazali of Tus, an adversary who had been dead for eighty-five years. A hundred years earlier, Ghazali had written a book called “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” in which he attacked Greeks like Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, and their allies, Ibn Rushd’s great precursors Ibn Sina and al-Farabi. Ghazali had suffered a crisis of belief at one point, but had recovered with such conviction that he became the greatest scourge of philosophy in the history of the world. Philosophy, he jeered, was incapable of proving the existence of God, or even of proving the impossibility of there being two gods. Philosophy believed in the inevitability of causes and effects, which was an insult to the power of God, who could easily intervene to make causes ineffectual and alter effects if He so chose.
“What happens,” Ibn Rushd asked Dunia when the night wrapped them in silence and they could speak of forbidden things, “if a lighted stick is brought into contact with a ball of cotton?”
“The cotton catches fire, of course,” she answered.
“And why does it catch fire?”
“Because that is the way of it,” she said. “The fire licks the cotton and the cotton becomes part of the fire. It’s how things are.”
“The law of nature,” he said. “Causes have their effects.” And her head nodded beneath his caressing hand.
“He disagreed,” Ibn Rushd said, and she knew that he meant the enemy, Ghazali. “He said that the cotton caught fire because God made it do so, because in God’s universe the only law is what God wills.”
“So if God had wanted the cotton to put out the fire, if He had wanted the fire to become part of the cotton, He could have done that?”
“Yes,” Ibn Rushd said. “According to Ghazali’s book, God could do that.”
She thought for a moment. “That’s stupid,” she said, finally. Even in the dark she could sense the resigned smile, the smile with cynicism in it as well as pain, spreading crookedly across his bearded face.
“He would say that this was the true faith,” he answered her, “and that to disagree with it would be . . . incoherent.”
“So anything can happen if God decides it’s O.K.,” she said. “A man’s feet might no longer touch the ground, for example. He could start walking on air.”
“A miracle,” Ibn Rushd said, “is just God changing the rules by which He chooses to play, and if we don’t comprehend it, it is because God is ultimately ineffable, which is to say, beyond our comprehension.”
She was silent again. “Suppose I suppose,” she said, at length, “that God does not exist. Suppose you make me suppose that ‘reason,’ ‘logic,’ and ‘science’ possess a magic that makes God unnecessary. Can one even suppose that it would be possible to suppose such a thing?”
She felt his body stiffen. Now he was afraid of her words, she thought, and it pleased her in an odd way. “No,” he said, too harshly. “That really would be a stupid supposition.”
He had written his own book, “The Incoherence of the Incoherence,” replying to Ghazali across a hundred years and thousands of miles, but in spite of its snappy title it had not diminished the dead Persian’s influence, and finally it was Ibn Rushd who had been disgraced, whose books had been cast into the fire, which had consumed the pages because that was what God had decided at that moment that the fire should be permitted to do. In all his writing, Ibn Rushd had tried to reconcile the words “reason,” “logic,” and “science” with the words “God,” “faith,” and “Qur’an,” but he had not succeeded, even though he had used with great subtlety the argument from kindness, demonstrating by Qur’anic quotation that God must exist because of the garden of earthly delights he had provided for mankind: and do we not send down from the clouds pressing forth rain, water pouring down in abundance, that you may thereby produce corn and herbs and gardens planted thick with trees? He was a keen amateur gardener, and the argument from kindness seemed to him to prove both God’s existence and his essentially kindly, liberal nature, but the proponents of a harsher God had beaten him. Now he lay, or so he believed, with a converted Jew whom he had saved from the whorehouse and who seemed capable of seeing into his dreams, where he argued with Ghazali in the language of irreconcilables, the language of wholeheartedness, of going all the way, which would have doomed him to the executioner if he had used it in waking life.
As Dunia filled up with children and then emptied them into the small house, there was less room for Ibn Rushd’s excommunicated “lies.” The couple’s moments of intimacy became less frequent, and money was a problem. “A true man faces the consequences of his actions,” she told him, “especially a man who believes in causes and effects.” But making money had never been his forte. The horse-trading business was treacherous and full of cutthroats, and his profits were small. He had many competitors in the tinaja market, so prices were low. “Charge your patients more,” Dunia advised him with some irritation. “You should cash in on your former prestige, tarnished as it is. What else have you got? It’s not enough to be a baby-making monster. You make babies, the babies come, the babies must be fed. That is ‘logic.’ That is ‘rational.’ ” She knew which words she could turn against him. “Not to do this,” she cried triumphantly, “is ‘incoherence.’ ”
The jinn are fond of glittering things, gold and jewels and so on, and often they conceal their hoards in subterranean caves. Why did the jinnia princess not cry “Open!” at the door of a treasure cave and solve their financial problems at a stroke? Because she had chosen a human life, as the “human” wife of a human being, and she was bound by her choice. To reveal her true nature to her lover at this late stage would have been to reveal a kind of betrayal, a lie, at the heart of their relationship. So she remained silent, fearing he might abandon her.
There was a Persian book called “Hazar Afsaneh,” or “One Thousand Stories,” which had been translated into Arabic. In the Arabic version, there were fewer than a thousand stories but the action was spread over a thousand nights, or, because round numbers were considered ugly, a thousand nights and one night more. Ibn Rushd had not seen the book, but several of its stories had been told to him at court. The story of the fisherman and the jinni appealed to him, not so much for its fantastic elements (the jinni from the lamp, the magic talking fishes, the bewitched prince who was half man and half marble) as for its technical beauty, the way its stories were folded within other stories and contained yet other stories, folded within themselves, so that the tale became a true mirror of life, Ibn Rushd thought, for in life all our stories contain the stories of others and are themselves contained within larger, grander narratives, the histories of our families, or our homelands, or our beliefs. More beautiful even than the stories within stories was the story of the storyteller, a queen called Shahrazad or Scheherazade, who told her tales to a murderous husband to keep him from executing her. Stories told to defeat death, to civilize a barbarian. And at the foot of the marital bed sat Scheherazade’s sister, her perfect audience, asking for one more story, and then one more, and then yet another. From this sister, Ibn Rushd got the name he bestowed on the hordes of babies issuing from his lover Dunia’s loins, for the sister, as it happened, was called Dunyazad, “and what we have here filling up this dark house and forcing me to impose extortionate fees on my patients, the sick and infirm of Lucena, is the arrival of the Duniazát, that is, Dunia’s tribe, the race of Dunians, the Dunia people, which is to say the people of the world.”
Dunia was deeply offended. “You mean,” she said, “that because we are not married our children cannot bear their father’s name.”
He smiled his sad, crooked smile. “It is better that they be the Duniazát,” he said, “a name that contains the world and has not been judged by it. To call them the Rushdi would be to send them into history with a mark upon their brow.”
Dunia began to speak of herself as Scheherazade’s sister, always asking for stories, only her Scheherazade was a man—her lover, not her brother—and some of his stories could get them both killed if the words were accidentally to escape from the darkness of their bedroom. So Ibn Rushd was a sort of anti-Scheherazade, Dunia told him, the exact opposite of the storyteller of the “Thousand Nights and One Night”: her stories saved her life, while his put his life in danger. But then the Caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub was triumphant in war, winning his greatest military victory, against the Christian King of Castile, Alfonso VIII, at Alarcos on the Guadiana River. After the Battle of Alarcos, in which the Caliph’s forces killed a hundred and fifty thousand Castilian soldiers, fully half the Christian army, Abu Yusuf Yaqub gave himself the name al-Mansur, the Victorious, and with the confidence of a conquering hero he brought the ascendancy of the fanatical Berbers to an end and summoned Ibn Rushd back to court.
The mark of shame was wiped off the old philosopher’s brow, his exile ended. He was rehabilitated, undisgraced, and returned with honor to his old position of court physician, two years, eight months, and twenty-eight days and nights after his exile began, which was to say, one thousand days and nights and one more day and night; and Dunia was pregnant again, of course, and he did not marry her, of course, he never gave her children his name, of course, and he did not bring her with him to the Almohad court, of course, so she slipped out of history—he took it with him when he left, along with his robes, his bubbling retorts, and his manuscripts, some bound, others in scrolls, manuscripts of other men’s books, for his own had been burned, though many copies survived, he’d told her, in other cities, in the libraries of friends, and in places where he had concealed them against the day of his disfavor, for a wise man always prepares for adversity, but, if he is properly modest, lets good fortune take him by surprise. He left without finishing his breakfast or saying goodbye, and she did not threaten him, did not reveal her true nature or the power that lay hidden within her, did not say, I know what you say aloud in your dreams, when you suppose the thing that would be stupid to suppose, when you stop trying to reconcile the irreconcilable and speak the terrible, fatal truth. She allowed history to leave her without trying to hold it back, the way children allow a grand parade to pass, holding it in their memory, making it their own; and she went on loving him, even though he had so casually abandoned her. You were my everything, she wanted to say to him. You were my sun and moon, and who will hold my head now, who will kiss my lips, who will be a father to our children? But he was a great man destined for the halls of the immortals, and these squalling brats were no more than the jetsam he left in his wake.
It is believed that Dunia remained among human beings for a while, perhaps hoping against hope for Ibn Rushd’s return, and that he continued to send her money, that maybe he visited her from time to time, and that she gave up on the horse business but went on with the tinajas. But now that the sun and moon of history had set forever on her house her story became a thing of shadows and mysteries, so maybe it’s true, as people said, that after Ibn Rushd died his spirit returned to her and fathered even more children. People also said that Ibn Rushd brought her a lamp with a jinni in it, and the jinni was the father of the children born after he left her—so we see how easily rumor turns things upside down! They also said, less kindly, that the abandoned woman took in any man who would pay her rent, and every man she took in left her with another brood, so that the Duniazát, the brood of Dunia, were no longer bastard Rushdis, or some of them were not, or many of them were not; for in most people’s eyes the story of her life had become a stuttering line, its letters dissolving into meaningless forms, incapable of revealing how long she lived, or how, or where, or with whom, or when and how—or if—she died.
Nobody noticed or cared that one day she turned sideways and slipped through a slit in the world and returned to Peristan, the other reality, the world of dreams whence the jinn periodically emerge to trouble and bless mankind. To the villagers of Lucena, she seemed to have dissolved, perhaps into fireless smoke.
After Dunia left our world, the voyagers from the world of the jinn to ours became fewer in number, and then they stopped coming completely, and the slits in the world became overgrown with the unimaginative weeds of convention and the thornbushes of the dully material, until they finally closed up, and our ancestors were left to do the best they could without the benefits or curses of magic.
But Dunia’s children thrived. That much can be said. And almost three hundred years later, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, even the Jews who could not say they were Jews, the great-grandchildren of Dunia’s great-grandchildren climbed onto ships in Cádiz and Palos de Moguer, or walked across the Pyrenees, or flew on magic carpets or in giant urns like the jinni kin they were. They traversed continents and sailed the seven seas and climbed high mountains and swam mighty rivers and slid into deep valleys and found shelter and safety wherever they could, and they forgot one another quickly, or remembered as long as they could and then forgot, or never forgot, becoming a family that was no longer exactly a family, a tribe that was no longer exactly a tribe, adopting every religion and no religion, all of them, after the centuries of conversion, ignorant of their supernatural origins and of the story of the forcible conversion of the Jews, some of them becoming manically devout while others were contemptuously disbelieving. They were a family without a place but with family in every place, a village without a location but winding in and out of every spot on the globe, like rootless plants, mosses or lichens or creeping orchids, who must lean upon others, being unable to stand alone.
History is unkind to those it abandons and can be equally unkind to those who make it. Ibn Rushd died (of old age, or so we believe) while travelling in Marrakesh barely a year after his rehabilitation, and never saw his fame grow, never saw it spread beyond the borders of his own world and into the infidel world beyond, where his commentaries on Aristotle became the foundations of his mighty forebear’s popularity, the cornerstones of the infidels’ godless philosophy, saecularis, which meant the kind of idea that came only once in a saeculum, an age of the world, or maybe an idea for the ages, and which was the very image and echo of the ideas he had spoken only in dreams. Perhaps, as a godly man, Ibn Rushd would not have been delighted by the place history gave him, for it is a strange fate for a believer to become the inspiration of ideas that have no need of belief, and a stranger fate still for a man’s philosophy to be victorious beyond the frontiers of his own world but vanquished within those borders, because in the world he knew it was the children of his dead adversary, Ghazali, who multiplied and inherited the kingdom, while his own bastard brood spread out, leaving his forbidden name behind them, to populate the earth.
A high proportion of the survivors ended up on the great North American continent, and many others on the great South Asian subcontinent, thanks to the phenomenon of “clumping,” which is part of the mysterious illogic of random distribution; and many of those afterward spread out west and south across the Americas, and north and west from that great diamond at the foot of Asia, into all the countries of the world, for of the Duniazát it can fairly be said that, in addition to peculiar ears, they all have itchy feet. Ibn Rushd was dead, but he and his adversary continued their dispute beyond the grave, for to the arguments of great thinkers there is no end, argument itself being a tool to improve the mind, the sharpest of all tools, born of the love of knowledge, which is to say, philosophy. ♦