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Gabriel Audisio

A Night of Muharram

Early in the year 803 while the caravan was returning from its pilgrimage, the travelers reached the valley of the Euphrates at Hira. Harun al-Rashid and his courtiers, leaving the others, embarked in boats and went up the river as far as Anbar. The Caliph was very fond of this place, where he had a comfortable palace. Here the hadjis would rest from the fatigue of their long peregrination and enjoy again some worldly pleasures, celebrating the New Year. They installed themselves for a prolonged sojourn, Harun in his own palace and his two older sons in their dwellings where they were entertaining the Barmecides. Fadl was with Amin, and Jafar with Mamun in the monastery district. Yahia, the conscientious vizier, was not tempted by pleasant leisure hours at Anbar. He had gone back to his post at Bagdad and Fadl, who disliked idleness also, was eager to rejoin him.

On the banks of the Euphrates, the rest were leading a gay life with fetes, promenades, hunting parties, and sports. But a cloud seemed to hover over these recreations. Every one was conscious of the Caliph's deep preoccupation and absent-mindedness. He ate little and drank nothing. No one knew the cause of this brooding, unless perhaps the future of his children and the bad omen at Mecca might cause his melancholy. As in the happier days of the fetes at Bagdad, Jafar exerted himself tirelessly to take his royal friend out of this unhappy mood, but all in vain. Harun listened to him unsmiling, but showed him much affection and overwhelmed him with kindness. Jafar could make nothing of it. One day, however, he had a shock.

One of his secretaries had just been put to death, brusquely and without any trial, by an order of the Caliph. Jafar rushed at once to the palace. Harun received him cordially, but seemed calm and quite detached from all human affairs. Jafar trembled a little as he asked: "Master, is it true that Anas has been executed?"

Harun nodded. "It is quite true," he said, and in a tone that was almost frivolous he improvised some verses:

The sword was overcome by a desire to strike Anas,

the sword had been secretly looking on;

the fates so dictated . . .

The irony of this made Jafar shiver still more, but he persisted:

"O Master, what had he done?"

"He was an atheist," replied Harun, „or at least, so it was said."

"O Commander of the Faithful, he was my friend! Have I then lost all favor in the eyes of him for whom I exist?"

Harun exclaimed indignantly at that. How could Jafar, his beloved Jafar, draw such conclusions from so trifling a matter? Atheists were miserable creatures, but Jafar was Jafar, and their friendship was far from extinguished. He and his entire family were an ornament to the reign. Harun emphasized the words with substantial signs of his favor. He sent for robes and collars of honor and ordered that they be sent at once to Fadl and Jafar. The latter's fears and that vague anguish which had attacked him. upon learning of the death of Anas were lulled. Harun was his tender confidant and steadfast friend, after all. He went back home with an easy heart, but Harun sat on his throne with a bowed head and a deeply thoughtful expression.

The day after was the last Saturday of Muharram in the year of the Hegira—January twenty-seventh, 803, by our calendar. The weather was mild, the sky limpid, and the Euphrates was flowing smoothly between bordering palms whose fronds stirred in the breeze. The royal party was hunting. All day Harun and Jafar had galloped together. The game came out from under cover, the fields were feathery with yellow sprouts, flocks of white heron rose before the horses, and life was wonderful.

When the courtiers returned at evening, weary from their exertions, each went to his own house. Jafar wished to stay with the Caliph, but Harun, walking to his horse with him, dismissed him gently.

"No," he said, "no. I wish to be with my wives. Go, Jafar, and spend a pleasant evening. Be gay, enjoy life with a light heart, have a good time! Your friend will not forget you."

Jafar left, not loath to follow such advice. Friends came to his house; Gabriel the physician, Ibn Abi Sheik his secretary, and the blind poet Abu-Bashshar. They revelled and drank heartily and then gave themselves over to the melodious delights of music and poetry. Abu-Bashshar sang delightfully and was an expert with the kettle-drum. Female slaves, hidden behind curtains, accompanied the blind man's melodies with voices and instruments. Now and then a servant came and presented the head of the house with gifts from the Commander of the Faithful. These consisted of sweets, dried fruits and perfumes. Charming attentions to prove that Harun was not forgetting his friend! Jafar was content. The odor of gardens mingled with that of the incense-burners. Life was truly wonderful.

No, the Commander of the Faithful had not forgotten his friend, but he was not with his women. He was sitting alone in his palace, sunk in a mood of deep depression. Walking up and down, he would suddenly stop short, appearing to make up his mind about something, hesitate, then resume his walk again. He meditated like this for some time, listening through an arched window to the mysterious voices of the night; chords of a guitar, a distant murmur of song and dance. Harun gazed at the scintillating stars and tried to fathom their secrets. At times he delved into old almanacs in which soothsayers had set down their mysterious science, and then again, he prayed. The night wore on. The moon rose and its beams shone on bright mosaics.

Suddenly Harun shuddered and pulled himself together. He called for that loyal eunuch, useful and efficient in all sorts of missions of love or death, Masrur, who neither saw nor heard, was blind or deaf as his master willed. The Caliph spoke:

"Masrur, are you capable of carrying out something that I want done?"

"Prince of the Faithful, if you should order me to run my sabre through my own body in your presence, I should obey."

"Good. You know Jafar, son of Yahia . . . ." "Whom should I know, my Lord, if not Jafar?"

"Go to his house at once, and no matter how you find him bring me his head. Go!"

Not a muscle of the eunuch's face twitched, but he remained rooted to the ground in a stupor. A froth of madness rose to the Caliph's lips. Had this dog not understood? He who is faint-hearted before the will of a master shall perish in torment! "Jafar's head, yes, Jafar's head, at once!" he cried.

Masrur bowed. What the master wanted, his slave would do. He went away without a word.

The soiree was nearly over at Jafar's house, the musicians were playing their last melodies. The blind poet sang a lament:

Oh, do not go far away;

for there is none

who, some night or morning,

is not visited by death!

Jafar was not listening. Masrur had just come in to tell him that the Caliph must see him at once on urgent business. He made his excuses to his guests. The Caliph's wishes were orders, and his favors, gifts from God. Followed by Masrur, Jafar had scarcely got outside when he was set upon by several men who overpowered him and bound him tightly with a mule shackle. Protesting earnestly, he gave his name to them, but it was labor wasted for they seemed deaf and dumb. Unable to take in the situation, Jafar plied Masrur with questions. Then the eunuch told him of the Caliph's orders. Jafar shuddered—could not believe it. It must be a game, a joke! The Caliph had always been his friend, he loved him still . . .

"Speak, Masrur, speak! The Prince of the Faithful is jesting with me. Is it not a trick he is playing on me? Speak!"

"As Allah is my witness," replied the slave, "I have never seen him more serious."

Then he was drunk!"

"No, truly not, he had all his senses. For days he has not drunk, but he has prayed almost constantly."

"It is not true, Masrur! It is not true!"

Jafar staggered, but now all hope had left him. He allowed himself to be led away, unresisting. Tears came to his eyes. He groaned and pleaded:

"Masrur, I have always been good and generous to you . . .

"Allah be praised, that is true."

"Masrur, my brother, will you grant me one request?"

"If I can help you without disobeying my master, yes."

"Take me to him. If he sees me, he will forgive me."

"You know that I cannot do so."

"Very well," Jafar said, "go back to the Caliph. Tell him that you have carried out his orders. You shall see, he will refuse to believe you. He loves me, Masrur—he cannot wish my ruin. I shall owe my life to you and you can always count on me. I call on Allah and the angels as witnesses."

"And if the Caliph persists in his order?" Jafar hesitated, then murmured in a strangled voice:

"Then, do your duty."

Both fell silent. It was a ghastly walk without torches, through the dark. Only the rustling of foliage broke the silence. When they reached the Caliph's palace, Jafar was confined in a tent. He silently implored Masrur with one last agonized look. The eunuch went out without a word. Harun was waiting impatiently. All he wanted now was to see his favorite dead. If he were to gaze once more upon the living Jafar he would never be able to carry out his death plan, and no one knew this better than Harun himself. Seeing the eunuch enter empty-handed, he cried without waiting for Masrur to speak:

"Jafar's head! Traitor, where is it?"

Masrur replied quietly:

"It is in the palace."

But it was not enough, that Jafar was dead, that his head was in the palace! Harun must have that severed head before him, must contemplate the wan face, the glassy eyes, the gushing blood! A rising fury, frightful to behold, seized the Caliph, the rage of a murderer, a sadistic frenzy towards one whom he had loved so deeply.

"I want Jafar's head here, do you understand? Immediately! in front of me, the head of Jafar, or your head shall fall at once!"

Masrur returned to the prisoner. Jafar was praying now, and listened with resignation to the words of his unwilling executioner. Faced by death, he had found comfort and courage in his God. He made a genuflection, spoke the name of the All-Highest, then bound his eyes with a scarf, offered his neck, and said in a firm voice:

Go on with your duty."

Masrur returned to the Caliph carrying the bleeding head by its beard. He placed it on a leather shield and presented it to Harun, who gave a raucous cry of joy and despair. Then he rose and throwing himself on the eunuch, struck him and drove him away.

"Go, flee, murderer! You fill me with horror!"

Harun al-Rashid was alone with the gory head of his former friend. He gazed at it for a long time. Then, weeping and sobbing violently, he began to disfigure it, striking it with his cane. Here was all that remained of his closest friend, his childhood companion, his confidant on all occasions. He hated him as much as he had loved him, and yet, he loved him still . . . But this dreadful trophy must be removed and taken to the gibbets of Bagdad. So deciding, Harun sank exhausted on his throne, to await the purifying dawn.

Before the day appeared, however, the Caliph's vengeance was felt in other quarters. Everything had been planned with the greatest secrecy. Seventeen years before, there had been a night of kings; this time it was a night of ministers. Jafar's turn had come first, and now for the others. All of the Barmecides must feel the weight of the Caliph's wrath.

At the very moment when Jafar's head was falling, couriers were hurrying in all directions, to Bagdad, Rakka and the provinces, wherever there were tenants, dwellings and holdings of the Barmecides. The orders were to arrest everybody and confiscate all property.

Just before this coup d'etat burst out, Sindi, the prefect of police, was peacefully sleeping in Bagdad. He was suddenly awakened by the cries of sentinels and the stamping of horses, and hastily got to his feet. Some one was knocking, entering. It was Sulam, a slave, sent by the Caliph. Sindi shivered, believing that his last hour had come. The eunuch handed him a paper. The Caliph had written:

"Sindi! this letter is written in my hand, sealed with the ring which I wear on my finger: it will be handed to you by Sulam al-Ibrach. As soon as you have read it, and before the alarm can be given, hurry with your men to the house of Yahia the Barmecide. May Allah turn His face away from him! Seize him, bind him with heavy chains and confine him in the prison for atheists. At the same time have your Lieutenant Badhan go to the house of Fadl, son of Yahia. He is to be treated like the father and taken to the same place. As soon as you have finished with them, spread your men throughout the city and arrest every Barmecide."

These orders were thoroughly carried out. Police roved the streets, burning all the houses of Barmecides, their allies, freedmen and followers. Yahia and Fadl were the first ones dragged to prison but none escaped the net, not even the foster mother of Harun nor Dananir, the beautiful singer. They were not killed, but securely confined in prisons.

During that lurid night, Sindi ran into Harthama, the famous old general, leading a mule on whose back were bound the severed head and trunk of Jafar. Harthama had been ordered to expose the remains publicly.

When the morning sun rose over Bagdad the people learned what had happened to the Barmecides and consternation filled every heart. The brutal catastrophe was a dreadful shock to every one. Grave-faced Bagdadians wended their silent way towards the river and on to the three bridges. Jafar's corpse hung there for every eye to see, a ghoulish symbol of the instability of human fortunes. Part of his body hung on the upper bridge, another on the westerly one, while the head was suspended from the great central bridge. Every mind turned toward thoughts of that terrible tribunal when the human race should be called together on the Day of Judgment. Attracted by the odor of human flesh, birds of prey were beginning to wheel above the gibbets.