ISTANBUL 2019 CE
It was one of those days, languid and sultry. As the sun ascended, balminess increased. It settled like a humid cloak over the streets of Istanbul’s busiest souk, the grand bazaar. The hawkers squatting on the streets with their myriad wares started scuttling for cover. Rivulets of sweat ran down the bodies of the stray pedestrians who had been brave enough to venture out.
Despondently, Abdul gazed out of the cracked window pane of his shop. He had taken over the affairs of his family’s antiquities business a year back. The shop had held court in a quiet by-lane near the mosque for almost three decades, ever since Ajmal, his father had opened it.
At twenty-three, Abdul was a broad-shouldered handsome lad. The shop was the last thing he had wanted to work at. Alas! Fate had other plans. Being the eldest among three motherless siblings, the onus fell to him. Inadvertently, as always at such moments, Abdul angrily thought of his father. Why did you do it?
A year back his father had disappeared. One Saturday night he had failed to return home from the shop. Not suspecting any foul play, the Polis contended that Ajmal, faced with mounting debts, had abandoned his children. Abandoned! The word had stung then…it still did.
Tomorrow was Sunday, the day that tourists thronged to the Ferikoy, a pop-up flea market selling vintage items and other such knick-knacks. The market was a big hit with tourists and most vendors sold more wares there than from their shops on weekdays.
‘I had better pack up the van for tomorrow,’ thought Abdul dispiritedly. He walked to the interior of the shop and opened the wooden trunk used for transporting the artefacts to the Ferikoy. Looking for things to add to it, his eyes fell on a dagger wedged between the trunk and the storage rack.
It looked like an old piece. Dusty with disuse, it sat on the shop floor. Its silver facade carved in intricate patterns was inlaid with semi-precious jewels. Its curved hilt, also made of silver was inlaid with delicate golden swirls.
‘Hmm…what’s this?’ He pulled it out. ‘This may fetch a good price,’ he thought. ‘The western tourists are always willing to pay top Lira for such stuff.’ He invoked Allah’s blessing, ‘Bless me Allah!’ as he clasped the dagger.
Suddenly, a dizzy spell assailed him. Beset by a deafening ringing in his ears, Abdul staggered and fell to his knees, still clutching the dagger.
AMASYA 5500 BCE
Abdul clamped his hands to his ears to stop the ringing. His head spun. He felt nauseous. Gradually, the ringing subsided to a bearable hum. Drenched in sweat and light-headed, he groped for something to help him stand. His hand brushed against cold metal – the dagger!
Cognizance returned. But, the shop was gone and so was the souk!
His forehead furrowed in alarm, he looked around. ‘Allahim!’
He seemed to have stepped into a medieval setting, into history, near some sort of city square. Cobbled streets led off in various directions. People were milling about.
‘Their clothes…’ he noticed. The clothing looked like costumes. The place did not look like Istanbul, at all!
‘Where am I?’ he thought.
A commotion caught his attention. People were parting, giving way. Abdul heard the clip-clop of hoofs. He looked on in bafflement as a quartet of men dressed as soldiers, astride magnificent steeds bore down on him. The majestic equines would have trampled him but for a strong hand that pulled him back.
‘Salak*!’ hissed a voice in his ear. ‘Do you have a death wish?’
Abdul’s world spun once more. The voice…he knew that voice. ‘Abbu?’ he turned around whispering in disbelief.
It was Ajmal!
‘Abdul, oğlum*!’ Ajmal exclaimed, clasping his son to his chest. ‘You are here. You came for me. Maher zain*!’
‘Abbu…I, I…,’ Abdul stuttered, prying himself from his father’s embrace. It was all too fantastical for him. One minute he had been at the shop and the next he had not only landed up in an alien place but had also bumped into his father! How astounding! And, where were they? What was this place? A thousand questions raced through his head. He finally asked, ‘Abbu, where are we? What is going on?’
Ajmal got a grip on his roiling emotions. But, ignoring Abdul’s question, he asked, ‘Did you hold the dagger Abdul, the one I procured recently for the shop? Did you invoke Allah’s blessing?’
‘Arrgh, so did I!’ Ajmal exclaimed. ‘Tired of our mounting debts, as I held that accursed dagger I asked for Allah’s blessing so that I could sell it for a handsome profit. Next thing I knew, I landed up here.’
‘Yes, my son. That Saturday night, the dagger took me centuries back in time and brought me to Amasya,’ said Ajmal. ‘I don’t know how or why to Amasya. I only know that the dagger can take a person through time. Tell me, my son, did you bring it with you?’ he asked with some agitation.
‘Allah övülsin*,’ Ajmal said in relief, raising his palms heavenwards in reverence. ‘Just before I came through, the dagger fell from my grasp. Without it, I could not go back,’ he explained.
Abdul stared at his father. It all seemed too bizarre. He had spent the past year cursing his father and thinking that he had abandoned them. How wrong he had been! Poor Abbu. He had been stuck here. Abdul felt mortified.
A bugle sounded.
‘Quick, bow your head,’ Ajmal instructed.
Abdul obliged. A procession carrying a tahtirevan* came abreast of the duo, flanked by soldiers. Just before it passed by, a gust of wind blew aside the lace curtain. Abdul heard a musical tinkle. Was it a giggle? He looked up…right into kohl-rimmed eyes peeking from a slit in a niqaab. They were blue, like the Aegean on a sunlit morning. Both time and Abdul’s heart skipped a beat.
A spark of interest registered in those eyes. They twinkled. Their ends crinkled a bit as if she was smiling. She craned her neck to seek a better look at the handsome man. Abdul felt an inexplicable pull. He gawked, unable to tear his gaze off. Who was this woman? What was this effect she had on him? He stood transfixed even after the tahtirevan passed.
‘Abdul…Abdul…,’ abbu’s insistent tug on his arm broke his reverie.
‘Who is she abbu?’ he asked entranced.
‘Ah, my son! She is out of your reach,’ Ajmal said dismissively. Cradling his son’s shoulder he led him away. ‘She is the Pasha’s only daughter. Her divine beauty is said to be cursed. It is rumoured to drive men mad. The Pasha has ordered her to never appear in public without a niqaab. They say…’
‘What?’ Abdul prompted.
‘Bah! Let it be,’ Ajmal said in derision. ‘It’s all fantasy, just the rabid thinking of these stupid medieval people.’
‘Tell me, please.’
Ajmal looked at his son. He did not want Abdul mixed up in foolish prophecies. This was not their world. A reprimand on his tongue, he was about to chide him but stopped at the look in his son’s eyes.
He relented. ‘Well son, she is said to be the living embodiment of an old Turkish prophecy which says that one day, a young man will emerge as her suitor. Only that fortunate man will be able to gaze upon her unveiled face, break the curse and remain sane. And, when that happens, their fates will align to make a union so powerful that it will be legendary,’ Ajmal said. ‘But, as I said, it’s a stupid story which in all probability was spread to ensure the Shehzadi’s safety. Come now, let’s go. Where is the dagger?’
Abdul looked towards where he had dropped the dagger. It was missing!
‘Abbu, it was right there,’ he said running to the spot. ‘I swear!’ He searched but, the dagger was nowhere to be found. It had vanished.
Ajmal moaned, ‘Vallahi! Now we can never go back.’
‘Abbu…I’m sorry. I’ll find it…I promise.’ Adbul tried his best to console his father. But, the light had gone out of Ajmal’s eyes. He sat haunched, propped against a wall and sobbed. The glimmer of hope that he had of returning to their world had been extinguished even before it could become a flame.
Much later, dejectedly both father and son made their way home.
One week later…
Abdul continued searching for the dagger, asking everyone he came in contact with, but it was well and truly lost. Meanwhile, Ajmal’s Effendi* offered him a job managing a stall at the city market. A semblance of normalcy emerged in their lives.
Ajmal constantly worried about the fate of his two daughters, back home. He hoped his brother had taken them in after Abdul’s disappearance. He longed to return. But, the means to travel was gone.
Although Abdul was aware of his father’s heartache and homesickness, yet his thoughts revolved solely around the Shehzadi. He was desperate to see her again. But, lowly peasants had little opportunity to meet royalty. Even so, like a besotted lover, he incessantly harangued his father and others for news of her. He was determined to seek an audience with her. Ajmal tried his best to cajole his son out of his foolhardy quest but to no avail. Adbul was smitten.
In that one fleeting moment when their eyes had met that day, something had changed. Abdul knew now that there could never be anyone else for him…ever. In his heart, he knew that they were meant to be together.
Three weeks later…
Abdul was minding his stall when he heard the familiar bugle. Shehzadi’s procession was coming!
He ran and stood ready by the side of the street, hoping for a glimpse. As she passed by, she parted the curtains and snuck a look outside. Their eyes met again. It was an electrifying moment. Abdul recognized the love he felt for her, mirrored in her eyes too. She smiled shyly.
Suffused with the knowledge that she desired him too he said to his abbu that night, ‘The fates are with me abbu. It is destined.’
Ajmal only sighed. Their predicament in this world had just been compounded by Abdul’s love-sick behaviour.
Some weeks later…
Abdul adjusted to life in Amasya. But, his thoughts still revolved around the Shehzadi. A few times he tried to seek an audience with her but got booted out by the vigilant palace guards.
‘Begone, you wastrel!’ they yelled at him. ‘Do not forget your place.’
Dejected, Abdul returned each time. And yet, he kept trying. Once she even peeked out, smiled and waved to him as he stood under her bedchamber window. It was but a momentary dalliance before she was roughly pulled back and the window slammed shut. But, that one moment, for him, was enough.
He could not define the emotion he felt for her. It was a compelling pull. Was it love? He could not be sure. He had never been in love before. Whatever it was, as time elapsed, it only grew and led him to conclude, ‘This must be what love feels like.’
A Few months later…
At day end, Abdul was about to head home when a posse of soldiers led by the Vizier himself made their way to the city square. The Vizier withdrew a scroll. Unfurling it, he read –
‘Citizens of Amasya. By order of our exalted Pasha, it is herewith announced that a suitable alliance is sought for our most beautiful Shehzadi, Gulrez. It is decreed that he, who can lift her niqaab and look upon her beauteous face without losing his sanity, will win her hand. Come cumā (Friday) a week from today, the Shehzadi will be seated on a throne at this very square. Eligible suitors are invited.’
After reading, the Vizier, an imposing, solidly built man looked at the citizens. His eyes narrowed. From a scabbard on his belt, he withdrew a blade and averred in a voice dipped in menace, ‘Any man not approaching the Shehzadi with due deference, will meet my blade.’
‘Allahım! ,’Abdul gasped. The blade…it was the dagger! The Vizier had it!
This was a catastrophe! The Shehzadi was getting married and, the dagger, the means to travel in time, was in possession of the one man who was scarier than Erlik*. ‘No, no…no,’ Abdul thought, frantic with concern. What do I do? How do I get the dagger? And, the Shehzadi…she cannot get married to someone else…no!
Now, there remained only one recourse. He needed a plan to win the Shehzadi’s hand and get the dagger back.
He raced back home. ‘Abbu…,’ he panted, as he burst in, ‘I found it…I found the dagger.’
Ajmal stilled. Had he heard his son right? Slowly he turned around. Abdul’s ecstatic face told him all he needed to know. His eyes misted. He hugged his son tight. ‘Allah’a bin şükür. (Thank God a thousand times),’ he said. ‘Give it to me son…now! Let us be gone from his infernal place.’
‘Abbu…I don’t have it now,’ replied Abdul, his eyes downcast. ‘The Vizier has it. I saw it on his person,’ he mumbled.
Ajmal blanched. The face that had been beaming suddenly fell. After a cadaverous silence he spoke, his voice a pained rasp. ‘If the Vizier has the dagger then we may as well forget it. The punishment for stealing here is death. It is the law. If we get caught, they will behead us.’
Abdul cringed. His father seemed to shrivel before his eyes. He had become frailer these past few months post the loss of the dagger. ‘This is my fault. I have to find a solution. I have to send abbu back,’ he thought.
That night Abdul slept fitfully, tortured by the impotent solutions generated by his brain. Mercifully, near daybreak, he had an epiphany.
Even before first light, a queue had formed leading to the city square. The previous night, a yurt had been pitched there and a throne had been set inside for the Shehzadi.
Abdul took his place in the long queue. His plan was simple. He would steal the dagger!
He knew the Vizier would guard the Shehzadi. So, he would remove the dagger from the Vizier’s person and fling it to his father who would be waiting by the yurt’s main flap. That was all!
The plan was risky and it meant that his fate would be in limbo. But, it did ensure that his father would safely get home.
When he had presented the plan to his father, his abbu had been aghast. ‘Allah göstermesin!’ (God forbid!) I lost you all for a year. Now when I have found you and the means to go back home, you want me to leave you behind? Hayir*(no)! I will not leave you,’ he had yelled. ‘This is madness.’
But Abdul’s resolve had prevailed. ‘Abbu,’ he had pleaded, ‘my fate brought me here to Amasya. My purpose is here now. This is my destiny.’
Ajmal had slapped his son. He had wept and ranted until he was hoarse. But, Abdul had been resolute. Ultimately, unable to sway his son’s decision, with great reluctance, he had agreed.
Now, he waited with his son.
The day progressed. A string of eligible suitors entered and then were led out of the yurt by able- bodied soldiers. They all seemed dazed. None had been able to look at the unveiled face of the Shehzadi and bear her beauty. The men included royalty, nobility and others from neighbouring lands. All failed the test!
At last, near evening, it was Abdul’s turn. Leaving Ajmal at the entrance to the yurt, he walked in. As if sensing his presence, the Shehzadi looked up. Their eyes locked once more. Hers widened before a delighted twinkle lit their depths.
Destiny or fate, both knew not. But, time stopped again for both of them.
‘Allahım!’ the realization hit Ajmal. ‘The prophecy is true!’
His head held high, Abdul walked up to the Shehzadi and knelt before her. Demurely, she nodded. Abdul lifted her niqaab. She was exquisite, even more beautiful than it was rumoured. As they looked at each other, a smile lit the Shehzadi’s face, so radiant that it seemed to explode like a burst of magical starlight. Were their fates aligning? Was this a divine blessing?
The Vizier observed. He signalled the closure of the yurt flap. His Shehzadi had chosen.
He approached the couple. The silvery glow bathing the yurt glinted off of the dagger. Abdul noticed it. Reminded of his secondary purpose, he stood up but stumbled. His stagger knocked him into the Vizier, who lifted his arms to break the young man’s fall.
That was all that Abdul needed. His ploy had worked. In a flash, he had the dagger out and threw it to his father.
Before the Vizier could react, Ajmal nimbly stepped forward and plucked the dagger from the air. Gripping it firmly in his hand, he cast one last look at his son, invoked Allah’s blessing and vanished. Poof!
Realizing what had transpired the incensed Vizier yelled, ‘Thief!’
‘Die!’ he bellowed as he withdrew his sword and attacked. The sword sliced through the air and in a swift move beheaded Abdul.
‘Hayirrrrrrrrrrr… what have I done!’ The Vizier’s tortured realization rent the air.
For, there on the floor lolled two heads – Abdul’s and his beloved Shehzadi’s, who perished to protect her love.
Abdul and Gulrez were entombed in a cave in the hills overlooking Amasya. Today, the shrine is all that remains of their legendary love. We know the shrine as Aynalı Mağara* named so because every time the sun shines on the limestone rock facade of the tomb, the surface shines as radiantly as the Shehzadi’s face.
AUTHOR’S NOTE – My inspiration for this story was the legend of the Aynalı Mağara. I have taken creative liberty with the story and have changed it to give it a fictional spin. But, I have tried to remain true to the historical setting to the best of my capability. It is not my intention to hurt the sentiments of any community with this story. This story is purely a product of my overactive imagination.
However, I would be remiss if I did not credit my fellow writer Shweta Singh. When I narrated this idea to her, her response was – Bah! Huh? What crap! How improbable! I’m not buying it! She poked so many holes in my idea that it appeared worse than clothing from a high end brand. But, it is thanks to her reactions and remedial suggestions that I was able to get the story to the point at which I present it now.
- Aynalı Mağara* (Mirrored Cave)-This legend comes from Amasya and is about a king’s daughter who was so exceptionally beautiful that she had to cover her face. When her father decided it was time for her to marry he sent out news that whoever was able to lift her veil and withstand her beauty, looking upon her as more than just a beautiful face, would become her husband. Upon this news, a mass of eligible young bachelors arrived in Amasya. One by one the young men arrived on the throne, set up at Amasya Square, to lift the princess’ veil but were immediately overcome by her beauty as their hands shook or knees buckled. This continued for days, until one day a very poor but very brave young man said that he wanted to try his luck. When the young man lifted the beautiful princess’ veil, such an electrifying and illuminating forces was set off that a fire surrounded the two as they died in the heat of their connection. Their bodies are buried in a cave outside the town and every time the sun shines on the rock façade of their tomb, the surface shines as bright as the princess’ beautiful face.
- Efsanesi – the legend of
- Salak – idiot
- oğlum* – my son
- Maher zain – Allah is great
- Allah övülsin* – Allah be praised
- Tahtırevan – palanquin
- Effendi – master
- Erlik – God of death
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