About the Book

About the Author

Title Page


Part One: Tomaso

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Part Two: Mahmoud

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Part Three: Moussa

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8




In 1840s Damascus, Aslan Farhi leads a miserable life. Despised by his wealthy father, bullied by his siblings, and humiliated by his mother, he forms a close friendship with another boy, only for him to mysteriously disappear when their relationship becomes public knowledge.

Aslan is horrified when his father arranges for him to be married to the rabbi’s daughter, but the ordeal of the wedding is unexpectedly lightened by the presence of an exotic dancer, Umm-Jihan, with whom he becomes entranced.

But all is not as it seems and, confused and unhappy, Aslan embarks on an ill-advised relationship with an Italian monk, with disastrous consequences.


Alon Hilu is an Israeli writer and playwright. He was born in 1972. His first book, Death of a Monk, is a historical novel which re-tells the story of the blood libel against the Damascus Jews which took place in 1840. The book was translated into five languages, was among the five finalists for the prestigious Sapir Prize in 2005, and won the Israeli Presidential prize for a debut novel in 2006 and the Israeli Prime Minister prize in 2008. The House of Rajani was awarded the 2009 Sapir Prize. Alon Hilu lives with his family in Tel Aviv.

Alon Hilu

Death of a Monk




Evan Fallenberg


Then along came this affair and it dawned upon me for the first time that I belong to an unfortunate, slandered, despised and dispersed people that has nonetheless been spared annihilation.

Moses Hess, Rome and Jerusalem, 1862




I HAD NO love for Father and Father had no love for me and the two of us had no love for one another, or any other way there is of restating and reshaping the sentence of our non-love.

He had, Father, a pair of large, pendulous testicles and a holy staff that gave off a pleasant fragrance, and when the maids bathed him in our home these would be exposed together as a couple, dripping a thousand drops of water.

He had swarthy, expressive feet which he would cross, one over the other, on the small stool in the alkhosh, the courtyard of our spacious home, and occasionally he would root about between the toes and sniff with pleasure the bit of scum that clung to them.

I almost never saw Father during the day; it was his custom to rise early, pass quickly through the avenue of fruit orchards on the grounds of our home, which would cause him to grumble about the delay involved in walking its length, and attend to his thriving business concerns: lending with interest to peasants, releasing from customs goods that arrived from the far-off countries of Europe and taking care of his interests as far as his eye, which was never satisfied, would counsel and lead him.

Only at eventide, when the maids opened before him the carved wooden doors, would he return home, his presence filling the rooms at once like the blast of a ram’s horn at the conclusion of a fast day. Straight away the members of the household would encircle him, excitedly dancing attendance on him, Allah yatik ela’afia, May God grant you health, and hastening to recount for him the day’s news, starting with all manner of tales to vilify me.

Maman, Father’s statuesque, long-haired, amply bosomed wife, bedecked with golden rings and chains, who throughout the day pretended to be my good friend and dress me up in silk clothing in which to prance about her room, would lecture him about things I had said to my cross-eyed sister, Rachel, for example that I had teased her about her deformed eye and her grating voice, and my whingeing sister of the blue eyes and pure white skin would affirm it all, teary-voiced, adding her own evidence, blasphemous notes that I had supposedly sent her and blessings I had bestowed upon her wishing a slow recovery for that malformed eye and, at the apex of her account, her pupils rolling like buttons fallen from tattered clothing, she would add that I had teased her with the words Imek muvhama alleh eljamous, that while pregnant with her my mother had gazed upon a water buffalo, which explained her perpetually angry countenance.

And while Maman and Rachel embraced and consoled themselves in one another’s arms, my younger brother Meir would recount, each evening, each time in a different manner, how Aslan had confiscated his playthings, how Aslan had taken his garments and how this Aslan had a finger in every pie of mischief, and lo, I can picture Father’s eyebrows contracting, the hairs protruding and erect, as he loosens his belt, the siblings grabbing hold of me in my tunic, which was always clean and pleasant as were all the garments I loved, and they convey me to wrathful Father, to his belt that is lashing my tiny feet, stroke after stroke, to the accompaniment of a long and vociferous string of curses, from the mild Stupid! to blessings of May God take your soul, Allah yela’anek, or Allah yah’dek, after which I would not cry, nor shed a tear, but would walk, snivelling to my room, shoulders stooped and head bent, leaning for support on the arms of one of the servants.

My happy friend, while I impart these words to you, and as you record them with your industrious fingers and with expression in your large brown eyes, I would ask your indulgence in reviving for a few moments the former, innocent image of Aslan, the image of a hollow-cheeked youth whose days were as roses, plagued by persecution at the hands of members of his household; still, it is incumbent upon you to recall that his excessive wickedness is yet to come, and that you must not be bound to him by bonds of love, and further, you must establish no hard and fast hatred for his enemies, rather, take extreme caution to avoid his infectious, burgeoning evil.

Let us return to my father, seen through the eyes of young Aslan, who is steeped in senseless hatred. Indeed, when Father’s thunderous voice rose from one of the rooms during one of his frequent disputes with Maman – the two would quarrel nearly every evening, after I had been given my lashing, about matters of great importance, such as why it was that his turban was once again stained and dirty, and why there was insufficient water in his narghile, and why once again the cesspit at the edge of the fruit orchards was filling the air with a putrid odour – when their voices rose and overwhelmed me, I would return to the date palms with their succulent fruits, a pure and cloudless desert day, and the sound of hooves reaches my ears and I am riding a wild stallion, tall leather boots on my feet and a sickle-shaped sword brandished in my hand, my arms no longer thin and spotted but thick, firm, hardened, and my legs are no longer blighted and evil, they sport the light calves of an experienced rider, and they push into the ribs of the horse and cause him to gallop and increase his speed, and my eyes do not covetously drink in all the beauty and grandeur of the world; instead they are generous and pure and appreciative, and I ride there, bare-chested and bronzed, exposed to the sun, my trusted ally.

I would bathe alone, never at the hammam in Kharet Elyahud, the Jewish Quarter, with the other men, but with a bucket of hot water in the room at the edge of the fruit orchards, so that no unfamiliar eye could catch sight of me, and I could gaze in wonder at my feeble body: the pale and bloated belly, which had not seen a ray of sunlight for some time and was always hidden under thick clothing; the toes, as separate and distant from one another as a band of brothers in hot dispute; the brittle fingers, unfit for labour, mottled pink and red; the shoulders, made like two marbles that roll and sway in every direction. And in summertime, when a tardy sunbeam flickered suddenly through the window and lit up the small room, tiny pores that covered my skin in flocks would reveal themselves and I would regard them without comprehending their meaning.

The long days and weeks when Father was absent from the city, travelling to Aleppo or Sidon and from there by ship across the sea, were my moments of happiness and pleasure; upon returning from the Talmud Torah school, when my evil and angry sister had turned her blue eyes to her games and my little brother was preoccupied with matters in his room, I would circle the large apricot tree that stood in the centre of the alkhosh, tossing crumbs of bread to the goldfish sailing the fish pond at the foot of the tree, and then with hesitation tinged with anticipation I would ask one of the servants to request an audience for me with Maman, and when the response came – that she awaited me in her room – I would walk slowly to her, close the door behind me, and give myself over to her cursory kisses and sugary hugs.

Then we would spread about the costly bolts of fabric she had had sent by special delivery from shops in Europe, and alongside them garments and dresses she had obtained from sharp-eyed local traders or from the travelling merchants who sometimes visited our estate. There were long-sleeved dresses adorned with feathers, and dresses ornamented with shiny beads and shells, and I would draw the choice cloths to my chest and inhale their fragrance, and when Maman was certain that no evil eyes were watching us, waiting to tell Father about our forbidden acts, she would remove the brooch pinning up her tresses in one swift motion, freeing her hair to flow to her waist, and then she would remove my tunic, momentarily fearful of my naked body dotted with the mysterious pores, and she would wrap me in an evening gown of her own choosing, a gown that covered my legs all the way to the toes and twisted around my arms and, in order to enhance the excitement, she would slip a pair of black, patent-leather shoes over my small feet with the disputatious toes, commanding me to sit upon her bed while she passed a variety of powders and coloured lotions over my face, after which I would stand before her glowing visage.

Not a soul knew of the garments I would don from time to time, not even the servants toiling in our home. Once, only once, while we were under the mistaken impression that he was off somewhere tending to one of his numerous business concerns, Father returned home early. His shoes hammered the marble floor as he rounded the fish pond, while Maman rushed frantically to strip me of my gown and remove the spots of makeup, almost ripping the expensive fabrics from my body so that Father would not catch us in our misconduct, and when he entered and found me in the room, sitting upon his bed, he grabbed hold of me at once by the forearm and faced us, awaiting our explanation.

She would not grant me the wink of an eye confirming our complicit secret, not even the quickest flash of mischief between conspirators: Maman rushed to inform him of my conduct during his absence, how I had come to her and bothered her and recited coarse poetry to her learned from the boys at the Talmud Torah, how I was uncouth and uncultured, more evil even than the wild Bedouin who plundered our caravans, and that my place was not in the pampering bedroom of my childhood, but in the prison dungeon beneath the Saraya fortress, seat of the governor of Damascus, where the cries of tortured prisoners could be heard each night. And when Father heard all this, his eyebrows became enraged once again, and he said I was worse even than the Harari brothers, may their name and memory be blotted from the earth, and he pushed me outside the room, towards the marble fountain standing in the shade of the apricot tree, and shoved my head into the small fish pond, the permanent residence of the goldfish, and pressed upon my neck until I choked and retched and did not know what was to become of me, and she called to him from behind, her breasts ample, protruding: Harder, deeper, teach him a good and bitter lesson.

I fared no better at the Talmud Torah, in spite of the good name of my family. Father and all the uncles were important personages, pillars of the community, and our family name – Farhi – stirred up envious whispers, though the exception was and always would be Aslan.

Farhi – yes, these were the sons of wealth, of roses, of merry days, but as far as Aslan was concerned: no, and again, no. Of Lazy Aslan it was said Alvaga varda valtiz farda, His face was as a rose, his arse like a pillow; Aslan was weak of character and prone to tears, Aslan had a strange way of walking, prancing about and wiggling his bottom, Aslan was thin and fragile and quick to fall, Come, let us push Aslan, let us prod his ribs with dark objects, let us press upon his eye sockets and break his teeth.

My only friend throughout all my years in the Talmud Torah was Moussa. He, too, was narrow-boned, dreamy, his eyes blue and his hair fine and light unlike that of the Jews; he, too, was despised by many pupils and together we would remove ourselves to the corner of the room during break, and while the other children were tugging on one another’s sleeves and teasing each other and stirring up quarrels and strife, Moussa would gaze into my eyes and I into his and we would recite poems that we loved, old, forgotten poems, poems that would never pass the lips of a soul in the Jewish Quarter, lovers’ poems telling of succulent fruits in the orchards and the sweetness of nectared flowers in full bloom and sometimes, when no one was about to see or hear, Moussa would begin to hum, and his humming voice would rise to song, and in a clear and tender voice he would sing to a distant lover who had passed beyond the hills and mountains, never to return:

Min badak ahgor khali

Ya a’aeb an aynya

To you I will depart from myself

You, who are far from my eyes

And Moussa would gaze into my eyes and I into his and our eyes would fill with tears and we would sob, and on slips of paper we passed between us we drew small and feeble figures, females, grasping and clinging to one another, large yellow flowers adorning them to the right and left.

Once, when we believed we were hidden from view, I held Moussa’s hand and he held mine and we regarded one another, drawing closer and diving deep into the other’s eyes, but the other children noticed us and began to call us names and in no time the rumour that Moussa and Aslan were beloved and congenial with one another like the biblical David and Jonathan spread through the Jewish Quarter, and from that moment on they did not leave us alone or take respite from us, from the morning they would mock our love and pinch our bottoms and throw stones from the River Barada and muddy dirt from the streets at us, and from behind this barrage, this downpour, I am there, at the head of a bare-chested merchant army on its way into blood-drenched battle, a hoisted flag and a lance and dagger in my hands, poised to behead my frightened enemies, to rout them from my patch of desert, their decapitated heads the path I tread on my glorious way.

From my bedroom in our spacious home I hear Maman and Father speaking in low voices of my disgrace, for the rumour about Moussa and me has reached their ears, though this time his thunderous voice is not heard, Father has a different method, and I know nothing but this: that at the end of seven days from the time Moussa held my hand and I held his and we spoke words of goodness and grace, Moussa ceased to appear at the Talmud Torah and even when I asked and investigated I heard no mention of his departure, the only sound was that of children’s laughter as they hurled taunts, mud and slander at me.

I had three uncles, Murad, Meir and Joseph, each pot-bellied like Father, their bodies covered in short, frizzy hair, their shoulders broad and thighs fat, their eyebrows arcing from one to the other and their eyes always scheming, their laughter vulgar and their conversation insipid.

On Fridays, when we met in the private synagogue the brothers built near Joseph Farhi’s home so as to avoid mingling with the poor and wretched Jews, they would send evil looks my way, eyeing my stooped and crooked back, my long and spindly frame; they denounced me for abstaining from eating meat and other delicacies, for their own children were large and healthy, each one boasting a pair of chins, and Father joined in their laughter and they threatened to blow me down in order to demonstrate just how feeble my grasp on solid ground was, for I was sabakh balah ravakh, a shadow devoid of life.

After days such as these I would descend to the cellar of our home, beneath the kitchen, where a large and gloomy pantry stood, teeming with clay pots and glass jars filled with the very best of everything, and I would open lids and stuff apricot marmalades and date jams into my mouth, heedlessly shovelling the sugared fruits between my lips and swallowing them without desire or pleasure in order to add fat to my body like theirs, and from there I would move to the beans and lentils and other legumes, even though they had been neither blanched nor boiled and had stood for months in their cool glass jars, and I would take handfuls of them and chew them and reach the brink of vomiting, but still I would force, compel and will myself to swallow the foul-tasting mixture, and I imagined that I could discern, between the walls of the dim cellar, pairs of snake eyes boring into me, for they were fattening me up in preparation for their early summer feast.

At holiday meals I was compelled to see the faces of my relatives and watch as they occupied themselves in yet another orgy of drinking and eating, swallowing the ma’udeh and the sfikhah without pausing to chew and, on occasion, in spite of protestations by the Khaham-Bashi, chief rabbi of the Jewish Quarter, they would invite Jewish women, dancers and singers, to strut and sing before them; but worst of all is the Seder night of the Passover holiday, when I must watch them all for many hours on end and listen to their collective whispering, and I shoot unrequited glances at my beloved mother of the black hair, willing her to hide me between her breasts and save me from the claws of the avaricious women my uncles have taken for themselves, but she turns her face from me, and here is Aunt Khalda, Meir’s wife, coarse of flesh and voice, calling to me in the presence of the uncles and the cousins and the brothers and fathers and mothers: Aslan, Allah yahdek, ta’el hon! May Allah take you, come over here! And she quizzes me and poses difficult questions and if I answer she is quick to mimic my voice, small and weak, in her sharp and mocking tone, after which all present respond with a chorus of laughter, and I am horrified to see Maman among them, her skin shining and her jewels sparkling, adding her own taunts about my manner of speech, which is dissimilar to that of other boys and not at all in the way of men, but rather as though I were a featherless chick, bald and blind as he emerges from an unfamiliar shell; and the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the preparation of the matzah, the bread of affliction, and the words of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Eliezer in Bnei-Brak as recited from the Passover haggadah mix with slanderous exaggerations about Aslan, Aslan, Aslan.

What sort of life was this and what was its purpose and towards what was it flowing? I did not have the answers to these questions, and lo, I pictured myself hanged in the large square at the entrance to the Saraya for a crime whose nature I did not know, or plunged into the River Barada to drown in its chilly waters or escaped to the hills of Lebanon, climbing to the summit of Mount Tzalkhaya from which, like the young virgins married off to old men against their will, I would throw myself down, down, pitching my body into the void to bring to an end these days of senselessness.

At the outbreak of a plague in the city I would try to become infected, and when snow covered the streets I would roll about in it in an attempt to fall ill, and when the governor of the city, Ibrahim Pasha, would pass by, I tried to mock him, so that he would find me guilty, but none of this ever came to pass, and Aslan remained alive and his health remained constant.

In the wretched days following the springtime Passover holiday, when a thick, desert dust covered the city and the smell of summer clung to one’s nostrils, it was my custom to leave my little room and make my way through the trees of the orchard then in full and glorious bloom and pass through the opening in the wall that encircled our home and continue from there through the narrow alleyways stinking of sewage, skirting the passers-by and donkey-drivers, past the crowded houses and pushing on from there to the main street of the Jews, passing the beet seller and the greengrocer and the butcher hawking their wares, bypassing Teleh Square, which was always teeming with people and merchants and shoppers and hordes of beggars, and from there straight on to the chicken market, where feathers blew in the hot, heavy desert wind and the blood of chickens stained the mud walls, and I would come to the filthiest corner at the edge of the souk, lift the lid on the rubbish bin used by the butchers, and grimace, poised to empty my innards outwards, down, towards Elnahar Alaswad, the Black River, wishing to deposit there vomit and bile and evil smells, might they depart from my body and descend and drain into the sewage canals of Damascus, but these clung to my chest like sinews and would not give in to the convulsions of my throat and gullet, and for a moment, when the sun appears through the haze that comes before the great hot days of summer, I am gripped with terror at the appearance of black figures in the filthy waters swirling beneath me, and I can see the slaughtered chickens screeching at their untimely deaths and the knife that slits their throats without mercy, and a fresh wave of convulsions pushes to expel itself but does not spew into Elnahar Alaswad; all but a single dangling drop of food swallowed but only partly digested falls and drowns in that water; and lo, it travels far away from my father’s home and my mother’s home and the homes of my uncles and their children and their evil laughter, to the villages of the simple farmers outside the borders of Damascus, to the desert, where the nights are cool and the hills naked and a wild mare is waiting there and I mount her, armed with a sword and lying in ambush for a caravan of heavy-hoofed camels laden with goods, their humps bursting, and I am waiting to plunder their wares and kill their guides with the sword, and from there, with great exultation, to gallop into the clear air; and suddenly a man is holding me from behind, and he raises my chin and wipes clean the remains of saliva, Ya walad, shu am bitsavei hon, Child, what are you doing here, and he returns me, feeble and dependent, to my father’s home.


FLOCKS OF BLACK-WINGED cranes invaded the house during a storm, wreaking havoc among the pillows and comforters and spreading a spirit of evil among the curve-necked swans woven into the rugs; from there, to the sound of squawks and screeches, they scattered their long, pointed feathers and disappeared into hidden cellars under the tiled floors until that unwelcome time when they would reappear in flocks.

Who was Aslan and what were his intended paths in life and where was he headed and why were his manners and ways so twisted, his customs so crooked and perverse, why had it been necessary for him to suckle from his mother’s breasts, don the clothing of children, develop his organs, grow taller; why were his limbs lengthening, his hair sprouting, his wormlike body stretching and growing and filling out, why was his body now covered with gills, his jaws becoming harder, stronger, his mouth producing bile, why was he so loathsome to other creatures, why did he live among them as a blood-sucking louse, devouring their marrow and awakening in them a prickling anger?

My happy friend, behold, not even a single hair has yet sprouted on your delicate skin, and you are a foundling, fatherless and motherless, the essence of sweetness and charm, never a complaint or cry issues from your mouth even when you are troubled with hard physical labour; how different is your path from that of our young friend Aslan, awash in senseless hatred and indulgence! Imagine this Aslan, lathering himself with Nablus soap in the little room at the edge of the orchard and at once comprehending the meaning of the pores covering his skin from head to toe in flocks, since from each pore he can now see a follicle of pale coloured hair joining its many many sister-hairs, and he hastens to examine his arms and legs and, as far as possible, his back, in order to observe the entire surface of his skin covered with sprouting hairs, now waiting in their hiding places, but in just a few months or even weeks they will become a frizzy black fuzz just like the frizzy black fuzz covering the bodies of Father and the uncles, Murad, Meir and Joseph.

From then on I would peek at Father on his return home without exchanging a word with him, I would steal after him like a cat of the dunghills as he dressed or changed clothes or removed his shirt in the overpowering heat, in order to catch sight of his smooth, fleshy feet above whose smoothness there was a line demarcating the start of a hairy fuzz that climbed up his body like moss, beginning in straight black lines on his calves, leaving small bald spots on his rounded knees and continuing to his thighs, where it curled and frizzed and turned a little darker, and then rose and wound itself around the pair of testicles adorned with veins and then became dense and compressed and very dark on Father’s genitals, and from there spread out to great, boundless distances on the jellied flesh of his back, on his round belly, on his arms and chest, until it gathered into crowded black dots in the region of his face and stopped its uproar there, leaving his forehead clear and pure apart from the slight pauses where his eyebrows met and sometimes even his ears, where short, black hairs would peek out from time to time.

Were it possible to put a stop to this dance, to strip off this fur coat and the follicles heralding its onset, I would have taken up blades and razors and removed the fuzz from my body, alienating and abusing that hair; but the more I tormented and tortured them the more stubborn they became, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and the servants cast me scolding looks in regards to the hairy remains I left behind, which they sent tumbling into the latrine and onwards to the Black River.

Once again I am crying in my room. Not because of the abuses heaped upon me by my family – I have pushed them all from my thoughts – and not because of the taunts of my classmates in the Talmud Torah, for I am blind to them as they pass before me, and not because of Aunt Khalda’s shouts when she spies me in the street, Ta’el lahon ha khmar, Come over here, you jackass! but because of my image as it is reflected in the Damascene mirror in my room, a mirror decorated with seashells and stars and five-sided shapes that trick the eye and appear as a large rebel army, and my reflection is quite strange: a light fuzz will soon cover my cheeks which means I must become like all men in shaving daily, just as Father does, and to entrust monthly to Yusuf alkhalaq, the barber, the hair on the back of my neck and the hair in my ears and the rebellious hairs that rise from my chest to mingle with the whiskers on my neck.

By the time the hair on my cheeks had become so thick and plentiful that the children were making my life at school an even bigger misery than previously, I began wandering the streets I knew well and despised, and without knowing why, I arrived at the door of Suleiman alkhalaq, one of the poorest barbers of our ranks, whose customers included flea-infested Jewish paupers and beggars whose pubic hair had been eaten away by stinging lice; six of these men were gathered just then and were playing a game of cards at Suleiman Negrin’s barber’s shop, which stood next to the Alifranj Synagogue.

Suleiman Negrin cast a look of great surprise at me as I stood on the threshold of his dark and meagre shop, wondering how it had come to pass that a son of the House of Farhi – men who had their tresses coiffed, their cheeks lathered and the hair on their necks pruned each month in their homes by the noted Muslim Yusuf alkhalaq – had descended to the rank and file, stepping daintily over the open sewage that flowed down the street.

Silence fell on the six paupers in Suleiman’s shop; as for me, I was filled with blushing embarrassment over the silk clothing on my body and the scent of soap on my skin and the feeble voice that issued from my throat. I was about to depart, prepared to entrust my first shave to Yusuf, a jabberer and gossip who spoke vulgarities to me about the hair on women’s heads as well as their private parts, and all sorts of other matters accompanied by laughter wrapped in narghile smoke, but the barber Suleiman, who was older than I by only a few years and like me was pilose and possessed of jet-black hair, banished his pauper guests and motioned for me to sit, and while noting with disgust the eyebrows that met one another in a long, thick arc, I obeyed, my head bowed, and sat on a low wooden stool. From atop the table in front of me Suleiman removed the remains of men’s hair and jars filled with leeches used to cure all matter of illnesses, and with a flourish he spread over me a sort of dirty cloth serviette so that no dead hairs from my head would fall on to my body and tangle with the live ones; wordlessly he took in hand a razor and a wood-and-horsehair shaving brush and I was filled with awe at how I was sitting there in the way of men, on a low chair, and the barber was painting my cheeks with the same cream he used on other men and, lo and behold, I could picture them marching each morning by the legions, hundreds and thousands of men from all parts of the city, young men and old in the Jewish Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the men in Bedouin tents and the men in merchants’ caravans and men on the far side of the sea, all of them sprouting beards and moustaches and whiskers, combing, grooming, trimming their hair, and just like them here was I, for the first time, placing the stubble on my cheeks under Suleiman’s blade and promising myself not to cry, not to shed a tear.

The barber passed his blade gently over my skin, occasionally smoothing the hair on my head, exclaiming about my jet-black, shiny locks and complimenting me on my beautiful clothes and cultivated manners, and from the corner of my eye I could discern the six paupers peering through cracks in the walls of Negrin’s tiny barber’s shop, straining to watch us in the gloom, all of them excited at the scene in front of them, watching us and smiling and laughing, and the touch of Suleiman’s hands was very pleasing to me and I wished to linger there a while longer, far from my beautiful home and tidy room and the furnished liwan in which I was living out my days, I wished to remain with Suleiman and his crowd, and when the paupers could no longer contain themselves they piled in the shop, filling it with their gibber and jabbing one another with their elbows, telling me Sahten, Congratulations on your first shave, you are now rajoul, a man, and straight away they asked, Should we take him to a whore too, to carry out the ultimate act of a real man, what do you say? But Suleiman the barber told them, Leave him alone, we’re dealing with a real prince here, not one for your cheap and dirty prostitutes, and he continued massaging my temples, and the touch of his fingers was exceedingly pleasing to me.

Before leaving the shop, while I was doling out a few coins to the paupers, who pretended to take offence at my gift, the barber pulled me to a small and dirty corner of his shop and moved his head so close to mine that his arced brow touched my forehead and his breath entered my nose and he asked if I would like to be engaged in friendship with him, because friendship with me seemed lovely to him and he was very interested in knowing everything there was to know about me.

And with the resulting protrusion that stood out from my tunic and the bashful smile this brought on, the barber whispered – a lecherous look in his green eyes – that I should come visit him that evening near Bab Alfouqara, the Paupers’ Gate, three hours after the fourth cry of the muezzin. I did not respond, I merely slipped his fee into his hand and made my escape for home, a cloud of sharp-smelling cologne trailing after me which the beggars continued to sniff.

That very evening, when three hours had passed from the time of the muezzin’s fourth call, I rose and set my face towards Bab Alfouqara, towards the reckless meeting with the barber, preparing excuses for my parents to explain my odd and hurried departure, in the evening, when the gates to the Jewish Quarter remained shut and the doors to the homes were closed and no one left or entered unless they were returning late from a party or looking for trouble. But then I filled myself with loathing at Suleiman’s thick, dark eyebrows which flowed one to the other without charm or splendour, and this was how I managed to quash the excitement inciting the front of my tunic, and I joined my estranged family, to listen to their gossip about the nasty deeds and evil schemes of the Harari family, may their name and memory be blotted from the earth, chewing carrot stalks with them while we sat facing the apricot tree as it shed its leaves at the very heart of the Farhi family estate.


My happy friend, here you are, a foundling with no family, pining throughout your days for the images of your father and your mother whom you never knew, and I believe I discern in your eyes a certain amazement over Aslan, ensconced in a wondrous mansion, surrounded by members of his family, dressed in pleasant clothing and free of all laborious tasks – that in spite of all these he hates his life and hates his parents and hates himself, and I must reveal to your tender ears that there are still many more hates awaiting this lad. But let us not cross those bridges of evil until we reach them.

In the days that followed I was unable to visit the muddy lane that housed the barber’s shop of Suleiman alkhalaq, but the memory of his green eyes pursued me everywhere, at times sparkling in the light of the morning sun and at times glowing in the darkness of night, and my thoughts kept wandering to the place mentioned by the barber, Bab Alfouqara, a neglected gate to the city sealed off generations earlier, with no way to enter or depart from it through the Jewish Quarter, hence my curiosity about the meaning of his invitation to meet me there at night-time; once again I found myself in turmoil, pining to go there at that very instant, but instead I remained curled up in my bed and did not move from it.

My parents spoke of the woman who in future I would take in marriage, when I had come of age, and they consulted and whispered among themselves and I overheard the names of young ladies, maidens, whom they counted on their fingers, Father’s angry voice erupting on occasion: La, ya khmara, She is from Aleppo, do you wish to bring thieves into our home? After this he listed the considerations of profit and loss, the benefits, the status. I heard it all as if I had heard nothing at all.

Apart from my mother and sister and wide-hipped aunts, I did not know the female of the species, I had had neither positive nor negative contact with them, was unfamiliar with their ways and manners and with the secrets they kept hidden from men.

My classmates spoke vulgarly of a certain suppressed and hidden organ possessed by females called khashush, and the ways one had of reaching that place and ploughing it utterly; they told of demon dreams and the evil inclination that women awakened in men, and I could not understand these words and was not party to their fantasies; instead I was flooded with thoughts of Suleiman, whose fingers in my hair were exceedingly pleasant, so that one evening I returned to the place I had seen him last, determined to confront him, to question him about that place where he had wished to meet me: what was the purpose of his request and at what was he hinting, and these thoughts pursued one another in my head and I increased my pace, failing to notice the haberdashers collecting their wares or the coppersmiths rising from their workbenches; a hammer was pounding at my temples and a dark screen fell across my eyes and my breathing became jagged grunts and gurgles arising from my throat, and the screen grew darker, then black, and it painted my mind in melancholy colours; all at once the force of life ceased its flow in every organ of my body, pursued and hunted by one word: Aslan.

A small crowd of beggars and passers-by assembled around the haggard, unconscious lad, consulting with one another about whether to pour water over him or slap his cheeks, and I was gripped with strange convulsions as if my organs had quarrelled and were no longer connected to one single body, their joints only tenuously attached. Just then the barber, who had only a moment before shut the door to his tiny shop, pushed his way through and, as soon as he recognised the young man in princely garments who exuded an aroma of pampering and delights, he drew near me and gathered me into his arms, my head lolling behind and my legs drooping; he carried me to the paupers’ stool in his shop, and so it happened that after a short while I awoke from the fainting spell that visits me from time to time to find Suleiman whispering pleasantries into my ear, his fingers quivering above my head, my forehead, my temples.

I could not manage to come to Bab Alfouqara that evening, I tell the good barber, nor have I been able to fully comprehend your intentions in inviting me to meet you there. The barber chuckled and gently embraced me, and his smell, the scent of a man, was strange and good to me, sweet and sweaty, and I gave myself over to his embrace, and he said, I had no intentions, neither good nor bad, and he placed a warm and caressing hand in my own and led me outside, to the street, and he was protective as an older brother to me, escorting me towards my family home, and when we arrived there he told me, quietly, Go in peace, and he stroked my cheeks with his right hand and played his fingers lightly upon my lips and kissed them gently, with a dab of sweet spittle, and then he took my head into his hands and kissed my lips again, and at the sound of approaching footsteps he fled.

At once I turned my back to him and ran home, imagining Father’s shouts at my tardiness and perhaps the lash of his belt on my back, but when I arrived I found my family in slumber; no one asked about Aslan or his actions, no one was interested in him, and I hastened to wash my tongue with many waters, the smell of another mouth strong upon it, the scent of coarse and simple herbs, and I filled a bucket of water and poured it quickly over myself and I drew a cake of soap back and forth across my body, scrubbing with diligence and determination. A strange sensation rose in my throat and a heavy burden settled on my chest, and again I could hear the stifled flapping of the flock of cranes soon to take wing, and with a raging gust of wind they flooded my brain, made me dizzy, rattled me, shook me to and fro, and in their wake there remained, fluttering in a light breeze, a single feather, black and trifling, which oscillated to the left and right until it reached the earth, dormant.


IN THE WANING days of autumn of my fifteenth year, my parents informed me that I was to be wed. The name of my intended was Markhaba Antebi, upon whose face I must at one time have laid eyes, for she was the daughter of the Khaham-Bashi Yaacov Antebi, chief rabbi of Damascus, a girl with no dowry but with a good family pedigree. Two months from that very day we were to inhabit the fourth room from the right entrance to our family home.

Father informed me of this development slowly, in an official manner, as if he were reading a guilty verdict handed down by the Majles, the Council of Jewish Elders, after which he departed from the room and left Maman and me to stare at one another.

She asked me through the screen of black hair covering her eyes whether I would like to know further details, but I wanted nothing but to sink into the nuptial grief into which I was being forced; after all, how was Aslan to feed and provide for his wife and how was he to cohabitate with her, to engage in intercourse with her the way men did with their wives, for so delicate was he, his voice so feeble, his eyes moist, and a terrible fatigue descended upon my body and a small gurgle began its rumbling in my throat and Maman gathered her hair and shut me up immediately: Now listen, Aslan, and hear me well! It has been decreed that the perfumed days of your childhood and the self-indulgence and the foolish games of mischief and the teasing of your sister and your brother and the beautiful garments in which you were clothed have come to an end, and if you so much as shed a single tear I will tell your father, who has ordered that Aslan be flogged and his body tortured until he behaves like a man, not to mention that he must cease his pampered gait and his teetering footsteps, for Aslan already shaves his cheeks with a razor and sends forth semen from his loins and he must be a man as other men. It is bad enough that no groom has been found for his blue-eyed older sister, an old maid of seventeen years. Now Aslan will be kind enough to comply utterly with and acquiesce absolutely to the wishes of his parents, who have only his best interests at heart, for they love him dearly.

She took hold of my forearm and led me to that fourth room, a small dark apartment, dim and dank, which had been used by the lowliest of the servants in our home as a place to copulate and to relieve themselves, and now it had been cleared of all chattels and rags, its floor had been cleaned, its old furniture removed, and it stood arid in its loneliness like a land of banishment and expulsion. A wicker double bed in all its heaviness had been placed in the centre of the room.

It is to here that the contents of the bedroom of your youth will be moved, Maman said in a different, strange voice, her fingers clamped around her wedding ring. She deflected my attempts at embracing her and closed the door behind me and that gurgle in my throat burst forth in the form of a potent cough followed by choking and retching and once again that darkened screen lowered over my eyes, though this time no one came to my rescue and I fell supine on to the hardened mattress, pricked by the wicker, and wished my parents their share of tears and misery.

At the end of two weeks’ time a festive meal was scheduled, at which I would meet my prospective bride, Markhaba, about whose existence I had been ignorant since I had had no dealings with her father, the honourable rabbi, nor with his rabbi-cohorts or his students; in fact, only this I knew: that these Torah scholars were preoccupied night and day with pleading for a messiah that would never come, and to being transported to a land to which they would never return, and to a god who turned them away empty-handed, and that they attempted to prevent all manner of diversions and pleasures like the bottom-wiggling of the dancers that Father and the uncles watched from time to time, and the drinking of wines made in Sidon and Tyre without rabbinical supervision, and the household ornaments created in the image of man, to which Maman was in the habit of speaking secretly before retiring, entreating them to provide assistance and good counsel.

The rumour of my impending marriage spread swiftly through the Jewish Quarter, and at the Talmud Torah the boys looked askance at me, vacillating between a measure of teasing that was always reserved for me and a measure of envy at the new, lower tones in my voice and the bulging Adam’s apple in my throat and my new way of walking. Even the teacher ceased his floggings; but in spite of all this I could not quell the fears of calamity at my impending nuptials, since I could not know whether I would succeed in the great mission at hand. In my mind I pictured the women – gossips, the aunts, market hawkers, beggars – pointing at Aslan from the bottom of the lane and laughing their lecherous laugh.

I began to take notice of this species – women – and found that I abhorred their bodies, that organ they possessed, and was repulsed by what one was meant to do with them; I could not comprehend, nor was there a soul to whom I could turn to ask his advice. Not Father, always enraged and preoccupied, not my friend Moussa, who had been forced away from me and had disappeared never to return, not the barber Suleiman Negrin, whose home and shop I was careful not to pass for fear of encountering a pair of shifty eyes or his mouth, which begged for kisses.

In the bedroom of my youth, which granted me the favour of our final hours together, I resumed gazing at my body, now covered by even more hair, and examined my new voice, which leapt between the high-pitched days of my childhood and low tones, sturdy and new, and my hands descended to the organ that had, over the previous days, led my thoughts like an erect compass to its intended mission, and I searched the words of wise men for clues to the act it was expected to perform and which seemed to me beyond the realm of the possible.

I requested an audience with Maman for an urgent discussion but again and again the servants rebuffed me, until I had no choice but to burst forcefully into the bedroom she shared with Father, and she covered her breasts with a piece of black cloth and pushed me away: Aslan, I have no time for you now, but I asked, Who is this Markhaba whom you have arranged for me to marry? I do not wish to be a husband to her, to copulate with her, to bear the burden of her through the long and miserable life that lies ahead of us. I told Maman about my feelings, how the ways of a man towards a woman were incomprehensible to me, and about the beautiful days of my youth, which I wished to exploit to their fullest.

Maman began to repair a garment that needed no repair – something she was wont to do at times such as these – and told me it had been ordained and there was no going back on this arranged marriage, for due to our interminable wars with the Harari family, who were doing everything in their power to remove the Farhi brothers from their commerce and their position of honour in Kharet Elyahud, it was essential for us to marry into a family of great rabbis.

And then I poured out the contents of my heart and said that my father was trading me as if I were a promissory note that had come due, and that he never had a single word of affection to impart to me and that he was distant and estranged, and it was as though he had evil designs on me, and that even worse than Father was my mother, my good friend for flirtatious games of costumes and make-up whose true treachery became apparent at times of reckoning.

Maman laughed raucously and said that my punishment would be grave and immense, that it would not come now but later, over time, over the entirety of my life from its beginning to its end, for he who curses his mother and father is destined for the most horrible tortures of hell, and now would I be so kind as to depart from her room before she summoned her husband, my father.

We arrived at the meagre home of the bride on Sunday, that is, khad vakasal, the Day of Laziness that follows the Sabbath, and I was fatigued from the curses I had been hurling at Father, wishing all the world’s evil on him, such as bankruptcy, poverty and beggary, but then I was plagued with thoughts of sadness at this new week about to commence and the sorrows and suffering and decrees it would bring, and I sent a look of acquiescence at the virile sun, who was illuminating the street with his penetrating rays, while Father marched with a vigorous step to the meeting as though it were a profitable business proposition from which he would earn many piastres, and he opened the rickety gate that led to the narrow house and said, Sabakh alkhir, to which came the immediate response, Sabakh alfil v’alismin.

Never before had I visited the home of a rabbi of Kharet Elyahud; it seemed to me more of a nest for rats than a home for human beings. Where were the fruit orchards and pools and fountains with carved roses and sayings of wisdom and good luck that adorned our own home? Instead, this hovel sported a small and fetid well, a cage with two screeching chickens, wretched walls of clay devoid of any picture or decoration, yellow mud tamed by wicker mats; and it was occupied by the rabbi, the Khaham-Bashi Yaacov Antebi, and his wife and their five daughters, and I said in my heart, This woman my parents have arranged for me to marry was taken not from the home of a great man but from the home of paupers.