A funny thing happened to Issa bin Hisham

5 Apr

This is a selection from an early 20th century ‘Maqama’ that Elisabeth Jaquette told me about. It is called Hadith Issa bin Hisham by Mohammed al-Mowaylihi. It was published in instalments first and then as a whole book in 1908. The basic plot is that a warrior from the time of Mohammed Ali and the Ibrahim Pasha is suddenly brought to life in modern (turn of the century) Cairo. 

It is your classic fish out of water comedy. After this scene he is arrested for attacking a peasant and then a police officer. He is disgusted that Cairo is not using Sharia law. We also go to find his great grandson, who is living in a hotel. 

Here we meet our narrator, Issa bin Hisham, who is walking in a cemetery when his charge is suddenly brought to life


Hadith Issa bin Hisham (excerpt)

Issa bin Hisham told: I was musing: how bizarre life is. Not to mention death. I was pondering time’s reversals of fortune, immersed in the irony of fate, seeking guidance in researching the secrets of rebirth. Suddenly a violent rumbling arose at my back that frightened the life out of me. I turned round in a panic and saw one of the graves opening up.


Out of the grave stepped a man of imposing height and powerful visage. He was certainly beautiful in his majesty and his manifest nobility and such was the intensity of my terror that I was struck dumb. Just as Moses was [in the Quran] when God levelled the mountain before his eyes.


When I had recovered from this shock I hurried the pace of my steps and that’s when I heard the man calling me. I turned to see him following me so I stopped, in obedience to his orders, still wary. We began to talk. This is what we said, sometimes in Turkish, sometimes Arabic.


The Buried Man: What is your name, what is your profession and what happened to you?


I said to myself: truly this man is fresh from the questioning of the two angels [in some Islamic thought, immediately after death you are questioned by two angels Munkar and Nakeer]. He asks his questions in the same style. God has saved me from hardship and eased the way for me. I have been delivered from divine questioning. This punishment is enough for me.


So I turned to him and said:


Issa bin Hisham: I am called Issa bin Hisham. I am a pen-maker and I came here to visit the graves. In my eyes they are like sermons from the pulpit.


Buried Man: So, professor Issa, where is your inkwell and notebook?


Issa bin Hisham: I am not some bureaucrat or administrator. I am an essayist, a man of letters.


Buried Man: Good for you. So Mr Creative Writer, go and fetch for me my clothes and my steed “Dahman”


Issa ibn Hisham: Where is your house sir, for I do not know where it is.


Buried man (disgusted): Tell me then where you are from. It is evident that you are no  son of Egypt. For there is not a man in the whole country who does not know the location of the house of Ahmed Pasha al-Manikly Nazir, the Egyptian warrior.


Issa ibn Hisham: Know, Pasha, that I am a true Egyptian and I am sure that I do know your house. It is just that houses in Egypt are not known by the names of their owners anymore but by the names of the street or alley and their number. So if you could perhaps let me know the house number and street name then I could go there fetch what you asked for.


The Pasha (angrily): You, sir, are clearly removed from your sense. When have houses been know by numbers? Is this some kind of “governmental” or “police order”? I bid you give me your coat to cover myself and then accompany me as far as my house.


Issa bin Hisham narrated: at this point I took off my coat to give to the Pasha and a party was formed to clear pedestrians from the street. They were nothing more that roadblocks to the Pasha, though they were also the residents of the cemetery. He put on my coat hesitantly and with more than a little disdain. Then he said:


The Pasha: Well, needs must! And I have worn worse coats than this when I accompanied the late Ibrahim Pasha in one of trips he used to conduct at night in disguise to see for himself the conditions of his citizenry. But how are we going to get inside the gates?


Issa ibn Hisham: What do you want?


The Pasha: Have you forgotten that we are in the last watch of the night and we know the watch word not. So how shall they open the gates for us?


Issa ibn Hisham: Just as you don’t know about house numbers, Pasha, never in my life have I heard of this ‘watch word.


The Pasha (shaking with laughter): I said you were an unusual man? Did I not inform you that the ‘watch word’ is a word that the citadel gives to the guards and the gatekeeper every night. They will not let anyone in unless he has remembered the password and tells it to the gatekeeper. They give it to anyone who asks for it from the government in secret so they can conduct their business by night. It changes every night; sometimes it is “Lentils”, then another night “vegetables, then another night “pigeon”, and another night “chicken”


Issa bin Hisham: Now it is clear to me by these words of yours that you are not an Egyptian. As far as we know, all these words are just names of foods. We have never heard that they are permits for people to walk around at night! But anyway we have passed dawn and we no longer have any need for words like these.


The Pasha: Then I shall leave the matter in your hands.


Issa ibn Hisham narrated: So we went on our way and the Pasha started to tell me a little more about himself. He told me tales of wars and other events he had seen with his own eyes or heard of with his own ears. He told me a little of the exploits of Mohammed Ali and the courage of Ibrahim. We were still talking when we arrived at the citadel, now in the light of day. The Pasha stopped calmly and humbly and recited the Fatihah to the tomb of Mohammed Ali and addressed the citadel in his most eloquent Turkish.


“To you, the bestower of blessings and battler of the arrogant Mamluke tyrants. O house of royalty and fortress of the kingdom! Well-spring of renown, root of power and transcendent glory! O refuge for the needy, defender of the oppressed. O treasure trove of desires, granter of requests, you abode for the gallant hero, tomb of our heroic king. O fortress, how often you were loosened in generosity though yourself suffering. How often you were held back by charity, though you were powerful. How often you drew swords and crushed the proud. You united strength and generosity. You encompassed both life and destruction.”


Then, as Issa bin Hisham told, The Pasha turned to me and said


“Let us hasten to my home so I may dress, gird my sword upon my belt and mount my steed. Then I shall return to the citadel and visit the attendants of my blessed, noble lord.”


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