Set in an alternate universe where the gender roles are reversed: in medieval Baghdad the women rule and have multiple husbands.
A novel about murder, science, religion, gender, genocide, autocracy, history, mutilation, warfare, calligraphy, storytelling, fanaticism, scheming, djinns, amputation, magic squares, sociology and spiced tea.
What made Baghdad's Golden Age golden? It was not the advances in sciences, military, engineering, mathematics, farming, food technology, hygiene or any such thing. These were great, but they were only practical things. The practical is not enough. For example, the Trans-Siberian was an astounding practical achievement but it only led to the Gulags. It is when we create what seems “useless” from a greedy perspective that we are a civilisation, because then we've abandoned the pure struggle for survival in favour of more lofty goals.
The mark of the Golden Age of the Khalifate was the flourishing of the “useless” arts. And there were plenty.
Evolutionary sociologists amongst us will condemn the entire cult of djinnology1 as one of these, serving little purpose other than social cohesion. Then there are of course calligraphy, poetry, magic squares and the rest. However, there were few epics.
Until one morning an epic descended on the City of Light.
The masterpiece was noticed with the first rays of the sun. It was the folk, not the art-savvy, that saw and appreciated it: street-sweepers, cooks, shopkeepers, donkey drivers, merchants, brigands, assistants and eunuchs who descended onto the Spice Market at the crack of dawn. With first light they saw that someone set up a magnificently daring installation right in the middle of the square. The installation was marked enough for the cooks and eunuchs to call their mistresses; the assistants their scholars; the brigands (and possibly Assassins2) their djinnmothers.
Soon a crowd formed around the installation. The idea of setting up the market didn't pop into anyone's head that day. The artwork took up less than a quarter of the area of the square, but in terms of mental gravity it took up twelve thousand percent. The base was bounded by two wagons tilted towards the centre. There was a strange border around the whole thing: about 70-80 bottles on the ground. This perimeter was provocative for it was hard to tell what the empty bottles had in them. There were no labels and they looked like they might have been from ordinary beverages or aphrodisiacs -- but it was also possible they contained the Poison of Fermented Fruit. So even the perimeter made the faint-hearted gasp. Between the wagons were 8 horizontal beams that supported a flat wooden platform. The platform was dirty, some said deliberately. Perhaps the artist had simply poured a bucket of faeces over it but it reeked both smell-wise and visually. On the platform stood a single wooden pole that forked into two stakes at the end making a shape like the Latin letter Y. There were more faeces over the base of the pole. The two forks were shit-free though. They had sharp pointy ends and a naked man skewered through them: one of the stakes going through his abdomen, the other through his eye, coming out the back of his head.
This was the centrepiece. There was no question of it being anything but a real corpse. But who said a murder couldn't be a work of art? Who said it couldn't be beautiful? We don't have to approve of something to declare it beautiful. A person can have beauty despite being an asshole. A murderess can be beautiful. So then can an actual murder, even one like this. There was something about the simplicity of the design. The level of contempt shown for the victim was Zen-like, every part of the work testifying to it. Not just the faeces but the fact that the corpse was naked -- the unceremonious, casual placement of the stakes -- the roughness of the wooden platform, every splinter and bump protruding from it showing this most deliberate contempt -- the fact that the whole thing rested on two tilted wagons, so precariously constructed that it looked about to topple over -- the bottles, the spokes on the wheels -- even the location of the Work and its orientation. The crowd watched the sun rise through the middle of the prongs of the Y -- it must have been deliberately aligned this way. Oh, and the fact that this man's Separator was nowhere to be found. It was as if it never existed.
It was beautiful in its ugliness. Ovarial. The blend of colours was terrific, as were the emotions of the growing crowd. It took about an hour for the first words to be spoken. Things were pretty tense before then: murders were extremely rare in Baghdad. Most of the “unnatural deaths” in the Khalifate occurred in the countryside. There was brigandry, Assassin'ry and poverty there, all of which were supposedly absent in the City. Of course, executions did not count as murders in the minds of the populace which made this execution by some Private Citizen even more marked.