Whenever I linger in front of a certain used bookstore shop window on Mont-Royal Avenue, it occurs to me on how, many books that were once popular are gradually disappearing. This gets me thinking that perhaps an ark should be created.

The ark could be used to save from extinction, the inexorable Googling of the greatest and most quintessential examples of a little bit of everything. Of course, this would be contingent on the elective opinions of experts or enthusiasts: from the ten best soccer players to the ten best country songs, from the best matchstick constructions to the ten most remarkable Impressionist paintings. It prompted me to rephrase an old story originating from the Arab world.

Melody of Words

Karem received his first enlightenment at the age of ten. In his native village, Karem came across a wise man who happened to be passing through—unrolling long, light-skinned scrolls from a dark varnished wooden case. The ends and joints of the case were protected with soldered silver. The wise man’s voice turned into a melodious song, as he slowly moved with his eyes through the signs that had been traced out on the scrolls. It was Karem’s first contact with writing.

L’échange, bookstore on
Mont-Royal north, close to
St-Hubert, storefront before 2010

Karem was eager to learn. On another occasion, he met an old merchant in the village who taught him how to count. He learned that the laws of forms originated from a Greek philosopher named Euclid (c. 325-265 BC) and were inscribed on scrolls in the great city of Alexandria. Roman emperors had also fought there for the love of a queen which he later learned as he travelled with a caravan. A vast and wondrous world was coming to life in the boy’s mind. Fascinated by his pupil’s intelligence, the old merchant sent him to Jerusalem to learn the science of numbers. He believed that Karem would be useful for the task of accounting in the temples.

L’échange, inside view

Karem had already been in the holy city for five years when he was invited to a banquet. It was a great honor. And this was when he received his second revelation—this time from the mouth of a poet. The melody of the syllables aroused in Karmen’s young mind, a vision where the sequence of images was everything. Until now he had held a position as an accounting checker with a Caliph (a chief Muslim civil and religious ruler), but it was a wearying routine. Karem remembered what the wise man had once told him,that he did not know how to dream with his eyes open. He left his post and became a poet.


It was wished that Allah would guide his steps. So Karem began a walk that would last ten years. He stopped only on rare occasions, one moon at the most, to catch his breath and work on his poetry. He lived for his walk.

Enchanted by a woman—his calypso, his muse, who was also a poet, led him to the capital which was situated in the heart of the empire. Samarkand prided itself on its prosperity, its flower gardens, its pottery and poetry competitions. Karem had great expectations about an annual poetry contest that was being held during the next full moon. It was of great repute. His beautiful muse also had great hopes of winning a prize of gold and the fame that came with winning.

Wanting to seduce his muse, Karem worked on a poem in which he personified her face as that of love: a raised tip of the nose uncovered her velvety eyes. A clever smile appeared, the oval of the face appeared, then the curls of hair. A shawl with a golden border, the ease of the gesture. The melody of his voice brought him to his destination without worrying about the path. He allowed a deeply moving feeling within him to be reborn.

The Apocalypse

On the day of the contest, they presented themselves as lovers. About forty participants were in the running. His mistress finished third, gaining gold and fame. Karem won the competition. He knew this was the case as soon as his poem was read; by the way, the stubborn silence lengthened into smiles and sparkling glances. A night of love, feasting and drinking followed.

Port de tête bookstore, on Mont-Royal south, close to de Bullion

As day broke and indisposed by his liver, Karem took a walk in the morning shadows. He stopped at a watering hole. Intrigued by a distant hammering he then made his way toward a guarded gate, where the road led to the desert. As he approached a low construction made of heavy stones far from the walls, he froze in contemplation at the hammering a metal, reddened by flames that roared under the whip of the bellows.

He could hear screaming in the distance and saw smoke rising from the city. He heard the bell ring, as guards rushed inside. The violence of the attack was matched only by its speed. A horde of horsemen had pushed into the city on one side and out on the other, spreading fire, mayhem and death in the process. Nomads came from the steppes to trade. The merchants had killed the delegation and seized the gifts offered as a sign of peace. A drinking companion was there and told them all about it the day before. The rulers of Samarkand had underestimated the number and strength of these barbarians.

A Song of Loss

Karem ran to the house he had been staying at, finding nothing but flames and skewered corpses. Motionless and without, will, the poet watched the house, his love, his poems and his fame go up in smoke. The home was on the road that the horsemen had passed. Bewildered, the young Karem became aware of a woman moaning, kneeling before the bodies of her three children.

Suddenly, his paternal empathy swelled, turning into a cry, refusing to weaken, feeding on waves of rage and despair. One sound, a single sound, pushed him to the point of breathlessness—to the essence of his life. He took a long walk towards bliss, giving his lips time to absorb it all—before he lost everything to the passage of death. The poet’s mind had opened itself to a third revelation: the melody of life is a funeral song.

(… to be continued)


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