A mother’s betrayal, an unexpurgated copy of The Arabian Nights, a dazzling perfume-maker, and the scent of rose attar all serve to awaken a girl of thirteen to erotic life.
In Rikki Ducornet’s new novel, Elizabeth, the daughter of a professor of history living in Cairo in the 1950s, tells how she came to be an anatomist of mummies, as she opens up to us the sensations and aromas of ancient times, and explains how the city of Cairo itself gives her power – and wisdom – and takes away from her the part of the self that is necessary for love.
When her mother leaves her father to “walk” the streets of Cairo, and her father forgets himself in games of chess and war, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth ponders Schéhérazade’s words, “It is good for a girl to be with
a man,” and finds comfort at the shop of Ramses Ragab, a master perfumer dedicated to resurrecting the lost
fragrances of the past (the Susinum prized by Roman women; the nardinon loved by Pliny; the hekenou of
Under the tutelage of the perfumer, Elizabeth reads ancient esoteric texts and learns the mysteries of fragrance. Ramses Ragab is a sensitive and brilliant man, and Elizabeth’s burst of love for him has a child’s intensity and a young woman’s passion. When her father hires a magician to bring back his wife, Elizabeth
discovers just how precious she herself is – and how worthless – as a girl and soon to be beautiful woman,
in this ancient land of stone, sand, and darkness.
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Rikki Ducornet is the author of two short-story collections, five books of poetry, and seven novels, including The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition and The Jade Cabinet. She is also a painter whose work has been exhibited widely. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Chess Set of Ivory
Chess appealed to my father's delight in quietude, his repressed rage, his trust in institutions, models, and measured behavior. Chess justi?ed what Father liked best: thinking about thinking. He called it: battling mind.
Father dwelled in a space of such disembodied quietness his Egyptian students called him His Airship, I believe with affection. Chess allowed Father to make decisions that would in no way in?uence the greater world--beyond his grasp anyway--and to engage in con?ict without doing violence to others or to himself. (Father's fear of thuggery suggested clairvoyance when in a later decade he would ?nd himself undone by a handful of classroom Maoists who called him Gasbag to his face. If clearly they intended to hurt him, they were, admittedly, responding to that disembodied quality of his already evident in Egypt, and to his pedantry--a quality rooted in timidity.)
Father was a closet warrior, a mild man and an intellectual, a dreamer of reason in a world he feared was chronically, terminally unreasonable. And he was a parsimonious conversationalist. His favorite quote was from Wittgenstein: "What we cannot speak of we must be silent about." When Father did speak, he spoke so softly that even those who knew him well had to ask him to repeat himself. Once, during his Fulbright year in Egypt, when several of his students had discovered a crate of brass hearing trumpets for sale in the bazaar, they had carried these to class to--at a prearranged signal--lift them simultaneously to their ears. (Yet, in sleep, Father ground his teeth so loudly my mother nightly dreamed of industry: gravel pits, cement factories, brickworks.)
I could add that Father was fastidious, sometimes changing his clothes two or three times a day. He ate little and dressed soberly--if with a speci?c, outdated ?air: on formal occasions he wore a cummerbund. I took after him, played quietly by myself behind closed doors. And if Mother--and she was a big, beautiful Icelander--was a noisemaker, she made her noise out in the world--the Of?cers Club, for example.
Father once admitted to me that chess saved him from losing his mind--and this was said after he had lost his heart. When he played he became disembodied--a mind on a stalk in a chair, invisible--and if he could keep ahead of his adversary, impalpable, too. In life as in chess, Father did not want to be touched, to be moved, to be seized; he was unwilling to be pinned down or cornered. He jumped from one discourse to another, embracing peculiar and obscure concepts and ideologies about which no one else knew anything; meaningful conversation with him proved an impossibility. In those years chess became the sole vehicle by which he could be reached, or rather, engaged--for he could never be reached--the navigable airspace in which he functioned was invariably at the absolute altitude of his choosing. When he embraced the cryptic vocabulary of Coptic Gnosticism, he lost his few remaining friends because it was impossible to follow the direction of his thoughts, and that was exactly what he wanted.
In Cairo Father played chess blindfolded and invariably he won. The positions of the pieces on the board were sharper in his mind's eye than the furniture of his own living room (where he was constantly scraping his shins and knocking over chairs).
But I keep digressing. What I wish to write about is a brief period of time in Egypt, one year, and above all, one summer that seems to stretch to in?nity, a time of disquiet and loneliness. That year, and that summer, were a paradox--both intensely felt and numbing. The world passed before my eyes like an animated stage--distant, colorful, unattainable--and I, in my own chair, looked on, watchful and amazed, frightened, enchanted, and disembodied, too.
In Egypt, Father had taken to wearing a fez to wander as unobtrusively as possible. He looked Egyptian--we both did--so that Cairo embraced us unquestioningly, my father's limited but convincing Arabic suf?cing during brief encounters with beggars and merchants and dragomen; and he spoke French.
One winter's day on an excursion to the Mouski, we passed the window of an ivory carver's shop that contained any number of charming miniatures: gazelles, tigers, monkeys, elephants, and the like. As he gazed at the animals--and I supposed he might elect to buy me one--Father began to cough and hum in a familiar way that meant he was about to make a brilliant move, or was excited by an idea. At that instant a small boy invited us into the shop, and offered us two little chairs on which to sit. The carver appeared then, beaming, and sent the boy off to fetch coffee. The tray set before us, the mystery of Father's excitement was revealed: If Father provided the drawings, could the carver make for him a chess set in which the goddesses and gods of the Egyptians and the Romans met face-to-face? Isis and Osiris, Horus and Amon Ra battling Juno and Jupiter and Neptune and Mars? Might sacred bulls confront elephants? He imagined the Egyptian pawns as ibises and the Roman pawns as archers.
This conversation took place in a boil of English, Arabic, and French; already the coffee tray was cluttered with sketches and ivory elephants--examples of sizes and styles. As the ivory carver and my father discussed the set's price and the time necessary for its completion, I sipped sherbet and explored the shadows. I found a stack of tusks as tall as myself and two pails: one contained ivory bracelets soaking to scarlet in henna and the other ivory animals soaking to the color of wild honey in black tea. As I looked the boy came over and with a ?at stick stirred the carvings gently, all the while gazing at me with curiosity.
The shop was very old and smelled unlike any place I had ever been; I suppose it was the ivory dust on the air--all that old bone--the henna, the coffee, and the tea. It was a wonderful smell and soothing, so that for several instants I closed my eyes and slept.
When I awoke, the boy had vanished, leaving ajar a little door that opened onto the back alley. The alley led to a quarter entirely devoted to leather slippers stained green, and farther down an antiques seller's where I had seen a ?gure of hawk--headed Horus, the god of the rising sun, made of Egyptian paste and the size of a thumb. It had come from a tomb near Luxor.
The little ?gure had spoken to me with such urgency that, for the ?rst time in my life, I had dared ask my father that he buy it. He did not take my request seriously. How could a thirteen-year-old possibly fathom the value of such a thing? Not that it was impossibly expensive--for in those days such pieces were still to be found easily enough on the market. But it was three thousand years old, and Father imagined a troubling eccentricity of character: my request seemed excessive. Had I inherited an immodest desire for luxury from my mother, who at that moment was having the hair removed from her armpits with hot caramel? (His own delight in luxury he did not question because compared to hers it was so tame: a collection of chess sets, a few articles of elegant clothing.)
Mother's extravagance and acute blondness were striking anywhere, but above all in Egypt. When in gold lamé she arrived late at a reception at the University Club, a hush descended upon the room. She preferred of?cers and had befriended a number of the Egyptian brass (including the young Nasser)--handsome men ?ourishing thick mustaches.
I was learning Arabic. To my delight I discovered if I said egg'ga I got an omelet, and salata, a salad. Father owned a charming little pocket dictionary with words in French, English, and Arabic, and incongruous illustrations of disparate objects. One page showed a Victorian piano, a British bobby, a sarcophagus, two sorts of cannon, a hula dancer, a radio singer, a caged tiger, a man singing in black-face, an airplane, a hand holding a pen, a pearl necklace, a salted ham, a taxicab, a star, a cobra, and a hat.
Each week my father and I returned to the ivory carver's shop, where the ?nished pieces accumulated. The Roman castles were Pompeian elephants decked out exactly as in an old print Father had hunted down in the university library; the print was based on a bas-relief uncovered in Pompeii. The little elephants had tusks that ended in spheres the size of small peas. These might be gilded and if they were: Should Isis wear a gold necklace and Amon Ra a gold sun? No. Father was after simplicity. The Egyptians should be soaked in tea to darken them and this was all.
As he spoke my father ?ngered an Osiris four inches tall and completed that morning. He had the lithe body of a young, athletic man and the noble head of a falcon. In the guise of a crown he wore the solar disc encircled by a serpent, and in his hand he carried the Key of Life. Father said to me: "When Osiris was torn to pieces and his body tossed to the four winds, Isis, his beloved, searched the world until she found every part but the phallus, because it had been swallowed by a ?sh. She made him another--of precious wood or alabaster, no one knows. Then she laid his broken body on a perfumed bed and embraced him until he was whole again. And here he is!"
Smiling, Father raised the little ?gure to the sun that in its passage across the sky had suddenly ?lled the shop with light. Then, under his breath, he said with a bitterness so unique, so unexpected, that I was profoundly startled: A thing that would not have occurred to your mother.
Alone on my balcony in the afternoon, I would gaze out over the courtyard below, where Bedouins often camped. I could smell baking bread and hear the children singing. I loved to see the women suckle their little ones, and when the girls danced fearlessly I danced too, for in that quiet air the sound of their ?utes and drums readily reached me.
They came because of the public water fountain and an ancient sycamore tree that kept the courtyard shady and cool. At its roots the Bedouins had nested their goall...
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