The Comedy of Death: A Story


THE doctor entered the room of the sick servant, Mustafa Hasan, accompanied by the eunuch of the women’s apartments. It was a dirty room with one narrow aperture, through which streamed thin threads of the sun’s hot, scintillating rays; its furniture was old and broken, the most prominent pieces being the rush bed with its filthy, tattered bedclothes, and the wardrobe, whose mean exterior gave no clue to the valuable objects it held.

Mustafa Hasan had been extremely stingy with himself, so that he had been able, in the course of his life, to save two hundred pounds in gold, to which he clung more tenaciously than to life itself.

The doctor felt the patient’s pulse, bared his chest, and examined his lungs. He told the eunuch in a low voice that the man could not live more than a couple of hours.

Hardly had the doctor left when the sick man opened his eyes. He was at once attacked by an incessant cough which left him exhausted.

Mustafa Hasan had been a slave of the late owner of the mansion, a pasha, by whom he had been bought at the age of eight. The boy had shown signs of intelligence and energy, which so pleased the pasha that HE had him trained m agriculture and estate-management. But before long Mustafa Hasan proved himself unworthy of his master’s favor, and his education did him no good. So the pasha took away the high positions he had given him, and neglected him rather disgracefully. In the end, when Amm Murgan, the old doorkeeper, died, Mustafa Hasan was entrusted with the vacant post.

And doorkeeper he remained till his master died, after which his mistress, the new head of the mansion, took pity on him and pensioned him off. A year ago he had been taken ill with lung trouble, so severe that all hope of his recovery was given up. And now he was breathing his last.

After the eunuch had escorted the doctor to the entrance, he went in search of his mistress to her private room on the top floor. He found her sitting on the prayer carpet, reading Ya-Sin, a chapter in the Koran, while the old woman Koran-reciter sat and listened. Hearing the eunuch enter, his mistress raised her gold spectacles and looked up inquiringly.

“What did the doctor say, Bashir Agha?” she asked.

The eunuch, a portly man like a sack of suet, did not reply at once, as he was puffing badly after having climbed the stairs. His mistress agitatedly repeated her question. Bashir Agha finished his hand over his eyes with a show of deep sorrow. “Is Mustafa Hasan dead?" the lady shouted.

By this time the eunuch had recovered somewhat and was breathing normally once more.

“Not yet, madam; but I’m afraid he’s almost at his last gasp,” he hastened to reply.

Two tears rolled down the lady’s cheeks.

“Verily we belong to God, and to Him we return,”she murmured in a resigned tone.

“The Fatihah be read over your soul, Mustafa Hasan!" the Koran-reader said in her rasping voice.

All three began reciting the opening chapter of the Koran. Bashir Agha saw by his watch that it was ten o’clock.

“Mustafa Hasan will die at twelve . . . exactly us the midday gun goes off,”he said to himself.

He went out and made for the sick man’s room, to guard the door; for he had appointed himself Mustafa Hasan’s official heir, that he might take all he pleased of what the man left.

As soon as the news got about that Mustafa Hasan was dying, the servants flocked from all sides towards his room. They found, however, that Bashir Agha had locked the door and was sitting in front of it, vigorously flourishing a thick stick to scare away anyone who might think of storming the room.

“Has Mustafa Hasan died?” they eagerly asked.

“He’s breathing his last,” Bashir Agha replied haughtily.

When it was plain that there was no way of gaining admittance to the room, the group dispersed, though a few of its members lingered round the eunuch, talking.

The children crowded outside the window of the room to see Mustafa Hasan dying. One, vigorously defending the posit ion he had secured in front of the window, exclaimed: “Goodness! His belly’s so swollen it’s almost touching the ceiling.”

Cursing the speaker for blocking the best view, another boy cried: “Sparks are flying out of his eyes! His mouth is spitting blood! Fire, blood, fire, blood. . . !”

He took to his heels, repeating the words in a frightened wail. The others tore after him, terrorstricken, into the street, where they gave highly colored accounts of the deathbed scene.

The eunuch’s watch marked eleven.

“Only one hour more till death comes to you, Mustafa Hasan,” he murmured. “You will journey to the other world, and I shall seize what I please from your rich estate.”

He turned to Amm Madbuli, the foreman, an aged man of pious appearance, and whispered in his ear: “In an hour’s time Mustafa Hasan will be dead. What shall we do with his estate? Wouldn’t it be best to divide it among the servants?”

The old man shook with joy, but feigned indifference.

“ Do what you think fit ,” he replied.

“I shall give you some shoes, three galabias, and a blanket.”

“God grant you long life! But won’t you choose something for yourself?’

“No. Nothing at all ... I shall hand over the purse of money to my mistress.”

The cleaner heard them and drew near.

“I trust you won’t forget me, master,” he besought the eunuch.

“I shall not forget you, Othman. I shall give you a lot of slippers. The dead man has a stock of expensive red ones.”

Delighted at this promise, Othman replied: “God prosper and bless you, sir! But won’t the cashmere shawl also fall to my share?”

“Of course.”

Othman kissed the eunuch’s hands in thanks. Abd el-Qawwi, the water carrier, approached, for he had heard something of what t hey had been saying. He loudly protested against their secret plotting.

“I have done the dead man many services. Shall I receive nothing from his estate?”

“Did you think I’d forgotten you, you saucy fellow?” roared the eunuch.

Abd el-Qawwi was delighted.

“God keep you always with us! I want very little,” he said, in an ingratiating tone. ” First, the thick black shoes that used to belong to the pasha. Secondly, the new tarboosh that Mustafa Hasan bought last year and hasn’t used. Thirdly, the shawl he got for the Feast, which, to this day, he’s never worn. Fourthly . . .

But here Amm Madbuli, the foreman, interrupted the water carrier, shouting:

“ You won’t leave anything for anybody else. We want to distribute the estate fairly. There are many servants here. What will be left for Sheikh Abd elHayy, the Koran-reader, and Ali, the cook, and his lad, and Sayyid Mutwalli, the dustman, and . . .”

They heard a faint wail issuing with difficulty from the room; it sounded like a voice from the grave. They listened: it was the sick man calling. The eunuch stiffened, and cold sweat poured down his forehead.

“The hour has come,” he told them. “Friends, Mustafa Hasan is breathing his last. Let us go in.”

Opening the door, he entered; the servants surged in after him. They drew near the sick man, gathering round his bed. Mustafa Hasan raised his bead a little, caught hold of Bashir Agha’s hand, and asked him urgently, in a shaky voice:

“What did the doctor say? ... I heard you discussing my estate ... Is it all over with me?”

Bashir Agha lowered his head and did not reply. The sick man’s face paled, and a violent trembling seized him. He had a bad fit of coughing, after which he lost consciousness. They all thought that he had passed away; and there was an awe-struck silence. Then they turned their eyes towards the eunuch. He realized what was in their minds, and drawing near to Amm Madbuli, the foreman, whispered a few words in his ear. The man nodded and, approaching the sick man’s head, groped under the pillow for the cupboard key. At that moment the supposed dead man opened his eyes; Amm Madbuli withdrew his hand, pretending that he was arranging the bedclothes; but he leaned towards the sick man, and said gently:

Give me the key, Mustafa, so that I can get you out a woolen galabia and a thick coverlet. I see that you’re shivering with cold.”

“It’s not necessary, Amm Madbuli,” the sick man muttered. “I want to keep my galabias and coverlets for use later.”

He took the other’s hand and began shaking it nervously, his face contracted like a weeping child’s.

“I shan’t die, Amm Madbuli,” he mumbled, in a voice choked with tears. “I shan’t die, shall I? I feel a bit better already.”

He opened his eyes and tried to sit up in bed.

“I want to get up ... I feel new strength coming into my body . . . Leave me alone, Amm Madbuli; I am not as weak as you imagine.”

But he had difficulty in breathing. His head dropped to the pillow, and his chest heaved convulsively. His eyes started from their sockets and his mouth opened and shut in its wild search for air. His whole body shook violently. In the end blood flowed from his mouth, and he lay quite still.

Amm Madbuli approached and covered up the body; then, quite openly, he put his hand under the pillow and took the key, which he handed to Bashir Agha. The eunuch immediately told the men to move the cupboard outside. They came forward and heaved at it. After some difficulty they managed to carry it to the door, but it slipped from their hands and broke open. Some of them saw their chance for surreptitious plunder. Others openly pushed aside the broken boards and snatched what they could. A battle of pillage raged, and the whole crowd became embroiled.

The eunuch, anxious about the purse of money — his share, which he had put aside exclusively for himself — kept on shouting in his aristocratic voice, telling them to stop their plundering. But nobody paid any attention. Innate greed burned in their hearts, deafening and blinding them; they became like hungry wolves lighting over their prey. The eunuch saw that action was needed — the time was one for deeds, not words. He came forward, rolling up his sleeves, and, with furious roars, joined in the battle. He pushed this one, kicked that one, butted some and bit others.

At last he reached the shattered cupboard. He threw his enormous body at it, shielding it from sight , and stretched out his hand to where the purse lay — he knew its exact position — and extracted it without difficulty. Then he rose, leaving the others to secure their share of the estate, each according to his strength.

The eunuch went off to his mistress and tactfullyinformed her of the slave’s death, asking her to be so good as to give him the expenses for the funeral. She handed him a large sum, which he took straight to his room. After he had made the door fast, he opened the purse — his booty — and emptied its contents into his lap. Then he counted out, avidly and in great excitement, the two hundred pounds. When he had finished, he rubbed his hands with joy, and carefully put the money away in his cupboard.

“The best thing you ever did, Mustafa Hasan. The best thing . . .”he muttered. “You were stingy with yourself that others might enjoy your money after . . .”

By this time the servants had finished their plundering. They carried away what they had stolen, leaving the dead man no company except the shattered and empty cupboard.

At four o’clock on the same afternoon, the funeral procession of the slave, Mustafa Hasan, set out. It was led by a group of blind sheikhs, chanting stridently: “There is no God but God . . .” Behind the coffin walked the crowd of servants, headed by Bashir Agha. All of them, except the eunuch, were wearing the new clothes and shoes they had stolen from the dead man. Everyone was satisfied with his gains, save Abd el-Qawwi, the water carrier, who grumbled to his companion:

“Is it right, after all I did for him, that I should get nothing worth mentioning out of it? Look at that black fellow, Othman, wearing the new shawl and cashmere sash. Look at his new tarboosh and his red slippers. There’s Amm Madbuli; do you see that beautiful woolen galabia? — not to mention the new blanket and the dozen pair of socks . . . As for me, what have I got?”

Bayumi, the school usher, looked at him.

“What did you gel, Abd el-Qawwi?”

“Nothing but these clumping shoes. The departed bought, them for ten piasters in the secondhand market,” the water carrier shouted.

The eunuch turned round to him, and spat on the ground, bellowing:

“Shut up, you damned fool! . . . you idiot!”

Translated by Denys Johnson-Davies


IN THE crossroads trading town of Mecca, half way up the spice route from Yemen to Damascus, in 570 A.D. Mohammed was born. Of much of his life fact and legend merge into a single hazy picture. From the Koran and from the Traditions handed down by his followers it seems clear that Mohammed was born into a poor branch of Mecca’s ruling tribe and was an orphan from early youth.

When about twenty-five, Mohammed became business agent to a rich, elderly widow and soon married her. The marriage was a happy tender one; Khadijah encouraged her young husband, and with her capital he became a respected member of the merchant oligarchy which ruled Mecca and controlled Arabian trade. Until forty, in fact, Mohammed’s life reads like a minor success story. Then came God’s first message: “ Recite in the name of the Lord . . .”The stunned Mohammed is said to have pleaded, “But what shall I recite?” In terror and confusion, wondering if he were mad, Mohammed told Khadijah his vision. She comforted him, but an agonizing period of Divine silence followed; then revelations began in earnest and Mohammed doubted his mission no longer. What he recited is the Koran, Islam’s Bible (Chapter One is reproduced here). The Divine messages warned against men’s evil ways and social injustice.

Curiously, medieval Western ignorance of Islam led to the charge that Mohammed, a. “fallen" cardinal, had set himself up as a god. The Koran — to put Mohammed in perspective — related histories of previous prophets, some Biblical and some local, whose unheeded warnings foretold grievous Divine punishment — probably made more vivid for Mohammed’s audience by ruins and rock carvings of previous civilizations in the Arabian deserts.

Mecca’s rich citizens scorned him and most ol his early followers were poor people and slaves. In nearby Taif his preaching failed totally; he was stoned out of town. Returning to Mecca in despair, he talked to any who would listen. Some of his hearers, from feud-ridden Medina, proposed on behalf of the pagan Arab and the Jewish tribes that Mohammed come there, probably more as an honest and neutral arbitrator than as a man of God. After careful negotiation, Mohammed seized the chance. Sending his followers ahead in small groups, he slipped away from Mecca in August, 622, and fled north. The Muslim calendar dates from this flight or Hegira; it was the turning point in Mohammed’s career and marks the birth of Islam as a unified system of life, both spiritual and secular.

People began to listen to Mohammed, to believe in him and want him to lead them. In the next, and last, ten years of his life Islam’s worldly power was extended over the tribes and towns of Arabia. A brilliant series of diplomatic and military moves created a veritable empire and two years before his death Mecca, which had scorned him, surrendered to Mohammed. With great sagacity and tact, he won over his old enemies, destroyed their pagan idols, and made their shrine, the Kaaba, the symbol and center of the Islamic faith on earth. But these were more than years of expansion; Mohammed fought against time to build a cadre of true believers and to create for them a new Sunna or way of life blended from Arab custom and Biblical precepts. Foreseeing that his death would unleash rebellion, he labored to shore up his incipient community. History testifies to his success. The tribal revolt which came was directed outward into the world to conquer what became the Islamic Empire. In rapid sequence it engulfed the Persian Empire and half of the Byzantine; within the century Islam spread eastward to India and Central Asia and westward as far as southern France. Today, in the Islamic year 1376, it is the religion of about 350 million people.

It is hardly surprising that Mohammed is a controversial figure. To Muslims he is the messenger of God — rasul allah, the last prophet, the Arab prophet. More than this he is the exemplar of human conduct; his acts and sayings form a source for legal decisions. At once prophet and ruler, Mohammed left a legacy of a new way of life successful in his own times, flexible enough to allow for great growth, and rich enough to compete successfully with the older universal religions. Yet hostility to Islam has led some of his non-Muslim biographers to label him an imposter or adventurer, and to try to explain his revelations as the result of epilepsy, hysteria, ambition, or simple theft from Judaism or Christianity. The first to scoff at these facile explanations was Carlyle in his study of heroes, and most scholars now take Mohammed’s sincerity for granted. For him indeed the Koran claims little: Islam is the religion of Abraham; Jesus, though not the son of God, is of virgin birth and unlike all other men is taken alive into Heaven; “Mohammed is but a messenger like those who have gone before, the deliverer of God’s message in Arabic.