A Chapter from “The Zar Tales”……

*”All the carpets of Persia cannot match the softness of her hands

The roses of the Sultan’s garden have not the bloom of her cheeks

The trees blown by a gentle wind have not the sway of her delicate gait

And my heart travels with speed to lie at her feet.

Ah! She steps on my heart, invisible beneath her flowery foot,

And trots upon my senses, scrambling them like eggs for the breakfast.”*

…..poem of Ali, a former student of Rumi. A thousand years ago.

In 2010 I published “The Zar Tales” with Lulu.com.  This was a novella about women in modern Turkey who were bedeviled by ancient Berber (and Persian) Zars…..spirits who had done something to displease the mullahs of Paradise and were sent back to suffer for a thousand years or so in the form of spirits.  Now Zars are djouns….without material substance, rather like talking vapors.  They like to inhabit married women and they cause martial conflict.  In the form of the Zar ritual, they are also an important element in social and mental health for women in Africa and the Middle East.  Ali was the leader of these zars who have now (through a particular event) have become mortal men:  Spirit made into Flesh.  Ali is soon to be married to the Sheika Shakira. (Sheika is loosely translated as ‘wise woman’.)  The setting of this novella is in a mountainous village in Turkey in 1983.

Ali was sitting on the bench early one evening when the village men gathered outside the baker’s shop. They lit the hookah and passed the hoses around. He was enjoying the mixture of babble and smoke rising like spirits above their heads.  Eyes half closed against the blue haze circling his head, he basked in the fading sunlight.

There was a lot more energy needed to be a mortal, Ali thought.  Being a Zar was easier. That Shakira was insatiable.  Now she would grab his hand and lead him to bed, and she would stay there, full of demands and little shame for a woman!  On top of that, she was feeding him too much and he was getting heavier.  She told him he needed the weight, but he thought she just was in love.  Ah! Women acted differently in love.

This was something he had forgotten over the past thousand years.  He was adjusting to a diet of rich foods he had not tasted before.  The foods of his Berber clan were simpler.  The woman was making flaky walnut and honey pastries and stuffing dates with sugared almonds and tempting him with candied ginger, orange and lemon peel.  Also, wheat salads with golden raisins and garlic and herbs from her garden.

And he was eating too much meat.  This goat and lamb was not stringy, as he remembered in the desert, but stuffed with lard and fat and served with stewed apples and apricots and more delightful than even her sweetbreads. Ah, he was going to get fat and slow!  But he had a thousand years of nothing on his stomach, and Shakira was sure to kill him with all these rich dishes!  Or, he supposed, her demands in bed.  One or the other was going to shorten his life.

So, the smoke and silence this evening was a restful time for Ali.

But it wouldn’t last long.  The murmur of men made him open his eyes. Walking towards them was Emir and Hasan.  Ah! Two old Zar friends now as flesh and blood– thanks to mullah kabobs!

Hasan wore the indigo blue turban. There was always a kinship between them, and if nothing but their hooked noses and the colors of their robes and turbans showed this, well it was enough.  Emir was Persian; his robes were white and black.  Ali stood and embraced both men, and kissed each on both cheeks as was custom.  He introduced Hasan as a kinsman from a village in the mountains and Emir as an old friend.  How old, Ali didn’t reveal, but they had been Zars together for many centuries.  Ali called for more of the strong Turkish coffee and the baker came out with the tiny cups and the long ladled copper coffee pots.  The village men, as in all regions of Turkey, prided themselves in their hospitality, and welcomed the two strangers. Besides, they might bring gossip or news and that was better than reading weeks- old newspapers dealing with city issues and rarely those from the mountains.

Hasan and Emir were passed the piping of the hookah. They filled their lungs with the sweet scent of dried apple tobacco.  After a while, Ali mentioned Emir was a poet, and a wonderfully inventive one at that!  Emir beamed with pride and delight and looked at Ali, a broad smile wreathing his sun darkened face.

“Ah!  My Brother Ali here is a fine poet in his own right!  I cannot hold a candle with my poor verse!  I have heard Brother Ali expound at length and his verse is prodigious!  The angels in heaven get dizzy with the beauty of his lyrics. They spiral almost to the ground and Allah sucks them back up with his breath!  Ah! The Great Rumi would have treasured the verse of Brother Ali had he but heard it!”

Ali laughed to himself.  Emir knew well Ali had been a student of the great Rumi almost a thousand years ago.  It was not in his mortal flesh he sat as Rumi’s student, but a time when he was condemned as a Zar,  without purpose or a woman to possess.

When Ali was a young Berber chieftain, and still with mortal connections to this earth, he was taken by the beauty of verse and was a very good Berber poet.  This was unusual for his region, for the women of the tribes were known to be the poets and the literate ones.  But Ali was a favorite amongst the women, and they loved to have him around as a young boy, before he was of age where he would not be welcome company with the women.  His dark eyes shone hearing the verses the women chanted while washing at the river. He learned how they took from the beauty of nature and the joys, sadness of their lives and wove them into carpets of verse.  The knots and threads of these beautiful verse-carpets were full of color and the softness of dreams, not sheep wool.

He learned to stroke the phrases, to rise to the lushness of the Berber language.   When he was older, he would sit on his horse in the desert and roam the dunes until he lost himself in lyrics and sand.  His horse knew the way home, and Ali could compose his poetry away from the chatter of wives and children, growls of camels, the bleating of goats and the general noise of the camp.

Ali had a hunting hawk, as had most of the Berber men, and he would put his beautiful girl on the leather pad at his wrist, gently pull off the hood and launch her into the desert sky.  She would wheel and soar high and turn into the sun, and Ali would lose sight of her.  But before he did, he would compose verses in praise of his bird.  Her wings, her grace, her sharp eyes that saw from high on the wind.  She would fold her wings and plunge like a daytime falling star, and stretch out her claws.  Make short work of desert rats.

She was fast as the sandstorms that carried the wind up to the foot of the mountains, and a fierce as any warrior on his steed.  Her coat sparkled with a million colors, like a piece of bronze mirror, or like pearls glistening fresh from the sea.

Ali could never stop praising his hawks.  They lifted him into the wilds of their heaven and left his human travail behind.  Ah, his birds made his soul soar!

Ali was as proud of his hawks as he was of his poetry. His father and most of his kinsmen would sew shut their bird’s eyes shut and release the strong thread before they launched them. But Ali saw many hawks blinded this way, and what good is a blind hunting hawk?  So he patiently molded hoods of new lambskin, sewed and decorated them with dyed feathers.

Hasan’s voice cut into his thoughts, and Ali shook his head to clear.  He hadn’t thought about the hawks in many years, centuries actually.  Now, with his feet again mortal, he could capture and train young tercels and hunt again like his ancestors.  This promise brought tears to his eyes, and opening them, saw the compassionate gazes of both Hasan and Emir.  They had suffered as much as Ali, and now, thanks to the good mullahs, they had their chances at life again.

“Give us a verse, Brother Ali!” said Emir, with a broad smile.

The men of the village perked up with his words, for there was nothing that men loved more than the soft, lulling words of a poet.

Unless it was the soft moving hands of a woman.

The men had hard lives in the mountains, tilling the stony earth for their grain crops, but they made time for any poet.  It was music to their ears without instrumentation.  It was the fine music of human voice and colorful words.  It gave precious beauty to their routine lives.

Ali shook his head, and said for Emir to give them a poem, but Emir insisted Ali give them a verse of his own making.

“Ah! You ask the impossible, my dear brother.  It has been long since I thought of any verse. Life had glued shut those pages of inspiration.”

Ali smiled to himself and took up one of the mouthpieces of the hookah, sucking in a long plume of smoke smelling of apple.

“If marriage next month to the Sheilkha Shakira doesn’t open those pages, my friends, then all the poets of Persia have lived for naught!”

This from one of the men in the village made them all laugh.  They were curious how this stranger had been able to attract the affections of their desirable Sheikha. But their eyes, even the eyes of men, could tell he was handsome enough to attract a woman’s gaze.

Better he marry the Sheikha now.  The women would have no claim on him then.

Ali stared at Emir through half opened eyes.  They spoke volumes, were masked by the heavy smoke he expelled from his lungs.  Ah, brother Emir would push him, but perhaps he could think of something.  Surely the men would want a love sonnet or a verse of the beauty of mortal life.  Make that Paradise, for these men were jaded by their mortality.  It was new to Ali, Emir and Hasan, and precious and confounding to them daily.  After being a Zar for centuries, feet on the earth were heavy but strangely comforting.

*”All the carpets of Persia cannot match the softness of her hands

The roses of the Sultan’s garden have not the bloom of her cheeks

The trees blown by a gentle wind have not the sway of her delicate gait

And my heart travels with speed to lie at her feet.

Ah! She steps on my heart, invisible beneath her flowery foot,

And trots upon my senses, scrambling them like eggs for the breakfast.”*

At this last line, the men guffawed.  Even they, in their isolated village, could discern good verse from bad. Ali was having his fun with them.

“I warned you I had nothing to say,” he said with a bemused look on his face.

“Ah, Friend Ali!” said one of the men loudly.  “If you think you have nothing to say now, marriage will shut up your mouth then.”

The others laughed, for the truth of the matter was so.  Marriage changed both men and women.  It made one side more quarrelsome and the men more silent and fearful of the wrath of the other.  Ah! Men could not win in this battle.

Ali had been married, with a number of wives.  His eyes glazed over as he blew out more smoke from the hookah.  The first one was Lela, when he was 20 years old.  She was young and so shy, she wouldn’t look him in the eyes for two months after the wedding.  She cried most of the first month.  Ali was aware she missed her family, but a marriage is a marriage and it must be endured.  He would take his horse and his hawk and ride out and hunt.  Only when Lela had her first child, luckily for her a boy, did she perk up.  She became right bossy, too.  The older men would laugh when Ali made a hasty retreat from their tent, usually followed with a string of invective from his young wife, and sometimes wooden stirring spoons and knives.  Ah! This was not a good situation, and his father decided Ali had suffered enough and gave him another wife. Sela was a cousin of Lela and at first; she was as shy as Lela.  But she soon overcame that and became a favorite wife.  There were two more, but one died in childbirth.  All in all, Ali had four sons and four daughters. Sela was killed in the arms of Ali, when Ali was murdered making love to her.  Their second child died with them, for Sela was very pregnant.

“Ah, my wife will be angry if I don’t return home soon.”

The words of one of the men cut into Ali’s thoughts.   The sun was setting, and the sky was red from its fading luster.

“Soon, my friend”, answered another, putting his hand on the shoulder of Ali in a compassionate gesture.   “You will be yoked like the oxen in the fields to our Shakira and you too will watch the hours like the rest of us, knowing they are linked to the tempers of women.  Ah Allah! You had many wives, but we have just one each, and our lives are made miserable still!”

The laughter went around the benches where they sat in the fading sunlight. Men all over had the same issues, and now that Ali and the others were mortal again, they faced their own temperamental women.  Perhaps it was easier before as Zars, for they could just float out of earshot of women and gather in the forests in the mountains to share the hookah with other Zars. But the good outweighed the bad, for the cooking of the women went a long way in filling appetites that had been lost for centuries.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted 2010-2014

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2 Responses to “A Chapter from “The Zar Tales”……”

  1. TR Says:

    Hi Jane,
    I love learning about another place and other times from your reading. I remember reading something about how birds are so important in desert life. I didn’t know about the sewing of the eyes.

    It is interesting how spirits are said to be the cause of marital conflict. A form of disassociation. It then means that the spirits – outside the marriage – are the reason for quarreling and not necessarily any blame to one party. Or is it the opposite? xx


  2. ladynyo Says:

    Hi TR!

    First thank you for reading this chapter and your comment. This chapter comes from the novella, “The Zar Tale” (I’m not much on titles…LOL!) It is from my second book: The Zar Tales, published by Lulu.com. It’s one of my favorite stories…and the characters have featured in a number of short stories….or the opposite.

    Birds: Well, hawking is a big time sport in the Middle East, and birds are also suppliers for the larder. Some fly Golden Eagles, which are HUGE birds….with wing spans over 7 ft. They are fitted with metal talons and can bring down wolves. Amazing. Since the sheep and goat herds are the basis of many tribes wealth, it is necessary to keep the wolves down. However, they also breed a large domestic dog to work in packs against the wolves.

    The Zars (spirits) It’s a very interesting phenomena. I woman can sass back her husband and claim the Zar made her do this. LOL! the husband can’t go after the wife for this because he (might) believe in the power of the Zar to turn on him. LOL! But of course the menfolk don’t like Zars or the Zar ritual. The one time they have no control over the proceedings. Usually, though it differs in different countries. In some, men are allowed to play the ney flute, as women are not supposed to touch it. (Penis looking…LOL) And there are Zars, where men aren’t allowed period. different cultures handle this differently.

    You might be right about this issue of disassociation.

    Have to think more on this issue.



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